NoteI wrote this essay in November 2023, roughly six months before students across the United States and in many other countries began setting up encampments to protest universities' complicity in occupation and genocide. Like many others, I have been inspired by these students' solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and moved by their willingness to take risks in the face of administrative pressure, slanderous and stupid media opposition, and brutal police violence. If I were to rewrite the essay that follows in the light of these developments, I would begin by noting that I had underestimated my students, that I had seen them as more politically pacified, more thoroughly gentrified, than they really were. The essay, which I call "the story of a failure," is thus itself a failure in that it falls short as a diagnosis. But if, in this sense, the essay has aged badly, its subject has not. On the contrary, I'm convinced that the encampments are versions of what Robert Glück calls "a commons producing images." They might be a cure for melancholy.

In his essay "Kant's Examples" (1989), David Lloyd writes that the work of teaching is inseparable from a sense of "inexpungible melancholy."1 When I first read this phrase, I felt seen. I remember thinking: who hasn't felt this? What student or teacher hasn't left a graduate seminar, for instance, with the sinking feeling that it was structurally unsatisfying? I mean not just frustrating for this or that identifiable reason, not just disappointing because it could have gone better and if you're a perfectionist, then it can always go better but somehow set up to fail. Who hasn't been there, after class, needing a drink?

And yet Lloyd's claim is arresting not least because it runs counter to so much pedagogical common sense in the humanities. According to this common sense, we learn more from our students than they do from us. This view makes teaching the opposite of melancholic; it turns the scene of education into a context of mutual enrichment, good feelings all around, affirmation for everyone. To be sure, some versions of this account acknowledge that the affirmation entails struggle, that misunderstandings must be named and overcome, and that an educator's work is never easy. But time and again, I think, the stress falls on our success. The mark and measure of that success is our own sense that we've been rewarded for a job well done. A shy student speaks up one day in class to offer a mind-blowing observation; or a student points to a line in Keats that, for years, you had always read right past; or you realize after twenty whole minutes, late in the term, that the group doesn't really need you anymore, because you fell silent (on purpose), but the discussion continued apace. In fact, it stayed vibrant without your needing to conduct or intervene or even provide minimal correction.

On occasions like these, we congratulate ourselves, and why shouldn't we? They remind us, reassuringly, why we became teachers in the first place. They distract us from what we can't stand about the job. That day in class, you become irrelevant, but in a good way, because your students become teachers. They put you in their place, but you welcome this relegation, because it lets you feel that you've earned the winter break, and so have they. The students' insight attests to your many hours of preparation as well as theirs. Their eloquence is everyone's hard-won achievement. None of your work has been wasted, and no one has overpaid for, or gone into debt to finance, the education they're receiving.


I have been exaggerating for effect. I do not believe that most teachers, or maybe any teachers, really feel this good about themselves at the end of a term. But even if, by some miracle, they did, this would not be enough to distract them from collective rage, resentment, or despair. I have exaggerated in order to suggest that our pedagogical common sense has failed to keep up with the experience that we seek to describe. This common sense has instead become what, in another context, Robert Glück calls "the fable a community of doubt tells itself."2 For as humanistic higher education's value has depreciated, we have indeed become a community of doubt, a set of melancholic self-doubters.3 Some have responded by urging us to give up on education altogether, to abandon all hope in, and perhaps perform a work of mourning for, schools and universities. Here I want to think through a different set of questions, not about how we can move "beyond education,"4 but rather about what teaching means today when it does not mean learning more from our students than they do from us, or when the "more" that we learn from them, far from being reassuring, is depressing or deflating. Is it possible to give an account of what we do in the classroom that refuses naivete and sentimentality, self-satisfaction and conflict-avoidance? Can Lloyd's argument help to this end? I came to these questions after teaching Glück's novel Margery Kempe (1994), and I will return to the novel below. But because my teaching of it was not fable-worthy, I will return with some reluctance.

According to Lloyd, "[a] certain theological residue taints even the most secular accounts of liberal education . . . with the anxiety of an unattainable redemption."5 This is one thing he means when he associates education with melancholy: although we like to see our work in the classroom as virtuous as well as roundly rewarding, the experience of teaching tells us that we will never really be redeemed, and neither will our students. The state of secular salvation will always elude us, and this perhaps explains, at least in part, the sinking feeling that I get after so many seminars.

But Lloyd is also mindful of the risk that such melancholy might be glamorized, that it too might, like the story we tell ourselves about being eclipsed by our students, become fodder for self-congratulation. He warns against this tendency in "Kant's Examples":

[T]he allure of a melancholy aura should not prevent recognition of the intimate relation between precisely such a model of enlightened education, directed at developing the autonomy of the students . . . and the institutions of pedagogy themselves, with their humane hierarchies of power that the geography of every classroom reproduces and reinforces beneath the temporal scheme it frames.6

Lloyd's reference to "humane hierarchies" is acidic. The phrase is meant to corrode our self-congratulation and to cut short our complacency. If our work depends on institutions that reproduce and reinforce such hierarchies, then, Lloyd suggests, our melancholy may have another source, unrelated to the "theological residue" that he finds in "even the most secular accounts of liberal education." If, for Lloyd, "it is intrinsic to the function of the exemplary pedagogue to disappoint,"7 this is not only because the teacher can never design the perfect syllabus or deliver the perfect class or fully embody exemplarity without remainder. It is also because, under current conditions, there is something false or forced about even the most earnest belief in students' autonomy. How can any such belief be sustained when the signs and symptoms of students' heteronomy, or what Lloyd elsewhere calls their "subjection to necessity,"8 are right there, in the financial aid office, the center for entrepreneurship, and the headquarters of the university police?

It may be more intuitive to see how such a contradiction could give rise to general malaise or long-term cognitive dissonance than to melancholy or melancholia specifically. But readers will remember that melancholia names a "state of disavowed or suspended grief,"9 a reckoning with loss that's postponed because it's too painful to undertake. It's too painful, and yet the alternative is painful, too: melancholia "behaves like an open wound" left untreated.10 The wound festers and the disavowal lingers not least because melancholic suffering is laced with pleasures, although these cannot always be experienced as such: "The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies . . . a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate," Freud writes, devastatingly.11

In my account, verging on parody, of our current pedagogical common sense, I suggested that we prefer not to see these tendencies. For it is much easier to announce our deep appreciation for students than it is to stay in touch with what gets in the way of our appreciation and theirs the administration, adjunctification, the financial aid office, the center for entrepreneurship, the university police. But rereading Freud's account of what's "enjoyable" about melancholia makes me wonder whether our rage and resentment might find an outlet in our teaching today, after all whether they might animate our frequent self-reproach. Again, we're perfectionists, and we can never be good enough, never give enough to our students, except maybe, paradoxically, when we sit back and become irrelevant at the end of the term. Why, though, do we so often focus on this exceptional moment, this brief reprieve, in accounts of our work in classrooms? Is this emphasis indicative of melancholia defined not as self-torment but as suspended grief, a way of putting off a confrontation with what we have lost the institution, the conviction and avoiding the recognition of this loss's enormity?

In the passage I have quoted, Lloyd is diagnosing a structural problem, a dynamic that he takes to be built into the project of "enlightened education" in all its forms. Elsewhere, however, he makes clear that there is a historical dimension to the condition that he identifies. The melancholy that he takes to be "inexpungible" in the scene of teaching is thus not static but variable. There are more and less melancholic scenes of teaching, in other words, and more and less acute forms of melancholia among teachers. Today, Lloyd suggests in Under Representation (2018), our melancholic condition or complaint has become dire as "the pedagogical function of the humanities in the educational apparatus has entered into its decay," leaving us with little but "the automatisms of a pedagogy whose compulsive performance of the routines of aesthetic education marks all the more plangently its loss of social use value."12

To my ear, that "plangently" is like the earlier "inexpungible." Both are learned, Latinate words that index more than Lloyd's erudition. They are virtuosic, the very definition of recherché, and they point, with their reach for rhetorical heights, to the effort that it takes to do what we do in our research. But since they appear in Lloyd's characterizations of teaching, they're also saying something about the effort that we expend as educators. Why do we go to such lengths in the classroom, Lloyd asks, if our work has lost its "social use value"? What does it mean for us to keep teaching "plangently," and what would it take for us to teach in another, less automated and less melancholic way?

To do something plangently, according to the OED, is to do it "in a way that beats strongly or distressingly on the mind or feelings."13 There is a percussive quality to what's plangent, from the Latin plangere, meaning "to strike noisily, beat the breast, lament aloud." Plangent activity involves repetitive stress; it's "reverberating" as well as "mournful" or "plaintive-sounding."14 If say, while teaching Lloyd's book we wanted to define the word using language that's a bit closer to home, we could also say that the plangent is pathetic.


In the introduction to their anthology Pathetic Literature (2022), Eileen Myles asks what it would mean to accept rather than refuse the charge that contemporary literature is pathetic. "Really Literature is pathetic. Ask anyone who doesn't care about literature. They would agree."15 Myles goes on to specify that some works of literature are more pathetic than others, and to note that they are especially drawn to writers with a "dedication to a moment that bends, not in a 'gay' way but you know how when you're walking towards the horizon it seemingly dips. And you feel something. That's pathetic."16 I love these sentences, and my response to them as well as to those that follow is itself, I think, pathetic: "The light shifts and biologically we turn too. People get different. Take the word crepuscular. The blue moment. A lot of the world is trained to think of that part of existence as vacation or what happens during drinks, but I'm saying that no I think it feels like life."17

If these aren't words to live by, then I don't know what words would be. Is this because I am gay? Maybe. Here Myles describes so much of what having a gay sensibility has meant for me, if only aspirationally: being bent, blue-lit, altered, italicized, on permanent vacation, but also being pathetic because "you feel something." Even the phrase "not in a 'gay' way" is, if I may say so, and I think I may, very gay, not just because of its arch scare quotes, but also because of the enjambment, the invitation to pause, after "not in a 'gay' way but you know." If you know, you know, and the phrase calls a question to memory: Is he . . . you know?

But it's also possible that Myles's sentences resonate for another reason: because of my penchant for parataxis. For several years, I have loved how paratactic writing can be charged with possibility, and although I came late to this discovery, it has been energizing all the same, and it continues to energize me. I have come to associate parataxis with opposition to and with a release from the "rigidity" of melancholy,18 which keeps us moving in circles, crying plangently. By contrast, parataxis creates space, I like to think, for moving differently. With its gathering of disparate materials, it can also summon a collectivity and thus offer one way "to create the experience of a group in a solitary reader."19

"[H]ow to create the experience of a group in a solitary reader?" Glück asks in his essay "Uncertain Reading."20 Then, rather than answering this question, he swerves away from it paratactically: "So many battles behind us, yet next to me on the plane a suit dominates the armrest and his newspaper covers the sky and I see that as a gay issue, don't you? By the same token, when I look at the sky, the sky becomes homosexual."21 Notice the movements both within and between those sentences. To name just a few: the adversative "yet" after Glück's reference to battles leads us to expect another gesture toward struggle, something like, "and yet we have so many more to go." Instead a "suit" appears, obtruding out of nowhere, a suit that's not an "it" but a "he," a metonym that names a manspreader. The claim that his crowding out Glück's view is "a gay issue" is clearly a joke, but since it comes at the end of a sentence that begins by referring earnestly to battles, to the history of gay militancy, is it only a joke? (I have a friend who says, "in every joke there's a little bit of a joke.") If it's not, then there are several ways to understand the claim. It could mean that the interpersonal is also political, that the macro-political struggle for outness and autonomy includes micro-political conflicts over space on a plane. Or the "gay issue" could point indirectly to the centrality of aesthetic experience indeed, the crepuscular to the fantasy and sometimes the reality of gay life, as if Glück were saying: "homosexuals need their vistas, their skies, their wide open spaces conducive to spacing out, the way heterosexuals need their newspapers." The newspaper becomes an emblem of the administered world and the straight mind, which "dominates." By contrast, the gay man stands proudly, pathetically, for frivolity, for escape. It's homophobic to thwart his access, our access, to this exit. And when the view out the plane window opens up after all, though without our being told how (did Glück ask the man to move? did the suit simply shift in his seat?), things "get different," as Myles writes. A "blue moment" ensues: "the sky becomes homosexual." A gay issue is, then, perhaps simply an issue that a gay person is confronting, but then anything that person touches or just sees (even a suit? even a newspaper?) becomes gay by association or through contagion.

Glück is unbelievably good at producing these effects, and for me he is a role model for this reason, although I write criticism rather than fiction or poetry: his sentences, each "a discrete image of promise,"22 become sites of spaciousness and possibility. They reshuffle the real. They beautifully create or recreate "the experience of a group." This is why I assigned Glück's Margery Kempe which combines the story of one of his own love affairs and an account of the fifteenth-century English mystic's anguished affair with Jesus at the end of the course I taught last spring on twentieth-century literature and forms of collectivity. "I asked my friends for notes about their bodies to dress these fifteenth-century paper dolls," Glück writes, midway through the novel, describing its composition as a collaborative process. I thought students would appreciate how this was not merely a knowing metafictional conceit but part of an earnest meditation on community: "I clothe the maid, Willyam Wever, the Archbishop of Lincoln in Camille's eruption of physicality, Ed's weekend of tears, Dodie's tangled nerve endings, Steve's afternoon nap. My story proceeds by interaction. My friends become the author of my misfortune and the ground of authority in this book. We are a village common producing images."23 I love how offbeat this conceit is, how supremely paratactic, and I hoped students would too. There are, for instance, three characters or "paper dolls" named in the first part of the sentence that begins, "I clothe the maid," but then Glück refers to four friends in the second part of the sentence, making it impossible for us to map the real onto the fictional, or flesh onto paper, in a neat, one-to-one fashion. Something intervenes or an interaction happens and the writing process brings about a change, even while nothing is invented out of whole cloth, because the writing repurposes preexisting materials: histories, others' autobiographies, friends' notes. I thought students would be interested in Glück's way of redistributing bodily experience, his way of making the most intimate of sensations impersonal by reassigning them. I thought, late in the term, they'd share at least some of my admiration for his way of placing a "village common" at the heart of his San Franciscan subjectivity. This gesture recurs in About Ed (2023), where Glück writes, "I dream for Ed, a commons producing images."24 And later: "Our dreams were not puzzles to solve but a commons producing images that we harvested for paintings and poems."25 And again: "Emptiness is a commons producing images."26

I've been coming to the following story while also delaying the telling of it, avoiding an acknowledgment of what didn't work. I wanted to be the teacher who sat back, who could congratulate himself as his students became teachers. And maybe they did in a way. But what they taught me was not what I wanted to learn. They didn't see themselves in Margery or in Margery. They didn't share Glück's gay sensibility, or Myles's, or mine, and they didn't want to. They were put off, they said, by the book's performance of drag, though they didn't call it drag. (He does, explicitly in an interview and implicitly in the novel when he writes, "I perform my story by lip-synching Margery's loud longing."27) They took issue with what they named the novel's appropriation of Margery Kempe's story. Unwittingly, they echoed the reviewer who, writing in Publishers Weekly in 1994, the year of the book's release, concluded: "Glück's Margery is so ugly and coarse she doesn't come across as a woman at all just a man's skewed rendering of one."28 But in Margery Glück anticipates this objection, as when he writes: "I am no more the solitary author of this book than I alone invent the fiction of my life. As I write, I read my experience as well as Margery's. Is that appropriation that I am also the reader, oscillating in a nowhere between what I invent and what changes me?"29 In class, we read this passage alongside an earlier one in which, I noted, the first person protests too much and so, far from playing down, clearly draws attention to the gap that separates himself from "herself": "I'm Margery following a god through a rainy city. The rapture is mine, mine the attempt to talk herself into existence."30 When I asked whether it helped, in the students' view, that Glück named the risk of appropriation explicitly and worked through it self-consciously, the students stared blankly, unconvinced.

This was not the end of the teaching term that I had envisioned, and my sinking feeling only grew worse. "A girl would never have written this," one student said pointedly, delivering a verdict on one of the book's many sex scenes. Several others nodded in vigorous agreement, and the consensus was dispiriting as well as depressingly binary. Glück's first person throughout Margery Kempe makes it clear that he is not trying to fade into Margery or to efface the complexity of his relationship to her as he at once rewrites her autobiography and plays with her as one plays with a paper doll. So the student's objection, which treated a gay man's writing about, and as, a "girl" as self-evidently bad and "mean," left me perplexed. ("I'm a morbidly good girl in the void, cleaning it of my presence," Glück confides in About Ed.31) There was something I had failed to transmit or something that stood in the way of the group's willingness to engage, like the newspaper blocking Glück's view.

I do not want to recycle any of the reactionary platitudes that might come to mind in response to a moment like this one. I do not want to make pronouncements about the students' moralism or their puritanism, or about the supposed resurgence, among young people, of gender essentialism in the present. I know that times change, and so do sensibilities, and it could be that the novel just didn't resonate with the group or that the students were overworked or exhausted or distracted or reading too quickly or not reading at all. Still, I think something else was happening in the classroom that day, something that didn't only have to do with (though it was no doubt related to) my shortcomings as a teacher. I felt pathetic, but not proudly so this time.

I felt like Sarah Schulman at the beginning of The Gentrification of the Mind (2012), when she looks back on a series of exchanges with young, open-minded, and intelligent queer people who nevertheless leave her wondering how it came to be that they do not know and cannot really relate to the history of ACT UP. She argues that gentrification which she defines as more than "the removal of the dynamic mix that defines urbanity,"32 as a process of depoliticization, disempowerment, homogenization, coerced simplification, and "containment" is to blame.33 HIV / AIDS does not initiate but does exacerbate this process, which leads, Schulman contends, to "a diminished consciousness about how political and artistic change gets made."34

Later, Schulman writes that "gentrified thinking" is "a dumbing down and smoothing over of what people are actually like. It's a social position rooted in received wisdom, with aesthetics blindly selected from the presorted offerings of marketing."35 This is too harsh to be a characterization of my students, who had been game, aesthetically adventurous, and intellectually curious throughout the term. So what did it mean that Glück's Margery a novel about HIV / AIDS, among other plagues, written in the era of ACT UP brought them up against a limit and made them retreat? Could it be that those who read it came uncomfortably close to seeing what the gentrification of the mind had trained them not to see? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a gay issue: Was it Margery's way of being flagrantly, even aggressively gay that made the students move away? Was it Glück's way of rendering "the experience of a group," his enactment of politicized outness, that made them uneasy? Was it his principled refusal and joyous discarding of the "presorted" that made the students recoil, like the prudish early reviewer faced with Margery's "grotesque lust" and threatened by the novel's "strident explicitness"?36

This essay has been the story of a failure, the account of a moment of misrecognition and conflict in the classroom. At the time, I tried not to be defensive, and I think some students came around. But still today, thinking back on that class session drives me to drink. The memory prompts a shame spiral, sentencing me to movement in a melancholic circuit. The feeling is all too familiar, and it leaves me wondering: Is the gentrification of the university one cause of our collective melancholia? Can we counter plangent, melancholic teaching by practicing parataxis? Could this practice become a corrective to Kantian hypotaxis, with its "humane hierarchies,"37 its automatisms, and its sad subordinations? Could it be one way of salvaging something from the ruins of aesthetic education, turning these ruins into a commons producing images? Clearly, loving what's pathetic and avowing that love will only get us so far. And yet, for some of us at least, it feels like life, and I see this as a gay issue. Don't you?

Ramsey McGlazer is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Old Schools: Modernism, Education, and the Critique of Progress (2020) and is working on a book about aesthetics, abolition, and antipsychiatry in Italy and Brazil.


  1. David Lloyd, "Kant's Examples," Representations 28 (1989): 34-54, 39.[]
  2. Robert Glück, Margery Kempe (New York: New York Review Books, [1994] 2020),82.[]
  3. Sigmund Freud observes "an extraordinary diminution in [the melancholic's] self-regard, an impoverishment of the ego on a grand scale. In mourning," he continues, "it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself." Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia" [1917], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by James Strachey et al., Vol. XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 243-258, 246.[]
  4. Eli Meyerhoff, Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).[]
  5. David Lloyd, "Kant's Examples," 39.[]
  6. David Lloyd, "Kant's Examples," 39.[]
  7. David Lloyd, "Kant's Examples," 40.[]
  8. David Lloyd, Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 158.[]
  9. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, [1990] 1999), 86. For recent reflections on the place of melancholia in Butler's work and in queer theory more generally, see Kris Trujillo, "Queer Melancholia," Representations 153.1 (2021): 105-126. []
  10. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia" [1917], in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited and translated by James Strachey et al., Vol. XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 243-258, 253.[]
  11. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning," 251.[]
  12. David Lloyd, Under Representation, 153. []
  13. OED, "plangently, adv."[]
  14. OED,"plangent, adj."[]
  15. Eileen Myles, introduction to Pathetic Literature (New York: Grove Press, 2022), xiii.[]
  16. Eileen Myles, introduction, xv.[]
  17. Eileen Myles, introduction, xv-xvi.[]
  18. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," 253.[]
  19. Robert Glück, "Uncertain Reading," in Communal Nude (South Pasadena: Semiotext[e], 2016), 373.[]
  20. Robert Glück, "Uncertain Reading," 373.[]
  21. Robert Glück, "Uncertain Reading," 373.[]
  22. Robert Glück, Margery Kempe, 49.[]
  23. Robert Glück, Margery Kempe, 90.[]
  24. Robert Glück, About Ed (New York: New York Review Books, 2023), 45.[]
  25. Robert Glück, About Ed, 112.[]
  26. Robert Glück, About Ed, 164.[]
  27. Mairead Case, "Fifteenth-Century Cher: A Conversation with Robert Glück on 'Margery Kempe,'" Los Angeles Review of Books, 2020; Robert Glück, Margery Kempe, 49.[]
  28. "Margery Kempe," Publishers Weekly, 26 September 1994, 61. For a less coarse reading of the novel, one that lays stress on the "incommensurability between body, gender, and desire," see Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 164-173. []
  29. Robert Glück, Margery Kempe, 80-81.[]
  30. Robert Glück, Margery Kempe, 13.[]
  31. Robert Glück, About Ed, 100.[]
  32. Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 27.[]
  33. Sarah Schulman, Gentrification, 14.[]
  34. Sarah Schulman, Gentrification, 14.[]
  35. Sarah Schulman, Gentrification, 51.[]
  36. "Margery Kempe," 61.[]
  37. David Lloyd, "Kant's Examples," 39.[]