The Glass Student – or The Man of Glass, in Samuel Putnam’s translation – has a plot that goes like this:
One day two students, traveling to the University at Salamanca, come upon a peasant boy sleeping under a bush by the side of the road. The boy refuses to give his real name, but does express a desire to learn. So the students employ him as a servant. He reads much in Salamanca, then parts from his masters and falls in with a recruiting agent, goes with him as an independent soldier to Italy, tours a sort of grand tour of Europe (which was the equivalent, at the time, of making a grand tour of Hapsburg battlefields0, then returns to Salamanca. There, a woman of easy virtue falls in love with him. Tomas does not return her affection, so she makes him a drink into which she has mixed a love potion. Far from arousing his desire, the potion poisons him to the point where he almost loses his life. After a prolonged illness, he recovers, physically. However, he is now under the firm delusion that he is made of glass. He becomes famous because of this delusion, which is accompanied not only by odd, protective behaviors, but by a sudden access of sharp speaking in public. In short, he becomes a sort of Diogenes, making pithy pronouncements about people and events. Eventually he is cured of the illness, becomes a soldier again, and dies in Flanders.
The interest of this story lies in Rodaja’s madness. Here is Cervantes’ describing the onset of the illness:
“For six months Tomas was in bed, and in the course of that time he withered aways and became, as the saying goes, nothing by skin and bones, while all his senses gave evidence of being deranged. His friends applied every remedy in their power and succeeded in curing the illness of his body but not that of his mind, with the result that he was left a healthy man but afflicted with the strangest kind of madness that had ever been heard of up to that time. The poor fellow imagined that he was wholly made of glass, and consequently, when anyone came near him, he would give a terrible scream, begging and imploring them with the most rartional-sounding arguments to keep their distance lest they shatter him, since really and truly he was not like other men but fashioned of glass from head to foot.”
As a man of glass, Tomas makes his way through Salamanca, loudly telling coaches and little boys with pebbles to stay out of his way. These remarks, which are at first self-protective, gradually turn critical. The comedy of the story is in the fact that it is only after turning into glass that Tomas also becomes ‘sharp’ – that is, he begins to make remarks in the fashion of one of the Cynical philosophers. Remarks that “hold up a glass” or mirror to society. Cervantes’ technique, in the first part of the story is similar to that he employs in Don Quixote – a juxtaposition of madness and high rationality. So Tomas has this reaction, for instance, to storms: “When it thundered he trembled like quicksilver and would run out into the fields and not come back to town until the storm had passed.” Yet he is more than willing to tell off a student who wants to be a point, expose the legal profession to a lawyer, and talk down painters. Remember, given the touchy Spanish sense of honor of the time, the painters, poets and lawyers would certainly find these kinds of things worthy of challenge.
The truth is, the idea of the story is better than the story. Why are we talking about the Glass Student? Because we have been looking for an emblem with which to illustrate what we are doing, here. And what, by extension, the public intellectual does in the age of the declining liberal democracy. On this weblog. LI is at once so imminently fragile – fragile so that any stray event can shatter us – and at the same time impelled by some demon, in this condition, to make sharper and sharper comments. It is as if there is a double and opposite process going on, in which the level of our frangibility serves as the very condition of our speaking at all. This, at least, is the first allegorical level of the glass student that we’ve been pondering.
The second level is that the fragility is false, a delusion, and the words are pointless. This is where allegory becomes comedy. This is the comic dilemma of a public intellectual when the grand scheme of liberatory oppositions collapses. When, that is, the univocal has become the universal. LI has been posting in this spot for three years, and watched a whole culture of commentary grow up on the web, blog by blog. And our impression is that blog culture is evidence of the serious and incurable narcissism and egotism that are seemingly the defining characteristics of the comfortable of our time. It is as if, in Hegelian terms, the culture has stepped back – increasingly, self reflection is blocked as the ability to imagine the other has become either so distorted by patronizing academic jargon, with the terrible euphemisms that wipe out the Other as a historical entity, or has vanished as a determinant, at all, from our current consciousness. The disproportion between the anger at the pictures taken at Abu Ghraib and the acts the pictures show is evidence of this on a concrete level. But take, on a much humbler level, what we are doing here. We predict, we analyze, we go on and on, ransacking our reading, our mental activity, etc. etc. – to our own immense satisfaction. Yet we have glimpsed, out of the corner of our eye, so to speak, the ridiculousness of our bellowing, the complete vacuum that swallows our protests, the sheer pointlessness of thinking that, by piling words up, we are ‘doing something’.
We aren’t. This isn’t just a waste of time – the sheer emptiness of our opinions is a sort of dissipation of our life itself, a sort of slow motion, slapstick death.
Well, there you are, then.
So it is under the sign of the Glass student that we want to dedicate the next three or four posts to imaging getting out of Iraq. It is, according to established American opinion, unthinkable to get out of Iraq right now. That’s a performative unthinkability – the more it is unthought, the more power is given to those who are ‘authorized’ to do the thinking. So the first step in getting out of Iraq is to imagine getting out of Iraq.
First, then, we want to understand why we are in Iraq in the first place. Then we want to talk about the opposition to the war, in this country, and in particular explore how the the Democratic party has played the role of co-conspirator in the war, and evidently will continue to play that role. Third, we will explore what we think (again, bellowing like the Glass Student) could make withdrawing from Iraq a (as the marriage counselors say) “positive experience” – starting from the angle that any withdrawal from Iraq should be coupled with détente with Iran,
This is what we will do, if we have time.