Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Charles Van Doren (1926–2019)

The New York Times has an obituary for Charles Van Doren, who has died at the age of ninety-three. The snarky Times headline calls Van Doren “a quiz show whiz who wasn’t.” Yes, the quiz-show scandals.

But here’s another way to think of Charles Van Doren: as a deeply thoughtful student of the sorrows and possibilities of human life. And now I’m borrowing from a post I wrote in 2006:

In 1999, Van Doren was invited to address a reunion of Columbia College’s class of 1959. Like these alums, he started at Columbia in 1955 (as an assistant professor); he resigned in 1959. In the course of some remarks on how to live late in one’s life, he mentions Aeneas’s journey to the world of the dead, which begins at Lake Avernus in Italy, and quotes the Sibyl’s words to Aeneas:

“The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil.”

[Virgil, Aeneid 6, translated by Robert Fitzgerald]
Van Doren notes (in his own translation) the advice that the shade of Phlegyas gives Aeneas: “Study justice, and do not scorn the gods!” (Phlegyas, enraged after Apollo seduced his daughter, set fire to the god's temple at Delphi.) Van Doren goes on to say that
None of us can take Aeneas’s journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth, and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen. Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for it may be despair.

Despair — the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we mustn’t forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes, the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest cruelty that stalks the world — these may tempt us to descend from Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry’s “Le cimitière mari”:
Le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre!

The wind's rising; we have to try to live!
Related reading
“All the Answers” (Van Doren’s 2008 New Yorker piece on the quiz-show scandals)
Two accounts of Van Doren’s talk — 1, 2 — from members of the class of ’59

comments: 3

Sean said...

Thanks for this post — I hadn’t heard yet. Post- “Quiz Show”, I wonder if Van Doren’s life and travails might get a more thoughtful recounting.

Michael Leddy said...

It’d be appropriate, I’d say. But given the obituaries I’ve set, I wouldn’t be optimistic.

By the way, I have no idea how in 2006 I found that Columbia talk.

Michael Leddy said...

Given the obituaries I’ve read. Thanks, Autocorrect.