The Blue Boar

December 16, 2008

It has generally been my experience that academics (especially mediocre academics) often lack a sense of humor, or more precisely, a sense of ironic distance toward their work and social status.  In other words, academics very often take themselves too seriously.

As one whose formative high school days were determined by a type of culture in which virtually every aspect of life was open to the  (not always playfully) sarcastic scrutiny of friends and acquaintances, I found myself having assimilated that culture to the point at which I began to believe that it is imparted at birth.  In a previous century, we probably could have debated the question whether such a characteristic is socially acquired or inherited;  at any rate, it surely exists and I have sufficient evidence to suggest that it is not possessed by everyone.

At some point in my undergraduate years, I read an English translation of  Candide. I was immediately impressed by  Voltaire’s text.  Later when my reading ability in French was a little more developed, I re-read Voltaire with even greater pleasure, since I could then truly appreciate the sleekness and clarity of his prose.  Roland Barthes’  famous description of Voltaire as  le dernier des écrivains heureux was interpreted by post-structuralists as a condemnation of Enlightenment.  Voltaire was essentially tagged as a sort of wise-ass punk whose ignorance of the profound ambiguity of human experience led him to assume a naïve position of illusory critique. But that superficial and dismissive vision of Voltaire ignores one essential characteristic of  Candide:  it is really fun to read.  Impertinent and subversive critique should not be exiled from intellectual history, especially when it is superbly expressed.

While obtaining a Jesuit education, I came to the realization that what we used to call day to day banal sarcasm could often be refined into something like irony. But unfortunately Beckett and Borges were not on the program of my college education.  I didn’t know about  Mercier et Camier and The Aleph. However, an unsophisticated desire to compromise the pretentious tendencies of some of my student colleagues and the professors who seemed to encourage this pretentiousness was generated as a by-product in the process of that education.  As a student in a mathematics program in a liberal arts college, I felt that science students were  generally looked down upon  as unrefined by the arts students who dominated student life and aspired to be gatekeepers of civilization.  This was in the days when there were a large number of core courses that were obligatory for all students: 8 philosophy courses, 4 theology courses, 4 English courses, 2 foreign language courses, etc.  Enrollment in a given course section of these offerings was not restricted to students majoring in a given area of studies. For example, required English, philosophy, theology courses would contain students from various majors.  And it was always a pleasure for me and a few of my friends to compete with the reigning intellectuals who majored in the humanities and to often achieve equal or better grades in these courses.  It was in this spirit that the Blue Boar was born.  blue-boar-23

First of all, it must be understood that in the late 60’s the local clergy in Syracuse  (including the Franciscans of my high school parish) considered the Jesuits of  LeMoyne College to be subversive, to the point at which one of those Franciscans warned me that an undergraduate education with the Jesuits was a guarantee of the personal loss of the Catholic faith.  And I remember a Franciscan cautioning his parishioners about intellectuals who did seriously inappropriate things like  study Hegel and then conflate the roles of religion and philosophy.  Since I was studying some philosophy at the time and was somewhat scandalized by the paucity of intellectual development of the home parish Franciscans, what could be more natural than to find a simple way to conflate religion and philosophy?

Indeed, as undergraduates, we were exposed to the historical development of German idealism:  Kant to Fichte to Schelling to Hegel (guided by reading Fr. Copleston’s impressive history of philosophy).  But existentialism was still somewhat in vogue in the undergraduate curriculum.  Although my taste did not really favor extensive readings of Camus, Sartre, Marcel, etc. , I remember being particularly impressed by the title of a chapter consecrated to Husserl in F.H. Heinemann’s Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. Who could not be impressed by The Loneliness of the Transcendental Ego? The classical Thomistic God which appealed to traditionalists in the Catholic Church was vaguely anthropomorphized in images, so why not do the same for the Absolute, the Transcendental Ego and other such philosophical concepts that could lend themselves to the fusion of the spiritual and intellectual domains?

In those days, aspiring intellectuals always flirted with smoking.  European cigarettes (one of my philosophy professors, John McNeill S.J. who had completed his Ph.D. at l’Université catholique de Louvain actually smoked Gauloises in class) and pipes were favored.  A few of us whose self-images tended to the anti-intellectual intellectual actually smoked the occasional cigar or the more rugged “drugstore” brands of pipe tobacco.  One of the difficult to find drugstore brands featured a Blue Boar on its package.  What image could possibly be better to represent the World Spirit or the lonely Transcendental Ego?  I could have conceivably captured a niche market by touting the smoking of a pipeful of Blue Boar as an aid to ontological clarity  (or to a Thoreau-like basking in the world Spirit, since it was indeed near the end of the 60’s).

So the Blue Boar “anthropomorphized” an all-encompassing abstract philosophical concept and was assigned a Voltarian function.  It is in hommage to that naïve Voltarian moment that I chose the Blue Boar as a personal blog avatar.  And Candide still remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Concluding note: How did the Blue Boar tie in with my intellectual status in a small liberal arts college in which essentially everyone in a given class year knew everyone else in that year?  Somehow word of the irreverent Boar got out to a few of my colleagues.  One of my female friends, a leading artistic intellectual in her own right, suggested that I should establish a Blue Boar grouping, a “royalist anti-royalist” society of sorts.  The editor-in-chief of our college yearbook did me the great honor of listing membership in the Blue Boar Society (an obviously fictitious college organization) as one of my personal accomplishments at LeMoyne.  As far as I know, I am the only official member of that organization in the history of the College.  And I did win the philosophy medal at my graduation!