An Illness in America

Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of life.

                                                                                                                                                  – Jane Austen

Uh-oh

I fell ill late at night on the day of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

There had been no admonitory signs. No preludial symptoms. Just a mammoth stomach disorder shortly after midnight. Two, three, four recurrences during the predawn hours. Incommodious and humiliating but not alarming. Montezuma’s revenge, I thought. Or the newly-inaugurated Donald Trump’s.

I tiptoed to the bathroom each time. No need to wake my wife or our incredibly kind hosts, my wife’s cousin and her husband.

 

Could Be Dangerous

We were scheduled to fly home to Vancouver at midday, but during breakfast I felt severely unwell.

Sheet-pale. Faint. Feverish. Monumental evacuations, multiple sessions, horrid in content, horrific in color, foul of fetor. Food poisoning, we thought. Maybe a flu?

Providentially  my wife texted her brother, a physician in Toronto. Normally he is cosmically non-alarmist, laissez-faire, easeful, soothing.

Not today.

“Sounds like a bleed,” he replied at once. “Could be dangerous. Get to an Emergency Room as fast as you can.”

We were bunking with our relatives in a comely town in Maryland, forty minutes outside the District of Columbia. Rural, tranquil, bucolic. Farms, orchards, woodlands, parks, ponds. A rapidly developing area superbly served, we discovered, by a moderately-sized hospital not far from our cousins’ lovely home.

A ten-minute drive. I wished it not a moment longer. The tarmac seemed to molt, melt into the fields, meander skyward. Trees unmoored themselves from their roots, ascended, hovered, coalesced with the clouds. Houses slipped from their footings, left their lawns, slithered across the swirling sod.

 

Down & Out

With all the commotion afflicting so-called Obamacare we feared the transactional proceedings. They turned out to be simple and swift because, although a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., I am one of the fortunate persons protected by America’s for the moment intact Medicare program.

“Just sign here,” kindly Mrs. Morita murmured with a soothing smile.

As we sat in the waiting room my discomfort became acute. Virulent. I tottered to a restroom, whispered heartfelt thanksgivings, did what needed to be done, performed copious ablutions, dried my hands.

Then, abruptly, had to leave my feet. Propped on hands and knees. Lowered my whirling head to the linoleum floor, for some reason pressed my muzzy brow against the tile as if in prayer. An unchurched orison.

Time passed. Don’t know how much.

Stood. Quavered. Teetered through the washroom’s hefty door, crept like an infant into the corridor, braced my reeling self against the glaucous concrete wall.

An alert guard sees me. I ask if he please will tell my wife I’m in trouble. She rushes to my side, hails a passing nurse who fetches a wheelchair and bustles me off for triaged care.

 

A Bleed Indeed

My brother-in-law was right. It was a bleed, sited somewhere in the twisted confines of the serpentine G.I. tract.

After many hours of close monitoring, the attending surgeon determines a potent painkiller prescribed some time ago to provide relief from a bout of sciatica has triggered a dime-sized rupture in my unpoetically named duodenum.

He cauterizes the perforation, vacuums the labyrinthine intestine, tells my wife I’m worryingly anemic, and orders hospitalization until my hemoglobin count reaches a safe and stable status.

“He’s at Level Seven now. We’d like to see him at Twenty-two, maybe higher.”

One puny puncture. A minute crater the size of a ten-cent coin. What, two millimeters across?

Tosses his mask and gloves into a bin. Good shot. All net. Pivots toward me with a chipper grin.

“Good thing y’all didn’t board your flight,” he says with a chipper grin. Gorgeous languid Tidewater drawl.

“Pilot would’ve had to make an emergency landing. You could have died. Likely would, left your poor wife with a proper mess on her hands.”

 

Our Nation’s Caregivers

My illness was not interesting, and it is not our subject. Our subject is the people who looked after me during my confinement in an excellent medical center in a small town in America.

Nurses, nurses’ aides, technicians, custodians. Security officers. IT engineers. Four physicians, an anesthesiologist, a surgeon. All manner of specialists and support staff. My dear wife’s infinitely gentle, infinitely generous cousins.

Who are these people?

American citizens now, but with the exceptions of the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, one physician, one custodian, and the waiting room entryway’s security guard, all are first-generation immigrants from other nations.

Some came to the United States from Africa. Others from Asia. Several from Eastern Europe. Many from South and Central America. Instances of the vast global transmigration phenomenon that approximately one-half of the contemporary adult American population mindlessly dreads, detests, and defames despite the pleasing mythos of our nation’s universally welcoming Melting Pot.

Are my healers instances, merely? Exemplars? Statistics inert, inanimate, arithmetical?

Of course not.

Each of these persons is a distinguished, impassioned, wholly idiosyncratic living soul. As are you and your loved ones. As am I and mine.

My saviors are exceptionally earnest, compassionate, gentle, generous, indescribably hard-working women and men who every night and every day perform heroic work under grueling conditions.

Most of them receive miniscule appreciation, marginal social stature, and middling monetary recompense. Our civilization celebrates and abundantly rewards doctors. We grant their equally human, similarly indispensable colleagues exceedingly little recognition and scant remuneration.

 

Kindness and Caring

I ended up residing in that hospital’s gastrointestinal ward for five nights and six days.

Slept some. Erratically. Not much.

I needed so much help. Dozens of saline drips, medications, urine jugs, bathing, bandaging, changes of bedding.

I was a stranger to my benefactors, a burden, in considerable trouble, and considerably troublesome. I had no claim on them, other than that of our shared humanity.

Yet everyone I imposed upon was invariably solicitous, reassuring, warmhearted, affectionate, and committed to my own and every other patient’s freedom from pain, recovery, and fastest possible return to family and home.

 

Open Minds, Open Hearts

All that week we talked with one another in a spirit of unmediated seriousness, candor, and intimacy. One of the improbable benefactions of hospitalization is that it exempts us from our normally controlling societal requirements for insensate chitchat and unfelt civility.

As I lay in my bed hour after dismal, dissociative hour wondering if this would become the endpoint of the life I love so much, I focused not on my disease or possible demise but my healers. Their histories, their dignity, their comity, their grace.

Every day and every night my caregivers carried out their demanding responsibilities expertly, never complaining, not in my hearing, not once, inveterately cheerful, helping people, healing people.

I observed them closely, listened to them intently, and spoke with them whenever they could spare their time. Spoke straight from my heart, directly to theirs.

As our colloquy extended day by day, broadened, deepened, I learned ever more about their lives. They spoke openly about their work. Their families. Their biographies. Their challenges and comforts, frustrations and fulfillments, disappointments and dreams.

These women and these men preserved my life. Not the magnificent surgeon alone, although certainly he, but all of them, individually, collectively, collaboratively.

I found myself flooded with feelings of gratitude for them, esteem, affection, and a burgeoning resolve one day to tell their stories.

 

We Are One, But We Are Not The Same

Each of the people who took care of me that week in Maryland has a name, gender, and ethnicity. A country, culture, and language of origin. A religion, or not.

Their physiques differ. Their physiognomies are dissimilar. Some are young. Some are not. Some are gay. Some are not. Some choose not to say.

Their circumstances and conditions are specific, singular to themselves. These contexts matter immensely. They also matter scarcely at all, because in many respects their distinctive stories express a single arc of purpose and passion.

They all have dedicated their lives to nurturing their families. Procuring health, housing, food, and clothing for their loved ones. Ensuring their children’s education and continuing their own, if they can. Venerating and protecting their elders. Feeling hope. Striving for freedom. Creating opportunity. Giving and receiving love. For some, many, worshipping and thanking the god of their heritage.

They are wonderful women and wonderful men. However, I do not believe they are remarkable. I believe they are as we all are. Anonymous and unassuming people doing the best we can, most of us, most of the time, trying to live in goodness, trying to create safety, decency, happiness, and community.

 

Statutory Status

Did they emigrate legally, or illegally?

I did not ask, just as they did not ask me.

Me whose forebears, like your forebears, once upon a time also emigrated to the United States, legally or illegally, from a civilization they found too oppressive of their rightful liberty and too limiting of their inherently illimitable potential.

 

Ephraim

I spent the first day and much of that night in an Emergency Room bed.

All afternoon and throughout the evening new patients were admitted. Some were injured, some were ill. Several overdoses, one psychotic in crisis, two gunshot wounds, a knifing, a child in trauma, his parents ashen with fear.

Incessant activity. Bright lights. Waves of odor, septic and antiseptic.

Scores of announcements, pages, summonses. Phones, bells, klaxons. Doors opening, closing. Hushed voices. Moans, cries, screams. Laughter, weeping.

Indeterminate periods of fitful sleep. Numerous forced arousals to check vital signs, administer medicines, replace drip bags.

I awake at 5 AM to find a young man disassembling a computer system stationed by my bedside. It was malfunctioning. Sending flatlines, blaring alarms, worrying the nurses.

A tall man, young, reedy, fit, bright eyes, affable.

I introduce myself.

He stands, bows, sits, smiles. “I am Ephraim. I am sorry I disturbed you.”

Pleasant voice. Rich timbre. An African inflection.

He studies the machine, tests its wires, probes its innards. Reconfigures its software from a well-worn laptop. As he works he explains what has gone wrong, how he will fix it.

Laughs merrily. “Your computer unit is tremendously expensive, but it is unwell. Not unlike your own good self, you see.”

Ephraim is twenty-three years old. He emigrated from Ghana with his mother and younger brother when he was sixteen. Their father had not survived his continent’s tragic conflicts.

Last year he earned an MA in computer science. Now he leads the hospital’s IT nightshift team. He is studying for his Ph.D. Something to do with cloud computing, chain programming, and revisioning medical technology. I but vaguely grasp the gist, with the help of his patient prompting. I’m a techno-moron, alas.

“This is a most desirable job. There are many needs here. I can help solve my medical colleagues’ computer problems, and my schedule is perfect. I begin work after my classes end. I return home at 6 AM, sleep in the morning, attend my classes in the afternoon, study during the evening, and return to my duties when my shift begins at 9 PM.”

You work hard, I tell him.

“Not nearly so hard as my mother. Nor my brother. He is studying at the University of Maryland to become an attorney, and he works for UPS at night and during the weekends.”

Their mother is a nurse. A single mom. Ephraim supplements her earnings and pays the tuition for his brother. Keeps almost nothing for himself.

I ask if he likes his field.

“Like it? I love it. Information Technology is the most fascinating field in the world. Humanity has just now begun what one day we will accomplish with computing.”

I ask about his hopes, his plans, his dreams.

“If all goes well I will receive my Ph.D. in two more years. Then I want to perform Artificial Intelligence research. Design and programming. I am someone who cannot be satisfied with stopping. I want to learn more and more, all my life.”

The family lives with his mother’s sister in space she has contrived for them in her cramped home. She too is a nurse and a single mom, with two children of her own.

“Our auntie is so sweet. She tells my brother and me that she sees our mother’s light in our eyes.”

Lowers his head. Struggles for composure. Recovers.

“One day my brother and I will look after our auntie as well as our mother, and he and I will take care of all our auntie’s children. They will have professional careers. We will see to that.”

He asks about the Women’s March. We speak about the battle for women’s liberty and equality in the United States, and the much more dangerous struggle in Africa. Then segue to the turmoil surrounding America’s immigration policy.

“We immigrants understand why many Americans worry about us. Truly we do. This is natural, because we look different. We sound different. But we are not criminals. We do not want to hurt anyone. We just want to better ourselves. We will take any job. We work hard. We pay our taxes. Our lives will contribute to this society.”

He clutches the lustrous ebony crucifix that dangles from his neck.

“In Africa everyone considers America our cradle of hope. No other country has so much concern for human beings’ lives in faraway places. It will be a heartbreak for the whole world if America becomes lost. The real America. The best America.”

The Emergency Room’s head nurse stops by. Eliza.

She tells me she and Ephraim are old friends. Eliza is a tough cookie, but she is so visibly fond and proud of him that she could be his doting Grandma.

She feigns a scowl, ruffles his unkempt hair.

“Thank you for fixing our software, Ephraim.”

Gestures gruffly toward the door. “Off you go, you blabbermouth. I need to fix this gentleman’s hardware now.”

We laugh. He packs his tools, closes his laptop.

We can’t shake hands because my arms are embedded with needles and lashed to the bedframe. So we nod in a male manner, wish each other happiness, and say goodbye.

With mock severity and a brusque shove Eliza shoos him away.

 

Mariano & Carlita

Eliza pokes and prods, injects several medications into the saline bag dangling above the bed, switches off the neon light, tells me to go to sleep, departs with a cheery wave.

I slumber awhile, tumble into and out of fugue states.

Half-see, half-hear. Then feel movement.

We are traveling. Sounds are changing. Colors are shifting. We pass through a door, along a corridor. Turn left, hard right, another door, another corridor.

We?

Try to sit up. Can’t. See a short, nimble man pushing my bed.

“Good evening. I am Mariano. You will have your own bedroom soon. We are nearly there.”

Warm eyes. Muscled. Wiry. Not young. Maybe thirty-eight? Forty-two?

We enter a spacious lift. Much wider than normal elevators. Packed at this early hour with women and men clothed in medical garb. Green scrubs. White coats. Nametags. They stand aside, make room. Many smile, say hello, ask how I’m feeling.

We stop. Mariano navigates the gurney out the elevator, down a long hallway, into a broad two-person ward. No one in the other bed. Lovely double window.

I thank him, tell him how much I look forward to seeing daylight, sky, clouds, billows. Trees. Birds.

Through the door strides a stout, robust, jocular woman.

“Good evening. I am Tilda. Hello, Mariano.”

Mariano edges the gurney against the wall, locks the wheels.

He takes my shoulders, Tilda my feet. They look at one another intently. Chant backward from three as if launching a starship. At blastoff lift me high and hoist me onto the bed.

Tilda fluffs my pillow, elevates the headrest, ties down my left wrist, painlessly inserts a needle into the back of my hand, and hooks me to a drip.

“There, my patient. You are plugged in. Now Tilda will feed you a delicious treat.” Which turns out to be another bag of saline, which she infuses with three vials of medicine.

I ask what the medicines are, what they do.

She mimes a slap. “Never you mind what they are. Their crazy Latin names will make you dizzy. What do they do? They make you well, of course.”

I use my right arm to shake hands with Mariano before she binds it. Thank him for his help, thank him for his kindness, ask about his family.

He and his wife Carlita have two children. Maria is seven. Manolo is five. Carlita’s widowed mother lives with them, helps with the children, manages the household during the workweek.

“We are lucky. Our Mom does so much for us. And we have the chance to make her feel she is our queen.”

Carlita works fulltime as a classroom aide. She’s studying to become a kindergarten teacher. Twenty-five credits to go. Classes four nights a week, one weekend intensive each month, three capstone weeks in July.

“Her courses are costly. We must take out loans. However, when she completes her degree and earns the Maryland certificate her school will promote her at once. Our city badly needs teachers who can speak English and Spanish.”

He pauses. Furrows his brow.

“Not just speak. Teachers who can understand more than one country’s history. More than one country’s style. Because most every classroom in our State enrolls children who come from many different backgrounds. The children need much help to build their lives here.”

He radiates pride in his wife.

“Next year Carlita will begin a new degree to become a principal. All her supervisors and professors tell her she is born to do this. She will hurry so our Mom can live to see her daughter lead a school of her own in America”

Tilda makes a tsk-tsk sound.

“Mariano is a modest person. He does not tell you that he too will receive a degree. He attends our community college every day, after he sleeps only a few hours in the morning.”

Gives him an incandescent smile.

“Already he is a splendid automobile repairman. We all ask him to fix our cars. Even the doctors. Now he is studying to receive his credential. Every dealership will want to hire him. Every garage too. He can speak to cars. They speak to him.”

He blushes, shushes her.

“My Dad taught me. You see, in our birth country all the cars are extremely old. Antiques practically. There are no spare parts for them because of the stupid embargo, so all the fathers teach their sons how to make repairs as best we can.”

His family left Cuba when he was fourteen. They banded with their neighbors and friends, purchased passage in a barely seaworthy wooden boat.

“Many Cubans try to drift to Florida on rafts, or sail in old boats. Most of the rafts sink. Most of the boats, too. The distance to Florida is only ninety miles, but the sea is treacherous. The weather can turn in an instant. Bad currents. Big waves.”

His family landed during the early days in the diaspora. Back then refugees were granted asylum if they could place even one foot on American soil.

“The soldiers were good to us. They helped us pull our boat to shore. They carried the children to a sanctuary area. They gave us ice cream and toys. They gave our families tents and beds and sheets and towels. For many weeks they brought us food and water and clothing. We all cooked in a communal kitchen. Later our parents were awarded papers that let us stay here.”

Like Ephraim he wears a crucifix. He cradles it, kisses it. “We are so thankful to God. He protected us. He brought us to this land. He gave us sanctuary.”

Falls silent. Scuffles his feet. Sighs.

“It is different now for the refugees who come here from Cuba, and from everywhere else. No one is welcome any longer. Certainly not those who have black skin or brown skin, or who worship in churches that are not Christian.”

His pager vibrates. Time to transport another patient. He leans over the bed, touches my sore belly with his crucifix.

“Goodbye. Don’t you worry. Our Tilda will make you better soon.”

 

Tilda & Bernard

“Not I,” she cries. “Your doctors will heal you. You have the best ones in our hospital.”

I ask their names.

“I do not know. I just said that to help you feel cheerful.”

I chuckle. She chortles.

It’s quiet on the ward, so I ask if she’ll share with me the story of her family. She tells me her parents emigrated to Maryland from Barbados when she was twelve.

“I gave my Ma and my Pa terrible worries when I was a wild teenager in America. These days our God is giving them their revenge. My daughters pile worry after worry on me now.”

She laughs again. Peals. Trills like a flock of larks warbling in a lea.

She lavishes praise on her husband.

“My Bernard dashes home to us from his work every afternoon at 5 o’clock. He looks after our daughters so I can come to the hospital for my job. He janitors for a giant insurance company. They make a terrific mess in their building, plus they break things all the time. It is good luck for them he is handy. It is not his job to make repairs, but he always does.”

She crosses herself, gazes out the window dreamily even though it’s pitch dark.

“As soon as we save enough money we will buy us a house. We can afford one if it is a shamble nobody else wants. Bernard will fix it, and I will decorate it. This is our dream.”

They could fulfill their dream much more quickly if they didn’t have to wire most of Bernard’s paycheck to his parents.

“My parents are safe, thank you God. Ma was a nurse like me. Pa was a mailman. They have good pensions. They live comfortably, quite near our apartment. But Bernard’s folk need our help. There was little work for them in Barbados, and now they are elderly. We send them as much as we can spare after we pay our rent and our bills and our taxes.”

She laughs her lilting chirrup again.

“Even though I am so plump, Bernard says we could make far, far more money and buy our house sooner if I would become a model for naughty magazines.”

She rubs her ample belly.

“O yes, perhaps I can become a supermodel bad girl goddess for people who are tragically blind.”

She reams me when I laugh too hard.

“Lie still, you foolish man. Your doctors will screech at me if your needles fall out and crush on the floor and spill your expensive medicines all over the place. You will get poor Tilda fired for sure.”

 

Isabel & Justine

Her pager throbs. She reads it, says she must go, turns off the light, tells me to sleep, slips silently away.

I think I can’t sleep, but I do.

Wake up with a start. Sunlight streams through the window. How good to see the outdoor world again. I’ve been ensconced for one day only. How can it seem so much longer?

Crash.

A prodigious metal cart piled high with gear clobbers into the door, thrusts it open, rumbles like a miniature tank across the linoleum, smacks into the bed.

“I am sorry. We need to measure you now, give you a scrub, get you dressed in a clean gown, shoot you up with your morning medicines.”

A formidable person. Not frightening. Impressive. Impactful.

She is statuesque. Stately. Five feet ten, eleven. Neither thin nor heavy. Sturdy. Supernally confident. No nonsense. She has a sparkle, though. An insouciance, elemental in her yet managed. Invigilated.

Holds out her hand for a shake despite the fact my wrists are visibly strapped to the bedframe.

I pretend to yank my arms toward her, sham bewilderment when they won’t budge. We laugh.

“I am Isabel.”

Picks up my charts, reads them. Mysterious documents encased in a corpulent aluminum binder.

Frowns. Rasps a discontented multisyllabic catarrh. Grrr-rhh.

“You need to get better, young man.”

Young, indeed. I am seventy-two years old.

Replaces the binder in its metallic slot.

“I am this floor’s daytime Head Nurse. This is the gastrointestinal ward. We call it G.I. because everyone who is a patient here is very sick in their stomach and we have no time for foolish long words such as gastrointestinal.”

Another woman enters the room.

“This is Justine.”

Justine almost has Isabel’s height. Just under. Like Isabel, she is markedly intelligent. Younger. Twenty-five? Not yet thirty.

Exudes a puissant sense of spiritual certitude. Not a zealot. Far from it. An air of tranquil piety. Serene sanctity. Manifestly a person of devout faith.

I greet her. Attempt a bow in acknowledgement of her nunlike religiosity. She giggles, bends a real bow in return.

Isabel scoffs, pshaws. Her voice softens.

“Well now, let us get this ceremonial fellow stabilized. Then you two can have yourselves a grand old-country courtesy fest.”

 

Your Fine Kaduna Wife

Isabel chats as they tend to me. Abandons her facade of fierceness. Speaks more and more freely.

She is training Justine. Justine transferred to our hospital last month. She was another facility’s most promising practitioner. The medical director recruited her.

They both were born in Nigeria. By chance, perhaps not, who can know, my wife, although born in Hong Kong, lived during much of her childhood in the Nigerian city of Kaduna.

They delight in our shared Nigerian heritage. Shriek, squeal, clap their hands, jump up and down.

Isabel stops, sets her hands akimbo on her hips, puts on a baroque pout, and in a thick baritone register growls: “Now, how is it that your fine Kaduna wife has allowed your weak western belly to make all this ludicrous trouble?”

 

Why We Came Here

They unstrap me, unhook my needles, turn discreetly while I struggle into a new gown, an enchanting polka dot number dyed a dim grim monkey-vomit green.

They let me sit on a chair while they change the bedsheets. Tie me down again, attach a new drip, inject something into it with a long hypodermic, feed me a pile of pills.

“Many Nigerians emigrate to this region from Nigeria. Thousands, for sure. Our beautiful Nigeria has the most trouble you can imagine. This is the reason we all come here. We migrate to D.C. to make new lives where bad men do not think they need to chop people up and take all their happiness away.”

She tells me harrowing stories. Horrid, haphazard violence. The calamity of her country. We talk and talk. Lose track of time and place.

Her pager buzzes. She studies the screen.

“I must go now. A lady patient has some bad trouble.”

Opens the binder. Writes rapidly in my chart. Quick, firm hand. Fast decisive strokes.

Whispers to Justine. Instructions, directive but courteously phrased. Not orders. Suggestions. A tender friend’s learned counsel.

Hugs her. Assures me a doctor will come soon. Stalks purposefully away.

 

This Is My Job

I ask Justine if I please can visit the restroom.

Bathroom. Powder room. What word should we use in hospital situations? Anything but a bedpan, I pray thee dear Lord.

She unbuckles my wrists, shows me how to exit the bed and walk while dragging the drip fixture. Says she’ll stand in the corridor to give me my privacy, return as soon as I press the call button draped across the bedpost.

In the restroom I make a dreadful mess. Try to clean the soiled fixtures and floor, to no avail. Too dizzy. Stagger. Stumble. Almost fall.

Clamber into bed. Press the button. Shamefully apologize for what I’ve done, how I’ve imposed.

Justine won’t have it.

“Now, now. You cannot help this. This happens to every patient who comes to G.I. None of you would be here if you could help it.”

Surely anyone else would feel angry, embittered, convey contempt, ooze victimization. All of which would be altogether reasonable.

Not she.

“Just you think for a moment, will you please? This is my job. I would not have my employment if you were not suffering from your illness. Therefore, you should not be grateful to me. It is I who am grateful to you.

You would need to be a stone not to care about this person.

This citizen.

 

Isabel Returns

After Justine fixes the problems I’ve caused, I ask about her family, their history, their life in D.C.

We yak for such a long while that Isabel comes to see what can be taking her apprentice so long. Sits. Listens. Rocks back and forth in her chair. Nods now and then. Looks wistful.

I ask about her loved ones, her story. She tells us wrenching tales, epics, of upheaval, torment, suffering, sorrow. Tribal battles. Regional wars. National apocalypse. Dislocations. Exiles. Multiple heroisms amid generational chaos and butchery.

The most hardened xenophobes in America would sob with sympathy, genuflect with respect.

 

Marisa & Carlos

An alarm sounds in the corridor. Isabel and Justine take their leave.

I think about their narratives. Toss and turn. Fall asleep.

Wake up. A nurse I have not yet met is shaking me.

“Hello. I am Marisa.”

She injects a medication into the drip device. Adjusts its flow. Discards the hypodermic into a strongbox. Grins. Asks with a twinkle if I am enjoying my liquid luncheon.

She is compact, stocky, unpretentious. She too wears a crucifix around her neck, which she frequently clasps and caresses with a hushed murmur and a reverent motion of her left hand.

She tells me she and her husband came to America from Venezuela nine years ago. They have two daughters. Jana is eleven. Francesca is eight.

Carlos is a police officer in Baltimore. Perilous duty. Although Baltimore is a handsome city fortunately sited, historically prosperous, many of its neighborhoods are riven with fearsome violence. Each morning when the family sets out for work she cannot be certain her husband will return to them at night.

Their employments are secure. They own their home. Their mortgage is manageable. Their health insurance coverage is pricy but adequate. They have two aged but functional cars. Mariano keeps them in good repair.

Their problem is education.

Their district’s public schools strive to succeed, but the infrastructure is decrepit. The curriculum and pedagogy are pitched to the lowest common denominator. The co-curriculum is drastically underfunded. Safety is an omnipresent hazard. Although they can ill-afford the cost, they feel they must enroll their children in their church’s parochial school.

The parish school is protected by steep iron gates topped with coils of barbed wire, patrolled by a private guard and a pair of highly trained Doberman pinchers.

“These are wimp dogs, but they look ferocious and they bray like maniacs at all males.”

The buildings, though hoary, are well-maintained. The course designs and teaching styles are dated. Yet Marisa believes the teachers, if overly doctrinal, are incomparably more conscientious and effective than the public schools’ faculty.

 

This Is Our Wish

Isabel and Justine return.

Isabel busses Marisa’s cheeks, first the left, then the right, then the left again.

Reads my charts again. Takes my pulse, redundantly, for the machines ceaselessly record, graph, and display all organic functions. Recalibrates my drip. Straightens my blanket, pats my shoulder, and tells me my doctors have ordered a second transfusion.

I hadn’t known I’d received a first. Must have slept through that.

Justine cradles a bag of blood in both hands. Examines its label assiduously. Ensures it accords with a printout pinioned to a clipboard.

Passes the crimson sack to Isabel, who rechecks the printout, nods, hooks the blood to the stand above my bed, and slides the feed into a plastic stent bandaged onto my increasingly discolored forearm.

Marisa adjusts the blinds, fluffs my perfectly functional pillow, fusses with my feet.

“Your toes are pale. Would you like warm booties?”

Hell no.

She opens the bedside nightstand nevertheless, extracts from the shelf a bunched pair of hideous mauve compressors, unfurls them, ignores my protests.

To distract her, I ask what she and Carlos will do when their daughters are ready for middle school and high school.

“They will study in our diocesan upper school. They must. Otherwise they will have no chances in their lives.”

She stares at the socks. Clutches them to her side. Trembles.

“We do not know how we can pay.”

She explains the Church subsidizes its senior programs’ tuition, books, and supplies. However, the total cost greatly exceeds the bishopric’s subvention.

“We can afford the elementary school. But what will we do when Jana needs the upper school? Then Francesca. How can we pay?”

She sighs forlornly.

“We will borrow the money if a bank will let us. We are frightened, because many banks do not trust their Hispanic customers.”

She snuffles. Daubs her eyes.

Isabel gently takes the socks from her hands, returns them to the nightstand, settles her into a visitors’ chair. Justine covers her knees with a blanket.

“Our priest is worried for all the parents in our congregation. Our bishop also feels concern, I am sure. What more can they do? I am sure they are doing everything they can for us. For all of us. After all, we are their flock”

Stupidly, I ask if she and her husband will permit my wife, our daughter, and I to help.

“O, no. No. Thank you, but no. Carlos and I must do this ourselves. This is our duty. This is our wish.”

 

CNN Reports

We sit silently together for several moments.

Marisa recovers. Smooths her hair. Isabel says it’s time they move on to their other patients. I thank them. We say goodbye.

I don’t know what to do with all the stories I’ve been told. I fidget. Wriggle. Squirm.

Sensors sense. Recorders record. Drips drip.

I reach for the remote. Power on the television. CNN’s newscaster and her panel of garrulous, combative experts intone boggling figures. Gargantuan numbers. Billions. Trillions.

National productivity. Bond yields. Prime rates. Discount margins.

Corporations’ quarterly grosses. Earnings. Market caps. P/E ratios.

Chairpersons’ salaries, bonuses, options, warrants, emoluments. Males, most of them. Caucasians, overwhelmingly.

Films’ revenues. Networks’ ratings. Recordings’ downloads.

Mergers. Acquisitions. Next quarter’s projections. Treasury auctions. Puts. Calls.

No announcer, no analyst, speaks about working people’s sorrows, stresses, and strains.

Housing? Healthcare? Food? Transportation? Education?

Not a word.

Not one word.

 

America’s Illness

We have shared several families’ stories. We could have shared lots more, because every waking hour I passed in that hospital in Maryland many of the women and men who were healing hundreds of patients spoke with me about the fulfilling but fraught lives they are leading outside their workplace.

Every family’s story is singular. The only one of its kind. In common, though, are the arcs of struggle. The sagas of unnecessary hardship. Greatly decent people incurring grinding, grievous, utterly gratuitous suffering.

Ethnic antipathy. Racial persecution. Gender bias. Impossible costs. Insufficient wages. Inadequate government support.

During my hospitalization I learned that we have an illness in America: we no longer care about those who lack societal power. Station. Status. Affluence. Glitter. Dash. Glamor. Illusory significance.

Every nation has ailments. Those of the United States are more consequential than all others because America is the sole nation on our shared earth that conceives of and  attempts to enforce itself as a universal ideal. The one polity that proclaims its defining ideas exist not for Americans alone but for everyone, everywhere, who yearns for inclusion in our professed commitment to dignity, liberty, and unity for all.

Our professed “exceptionalism.”

Our professed belief that we all are sisters and brothers. Individual and independent, but not isolate. Autonomous and acculturated, but neither alien to nor alienated from one another.

Our professed belief that in our selfhood and in our commonalty every human being deserves and in America will discover approximately equal opportunity to dream, desire, dare, and do. Envision and enact. Build, become, and live in our own manner in egalitarian emancipation.

Our professed belief that nobody is entitled, but everybody is empowered. Nothing will be outright given, but no one will be disenfranchised. Certainly not on the bases of ethnic identity, faith, opinion, or country of origin.

Our professed belief that the majesty and authority of the American society derive directly from our diversity. Our ecstatic embrace of multiplicity in background, opinion, and behavior. Our euphoric welcome to all who find themselves disenfranchised, persecuted, or perhaps merely unfulfilled in their original homelands.

Our embrace, in sum, of love.

Our beautiful proclamation that the American civilization loves connection and caring. Helping. Freeing. Uniting.

Our beautiful declaration that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inhere most fully in community. In lovingly accepting and joyfully assisting not only our blood relatives but all who cannot yet fend fully for themselves.

As once upon a time, recently or long ago, America opened her mind, her heart, and her frontiers to us, or to our forebears.

As all religions teach the Divine wishes and requires us to do.

 

Malignancies

America’s ideas never have been simple. Her ideals never have been easy to sustain. At this moment they are under siege. Severe, deliberate, cynical, callous, and devastating challenge.

Too often we demonize differences. Demagogue bigotry. Politicize prejudice. Purvey phobias. Pervert patriotism.

We tolerate cavernous socio-economic disparity. Tolerate? We encourage our calamitous inequality. We exalt it. We exult in it.

We institutionalize earned and unearned advantages. Increasingly we privilege puissance – and heartlessly impugn, malign, and handicap the dispossessed.

We grant money nearly omnipotent influence upon communication, political activity, and public policy.

We price health services, housing, and education beyond ever more people’s ability to afford.

Every day our government becomes more remote from its electors, indifferent to the state of their affairs, obtuse about their needs, and unresponsive to their tribulations.

These are malignancies. They are interrelated. They are causing immense damage. And they are metastasizing.

Our diseases need to be known. They need to be named. They need to be deplored. And they need to be cured.

 

Can They Be?

Can they be cured?

Of course they can. We just need to want to. Choose to.

For our illnesses are not laws of nature, ineluctable, ironclad, immutable. They are preferences. Individual determinations. Civic decisions. Political policies.

There exist no valid reasons for the fear, ire, and enmity that beset too many anxious, angry Americans. No reasons at all, other than those of ignorance, anxiety, and pathology.

There is plenty of room in America for new citizens. There is ample wealth for all who will work, if wealth were more fairly distributed. If opportunity were more equally conferred.

Of course we can love and help our sisters and brothers who are confronting unjust animosity and unfair burdens.

To believe otherwise is delusory, tragic, and un-American. In the deepest and most egregious sense hostile to our nation’s ideals and destructive of our society’s interests.

 

Your Turn Will Come

Sooner or later we all will be hospitalized.

The healers who saved my life someday may save yours. Or their colleagues may. Or their children, their nieces, their nephews, their grandchildren.

Should you fall ill, and one day you will, they will help you with the same consummate skill and radical generosity they freely bestowed upon me, a helpless stranger dropped into their midst one morning in Maryland.

When this happens to you, surely you will not recoil from a caregiver whose ethnicity is not your own.

Surely you will not reject your doctors and repel your nurses because of their gender, their political persuasions, their religious faith, their sexual orientation.

Surely you will not ask if the blood they transfuse into you was given by a donor who migrated to our community. Legally, or illegally.

I think you will not.

I think, like me, you will feel ever so thankful to them, and passionately resolved to commit at least part of the life your saviors preserve to plead for a more loving national life.

 

 

 

Moo Goo Gai Pan: The Story Of An Heroic Young Goose

 

 

(With Lots of New Words for Young Readers to Discover & Delight In)

 Our Tale Begins

A long time ago in China there lived in Fujian Province an extroverted young bird named Grimaldi Goose.

He was a keenly intelligent, exceptionally sociable gosling, equally comfortable in the air, on land, and in the water. Like all geese, he was a vociferous gabber and a voracious gobbler.

Grimaldi’s elder sisters and brothers thought his name was much too difficult to pronounce in Honk, so they called him Moo Goo Gai Pan. Soon everyone in their flock followed suit.

A Cross-Species Misunderstanding

Moo Goo Gai Pan, his family, their relatives, and their many friends travelled widely.

They especially enjoyed visiting a small farming village in called Luoyuan Bay. They loved to graze in the village’s rice paddies and forage in the vegetable fields. They delighted in guzzling the tasty seeds and the soft, pliant sprouts the farmers planted every Spring and every Fall.

The farmers complained bitterly about that. They shrieked at the geese, rang deafening gongs, lit noxious fires, threw stones, and erected sinister scarecrows with bright, twirling metal shards to frighten them away.

The geese misunderstood. They felt charmed by the farmers’ clamorous curses, which they interpreted as enthusiastic greetings. They believed the pestiferous fires were relaxing incense coils. They thought the rocks were precious treasures in the human world, generous tokens of the villagers’ affection and hospitality.

The intimidating scarecrows enraptured them.

“Goodness gracious,” honked Gestalt Goose, the flock’s venerable matriarch. “These amiable farmers have constructed a host of ingenious signposts to help us always find our way home to their fertile waters and fecund crops. How thoughtful. How caring. How munificent.”

Gesundheit Goose, the flock’s somewhat senescent patriarch, agreed.

“These kind-hearted folk have gifted us with an extraordinarily effective modernist guidance system,” he honked happily. “No matter how far we may roam, these devices’ garish strobes and dervish contortions will steer us straight to our humans’ splendiferous homeland.”

The farmers’ delectable foodstuffs and their constant gestures of amity and welcome gratified the geese so deeply that they unanimously voted to forsake their nomadic heritage and settle permanently in Luoyuan Bay.

 

The Bitter Opposition Of An Angry Fellow

None of the villagers delighted in this development, but most of them accepted it because there was nothing they could do about it.

They tried. But every time they built new and more terrifying scarecrows, lit smokier fires, hurled bigger stones, and banged terrifically frightful gongs, the geese became more elated and more committed to the permanence of their residence.

No matter what the villagers did to repel them, the geese persisted in supposing they were doted upon and welcomed.

“Heavens to Betsy,” Gestalt honked. “How welcoming these humans are. How cordial. How they love us!”

“Indeed!” Gesundheit exulted. “What a sterling instance of interspecies goodwill and harmony.”

Only one of the farmers refused to accept the flock’s presence. He could not stand the geese. He hated them. In truth, he despised almost every person he encountered, and he detested almost all flora, fauna, and fungi.

He was an unpleasant man, unreasonable, irascible, chronically contemptuous, dissatisfied, and belligerent. Even though his name was Mr. Chow, everyone in Luoyuan Bay called him Farmer Furious. Even his wife and his children called him Farmer Furious.

His wife, alas, was much like her husband. Farmer Furious was wed to an impatient, inconsiderate, irritable woman beautifully named at birth Hibiscus Blossom. Her poetic name did not long endure in common usage, for as her incendiary personality intractably manifested itself everyone came to call her Farmer Fuming.

This enchanting couple had two children, a tense, high-energy, easily enraged daughter the villagers called Farmer Frantic and a manically restless, curmudgeonly son they dubbed Farmer Frenzy.

 

Moo Goo Gai Pan Plays Games Of Sport With Farmer Furious And His Choleric Brood

One steamy afternoon in June all the goslings in the gaggle were contentedly gnawing succulent stalks in the village’s principal rice paddy.

“Gee whiz,” honked a dashing fellow named Gerontology Goose. “These seedlings are scrumptious.”

“They most certainly are,” croaked his sister Gabardine. “Tender, yet chewy.”

She shook a stem with her dark black beak and sniffed its scent deeply. “Hmm. A fulsome bouquet, with an underlay of watercress and frog.”

Their cousin Geronimo agitated the paddy’s muddy bed with his dexterous left web, devoured a clutch of plump scurrying grubs, and squawked: “Our humans should change the name of Luoyuan Bay to Yummyville.”

As the goslings blissfully chomped and chatted, Farmer Furious, Farmer Fuming, and their charming children crept to the edge of the footpath that abutted the paddy.

In each of his gnarled hands Farmer Furious grasped a dense cudgel hewn from a fallen tree limb.

Farmer Fuming lugged a hefty woven basket filled to the brim with bits of bricks and dozens of rocks.

Frantic and Frenzy scuttled behind them hauling a jute bag filled with long, thin, sharp thistles and barbs.

The family stopped when they reached the end of the graveled track and sat side by side on a cozy ledge.

Frantic and Frenzy emptied their sack and skillfully affixed tiers of thorns to the toes of their worn leather boots.

When they finished preparing their weapons they elevated their raw, reedy necks, beamed at their proud parents, clenched their fingers into tight fists, and pummeled their soiled palms.

“Whack ‘em, Ma,” snarled young Frantic. “Mash their maws. Gut their greasy, grimy gizzards.”

“Thwack ‘em, Pa,” hissed Frenzy. “Smash ‘em. Stave their stinky, squalid skulls.”

Drool seeped from Farmer Furious’ distorted mouth. He licked his taut, viscous lips, grimaced, and growled: “I can’t wait to barbecue these loathsome fowl.”

Farmer Fuming gave her tummy a robust rub. “I’ll marinate ‘em, Pa. I’ll baste ‘em. I’ll swaddle ‘em with primo plum sauce ‘til they sizzle on your skewers.”

The wrathful family grinned at one another lasciviously, rose as one, and glowered viciously at the obliviously grazing, cheerfully gabbling geese.

Farmer Fuming reached into her basket, filled both hands with shards and stones, and pitched them one after the other at the juvenile birds.

Farmer Furious ran amok into the flock lividly swinging his truncheon and roaring at the top of his lungs.

Frantic and Frenzy raced behind him squealing gleefully and kicking brutishly with their spiked shoes.

As was their custom, the geese misunderstood.

“Yippee!” cried Moo Goo Gai Pan. “Jamboree!”

“Hurrah,” honked Geronimo. “Jubilee of Games! Gymkhana!”

“Huzzah!” hooted their friend Gerrymander. “Jump the Shillelagh! Ring Around the Rocks! Dodge Foot!”

The goslings exclaimed joyfully, ran hither and yon, dodged, jumped, and flew.

The adult geese cackled ecstatically and joined in the fun. They had a whale of a time as Furious swung his stick, Fuming heaved her missiles, and Frantic and Frenzy kicked their feet, and bawled obscene invectives.

Despite their best efforts the incensed humans could not whack, mash, gut, thwack, smash, or stave any of the gamboling geese.

Farmer Fuming collapsed with exhaustion and lay sobbing in the untidy paddy. Frantic and Frenzy fell beside her and shed voluminous tears. Farmer Furious squatted at their feet and blubbered with frustration and rage.

“Well, I’ll be blessed,” a goose named Galileo honked. “These good souls are weeping with happiness.”

“My o my,” murmured his wife Gastrointestinal. “This mellow man, his devout wife, and their angelic children are crooning endearments to us,”

“How sweet,” cooed their friends Galahad and Galicia.

A crow called Claustrophobia looked upon the melee from her perch high atop a towering osmanthus tree, and cawed: “My dear goose friends, your Jamboree looks like so much fun. What a superb relationship you have with these genial humans.”

 

A Seismic Situation

Several months passed in this delightful manner. Summer waxed and waned. The sky grew gray. The humidity eased. The temperature dropped.

Just before dawn one morning late in October, a month of uncommonly stormy weather, unusual tide patterns, strong winds, livid lightening, and intense thunder, Moo Goo Gai Pan, now a strapping young gander, slipped deftly from his family’s nesting place, paddled quietly across the paddy of the Family Furious, and waddled into their lovingly tended plot of autumn vegetables.

Luscious crops were unfurling their verdant foliage.  Gai lan. Bok choy. Choy sum.

Moo Goo quietly plucked at the plants’ blossoms and greenery. From time to time he leavened his breakfast with sips of dew beading on the leaflets, dripping from the petals, glistening in the dazzling rays of purple, crimson, and orange cast by the glorious Fujian sunrise.

As he dined in the bucolic patch he listened happily to the soothing soundscape of the pond’s bustling insects, vaulting frogs, broaching eels, and plashing fish, the serene lowing of water buffalo bathing at the water’s edge, the sonorous oinks of pigs stirring on the levee, the baritone barks and mellifluous meows of the village’s wakening dogs and cats.

Suddenly he lifted his beak and stood stock still in the garden. Something there was that was not quite right.

His sensitive ears received a low, flat, resonant pulsation: a sense subsonic yet perceptible.

His delicate webs discerned a shudder. Then a trembling.

His keen nostrils detected a sulfuric scent seeping from deep beneath the threshold of the soil.

The reverberation grew more noticeable. The resonance became a rumble. The tenuous aroma ballooned into an odor precise and pungent.

He felt a slight shift in the sodden soil, another, then another, a lurch in the muck beneath the fine-spun membranes of his subtle feet. A feathery ripple undulated across the miniscule tips of his quills and fluttered faintly through the intricate fibers of his gossamer down.

His uncanny instinctual consciousness told him: “Scat. Do not delay. Fly away.”

He did not fly away.

Instead he raised an almighty ruckus. He stretched his pliable neck to its full height, flapped his majestic wings with turbine force, and screeched at the top of his formidable capacity. He flapped, screamed, and squalled until he roused the whole flock and all the other creatures who were slumbering in the dawn.

Every goose and gosling knew what Moo Goo Gai Pan’s hullabaloo signified. They sprung from their nests, raced to his side, and joined in the alarum.

All the other birds, animals, and insects understood what the geese’s earsplitting caterwaul meant. They roused themselves at once, collected their young ones, and joined in the din. They they skedaddled by hoof, wing, and fin.

The geese did not skedaddle.

As soon as Matriarch Gestalt saw that their friends were afoot, a-wing, and a-fin, she assembled the flock around her, divided the geese into teams, and told them to wake up the humans by any means necessary and conduct them to safety.

She appointed Moo Goo Gai Pan, Gerontology, Gabardine, and Geronimo to save the Family Furious.

The four friends dashed into the family’s hovel, honked like crazy, stomped their webs, and beat their wings as volubly as they could.

The family stirred, yawned, groused, and groaned, but did not get up.

“Beaks!” Moo Goo cried as he briskly nipped Farmer Furious’ calloused toes. “Use our beaks!”

Gerontology honked, “Right you are,” and firmly bit Fuming’s scabrous ears.

Gabardine pounced on Frantic’s ankles and pricked both of her filthy, rough-skinned heels.

Geronimo perched on Frenzy’s lice-infested head and chawed his broad, flat, snoring snout.

Farmer Furious awoke with a start, rubbed his weary eyes, stumbled from his messy, smelly bed, and bellowed: “What in tarnation is going on? Have these horrid critters gone bonkers?”

Fuming tried to punch Gerontology. “Get away from me, you maniac goose. Get out of my house.”

Frantic and Frenzy shielded their heels and their nose, and yelped: “Ma! Pa! What the hey is wrong with these whack job birds?”

As the children flailed and wailed, the earth began to shake. Only a little, at first. A trifle. Then more muscularly. Then stoutly, severely, penetratingly, protractedly.

Throughout the village household commodities toppled from tabletops, counters, and shelves. Pots crashed. Crockery fractured. Glassware shattered. Booms, bangs, thumps, and thuds resounded from every corner of every hut.

Farmer Furious came to his senses at last.

“Ma!” he shouted. “Frantic! Frenzy! Earthquake. Run. Run.”

He gathered his wife and his children into his arms and propelled them outdoors.

The village square filled with fleeing families. The geese guided them across the shifting, slithering fields, steered them to the least dangerous pathways, and shepherded them to the district’s highest, safest peak.

Not one life was lost. Not a single injury was suffered.

As the terrified villagers quivered and quailed on the mountaintop, Farmer Furious strode to edge of the cowering crowd, bowed low three times in succession, and prostrated himself on the ground.

“You angel geese,” he exclaimed. “We are so grateful to you.”

His chest heaving with sobs, tears flowing freely, he crept toward Moo Goo Gai Pan, and whispered: “Young gander, how cruel I have been to you. I beg you, I implore you, please forgive me.”

Moo Goo waddled to Furious’ side, nuzzled his outstretched pleading palms, and clucked lovingly in Honk: “We are ever so glad that all you gentle humans have survived.”

 

Eternal Hero Of Luoyuan Bay

When the earth’s shocks and shakes ceased, the villagers returned to Luoyuan Bay and set to work repairing their homes, paddies, and fields.

The animals, birds, and insects came home too.

In time, the village’s quiet life returned to normal. Two changes took place, however.

  1. The villagers’ Painter Laureate created a vibrant, outsized, multi-panel mural depicting the bravery of the geese and their valiant rescue of the townspeople.
  2. The province’s Sculptor Laureate cast an elegant bronze statue of Moo Goo Gai Pan, and installed it on a plinth of precious jade. Across the plinth she inscribed in ornate calligraphy:

THE ETERNAL HERO OF LUOYUAN BAY

The Village Chairwoman wrote a communiqué on a scroll and sent it to the neighboring village. From there her dispatch spread to every hamlet, town, and city in Fujian Province. Then throughout the nation.

Her missive read:

My fellow citizens. Geese can sense earthquakes before they happen. Other animals can, too. For example, chickens & monkeys. Possibly pigs as well.

To this day a great many villages in China welcome geese, chickens, monkeys, and pigs to live in peace among them. The villagers sometimes eat them, but they honor them as invaluable predictors of and protectors from seismic calamity.

No villagers more earnestly have nurtured and more sincerely venerated their guardian geese than the thankful families of Luoyuan Bay. They adored Moo Goo Gai Pan, and they treasured the flock he soon became elected by acclamation to serve as Prime Minister & Sachem.

Especially the Family Furious. They loved Moo Goo Gai Pan. After he married, they loved his wife, they loved their children, and they loved their entire extended family.

You will be pleased to know that Moo Goo Gai Pan, his beloved wife Gaia, their goslings, their grand-goslings, and, later, their great-grand-goslings loved the Family Furious right back.

The Moral of Our Tale

Some tales have a moral. Some do not.

This tale does.

The moral of our tale is:

If you are a cranky farmer

And you love to fuss and holler,

 

Adjust your unkind, uncouth, unwise nature,

Learn to love every species of peer & neighbor,

 

Canadian, Ukrainian,

Scandinavian, Lithuanian,

Moldavian & Arabian,

Mammalian & avian.

Melvin the Magnificent

Melvin the Magnificent
The Tale of a Valiant Canadian Mouse

– And magnificently we will flow into the mystic.
Van Morrison

Chapter One: A Young Rodent’s Dream

Once upon a time there lived a tiny grey mouse named Melvin.

Melvin resided with his family in Mississauga, Canada. They were fortunate rodents. They inhabited a pleasant warren in the rearward western corner of a cozy warm basement with round-the-clock access to their human family’s cheeses, crackers, condiments, and other toothsome comestibles.

Melvin’s parents, his sisters Mistletoe and Minuet, and their brothers Mortimer and Margarine were confident and content creatures. Their lives were serene and secure. No owls, no cats, no inclement weather, no crushing snap traps, thick soft cotton nests, and ample flavorsome meals whenever they liked.

Melvin was comfortable but he was not fulfilled. He had a dreaming soul, a daring heart, an adventurous intellect, and a romantic nature. He longed to bid a fond farewell to his comfy cellar in Mississauga, Ontario and emigrate to an airy garret in Paris, France.

There he planned to wear a blue beret, crouch in the sheltered cusps of sidewalk cafés, dart daringly across cobblestoned patios, scoop up tasty tidbits of freshly baked baguettes, slurp succulent scraps of bold full-bodied cheeses, and sip from starched linen tablecloths scrumptious spills of rich red wines.

“Camembert and Cabernet,” he squeaked. “In my opinion that pairing is the cat’s meow.”

After each of his meals he planned to preen his willowy whiskers in a dapper manner, write sensitive poetry and thoughtful ruminations in a small leather notebook, and sway his small shoulders in unconscious accompaniment to boulevardiers playing lilting love songs on hauntingly evocative European accordions.

In time, he dreamed, he would become known throughout the perpetually avant-garde arrondissement of Montparnasse as Melvin le Magnifique.

 

Mississauga, Ontario

Chapter Two: Le Pionnier Intrépide

Melvin’s parents lovingly explained that in the entire history of the world not one mouse, let alone a wee little emotionally underdeveloped child mouse, ever had journeyed from Mississauga, Canada to Paris, France.

Melvin never contradicted his parents because he was a courteous filial rodent. However, inside his mind he thought:

Every great deed that ever has been achieved had to have been attempted for the first time by an impassioned fearless pioneer.

One day he logged onto his human family’s computer and researched the correct spelling in French for Pioneer.

Pionnier.

Then he researched the proper spelling for Mouse.

Souris.

Then for Fearless.

Intrépide

He loved the shape and the sound of these exotic French words. He imagined that hovering around their delicate syllables he could detect the scintillating scents of steaming lattes, simmering soups, and sizzling cassoulets.

From that moment on, he privately referred to himself as Monsieur Melvin Souris, le Pionnier Intrépide.

 

The Great Lakes Terminus of Ontario

Chapter Three: Across The Lake & Over The Sea

One fine day in late September during the second month of the second year of his life, an afternoon blessed with glorious sunshine and crisp tangy autumn air, Melvin set out for a stroll alongside his favorite railway tracks.

He often did this on his way home from mouse school. Most of his jaunts were uneventful, but on this delightful day he happened upon a freight train idling by a loading bay.

Many tractor-trailers had backed into the dock. Hundreds of scrambling humans piled all manner of crates and cartons onto a long concrete platform.

What a bustle there was. Ever so many short, tall, and mid-sized muscled vociferous humans dashing about, talking, shouting, laughing, lifting, packing, stacking.

Almost all the boxes contained raw or processed foods. Melvin’s eyes lit up. With elation in his juvenile heart he beheld mountains of his favorite gobble goodies. Grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, milk, cheese. Waffle mix, muffin kit, crackers, cookies. Dehydrated macaroni, spaghetti, linguini, rigatoni, orzo.

And bread. Massifs of white bread, whole wheat, multigrain, pumpernickel, and rye.

His delicate snout quivered ecstatically. “O yum.” He cried. “O bliss.”

He scurried across the quay to the edge of a mud-splattered pea-green container marked Fromages.

Its air vent was slightly ajar. He traipsed carefully to the aperture, crept through the minuscule opening, gasped, and almost fainted with pleasure. Amassed inside were thousands of cartons filled to their pungent brims with gorgeous Gruyere cheeses.

Just as he was about to slice his razor-sharp claws into the taut wrapper of a nice fat packet he sensed the presence of another creature.

A companion? A predator?

He coiled himself into a tight protective ball and peered through the dark dank air. He saw two microscopic crimson eyes peering glossily back at him. Then he heard a giggle.

“Well hello there, Little One. I am Millicent. Who are you?”

What good fortune. Another mouse. An adult female with a kind voice, a gentle demeanor, and an air of wisdom about her.

Melvin told her his name and bounded to her side. They ripped open a cellophane covering, clawed into an enticing Gruyere, and nibbled voraciously.

As they dined Melvin peeped to Millicent about his family, their home, and his burning desire to emigrate to Paris.

Millicent cleaned her paws, groomed her whiskers, stropped the edges of her minute claws against the abrasive surface of the container’s casing, stretched luxuriantly, and said: “You are in luck, my plucky young friend. Today this container will be barged across Lake Ontario. It will be consolidated with consignments from upstate New York. Then we will be taken by train to a dockyard in the Borough of Brooklyn.”

She smiled tenderly.

“From there we will be shipped all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Burly longshoremen will unload us in a port named Le Havre. Then they will convey us in a refrigerated freight car all the way to city of your dreams. Every single sack of cheese in our container will be sold in a market called Les Halles.”

Melvin squealed with joy and leaped high into the air.

Millicent gave him a great big hug.

“I get myself transported back and forth in these heavenly repositories all the time. That is all I do, back from and forth to France year in and year out. I am so happy I will travel this time with a little grey friend.”

 

A Very French Choo-Choo Train

Chapter Four: A Train Ride From Le Havre

Twenty-two idyllic days transpired on the Atlantic Ocean.

Melvin and Millicent lolled in their receptacle, gnoshed to their hearts’ content, and talked and talked about every subject under the sun.

They were mice, but they were as happy as clams throughout their long seaborne journey.

At last Melvin sensed their ship was slowing. The waves had calmed. Even through the closed container his sophisticated snout could sniff the familiar scents of soil and stone. His acute ears could hear the sounds of land life. Echoes of engines, birds, horns, and church bells wafted into his petite eardrums.

Suddenly the container lurched, ascended abruptly, shifted a bit, moved sideward, lowered slowly, and with a faint thump settled onto a solid surface.

A multitude of port sounds ensued. Claxons blared, motors belched, brakes bleated. Human voices of every pitch and caliber crescendoed across the quay and filtered into their habitat.

Bullhorns barked, chains rumbled, cranes grunted and groaned. The container lurched again, rose, paused, descended rapidly, and came to a rest with a resonant thud.

Millicent explained they had been hoisted off the deck onto a dock and lowered onto a freight train.

A steam whistle blew effusively. Melvin felt a slight wobble, a jerk, a list, a veer, a distinct forward motion, then a gradual gathering of speed.

Soon they were racing out of the port, away from the seashore, through capacious valleys and farmsteads. They heard a marvelous rhythmic clacking below them and felt all manner of exhilarating swerves and sways.

They feasted as they travelled. They spoke together about the experience they had shared, and their hopes for their futures.

After several hours they felt their train reduce its speed, shiver and sway.

They slowed to a crawl.

“Melvin,” Millicent declared. “We are arriving.”

They looked about them at all the cartons they had opened, all the crumbs they had created with the twenty-two days and nights of their ravenous gnawing, the madcap mayhem of wrappings they had shriveled and scattered all about their disheveled domicile.

“My, my, my,” she chuckled. “Won’t the supercilious stevedores and proud porters of Les Halles be startled when they open up our container, we sprint our furry selves out of here, and they discover the revolting mess we have made.”

 

Where Ontario Cheeses Find Their Parisian Home

Chapter Five: A Fond Farewell

The brakes produced a prolonged unmelodious screech. The wheels scraped shrilly on the steel tracks. The strident whistle blew once, twice, thrice.

Millicent gave Melvin a long affectionate look. Then she rose on her rear legs and beckoned to him with her front paws.

“Come close, my dear. Any moment now the workers will offload us and unpack us. The instant our door commences to open we must run like the wind. You to your cafés, I to another container, homeward bound.”

Tears formed in Melvin’s minuscule eyes. Sobs rose from his diminutive chest. He threw himself into Millicent’s embrace, thanked her again and again, sobbed that he never, ever would forget her.

“Nor I,” Millicent said. “I will remember you always Melvin, and always I will smile to think of you loving your life in Montparnasse.”

They held one another to their hearts.

Suddenly they heard a bevy of humanoid voices. Thick hemp ropes slid over their container. The workers linked the tethers, tied them tautly, and looped them through a metal ring.

A crane rumbled. The crate that had been their home trembled, rose, hovered, descended, nestled onto a concrete loading bay.

The two mice embraced once more, trotted to the edges of doorway, crouched like racers, and prepared to flee.

“Farewell,” they squealed to one another again and again.

The portal opened ever so slightly. Off they ran, Millicent to the right, Melvin to the left.

Ma parole!” shrieked a husky porter. “Quelle mess!”

The two mice giggled as they fled.

“Goodbye, goodbye,” they cried. “Farewell! Good luck to you! Long life to you!”

 

Les Halles de Paris

Chapter Six: Paradise Found

Through his misty eyes Melvin beheld as he scampered the sights he had dreamed of for months and months.

The great market of Paris lay all around him. Vivid lights. Vast carapaces of ornate windowpanes. Vistas of foodstuffs piled high, stacked wide, as far as he could see.

Fruits and vegetables. Grains and breads. Cheese, cheese, cheese. Meats too, though he cared not at all for them, reminding him as they did of his own fleshly self.

No one noticed him. The tumultuous crowds of people were thoroughly focused on foods. Lifting them, squeezing them, feeling them, tasting them, bartering for them, buying them, carrying them off in string sacks and canvas bags.

Melvin crept to a convenient cubby below a tall stall heaped with cabbages and found shelter within a comforting leaf conveniently draped on the floor.

He collected his breath, calmed his throbbing heart, gave thanks for his sanctuary, and peered carefully from his glistening green frond’s wrinkled borders.

“O, o, o” he whispered. “This is the paradise for which I have yearned all the days of my life.”

Mice are very quiet whisperers, yet someone there was who had heard Melvin.

Across the corridor, indistinctly, faintly, softly he discerned a muted reply.

“This is not Paradise, you silly. This is a market. In point of fact, this is Les Halles de Paris.”

Who could this be?

Melvin tiptoed from this withered cabbage leaf and peeked through the humans’ towering legs and shod feet. At last he saw who had peeped to him. Another mouse, a brown mouse, smaller than he, pleasing to the eye. Exquisite, in point of fact.

“Goodness gracious,” he exclaimed. “Who are you?”

She approached him, emitted a twinkling chuckle, and said, “Monsieur Mouse, I am Mademoiselle Miasma. Who are you, and what is the story with your odd Canadian accent?”

Melvin felt his breath catch. His heart pounded again.

Something there was about Miasma’s squeak that he found spellbinding. Something there was about the sheen of her fur that made the concrete flooring seem to shift beneath his feet.

He stuttered. He stammered.

Then he whispered to himself: “Melvin, you have crossed a continent. You have traversed a sea. Surely you can talk to this she.”

He drew himself to his full height, summoned his courage, bustled to her side, and told her his story.

As he spoke a blush surfaced upon Miasma’s cheeks and suffused itself throughout her lovely countenance.

“O my,” she thought, and flushed fully crimson. “I believe this handsome mouse adores me.”

 

We Are Not In Mississauga

Chapter Seven: A Mouse’s Dream Come Grandly True, Although He Had Not Previously Envisioned Cowgirls In Patagonia

Two years have passed.

We find ourselves seated at a grand café situated on a cobblestoned avenue’s broad pavement.

Aged chestnut trees are draped with brilliantly colored leaves. Their glossy russet nuts glow in the misty light cast by gas lanterns arrayed atop antique wrought-iron lampposts.

Deucedly pleasant aromas of espresso, croque-monsieur, and gratiné permeate the early evening autumn air.

An accordion is playing wistful songs of love and lamentation.

A family of mice is seated at a minute table ingeniously fashioned from shards of shattered saucers.

The debonair mother mouse nibbles a nourishing slice of tarte Tatine. The dashing father mouse sports a raffish beret, sips a rich Bordeaux from a bent thimble, and peruses a page from this day’s edition of Le Monde.

Passerby mice call out greetings and salutations. “Bon soir, Miasma. Bon soir, Magnifique.”

By this fetching couple’s side nimbly frolics a comely child.

The Mom casts a cherishing look upon her daughter, and gently inquires: “Mimosa, have you quite finished your schoolwork?”

Mimosa climbs into her mother’s lap, and imploringly squeaks: “O Maman, grammar and mathematics and history and literature have zero appeal for me.”

She adopts an imploring expression, and pleads: “Papa, why must we mice be meek? I do not want to stay in Paris, France forever and ever. A restless spirit fills my heart I have a dream, Papa, and my dream churns and burns inside me.”

Miasma and Melvin exchange doting smiles.

Melvin reaches across the table and strokes their daughter’s sleek fur. “What is your dream, our child?”

“O Maman, o Papa, I long to become the first female mouse gaucho in Patagonia. I yearn to do this, I must do this, I am born to do this.”

As one Miasma and Melvin smile at one another again, sympathetically caress the crown of their daughter’s little head, and excitedly squeak: “Atta girl, Miasma.”

 

Chapter Eight: The Moral Of Our Story

If we look closely, we may see a slight flickering of several gossamer tendrils.

Do you see them?

Slender, ever so delicate, pale silvery stalks protruding from a fine graceful snout, quivering in the pastel lamplight?

Are these whiskers?

I believe they are.

If you listen carefully, you may hear the shuffling of four elfin paws.

Is this a mouse?

I believe it is.

Is this Melvin? Is this our dreamy downy friend?

It is.

Do you hear what I hear now? Do you detect a sweet sibilant squealing?

If you will cup your ear, you will hear our Melvin chirping a helpful explanatory poem.

Please cradle your ear. Listen hard.

Do you hear him?

Hello, you lovely human being.
I, Melvin, now will tell you what my story means.

The moral of my tale is clear,
My dear.

I, a young mouse who dreamed a dream in Mississauga,
Was told he hadn’t oughta’.

If I could keep faith with my heart’s truth transcendent,
And thereby become magnificent,

So, mes petits amis,
Can thee.

Life in China in the 1980s: Adrift With a Cormorant Called Kai

Incomparable: The Nobel Prize of Bob Dylan


 

I got my back to the sun ’cause the light is too intense

I can see what everybody in the world is up against

     – Sugar Baby

 

The Nobel Prize for Literature at last has been awarded to the most important and most influential author of the post-World War II era.

 

Bob Dylan is incomparable. No other writer, no other artist, remotely resembles him in the body of his work, its brilliance, its beauty, its inventiveness, its eternal consequence.

 

Dylan was born in 1943. Since that year the Nobel Committee has selected several luminous (and many puzzling) laureates. Andre Gide. T.S. Eliot. William Faulkner. Ernest Hemingway. Boris Pasternak. Jean-Paul Sartre. Samuel Beckett. Saul Bellow. Isaac Bashevis Singer. William Golding.

 

Momentous writers, all. Yet none has exercised anything like Dylan’s transformative impact upon the world’s moral and imaginative consciousness.

 

The wisdom, mastery, wit, and grace of Bob Dylan’s literature so pervade our minds and our emotions that they seem elements of actuality, not one man’s compositions but fundaments of existence like air, water, earth, fire. Conditions of our lives, not one person’s creations.

 

__________

 

Every day, like many of us, I call to consciousness many of Dylan’s works. Always his art fills me with enlightenment, wonder, reverence, and gratitude.

 

During the week before the award announcement I’d been listening to and, as always, feeling mesmerized by:

 

You’re A Big Girl Now

One Too Many Mornings

Blind Willie McTell

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine

Maggie’s Farm

I Want You

Sweetheart Like You

Tangled Up In Blue

Simple Twist of Fate

Dark Eyes

Not Dark Yet

Every Grain of Sand

Shooting Star

It’s All Good

Things Have Changed 

When I Paint My Masterpiece

I Feel A Change Comin’ On

All The Tired Horses

Bye And Bye

Sugar Baby

 

A typical week.

 

Also, for many weeks now, for months, I’ve been replaying and ruminating about the gorgeous cover albums: Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong Fallen Angels, Shadows In The Night.

 

As well as, fortuitously, Ring Them Bells – an apt title for the rapturous worldwide reaction the Nobel award has inspired.

 

The morning after the announcement I asked one of my correspondents in England which of the multitude of masterworks he’s been listening to lately. He replied:

 

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door [as he does daily, whilst shadow-boxing]

Subterranean Homesick Blues

All Along The Watch Tower

I Threw It All Away

Ballad Of A Thin Man

Hurricane

Visions of Johanna

Political World

Everything Is Broken

 

The dreadful global news cycle of 2016 will do that to you.

 

For a lark my friend asked the same question of his mom, aged 87. She answered:

 

Forever Young

Like A Rolling Stone

What Was It You Wanted

Love Sick

Mississippi

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere

Mama, You Been On My Mind

Girl From The North Country

Gotta Serve Somebody

Moonlight

 

She’s an interesting cat, my friend’s mom.

 

I wonder which ones the Chief Justice of the United States is studying today? And am smiling to think of Justice Scalia’s ardor for many of Dylan’s most subversive songs.

 

Bob’s scythe cuts a wide swath.

 

__________

 

How about you?

 

Which of Dylan’s records matter the most to you?

 

Do you, like me, find yourself recurrently reading Chronicles: Volume One, thumbing through that fascinating, gentle, kind, stunningly intelligent book over and over again, even though you remember the text very well?

 

There is nothing static or finished about Dylan’s art. This is one of the reasons we listen repeatedly to his songs, re-read his interviews, reconnect with his book, stare and stare at his spare, haunting canvases, his stark, striking, primordial sculptures.

 

I think his art keeps calling us back and affects us in ever-new ways because it is in the broadest sense dynamic: sensate, in motion, ceaselessly evolving.

 

Bob stands in the same relation to his work as we do. Particularly his music. He, too, experiences his musical literature as alive, protean, inherently metamorphosing, deserving incessant re-experience and recreation.

 

I can think of no other artist who has worked so long, so hard, so bravely to constantly revisit, renew, and rebirth his compositions. Dylan’s foremost artistic commitment, his performance art, the celebrated Never Ending Tour – a term he derides, and for which he prefers to substitute “my trade” – constitutes an unparalleled experiment in infinite incompleteness, permanent reimagining, perpetual renascence.

 

__________

 

Can you name any other artists who so love to ply their trade? Who so thoroughly entrust themselves to challenge and change? Who so unremittingly and unorthodoxly offer themselves to continuous creation? Absolute aliveness.

 

I cannot. Nor can I think of any other major figure in modernist life who so entirely has desired, sought, and secured singularity. [Lady Gaga is trying, and she may well succeed.]

 

He will not be defined. He will not be typed. He will not serve. His greatest teaching is the way in which he lives his intricate, inscrutable, utterly extraordinary existence.

 

Bob Dylan incarnates genius. In his work and in his daily life he valiantly imparts the necessity of the uncodified and the crucial gestative power of originality. The rare, precious, and radically threatened qualities that most powerfully summon our humanity and animate our civilizations.

 

Every society imposes enormous pressures upon its citizens to conform to prevailing prototypes of ideation, feeling, appearance, and behavior. No doubt conventions are essential to social order, stability, harmony, and human contentment. But excesses of stereotypy invariably produce sterility, stagnation, corrosion, and decay.

 

No other force so muscularly defends the human spirit from its civic confinement than imaginative inquiry. Creative art is even more crucial than science and technology to our capacity for critical thought, our pursuit of discovery, progress, and, ultimately, pleasure[1].

 

In the modernist culture no other artistic medium so proactively and potently protects our vital work of restlessness and invention as populist music. This is why despots dread and strive to suppress its makers, abhor and attempt to restrict its performances[2].

 

Their paranoia is rational. Elvis Presley exploded entropy. Michael Jackson massacred monotony. Madonna made a mess of correctness and courtesy. Even posthumously, Jimi Hendrix detonates regimen and regularity.

 

Bob Dylan does not swivel his anatomy, moonwalk, fool around with gender identifications, shatter protocols.

 

He does make us think. He makes us “see what everybody in the world is up against.” He causes us to meditate about the unobvious. He invites us to consort with the unknowable. He summons us to leaven the quotidian with the invisible, the cosmic, and possibly the divine.

 

And always, always, always he conducts his marvelous alchemies with exquisite cogency, cunning, and craft.

 

He is generous, too. He could just look after himself and his loved ones, if he wanted to. But at age 75 he keeps on giving us his Never Ending Gift of fierce sedition, supernal acumen, and sly, wry, fall-on-the-floor fun.

 

__________

 

Amidst the horror of warfare, the rancidness of racism, the insanity of intolerance, the iniquity of misogyny, the malignancy of malfeasance, the miasma of money, the madness of might, the disease of too many political systems and the disorder of too many institutions in every nation’s homeland, how wonderful that we get to journey Together Through Life – the title of one of Dylan’s most enchanting albums – with this wonderful bard, troubadour, thinker, disrupter, magician.

 

Our civilization’s laureate of literature never has sought and does not need acclaim or award.

 

Let us nevertheless give thanks to the Nobel Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Norwegian Nobel Committee for reminding us what most matters in our experience, and what most will endure. Not grotesque news cycles, sad perfidies, momentary sins, and temporal banalities but the sublime majesty of beauty, thought, and creation.

 

Ring them bells Sweet Martha

For the poor man’s son

Ring them bells so the world will know

That God is one

Oh the shepherd is asleep

Where the willows weep

And the mountains are filled

With lost sheep

 

Let us Ring Them Bells for Bob.

 

We never will meet him. We never will speak with him. No need. He converses with all of us anytime, all the time, mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul.

 

Thank you, Mahatma Dylan. May you be in happiness and peace.

 

NOTES

[1] Neuroscientific research recently has revealed the synapses that determine our aesthetic appreciation are located in the same core of the brain that houses our primal Survival instinctions. This suggests our species has learned to regard our instinct to be educated and our ability to pleased as coessential with our most foundational existential constructs.

[2] Some people, not many, none persuasively, have questioned whether the Nobel Prize committees of Sweden and Norway ought to have “expanded” the traditional definition of literature. Of course they should have. In an unusual moment of concordance with dictators and other tyrannizers, the committees are recognizing that for many decades populist music has operated as the world’s most significant form of contemporary lexical composition.

Cinema is populist music’s nearest compeer. One day soon the Nobel committees may confer a literature award upon a major artist of film. I nominate Francis Ford Coppola as the pioneer laureate.

Identity & Society: Character & Consciousness in Pride and Prejudice & The Story of the Stone [红楼梦]

Identity & Society: 

Character & Consciousness in Pride and Prejudice & The Story of the Stone [红楼梦]

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.
– Oscar Wilde

 

Cao Xueqin 1715 - 1763

         Cao Xueqin (1715-1764)

I. Consequence in a Story

A Haunting Passage in a Brilliant Novel
Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone [红楼梦] [1791] (please see Note 1, at the end of this essay), sometimes translated as Dream of the Red Chamber, sometimes as A Dream of Red Mansions, is an immensely long novel profligately filled with captivating personalities and compelling incidents.

The Stone is one of the most rare and opulent works of world literature: an imaginative composition that undertakes, like Middlemarch, War and Peace, and Ulysses, to create a narrative that is equivalent in complexity, coherence, and consequence to the the civilization and society in which it was written.

Every time I read The Stone I find myself intrigued by a passage that does not initially appear to have a seminal purpose or obvious prominence.

It is a funeral scene set at an early point in the novel. A woman named Qin-shi is being memorialized. In a lengthy paragraph Cao remarks that “all people of any consequence in the Capital” [Wang, 95] are attending the obsequies for this brutally abused, tragically wasted young person. He then provides “a complete roster of the notables present” [Wang, 99; see also Hawkes, i., 284-5].

The seemingly innocuous catalogue raises important questions about how we live in the condition of community, the dissimilar circumstances of our experience, and the ways in which we respond to disparities that we are taught to accept as necessary and natural.

Notable Characters
The most significant of these questions concern the definition of “notable.”

In the civilization The Stone records, what makes one human being more notable than another? What disqualifies a person from noteworthiness?

Why are certain individuals more important than others? How can this be?

Notable Events
Cao invites us to ask similar questions about life’s episodes and events.

In the world The Stone archives, what constitutes a notable occasion or action?

Why does a story need to explore certain situations and occurrences? Why do others not deserve narration?

Principle Of Selection
Cao is acutely aware of these issues. Indeed, he directs us to think about them.

The inhabitants of the Rong mansion, if we include all of them from the highest to the humblest in our total, numbered more than three hundred souls, who produced among them a dozen or more incidents in a single day. Faced with so exuberant an abundance of material, what principle should your chronicler adopt to guide him in his selection of incidents to record? [Hawkes, i., 105. See also Wang, 48.]

Cao frequently asks this question. Never does he exegete the “principle” that determines his decisions.

Self-Evaluation
Cao’s provocative query implies another.

In The Stone, in any story, how do characters recognize and express their respective places in their social spectrum?

To ask this question is to wonder how we accomplish the vital work of identification in the real world.

As we conduct our daily lives, how do we calculate and convey our own significance? How do we determine and express our sense of other persons’ value?

Awareness
In every paragraph and page of The Stone, we see that, like ourselves, its many hundreds of characters thoroughly comprehend whether they are or are not “notables.”

We also see that, like ourselves, they base all of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors upon their awareness of their rank in the system of society, and their appreciation of other people’s.

How do Cao’s characters accomplish their astonishingly sophisticated consciousness of station and status?

How do we?

Do we invent our awareness? Or are we taught it?

These are the central issues and themes of The Story of the Stone. They are, I believe, the central issues and themes of every work of literature.

The Poetics of Characterization
As we struggle to comprehend the poetics of characterization in Cao Xueqin’s art, we quickly realize we do not understand these mechanisms in our own life.

We know little about the means by which we formulate and assert our own instinction of identity, worth, and place. Nor do we know how other people in our community perform these crucial tasks.

Certainly we do not understand the comparative poetics of characterization. We have no idea how human beings develop and project their awareness of selfhood, worth, and place in the specific country and culture they inhabit.

The Function of Story
It is one of the principal purposes of literature to ask these questions, and to stimulate us to think deeply about our replies.

This is one of the reasons every society accords high prestige to the making of story and the study of story.

We treasure storytelling, cherish its creators, esteem its interpreters, and expect enlightened adults and educated children to experience it because we want to know much more about the “principle” of human “consequence” than our quotidian experience equips us to understand.

To be sure, we expect novels, films, plays and poems, and films to entertain us. But we love and exalt literature primarily because we want to know why some lives are more important than others.

We want to know why certain persons are more worthy of notice, and therefore more valuable, than the many billions of our sisters and brothers who do not interest us.

Impolitic Subject
In every civilization, only religion and literature fully recognize this subject’s significance, its oceanic complexity, and its discomforting impoliteness.

Only literature discusses this most impolitic of subjects overtly. Most deliberately and most directly, the genre of the novel.

Case Study
No single novel, film, play, or poem satisfactorily can explain the relative “consequence” of every human life, “the highest to the humblest.”

However, we greatly can increase our consciousness of this disturbing issue and the indispensable role of literature in emphasizing and examining it by considering how two masterpieces written in an approximately similar era in two radically differing civilizations analyze and dramatize the poetics of characterization.

The works I have in mind are The Story of the Stone in China and its nearest peer in the west, Pride and Prejudice.

 

jane-austen

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

II. Worth in the Western Civilization

Assessing Status
In every novel ever written in the western civilization, characters devote a predominant proportion of their thought and energy to assessing their status. Consciously or unconsciously they incessantly evaluate their superiority or inferiority to every other member of their community.

They do this for two reasons.

  1. They believe they can determine their own value only by contrasting their “consequence” with everyone else’s.
  2. They want to increase their worth, stimulate upward mobility, and enjoy the gratifications their society’s “notables” receive.

Money
Multiple considerations affect the calculus of a human being’s worth. In the end, the determinative factor is wealth.

Money. Its quantity, its age, and its source.

In the western social order there exists an unspoken but universally understood awareness that, notwithstanding our spiritual qualities and our putative political equality, every person is a commodity. A more or a less valuable economic function, product, and thing.

Subject & Desire
Money is the western world’s pivotal signifier and standard.

Therefore, wealth, its etiologies, and the experience it is presumed to confer are the root topic of its cultures’ narratives.

The acquisition and display of wealth are its protagonists’ foremost desire.

Worth in Pride And Prejudice
The activity of assigning social significance is overt and unabashed in Pride and Prejudice [1813] – arguably the most influential and undoubtedly the most loved novel in the world.

The practice of determining each individual’s importance is infinitely complex. Its “principle” is straightforward. Almost every character in the book believes human worth inheres almost exclusively in wealth.

This is not a misapprehension.

The culture of Regency England imposes a blunt correlation between its citizens’ economic condition and their station in society. Characters’ power to command interest in Pride and Prejudice is established primarily by the interdependence between their financial circumstance and their social status.

Stated in Cao Xueqin’s terms, the amount of money people possess “guides” their eligibility and “selection” to become “recorded” in Austen’s story.

Mobility
All societies place a premium upon hierarchy.

The western civilization teaches its citizens to believe their position, power, and pleasure are flexible, and to a large degree under their own control. If we behave well, work hard, and increase our capital we can improve our social standing and expand our happiness.

In the terminology of literature, western people are taught their lifetime goal should be to expand their “consequence.” We should strive to become ever more rich and, accordingly, ever more worthy of notice in our community’s “chronicle.”

Austen often teases these ideals and their conceptual elements. Nothing seems to her more comedic than our capitulation to our culture’s overvaluation of wealth, and our naive belief in its myth of unimpeded volitional mobility.

Practicable, farcical or droll, it is the principal project of most characters’ lives in Pride and Prejudice to accomplish an increase in their wealth, which they expect will produce a parallel increase in their importance, authority, and contentment . (Please see Note 2.)

Ideology & Language
Austen of course did not originate the “principle” of equating individuals’ value with the amount of money they possess. Her novel conscientiously reflects the moral imagination that prevailed in Regency England.

The prevalence and power of this ontology is conveyed in her nation’s system of speech. From the eighteenth century to the present, it has been a commonplace in the English language to characterize persons who are rich, those who have been rich for many generations in particular, as “the quality.”

Similarly, individuals of all economic conditions routinely speak of what they term their “net worth.”

No one ever has supposed that the possessors of money necessarily exhibit spiritual or civic merit. But this is irrelevant. What is of defining interest in the bourgeois capitalist culture is not virtue but value. And value is thought to be vested almost wholly in wealth.

Movement
Reverse mobility also is possible in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, it is an acute peril. In the society of mercantile England, one can decline in affluence and prestige at least as readily as one can advance.

For the purposes of storytelling, there is equal drama is either form of motion. The key fact for Austen and her characters is that movement, whether positive or negative, is continuous, conspicuous, and critical to every person’s “consequence” in their community.

The Mirror of Narrative
Austen’s narrative design mirrors the social fabric it illustrates.

Some characters rise in their social position. Many others recede. Their ascent or fall is reflected in their narrative position: the amount of attention they command, and the allotment of space they receive in the tale Pride and Prejudice crafts.

This “principle” constitutes the catalyst for Austen’s art and the “principle” that, in Cao’s phrase, “guides her in her selection of incidents to record.”

Positive Mobility
Pride and Prejudice revels in its characters’ rare instances of ascendant movement.

Elizabeth and Jane Bennet triumphantly increase their wealth. Their access of affluence monumentally improves their standing in society and powerfully contributes to their exceptional happiness.

With dazzling rapidity Elizabeth and Jane amass immense “consequence.” They force their way into the stratosphere of their community’s “notables.”

Their remarkable advancement fascinates and thrills their family, their friends, their author, and all of us who read their story. The absoluteness and swiftness of their mobility epitomize heroism, and requires the genre of epic.

Stasis
Other protagonists – most notably Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh – are utterly immobile.

Absurd, iterative, feckless, stuck, they are incapable of motion.

Their inability either to develop or shrink embodies bathos, and requires the genre of comedy.

Negative Mobility
Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham willfully devote their lives to dissipation.

Born with advantages, they embrace depravity, enjoy dissoluteness, and repeatedly opt to decline.

Their cavalier and precipitous collapse is grotesque, and requires the genre of satire.

Social Contract
Pride and Prejudice brilliantly demonstrates that the English social order will yield to applications of individuated imaginative force.

Again and again Austen shows us this phenomenon constitutes an implicit contractual relationship between sociality and selfhood.

In the civilization she dramatizes every woman, man, and child determines by the totality of their passions, preferences, and actions whether they progress, descend, or remain stationary in their “consequence.”

Free Will
The notion of fate has zero currency in western culture.

Every character in Pride and Prejudice enjoys absolute freedom of will. Female or male, born with many advantages or none, each individual in the novel possesses the right and the power of self-government.

They create their own emotions. They develop their own desires. They form their own judgments. They behave as they choose, and in the exercise of their autonomy they author themselves as discrete and distinctive individuals.

Multiple Modalities
Independence and individuation do not necessarily enact themselves as goodness, wisdom, or grace.

The novel’s heroic characters – Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, Charles Bingley, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner – are keenly intelligent, loving, communal, responsible, and generous souls. They are “notable” for their excellence.

Others, many others, are pretentious, silly, unpleasant, or flat-out despicable. We find ourselves laughing at, recoiling from, or sometimes loathing their sensibilities and reprehending their conduct.

But these, too, are “notable” persons. We feel intensely aware of them. In fact, we feel enthralled by the very aspects of their nature that amuse, mystify, and repel us. (Please see Note 3.)

We feel dazed yet riveted by Mrs. Bennet’s ingenuous vapidity, guileless vanity, and effusive venality.

We feel astonished yet mesmerized by Lady Catherine’s colossal egoism and cosmic imperiousness.

We feel astounded yet delighted by Mr. Collins’s belligerent insipidity and uproarious idiocy.

We feel appalled yet fascinated and beguiled by Mr. Wickham’s polymorphous perversity and startlingly bland wickedness.

We feel shocked yet captivated by the three youngest Bennet sisters’ amazingly comprehensive shallowness, scandalized yet enamored by their hilarious weirdness.

And dear Mr. Bennet. We frequently feel baffled by the Bennet family’s gravely flawed, myopic, ineffectual, sarcastic, learned, vague, dissociative, wildly irresponsible husband and father. Yet he is luminous, screamingly funny, infinitely sweet, and we love him.

Pathways
In the fictive society of Pride and Prejudice the characters who compel Jane Austen’s attention construct widely diverging pathways to “consequence.”

Some, not many, accomplish sublimity. Others become dull, deranged, devious, or detestable.

Whatever the arc of their movement, they all accomplish the feat of becoming “notable.”

They all command a place in their civilization’s most important and compelling novel because they fulfill the cardinal virtue of the culture in which the work was written. They recognize their liberty, they enact it, and in so doing they manifest themselves as fully individuated personalities.

 

gold-bar

III. Worth in the Chinese Civilization

Immobility
In the civilization of eighteenth-century China, every human being is born into a clearly demarcated station. Each person’s positions are categorical, inevitable, and, with few exceptions, unalterable.

Every woman, man, and child must understand, accept, and fulfill the roles they have been bequeathed. Individuals who fail to comprehend their stratum and accede to its requirements are almost certain to suffer isolation, punishment, or death.

Autonomy is inconceivable. Negative movement is probable. Only rarely can people progress in their position, improve their circumstances, and increase their happiness.

Destiny
No one in the novel revolts against their nation’s inflexible social order, because no one supposes it was created or is enforced by the oligarchy it privileges. Everyone believes the conditions of their lives have been ordained by a supernal force: an agency perhaps deific in nature, perhaps not.

In the universe Cao Xueqin describes, each person’s lot in life is predestined. One’s fate cannot be altered. Therefore it cannot reasonably be resented or rebelled against.

Resistance
The Stone’s characters know they must live within the freedoms their destined sphere permits and accept the confines it mandates. But they do not submit unequivocally to the stereotypy, stasis, and sterility this regime seemingly imposes.

Although imprisoned in a largely unchangeable hierarchy of echelon and estate, they devise a Promethean method of liberating their consciousness, personalizing their identity, and enhancing their satisfactions.

Feigned Orthodoxy
The citizens of Imperial China know that in their severe, inflexible community it would be suicidal to become perceived as an independent, self-directed personality. So, with exquisite discretion and delicacy, they conceal their autonomy and uniqueness behind a mask of docile orthodoxy.

To the outer world they present a veneer of impeccable propriety. They keep their authentic thoughts and true feelings strictly hidden. They make their bounteous and internal life a clandestine domain that cannot be detected by other people.

Paradox & Prevarication
In this fascinating novel everyone concludes they must become a seemingly sincere deceiver. Not a bold Elizabeth Bennet, but an allusion. Not a resplendent Fitzwilliam Darcy, but a cautious artifice. An impenetrable euphemism.

Like women and men everywhere else in the world, The Stone’s characters want to manifest their personality and enjoy the fullest possible magnitude of experience. But they accept that in order to survive in their tyrannous society they must project a façade of undifferentiated, contented conformism.

They want to move. But they must behave as though they are serenely paralyzed.

They want to unfurl their wings and soar. But they know they must entomb their robust interior nature in a sarcophagus of correct sociality.

Ceremony
The Stone’s characters do not regard the paradox and prevarication of their lives as spurious, cruel, or repugnant. They never think in these terms. They conceive, rather, that the circumstances they confront are the condition of existence, elemental and eternal.

They gain traction over their otherwise immitigable lack of power by contriving a culture of ceremony: an intricate and ingenious form of theater.

They never say what they think. They never display what they feel. They veil themselves in a continuous pageant of courtesy and decorum, ritual and rite.

They exchange symbiotic charades of formulaic politeness that register their assent to their community’s pyramidal order and buries the actuality of their real ideas, beliefs, opinions, and passions.

They dance a fantastically deceptive minuet that camouflages and thereby enables their unarticulated individualism.

Communal Art
Conformism is a communal art. The conventions of correctness provide reciprocal empowerment for everyone who participates in them.

By enveloping themselves in a collaborative stagecraft of subordination and rectitude, The Stone’s characters create a tableau in which no one appears independent and individual, specific and singular.

They disappear as discriminable persons, and become exemplary semaphores of their assigned stations and statuses. They obscure themselves as “notables,” and become undifferentiated ideograms of their caste and class.

Movement
Invisibility confers considerable independence.

Everyone who learns how to be outwardly conformist can inwardly think, feel, hope, and dream in whatever manner they please.

Cao’s characters are as individual and impassioned as Jane Austen’s. We just have to work harder to see, know, and understand them.

Strategic Cover
In the society Cao portrays, courteous people constantly disavow their own “consequence” and aggrandize the importance of their equals, their superiors, and, in many instances, their inferiors.

Nothing can seem more puzzling to western readers than the spectacle of many hundreds of characters fervently denigrating their own worth, and wholeheartedly celebrating the preeminence of every other person in their purview.

Or so it may seem. The more we study this labyrinthine novel, the more we realize the motives and rewards that shape its characters’ ostensible sycophancy are cunningly manipulative.

In the overpopulated, impoverished, tempestuous world of eighteenth-century China, a great many people must chase a small number of exceedingly limited enfranchisements and emoluments.

The most effective strategy for surviving scarcity is to appear ordinary, and therefore unimportant. The safest tactic in a harshly combative environment is to seem not to be a competitor. Not even a factor.

Throughout The Story of the Stone Cao shows us that every time his players depreciate their own primacy and extol another person’s, they safeguard themselves and place the targets of their civility in jeopardy.

Sycophants make themselves unnoticeable. They make the object of their humbleness a visible threat to the primacy of everyone in their cutthroat society who is or who wants to become a “notable.”

In the community The Stone depicts so vividly, courteous people are not simply culturally correct. They are strategically sophisticated, shrewd, and dangerous.

 

ancestral-family-shrine

Ancestral Family Altar

IV. Privileging The Past

Traditionalism
The Stone’s characters invariably minimize the significance of the present, celebrate the past, and strive to preserve continuity with ancient customs and codes.

This phenomenon puzzles the novel’s western audience because they have been taught innovation is synonymous with improvement. Western readers commonly believe perpetuating timeworn values inhibits individualism, hampers creativity, and impedes progress.

In western societies the awareness of history is archival. It placement is relegated to museums, monuments, academies, escorted travel, thematic parks, and entertainments.

In The Story of the Stone the past is required to dominate the present and prevent change in the future.

This is because in feudal China’s condition of privation and peril immortalizing the ideals, laws, and mores that have succeeded previously seems to most citizens their best chance for stability and survival.

The Primacy of the Family
In particular, The Stone’s characters glorify their genealogy. They worship their forebears, and they subsume everything that is personal and transitory to the long-term interests of their lineage.

Western people rarely do this, because they expect and receive copious protections from their governments. Reasonably clear, reasonably just statutes. Effective and fair policing and jurisprudence. Liberty of expression. Civility and kindness from their confidants and most of their neighbors.

Cao’s characters enjoy none of these privileges. They must live their lives in undefended exposure to their volatile world’s frightful dangers.

They believe paying homage to their ancestors and fortifying their descendants may protect themselves and their intimates from the worst hazards of their difficult existence. They believe, or perhaps they merely hope, their progenitors’ spirits and the combined talents, strengths, and material resources of their living relatives may cushion their inevitable sufferings.

Empowerment
In Imperial China filialness is neither voluntary nor altruistic. It is mandatory. It is also enabling.

Individuals who revere their family will seem commonplace, inconspicuous, and therefore unthreatening.

Filialness is a vital part of the mask of orthodoxy. Like all other forms of self-abnegation in the novel’s society, the correct observance of its doctrines protects each person from the terrible risks of appearing “notable.”

Orthodoxy is prophylactic. It is also empowering. Individuals who manifest compliance with their culture’s requirements wall off their interiority. They enclose their authentic consciousness within an invulnerable rampart of normalcy, an unbreachable bulwark of typicality.

Covert Mobility
The Stone shows us that much can be accomplished within the secret space provided by its society’s pieties.

Characters who are adept yet prudent with the freedoms they conceal can work hard, accrue earnings, increase their opportunities, secure their family’s gains, and broaden their progeny’s prospects.

Those who maneuver most effectively will become ancestors in their own right, adulated for eons to come by their grateful descendants.

 

kowtow-song-dynasty

Kowtow

V. Fixed Rules

The Consolation of Correctness
The society Cao describes is autocratic, highly stratified, tightly regulated, and fiercely resistant to change. There is no room for visionaries, scant latitude for choice, and little leeway for personal preferences and untrammeled volitions.

One of the novel’s most significant characters, Xi-feng Phoenix, succinctly summarizes this cardinal principle. At a late point in the novel’s first volume, she exclaims: “There are fixed rules to everything” [Hawkes, i., p.431].

Phoenix does not speak of economic and emotional fixity, as a western person surely would, in a mood of exasperation. (Please see Note 4.)  She is not expressing anger, frustration, or sorrow. She is imparting gratitude. She is thankful that her civilization’s comprehensive laws, stringent customs, and catholic conventions may afford her some degree of protection from life’s turbulence, travail, and torment.

Kowtow
As we immerse ourselves in the two thousand pages of The Story of the Stone, we discover there literally do exist “fixed rules to everything” in feudal China.

The skill with which characters perceive and fulfill their stratum’s mandates determines the extent of their ability to survive other people’s predations, advance their own interests, and improve their heirs’ potential for happiness.

No other provision of China’s “fixed rules” is more important than the giving and receiving of respect. Every person in The Stone must know how to offer and how to accept precisely calibrated expressions of esteem.

The most graphic example of this essential conformism is the kowtow: kneeling and brushing the carpet, floor, or ground with one’s forehead.

Socially inferior persons who correctly kowtow to their superiors emblemize their submission to the hierarchic paradigm, and qualify themselves for inclusion, security, and potential mobility within it.

Socially superior persons who correctly receive a kowtow express a similar acquiescence, and position themselves for the protections and privileges the civilization provides.

Feudal Egalitarianism
China’s feudal society is pyramidal and patriarchal. It also is egalitarian.

Every person inhabits a defined grade, rank, and degree.

Each person who properly perceives and manages their position’s requirements earns a degree of dignity and improves their prospects for survival.

Individuals who lacks these capabilities court dishonor, jeopardize their family, and risk extinction.

Imperial China’s citizens are not created equal. However, they all are accorded equal inclusion within a holistic design and a systemic complex of meaning.

Case Studies
Studying individual instances shows us the organism of China’s social order, the absoluteness of its authority, and the universality of its inclusiveness.

Pervading Fragrance
Pervading Fragrance, a maidservant who thoroughly understands the limitations and obligations of her slavish condition, is recognized by her mistress, her peers, and her author as an exceptionally gifted, refined, and deserving human being.

She may be an indentured menial, but she is not a nonentity. She is a singular, estimable, deserving person whose social station is, if utterly subordinate, defined and dignified.

The Jia Family
Several members of the Jia family, seigneurs, rich, powerful, fawned upon, fail to fulfill the responsibilities their advantaged estate requires.

Their inability to recognize their position’s obligations and accomplish its decorums exposes shocking egoism, crudeness, and incompetence.

Their vanity and vulgarity are not merely obnoxious characteristics. They drastically imperil their interests.

Their ignorance and discourtesy starkly demonstrate they do not merit the elevated standing into which they were born. Throughout the novel their exalted station commands and receives attribution. Never, though, do they inspire respect or affection. Accordingly, their stature markedly diminishes.

They are too obtuse to discern the fact of their descent. But there can be no doubt their deterioration will reduce their unborn descendants’ birthrights and impair their prospects.

They commit the Confucian culture’s arch sin. They disregard the categorical imperative of filialness. Lost in vapid narcissism, they place transient trivial gratifications above their sacred duty to their forebears and their issue.

Bai-yu
Bai-yu is one of The Stone’s most distinguished characters.

Her rulers, coequals, and servants perceive in her a most uncommon excellence. Everyone she encounters admires her intelligence, goodness, and grace.

We do not know if it is her destiny to marry and continue her family’s positive mobility. We do know she has honored her ancestors, served her civilization, and beautifully affirmed her humanity.

Phoenix
Phoenix is Bai-yu’s polar opposite. Everyone in the novel considers her an offensive, conniving, insincere, heartless shrew.

Her charlatanism and incivility never are commented upon but always are seen, felt, and abhorred. Phoenix is a dishonor to her parents, a discredit to her position, and a disgrace to herself and her community.

Should she ever wed and become a parent, her children will become born into a damaged condition. Innocent of their mother’s depredations, not responsible for their family’s decline, they will confront daunting challenges.

Individualism
The Stone portrays a despotic civilization. It demands conventionality, ritualism, and obsequiousness. However, its inhabitants are anything but mechanical, uniform, or homologous.

Bai-yu is “notable” because she is wonderful.

Phoenix is “consequential” because she is awful.

Pervading Fragrance fascinates us because she is wise, responsible, persevering, gracious, and lovable.

The worst members of the Jia family intrigue us because they are dreadful.

The “fixed rules” of Imperial China constitute a demanding topography. The novel’s characters must situate themselves within the firmly delineated structures of normality their society imposes. The manner in which they choose to navigate these unjust but ineliminable geologies radically individuates each of them.

 

       pp-page-one                            jimao-manuscript-pages

         Jane Austen – First Edition                                       Early Edition of The Story of the Stone

 

VI. Reciprocal Identification

Reciprocal Activity
Although the civilizations of Regency England and Imperial China differ in almost every regard, they share one crucial similarity. Individuals cannot define themselves unilaterally.

In Pride and Prejudice and The Story of the Stone developing a personal identity is a reciprocal activity. Characters can establish their own significance only by acknowledging other people’s status, and receiving recognition in return.

Correctly evaluating one’s own and everyone else’s “consequence” is one of every person’s paramount necessities. Austen and Cao teach us this is an exceedingly complex and difficult art, fraught with delusion, deception, and danger.

Pride and Prejudice
In Pride and Prejudice the intricate process of reciprocal classification ordinarily transpires uneventfully. These instances have little claim to narration.

The novel’s storyline, its suspense, and its withering comedy are rooted in its protagonists’ frequent inability to accomplish accurate, cogent, and enduring identification. Failures of orthodoxy demand narration.

Case Studies
Let us consider several instances.

Examining the experience of several major characters helps us see how complicated and confounding it can be to know oneself and to become accurately known in society; how greatly all the novel’s people depend upon one another for context and coherence; and how powerfully Austen is attracted by exceptions to normative individuation.

The Unenlightened
We might imagine no one could fail to esteem the exemplary qualities of Elizabeth and Jane Bennet. Yet, many people do – notably, Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and Miss Caroline Bingley.

Their inability rightly to evaluate Elizabeth and Jane is mirrored by their puzzling misjudgments about themselves.

Lady Catherine believes her aristocratic ancestry and inherited wealth entitle her to prepotency in society, infallibility in opinion, and regency over all who pass within her purview. She is unable to perceive she is preposterous, insipid, and utterly friendless.

Mr. Collins believes his craven conventionality and garish groveling constitute a platform for personhood, a title to position, and an allure for marriage. He cannot discern he is ludicrous, mean, and repulsive.

Caroline Bingley believes she is ravishingly beautiful, an impeccable arbiter of taste, an icon of fashion, and an irresistible match for the most affluent and therefore most desirable males in her society. She is blind to the fact she is devoid of substance, barren of attraction, and an insufferable bore.

Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and Miss Bingley define themselves as baroquely defective personalities. They force their author to treat them as figures of fun.

The Enlightened
These and the novel’s many other unenlightened characters are excruciating, poignant, and sidesplittingly funny. They are invaluable to the narrative, though, because they grandly embody the framework of unreality and unkindness against which the heroic characters must build their paradigms of sincerity, substance, and healthy sociality.

Let us consider the trajectories of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

Mr. Darcy
Mr. Darcy first appears in Pride and Prejudice as a gigantically empowered, supremely intelligent, yet inhibited, stiff, seemingly arrogant, and almost wholly blocked man.

He is rescued from absurdity and immobility by his instinctive ability to see, accurately assess, and yearn for union with Elizabeth Bennet. He, and he alone in his community, accurately perceives her wondrous brilliance, virtue, vitality, and uniqueness.

He attains to heroism when he determines to reject his caste’s invalid values, accept the Bennet family’s imperfections, and embrace his own appreciation of her peerless merits.

When he permits himself to love Elizabeth and chooses to build his future upon their marriage, Fitzwilliam Darcy situates himself as not merely a prodigiously wealthy heir but a magnificence. A man sagacious, visionary, daring and eminently deserving. A man who makes himself “notable” not by the accident of his birth but by the evolution of his character and consciousness. ((Please see Note 5.)

Elizabeth Bennet
Elizabeth progresses from incomplete distinction to pellucid enlightenment and consummate “consequence.”

She enters the narrative as a preternaturally accomplished young woman who excessively trusts her judgment and her belief in her autonomy.

She makes mistakes. She initially interprets the obviously duplicitous, sociopathic Mr. Wickham as an endearing victim. She misjudges Darcy as vain, overbearing, callous, and persecutory. She jejunely underestimates the power of her civilization and the sovereignty of its social order.

Elizabeth opens herself to growth when she becomes injured by her errors. Humiliation and loss harm but do not derail her. She recognizes her agency in her suffering, confronts her failures of percipience, laments her limitations, and prepares herself for what she fears will be a lifetime of disappointment and regret.

She attains to heroism when she reforms her exorbitant certitude, renounces her sense of unitary self-sufficiency, embraces her need for loving partnership, and elects to unite her stunningly insurrectionist individualism with the only man in England who is worthy of her.

Austen’s Art
The journey toward or away from accurate awareness of one’s own and other people’s identity makes the stimulus for Austen’s art and shapes the content of her storytelling.

The novel’s most impressive characters and Austen’s most compelling creativity occur when the women and men she most values revolt from the impositions of public opinion, rely upon their own instinction, and compel their community to accept their self-determined individuality.

The Story of the Stone
The Story of the Stone dramatizes many similar journeys toward and away from enlightened awareness and authentic identification.

Once again we best can see the society’s organicism, complexity, and hegemony by studying the experience of several key individuals.

The Unenlightened
The Matriarch requires everyone she encounters feel overawed by the magnitude of her wealth and the entitlements it accords. She believes her bellicose assertions of rank will coerce reverent deference to all her impulses, sentiments, tastes, and desires. She is unable to discern she is secretly scorned and roundly loathed.

Bao-yu’s father endlessly milks the privileges of his paternity. He cannot see his perversions of prerogative paralyze his son, stunt the child’s development, and permanently alienate his affection.

Jia Cardinal Spring Yuan-chun shrilly asserts the perquisites she believes devolve upon her promotion to the Imperial Bedchamber. She is blind to the fact her extravagant proclamations of eminence eradicate her stature and render her ridiculous.

The Matriarch, Bao-yu’s father, and Jia Cardinal Spring overestimate the extent of their “consequence,” inelegantly abuse the actual significance their stations confer, and fail to conceive their duties to the community that provides their supports and sanctions.

Their flaws make them discriminable as personalities and potent subjects for storytelling. Ultimately, though, their defects immobilize them. They force their author to represent them as caricatures of iterative arrogance and folly.

They are absurd people, but they are crucial to their narrative. Their imbecility and fixity make establish the archetype against which the novel’s heroic individuals define their distinction, dignity, and honor.

The Enlightened
We witness the fullest expression of Confucian consciousness and Chinese community at the funeral of Qin-shi.

Cousin Zhen, the head of the Jia family, feels deeply moved that the Prince of Beijing deigns to attend his relative’s memorial service.

Cao describes the scene with meticulous precision:

Cousin Zhen … at once gave orders to his insignia bearers to halt, and hurrying forward with his uncles Jia She and Jia Zheng, saluted the prince with full court etiquette. The Prince received their prostrations with a gracious smile and a slight inclination of his person inside the palanquin, and when he spoke to them it was not as a prince to a subject, but using the form of address he employed with speaking to family friends [Hawkes, i., p.286].

Zhen and his uncles do not degrade themselves by kowtowing to the magnanimous prince. Far from it.

The powerful men of the Jia family lay themselves on the ground in abject servility. In this gorgeously deferential gesture they acknowledge, symbolize, and glorify the regality of the Prince.

Their abjection simultaneously highlights the “consequence” their superior has given them. The kowtow honors the potentate. But it synchronously emphasizes to everyone who witnesses it the fact that a monarch has bestowed upon the Jia family enormous recognition, respect, and regard.

They are not equals. The Prince of Beijing is a sovereign. They are subjects. Yet, they also are “family friends.”

The grand and the less grand have crafted a masterwork of reciprocal identification. Joined in fealty to an infinitely complicated and subtle social order, they co-create a masterpiece of mutualism.

Commensalism
The Prince, Cousin Zhen, and his uncles do much more than transact a symbiotically beneficial exchange of esteems.

They also enact a metaphysic. They demonstrate that, although there are large differences in our socio-economic circumstances, we all are united in a community of commensalism.

The polity in which Cao’s characters reside is non-egalitarian. Their circumstances and experiences are grossly inequitable. But they all discover that identity formation cannot occur in a vacuum. They all discover that they must learn how to know, develop, and express themselves in a lifelong sequence of comparisons and contrasts with everyone else.

Cao’s Art
The Story of the Stone recounts a multitude of similar ceremonies between master and servant, man and woman, parent and child, rich person and mendicant.

Some of the novel’s characters are mighty. Others are miniscule. Some are sagacious. Others are simpletons. Some are good. Others are iniquitous.

All are necessary to one another. Therefore, all are worthy “subjects for inclusion” in Cao Xeuqin’s long, byzantine, splendid story – China’s most important and most loved tale of her minutely reticulated, venerable, very great civilization.

 

analects-of-confucious                              holy-bible-king-james

         The Analects of Confucius                                                              The Holy Bible

 

VII. Ethos

The Story of the Stone

The civilization in which Cao Xueqin lived developed a comprehensive system of beliefs and rules that intricately codify every facet of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Its tenets are expressed most influentially in The Analects of Confucius .

The Analects is not a theological tract. It is a work of teaching: a collection of sayings that explicate the nature and structure of reality, and impart a cohesive moral and social ethicality.

In the Confucian culture individuals have responsibilities and duties, not prerogatives and privileges.

We all must venerate the essential and inalienable architectures of order: civilization, community, family, rank, and responsibility. We must abnegate our selfhood and unconditionally serve the imperatives of stability, the needs of our family, and our obligations to those placed above and below us in the pyramidal social fabric.

Secularism
Confucianism is an entirely secular philosophy. It asserts a wholly humanistic vision of lofty ideals.

Its commandments are purely consensual. No deity demands faith, coerces obedience, rewards virtue, or punishes vice.

Confucianism recognizes no Supreme Being, no hypothesis of beatific ordination, and no principle of correlation between our personhood and our experience of existence.

The Stone portrays mortal tellurian life as the sole plane of our existence. We live a single life span in a universe that is indifferent to our presence, our particularity, our sensations, and our will.

Fatalism
This most laic of civilizations conceives that everything about our experience is predestined and, often, inimical to our happiness.

Position, power, and privilege are conferred arbitrarily, usually by birth, and may be withdrawn at any moment. Impropriety and transgression almost certainly will provoke harsh punishment. Goodness and decorum will not necessarily produce advantages and pleasures.

There’s No Arguing
Cao repeatedly emphasizes this desiccative metaphysic. It is The Stone’s foundational ethos, the narrative’s organizing principle, and the controlling dynamic of its characters’ lives.

Of a remarkable young servant called Patience, Li-huan observes: “Such a lovely girl. She carries herself with dignity and grace. No one would ever take her for a maid. But there’s no arguing with fate” [Wang, 188].

Madam Wang, a kindly woman, tries to console the savagely abused Welcome Spring: “You’ll have to make the best of it if you can, my child…. It must be your fate” [Wang, 279].

When she learns of the mortal illness of Dai-yu, Li-huan “thought of [her] rare beauty and her many accomplishments and reflected on the irony and cruelty of fate” [Wang, 300].

Again and again The Stone tells us our lives are determined by an all-powerful force we cannot comprehend, impact, or combat.

We can hope. We can try to live honorably, propitiate society, and conciliate the cosmos. In the end, there is no arguing. We are ruled by and we must accede to an omnipotent agency we cannot understand, mollify, resist, or rationally resent.

Lovelessness
The Stone’s characters occasionally enjoy momentary gratifications. Never do they achieve persisting happiness. It is particularly conspicuous that they fail to create and receive love.

Lovelessness is evident everywhere in the novel. It is most extreme in the relationship between Bao-yu and his father.

Bao-yu’s father conceives of his paternity as a plinth for his own empowerment. He issues injunctions, barks orders, exacts obedience, imposes chastisements. Not once does he offer his son loving counsel or nurturing protection. Not once does he emit even a single syllable of fondness and affirmation.

His conceptions of matrimony are equally impoverished. He regulates his wife, suppresses her will, and superintends her movements. Never does he give her esteem or endearment. Never, accordingly, does she give him affection or appreciation.

The father derives from his family life prolific intimations of his own “consequence” but he does not generate, gain, or seem ever to want any sense of joyful communion with his wife and their child.

His wife and son receive little more than misery from their experience with the head of their household. They do not bemoan this circumstance. It does not occur to them that we may cherish our spouse, adore our parents, and wish to situate and define ourselves in the euphoria and sanctity of earthly love.

Mutual Manipulation
Similar attenuation cripples the relationships between all the other women and men in the novel.

Throughout The Stone men almost always attempt to subjugate women. They stifle their lovers’ opportunities, circumscribe their activities, and often molest them physically.

Unsurprisingly, women respond by duping, deceiving, manipulating, and extracting advantages from the men who contaminate their lives.

As we have seen, everyone in The Stone derives important reciprocal benefits from their relationships: especially from the not entirely dissimilar relationships of marriage and bonded servitude. However, it is exceedingly rare for any person in the novel to procure meaningful and enduring intimacy.

Dissolution
Cao depicts a cosmos in which supernatural forces exist but are devoid of sublimity. He describes a human ecology in which people enmesh themselves in interdependencies but rarely engender mutuality, tenderness, and nourishing friendship.

The Story of the Stone is a saga about wilting and withering.

Imperilment, decline, and ruination are the narrative’s dominant elements. Loss is its most common event. Suffering is its most common outcome. Hopes, purposes, relationships, and institutions invariably dwindle, degenerate, and decay.

Cao’s dramatic pattern is to move his protagonists from possible security and proximal satisfaction to dimunition, disappointment, and death. Almost everything his characters build eventually disintegrates.

Disenchantment
This is not merely an authorial temperament, a despairing individual’s neurotic nihilism.

Throughout The Stone numerous celestial beings proclaim that all our ideals, goals, appetites, and actions are illogical, inconsequential, and doomed to frustration.

Above all, we are told it is delusory to love.

The Stone recognizes no God, but does deify disbelief and disillusion. At one point in the narrative, a being called the Goddess of Disenchantment epiphanizes herself for the sole purpose of proclaiming: “Love is an illusion” [Hawkes, i., 146].

Pride and Prejudice
An opposite ethos shapes Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen ebulliently affirms the western civilization’s core conviction that the universe is animate, just, and methodically responsive to every individual’s consciousness and conduct.

Everywhere in Pride and Prejudice we perceive a world redolent with intelligent design, radiant with consecration, and gloriously supportive of our spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.

The society the novel records is frequently banal, insensitive, and repressive. But also it is liberal, salubrious, progressive, and pliant.

Self-Determination
Austen never speaks of a God, The Holy Bible, ecumenical teachings, or an afterlife. She does repeatedly suggest the identity we construct will be adjudicated and requited during our life span.

People who fulfill their culture’s conceptions of decency and grace become appreciated, successful, and content. Those who do not become disesteemed and, ultimately, disenfranchised.

The novel’s responsible, respectable individuals, the good, the gentle, the generous – Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy, Bingley, Georgiana Darcy, despite her lapses, Mr. Bennet, despite his, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, Colonel Fitzwilliam – find their way to material comfort, prestige, love, and abiding happiness.

Pernicious, unkind, abusive persons – Wickham, Mrs. Bennet, the younger Bennet sisters, Lady Catherine, the Misses Bingley, Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas – progressively degrade and eventually disestablish themselves.

The Journey of the Enlightened
Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley are granted the highest entitlements their civilization can confer. They love, and they are loved.

They will live in stature and plenty. They will share their happiness and bounty with their blood relatives and the numerous retainers and neighbors who cohabit their sphere of influence.

The Journey of the Unenlightened
Because Wickham and Lydia choose to behave dissolutely, they descend precipitously. They plummet from the moderately comfortable circumstances they inherited at birth, become shunned by honest people, and will spend the remainder of their presumably short lives in degrading sensual addictions, pecuniary distress, and that most pitiable form of penury, poverty of spirit.

Lady Catherine is born to high title and immense estate, but she elects to become arrogant, domineering, self-centered, and self-serving. She will pass the remainder of her isolated days and lonely nights in haughty inertia and supercilious dissatisfaction.

Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas are not vicious people, but he is risible and she has sold herself cheaply for a modicum of monetary security and a mite of factitious respectability. They will subsist together in the animosity and tedium that are their sad preference and their tragic achievement.

Liberty
Jane Austen is an ebullient author. She confidently believes there exists an integral commensurability between the character we construct and the experience we receive.

Her art has many purposes and a plethora of themes. Her primary objective and her towering achievement are to demonstrate that we live in a universe benign in design, brimming with abundance, and replete with liberty.

In the world of Pride and Prejudice, nothing is preordained. All is choice. Woman and man, adult and child, we each of us during every instant of our lives invent our individuality, forge our course, and earn the existence we want and deserve.

The society Austen dramatizes is not an ashram. Its hierarchies are glaringly unequal. The preferments it allocates are asymmetrical. Many of its constructs are specious and damaging.

This is not essence, though. It is tapestry. It is the imperfect but adjustable topos within which every soul freely can develop the predilections and preferences that constitute our selfhood and express our meaning.

 

 

ja-seated-head-turned-rightward                 cao-cherry-blossoms

 

Chapter VIII. Expectancy & Sufferance

Antitheses
Pride and Prejudice and The Story of the Stone were written during a similar era in history, but they describe two antithetical worldviews.

Pride and Prejudice
The western civilization’s most beloved work of literature is pervaded by a spirit of expectancy.

Regardless of their position in society or the state of their fortunes, almost every character in Pride and Prejudice lives in a state of eager anticipation. Justifiably or deludedly, everyone believes they possess “consequence,” warrant happiness, and in the fullness of time will obtain it.

This is a narrative animated by delight. Austen and her protagonists are enchanted by life. They feel gladdened by the world, proud of their country, and hugely entertained by themselves and their neighbors.

Pride and Prejudice famously has little to say about the immense economic and political changes that are transforming western civilization in 1813: industrialization, urbanization, militarism, imperialism, slavery, the rise of science and technology, the Napoleonic wars.

These are not inadvertent lapses. Austen’s interests do not include geopolitics and macroeconomics. She is interested in individual people living their lives in small communities and, occasionally, in London or other English cities. She is fascinated by the phenomena of identity formation. She is wholly committed to exploring our relationship to society, and our discriminability from it.

The rhapsodic reception Pride and Prejudice has received for two hundred years suggests Austen’s concerns and the genius with which she renders them are of far greater importance than the historical watersheds, rulers, and warriors she sometimes is criticized for ignoring.

The root subject of Pride and Prejudice is happiness, as it is found and expressed in love. There is no other subject of greater significance in human life, and there is no other work of literature more momentous in its exposition and celebration.

The Story of the Stone
China’s most cherished literary creation is pervaded by a spirit of weary sufferance.

The Story of the Stone delineates a world that taxes our physical needs and thwarts most or all of our imaginative requirements.

No matter how “notable,” Cao’s characters realize their powers are fragile and their pleasures are momentary. Every moment of their lives they feel painfully aware that the few privileges and pleasures they accrue most likely will wane, ebb, or vanish in a trice.

With good cause they fear for their survival. Artless or accomplished, pauper or prince, every person in feudal China discovers that life routinely inflicts injury and loss. Destitution, disease, and death are rampant. Enslavement is endemic. Humiliation is ordinary. Deprivation is usual.

In order to attenuate the privations that are certain to befall them, everyone strives to minimalize their expectations. They ask as little as they can of life, one another, and themselves.

Because they know large and permanent fulfillments are impossible, they seek sanctuary in selflessness, stability, and stoicism. They sometimes indulge in fleeting flights of fancy. But never, ever do they dream of expansive, enduring ecstasy.

Insofar as the universe may be said to possess an animating spirit, its nature is arid, capricious, injuring, and intractable.

Ardent but epically frustrated, intentionally sublimated, politically tyrannized, denied any plausible ground for expectation, they reside in a surround of all-encompassing anxiety, aloneness, atrophy, and aching.

Two Spheres
Most western readers would expect that the citizens of feudal China would consider their existence unbearable and would abhor their lives.

Cao’s characters do neither.

They make no judgments about the nature of existence. They regard their ontology as ineluctable: reality actual, and absolute.

And they love their lives. Every person in The Stone relishes thinking, feeling, eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, working, playing. They love living, and they live with intensity, vehemence, heartiness, and zeal.

No matter how challenging life’s circumstances, no one in the novel ever wishes to die. Everyone loves living, thirsts for as much time as possible on this earth, and fervently does everything in their power to ingratiate the force of fatality they know to be incomprehensible, indifferent, and immutable.

This is the transcendent achievement of Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone teaches us the universe has its sphere. Humanity has its own.

 

 

          ja-head-cap                  cao-ink-sketch

IX. Life Lessons

Civilization & Consciousness
From these two extraordinary novels we learn a great deal about the ways in which the civilizations of Imperial China and Regency England shaped their citizens’ consciousness and governed their conduct.

We gain intimate insight into the manner in which people living more than two centuries years ago in East Asia and Western Europe understood reality, causality, emotion, knowledge, and belief.

We enter hearts and minds. We see how a wide variety of women and men envisioned themselves, projected their public identity, protected their internal personality, and enacted their desires.

Above all, we see the tenacity of our species’ will to remain alive. Not just to exist, but to wish and will, augment and ameliorate. Not simply to endure, but to try to make life better, to beget and build, to improve and advance.

Through two artists’ riveting tales of domestic life in the capital metropolis of Beijing and the rustic village of Hertfordshire, we witness the nobility and beauty of humankind’s indefatigable drive to persevere, progress, and prosper.

If not for themselves, for their children.

If not for their children, for their children’s children.

Regency England
The myth of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy teaches us that in the society of the early nineteenth century in England every citizen possesses the capacity to improve their inherited position.

Opportunities were disproportionately distributed. Conditions in cities and in the countryside were severely challenging for those not born to privilege. Nevertheless every person can achieve slow, steady progress.

Exceptional people – Elizabeth and Jane – can surmount all impediments, hurdle every barrier, and accomplish a swift, stupendous expansion in knowledge, adventure, stature, and pleasure.

If they prefer, individuals can remain stationary. If they want to, they can deteriorate. If they like, they can debase themselves utterly.

In its storyline, its certitudes, its imperturbable good humor, its serene and certain quietude, Pride and Prejudice establishes that in the early years of the Industrial Revolution the English civilization provides ample latitude for its inhabitants’ most powerful impulses.

Not enough latitude, to be sure. The characters Austen most values consider many of their society’s canons and customs outmoded, unjust, and irksomely restrictive.

Change is in process, however. Progress is manifest. The large majority of the novel’s people feel safe, content, and optimistic.

Throughout Jane Austen’s sublime novel we encounter a civilization that is secure, fundamentally fair, and swiftly improving. We encounter a nation that is rapidly developing into a political, economic, and creative imperium.

Imperial China
The myth of the Jia family, their friends, and the citizenry of Beijing teaches us that in Qing Dynasty China material and social advancement, personal happiness, and the experience of love are considered by the members of every tier to be chimeric illusions. People must inhibit their longings, at least appear to accept subjection, and perpetually accommodate seemingly intolerable artificiality and loneliness.

We learn that during the era in which Cao Xueqin created his magnificent novel China’s civilization could not identify, let alone solicit, nourish, and bring to fruition, its people’s elemental needs and most important desires.

Evolution & Revolution
The culture and country that inspired Pride and Prejudice stood on the precipice of epochal positivism and potentiality. It can be no matter for wonder that Great Britain soon would become and for many decades would remain the most influential and envied nation on earth.

The culture and country that inspired The Story of the Stone acutely needed to undergo revolution, and relatively soon would do so.

The Future
It would be valuable to compare similarly distinguished works of contemporary western and Chinese literature.

Were we to perform this exercise we might well reach a converse conclusion about the current condition and future prospects of the two civilizations now most prominent in world affairs.

 


 

NOTES

[1] There are several English-language versions of The Story of the Stone. All have been lauded, although they differ markedly from one another in phrasing, tone, and length. Because most of the novel’s western readers are familiar with two of the translations, I will refer throughout this essay to both. The renditions I will cite are: Cao Xueqin, The Story of a Stone, 5 vols., tr. by David Hawkes and John Minford (Harmondsworth, 1973-1982) [hereafter referred to as Hawkes]; and Tsao Hsueh-chin, Dream of the Red Chamber, ed. & tr. by Chi-chen Wang (New York, 1958) [hereafter referred to as Wang].

[2] In another essay I suggest that, although Jane Austen, Elizabeth, and Darcy often demur from their society’s defining designs, they also are profoundly susceptible to them. Please see: http://peterglassman.net/literature/jane-austen-in-pride-and-prejudice/

[3] It is a matter of much interest that relatively few people enter the imaginary universe of Pride and Prejudice. The body politic of Austen’s storytelling is considerably more restricted than that of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. Many nineteenth-century novelists are intrigued by a broad swath of humanity. Austen confines her art to a substantially smaller community of characters than her peers’.

[4] Consider this striking passage from Jane Austen’s Emma. We are told that, in a moment of acute vexation, Emma thinks: “Their being fixed, so absolutely fixed, in the same place, was bad for each, for all…. Not one of them had the power of removal, or of effecting any material change of society.” [Jane Austen, Emma, Ch. XVII.]

[5] This is not to suggest that Darcy’s personal evolution legitimizes the caste system into which he was born. Austen does not assert that England’s social order is natural and appropriate. Nor is she a revolutionary. Pride and Prejudice reports and reacts to what is. Its insurgencies are limited to mockery. Austen implies but never declares that the social order will progress in its own way, at its own pace, in a manner suitable to its civilization’s temperament and its people’s disposition.

 

Foreign Friend: My Life With The Geniuses Who Made Modern China

FOREIGN FRIEND

 

My new book is now available at Amazon: Foreign Friend: My Life with the Geniuses Who Created Modern China

For a sample chapter and ordering information, please click:

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The Boy Who Was Odd

All Drawings By Karen Lam & Rachel Lam Glassman

All Drawings By Karen Lam & Rachel Lam Glassman

Chapter 1. Oddball

Benjamin learned he was Odd when he was in the fifth grade.

He never had fit in well with other children. Especially with other boys. They thought he was too small, too clumsy, too gentle, and too bookish.

Each year Benjamin grew, but every year he remained smaller than his classmates. Not tall, not muscled, thin, and slight.

He never was athletic, and he had no interest in football, soccer, basketball, or baseball. He was not one bit competitive. He was a quiet, gentle person.

From an early age he was studious. He found every subject interesting, even though most of his teachers were boring. He liked history. He liked literature. He liked geography. He even liked handwriting.

Three subjects he more than liked. He loved math, he loved science, and he loved engineering.

He more than loved math, science, and engineering. He adored them.

Many of the other students considered these subjects incomprehensible and tiresome.

Benjamin thought math, science, and engineering were romantic, fascinating, and fun. He raced through his classwork, and finished every bit of his homework before he even left for home.

At night, in place of homework, he studied his beloved subjects at home with his parents and on his own. His mother was an engineer. His father was a doctor. They both excelled at mathematics.

Benjamin enjoyed school, even though the other children often ignored him. He preferred being ignored, because when his classmates did pay attention to him they usually laughed at him, teased him, and mocked him.

Before school, at lunch, at recess, and after school they made fun of him. They called him many unpleasant names. Skinny Minnie. Bone Boy. Teachers’ Pet. Brain Boy.

His friends Sarah and Thomas were brave. They kept telling the teasers to stop it, behave themselves, and quit being cruel.

No one ever listened. All they did was include Sarah and Thomas in their bullying. They called them The Three Geeks.

One day at recess when they were in the fifth grade, the roughest and toughest boy said Benjamin was an oddball.

That name stuck. From then on, everyone at school except Sarah and Thomas called him Odd.

Not Benjamin.

Just that unkind name, Odd.

 

Chapter 2

Chapter 2. Odd The Explorer

Because his classmates were mean to him, and because Sarah and Thomas moved to another city, Benjamin more and more withdrew into himself.

He decided he would ignore those who did not like him. He would read, study, and think on his own. And he would dream.

Because he was so advanced in his learning, he had an ever-increasing amount of time during his classes to slip inside his own mind.

He looked as though he was paying attention to his teachers. But he was not.

Behind his eyes, inside his thoughts, he dreamed about books he had read. Films he had seen. Places that intrigued him. Adventures he would like to have when he become older.

Adventures more and more often took hold of him.

At first, he dreamed boyishly about playing leading roles in historical figures’ exciting lives.

He was a pirate. He was a Greek statesman. He was a Roman senator. He was President John F. Kennedy’s best friend. He was a hero.

As he grew older, he dreamed he was an explorer.

Inside his mind, behind his wide open, seemingly concentrating eyes, he pioneered the Wild West. He discovered new trade routes for Queen Elizabeth of England and Queen Isabella of Spain. He led expeditions to the North Pole and the South Pole. He voyaged deeply in the most fearsome ocean trenches.

Later still, he dreamed he was a different kind of explorer. He pioneered breakthroughs in genetics. He pushed the boundaries of radical physics. He found cures for dreaded diseases. He programmed cutting-edge frontiers in computing.

Only once was he detected. In his Year II high school chemistry class, a teacher stopped lecturing, banged on his desk with his textbook, and shouted: “Benjamin, why are staring into space?”

Everyone laughed at him. They laughed especially hard because he did not hear the teacher the first time. The teacher had to ask him twice.

 

Chapter 3

Chapter 3. Space

Benjamin did not mind that his teacher had gotten angry at him. He did not mind that his classmates ridiculed him after school.

He was glad he had gotten into trouble, because his teacher had triggered something mighty.

“Why are you staring into space?”

Space. Outer Space.

The universe outside the earth’s atmosphere.

The immense, unknown, unfathomed, fascinating, infinitely complex cosmos.

Images swelled in Benjamin’s mind. Pictures flooded his thought. Planets, moons, stars, galaxies. Gas, light, particles, forces beyond comprehension. Bountiful, vast, beautiful.

Unknown. All unknown. Waiting to be explored. Waiting, waiting.

 

Chapter 4

Chapter 4. Passions

Benjamin’s dreams became his passions.

All through his remaining high school years, all through his university years, he studied every aspect of space science that he could find.

His parents and his teachers encouraged him, helped him, nurtured him.

So did his classmates, once he reached university. In university no one believed a person who loves learning is Odd.

And in university no one cared what size Benjamin was. They just respected his intelligence, admired his dedication, and honored his gentle, kindly, truthful nature.

 

Chapter 5

Chapter 5. Mission

One day, one of Benjamin’s professors in graduate school mourned that rocket science was not solving the fundamental problem in space science.

Professor Mufsta ran her fingers through her hair, crossed her arms on her lecture stand, and cried: “It remains impossibly expensive to launch a spacecraft. How can we understand the universe if we cannot regularly and routinely explore it?”

Again, as had been the case so many years before, Benjamin’s mind lit up.

Math. Science.

Discovery.

Explorer.

After class, Benjamin sat with Professor Mufsta in her office. They talked for hours about the many problems that make rocket design so challenging, rocket launches so dangerous, spacecraft so expensive, space science so limited.

“Math. Science. Engineering. These are the problems,” Professor Mufsta explained.

Math. Science. Engineering. These are the solutions, Benjamin thought.

 

Chapter 6

Chapter 6. Genius

This has been the story of Benjamin.

When he was a boy, some people called him Odd. When he found his genius, no one called him Odd any longer. They called him Hero.

This is because Benjamin set free his love of mathematics, his love of science, and his love of engineering. He invented a way for human beings much more safely and much less expensively to build, launch, propel, navigate, and recover spacecraft.

That is not all.

He also invented a way for people who are not mighty astronauts to travel in spacecraft. People who are strong, and those who are less strong. People who are physically powerful, and those who are less powerful.

Engineers, scientists, mathematicians, doctors, teachers, painters, poets.

All manner of people. All manner of explorers.

Even Benjamin himself.

Many times Benjamin voyaged beyond the earth in the spaceships he invented. Many times Sarah and Thomas were able to come with him.

Many thousands of heroes travelled in the spacecraft he created. They found wonders in Outer Space.

No one ever thought the genius who paved their way was odd.

 

Robin Williams: The Anguish Of Identity

Robin Williams

Man I’m just tired and bored with myself …
Message keeps getting clearer
Radio’s on and I’m moving ‘round the place
I check my look in the mirror
I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
– Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark

 

The Myth We Loved
We did not love Robin Williams because he was the most hilarious man in the English-speaking world. We did not love him because he was a person of genius: stunningly intelligent, epically inventive. Nor did we love him because we treasured his compassion, sweetness, honesty, and loyalty.

We did love these qualities. We loved his preternatural capabilities. We loved his extraordinary craftsmanship.

Most of all, though, we loved his individualism. No one else was remotely like him.

He was not just unique. In our lifetime, no other professional entertainer has seemed so secure in his singularity, so fascinated by his exceptionality, so comfortable with his extreme, seemingly untrammelled personhood. We loved Robin Williams for many reasons, but primarily because he seemed to incarnate and exult in the experience of identity.

We were right about his radical individuality. We were wrong about his comfort with it.

 

The Real Robin

Robin Williams made mesmerizing art from his experience of identity. But his shocking suicide makes it unmistakably clear that he could not tolerate and, in the end, could not inhabit his individualness.

We always knew he was in terrible pain. We would need to be insensate to have misconstrued the sorrow in those wan, weary eyes, the misery in the lines that ravaged his open, forthright face, the suffering that shaped his comedy, the torment that fueled his madcap, sidesplitting hilarity.

 

Comedy, Genius, And Pain
This is universally true of humor. It is true of farce, above all: the slapstick, burlesque, buffoonery, at which Robin excelled.

Even while we guffaw, we know we are laughing at life, society, civilization, other people, and, especially, ourselves so that we will not have to shriek or scream or weep.

And even while we are admiring brilliance, wondering at its miraculousness, we know pain invariably accompanies genius. Incubates it, forms it, funnels it, comprises its essence, inspires and infuses its activity.

Artistic genius in particular.

It is a commonplace to associate creativity with neurosis.* There can be no question that imaginative invention almost always proceeds, if not from psychoneurosis, certainly from suffering. Usually, though not always, from acute discomfort in childhood.

Deeply contented people rarely react to the world with inventive genius. Pathbreakers, pioneers, innovators, originators commonly live in intense, immitigable, inexpressible discomfort and sorrow.

 

The Anguish Of Identity

Genius varies widely. Pain does not.

Sometimes pain has physical origins. Chronic physical pain is always oppressive, and can be horrid.

Worse, much worse, is psychological pain. Spiritual tribulation. Internal affliction, inflicted by our belief that we are inadequate, unsuccessful, not worthy of love, repulsive, repugnant.

In all his roles, comedic and dramatic, we always could see how vulnerable Robin was. How he yearned for acceptance and approval. Hungered for admiration, affection, companionship, inclusion.

Love.

We could see this wondrously gifted person lived with severe depression, anxiety, and grief. We knew he repeatedly, sometimes addictively, sought relief in liquor, remedy in narcotics, and found these bathetic recourses even more devitalizing than their source sufferings.

We knew he tried to stop his substance dependencies and behavioral addictions, did stop, off and on, but could not stop the sweeping sadness, the cataclysmic despair, that was elemental to his genius and formative of it.

We are not geniuses but we all understood Robin’s despair, and to one extent or another we all share it.

We know this desolation as the anguish of identity.

The preposterousness of being who we are. Dancing in the dark, as Bruce Springsteen calls it in his masterful song.

The agony of being inveterately and irreducibly who we are. This face, this hair, this physique, this mind, these imperfections, these limitations of insight, these infirmities of will.

This incompleteness. These failures of the potentiality we can imagine, even envision, but cannot construct.

T.S. Eliot, who knew everything there is to know about the relationship of genius and suffering, once said that life cannot meet the requirements of the human imagination.

I think the opposite is true. I think we believe that it is we who cannot measure up to the profundity and purity we see all around us. We cannot equal the magnificence and beauty we everywhere behold. We cannot accord with the glory or deserve the grace that abounds all about and, at times, within us.

Robin Williams knew so very much. He gave us incomparable laughter, excitement, pleasure, and hope.

As we exulted in his humor, his theater, his consciousness, his character, we imagined that he joyfully had embraced his wondrous identity. If he could do this, we thought, perhaps we might too.

 

No Blame, No Shame

We were right that Robin was a wonderful man, but we were wrong that he was a happy person. A person who had solved the problem of living in calm and confident pleasure with his own identity.

The truth is he could not bear being who he was. In the end, he could not allow who he was any longer to exist.**

Since hearing the tragic and terrifying news that he had intentionally caused his death, I cannot stop recalling the pivotal scene in that sublime film, Good Will Hunting. The breathtaking passage when Robin, playing Dr. Sean Maguire, performing him luminously, repeatedly tells Will: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, son. It’s not your fault.

We thought it was the performer who knew what that character knows.

It was not. This was a role, written by another, staged by a great actor. Robin did not know in life what Sean knew in fiction.

 

Infinite Love

Robin Williams knew so much. But he did not know his suffering was not his fault. It was not his fault. It was not his fault.

He did not know there is no fault.

He did not know he was born into in a universe not of blame and shame, but infinite love.

He did not know that all of us, every one of us, are utterly lovable and utterly loved. Loved without reference to our imperfections and incompleteness. Loved without judgment about our frailties and failings.

Robin was a brilliant artist, but he did not know that none of us, no performer, no politician, no spellbinder, no lover, can create or coerce love, deserve or win love.

We do not need to. We are loved simply as we are, because we live in a universe that is all-knowing, all-forgiving, all-embracing, always providing, always accepting, spilling over with immeasurable abundance, meaning, beauty, pleasure, and peace.

If we will but look and listen. See and hear. Seek and receive.

 

Receive
The suicide of Robin Williams rends our hearts because we loved him. We loved him better than he could love himself.

We thoroughly understand how difficult it is to be human. We know the anguish of identity. But we loved what we knew of Robin’s identity. We loved his humanity more than he himself could.

I have no doubt the bountiful, beautiful soul of the human being we knew as Robin Williams lives still, and forever more will, in a dimension of existence we cannot fathom or name but one day will join.

May Robin Williams, this infinitely gifted, infinitely dear soul, discover now, in the eternal dimension, what he always could have known whilst he lived amongst us.

May he discover that he is lovable and is most deeply loved, because he lives in a universe of infinite, unquestioning love.

As do we all.

I believe we are born into life to learn this truth. To learn that we all exist in infinite and eternal love.

 

NOTES
* The best essay I ever have read on this subject is Lionel Trilling’s “Art and Neurosis,” in The Liberal Imagination (London and New York, 1964). In Moses and Monotheism, Freud memorably declares: “Genius is well known to be incomprehensible and irresponsible.”

** Robin Williams’ wife has announced that he recently was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. If you have this illness, or if you know anyone who does, please read my cherished friend Jim Atwell’s book, Wobbling Home: A Spiritual Walk With Parkinson’s [Square Circle Press, 2011].

In Memoriam: Lionel & Diana Trilling At Columbia University – With Guest Appearances By Quentin Anderson & Edward W. Said


You were the one who imagined it all,

All those years ago.

          – George Harrison

This essay was originally written for EXPLORATIONS, and is dedicated to its editor, Maurice DuQuesnay: devoted guardian of the flame.

Diana Trilling                    Lionel Trilling

                                             Diana Trilling                                                   Lionel Trilling

1.

When I arrived at Columbia University as a college freshman in 1963 I had no idea what a university was. I was a voracious independent reader but I had been poorly educated at several dreadful public schools in South Portland, Maine and, for the final two bland lonely years of senior secondary school, in a banal suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. If I thought about life experience or personal pathways at all, I regarded college as the next platform for a mediocre career as a competitive swimmer.

During the first week of courses my roommate said we should attend a class that would be taught the next afternoon by Lionel Trilling. When I asked why, he replied: “Because he’s Lionel Trilling, stupid.”

The name sounded mellifluous and I didn’t want to seem even more ignorant and provincial than I actually was, so I agreed. I brought a Norman Mailer novel in case the class was boring. It wasn’t. It was electrifying, transcendent, beautiful.

Professor Trilling entered a large timeworn amphitheater crowded with two hundred or more undergraduates, marched purposefully to the lectern, quietly set a battered handsome leather attaché case on a wizened oak table, withdrew several volumes and a cockled sheaf of notes, looked up at our large assembly, smiled, and said quietly in a gentle erudite voice: “Gentlemen.” He then commenced an hour-long lecture of stunning brilliance.

He referred occasionally to his notes, read frequently from each of the volumes he’d placed on his desk, and in his protracted extemporaneous discourse created exquisite prose. Light shone from him as he spoke. Not what some people call an aura, but a iridescent gleaming as if his extraordinary engagement with other people’s imagination, ideas, and ideals somehow was constructing within and about his own person a species of energy field, an incandescence of zeal, a supple lucency of fervor.

He structured his lecture as the first in a series of introductions to a two-semester course on twentieth-century European and American fiction. He talked to us that afternoon about Sir James Frazier and The Golden Bough, Friedrich Nietzsche and The Genealogy of Morals, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Notes from Underground, Leo Tolstoy and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Sigmund Freud and Civilization and Its Discontents, and the livid literature of Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. He wanted us to consider how radically the imaginative arts, literature in particular, celebrate, institutionalize, and yet subvert the authority of civilization. He said that throughout our course we would investigate the magnitude and the magnanimity of culture’s deep distrust of itself.

His learning was immense. I never before had encountered intellect, knowledge, and acumen of such capaciousness, depth, and cogency in an actual, existing person. In the books to which I had fled throughout my childhood and early youth I had visited with many masterful dreamers and fantasists: disembodied historical beings I collectivized, regarded as heroes of the human spirit, mythologized, and termed Authors. This was the first time in my life I had come into the presence of a fully individuated living genius.

Professor Trilling’s appearance was as striking as his speech. He was neither delicate nor vigorous. He was lithe, rather small, not muscular yet quietly forceful, elegant in carriage and graceful in stride, decidedly cerebral in character and spiritual in mien. Clearly, though, he was a person who had sought and was comfortable with power. His hair had whitened not as a wizening of elderliness but as an access of wisdom made palpable. His eyes, very bright, were set inside hollowed sockets darkened with a scholar’s fatigue and a deep soul’s deep suffering. His face was anything but effete. Anyone could see this man had lived broadly and had known pain and fulfillment, remorse and elation. He was consummately courteous, yet profoundly confident. He was august, and he knew it.

His range was enormous. He spoke about societies, polities, landmarks of scientific, political, and artistic achievement, fashions, movements, implications, anthemic meanings, the past, the contemporary, and the eternal – all with surpassing ardency. Had you been there that day (any day, I later learned), you would have encountered exaltation. He lived within and spoke from beatitude: a secured dominion of universal, ubiquitous, and utterly cherished cultivation.

His thought, supernally complex, simultaneously synthesizing and originating, evocative, impassioned, intensely spiritual, seemed less an allocution than a work of hallowed music: a requiem, a passage of Sanctus, not an academic prolegomenon. He made thinking and feeling the most consequential and dramatic of activities. He elevated scholarship and sensibility into sublimity.

Sublimity supported with catholic, fascinating, and exactly explanatory referents. With seemingly inexhaustible fertility he summoned into his lecture precisely pertinent, illuminatingly germane thinkers, scientists, statesmen, filmmakers, composers, painters, poets, dramatists, and, most of all, novelists. In that venerable fusty auditorium he made the wide world of humanistic culture not a museum or mausoleum but a scintillating tableau of urgent fundament that mattered most vitally to him, to us, and the entirety of our species.

Our commonalty within and beyond our individuation underlay everything he taught us. He insistently selected the plural pronouns. Never did he say I, or deploy any other displacing referent: you, she, it, their, them. Always he invoked we, us, and our. This made for a startlingly generous socializing and empowering across his large congregation of undergraduate students. A gentle challenge, too. We could not fail to understand that offering us inclusion in his wonderful community of consciousness conferred upon us solemn responsibilities of conscience and character. Not to mention work. With high and thrilling resonance we were being called to serious and sustained study.

His edification was a miracle. His mentation was a marvel. His voice was mesmerizing. Soft, cadenced, his parlance seemed liquid, a fluent unbroken ebulliently articulate flowing. His speech was nearer to susurration than elocution, yet it carried effortlessly throughout our sizable room.

It helped that nearly everyone was rapt. I rarely moved my eyes away from him. Whenever I did, I could see almost all my classmates were perched forward, fixed to the edge of their seats, intently focused, emotionally and morally moved. This man, this teacher, somehow projected his soul directly into one’s own by means that felt not pedagogic but akin to the divine. He made a prolonged oratory of sacral homily.

He knew his power. He understood it, and had become visibly comfortable with it. His eyes twinkled with aware pleasure in his mastery. He projected the vastly satisfied sense of a great craftsman in love with his calling and at joy with his work.

Almost all my classmates were transfixed. All but one. He ostentatiously read a newspaper, loudly flexed and folded its pages. Professor Trilling never glanced at him, never broke his rhythm, just sharply snapped the fingers of his left hand toward him although the rude reader sat far to the side of the theater seemingly beyond the lectern’s line of sight. He snapped loudly once, twice. When the student looked up, Professor Trilling did not. Still addressing us, peering and speaking uninterrupted into our midst, he aimed his left forefinger at the discourteous inattentive one and pointed toward the exit door. The student gathered his belongings and skulked away. Professor Trilling continued his lecture, didn’t miss a beat.

He spoke for nearly 50 minutes that passed in a trice, then concluded with a breathtaking flurry of summary lustrous intelligence. He briefed us on our next class and assigned us numerous intriguing readings with which to prepare. The class hour struck, a corridor bell rang over his final words. He nodded, said “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” folded his papers, repacked his briefcase, and departed. Not until then did anyone stir.

Awe, wonder, obeisance. I could not move.

My roommate laughed, hauled me up, and marshaled me toward our next class, required Mathematics 101, a nightmare. Midway through I surreptitiously left, wobbled around our campus bustling with teachers, staff, and students scurrying, chatting, playing Frisbee, eating snacks, sunbathing in the September sunshine. For a long while I lay supine on a manicured grassed quadrangle in front of our central library and stared lovingly at a long string of canonical authors’ names carved in limestone frieze like single-word invocations to the majesty of scholasticism. My life had been changed forever by a being whom I knew to be real, but believed might also be seraphic.

Time passed. As the afternoon drew on I stumbled into our imposing library, made my way to the card catalogue, found Dewey numbers, crept into the stacks, and discovered that my seraph had written a great deal and was universally regarded as a thinker and critic of world-historical importance. Late for swim practice, rightly fearful of our imperious coach, I borrowed Matthew Arnold and sprinted to our locker room.

The swimming pool was the perfect place to be. Alone, anonymous, supported and sustained by the water, stroking and kicking reflexively, looking at nothing and no one, I recovered the lecture’s magnificent content and intoxicating tone. Surging through lap after lap, I realized with a rush of exhilaration that the art of story and the art of speaking, the arts I always had loved, were not idle entertainments. They were, as Professor Trilling engaged them, hallowed repositories of ultimate meaning. And the love of them constituted not a pernicious evasion of obligation and duty, but a field of study – nay, a profession.

Late that night I telephoned my beloved father, an inveterate burlesque joker, and asked if he ever had heard of Lionel Trilling.

“Trilling?” he said. “Lionel Trilling? O, of course. The starting right-side tackle for the Detroit Lions. He’s a godless corpulent lout and a filthy player, and I advise you to stay the hell away from him.”

I didn’t take my Dad’s advice. I devoted the remainder of my college years to staying as close to Lionel Trilling as I could. My swimming suffered, but I learned ever so much about literature, life, and how important it is for a young person to find a hero, accede to reverence, breathlessly venerate, and respectfully emulate.

2.

My teammates found it odd that I attended every class Professor Trilling taught. Well, every class he would allow me to attend. He said I could not audit his graduate seminars. Despite his reputation for coldness he said this kindly, even fondly.

My classmates considered it a matter for hilarity that I timed as many of my movements as possible to intersect with Professor Trilling’s. I knew his routines: when he walked from his apartment on Claremont Avenue to his office, when he walked between his office and his classes, when he returned home. I tried to make my pathways cross his, and frequently succeeded. Acquaintances and strangers hovered nearby to observe and, when he was out of earshot, to deride me. But I believe they secretly admired and maybe envied my hero-worship, and wished they too had discovered an inspirer. In those days most young people went to university with the hope that they would find muses and motivations to inform and animate their consciousness and career.

Looking back, I can see that Professor Trilling swiftly discerned my madness and was aware of my friends’ empathetic mockery. I think he felt amused by my infatuation. He less and less looked surprised to be encountered, greeted, and asked after. His eyes sparkled a bit, he smiled, at first faintly, then more openly.

Increasingly he invited me to walk with him. He asked after my interests and habits, whom I was reading, what I was exploring in the city. I never dared ask after his personal affairs but we did discuss topical events, his visions and views, national politics, and the burgeoning revolution in American and European populist arts, especially movies and music. I must have been the most annoying of creatures, but I gradually became an accepted familiar.

This was the era of the singular greatness of Columbia’s Department of English. Edward W. Said, Steven Marcus, Quentin Anderson, F.W. Dupee, Carl Hovde, John D. Rosenberg, Kenneth Koch, Michael Wood, Edward Taylor, George Stade, A. Kent Hiatt, Howard Schless, Robert Alter, John Morris, Morris Dickstein, Homer Brown, Leo Braudy, Werner Sollors, Michael Rosenthal, Herbert Leibowitz, and many other exceptionally gifted Professors, Associate Professors, Assistant Professors, and Lecturers were joined together in arguably the world’s finest and most collaborative community of research and teaching scholars in the vital field of cultural studies.

Many became aware of Professor Trilling’s peculiar young devotee. Several went far out of their way to befriend me. Edward Said was especially kind and caring. He never asked why I so cherished my idol. No doubt he had felt similar instinctions for his mentors during his youth. When I haunted the corridors outside Professor Trilling’s always busy office, just across the hallway from his, Edward frequently beckoned me into his study, equally busy, usually far busier; then, during my sophomore year, into his home and his family. Fred Dupee adopted me too. Many of the professors looked after me. I believe this to have been our nation’s warmest and most accepting university faculty. Certainly it was among the most distinguished.

Those were halcyon years. I quit organized athletics, made few friends, did almost nothing that college students normally do, forsook the university’s distribution requirements, enrolled in more and more classes in English and comparative literature, read like crazy, wrote essay after essay, many stories, then multiple drafts of a novel. My teachers were wondrously gifted, riveting, elevating. Life in and around their redoubts in Hamilton Hall and Philosophy Hall felt electric.

Professor Trilling hadn’t much time to give and many claimants upon it, but he often let me talk with him about literature, psychoanalysis, and society. He especially let me ask him about Victorian England, the era and locus toward which I more and more flowed. His converse always sounded and felt like a work of consecration. The moment we parted I made furious notes. I still have many of them in my filing cabinets, cramped condensed recordings now in fading ink on decomposing yellow sheets.

Late one afternoon I wandered into his office with a copy of his wife’s anthology of D.H. Lawrence’s writings. I thought her Introduction was a masterwork. He said he thought so too. I wondered if he would take my copy home and ask Mrs. Trilling to autograph it. He laughed aloud, the first time I ever had heard him do so, then replied: “Why, certainly. Diana will be enchanted.”

The next morning as I approached for my diurnal interception he waved from afar. He had the volume in his hand, held it toward me with a flourish. “I thought we might just meet this morning. Here you are, my boy.” In her stately hand she had inscribed: With my greetings, and the hope that you may enjoy it.

Ever afterward we spoke comfortably together about Mrs. Trilling. I read everything she had published. One day I told him she reminded me of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot’s birth name. He threw his head back, deliberated for a spell, and said: “She reminds me of Mary Ann Evans too.” He radiated pride in her, and pleasure that a young person in an ever more mindless hedonistic era should find cause and will to admire her.

3.

At the outset of my junior year I became introduced to drink by a wayward classmate. Gin-and-tonics. My friend was an exile from Hungary, urbane, cynical, rather churlish, greatly more experienced in life than I, much looked up by us suburban bourgeois fellows. He told me gin-and-tonics are suave, cheap, and odorless on the breath. He assured me many, in fact most, serious writers drank them, so I did too. This was an important juncture in my learning. I learned I cannot drink liquor.

One afternoon thereafter, much of it dissipated at a local watering hole on upper Broadway, I waited soulfully outside Professor Trilling’s office, leaned one shoulder heavily on the corridor’s walls, the other on his doorjamb. I wanted to talk with him about, I don’t know, God, mankind, truth, justice, the state of the world, the Kennedy brothers, the ablative absolute syntax. He opened his door, shook hands goodbye with a colleague, and waved me in. Then stopped me short at his threshold, leaned forward, inhaled my noxious effusions – the putatively indiscernible gin residues in point of fact were detectable – reddened with anger, and said: “My goodness, you’ve been drinking. Go away. Come back when you’re sober.”

I thought he would never forgive me, but he mentioned my disgrace only once, weeks later, apropos of no seemingly relevant context. “Foul stuff, gin,” he said. “Particularly during daylight hours.” Not until recently did I learn he knew liquor as a demon in his own life. No one who interacted with him in his professional life could have guessed.

One day later that term I had an impromptu but mighty impulse. I summoned reserves of courage previously unknown and knocked on his office glass. When he opened his door, he looked unsurprised to see me, smiled, said: “Yes?” I breathed deeply, I’m sure audibly, gulped, and asked if he and Mrs. Trilling might like to come to dinner one evening at the apartment my roommate and I shared.

I never before had seen him look taken aback. Then he beamed. He seemed delighted. “Gracious, how thoughtful of you. We would love to come to dinner.” He searched his daybook, chose a date not far off, wrote down our telephone number, and said how pleased Mrs. Trilling would be.

That turned out to be a courtesy. We lived in a dilapidated set of rooms six stories above street level accessed by a dingy elevator that rarely worked. I had not known Diana suffered acutely from acrophobia. Heights were a torment to her. Neither Lionel nor she ever mentioned this seemingly prohibitive fact.

I walked home elated, climbed our stairs, up up up our awful mangy stairwell, burst into our hallway, shouted out my excellent news. Several friends were there. My roommate and they cheered with congratulations, excitement, glee. Then one of our friends, the daughter of an aristocratic family in Chicago, noted what we males, plebeians all, had overlooked. “You-hoo. Guys? You’ve got scarcely any dishes. You’ve got no silverware. You only own three chairs. I bet you don’t even have one candle.”

Doom, gloom. But no worries. It was a more communal age, we were young, and this was an occasion, a triumph, in which we all shared. Everyone we knew united with us in our happiness: Lionel and Diana were living legends on our campus.

Our friends exuberantly pooled their resources, moved every credible item of furniture and furnishing down their buildings’ flights of stairs, up ours. Vases appeared, a tarnished candelabrum, a serviceable table cloth, four napkins, four mismatched napkin rings, two ash trays. I bought what a salesman assured me were suitable wines: two jugs of abhorrent burgundy from California. Our debutante friend was a skillful cook, and she said she would recruit a helper. She promised to prepare a main course and dessert, both with sauces. Her sous-chef would make alluring appetizers and accompaniments.

Much tumult ensued. Time fled. The day dawned. Dreadful weather. I cleaned our apartment like crazy, scraped and scrubbed a generation’s crud. Our chefs arrived in early afternoon to begin their work. Hordes stopped by to have a look, give advice, buck us up. One brought flowers for our table. Another delivered a multitude of candles and a tankard of incense, which we thankfully forgot to ignite.

Darkness fell. Terrible storm outdoors. The Trillings did not telephone to cancel. Our clocks ticked loudly. The hour drew nigh. The elevator squealed. The doorbell rang. I looked at my hands: not trembling. I looked at my face in the mirror: not drooling. Tried to appear adult, composed, confident. Swung open the door.

There they stood, she in front. She gave such a smile, held out her hand, and said: “Hello. I’m Diana Trilling.” We had not yet met, had never before laid eyes on one another. “How kind of you to ask us.”

At my mother’s insistence I had rehearsed saying How good of you to join us, won’t you please come in? But I was tongue-tied with gladness, so I just gave her an unplanned spontaneous hug. She laughed aloud, strode into our place, looked about happily.

I took their coats and introduced them to their chefs. The Trillings were amazed and amused that these good young women, eminently successful students, were helping us take care of them but not joining us for dinner. Diana talked with them at length as they completed their cookery, asked about their experiences before and at university, their opinions, hopes, dreams, fears.

My roommate and I sat with Lionel and listened happily. Lionel often interjected with questions and comments. Then they turned to us, asked about our aspirations, our work, who was teaching us well, which courses we liked, which seemed less effective, what mattered to us in the worlds of economics, politics, the arts, what we were seeing and doing in New York City, how we were managing our early years away from home. We all drank wine.

Somehow magic took place. There was no stiffness, none at all. The Trillings talked with us openly and fluidly. It turned out no undergraduate students ever before had invited them “into their lives,” as Diana put it. They seemed fascinated to visit with us.

We all pressed our friends to join us for dinner, but they refused. Our sous-chef had to attend a concert. Our head chef looked at her watch grandly, and said: “O, I never dine before 9. It’s vulgar.” Lionel grinned, Diana hooted.

Dinner was delicious. I think the Trillings had a very good time. They knew we lionized them, they enjoyed it, they authentically were curious about us, our generation, what it was like to study at Columbia, our teachers, our families, our outlooks, our plans for the future. They loved being asked about their world. I asked them so many questions. Their patience and pleasure seemed then, and seems now, otherworldly. As does their passion. They were passionate about everything: people, ideas, books, our time, the past, tendencies, trends, transitions, tectonic shifts.

They loyally asked for several servings of everything and heroically drank all our wine, which must have been execrable. We couldn’t afford much.

Quite late in the evening, Diana looked at her watch and said: “Lionel, we must let these young men return to their studies.” They rose, let us help them with their coats, never made reference to the storm raging outdoors, thanked us quietly. Diana kissed my cheeks, smiled maternally, and said: “Please say hello to your parents. You certainly have been well raised. And please will you thank your charming friends for us?”

In later years I spent a considerable amount of time with the Trillings. I always wanted to thank them for being so gracious and good to us, but we never mentioned that wonderful evening again.

 

 

Quentin Anderson                                    Lionel & Quentin in Rye, England 

                                           Quentin Anderson                               Lionel and Quentin in Rye, England

4.

When I graduated from college I had accrued more than 90 units in English, far in excess of what a major field was meant to entail. This disproportion extended across my curriculum. I had failed to meet many expectations. In particular I had fulfilled few of the distribution mandates in mathematics and the sciences.

Our kindly Dean exempted me from my undergraduate credit requirements. The university’s graduate school offered me a full scholarship to study for the Ph.D., and to receive a small stipend as a teaching fellow. Lionel was adamantly opposed to these decisions and vigorously told me so. He sought me out – the first time he ever had reversed our pattern—and said emphatically: “I never would have done what the Department has chosen to do. You are not suitable for this award.”

I knew why he felt this way. He regarded me as an enthusiast, perhaps a sweet person, not a scholar, not orderly, not a potentially professorial person. I didn’t chafe at his objection, respected him for telling me, and never experienced a young man’s wounded Just you wait, I’ll show you reaction. I felt neither injured nor insurgent because I hadn’t applied for the award, hadn’t expected it, and had scarcely a clue about what I intended my career and destiny to be. I had made application to Columbia’s graduate program solely because I loved my studies too much to contemplate their end.

I did believe that, given Lionel’s dismay and my increasing age – I was all of 22 years – I should become more discreet about my worshipfulness. I never again enrolled in any of his classes, stopped intertwining our paths, and only seldom visited his office. He who was the embodiment of tact understood and I believe approved of these decisions.

In time, however, I returned to one of his classrooms. In September of the second year of my graduate study he asked me to serve as a preceptor in his twentieth-century literature course. I was to conduct sectional classes of his large lecture audience, and mark and grade his students’ term essays. He would review my comments and grades, and add brief remarks and a grade concurrence or adjustment to each paper. With his habitual generosity he said: “I will return all the essays to you before distributing them to their authors so that we can ensure you approve and accept my addenda. I consider it essential that our work on their behalf be mutual and collaborative.” This to a novitiate from the preeminent man of letters in the English-speaking world.

My handwriting was execrable then, and remains so. In the course of our first conversation about my preceptorship I asked him what I could do to protect his students from my illegibility. “I don’t know that you can protect them, unless you type your responses. In any event, your orthography is far worse than your penmanship.” He was right. My spelling is horrid, and in those days there existed no computers and no systems of spell-check software.

His colleague and close friend, Quentin Anderson, another of my beloved teachers, was sitting in Lionel’s office as we spoke. Professor Anderson was celebrated on our campus for his unique mingling of brilliance, polysemy,  portentousness, Johnny Cash basso voice, and boundless respect and affection for his students. Everyone who knew him well called him Q. Years earlier during a raucous night in our freshman dormitory I dubbed him Pontifex, and the name stuck for a season or two.

Q chuckled, gestured imperially with his ubiquitous pipe, and intoned: “Do type, lad. Were I you, I would type my shopping lists.”

I asked for their counsel about making comments on essays and awarding marks. They talked with me for a considerable time. Their advice was suffused with ardor. Throughout their long dithyrambic dialogue I kept thinking: How they love teaching. How they love our college. How they love our profession.

The early autumn light was fading. Morningside Heights is pleasing to all senses in all seasons, but especially during the fall months. The window was open. Crisp air flowed in, redolent with the scents of the Hudson River, chestnuts, turning leaves, someone’s brazier, chicken and pork cooking somewhere. Students played softball on lawn below, children dashed about on the steps of Low Library. The fountains plashed, the children’s shrieks and laughter echoed off the brickwork.

Q told me I always should expect of all students who came my way nothing less than the highest measure of engagement with their texts and the fullest possible response to the topics they had chosen.

Lionel leaned back in his chair, linked his hands behind his head, and said: “Young people want that. They need it. Not just with respect to their essays and examinations, of course. With respect to every element of their thought, their sensibility, their moral imagination.” He stood, thrust his hands in his pockets. “This is vanishing from modern life. The gauge of engagement. The measure of earnestness. The touchstone of one’s maximal capability.”

He returned to his chair, leaned urgently across his desk. “Gauge? Measure? Touchstone? Receding. Fading. Vitiating.” He frowned with worry, lit a cigarette, brandished it as he spoke. “The sense of criterion is not a consciousness, it’s canon, and we must preserve it.” He recovered his equanimity, smiled warmly. “This is one of the ways in which the study of literature and the making of criticism are acts of civilization, coextensive with it.”

He asked me to focus as much energy as I could on our students’ – he called them “our” students’ – prose. “Not their thought alone, but their craft. The means and manner of our students’ expression must be distinctive. Coherent to be sure, but characterizing too. What is the nature of this essayist? Who is the character we are hearing? Please probe that. Call for it. Demand it.”

He apologized for imposing a welcome charge. “I’m afraid this will cost you much time. So many papers, all of which require an insistency of reaction.”

Q rumbled deeply within his remarkably broad chest. “Send them back to their forge, lad.” He often called me “lad,” always with a twinkle embedded in his seemingly solemn eyes: the dark, grave, laughing orbs of Quentin Anderson. “Invite them to rewrite. Don’t order them. Well, unless you want to. Invite them. Give them their opportunity. See who takes you up. See who comes by to talk about it with you.”

Evening shadows descended. Lionel switched on his lamp. It gave his office a warm glow. I asked them how they first found their calling. Lionel said: “I am not sure we do find our callings. Perhaps they find us. Or perhaps they lie before us all along, and we struggle against them until at last we yield to them. Or do not.”

Q spoke of his father, the renowned playwright Maxwell Anderson. He told us he believed being the son of an author, a forceful person, originally led him to destructive detours, defensive maneuvers, primal reactionary monsoons, some compelling but specious, others merely strange: acting, grave-digging. Truly. For a time, he dug graves. He embraced academic life, or it came to him, only after undertaking a host of peculiar piecemeal jobs during the Depression and afterward. “Can’t fault the Depression,” he said. “The depressed one was me. I.”

He chortled, reminisced about his parent’s endless travails with the Internal Revenue Service. “The default judgment that bankrupted him would have sent him to prison, but he pledged he would write a Hollywood screenplay to discharge the finding, the fees, the fines. That’s why he wrote The Bad Seed. Odd, that. In life Patty McCormack was the sweetest child you can imagine, but she was terrifying in the film. Something there. It wasn’t just acting.”

He stretched, relit his pipe, misted a bit, laughed lovingly. “Anyhow. Do you know what my father did? When the studio finally paid him – that’s always an adventure, they’re the real thieves – he flew to London and bought a First Folio, gave it to me, stiffed the IRS.”

The phone rang. Diana was calling. She asked after him, reminded him of a social appointment. Lionel made his apologies. “Quentin and I are giving instruction to a young man. He piqued our vanity, and we got to gabbing. I’ll come straightaway.”

Later that semester, across the bottom of the first response sheet I ever composed for a student essay, Lionel wrote with red ink in his tightly spaced, almost crimped, unobtrusively stylish script: I agree with Mr. Glassman’s assessment, and apologize for not typing mine.

This addressed to “our” student who, in the waning moment of the final lecture before the midterm examination, had raised his hand and tremulously asked: “Professor Trilling, are we responsible for Huysman’s Against Nature?” Lionel smiled jauntily, and replied: “Good heavens, no. His mother was.”

5.

The late nineteen-sixties made a turbulent era. Those who did not conduct their late youth or adulthood during that period often conceive that those years must have been a time of great happiness. Liberating new mores, all manner of emancipations, wondrous technologies, rapturous artists, joyous radicalism abounding. Those who did live during that brief but potent epoch more often felt confused and anxious than energized and elevated. Especially those who felt devoted to institutions that foster continuity and constancy rather than conflict and change.

My sole contribution to the spirit of the sixties was miniscule. I long had noticed that Lionel almost never referred in his teaching or his essays to contemporary cinema or music. I was profligately interested in both. One day at the behest of yet another fit of impulse, I knocked softly on his door, as was my wont, entered his office, and gave him a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. These were the original years of vinyl imprints. He gasped, grasped the album, and clutched it, literally clasped it, to his heart. “Thank you. I am so glad. I have wanted this for months. But how could I buy it? How does one such as I do that? Ride the 7th Avenue IRT to Sam Goody’s?” Which is exactly what I had done, though I hoofed it back.

The next morning he came to my office. The college by then had arranged for me to have office space in Hamilton Hall, the center and seat of my long-loved consistory. We shook hands profusely, and he said: “Diana and I love the album. We love The Beatles.”

I asked which songs they most had liked. “Diana will speak for herself. I think highly of She’s Leaving Home. It is a substantive and significant work.” He paused, lit a cigarette. No mayor yet had banned smoking or soft drinks in New York City. “Most unusual, isn’t it? A brilliance so decidedly and deliberately collaborative. A genius partnered and collectivized, clearly by choice.”

I too loved the poem, but I said how cruel it is. Lionel had been standing. He sat, we both sat, and he spoke with utter genius all his own about the inherent cruelty of art. What he called its mercilessness, ruthlessness, relentlessness. “How cruel is Dubliners. How pitiless is The Magic Mountain. How callous, uncompromising, and unrelenting are the Red Cavalry Tales.”

He returned to the album. “The Beatles create uncanny haunting harmonics, but we do hear John Lennon’s voice above all the others. Certainly in She’s Leaving Home.” Paul sang the poem’s verse lines, John the brokenhearted but satirized parents’ recitative. “What sweetness there is inside that voice, quite indoors, deeply denied but undeniable. That young man interests me.” He stood abruptly, shook hands once again, conveyed Diana’s greetings, and walked off to his work.

That was shortly before all hell broke loose at Columbia. The epical student uprising, linked in part to the tragic war in Vietnam, in part to the tragic domestic terrorism of the Civil Rights campaign’s vicious resisters, in part to the polar shift in three generations’ and multiple subcultures’ world views, led swiftly to a small then a large student “strike” against our university and the physical occupation of its major administrative offices and classrooms. The administrators and civil authorities reacted obdurately, as the actions’ organizers doubtless had anticipated, forecast, and desired. Attitudes rapidly fractionalized and radicalized. Multiple groups arose. For some reason that I can’t recall 45 years later, each faction adopted variously colored armbands worn as insignia, brandished as designators. Classes ceased.

The faculty polarized almost as rapidly and fully as mindlessly as the students. Some affiliated with one or another student entity, sans-culotte or conservative. Others became honest brokers, go-betweens, well-meaning but preposterous sorts of servants: collectors of garbage, distributors of food and water or other beverages, cleaners and replenishers. Diana has written a definitive account of this episode and its otherwise inexplicable phenomena in a dazzling essay entitled On the Steps of Low Library.

Lionel believed these events and the repercussions they engendered constituted a crisis authentic and momentous. He considered that Columbia might not be able to reconvene its activities. He organized a meeting in his home. Subsequently he and a small group of the university’s most illustrious professors approached the president and trustees. The next day he told me that in the midst of the chaos and peril swirling all about our academy, all about the life of mind in our glorious megalopolis, our indispensable nation’s cultural and financial capital, the president kept the delegation waiting, dispatched his secretary to distribute canapés, and instructed her to ask them if they would care for tea. Lionel laughed heartily: by then his untoward fears had become calmed. He chuckled at the president and himself, spoke admiringly of Charles Dickens’s unfailing contemporaneity, adopted a mournful Cockney accent, and quoted one of Dickens’s greatest lines: worser and worser.

Suddenly he paused, tilted that arresting head of his, and said: “I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to conduct yourself in your position at this moment. Are your peers imposing very great pressures on you?”

I chuckled far less convincingly than he, and told him one of the undergraduate students whom we both respected had raged obscenely at me last evening: “You ***, you’re the *** oldest _____ man I know.”

Lionel snapped: “You tell that topminnow there is every difference in the world between integrity and entropy.” He smiled slyly, and added: “You also may tell him he ought immediately to remove his self-arrogating tuchus from our Dean’s office.”

I never before had heard him speak a single syllable of our Yiddish vernacular, let alone one of the many Yiddish words for buttocks.

 

Edward W. Said

Edward W. Said

6.

One day Edward Said walked into my office. He looked distraught, but in his customary courtly manner he asked: “Am I interrupting you?” I assured him he was not, invited him to sit, and offered him a cookie. He shook his head No, paced back and forth across my tiny threadbare carpet, and repeatedly dug his fine pianist hands through his then-abundant curly raven hair.

I asked what was wrong, and could I help? He sighed, cast a crestfallen look, sighed ruefully, and explained he had been visiting with Lionel. After extended discussion about the Department’s imminent reform of its curriculum, a pause ensued. Edward idly ran his hand across one of the many columns of closely stacked books. With open heart he told Lionel that from his earliest boyhood he had loved personal libraries, loved the sight and scent of shelved books, loved to speculate about the principles of their selection and preservation. Then he asked what ideals had guided the choice of volumes he maintained in his office? Lionel waved his hand dismissively, and said: “These? Oh, these all are tomes I’ve rejected. I store them here.”

I looked puzzled. Edward shuddered. “Don’t you see? My book is there. One of the rejected tomes, shelved with the others authored by a soporific surnamed S.”

He was referring to his first book. He had not yet written any of the extraordinary works that would compel the world’s attention and bring him global celebrity. Lionel must have forgotten that Edward’s volume was displayed in his collection of castoffs. He never would intentionally inflict a discourtesy or cruelty, particularly upon a colleague and friend whom I knew from his lips he profoundly admired and liked.

Edward, alas, was unabashedly, irrelievably upset. “I know it’s infantile, but this is mortifying. Whose good opinion would we rather have?”

I had thought Edward Said the most confident of beings. Certainly he was among the most talented, charismatic, and lovable of men. He projected consummate self-belief, buoyant self-assurance, infinite vitality, categorical virility. But there he stood, devastated, crushed – or rather sat, slumped, for he had flung himself into my sole visitor’s chair and leaned against its left sidearm slouched with grief.

He took several digestives from the packet on my desk, munched absently, and spoke, at first slowly, then more and more rapidly, about his childhood, his father, his mother, his lifelong struggle to secure his parents’ understanding and approval of their prodigally gifted son. Three decades later I rediscovered many of the gentle, vulnerable, sorrowing memories he shared that afternoon reflected in his captivating memoir, Out of Place.

The building’s strident bell interrupted our reverie. We both had classes to teach. We rose. Edward clapped me on my shoulder. “There’s no one else who has the Lion’s sway with us, eh?” He rumpled my hair. “Do you think he understands his magnificence? Do you think he realizes its power?”

I knew he did. He had told me he both understood and feared it.

One evening as we were conversing together about how I should help his students review for one of his fascinating examinations, Lionel had said: “I cannot tell you how to teach. No one can. You have your own voice.” He made a snorting sound, civil but contemptuous. “All those mincing pedants in Departments of Education maundering about their precisionist methodologies, scopes and sequences, best practices. Stuff and nonsense. Not for you. You rely on your own personhood. You hear your inmost self. You heed it.”

I murmured Matthew Arnold’s inspired line: A stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness. Lionel pounced: “Ah, this is oneself. But is it righteous?”

He had the most incisive eyes I ever have experienced. He looked upon me with their most piercing, penetrating force. He never had audited my teaching, but he said: “You do hear that voice when you teach, don’t you? It’s always there, isn’t it? You fear it a little, you don’t always like what it knows, you don’t always approve where it wants to go. But you give thanks for it and you heed it, don’t you?”

His eyes turned inward. His face flushed, then paled. “So – you receive our blessing and  you recognize its hazard. Our scourge. All those faces, uplifted, alight. All those eyes cast so brightly upon you, looking up at you ardent, allegiant. Not at you. Your voice. That not-oneself which is one’s ultimate self. You try to teach them to be chronically critical, but they could not be less inclined to ideate. They’re in a state. A rapture, I expect.”[1]

He flattened his cigarette in his porcelain ashtray. “We don’t care for them. Not as individuals. How can we? We don’t know them. But they do not commence to comprehend that. We have worked an enthrallment.” He trained his burning eyes on me again. “You do this too, yes? You don’t intend to, but you conduct them into a spell. You ensorcell them.”

He stood, put his hands in his pockets, paced. “And where are we leading them? Especially with regard to the texts we address: these modern novels, these modern poems, these plays, this all-subverting literature of ours. Where are we taking them?”

He returned to his seat. “They look up at you. There is power there. An influencing far beyond sway. Ascendancy unplanned, authority unwanted. This is not suasion. It is force. And should one permit a failure of character, that power – voice, the not-oneself – can become autonomous and terrible.”

He spoke bitterly about the enslaving articulacy of evangelists, cultists, doomsayers, then angrily about the repellent spellbinding savaging oratory of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung. “Pol Pot too, for all I know. They brooked no limit to voice, no boundary to its dominion. They allowed it infinite jurisdiction. And did they not love that? Did they not seek it?”

He knew I was writing my dissertation on Joseph Conrad. He smiled wanly, and said: “Who ever has known this more radically than your Conrad?”

This was one of the few occasions Lionel ever touched me physically. He reached across his desk, took my hand, held it for one moment, and said: “Be careful.” He called me by my first name, as he almost never did. “Be attentive to what your voice does to them. Be more than attentive. Be meticulous. Be mindful of this power you did not seek.”

I promised. I was much shaken. He nodded briskly. “I know you will.”

I never spoke with Edward about this conversation. The bell had sounded, and we had to depart for classrooms in separate buildings. Days passed. He was even then an exceptionally busy person. I did not create another opening to renew the subject, despite the fact we shared a great deal of time together during the ensuring months and years. I am not certain if Edward ever learned how fully Lionel understood his power and to some degree dreaded its magnificence.

7.

Fortunately a somewhat complimentary occasion did arise several months later.

It was the dead of winter, always a bleak but beautiful time in New York City. Returning to campus after a pickup football game, I had run into a minor spot of trouble in Morningside Park. A group of aspiring young hooligans blocked me on a walkway, bristled a bit, and demanded I give them my wallet.

They weren’t persuasively frightening – they looked as though they might be thirteen years old, maybe fifteen. I had come to the park to play ball, I was wearing miserably dilapidated cotton warm-ups, and I hadn’t carried any money with me. I explained this gently to the would-be tough guys. Their leader said: “Okay, meat. Then give us your football.” I blatantly lied, said the ball wasn’t mine. He asked whose it was. I pointed shamelessly at a group of the largest men we could see playing on a nearby field. The headman grinned, shook his head, and asked me what job I did and why on earth I’d come into such a dangerous park. I grinned back, explained my work, told them they ought to stay in school, make something of themselves, not end up in a wasteland prison. I offered to help them with their homework and tests, and told them where my office was. We all knew they’d never show up, but we parted with surprising solidarity and warmth.

On my way home I stopped at my office. Edward saw me, beckoned me into his, and I told him my tale. Lionel overheard us laughing, opened the door, peered at us with a comically inquisitive gaze, and with his unvaryingly exquisite courtesy asked: “May I join you?” Edward jovially waved him in and from a hidden bottle of Lebanese wine poured glasses for us as I recapped the story. Rain fell, turned to hail, rapped sharply on the windowpane. We toasted, drank our good wine, and spoke together against the backdrop of the showering sleet about how complex, mysterious, tragic, yet startlingly hopeful were our wonderful city’s seemingly internecine racial antagonisms.

I mentioned that it felt dreamlike: evening falling, Mediterranean wine, comforting leather and book scents, moaning wind, snowfall. Edward said he’d had a frightful dream the night before, one that often had recurred throughout his adult life. He dreamt that he somehow had fallen asleep outdoors in London, alongside the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Again and again his wallet fell out of his pocket, spilled open dislodging much cash and a sheath of credit cards. Each time this happened, gentle English folk picked it up, repacked it, and tucked into his pocket. He shook his head with his usual flourish, and cried: “They wouldn’t steal it. And that’s exactly what would happen in real life. It drives me nuts.”

Lionel guffawed. I’d never before heard him laugh so loudly, so unguardedly. “Good gracious, Edward. With all you’ve been through in your life, you choose to have nightmares about humane goodness!”

Many who have written about Lionel Trilling describe him as reserved, remote, even dissociative toward those who adulated him. I never found this to be true. Certainly not that late December afternoon in Edward Said’s comfortable office.

Lionel tilted his glass toward me, smiled, and asked: “What about you? Do you too concoct recrudescent nightmares about benevolent Britons?” Edward linked his hands behind his head, leaned expansively backward in his desk chair, and chimed: “Come on. Fess up. Do you?”

I told them that ever since I could remember I had dreamed intermittently but with terror severe and sustained about being confined alone in an ornate elevator fitted with all manner of gilded appointments. We are ascending tranquilly. Suddenly the cable snaps and plunges the opulent carriage downward, downward, faster and faster. It never hits bottom, I never experience the crushing impact. Just plunge with fearsome interminable speed downward, ever downward, faster and faster.

We spoke for a time about several clear, indisputably demeaning Freudian interpretations of this baroque nightmare narrative. Then I asked Lionel if he shared Edward’s and my susceptibility to a single chronic lurid dream. I called it an unwelcome secret sharer – for the three of us shared a love of Joseph Conrad and his often ominous, spooky literature.

He seemed startled to be asked. He laughed uneasily, looked out the murky window, and said: “I do.” He drank rather deeply, drained his glass. “In mine, I am about to deliver a university lecture. I am prepared. Thoroughly prepared. The students open their notebooks, take up their pens, stare at me expectantly. Hundreds of intense, embodying eyes. I wait for the bell, give the class a moment to settle. I look up at the clock, look for a last moment at my notes, look at the class, and begin. My mouth opens. I can feel it loosen, unbolt, disengage, open. Nothing comes out. Nothing. I have become wordless. Stone blank. Gone mum. I cannot close my mouth. Nor can I move my head. I stand there before all those uplifted shining eyes, and I am immobilized in inalterable stationary wordlessness. Enisled in absolute aphonic dumbness.”

He looked at us gravely. “This, gentlemen, is my not nightly but frequent dream work: ensnared at a Hamilton Hall lectern in open-mouthed, stock-still, preposterous muteness.”

Edward leaped up, refilled Lionel’s glass, and, as strong men sometimes do, gave his stooped shoulders a nervous rapid squeeze. Lionel gave him in return a grateful glance, and said: “The crucible of the unconscious.” He lit a cigarette, pointed it at me, and whispered: “If you like, our secret sharers.”

8.

In 1972 Congress created a program it called The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, an annual program intended to bring before the nation our country’s most distinguished scholars of humanistic knowledge and wisdom. Congress legislated that this be the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. Lionel was named to deliver the program’s inaugural lecture.

The morning after the announcement of his appointment I was buying produce from a local purveyor. Diana came into the store. I effusively expressed my joy at the news, and showered her with congratulations.

She flushed, and exclaimed: “Isn’t it splendid?” She blushed outright, looked about sixteen years old, arranged her hair with trembling hands, and said: “It’s appropriate, isn’t it? After all, who else but Lionel?”

She chuckled shyly. “Enough. You know how Lionel loathes display. He would be furious with us for making this unseemly display.” I laughed at her, and said I was sure Lionel was elated. We hugged, and Diana said: “He is. He is, indeed. But still.”

She spoke about their plans, the ceremonies surrounding Lionel’s speech, the speech itself. Then she surprised me by saying with a frown: “He hasn’t a thing to wear.”

I mused what a pity it was that President Kennedy couldn’t organize the presidential ceremony for Lionel, and Mrs. Kennedy one of her iridescent galas. Diana touched my arm. “We met President and Mrs. Kennedy several times, you know. Mrs. Kennedy is gorgeously attractive, of course. She also is most intelligent. I had thought from her television appearances, her breathless recherché accent, her preoccupations with fashion, custom, style, mode, perhaps her beauty itself – I had thought she might be comely but vapid. Never so. It was ignorant and biased of me ever to make such a supposition. Jacqueline Kennedy has a high degree of intelligence, capacity, and judgment, and a considerable power of original thought.”

She blushed again. “Lionel once sat next to her at a dinner at the White House. Mrs. Kennedy is not an intentional flirt, but I think he developed quite a crush on her.” I somberly assured her she was safe. We laughed, and she said: “No matter what the mean-hearted say about the marriage, which after all was essentially European in its nature, I believe – no, I know – she loved that remarkable husband of hers deeply and dearly. Very dearly.”

One subject led to another. She ruminated about public figures they had come to know, what she believed about this one, knew about that one. Then she asked me about the Department, relations among the College’s faculty and those based in the university’s continuing studies and graduate divisions, the young teachers’ interests, our students’ concerns.

She knew I had launched a new course on the literature of autobiography. She asked about its etiology, the allure and salience of the subject, which texts I was asking the students to study, why this one, why not that one. We spoke for a long while about the invention of the self, the essential westernness of this construct, its intimate relationship with certain scientific, economic, political, and theological constructs, the singular consequence of Augustine and Rousseau, Montaigne and Mill, the stark differences among biography, diary, memoir, correspondence, and autobiography, and how interesting it is that Sigmund Freud authored one of the world’s least sensate, least self-aware, least interesting life narratives.

We reverted to the Jefferson Lecture. I asked had Lionel a theme in mind? She brightened. “Why, this is telepathy. He intends to speak about mind itself: mind in all its distinctively modernist manifestations.” She outlined what she thought he meant to discuss. His purposes and instances sounded fascinating, and of momentous importance.

She smiled at my enthusiasm, patted my arm again. “Lionel never will say so, but he appreciates his young men’s faith in him. Truly he does.” I laughed internally, because Lionel often asserted in lectures and in conversation that we infallibly may know we are prevaricating when we catch ourselves prefacing our falsehoods with such reassuring qualifiers as truly or honestly.

Much time had passed. We apologized to the patient greengrocer and said goodbye to one another. I paid for my purchases, and Diana turned to her shopping. As I was walking out the doorway, she called out: “I’m glad to see you are eating your vegetables, dear.” She cackled, waved archly, and pulled her shopping list out of her bulging bag.

I remember thinking as I walked home that it felt euphonic and somehow consoling that the Trillings shopped for provender as did we all, carried out quotidian life in our community, transacted daily in our locality, and seemingly derived much pleasure from doing so.

I knew with prophecy confident and certain that my great teacher’s national address would make a triumph. It did.

9.

One evening in 1975 I answered the telephone in my home. It was our Department’s chairman calling. Lionel had fallen ill, his condition was serious, and he would like me to look after his undergraduate class for a time. Lionel would speak with me about his wishes for the course. He or Diana would give me directions about the works under study and my conversations about them. I should do what I thought best about the next day’s lecture.

Lionel’s illness was very serious. He was not able ever to return to his class.

From the outset I realized it was impossible for me to manifest Lionel, replace him, or become a substitute for him, so I did not try. I undertook to explore the texts he had chosen in his spirit and with his objectives, but in my own manner with my own voice. I have no doubt his students felt frustrated that he could not be there, but their discretion about their disappointment and their compassion for his declining health were instinctive and unqualified. They were solicitous for his welfare, and exceptionally patient, sympathetic, and friendly toward me.

Initially I met with Lionel for brief periods to confer about his wishes for his course. In time he no longer could do this with comfort, so Diana became our intermediary. In our discussions and in his converse that Diana delivered, his commitment to his undergraduate students’ mental and moral development was absolute, and absolutely astonishing. His fame was at its zenith. He was by then surely the world’s most admired and most influential public intellectual. He had a vast audience and many passions. He knew he was living the final months of his distinguished life. Yet his principal professional devotion remained assigned, as always it had been, to college teaching and to young people’s enlightenment.

During the period when he could speak with me directly, we met for short times in his bedroom the afternoon or evening before I was to introduce his students to each of the books he had placed on his syllabus. I then would lecture for a week or longer about the text and the author we had discussed. I returned to him when it was time to conclude one reading and launch another.

Invariably he instructed me that I should teach exactly and exclusively as I thought best. I begged him to share with me his wishes for each of the authors and texts he had chosen. Always his paramount wish was that his students receive each of the writers and each of the works not as stiff soulless academic icons but as rhapsodies: talismans primal and consecrated, monuments of mind and heart alive, eternal, and holy. He wanted his students to fall profoundly and forever in love with thought, creation, work, individuality and community, the dominion of civilization and our struggle against it, human culture and our longing, our intemperate need, perhaps our obligation, to live outside and beyond it.

One night – he was in palpable but unmentioned discomfort – he spoke with intense emotionality about our calling and our college. His illness had altered his appearance and the timbre of his articulation. It had not diminished his intellect one whit.

Reclining on his pillows, cradled in his blankets, he said how much he loved his work. How much he loved literature and the life of the mind. How he loved writing. How he loved Columbia College. He loved our colleagues – he always called them “our.” Our campus. Our metropolis, and the complex, often fraught, interactivity between our university and its urban surround. What he called, in that glorious voice of his that hovered during his final frailty between resonant exaltation and pained whisper, “the consociation of our institution and the world’s most consequential city.”

From his bed he smiled at the immense and impermeable impact Columbia College creates for young people. “It is transformative, don’t you agree? One cannot remain as one was. One must become cognizant that one is birthed with various orders of self, and possesses full choice of preference among them. One must – living here in College for four years – one must become aware of and elect to move ever closer toward one’s highest self.”

He paused, let me help him sip from iced water. “The arts. Literature.” His eyes blazed. “Deep imagining. Our students receive a great deal at our university, but no other modality can inspirit them more powerfully or more salubriously than the humanities.” He grinned impishly. The seventy years of his age and the ravages of his disease slipped away. He looked almost a child, enlivened, happy, excited. “They ought to react well to the humanities. We are human, after all.”

There too soon came a time when Lionel no longer could continue his mentoring. I maintained our previous schedule with Diana. We met in their living room. She never discussed and tried heroically to conceal her grief and exhaustion. Each week she talked with me resolutely not about her husband’s and her own suffering but about his class, the authors, the books, their place in our culture, their subversion of our culture.

She asked often about my lectures. Were they finding pathways of their own? How did I feel speaking there all alone before so many? She held my hand. “I cannot conceive standing in front of so many young people three times a week, orating from the center of your thought, the heart of your heart, as Lionel and all of you do.”

I protested she mustn’t compare me with Lionel or any of our illustrious colleagues. She squeezed my hand. “I don’t, dear. You each of you are yourselves. What I am saying is that I admire what you all do, and I know I could not do it.”

She rose, paced back and forth across the room in her forceful but graceful stride. “Lionel often has told me there comes a point when a lecture finds a pathway of its own. No matter how well prepared, notes or full-bore text, there comes a moment, he tells me, when the lecture assumes its own life, asserts its own voice. Is this so for you?”

I acknowledged that it is. She returned to her seat, drank from her endless supply of tea. “Certainly this is the case with writing.” She spoke long and luminously about how she was born to write, how fortunate she was to have been born when a woman can write and publish freely, how blessed she was in her marriage to a husband immeasurably supportive of the vocation she needed and cherished.

I must have wept. She hovered over me with an absurdly dainty handkerchief she had drawn from somewhere: her sleeve, her purse, a cache by her couch. She poked at my eyes ineffectually. “I know. I know. He is dying. How ever will all of us who love him bear it when he passes from us?”

One week she surprised me by saying that Lionel enjoyed being read to. Would I be willing to do this from time to time? She said he had asked me to.

We were not given much time. His condition was worsening rapidly, and its remedies made it impossible for him to receive visitors. We never made mention of his illness, or how he was faring day by day. I just read, he listened, we talked rarely.

He requested eclectic material. Scenes from The Iliad, The Odyssey, King Lear and Don Quixote, a number of Wordsworth’s poems, many passages from The Prelude, several of Hopkins’s verses and letters, whole chapters of Huckleberry Finn. He told me how thankful he was that the royalties for the famed introduction he had written to one firm’s edition of Huckleberry Finn had allowed him for many summers to take his family to Europe. He regularly asked for Matthew Arnold’s works (but never Freud’s). He retained so much in his marvelous memory, but he loved hearing Arnold’s prose and prose recited aloud: he enjoyed, he said, Arnold’s vocalized presence. Above all others, he asked for Henry James. We began each visit with the opening of Portrait of a Lady – he called it the best beginning in literature – and Ralph Touchette’s farewell to Isabel Archer: And remember this, that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved. Ah, but Isabel – adored!

Once I reminded him of a comment he’d made twelve years earlier in my first undergraduate class with him. He was lecturing on the intricate interrelationships, what he termed the axes of symmetry, among the arts, economics, and geopolitics. Then he spoke of the crucial interface in the western Christian cultures between organized religion and the aristocracy, institutionalized spiritualism and wealth, what he described as corroborative means by which the circles of power in the European and American polities justified, expanded, and undertook to eternalize themselves. He looked up from his notes, and murmured: “That is why Chartres was built. To habituate you to a certain emotion.”

“Did I say that?” he asked. “Fancy you remembering after all these years.” I told him how much it had meant to me to think of that class when, years later, I found myself standing in front of the cathedral with my young daughter. “And did you share my presumptuous remark with her?” he asked.  “Did she think I was correct?”

We spoke rarely, but Lionel often made me laugh when we were having those final quiet times together. Humor, rich funniness, was an element of his identity conscious and conspicuous but somehow often missed by his disciples and detractors.

He seemed especially to like his readers to choose passages from among their own favorite writers and passages. I gave this matter much thought, and brought to our visits works I thought he might cherish as fully as I: pages and pages of David Copperfield, lots of Middlemarch, Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a number of lyrical passages from Doctor Zhivago. Jane Austen in particular, and most of all her delicious comedic forays. Her tender skewering of Mr. Woodhouse, her ferocious floggings of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her patient indictments and wise defenses of Emma.

He sighed with pleasure after we shared once again, for the last time, Mr. Bennet in full tilt. ‘I have not the pleasure of understanding you,’ said he, when she had finished her speech. ‘Of what are you talking?’ Lionel smiled, tucked his covers, and added: I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine. He was sleepy and very ill, but he retrieved that memory. Then he said: “Think of it. Think of it and wonder. She was not yet five-and-twenty when she began Pride and Prejudice.”

There came a day when Diana thought we could have but one more reading. I decided to bring to him passages from his own works that I most admired. This impulse touched him. He moved his right hand across his heart when I explained my purpose.

We read short but poignant passages from The Opposing Self, Beyond Culture, Sincerity and Authenticity – in my opinion, his masterpiece – and the ending of his haunting story, Of This Time, Of That Place. When I told him how much I always had liked that story, he replied: “I like it, too.”

I remembered vividly what he had said earlier about the importance of “deep imagining.” So I concluded by reading Tolstoy’s ingenious comment about poor Alexei Alexandrovich in Anna Karenina: He was totally lacking depth of imagination, in that inner capacity owing to which the notions evoked by the imagination become so real that they demand to be brought into correspondence with other notions and with reality.

I told him how powerfully he and Diana had given his students, had given all of us, access to that degree of depth, that bedrock of intentional empowered imagining. He raised his hand from his blankets, passed it again across his heart, then held it upward in acknowledgment and farewell. That was the final time I ever spoke to or saw Lionel Trilling.

Professor Trilling’s passing shocked our academy. For decades he had been the soul and the pride of Columbia University. He was not replaceable. Colleagues grieved his loss, and mourned him. In our class the day following his death many of his students cried openly. The loss of any other of their teachers could not have afflicted them in that manner.

Throughout the remainder of my service at Columbia I visited with Diana irregularly but often. In 1977 I left to teach at Tulane. We exchanged letters and spoke frequently by telephone. In 1982 I accepted an appointment in Hong Kong. We continued to correspond. After her vision failed I telephoned from time to time to hear her voice, ask how she was faring. She was fascinated by Hong Kong and China. Initially in her letters, later in our telephone talks, she rained upon me questions copious, complicated, searching, altogether sage in scope and scale. It was a joy to reply to her.

I did not see her again after I departed from Columbia. Nor have I ever returned to service at the university.

Diana passed away in 1996. Edward W. Said and Quentin Anderson died in 2003.

10.

By any conventional measure – time spent together, mutual human routines, repeated regularized social congress, common causes and committees, shared habits and hobbies – I did not know Lionel and Diana Trilling well. But I knew them in their life as souls. And when I was a young man I admired and loved them with all my being. I still do. They inspired me, and they still do. I honored them and longed to be worthy of them, and I still do.

Lord Byron begins Don Juan with the wonderful line: I want a hero. He goes on to call this an uncommon want, but I think it is universal and I know it is essential. In our youth we long to discover models of distinction who awaken our latent capacities, show us heights we otherwise would not conceive, summon and free our inborn craving for dignity, aspiration, endeavor, and achievement.

How good it is for an earnest young person to esteem adults manifestly nobler than oneself, vow to emulate them, strive to earn their notice and support. Revering authentic heroines and heroes arouses and makes active our innate need for just cause and right hope. Idolizing not peers but elders wise and worthy engenders young souls’ trust, seeds young minds’ faith and ambition, gives young hearts course and compass. The experience of having our moral imagination called to action is one of life’s most powerful and persisting blessings. Every civilization depends upon this momentous but ever rarer spiritual transference.

Lionel and Diana Trilling created many legacies. In my judgment the most important was the impress of their example upon the many young women and men who were fortunate enough to have known them, however slightly, to have studied formally or informally under their tutelage, and to have molded their sensibility and conduct in measure large or small upon their extraordinary example. I think Lionel and Diana were conscious of this, their highest philanthropy. I believe they were quietly aware of it, humbled by it, understandably a bit frightened by it, and individually and together committed to serving it.

In 1981 George Harrison wrote a sublime song in memory of John Lennon. With the intention of referencing Imagine, John’s most celebrated poem, he created a prayer called All Those Years Ago. Heartbreak rending his lovely ethereal voice, George tells his murdered friend he was the one who had imagined in their earliest manhood everything that he now and forevermore holds most dear in life.

When I think about Lionel and Diana, as often I do, when I miss them, as always I do, I hear George’s prayer for John. I know that, for me, as for many others, Lionel and Diana imagined and lived a heroic ideal of sentience, reason, learning, responsibility, graciousness, craft, and service. A life of kind, profound, and impassioned goodness.

As a young person and to this day, I have regarded Lionel and Diana less as world-historical public intellectuals than as avatars of love. Their love for one another makes metaphor for what is possible between woman and man. Their love of cultivation, connection, and community makes metaphor for what is possible among all humankind.

What kind of love did they advance in their teachings? What kind specifically? The kind Lionel defines so brilliantly and beautifully when he speaks of Jane Austen in Sincerity and Authenticity:

She was committed to the ideal of ‘intelligent love,’ according to which the deepest and truest relationship that can exist between human beings is pedagogic. This relationship consists in the giving and receiving of knowledge about right conduct, in the formation of one person’s character by another, the acceptance of another’s guidance in one’s own growth.[2]

This is what the Trillings imagined, all those years ago. This is how they lived, and what they taught. And surely this is what Tolstoy had in his preternatural mind when he referred to “deep imagining.”

The night before I began writing this elegy to my teachers, I saw Lionel and Diana in a lengthy dream. I never will forget them, but awake or asleep I rarely visualize them.

In the dream they were together, ephemeral and evanescent as vision incarnations usually are, but joined side by side as for so many years they had been during their lifetime. They hovered there in dreamscape, radiating their unique and to me indelible composure, wisdom, dignity, and distinction. Unusually for epiphany visitations, their eyes were markedly bright. They smiled at me, beamed really, and Lionel nodded vigorously several times.

I hope their unexpected appearance in my overture dream means Lionel and Diana receive this essay’s celebration, know its love, approve its purposes, and forgive its violations of their privacy.

 


[1] Twenty years later Bob Dylan wrote a similar confessional of discomfort and aloneness, a numinous song called Dark Eyes:

Oh, time is short and the days are sweet and passion rules the arrow that flies

A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes.

 

[2] Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 82.