In the Boston Review, Yale professors Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran reflect on the erotics of intellectual mentorship, with its complex dynamics of power, pleasure, and ideas. They begin by giving a history of erotic intellectual mentorship—from Socrates and Alcibiades, to Abelard and Heloise, to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir—and ask then how this kind of mentorship can be reconciled with movements fighting against sexual harassment, like #MeToo. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
In our collective discomfort with relationships that press against the limits of moral and social norms, it can be awkward even to entertain the possibility that they can offer social goods and personal gains. Such prudishness is counterproductive, veiling the subject in silence and thus making it harder to achieve the desired end of protecting young people from being exploited, emotionally or physically, by the more knowing and experienced. It is important to acknowledge that such vulnerabilities remain one of the most important reasons why bonds of mentorship require special sensitivity, attentiveness, and care, both from the parties involved and from surrounding communities.
But it is also necessary to admit why, despite such vulnerabilities, people continue to be drawn into them, and why so many of us look back on our charismatic teachers as beacons. After all, electric teaching, the kind that leaves an indelible mark, happens in the flesh, in the moment, in the live performance of bodies sharing the energy of a time and place. (There is a reason why, for all their utility, online learning programs do not advertise groundbreaking teachers or the language of personal transformation.)
Image: Léon-Marie-Joseph Billardet (1818–1862), Abelard Instructing Heloise.