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Stanford Report, April 28, 1999

Living the afterlife: history professor Paul Robinson


The Freudian Left.
The Modernization of Sex.
Opera and Ideas.
Freud and His Critics.
Ludwig van Beethoven: "Fidelio."

Paul Robinson's colleagues can recall most of the titles of his acclaimed books. But it's an article he wrote for the history department newsletter in 1995 that they remember most vividly.

Stricken with hepatitis in 1988, at age 47, Robinson not only beat the odds of liver-transplant surgery but went on to describe the experience with characteristic eloquence. In an article titled "Afterlife," he told what it was like to receive the organ of 15-year-old Edward Joseph "E. J." Montgomery, who had been killed in a truck accident.

"At some level my afterlife is also E.J.'s," Robinson wrote. "Indeed, the very idea of the self may have suffered a ruder shock from transplantation than it ever has from David Hume or Michel Foucault, its severest philosophical critics."

Photo by Linda Cicero

Meeting E.J.'s parents and the woman who had received the teenager's lungs taught Robinson that "our boundaries are no longer as sharply etched as they once were. We have become commingled."

Several of Robinson's friends can quote verbatim from that article, which they describe as one of the most memorable personal essays they've ever read. They particularly enjoy his aside about how he used the recovery period to write his fourth book, Freud and His Critics, and dedicate it to his doctors, "who gave me a new liver but left me with my old spleen."

Intimate, thoughtful, provocative and devastatingly witty, the prose is trademark Robinson. It's what colleagues and students have come to expect from the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities during the 32 years he has taught at Stanford.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and a former Guggenheim Fellow, Robinson is a specialist in European intellectual history of the 19th and 20th centuries. On campus he has won the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education.

Herbert Lindenberger, the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities and a longtime friend, says he enjoys reading the work of good historians. Some of them, like Robinson, are known for the elegance of their style, Lindenberger says.

"But they're not usually concerned, as Paul is, with the verbal subtleties of text," he adds. "Paul has a wonderful feeling for nuance that sets him apart from most people in his field."

Robinson acknowledges that he takes "enormous amounts of time" with his writing. That, he says, "always means making sentences shorter, clearer and more efficient."

"My philosophy is that you must not treat the reader as if time were an infinite commodity, as if he had all eternity to read your blessed book," he says. "It is your responsibility to find the most economical and lucid way of getting across the information you want to impart.

"It's almost always a process of reduction, of taking your windy, excessively detailed and qualified assertions and getting rid of the wind, the unnecessary qualifications, and condensing it down to the heart of the matter."


Then there's sex

Robinson did his undergraduate work at Yale and received his doctorate from Harvard. He has earned an international reputation as a scholar of Freud and the history of music, and much of his research and writing has focused on psychoanalysis, opera and autobiography. Then there's sex.

"Paul works within a very distinguished tradition of intellectual history, and he is one of our great statesmen at Stanford," Lindenberger says. "And what holds much of his work together is a concern with the history of sexuality."

Students have a similar take.

"Ask any graduate student what Paul is known for and you'll get a one-word answer: sex," says J. B. Shank, a doctoral candidate and lecturer in the Area One program. "He's fascinated by sex and is a constant, funny critic of various forms of puritanism."

Robinson's 1976 book, The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, was cited by the New York Review of Books for its "lucidity and analytical power."

Robinson said of that work that "how we have thought about our sexuality is just as clearly part of our intellectual history as the history of political, economic or social thought." And he also has suggested that as a result of the "mechanistic materialism" of Masters and Johnson, "we may have saved ourselves anxiety, but lost ecstasy."

Robinson's sixth and newest work is Gay Lives: Homosexual Autobiography from John Addington Symonds to Paul Monette. A scholarly exploration of the autobiographical writings of 14 British, French and American artists and intellectuals, the combined stories "suggest that the progress toward self-affirmation has been neither smooth nor inexorable," Robinson wrote.

Many of the journeys Robinson profiles are agonizing, as when he recalls André Gide's tortured plea: "In the name of what God or what ideal do you forbid me to live according to my nature?" He says of the American writer Jeb Alexander that "the final years of the diary are almost unbearably sad. We get the sense of a life simply shutting down." And there is the saga of the eminent Yale historian Martin Duberman, "emotionally crippled" by three different Freudian therapists who tried to cure him of homosexuality.

But along with the heartaches, Robinson also finds affirming insights.

He describes the prose of British bohemian Quentin Crisp, for example, as "the verbal counterpart of his hennaed hair and laquered fingernails, wittily savaging the repressive conditions of his countrymen."

Of Andrew Tobias, the nationally syndicated financial adviser, Robinson notes, "uniquely among gay autobiographers I have read, Tobias launched his exit from the closet while still a virgin."

Terry Castle, chair of the English department and author of The Apparitional Lesbian, calls Gay Lives a "pioneering history of an as-yet-unexamined modern genre." She notes that Robinson has written it "with tact, humor and an insider's sensitivity to the perils and exaltations involved in the writing of the 'sexual self.'"


Stories about human relationships

As he read hundreds of autobiographical works in search of those that had sufficient texture and richness for close, analytical study, Robinson says, he looked for "stories that were very gripping, very powerful, moving and funny ­ stories that had the quality of novels and were about compelling human relationships."

"Being funny about sex is not the only way to talk about sex, but it has its uses ­ and sex is funny," he adds. "The relentlessly somber treatment of sexuality is not my style. It's usually, in my mind, associated with repression, and these guys who can't see the funniness in it are usually big-time repressors."

In fact, he writes, "sex is an often humbling experience for intellectuals precisely because it reminds them, so unconditionally, of the extent to which they are not pure Geist."

Robinson began thinking about Gay Lives shortly after he finished work on Freud and His Critics in 1993. He took time out in 1996 to complete Ludwig van Beethoven: "Fidelio," then spent the following year on sabbatical at the Humanities Center working on the new manuscript. He did all of his reading for the project at home, stretched out on his couch, with his feet up.

"I'll never be able to read a virtual text unless they make one so you can hold it," Robinson says. "I want to turn the pages and be able to write on them and come back and find what I wrote. Sometimes I read with the doggy, who likes to help and who's very interested in gay autobiography."

Doggy is a Doberman named "Isabella" for his color, but called "Izzy" with great affection for journalist I. F. Stone. The exuberant Izzy has a reputation of his own and has been known to vault over furniture and visitors at the campus home on Santa Ynez Street that Robinson shares with his longtime partner Steve Dunatov, a financial analyst at the medical school.

Although Robinson has taught courses on autobiography and now has published on the topic, he doubts that he ever will write his own life story.

"What about my sexual story, my romantic story?" he asks. "Well, it's garden variety. I don't have much to add to the ones I've read."

In Gay Lives, Robinson touches only briefly on his own past, noting that he became a "serious Roman Catholic" after several homosexual experiences in high school and that he was married for three years before moving to San Francisco with a lover in 1967. He found the change "not only gratifying but remarkably easy ­ it had been managed without any thought of seeing an analyst ­ and I was comfortably out to my family and close friends."

The new book is dedicated to his brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Joan Robinson, who, he says, are the only heterosexuals in the book and "thrilled to be celebrated" as such.

Being in the closet, Robinson writes, "was no picnic." But he also notes in Gay Lives that "it did not reduce the rest of my life to a desert of nothingness; it did not blot out the pride of academic success, the joy of music-making, the pleasure of friendship."


Curriculum czar

Carolyn Lougee, chair of the history department, calls Robinson a "tremendously upbeat" friend of more than a quarter-century, and a "very unpretentious and down-to-earth" colleague. She also credits him with helping to revamp the history department at a critical point.

Ten years ago, Lougee says, the department's curriculum could best have been described as autonomy verging on anarchy.

"Every spring quarter, each faculty member would be asked what he or she wanted to teach, and the sum total of the responses was always 'the curriculum,'" she recalls. "So Paul decided that somebody ought to do a little coordinating, and he appointed himself czar for the European curriculum.

"He delighted in whipping everybody into line and as a result of his success with European courses, a department-wide curriculum committee emerged. So I've always thought of him as someone who's ready to step in and take charge when he sees something that needs to be done."

Lougee also recalls the days in 1988 when she and her colleagues feared the worst about Robinson's transplant surgery. Because he doesn't drive, Lougee and others took turns driving him to San Francisco twice a week for treatment during his recovery. The bi-weekly outings quickly became the stuff of legend.

"Paul knew all these neat places to have breakfast in the city, and it became part of the drill that we would stop and have a nice meal en route to the hospital," Lougee says. "That's the way he is ­ he wants to make any occasion an enjoyable one, and he turned each trip into a party."

Robinson not only enjoys hosting parties but also likes to keep up with every juicy tidbit of campus gossip, according to Monica Moore, administrator for Humanities Special Programs who worked closely with Robinson during the 13 years he chaired the program in the 1980s and '90s. She says he still swings by her office at least once a week to find out what's happening on her side of the Quad.

Moore also recalls that Robinson was always accessible to students when he worked with the program, and that he took time to advocate on their behalf.

"He was open to students calling him at home, and even when he lived in the city, I never heard him put a student off by saying something like, 'Well, I don't come down on Fridays.'"

When faculty in the program met to consider student proposals for honors theses, Moore says, Robinson had a soft spot for the non-humanists who often tended to be less sophisticated theoretically than their peers in English or philosophy.

"Paul would say, 'Remember, this guy is a chem major,'" she recalls. "'I think he's really interested in such-and such, so how can we help him write an honors essay?'"

Robinson's concern for both substance and style situates him in a unique niche within the field of intellectual history, according to students who've taken his courses. They say they read lots of novels and fiction and also examine works of music and literature in his classes, rather than focusing exclusively on political thought, philosophical texts and ideas.

Unlike proponents of the 1960s' new social history who concentrate on treating ideas as products of social and material factors, Robinson teaches the history of ideas. Unlike advocates of the 1980s' new cultural history who prefer to study languages and disembodied discursive practices, he explores the lives and intellectual careers of living, breathing thinkers.

"Paul teaches that there are intellectual periods, such as the Enlightenment or Romanticism, that can be studied as objects," Shank says. "And he believes that there are certain works of art, music and philosophy that define those periods."

With the publication of his new book, Shank adds, Robinson is arguing that there is something called the "gay experience" ­ an object that can be examined as an intellectual category.

"By studying the memoirs and autobiographies he has chosen, he wants us to explore the gay experience and think about it," Shank says. "His strength resides in a courage and confidence in an approach to intellectual history that many regard as traditional.

"He's thought through all the issues and he's made his choices and he's not caught up in any anxiety about whether or not it's a legitimate field of study."


"Academic porn"

Perhaps because of that conviction, Robinson has never shown the manuscripts for any of his books, including Gay Lives, to colleagues.

"I'm a great believer in writing the text and then submitting it to the world and taking your chances," he says. "Giving it to the world, the public, is much less scary than the process of vetting it with your intellectual friends."

One of the first reviews of Gay Lives appeared anonymously in Kirkus Reviews. It might have cowed some authors, but Robinson was clearly amused by the attention.

"'Robinson dives for the genitals with unseemly relish,'" he crows, reading from the review. "I think we're going to put that on the cover of the paperback edition. Because listen, Bub, genitals are what it's all about."

At an Easter Sunday party hosted by Iris Brest and Paul Brest, dean of the School of Law, Robinson fielded questions about Gay Lives from some 50 friends and colleagues. He said he loved the fact that his daughter, Susan, a Stanford alum who majored in design and lives in Alabama, fondly calls the book "academic porn."

One recurring theme that runs through his analyses of all 14 writers in Gay Lives is Robinson's transparent disdain for personal dishonesty. He accuses Stephen Spender of being maddeningly coy, for example, and says of Richard Rodriguez that he is "incredibly devious" in print.

"I think there wouldn't be a problem if people didn't have this particular concern about what they want to do with their genitals," Robinson argues. "If it weren't for that, we wouldn't have this genre.

"What's interesting, of course, is the way in which these people do and do not speak to that reality. It's an area our culture has a big problem talking about, and it's not just homosexuals."

The autobiographers who draw the highest praise from Robinson are those, like Julien Green, the cloistered French Catholic, who wrote about their lives with singular honesty and passion.

Referring to an attraction Green developed for a fellow student at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1919, Robinson notes that it "was a totally one-sided affair, the kind of mad love affair that homosexuals know a lot about."

"Of course, nothing ever happens," he adds. "But even though it's not realized, it has the drama and emotional power and intensity of a great love affair, and it's all the more extraordinary for being utterly and completely unrequited . . .. What kind of psychological resources does it take to carry on such an affair without even having said hello to the guy? It's astonishing." SR