Opinion | Op-eds

Karl Kroeber, or living and dying in the present

Karl Kroeber—who received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1956, and who returned to the University in 1970 after 14 years at the University of Wisconsin—passed away earlier this week. His death came just six months after his retirement.

Much has been written about the extraordinary diversity of Kroeber’s interests, which centered, at various points, on Native American literature, the history of science, narrative theory, and British Romanticism. A leading proponent of the need for humanists to take stock of developments in the natural sciences, Kroeber practiced a mode of literary criticism that saw the study of literature as a means to deal with social, psychological, and environmental problems. Sidestepping the obscurantism that has become commonplace in literary studies, he taught that an understanding of the imaginative processes behind world literature might allow humanists to “contribute to the practical resolution of social and political conflicts that rend our society.”

For Kroeber, literary criticism was an opportunity to survey the ways in which storytellers of both written and oral cultures have envisioned their responsibilities to the natural environment—and to the people around them. In his “Ecological Literary Criticism,” published in 1994, Kroeber illustrated the ways in which the political engagements of various Romantic poets were founded on their desire to live in accordance with natural processes. One of Kroeber’s central aims, in fact, was to suggest that the study of literature can help everyday readers to bring their political aspirations into harmony with their obligations to the natural and social worlds in which they live.

It is almost unnecessary to point out that Kroeber devoted himself to his students, and those who knew him will agree that he had a longstanding interest in learning from those whom he taught. There were, on that note, several convictions that distinguished Kroeber’s teaching and thus lent it a unique significance. Foremost among these was Kroeber’s belief in the importance of imagination, which he sometimes defined as the ability to realize that things need not forever remain as they are. Kroeber saw change and evolution as universal, and he taught his students to accept the mutability of both the external universe and the human mind. He was a literary critic at home in disciplines like neuroscience and biology, for he recognized the value for social and political life of what these sciences ultimately imply—namely, that organisms and life processes cannot be understood except in terms of their interaction with other living things. He saw fundamental parallels between the human mind and the natural world, and a significant part of his work was devoted to showing that artists as dissimilar as Native American storytellers and Romantic poets had based their craft on an imaginative understanding of these parallels.

Kroeber’s teaching was shaped in equal measure by his belief in the necessity for spontaneous action. The best choices, he believed, are often made by those who act impulsively, those who do not allow their fears, insecurities, or inhibitions to taint their decision-making. To some degree, at least, Kroeber’s fondness for impulsiveness reflected his conviction that modern education systems have dampened the ability of people to behave capriciously. Indeed, one of Kroeber’s accomplishments was to show his students the possibility of a particular mode of living, one that emphasizes impulsiveness over brooding, exuberance over anxiety, and compassion over suspicion.
One of the most astonishing things about Kroeber, perhaps, was the fact that he seemed to be free of fear, regret, and distrust. If this observation seems bizarre or foolish, it is only because so many of us have come to accept self-doubt and unhappiness as standard components of modern life. It is, after all, difficult not to feel restless, hesitant, and unhappy once one has lost the means to imagine what human life could be. Unhappiness as the result of a simple but pervasive lack of imagination—this, one might say, was the axiom that undergirded much of Kroeber’s work.

Kroeber once portrayed William Blake, whom he admired for decades, as a kind of shamanistic figure, a poet whose allegiance was not to any standard of aesthetics but to the men and women who lived, suffered, and died around him. Blake—and this is a fact that Kroeber saw more clearly than others—was committed to showing that many of the psychological sources of man’s unhappiness could be cast aside, transmuted, overcome. His poetry stemmed from a desire to show that there was nothing unavoidable, nothing inexorable, about human suffering. Kroeber bore a much more striking resemblance to Blake than he would ever have admitted. In a world replete with self-promotion and self-pity, he worked—quietly and unpretentiously—to remind us of how things could be.

The author is an alumnus of the Columbia College class of 2009.

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