Academics and other self-indulgent frauds understand nothing of human nature

James Joyce, highly-talented, self-indulgent fraud (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)


Pablo Picasso (b. 1881) and James Joyce (b. 1882) are in their different spheres widely regarded as being exemplars of Western European artistic culture with huge cult-followings. The former is most famous for his painting of the bombing of Guernica, a town which he never visited and whose horrors he had never seen, and the latter for his novel Ulysses, which most people have never read because it is almost unreadable. 

A sizeable minority of critics regard both men as highly talented but self-indulgent frauds, to which school of thought this columnist belongs. Necessarily, therefore, we regard the adoring admirers of these two con-men with the wondrous bafflement that we would accord a nudist schism of Mormon Islamists in Salt Lake City. 

We accept they exist, but we have no idea why.

Our incomprehension reaches the depths normally reserved for sub-atomic particles when we hear that the founder of Joycean scholarship Fritz Senn (born 1928: yes, you read that aright – he is alive and well, a spritely and apparently priapic 96) was recently banned from a Joyce symposium in Glasgow for “inappropriate behaviour” towards a youthful female participant. Searching to discover what this was about, one may find this tiny, tiny quark in The Irish Times: “The complainant alleged he had made inappropriate comments or compliments towards the woman, had given her unwanted gifts and had taken her photograph repeatedly without consent. The committee of safety officers set up for the event upheld the complaint and asked Senn to leave.”

Yes, I said yes,* for photographing her repeatedly, and it took an entire “committee of safety officers” to banish a man who is nearly old enough to be Joe Biden’s father.  The wonder is that these purposeful gallants have not yet been deployed against the Russian forces in Ukraine, shoulder-launched semicolons at the ready as they crawl through the undergrowth outside Kiev

  –     You mean Kyiv

  • Heuristically speaking, it should be Kyev if one is referring to the Third Patriarchy after St Adrian
  • But during the Great Schism of 1322 it was briefly Qyev 
  • As if I didn’t know that. Perhaps it would make more sense if we wrote a letter of protest to President Putin.
  • Using Cyrillic script?
  • Naturally, but in Persian.
  • First, we should have a meeting.
  • A colloquium you mean?
  • A symposium might make more sense
  • Why not make it a collosium?
  • That will require another meeting. 
  • Is that an AKM or are you just glad to see me?
  • A bit of both.
  • Are you photographing me?
  • Just every now and then. I didn’t think you’d mind
  • Help help!

Not many sane people have read Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses to the bitter end, but I have. Bitter is the word, though sane might not be, and as for the end, it ruthlessly recedes the closer one thinks one has got to it, like a sadistic mountain-peak retreating before an exhausted climber.

Its conclusion is a part-soliloquy, part-fantasy by Joyce’s heroine, Molly Bloom, that is 24,183 words long, concluding with her climaxing, which we could have got about 24,000 words earlier, without wasting so much of our lives and of hers. Indeed, one can almost hear her cry out every time a new reader embarks upon the soliloquy: Oh no, not again, for God’s sake give a girl a break, I only just finished the last one.

Unsurprisingly, that monumental architect of intergalactic pretentiousness, Jacques Derrida, spent an entire year studying Ulysses, but alas not fatally for him, though his repeated visits nearly did for poor Molly Bloom. 

Events in Glasgow remind us that academics are fundamentally frivolous individuals, whose disputes are, according to Sayre’s Law, so bitter because the stakes are so small. However, because they are immensely articulate in solipsistic effluent, non-academics regard them as people of substance. This is perhaps the greatest and most irreversible error of western civilisation.

For the most part, your average plumber or supermarket cashier has a far greater understanding of human nature than any university academic, who knows of 255 ways of complaining about his or her lot, and as many words to describe the conditions of the working classes (about whom they know absolutely nothing) but are quite incapable of describing the real world that exists outside university campuses. Indeed, most academics may as well be children in perpetual lunar orbit jabbering at one another about how terrible the world down there is. 

Across the western hemisphere, colleges and universities have turned into unhappiness-factories, mass-producing graduates who are skilled in little but the rhetoric of complaint. The harvest of this state-subsidised nonsense was brought in four years ago after the George Floyd killing, in which the centres of scores of American cities were turned into mini-Guernicas, and some fifty (now forgotten) people were murdered.

Since then, semi-Marxist varsities have studiously intensified their programme of creating alienated students and brainwashing them with notions about “safe spaces,” when there is no such thing in life: from fallopian fusion to crematory fume, life is a struggle, often painful, sometimes agony, but best borne by optimism and buoyed with cheer. Happiness is not a natural condition; it is one of mankind’s most glorious inventions, but, quite naturally, is seldom discussed in most colleges.

The real world today is made by engineers, scientists and pharmaceutical companies, while everyday beauty – that which makes life bearable – is largely the creation of commercial designers working for profit. Yet these are the very entities about which the humanity faculties in universities weave endless conspiracy theories. Certainly, given the chance, any group of like-minded people will try to create monopolies in their own interest. This too is human nature, the answer to which is vigilance and the law, not perpetual paranoia and undergraduate-grousing.

We in the West remain the most blessed generations in human history, but with the benedictions of good fortune have come the curses of self-inflicted unhappiness and a refusal to protect our hard-worn freedoms, the price for which was paid by the inhabitants of the countless war cemeteries of western Europe and Ukraine.

When Viktor Orban declared that had Trump still been US president, Putin would never have invaded Ukraine, he was probably right. Russia’s assault was in part the consequence of the insane US student insurrection of 2020 and the subsequent election of the senile delinquent Biden. But some at the Joyce symposium would probably disagree, grumpily arguing that it’s largely a question of college canteens: campus disputes are so very nasty because the steaks are too small.**

* Yes, I said yes came at the end of Molly’s soliloquy

**a pun on Sayre’s Law


Kevin Myers is an Irish journalist, author and broadcaster. He has reported on the wars in Northern Ireland, where he worked throughout the 1970s, Beirut and Bosnia.