Sex, Drugs and Structuralism: Sacked by Cambridge University amid Accusations of Heroin-Dealing and Terrorist Links, He Became the Most Infamous Literary Theorist in the Country. Thirty Years on, Colin MacCabe Reflects on an Extraordinary Controversy
MacCabe, Colin, New Statesman (1996)
It is three decades since, in the summer of 1981, I "came down" from Cambridge after 14 years, having gone up as an undergraduate in 1967. It had given me the finest - and possibly the longest- education imaginable. It had also given me my Warholian 15 minutes of fame when I failed to be upgraded to a lectureship and the term "structuralism" briefly adorned newspaper front pages around the world. For the next ten years, the question that everybody asked 1 when first introduced to me was either "What happened?" (academics) or "What is structuralism?" (non-academics). I didn'tknow then and I'm not sure I'm much clearer now.
It is always difficult to attempt to describe what happened when you are dealing with fantasy. In my five years as a junior lecturer at Cambridge, senior members of the English faculty publicly declared, inter alia, that I maintained two families (one in London and one in Paris), that I ran a drugs ring selling heroin to students, and that I had been held for questioning about supplying arms to the Provisional IRA. In reality, at the time of the slander, my only family was in Cambridge; I have never taken heroin, let alone sold it; and my work on James Joyce throughout the 1970s was an unrelenting attack on the forms of Pearsean nationalism that influenced the Provisional IRA.
Granted, there is no smoke without fire, as Freud might have said. It was true that, as an undergraduate, I had consumed enough hallucinogens to make Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" the soundtrack to those years. It was also true that the mother of my children refused to marry me throughout my period at Cambridge (she did not relent until two years ago) and it was true, too, that, as a graduate student, I had been active on the revolutionary left.
Some have tried to tell me that my sacking was ideological and political revenge. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 allowed the timid and the fearful to deal with me as they would not have dared to do in more hopeful times. There may be some truth in that, but at no point did my experiments with drugs, sex or politics ever come into conflict with the commitment to logic, observation and argument that was the settled faith of Cambridge. When the row erupted, my colleges - Trinity, where I had been a student, and Emmanuel and King's, where I had been a fellow - offered me unstinting support. The university was so enraged that the vice-chancellor considered suspending the entire English faculty.
If there was a generational, ideological struggle, it occurred only within the narrow and rancorous setting of the faculty of English. There was a small group that hated me with a passion I had never suspected. This became clear when the process of upgrading me to a lectureship, which should have been a formality, turned into a long-running melodrama that stretched over six or seven meetings, punctuated by moments of farce, including an ambulance call to ferry out a faculty member who had collapsed from exhaustion.
I find this much easier to understand in retrospect than I did at the time. My enemies were the final generation of Leavisites, only slightly older | than I. Critically unoriginal, philosophically ignorant and ideologically vacant, they found themselves surplus to intellectual requirements at a very young age, as the "Theory Revolution" deprived them of what they felt was their deserved place in the sun. Nothing more natural, perhaps, than that they would want bloody revenge - and I seemed to fit the part. I had translated and published Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers as an undergraduate and, in 1972-73,1 spent a year at the Ecole normale superieure, where I studied with Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. On my return, I became an editor of the film magazine Screen, the principal conduit for French theoretical writing into the English academy. …