Essay: Kampus, James Gunn, 1977.
“It’s easy to loosen the reins of authority but difficult to tighten them again. That would have involved the kinds of effort we no longer were capable of making and would have revolutionized our society almost as much as you threatened. So we gave you the campuses. We walled you in. The serious scholars departed, and we left you here to play your games and survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would survive, if you could, and maybe some of you would graduate. …
“You may think it’s ridiculous to have a mechanical Chancellor. But it is no more ridiculous than having mechanical students. And that is what you are, mechanically responding to stimuli like so many robots.”
The speaker is the Chancellor of the University of Kansas. It’s about 1998, and the students have gotten what they wanted after the Free Speech movement of the 1960s – a place to play their own power games and hierarchy struggles while complaining about social injustice.
In 1968, James Gunn, 45 years old and dealing with student unrest in his role as public relations director at the University of Kampus, started this novel. It wasn’t even conceived as science fiction though it uses the chemical memory theories of James McConnell. It was a to be a satire on the world, according to Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten (to be covered in a future post),
the student rebels might have made if they had been successful and imagined a near future when the college campuses had been turned over to the students, and real science and scholarship had gone elsewhere.
The recipient of the Chancellor’s words is Gavin, our unlikeable, Candide-like hero. He will discover that world the students have made is definitely not the best possible one.
Gunn’s interest and knowledge of student rebellion wasn’t just professional. It was also personal.
As he said in an interview in the March 2018 issue of Locus,
“My older son was part of a student group at that time – he wasn’t one of the rebels, but he was part of that period. One of his good friends was also involved. When I wrote the novel I checked it out with them. With all the activities of the student rebels I was involved in, I tried to explain them to the public, and tried to explain the real world to them. I said, ‘You think you’re the first generation that has ever recognized there was injustice in the world.’ That isn’t the case. Every generation feels it’s the first generation, you have come along when the circumstances have combined in such a way that you have the power to act. None of them really understood that.”
Unlike most Gunn novels, Kampus was not published as either a fix-up or expansion though he unsuccessfully tried to sell its second chapter as a story. It was the first time he used a structure drawn from classic literature, specifically Arthuriana quest tales. Gavin is a alternate version of Gawain.
Gunn had problems finding a publisher. It ended up with Frederik Pohl when he was an editor of Bantam Books. Gunn thinks Pohl was probably the only editor who could prevail on his employer to publish it, and Pohl regarded it, along with Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren, as his two greatest accomplishments as an editor. (Being no fan of Dhalgren, I’ll say one out of two for judgement.)
I first heard of the novel in the late 1980s. My wife read it and said it was eerily prescient of the rot spreading through the American academy and was starting to show up at the end of my college days.
I wouldn’t say it is prescient. Gunn was attempting satire, not prophecy, and in nearly every detail the novel fails as the latter.
Gunn’s story is like gazing at the world through a calcite crystal – translucent and double refracting. The resulting vision oddly maps on the real world but doesn’t too.
Michael W. Page, in Saving the World Through Science Fiction (subject of the next post), calls Kampus “Gunn’s forgotten masterpiece”.
It’s not mentioned in either the third or fifth edition of Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder. (I don’t own the fourth edition, so I don’t know about that one.) Baird Searles doesn’t mention it in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction (though it may have been too new for inclusion there). David G. Hartwell’s Age of Wonder pays it no mind. No mention of it is made in David Pringle’s 100 Best Science Fiction Novels. No description is given of it in the online The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
I’ve found no good online reviews except for author and blogger Andrew Fox’s insightful look and it and Frederik Pohl’s Drunkard’s Walk in “SF Goes to College”.
Brian Stableford’s Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature just has the phrase “dourly satirical” for it.
I sense some disapproval, but Stableford is right. It is dour in parts.
That dourness is supplied by the Professor. I don’t recall see him given a name, and he’s the presumptive author of the chapter epigraphs from “The Professor’s Notebook”. That represents another departure here from the usual Gunn. Usually he uses literary quotes for epigraphs.
Our hero Gavin first comes across the Professor at Karnival. It’s enrollment time for the upcoming academic year and a time of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Or, as the Professor calls it, “an affirmation of the student’s devotion to sensuality and their uninterest in education”. In none of his other works is Gunn so frank and explicit about sex.
The prose describing Karnival is impressionistic and full of Joycean word invention, a feature really only shared, in part, with Gunn’s The Mind Master.
Like every other professor at Karnival, the Professor is hawking his class. His peers try to snag students with promises of utilitarian knowledge. “Learn not only to predict but to influence,” promises the psych professor. Astound your friends with your anatomical knowledge, promises a biology professor. Make your own cheap drugs, promises the chemistry professor.
Mingled with all this are the student political groups trying to recruit people to lay their bodies on the line to defeat the unjust “big money and corporate power” of Amerikkka.
Among these are promises of shockingly remedial courses in arithmetic and literacy.
Page notes something easy to overlook in this section: Gunn as a technological prophet. The computer courses promise computer games, how to do key-word searches, and computer ordering of goods and services.
Finally stoned-out Gavin comes across one more figure. It’s the Professor.
And, as name suggests, he’s a symbol of a dead world, “the last”, he says, “of the old-time professors”. He expects to be politely addressed as, “sir”, and he’s having none of Gavin’s notions that he’s a bear to dance to Gavin’s tune, that Gavin is a customer to be satisfied.
“A misleading comparison … though not ill-argued. You see, I am in possession of that which few have and some want, even though it may do them no good to have it. Nevertheless, this makes me a monopoly; you must come to me.”
Gavin, after listening to the Professor, finally blurts out he wants to know. The magic words spoken, the Professor accepts him as student.
On the way back from Karnival, on the eve of the war between students and professor resuming, Garvin meets Jenny. Gunn picked her name to suggest Guinevere. Gavin rescues her from the clutches of the thuggish Gregory, a “man of power on campus”. Jenny, in an all-too-believable way, doesn’t really have a good answer why she hangs out with Gregory. Gavin thinks her beautiful. And she’s from Oakland, near Berkley, the Grail of the Free Speech movement.
Karnival’s educational hucksterism and remedial classes and pandering to students reminds one of modern professors’ fates determined by student evaluations, campus recruiters emphasizing the creature comfort of the student union, the fallacy that the ignorant can and should remake the world for the better.
Gunn’s satire of education’s direction is most concentrated in the second chapter, “The Kidnapping”.
The Professor mocks the idea that the student, by definition ignorant, can direct their own education. He notes that in early medieval universities students were in charge of hiring faculty with disastrous results.
In particular, Herbert Marcuse comes in for attack, particularly his notion of
personal freedom and democracy at the end of liberty at the end of a long tunnel of repression in the name of truth and virtue.
The insidious Marcuse is quoted extensively, Gunn’s Professor uttering a wake-up call to a philosophy that professes no truth but its and a call to power to maintain its privilege of social corrosion. It would really be only in the 1990s cultural critics started to sound that warning at large.
But, in the world of this novel, it’s too late:
The Professor re-created for us there in the classroom the old, didactic, bigotsure Marxian – Herbert Marcuse – from his published words, and knocked him down again and again. And if the sainted Revolutionary were stuffed with straw, why, it only made up for the fact that Marcuse had already won, that we were living in his world, in which everybody already knew what was truth and was virtue, and knew that whatever was necessary to be done to liberate it excused – no, sanctified – the deed. The only problem was that every individual or little group had its own version of truth and virtue.
Gunn in his Locus interview seemed to indicate that the academy dodged the bullet he saw.
No, it didn’t. We would not have events like those at Evergreen State College; social scientists attacked; biological scientists forced into mealy-mouthed, desperate searches for synonyms for “race” as a biological construct; and an entire Twitter feed devoted to posting the drivel from publicly funded academics.
The radicals of Kampus put down the tear gas cannisters (throwing them back at the Kampuscops is a competition in the novel) and walked in academia as grad students and began their work.
The Professor is the only professor who dares give his lectures in person instead of phoning or videoing it in. And that proves fatal.
Gavin is seriously impressed and fascinated by the Professor. He wants to possess his thoughts. (One of the flaws of the novel, I think, is Gunn doesn’t quite sell, given Gavin’s personality, why he would be interested in the Professor’s contrariness.)
So, Gavin decides he needs the Professor’s blood.
The why is that this novel uses James McConnell’s theories of chemical learning in planarians. Baldly put, he claimed you could run a planarian worm through a maze, grind him up, and newbie planarians would know the maze better than expected. So, the extrapolative argument went, you could encode RNA with memory and transfer the memories from one individual to another.
Now Gunn was by far from the first and only one to use this idea. You could probably make a sizeable list of science fiction works that used the idea. It had its heyday in the 1970s when I started reading science fiction (My favorite take was Stephen Robinett’s “The Linguist” about a man conducting a gun battle to keep the mob from taking his language knowledge before he finishes a novel in its original language – as I recall, Don Quixote in the original Spanish.)
Now, I thought all this planarian stuff had been discredited by replication failure and badly washed lab equipment. Then, just this month, I see people claiming chemical learning in snail studies.
Gavin engineers the Professor’s kidnapping to get the memory peptides out of his blood. But the Professor is not well and dies.
So Gavin grinds up his brain and drinks a Professor slurpie.
Throughout the rest of the book, Gavin experiences a sort of low-key possession when thoughts come up in his mind, and he wonders if they are his or the Professor. It’s kind of a negative version of Dr. Pangloss in Candide, and the Professor does not think they live in the best of all possible worlds.
Gavin’s kidnapping and disposal of the Professor’s body bring him to the attention of the Student Executive Committee or StudEx. Gregory shows up and more or less coerces Gavin to go on a “raid” into the city of Lawrence beyond the campus wall. Before he goes, he has an encounter with a student he is convinced is a police informant, but he goes anyway.
The raid seems pretty stupid to Gavin. It’s on the local nuclear power plant. If it succeeds, it will spread radioactivity over the campus.
However, as detailed in “The Raid” chapter, he doesn’t have to worry. The raid is a disaster, the students emerge from a tunnel beneath the campus and are mown down by machine gun fire. Only Gavin escapes.
And then, in the next chapter, “Power Play”, Gavin learns the truth about his student utopia.
As “The Professor’s Notebook” says (though, curiously, it’s the epigraph for “The Raid” chapter that seems more appropriate — some of these epigraphs seem thematically offset from the chapter they are more appropriate to):
Among humanity, everyone seeks a situation where he or she can exercise power: the patriarch seeks the family; the matriarch, children; children, the schoolyard and eventually the campus. Some of them never want to leave.
One of those who doesn’t want to leave is Willie, the sinister older student who fetches Gavin for a meeting with StudEx. Violence hovers over his equipoised demeanor. I suspect he had his real life counterpart in the Sixties.
StudEx thinks Gavin, popular for his kidnapping of the Professor and surviving the raid, is a threat and want to co-opt him. The wisdom of the Professor in his brain, he regards StudEx’s three members as reminiscent of a tribunal in the French Revolution. Unimpressed by their “power to the people” Marxist rhetoric, he, channeling the Professor, says they’re just playing little hierarchy games except these games will get people killed.
StudEx doesn’t want any martyrs, so they dump Gavin off at the Chancellor’s office for the exchange I mentioned at the beginning. Incidentally, it’s a robot chancellor because the students killed its human model years ago.
Gavin is expelled. Along the way, he’s also lost track of Jenny and only knows that she’s returned to Berkley.
The quest is born. Gavin will go to Berkley and find his lover.
But first he has to go back home to Kansas City, Missouri.
In the chapter about that trip, “No Place Like Home”, we learn about the world outside the campus, and, metaphorically, the Frankenstein monster of Gavin’s generation shambles back to the lab to meet its creator, his parents’ generation.
Gavin goes home.
The epigraph for the preceding “Power Play” says: “A civilized society makes itself sufficiently to overthrow that the eternal young rebels must learn the system in order to achieve their ends – and then, of course, they have an investment in the system.”
Gavin’s parents stand in for those young rebels who invested in the system.
The scenes before Gavin gets home suggest not only the technological speculations of Gunn’s later Crisis!, but social and technological ideas contemporary to our times.
He hitchhikes and is picked by a rancher selling his cattle in Kansas City. We find out that, in this world of plenty enabled by power broadcast from satellites, food is one of the few costly items still left and even its price is coming down.
As they cruise down the turnpike in an electric car, the rancher talks about his daughter he hasn’t heard from since she ran away at age 15 to go to college.
“Kids gotta grow up”, he says, “lead their own lives”.
And that’s basically the message Gavin gets when he expects home to be a refuge.
At the door he meets Elaine, a boarder his parents have taken in and who is living in his room. His mom has given most of his clothes away too.
And his parents are not at all supportive of him being expelled for politics – he even vaguely confesses to killing the Professor. It’s hypocritical of them, the generation of the ‘60s radicals who, Gavin remembers, brought home their fellow travelers to talk of bombs and which way the wind blows.
Gavin’s father says that he needs a certificate for a job, that being older means having a work ethic, taking responsibility.
A “cybernated” economy has produced abundance, but “Gavin’s” guaranteed income payments are controlled by his parents, state money for the trouble of raising a child.
What follows is a row. Gavin’s parents tell him they never liked him calling them “Jerry” and “Margaret”. Mom never liked being a mother. Gavin was an obnoxious child:
“’Everywhere we turned, you were asking: get me this, get me that, take me with you, don’t leave me alone, treat me like a person, treat me like an adult, love me, pamper me, spoil me, coddle me, tell me I’m wonderful. And when you weren’t asking, the demands were in the air; society was asking for you, telling us that you were unspoiled and good and only if we didn’t thwart you or kill your spirit would you grow up and be wonderful, be the sort of human being that we weren’t. You were a terrible child. We didn’t draw a peaceful breath until you went away to college.”
And, horrors, Margaret even tells Gavin his childhood efforts were crap,
“I’ve got a whole box of school drawings and your report cards with all the stupid comments on them by those stupid teachers. Why have I kept them? I’m growing to throw them away. You draw terribly, Tom, and I was never able to tell you that.”
(No, I have no idea why she calls him, “Tom”. It’s in the original.)
The opening epigraph for the chapter has the Professor noting that the institution of parenthood is a “Neolithic cultural heritage”, “a cultural fossil”. The university is just the latest in a line of institutions, the convent, the military school, where parents send their follies. Except the university differs from them in one respect. “ . . . here the asylum is run by the inmates.”
It’s hard to know precisely how far this chapter’s views deviates from Gunn’s personal view. Given that he was married to one woman for his whole life and had two sons that he speaks of fondly in his autobiography, it would seem fairly far. And yet, I sense at least a little bit of Gunn in those remarks and the frustration of a man who professionally dealt with violent and ignorant students.
The chapter concludes with a road trip. Gavin leaves “home”, proudly refusing even a bit of money from his parents, to hitchhike to Berkley where he is convinced he will find Jenny.
Elaine picks him up in her car stating she feels responsible for what happened. (Elaine seems the responsible child, a student of computer science at a trade school, Gavin’s parents never had.)
Through most of the rest of the book, Elaine will unaccountably feel sympathy for Gavin. Gavin will increasingly find her attractive (there was some initial attraction at first sight) but still pine for the absent Jenny rather than take up with the sensible Elaine.
And, as we’ll see, Gavin’s naïve idealism will cause harm to Elaine.
The next chapter is “The Start of a Journey” and, as the opening remarks from “The Professor’s Notebook” make clear, it’s target will be the folly and hypocrisy and ignorance of romanticizing the “natural” life.
Gavin starts out the car trip with “Radiclib” rhetoric about capitalism exploiting the poor of the world. We learn that fossil fuel use, with power supplied by fusion and solar satellites, had been reduced drastically. Minerals are mined from the sea or extracted from ocean water.
Gavin, of course, sees injustice in America willing to sell food and provide cheap energy to the poorer countries of the world. Elaine, who perhaps even more that the Professor whose remarks have a fair amount of bitterness, seems to be Gunn’s mouthpiece, replies that America has learned to regulate its fertility. Other countries will need to do the same.
“We’ve taken care of our problem, and we can’t take care of theirs. In fact, everything we do to help them avoid the necessity of facing their problems now – gifts of food and money – only builds greater problems for them later, when the food runs out and they have many more people to feed. Or see starve.”
Another contemporary issue for modern Africa, where all those gifts have only resulted in exploding populations and a future Malthusian crisis.
Elaine doesn’t believe in philosophies or ideologies or Gavin’s political abstractions about the people and “social behavior conditioning”. She says he just wants revolution to suit his emotional needs. She is interested in self-development and doing “good slowly, if at all”.
In his confrontation with his dad, Gavin accused him of laying Elaine. Elaine makes it clear this never happened. However, being orphaned at age two and being raised in a child creche, she looks upon Gavin’s parents as the ones she never had.
The symbolism in this chapter is pretty blatant. A Day-Glo orange and purple hippie bus, passes Elaine and Gavin on the road. “Kesey Express” is written on it in honor of Ken Kesey, counterculture hero. After a night in a hotel run by another sort of unregenerate hippie, a woman who waxes on about her many sexual encounters with lads from the old army base that used to nearby, Gavin and Elaine encounter the bus crashed.
But the worse thing happens after Elaine lets Gavin drive, Gavin who she has told not to pick up other hitchhikers. But he does, Chester, an ideological fellow traveler to Gavin. But after the rhetoric at a highway rest stop, Chester pulls a knife on Gavin and rapes Elaine and steals their car. Gavin’s moral perspective reaches its nadir when he says to Elaine, “We can’t let one pervert destroy our faith in all the wonderful people”.
“Damn you, Gavin!” is what he gets in response.
Still, Gavin has enough decency to carry Elaine several miles to a hospital in “The Organization Man” chapter.
It’s opening epigraph is rather like G. K. Chesterton’s metaphor of the fence. It notes the conservative impulse keeps the world from being engulfed in chaos from every foolish notion that comes around – and even then some get through.
While Elaine is in the hospital, Gavin reports Chester to local law enforcement.
We learn that law enforcement priorities have changed.
The local “ombudsman” explains that in this society of plenty with guaranteed incomes and some sort of job for anyone who wants has solved the problem noted by Gerard Piel in 1961 – finding tasks worthy of a citizen’s time. Social and economic equality came at a price – personal freedom.
In a decided case of nothing like contemporary society, the surveillance state in its embryo was abandoned after “the law-and-order riots of 1985”. Police, courts, and prisons were phased out. The Hobbesian bargain of a state to repress a war of all against all was altered. Gavin is told that the man who raped Elaine was just expressing his personal freedom, and he and Elaine will have to accept that. Only large, socially threatening conspiracies draw down the wrath of the authorities.
Gavin leaves Elaine in the hospital and heads again to California. He doesn’t get very far.
He stops at a nearby technical college. Contrasted to the intellectual derelicts at university, everybody here is very focused on learning practical and highly paid skills like plumbing and computer programming and solar cell manufacture.
The superintendent talks, as Gunn scholar Page notes, in a clipped, efficient style reminiscent of the subject matter the school teaches.
The superintendent is wise to Gavin’s agitating ways and tells him about the students:
“Practical men and women. Know what they want. Motivated. Ambitious. Black, white, red, brown. All colors. Not sophisticated, but backbone of society. Impatient with words. Good with hands. Word of caution: don’t stir up.”
More contemporary resonance here and not just in the current divide between economically useless academic students and well paid vocational students. There’s also an echo with one of the civilizations in Gunn’s Transformation. It’s falling apart because no one can maintain its infrastructure.
Gavin, being Gavin, does his student organizer routine and has to be saved from a beat down by the other students. Elaine shows up in a stolen car and whisks him away.
He becomes even more unlikeable with a revelation at chapter’s end that he felt possessed by the spirit of Chester, Elaine’s rapist, and his ideology. Burdened by reporting Chester, he felt the need to put Chester’s philosophies into practice. He also wishes he had been the one “to beat and rape the fair Elaine”.
The next chapter, “The Cybernated Psyche”, is partly a rumination on the social consequences of automation and partly the most bizarre and inventive part of Gunn’s novel.
The opening epigraph from The Professor’s Notebook ruminates on the socially atomizing consequences of the modern world. It’s not just automation – illustrated when Elaine and Gavin steal some bread from an automated bakery – but chemotherapies and “chemical learning” and a society teaching self-liberation.
The most dangerous human invention may have been leisure. [Note, not bad, just dangerous.] Hardship and necessity make cooperation essential; they rub people together and wear off the abrasive edges; they create a polite and gregarious society. Given half a chance, people will go off on their own tangents, cherishing their idiosyncrasies, glorifying their likes and dislikes into universal truths.
And, in Denver, Elaine and Gavin meet some remarkable idiosyncrasies: “High-livin’ Sal, the cybernated gal” and her group marriage.
Sal isn’t just a star for participating in sort of full sensory, telepresence demolition derbies where the turn of the engine, the sand under the wheels, and the collisions are all felt bodily. She also runs a biofeedback program teaching people how to control various functions, especially sexual ones, in their bodies. (Very 1970s. I remember seeing lots of biofeedback articles in magazines of the time. Gunn also mentions biofeedback in other novels too.)
Sal has her sights set on recruiting Elaine (she is, after all, knowledgeable about computers) and Gavin – just to lay him.
In one scene, Sal has sex with the computer, and so does Gavin. In something that would prefigure images out of cyberpunk, Gunn describes the experience. But Elaine puts an end to that pointing out she’s heard of this sort of hardware before. Elaine tells Gavin that, unlike Sal, he possesses “imagination and no experience” and would have retreated into the world of the computer for good. It’s sort of a version of the womb tanks in Gunn’s The Joy Makers.
Elaine drives Gavin out of town to avoid temptation.
The next chapter, “The Deflowered Children”, has Gavin and Elaine falling into the clutches of a religious commune gone bad. After its matriarch died, the father has turned to incestuously abusing his daughters. One wants Gavin to take him away, and a violent confrontation between the father and Gavin ensues.
The struggle is cut short by “White Indians”, “Gypsies”, or, as the thoughts of the Professor have it, “centaurs invading the Temple of Apollo at Olympia”. They are led by Reich whose name may be there to suggest Nazi connections or Wilhelm Reich, pseudoscientist and victim of, as Robert Anton Wilson has written, tyrannous government suppression.
Reich believes in living off the bounty of the land – even if that bounty was midwifed by farmers like the commune’s father. He’s a 1960s’ parasite and thief.
Gavin and Elaine are dragged along with Reich’s “Freedom Train” caravan, one of the farmer’s daughter’s joining them. After getting some Gunn poetry which presents us the Freedom Train’s “song of Consciousness Three”, we find out what actions will get you branded as a conspiracy worthy of government stomp down. (I haven’t made up my mind if Gunn’s poem is too bad to be a real protest song or a good imitation of bad hippie thought.)
That night, the farmers of the area and, seemingly the military (since bombs are used), slaughter the Freedom Train. Gavin and Elaine escaped due to sensible Elaine suspecting something was about to happen.
The Professor concludes the chapter with a lecture in Gavin’s head,
“You see, Gavin … the forces of Apollo prevail, as they always have. Even when the chaos of Dionysius seem victorious, it is only momentary. Order creeps back; civilization returns; day replaces night.”
The next double vision is in the chapter “The Place at the Top of the World”. Here, in the mountains, Gavin and Elaine encounter a sort of technological Shangri-La. It’s the place where all those scientists chased out of the universities went. Unlike the exiled scientists in Gunn’s The Burning, they discreetly share their knowledge with the world but are still mindful of causing too much disruption.
They exist in a private, beautiful monastery-like setting not of privation, but luxury. Furthering the Shangri-La comparisons, the Director is a man over 100 years old and, it is strongly hinted, the man who had the place built with his wealth from discovering mineral deposits in the area.
The residents of this mountain ivory tower in the Sierra Nevadas do a multitude of scientific research and archiving of knowledge in case civilization collapses.
Among the studies is life extension (doubling Gunn’s The Immortals) and chemical learning. We learn that most of the chemical learning products used in the universities don’t work that well. But, doubling the social breakdown of its use in Gunn’s The Mind Master, the institute is cautious about introducing an effective version in the world.
Echoing the very title of Page’s book, Saving the World Through Science Fiction, the Director even consults with science fiction writers about the effects of technological innovation.
He tries to get Gavin to stay. He reveals he knows all about the Professor’s murder and Gavin’s cannibalism. The Director charitably says it was an “act of admiration”, an “act of love”. But Gavin, still besotted with Jenny, wants to go to Berkley.
Elaine, on the other hand, has found the place she always wanted. She has a fling with one of the staff and, the night before Gavin leaves, Elaine sleeps with him, confesses that she loves him despite it being unreciprocated. (I found Gavin largely insufferable, and don’t think Elaine’s love for him convincing.)
The novel concludes with Gavin finally making it, sans Elaine, to Berkley.
That concluding chapter is titled “Thus I Refute Berkley” playing not only on Gunn’s perception of Berkley’s Free Speech movement being ground zero of academic rot but Jonathan Swift’s famous line about kicking a stone and refuting Bishop Berkley’s argument against matter existing. (Yes, I know Swift was arguing against solidity of matter just being a human concept.)
Gunn’s argument, by way of the opening epigraph, is on the futility of seeking political power to effect revolution:
Power. That’s what we think we want. The power to make people do what we tell them. The power to say no. The power to change people’s minds. The power to act without fear of consequences or concern for others. The power to change the world. The struggle for power – or frustration at its absence – is the cause of all the crime and violence in the world. And yet we know that intervention in human events is almost always futile. Those we compel resist us. Those we refuse ignore us. Those we try to change reject us. The willful act does not finally satisfy. And even the most passionate of revolutions do less than normal economic developments.
Here the Professor, and, by extension, Gunn I assume, argue on the futility of exercising political power and that human affairs are shaped by the material forces of economics and, behind that, technology.
But this seems too naïve. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky on war: “You may not be interested in power. But power is very interested in you.” Politics, I would argue, has to be pursued out of self-preservation if nothing else. The pursuit of power may not lead to the desired ends, but the same is true of not pursuing it.
Despite the dubious assumptions behind the Professor’s statement, the final chapter is an unveiling of Gavin’s eyes, a mouthful of ashes. What he finds behind the walled campus of the fabled Berkley are Jesusfreaks, more drugs, terrorist groups, and students suspicious of outsiders.
And a massive book burning at the library.
Gavin is suspected of being an infiltrator and arrested by the Kampuscops. He’s taken to a wedding ceremony of some old acquaintances: Gregory and Jenny.
Gregory survived the raid, but he’s now, reflecting the Chancellor’s remarks about mechanical students, mostly machine. Jenny wants to wed him, a believable version of some women’s love for the bad Alpha male because Gregory is top man on this campus.
His marriage with Jenny is to be publicly consummated with his plastic genitals.
Before the bomb from a competing campus group shreds the two, before Gavin wonders what he ever saw in Jenny, he realizes he’s not the old Gavin:
While he had not been watching, he had grown old and cautious; and he saw history as a battleground between anarchy and tyranny, with reasonable people trapped always between them as one seemed victorious for a while and then yielded to the other.
The novel concludes with Gavin on the way back to Elaine in the “enchanted mountain”.
Gunn’s novel may have been inspired by the 1960s, but, like so much of that dark time, many of its concerns still haunt us now in their relevance.