Sherman Ave Interviews: Gary Saul Morson
The Sherman Ave Editors Ross Packingham and Sir Edward Twattingworth III sat down with Professor Gary Saul Morson for an interview. It was in Cosi. Everyone had fun.
Twattingworth: Where are you from?
Morson: New York.
Twattingworth: Oh. I think it was Pushkin who called New York the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”
Morson: Oh come on.
Twattingworth: Is that an accurate description of your hometown?
Morson: Pushkin never said any such thing.
Packingham: It was either Pushkin or Jay-Z. I understand you went to Yale?
Morson: I did.
Packingham: Is it weird being an alumnus of an institution that most of your students wanted to attend but weren’t smart enough?
Morson: You think that’s really true? I don’t know. I prefer this crowd.
Twattingworth: You can always bring it up if they question your authority, too. Tell them you got in and they didn’t.
Morson: But that’s one of the things, you know, objections I have to Yale is they’re snobs. And that would be kind of the last thing I’d say. You’re invited to when you join the Yale club, but I’m a bad club joiner.
Twattingworth: And to follow-up on your time at Yale -- weren’t you there at the same time as President Bush?
Morson: I don’t know.
Twattingworth: You guys didn’t hang out every weekend?
Morson: I knew Bill Clinton very well, but not...yeah.
Packingham: Would you say Bill Clinton is more of a Dostoevsky guy or a Tolstoy kind of guy?
Morson: No, I wouldn’t say he’s either one. He’s much more socially adept than either one of them was.
Packingham: I read that you were originally going to study physics in college. Is that correct?
Morson: At one time, yes.
Packingham: Accordingly, what are your thoughts on Olivia Newton-John’s hit single, “Let’s Get Physical?”
Morson: It’s a quantum leap.
Packingham: I would get that joke if I weren’t in the School of Comm.
Morson: Entanglement. That’s it. Probably entanglement.
Twattingworth: Well this is obviously the question on everybody’s mind. If you had to choose who your favorite author was, would you say Tolstoy or Dan Brown?
Morson: Tolstoy’s probably the winner.
Twattingworth: It’s close though, right?
Morson: If you want to think so.
Packingham: If you were to make a drink called the ‘Morson,’ what would it entail?
Twattingworth: So, Bailey’s and Coffee?
Morson: Just coffee. Coffee mixed with coffee.
Packingham: Different types of blends or just straight up coffee?
Morson: I just love coffee. It’s my favorite food. It is, actually.
Twattingworth: I think a lot of students feel the same way.
Packingham: Especially during finals week.
Morson: No, not just to keep up. I just love it.
Packingham: I actually tried Stolichnaya for the first time a few nights ago. That makes me Tolstoy, right?
Morson: No. I think you’d need more than vodka for that.
Packingham: Ugh. That’s not what I saw online.
Twattingworth: Is it vodka cranberry, then? What’s the combination?
Morson: If you mix vodka with anything, you’re not Russian. What I do with coffee, they do with vodka. They just mix it with more vodka.
Twattingworth: I’ll take a vodka-vodka, please. I’m curious, have you ever just SparkNoted the Grand Inquisitor scene? Maybe once, to make sure you didn’t miss anything?
Packingham: Yeah, me neither. Who would do that?!
Twattingworth: What would you say your favorite Dillo Day memory is?
Morson: Sleeping in? We just had our former master, Gary Galbreath, give a talk. I discovered this year that he is an expert on armadillos. So we had him, I recruited him to give a talk to Willard on armadillos. How come nobody had ever known that about him for so many years? He just happened to mention it in passing while I was talking to him.
Packingham: He probably didn’t tell anyone because he didn’t want to get recruited.
Morson: Well it’s a fireside talk. He’s a naturalist, that’s what he does. A biologist, studying strange animals. And he knew a lot about armadillos.
Packingham: Being the Master of Willard, do you ever just wake up and think, like, “Yeah, that’s probably enough hipsters for me. I’m good for now. No more please.”
Morson: I don’t think of them that way! These people are smart and interesting and different. You guys probably are too, you just don’t happen to have the advantage of living in Willard. There are probably smart and interesting people outside of Willard, too, but it feels kind of like home. I’ve been in Willard now for nine years.
Packingham: How would you compare sitting through Willard’s exec board discussions to Dmitri Karamazov’s prison sentence?
Morson: Well, for one thing it’s longer. But they’re both underground. He’s in the mines and this one in the Mouse Trap.
Twattingworth: As far as film adaptations of classic novels starring Keira Knightley go, which one would you say is your favorite? Would you say Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, or Bend It Like Beckham?
Morson: I don’t remember if I saw any of the other ones. I might have seen Pride and Prejudice, I don’t remember. So I can only talk about the Anna Karenina one then. You know, most films of Anna Karenina are pretty bad. This one is better than the others, but that’s not saying much.
Packingham: And have you seen the new Miley Cyrus music video?
Packingham: Send it to him.
Twattingworth: On it.
Packingham: Power Line blog recently named you one of the top 100 professors in America.
Morson: So I gather, but I don’t know what Power Line blog is, and I looked it up, I looked up the article and they said something about me that wasn’t even true.
Packingham: We were going to ask if you’re just going to retire. You got what you came for, right? Power Line blog, Top 100.
Morson: Oh right! There wasn’t any money that came with it, was there?
Packingham: Has Edward Snowden sought asylum in your house yet? Since you’re one of the foremost scholars on Russia and Russian literature?
Morson: I’d be happy to give him asylum if he asked for it!
Twattingworth: I noticed you didn’t deny that you have given him asylum.
Morson: No, no, I didn’t. You guys are very perceptive, I haven’t.
Twattingworth: You’ve brought up before that a formative experience in Dostoevsky’s life was being sent to execution and spared at the last moment. A few weeks ago I dreamt that I slept through Dillo and it had a similar effect on me. Have you ever had an experience like that?
Morson: Have I ever had an experience like that? Don’t you always feel that wherever you are, there’s somebody else somewhere that’s doing something else you’d rather be doing?
Morson: I mean, every time you’re tired and bored, don’t you sometimes have to think, I just slept through something really important that’s going on somewhere else? That’s part of the problem with having, you know, being located in a single place and time. Every time I read a novel about the Roman Empire, I think I missed, you know, they had a lot more fun back then.
Packingham: Well, some people did. The millions of slaves probably didn’t.
Morson: Well of course you identify with the ones, you know, they don’t write novels about the ones who didn’t.
Packingham: Except for that mini-series called Spartacus. I guess even him though.
Twattingworth: He looked like he was having a lot of fun!
Packingham: He looked like he was having a good time, yeah.
Morson: Well, at some point he was. At some point he didn’t. You know, at the very end.
Packingham: What do you think Dostoevsky would say about the Twilight series?
Morson: Well he liked the idea of vampires. I think he would have sat back and thought, “I could do something really interesting with this crowd. I could psychologize them.” Like, why is it that a 200-year-old is interested in a, what is she, 15?
Twattingworth: It’s creepy, right?
Morson: I mean, he may look like a 16-year-old, but he’s 185 years older. What is the psychology there?! Of course, the author doesn’t seem to have asked that question. You think about it, she might like him, but what’s he doing with her?
Packingham: Are you suggesting that Stephenie Meyer put less philosophy into her works than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?
Morson: [pause] Less explicit.
Twattingworth: Morty mentioned to us that his favorite quote from Anna Karenina is the famous quote: “All schools in the Top 10 of the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings are alike; each school not in the top 10 is out of the top 10 in its own way.” Is that your favorite passage as well?
Morson: Where does he rank Northwestern?
Twattingworth: I think we’re 11. I think we’re out of it in our own way.
Morson: Ah. Maybe he’s wrong about that.
Packingham: He’s an economist, he can kind of fudge words where he needs to.
Morson: He just writes it, “Math.”
Twattingworth: It’s an equation and you believe it.
Packingham: What would Levin from Anna Karenina think of Morty?
Morson: What would Levin think of Morty? I think they’d really get along, I mean Morty knows how to have a good time appreciating, you know, bringing out the best in an intellectual and yet really teaching intellectuals what their limits are. I’d know, I’m one of them.
Packingham: Let me rephrase the question. How much money do you think Morty could get from Levin?
Morson: You know, I don’t think you could get much money from Levin.
Packingham: How long do you think it’s going to be before you and Morty settle your philosophical disputes through, like, mud-wrestling?
Morson: It is a form of mud-wrestling! It’s just mud-wrestling for the intellectuals. That’s it.
Packingham: That’s deep.
Twattingworth: You should rename the class that. It might lead to even higher enrollment.
Packingham: You could have John Michael Bailey co-teach it.
Morson: No, we’re not going that direction.
Packingham: Speaking of which, does it ever bother you to think that you lecture about the greatest authors of all time answering the biggest questions anyone could ever ask, and you do this on the same stage where a woman was brought to multiple orgasms by a sex-adapted power tool?
Morson: Was it the same stage?! I didn’t know that. I had no idea. Really?
Twattingworth: Does it now bother you?
Morson: No, but I’m going to have to work it into my lectures! I did look up what that tool was.
Twattingworth: Did you GoogleImage it?
Morson: Well you have to buy it apparently if you look it up. It really frightened me. Does someone do that voluntarily?
Twattingworth: I think you speak for the entire student body.
Packingham: And a lot of very wealthy alumni, as well.
Twattingworth: Boosters everywhere. I’m working on a sequel to War and Peace called “Sperrys and Kegs.” Will you proofread it for me? It’s about 800 pages.
Morson: Suuuure I’d be glad to proofread it for you. And can I edit it for you, too?
Twattingworth: I don’t think hitting just the “Delete” key is-
Morson: Oh no! [laughing] Well you’d have to “select all.”
Twattingworth: That’s true. Click a couple of times.
Morson: War and Peace already is its own sequel.
Twattingworth: We went to the beach when it was nice over the weekend and we were looking through the sand and couldn’t find any gold, but we did find shards of a Corona Light bottle. Is that kind of the same thing?
Morson: I would say it has to be Pabst.
Twattingworth: Spoken like a true Willardite.
Packingham: Ah, the classic Tolstoy “Pabst in the sands.”
Morson: Heineken in the sands? No.
Packingham: If you could have any fictional character in your discussion section for War and Peace, who would it be?
Morson: Well I think Pierre, the hero of War and Peace. He could tell me things I didn’t know about his whole life. All the things that aren’t written down, right? I have no other way of finding those out. But he would know, like, where he’s born, and if he’d lived a specific life before the novel begins. I’d love to hear about that.
Packingham: Do you think you guys would ever butt heads trying to take control of the section?
Morson: I mean I understand him better than he understands himself, and he might not like that.
Morson: People generally don’t. If they did then more would go to psychiatrists.
Twattingworth: There’s that famous quote from Judge Dredd where the guy says “I AM the law!” Do you ever get in a heated argument that ends with you just yelling, “I AM the Slavic Studies Department!”
Morson: [pause] No.
Twattingworth: Okay. Sorry. You’ve been studying things related to Russia for a while now, including back when it was the Soviet Union, correct?
Morson: Long before.
Morson: Not before it was the Soviet Union, before the fall of the Soviet Union, I mean.
Twattingworth: So in the late 80s and early 90s when the Soviet Union disintegrated, didn’t they really just sell out?
Morson: Didn’t they just what?
Twattingworth: Sell out. To corporate sponsors who wanted the Russia “name brand.”
Packingham: Like Green Day. Or Metallica.
Morson: Well “sell out” implies that it was a really good place before and that they got rid of it for money. I don’t know, would you say Germany sold out when they got rid of Hitler?
Packingham: There’s a professor on campus who might say that.
Twattingworth: Did you just make a Holocaust denier joke?
Twattingworth: Well we want to play some word association with you where we’ll throw out a word and you respond the first thing that comes to your mind. Does that sound good?
Morson: This is psychoanalysis?
Twattingworth: Yeah, we’re going to send it to CAPS but they won’t get back to us for a month. So, Napoleon.
Packingham: Interesting. Wondering where that came from.
Morson: Stephenie Meyer. They’re at the same intellectual level.
Morson: Pistachio nuts.
Twattingworth: Vladimir Putin.
Morson: Me! Didn’t you already prove that?
Morson: I don’t know that word.
Twattingworth: We’ll just move on.
Packingham: Fuzzy dice.
Morson: Is that literal? Crooked roulette wheel.
Packingham: Anna Karenina’s paper knife.
Morson: You don’t want to know.
Morson: Coffee. Ask me lunch.
Packingham: Afternoon tea?
Morson: Yeah, coffee.
Twattingworth: Wedding cake. Coffee?
Morson: You have to have different roasts.
Twattingworth: Would you say that Anna and Vronsky are totally the Ross and Rachel of classic literature?
Morson: You’re going to exhaust my ignorance of popular culture, you know. Why don’t you start asking me about the popular culture of when Bill Clinton and I were growing up?
Packingham: Would you say Anna and Vronsky are like the Liz Taylor and one of her seven husbands?
Packingham: That’s not a super descriptive question.
Morson: No but actually, Liz Taylor was not a kid, and Anna Karenina was a grown up, so, older than you guys.
Twattingworth: So, Ivan Karamazov’s “devil” walks into a bar with Mayor Tisdahl. What happens next?
Morson: I think I’m seeing a pattern in your questions. Are they all like this? [pause] Well he starts asking about why everything is so boring, and is just needling her that way. And he suggests that they do something otherworldly.
Packingham: How do you think Tisdahl responds to that? Besides immediately shutting down the bar.
Morson: She doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. He teases, she doesn’t get it. That’s why she’s probably a better mayor and a worse drinking partner.
Twattingworth: If you could have dinner with anybody in history besides Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who would it be?
Morson: The Devil. I think he would know the most about human nature.
Packingham: That’s deep. What’s the worst gift you’ve ever received?
Morson: When I was six years old, my aunt insisted on giving me a shirt. What would a six year old boy want with a shirt? She also gave my older brother a book, which he refused. He said he already had a book.
Twattingworth: You can only have one. What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in one of your lectures?
Morson: Years ago in my class on War and Peace, in one of the big lecture halls, I don’t remember which one. But it was a large one with a lot of classrooms nearby. And I was talking about how you can never tell when something uncertain is about to happen, because life is unpredictable. And somebody came into the back of the lecture hall and told me I was lecturing too loud, they couldn’t study in the last room, could I please quiet down. And all the students were absolutely convinced that I had arranged it. And when he left, they all burst into laughter, and I said, “I arranged that,” and they believed me! But I didn’t.
Twattingworth: Have you ever admitted to anybody that you didn’t until now?
Morson: No, I always do, and still nobody believes me! It would be funnier if I had arranged it.
Packingham: Which is your favorite former Soviet satellite state?
Morson: I like Poland.
Twattingworth: As a follow-up, which is your favorite former Soviet satellite?
Morson: Which is...?
Twattingworth: Yeah, which one is your favorite of the former Soviet satellites?
Morson: Didn’t I just answer that question?
Twattingworth: Like an outer space satellite.
Packingham: Your options are Sputnik I, II and III.
Morson: I like the one, you know they sent this dog into space. Did you hear about that? Dog named Laika.
Twattingworth: Speaking of Kim Kardashian’s baby, how do you think Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s baby is going to stack up against the other literary titans of the last two centuries?
Morson: You keep asking the same questions with different words!
Twattingworth: He’s onto us! He figured it out! Would you say that the women of Willard are more Grushenkas or Katerinas?
Morson: You really want to get me killed, don’t you?
Twattingworth: Fired is the word you’re looking for.
Morson: They are angels, they can’t be like either one.
Packingham: Along that same vein, do you think Pierre or Andrey Bolkonsky would be a better fit for Willard?
Morson: Pierre. He drinks more.
Packingham: Are you saying students drink in Willard?
Morson: No, Willard is extremely tame and sane. They do nothing but study.
Packingham: Just like Frances Willard.
Morson: Just like Frances Willard. Well, you know about the old Frances Willard party where everybody got together and drank tea and watercress sandwiches... they originally made me Master of Willard right after they abolished it, in order to make sure they didn’t do another one but they still kept the Willard spirit, and that was a tough tightrope. That was my original job. And I think Willard did keep its spirit. It took a few rough years, and there was trouble. They were watched like hawks. Now they don’t bother. Morty loves Willard.
Packingham: I guess this is probably the last question. How sad were you when the Keg closed?
Morson: I was actually kind of sad. It was a real institution at the time. Do you guys remember that? I mean lots of gatherings were there, faculty used to meet there, you meet students there. We had a suspicion that that was going on, but that wasn’t my job. You know, I loved the place.
Packingham: Did you ever go there and talk to ETHS students about Russian literature?
Twattingworth: One last attempt to get you fired.