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.


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.


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.


* 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


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.


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.


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


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.”


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


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.

Chichester Cathedral and the Meadow Bountiful: The Flock of Friends Who Saved the Humans Hideous


Ms. Chichester Cathedral, Nibbling In Her Beloved Meadow Bountiful
Ms. Chichester Cathedral, Nibbling In Her Beloved Meadow Bountiful



In Which Our Heroine Is Given Her Name By Her Loving Parents

Once upon a time there lived inside a hollow log in a hidden mountain meadow a wee brown chipmunk named Chichester Cathedral.

Chichester’s parents had considered many other names: Cleo, Calliope, Clytemnestra, Chanteuse, Consistency, Contemplation, Centrifuge, and Charleston Chew. But then Ma Chipmunk lifted up her tiny front paws, and chirped to Pa: “O my dear Chiclet, what are we thinking? We should not give our child a name that will become hard to spell, and hard to pronounce. It will be a burden to her.”

Pa beamed his dazzling smile at Ma, and cried: “Right you are, Ma. Our daughter will thank you for your foresight forever.”

They rubbed their whiskers across one another. Then Ma whispered: “How about Chichester Cathedral?”

Pa jumped for joy. “A name she will cherish. A name everyone can chirp easily, and joyfully.”


The Childhood Of Chichester

In Which We See Our Heroine As Her Friends See Her

Chichester Cathedral was a lively creature. Cheerful, busy, filled with boundless energy, she loved to race through grasses, climb tall trees, and scurry across fallen logs.

She had bright dark eyes that moved swiftly from side to side. They sparkled in the sunshine, and twinkled in the moonlight. Her teensy nostrils constantly flared as she sniffed the myriad scents of the fields and the forest.

Her tiny paws moved swiftly over every nut she found. She twisted each kernel, pip, and core with rapid movements of her diminutive delicate claws. Her sharp little teeth nibbled quickly. She gobbled some. But others she cut open gracefully, and carried off for her sister Chrysanthemum and her brother Chadwick.

Chadwick was little more than a baby, a whelp. But he considered himself huge in stature and heroic in nature. Each morning when he awoke, he stood on the cusp of the family’s nest, flexed his front paws, and chirped:  “I am The Chipmunk Colossal.”

Chrysanthemum was less grandiose. She began her day by cuddling with her Ma, Camilla the Kindly, and her Pa, Chronology the Younger.

No one could explain why her father was called the Younger, since there was no Chronology the Elder. Nor could anyone explain why he was named Chronology, because he had a terrible sense of time. Therefore his wife called him Chiclet, and his children called him Pa.

Our heroine never cuddled with their neighbor, a stern unfriendly chipmunk named Constipation. Nor did she cuddle with Constipation’s daughter, Chronic Illness.

Everyone in the homeland liked Chichester. Not just liked. Everyone admired Chichester, and everyone adored her.

Why? Because she was happy, kind, genial, and generous. She made every animal feel more thankful to be alive.

Every creature who lived in The Meadow Bountiful felt united by their love for Chichester Cathedral.

Species who normally ignore, dislike, compete, or fight with one another put their differences aside. Despite their enormous diversity of shape, character, and purpose, they all felt joined with one another by the affection they shared for their gentle little friend, the sweetest chipmunk who ever rambled.

They were unified, too, by the love they shared for their homeland. Their world was filled with beauty, plentiful with food and water, and replete with safe, sheltering hiding places.


The Circle Eternal

In Which We Meet A Number Of Creatures Not Usually Joined In Friendship

Chipmunks are curious beings: adventurers, explorers, mischief-makers.

Like all chipmunks, Chichester Cathedral got into many scrapes. So did the other animals. As they lived with and helped one another over the years, they became extremely close.

One night as they all rested together by the meadow’s calm quiet pond, they decided they were more than pals. They were, they declared, dear and permanent friends.

That very evening they held a ceremony, and they named themselves The Circle Eternal.

Would you like to meet them?

  • There were two reindeers brothers, Rock and Roll.
  • There were two raccoon sisters, Rhyme and Reason.
  • There was a rabbit named Rutabaga, and his sister Radish.
  • There was a wolf named Wellington, and a weasel named Wendell.
  • There was a modest pond turtle named Pontius Titus, and her first cousin, Polonius Tusk.
  • There were three birds: a duck named Detlef, a heron named Hallelujah, and an owl named Omelet.
  • Plus a porcupine named Peek-A-Boo, a Moose named Montgomery, a skunk named Sushi, and a feral cat named Cranston.

They agreed they would conduct a ceremony once each week to celebrate their friendship. They asked Chichester to lead their service.


The Melody Of The Moonlight

In Which We Hear The Canticle Of Comity

Every Friday evening the animals gather beneath a copse of towering cedars, link paws or talons, and bow their heads or beaks as Chichester leads them in a chant. Her silvery chirp lilts across the bed of pine needles and floats throughout the pasture beyond:


We sing that we will be friends forever and ever.

We sing that we will live together in peace and play.

We ask every living creature to band with us in loving The Meadow Bountiful, protect it as best we can, and bless it for its abundance and its beauty.


Each Friday at dusk the friends’ voices soar in joyful melody as they make their vow, and thank the meadow.

Many creatures heard their chant. Many joined The Circle Eternal.

Soon the field and the forest became a place of concord and union among all the living things who dwelled within it.


A Mysterious Species

A Mysterious Species


A Fateful Evening

In Which We Encounter A Species Less Healthy And Less Harmonious

One afternoon in late December, just before sunset, Chichester Cathedral bounded about in the woods that surrounded The Meadow Bountiful. All of a sudden she stopped, stood stock still, and sniffed the forest air carefully.

She had noticed a large cloud of dust rising on the outer edge of the meadow. This was followed by a startlingly loud, most unpleasant sound. A grating. A grinding. A growling.

Chichester dashed to the top of her favorite cedar. She crept carefully along its vast upper limb, rose on her rear paws, and squinted her shining eyes.

Below her she beheld a sight she never before had seen.

It was a large squat rectangular shape, seemingly not alive, yet moving fast, crushing grasses, shrubs, and flowers, leeching fumes from a stubby pipe projecting from its rear. Without regard for the topography, without regard for all the flowers, foliage, hives, burrows, and nests, it moved forward, forward, forward, crunching everything in its reckless, relentless path.

From within the bouncing bulky object many noises poured outward. Bumptious crashing from its strange, rapidly moving circular feet. Angry roars from its iron belly. Shouts and squeals from its metallic midsection.

These were sounds unlike any birds’. Sounds raucous, shrill, not sung but voiced. Voiced by voices the startled chipmunk could not recognize, because she never before had encountered them.


Omelet the Owl
Omelet the Owl


From high above Omelet the Owl fluttered down, and settled on the cedar’s limb. Chichester asked if her friend knew what this destructive object was called.

“That is a truck. It will be filled with humans. They call their truck a camper.”

Omelet sighed. “This means trouble. Serious, serious trouble.”

“Surely not,” chirped Chichester. “Not necessarily. Perhaps the humans will love it here, as we do. Perhaps they will join The Circle Eternal.”

Omelet fluttered her wing tenderly across the chipmunk’s little head. “O, Chichester. You always see a bright side. You always see hope and good. But we must be careful with these beings. I fly far and wide all night, every night. I have met many humans. I know them well. I fear we are in for trouble. We had best summon the Circle.”


The Summoning Of The Circle

In Which The Circle Eternal Learns Fear

Chichester Cathedral climbed atop Omelet’s strong brow. Off flew the owl. She flew to edge of the meadow, just inside the forest canopy, and settled on the The Circle Eternal’s broad flat meeting stone, The Boulder Of Amity

Chichester chirped and chirped. Omelet hooted and hooted.

Throughout the forest replies resounded. Footfalls and wing beats echoed from the tree trunks. The Circle gathered.

When all the friends arrived, Omelet explained everything she knew about humans.

“My friends, I am sorry to tell you that human beings often are careless with fire. They discard garbage and trash. They befoul water.”

She lowered her sage head and shed tears of sorrow.

“If they take a fancy to a place, they declare they own it. Then they alter it. They modify it terribly. They fell trees, fence pastures, dig craters, set traps, shoot or poison the creatures they do not like, and capture and control the ones they do like.”

She stopped, and wept anew. Then she stood tall, and wiped her wide capacious eyes with her talons.

“They produce much noise from their own selves, and even more from devices they call machines. They refute the darkness with lights of their own. O, they behave in most peculiar ways. I am sure they will harm The Meadow Bountiful.”


The Humans Hideous

In Which We Are Introduced To An Unlovely Family

At that moment the object Omelet had named camper skidded and sluiced across a thick patch of tall vivid wildflowers and slithered to a halt.

The animal friends crawled to the rim of the meadow, and peered with anxious eyes.


Detlef the Duck
Detlef the Duck


“Look,” quacked Detlef the Duck. “The camper is opening its wing.”

“That is not a wing,” hooted Omelet. “They call it a door, Detlef. Now we will see the humans.”

Indeed they did. From the doorway belched two small ones. Then another. They were the children of the Hideous family. Their names were Honking, Howling, and Harrumph.

“Hurray,” screeched Honking.

“Hoorah,” shrieked Howling.

Harrumph did not cheer, because he was a sallow, dour fellow. He just made a snorting sound, and said: “About time we got here. Mom, when are we gonna eat?”

Out staggered their Mom. Her name was Hootenanny Hideous, but everyone called her Hoot.

She was holding a can of concoction called Yoo-Hoo. She gulped it down, crumpled the tin, and heaved it over her raw sunburned shoulder. Then she shouted: “Horrid. Horrid. Come out, dear. Harrumph is right. It’s time to eat.”

Out traipsed Horrid. He was more than more than six feet in height, and nearly, it seemed to the animals, as wide as he was tall. Certainly he was a sizable fellow.

Loud, too. He spread his thick feet apart, tilted back his big head, which looked as though it might be the pit of an elongated prune, and screamed: “Wow. Our property. Not bad, eh?”

Horrid gulped his beer and hurled the bottle into the field. It struck a rock, and shattered loudly. He lifted his fists exultantly, and bellowed:  “Yes. Three points.”

Everyone in the family cheered. Even Harrumph.

Horrid stretched copiously. He rubbed the unkempt hairs on his prune head, looked left, looked right, spun himself around, took in everything.

“Ours. Ours. Every stick, every stone. Every blade of grass, every drop of water. Ours, ours, ours.”

Then he emitted gas noisily from his stomach through his mouth.


A Vision For Growth

In Which We See Into The Mind And Heart Of The Father Hideous

Hoot gave her hubby a giant hug. “Oh, Horrid. How do you think we should develop this place?”

“Yeah, Dad,” chimed Honking and Howling. “What will we do with this empty place?”

Horrid stretched again, and sent Harrumph to fetch him another beer. Hoot asked him to bring her another Yoo-Hoo.

“Ah, geez,” complained their grouchy son.  “Why am I the one who has to do everything around here?” And off he slouched, grumbling, slamming the camper door behind him.

When Harrumph returned with the beverages, Horrid sat on a stump, settled Hoot beside him, and signaled that their children should sit before them.

His face reddened with excitement. His breathing quickened.

“O, Hon. O, kids. We’ll exploit every square inch of our property.”

He pointed his fat forefinger at the forest. “We’ll tear out these useless trees. Cut them down. Sell the timber, chop up the brush.

He pointed to the pond. “We’ll drain that swamp. Drain it dry. Dump some soil. Dozer it level.”

He pointed to The Meadow Bountiful. “We’ll clear this mess up in one day. Two, max. Dozer it flat.”

He beamed at his family. “We’ll run power and sewers. I’ll bet we can shoehorn 200 houses in here. Put up a school. Retail center. Church. Give it all a nice country name.”

He tugged at the seat of his colorful shorts, waved his bottle with one hand, slapped a bare kneecap with the other.

“We’ll call it Rustic Royale.”

He thought for a moment.

“No. We’ll name it Plutocracy Plaza.”

Horrid tipped up his beer, drank it down, hurled the bottle, and guffawed as it crashed in the field.

“Yes, yes, yes. We’ll develop every square inch of our property. We’re gonna make a royal fortune.”


The Salvation Of The Spawn

In Which We Learn With Relief That The Children Hideous Will Not Become Bored

Howling jumped to her feet with a pained expression on her sour face. “But we won’t have to live here, do we Dad?”

Honking leapt up, too. “We won’t, will we Mom? We’ll go out of our minds if we have to live in this awful place.”

Hoot reassured her worried children. “Of course not, dears. We would never ask you to live in such a remote, uncultured place as this.”

And off she clambered to the camper kitchen to microwave dinners for her brood while her husband and their children fired up the gasoline generator to fuel their video games.


Les Miserables

In Which The Circle Eternal Crafts A Plan

As the noxious Hideous family gobbled their dinner and played games of warfare against soulless corpses on their brand new Microsoft X-Box, the terrified animals crept silently to The Boulder Of Amity.


Wellington the Wolf
Wellington the Wolf


Wellington the Wolf spoke first. His eyes were wide with horror, but not with fear. Like all his courageous kind, Wendell feared nothing and no one.

“Let us all give praise and thanks to Omelet the Owl. Without her wisdom and experience, we would have been taken unawares by these beasts. We would not have known that we must defend The Meadow Bountiful.”

Everyone agreed, as the bashful Omelet trembled with embarrassment. Her crimson blush showed vividly against her snowy white plumage.

Wellington turned to business. He was, after all, by nature a hunter.

“We must organize every species in the forest and the field. The pond, too.”

He turned his noble face side to side, and cast his burning eyes upon the circle of silent friends.

“There is great risk. Our enemies have powers beyond our own.”

He lifted his snout to the sky, and howled softly.

“Our enemies are powerful. But they are not invincible. The best defense against these predators will be offense. We must attack them. We must attack them when they are at their weakest.”

He elevated his lips and gnashed his teeth.

“We must attack them when they sleep.”


Montgomery the Moose


Montgomery the Moose nodded his great head. His mighty antlers glimmered in the gathering moonlight.

“Wellington, you are right. These humans have do weaknesses. They surely will be complacent. They think nothing lives except themselves. Most likely they will not even bother to set up a defense tonight.”


Wendell the Weasel
Wendell the Weasel


Wendell the Weasel held up his paw. His friends knew him to be a clever creature.

“The humans are strong. They control much magic. But we, too, have abilities.”

He praised the courage and power of the wolf and the moose. He spoke highly of all the other species whose help The Circle Eternal could enlist.

Then he said: “Everyone can make a contribution. Everyone, large and small. Life has equipped each of us with abilities.”

Wendell gave his friends time to absorb these truths. Then he bared his teeth, as Wellington had bared his.

“Also we will be united. We will coordinate our attack. This will magnify our individual talents greatly.”

A chorus of agreement greeted the weasel’s wise counsel.


Hallelujah the Heron
Hallelujah the Heron


Hallelujah the Heron noted that birds are swift, fierce in their own way, and equipped with powerful beaks. In some cases, with piercing talons.


Rutabaga and Radish the Rabbits
Rutabaga and Radish the Rabbits


Rutabaga and Radish noted that rabbits, too, are swift, capable of unpredictable twists and turns, and surprisingly capable with their teeth and their claws.


Rhyme and Reason the Raccoons
Rhyme and Reason the Raccoons


Rhyme and Reason noted that raccoons are famously wily, exceptionally crafty, nimble and agile, fast as blazes, and to be feared when in combat.


Sushi the Skunk
Sushi the Skunk


Sushi smiled grimy. “I realize this is not a time for humor. But, my beloved friends, do you have any idea how terrified every human is of every skunk? Why, all my cousins and I need to do is puff out our chests, lift up our lovely tails just a little bit, prance slowly around that revolting camper of theirs, and whisper:


This skunk stinks.

This skunk stinks.

O yes, you finks,

We skunks certainly do stink.


“When we slink our stealthy, sinuous skunk dance, you just watch how those humans run. Speaking of tails. They will hightail it.”


Peek-A-Boo the Porcupine

Peek-A-Boo the Porcupine


After the gales of laughter subsided, Peek-A-Boo the Porcupine said: “It is widely known by our kind that humans also feel terror in our presence. They fear our quills. As well they should.”


Sedgwick the Squirrel
Sedgwick the Squirrel


Although not members, Sedgwick the Squirrel and her petite husband Magnificence the Mouse had tiptoed to the outer reaches of The Circle Eternal. Sedgwick was smart, and she was funny.

She drew herself to her full squirrel height, and cackled: “I often have observed that all humans are strangely scared of all scurrying, scavenging rodents.”

She darted round and round the circle to demonstrate the wily ways of nature’s rodents. Then she resumed her seat on the edge of The Boulder Of Amity.

“Why, we can mobilize every squirrel, shrew, rat, vole, and mouse for miles around. Why, we can bombard these humans with swift, shifty scurrying and scavenging. Why, they will be terrified. They will panic.”

This caused a hubbub of agreement and glee.


Cranston the Cat
Cranston the Cat


Cranston the Cat was an excellent orator, and a fine mimic. He was famous for his Winston Churchill imitations.

When the hubbub stilled, Cranston stood proudly on his graceful paws and in his deepest, most throaty voice solemnly meowed:


We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.


A Chipmunk Weeps

In Which A Gentle Soul Restores The Frightened Friends To Their Better Natures

In the midst of all the hope and hilarity, Omelet the Owl noticed that Chichester Cathedral was weeping.

Omelet fluttered to her side. “What is it, Chichester? Are you afraid?”

“No, Omelet. I am not afraid. I am sad.”

Then she bravely marched into the center of The Circle Eternal, and sang:


This plan is not kind, this plan is not wise,

This plan makes tears come into my eyes.


Silence befell The Boulder of Amity.

In her calm beautiful voice, Chichester chirped: “Our fear and ferocity are natural. But our meadow does not want dread, and our meadow does not want cruelty. This is never what our meadow wants.”

In her gentle way, Chichester reminded the animals that The Meadow Bountiful loves love. The Meadow Bountiful wants kindness, peace, and unity, always.

Wellington the Wolf knelt before his tiny friend. “But, Chichester, how can we meet this terrible challenge? How can we survive if these horrible humans chop down the forest and drain the pond and flatten the field? How can we live if they fill up our beautiful world with houses and schools and churches and stores? Not to mention the messes they will make with their garbage and their trash?”


Wellington loves the Silvery Moon
Wellington loves the Silvery Moon


Just then, as if by a miracle, the moon, almost as full as during its harvest cycle, broke through the thick cloud cover and shed radiant pure silver all over The Boulder Of Amity. It fell most brightly and particularly upon the quivering little chipmunk.

The other animals caught their breaths, and exclaimed. Chichester closed her eyes, as if listening to a voice withheld from all others. Then she smiled. Her lips moved silently. Her friends could read that she had whispered: “Thank you, dear Meadow.”

The chipmunk opened her eyes. As she spoke, she looked searchingly into each of her friends’ faces, friend by friend, one at a time, each in turn.

“Dear friends, what has our life in our meadow always taught us? What do we know?”

Her quivering altered. She quivered now with certainty and exaltation. “We know there is abundance. We know there is abundance for all.”

She waited while everyone gathered their calm.

“These humans are just beings, as are we. They are just confused at this time, as are we. They are not seeing well. They are not listening to the meadow. Nor are we.”

She waited once more. All the friends settled quietly, and found comfort.

“We must not give the humans fear. We must not give them anger and attack. Fright and fury and battle are not gifts. They will grow nothing.”

The animals lay silently listening. From each there seemed to arise a glow similar to the moon’s.

“Let us give them gifts of kindness and greeting. Let us give them compassion. Let us help them see. Let us help them hear.”

She paused once more.

“Let us help them heal.”


Gifts Of Kindness

In Which The Creatures Of The Meadow Offer Help And Healing To The Family Hideous

By this time, only Chichester Cathedral was not weeping. Every other animal in The Circle Eternal was crying openly.

They were not sad. They were not afraid. They were crying with happiness.

Omelet hugged Chichester with her wonderful whispery wings. Wellington stroked her with his warm, luscious fur. Rhyme and Reason caressed her with their mysterious dark masks. Montgomery rubbed her with the soft moss that tipped his majestic antlers. Sushi brushed her with the nonthreatening fleece of her gorgeous tail.

Cranston spoke for all. “O, Chichester. You are right. This is who we must be. This is what we must do.”

Swiftly they made their plan, and silently they carried it out.

All the animals foraged in their own way for a gift of token. Some gathered exquisite stones. Some collected boughs of pungent pine. Some assembled cones and nuts. Others plucked grasses, perfumed petals, wild rose hips, graceful garlands, bouquets of holly, and posies of mistletoe.

Side by side they padded to the camper.

The humans Hideous were sleeping. They did not hear a thing.


A New Morning

In Which A Lost Family Discovers Its Bearings

Late the next morning, Howling and Honking woke up.

“Mom,” they shouted. “What’s for breakfast?”

Harrumph stomped outside, and roared: “Dad, fire up the generator. I want to play Grand Theft Auto.”

Suddenly they became wordless. Howling gaped. Honking gasped. Harrumph wheezed. As one, they dashed into the camper, roused their parents, and led them outdoors.

Side by side, they stood speechless at the base of the stairway.

Before them, arrayed in a vast arc of greeting, lay all the animals of The Circle Eternal.

They were joined by many other creatures who had been summoned by Samson and Sedgwick. All manner of birds, rodents, and mammals. A vast assembly of insects. Worms, snakes, snails, turtles, frogs, beings small and large in numbers massive.

Above the surface of the silent pond poked the smiling faces of hundreds and hundreds of trout, bass, pickerel, sunfish, and eels.

Every creature was smiling warmly. Upon each there shone the brightest, purest rays of sunshine.

Arranged before the crescent of welcome were gifts of every variety imaginable. Branches and boughs, sticks and stones, buds and blooms, saps and syrups. Every gift radiated in the sunshine, and reflected off the pond waters crowded with creature heads.

The family Hideous held their hands to their hearts, and kneeled on the grassland. Tears welled unbidden and unwiped from their wide eyes.

Smiles formed on their faces. Even the habitually downturned mouth of Harrumph flickered, fluttered, then burst into a helpless grin.

Hoot sobbed. Horrid bawled. Their children wept.

Chichester Cathedral crept forward from the circle. She climbed across Horrid’s outstretched hand, mounted his mottled arm, touched his bulbous cheeks one at a time, and lay her tiny head on his furrowed brow.


The Outcome Of Love

In Which A Human Family Transforms

This story has a happy ending.

That morning, then and there, on the spot, the family Hideous resolved they would use all their power to protect the animals and preserve The Meadow Bountiful.

We all do have power, you know – if we will choose to know our power, and use it.

First, Hoot cleaned up her Yoo-Hoo cans and Horrid collected his crushed bottle shards. Then they called their attorney on their cellphone, and directed her to donate every square inch of their property to the Nature Conservancy with immediate effect.


Nature Conservancy


The Conservancy gracefully received the gift. As is their practice, they used every law of the human species to ensure The Meadow Bountiful never, ever, will be disturbed.

Hoot and Horrid sold their camper. They bought a truck equipped to operate on natural gas, fitted it out as a mobile veterinary clinic, and became legendary in the animal world as benefactors and healers. However, no one received more benefaction and healing than they themselves. Ma and Pa Hideous became very happy, long-lived persons.

Honking, Howling, and Harrumph gave away all their electronic toys. They studied well in their schools and, later, in their universities.

In her adulthood Honking became an environmental attorney and, later, an activist judge.

Howling became a director of the national forest service.

Harrumph became a philosopher of religion, and a professor of consciousness studies.

And the animals?

O, the animals lived happily ever after.

As may we all – if we will see The Meadow Bountiful, if we will hear The Meadow Bountiful, in which we too, every one of us, do dwell.


Meadow - pond



In Which We Satisfy Every Requirement Of The Age Of Science And Technology

We are pleased to certify that every single word of this story is absolutely, 100%, totally true.


Be, Bop, and Alula

Be And Bop, Having A Quiet Moment

Be And Bop, Having A Quiet Moment

Chapter One: In Which The Characters Are Introduced And A Plan is Hatched

This is an absolutely true story.

Once upon a time there lived in Hawaii two brown dachshunds named Be and Bop. Be was a girl, Bop was a boy, and they were the children of Alula.

Be and Bop loved Hawaii, and they loved Alula. However they did not love Adenoid.

They lived with a boy named Adenoid, but he was mean and he was rude. He did not let them sleep in his bed at night. He did not care for them tenderly. He often called them scornful mocking names such as Weiner, Frankfurter, and Knockwurst. He fed them rarely, and never once did he sneak them tempting little tidbits from the table. He was an indifferent uncaring person, so they decided to leave him.

It was Alulu who made that plan. One morning after a sleepless night on Adenoid’s cold floor she gathered her children to her side, and said:  “My beloveds, this is a fertile, joyful earth. This is a world of love, a universe of abundance. Not meanness and teasing. How can we accept a whole lifetime trapped with one horrible human who does not care about us?”

She put one of her little paws across the head of each puppy, and whispered: “I want us to choose a lush life. This day, right now, we will run away from Adenoid, and seek love and happiness. This will be our hearts’ quest.”

So they did. They clambered down Adenoid’s stairway and ran away from his home.


Chapter Two: In Which We Learn About The Dachshunds’ Relationships And Journey

Be, Bop, and Alula were quite lazy dachshunds, so in truth they walked away.

Actually, they strolled away. Very slowly, and with many pauses to sniff tree trunks, root under bushes, frolic on hillsides, and, from time to time, simply to sit side by side on cliff tops and gaze quietly at the deep blue sea.

During the early afternoon they discovered a hillside they particularly liked. It was covered with soft grass, and thick hibiscus plants grew all about.

There they sat side by side by side. They sat together for a long while, and chatted with one another in bark language.

They loved to do that. They enjoyed one another’s company greatly. Their favorite activity (after eating, sleeping, and chewing on humans’ spare shoes) was to sit quietly together and chat.

All that afternoon they gabbed beneath the glowing golden sun. They discussed five subjects:

  1. Their favorite foods
  2. How much they enjoyed Hawaii’s glorious scenery and scents
  3. Their friendship with a turtle named Toadstool and his sister, Thaddeus
  4. Their friendship with a porpoise named Pomegranate
  5. Their friendship with a cat named Quack, who had fallen deeply in love with a mouse named Meow. Quack and Meow were certain they could make their marriage work, and the two little dachshunds agreed. “After all,” said Bop. “All you need is love.” Be agreed: “That’s true. And don’t you adore seeing them stroll together, paw in paw, smiling from whisker to whisker?” Alula smiled at her children, and rubbed her jowls across their little heads.


Chapter Three: In Which The Dachshunds’ Seeking Leads Them To Another Seeker

As the sun shifted slowly to the west and began its descent toward the sea, Alula said: “I’m so glad we never again have to deal with that wretched Adenoid. However, we need a home. We need to love, and we need to be loved. We should find a new human now.”

Be and Bop nodded. They knew their mother was the wise one in their family. They rose, stretched, shook their coats vigorously, and set out to seek their destiny.

The dachshunds walked and walked until they found a girl they liked.

Bop discovered her. He was chasing a butterfly named Stunning. Stunning led him into a park, down a pathway, across a green glade, over a bubbly brook, toward a vast banyan tree.

Beneath the tree sat a lonely girl. A book lay on the ground beside her.

The girl had been reading. But she set her book aside because she wanted to find love and adventure in her own life, not borrow it briefly from invented people’s storybook world.

After she set her book aside, she closed her eyes, lifted her hands toward the sky, and whispered urgently:


O you stars I love who will come out tonight,

And shine upon us your breathtaking light

Far beyond this world’s stress, strife, and fight,

Please will you send me, who love and yearn for you, hope and delight?

I ask you this sincerely, with all my might:

Please will you help my heavy heart turn light,

Give me delight tonight

And evermore, for all my days and all my nights?


The lonely longing girl opened her eyes. Even though it still was daylight, she felt sure she saw many star twinkles shining gently through the sun’s strong gleam and glare.

Just then she felt a soft wet muzzle nuzzle her ankle once, twice, and once more again.

She looked down, gasped, and smiled with the delight for which she had prayed.

“Hello,” she said. “How are you?”

Bop barked.

She beamed, and said: “O, Bop. Hello, Bop. Are you lost?”

Bop barked, and plopped himself in her lap. She felt her soul open wide, and she hugged him to her heart.

Bop barked.

“You did? You really ran away? Oh, you walked away. Oh, you strolled away, with many stops, side excursions, and lengthy rest periods.”

Bop barked. “You do? You have a brother? And a mother? And you all need a family? O my, o my, o my.”

The girl looked upward with tears flowing freely from her eyes, and she thanked the stars again and again. They twinkled gently upon her.

Bop thanked the stars too. Then he hallooed with the long lingering reverberating yodel that all dachshunds can create whenever they want to.

Alula and Be dashed toward Bop. Dachshunds can ran very swiftly when they please.

They dashed to the park, down the pathway, across the green glade, over the bubbly brook, toward the vast banyan tree.

The girl kneeled on the leaf-strewn ground and held out her arms. Alula and Be hurtled themselves onto her lap. They rolled and tumbled there with Bop, and licked the tears of joy from the happy girl’s shining face.

The girl liked the dachshunds so much. The dachshunds liked her, too.

The girl’s name was Philomena Periwinkle, but that was way too hard for them to pronounce so they decided to call her Winkle and the girl agreed.

Winkle took the dachshunds home straightaway. After all, night soon would descend upon the parkland.

Following an interesting conversation and much adorable behavior from Be, Bop, and Alula, her parents agreed they should make room for three dogs in their hearts and in their home.

The stars rose in the sky and shone ever so brightly that night over all the Hawaiian islands and onto Philomena Periwinkle’s rollicking household.

It remained dark over Adenoid’s unfriendly dwelling.


Chapter Four: In Which A Heaven Is Formed in A Home In Hawaii 

Everyone dined heartily that evening, and every evening from then onward. Every morning too, and throughout every afternoon also.

Dachshunds love to eat, and Winkle loved to feed them. Secretly so did Winkle’s Mom and Dad. Her grandparents as well. There lived lots and lots of love in the Periwinkle home.

Be and Bop always slept in Winkle’s bed. Alula liked to curl up on a soft woven woolen rug below.

Before they slept Be and Bop frequently flopped. Many times every evening as they settled in they flopped on their sides. They loved to do that together, side by side, head to head, back to back, snout to snout.

When Be wanted to flop, Bop always agreed. When Bop wanted to flop, Be agreed. They called that Cofloperating.

As they flopped they liked to pump their legs as though they were running. One night Be suggested they should kick their legs backward instead of forward. Bop thought that was a wonderful idea.

They tried and tried, but they could not do it. They only could kick their legs forward. Bop started to cry. But then he had a great idea.

“I know!” he cried. “We can just lie still. When people ask what we’re doing, we can say we were kicking backward for a long time, but then our muscles got tired so we stopped to relax and recover. Everyone will think we must know how to kick backward, even though we really don’t.”

Be laughed so hard her tummy ached. Then she rubbed her nose on Bop’s head over and over again, and barked: “Bop, you are by a large measure the smartest dachshund in the whole history of Hawaii.”

Alula rose from her carpet to ask what Be and Bop what on earth they were doing?

When they explained they were resting and recovering from the exhaustion of kicking their little legs backward, she felt so proud of her children. “My goodness,” she exulted. “I don’t think any other dogs in the great wide Pacific region know how to do that.”

Ever afterward as she and children wandered on their daily journeys she told all the other Moms about her children’s magic skill. From that evening onward she pranced proudly wherever she walked or ran.

Be, Bop, and Alula did not miss that horrid Adenoid at all. They did not miss him even one little bit.


Chapter Five: In Which Future Tales Are Promised To You

There is much more to this story. In fact, it has just begun.

In future holiday seasons, we need to tell you how very happy this dachshund and human family become. We also need to tell you what became of Toadstool and Thaddeus, Pomegranate, and the marriage of Quack and Meow. Plus we need to introduce you to a large grey rabbit named Ronald Romance and a narwhale called Nomenclature.

This is but one of the reasons why there ought to be more, many more, far more festivals and holidays during the school year than is currently the practice.

The Wandering Goose Brothers

Long ago deep in a faraway forest on a small pond called Prudence lived three young gosling brothers named Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver.

They were strong swimmers gifted with deep echoing honks. Their eyes were keen, their beaks were honed to a fine degree of sharpness, and their little webbed feet were learning to move fine volumes of Prudence or any other pond’s water. They did all goose boy work well.

All the birds, insects, fish, and animals who lived in the forest were especially excited by the boys’ powers of flight. Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver loved to fly. From dawn to dusk they lofted themselves into the sky over and over again. They climbed swiftly, searched out air flows and currents with ever-growing expertise, and soared for hours before the winds. Everyone in the forest could hear them honking elatedly as they rose, glided, and dove like three freed ebullient clouds.

The gosling brothers were fearless explorers. Every day they journeyed many miles from Prudence’s shores. They knew every pathway in the forest, every surface of the foothills and mountains, and every street, avenue, and highway the humans had built in the villages and towns that lay outside the animals’ domain.

The brothers loved their life, but their parents worried about them. They felt troubled by their sons’ unusual nature.

Every night as they settled into their nest Pa Goose chewed them out.

“What is going to become of you?” he honked. “All you do is wander and play every hour of every day. Do you help me mind the nest? No. Do you study how to guard? No. Do you even know what goose-guards do? No. All you do is churn around Prudence and fly who knows where, who knows why. How are you ever going to learn how to be like your uncles and me? How will you learn how to be a mature husband and father? How will you learn how to be a responsible leader of your own flock on your own pond?”

The boys regularly fell asleep to their Dad’s anxious but loving “how, how, how” song.

Every morning when they woke up, Ma Goose fussed at them as they paddled across Prudence searching out algae and grasses and other goose goodies. She often asked Goose God to save her wayward goslings.

“What is going to become of you,” she honked. “You fly so high, and you fly so far. What if you lose your way? What if someone catches you and eats you? What if you get lost? What if you never come back home? Not to mention your schoolwork. Oh God, oh God, please help us. Please make these crazy boys of mine stay close to home like good little goslings. Please make these crazy boys let their father and me teach them their goose lessons. Lessons! Do they ever sit still for their lessons? No. Do they ever do their homework? No. Are they studying how to ream the parasites from their feathers? Are they studying how to find savories under the mud and beneath the ice? Are they studying how to sniff danger and ward off enemies? No, no, and no again. They never study, they fear nothing, and they love everybody. Oh God, oh God, oh God, what are we going to do with these three restless lazy sons of mine?”

The boys regularly found and ate their breakfast to the rhythms of their mom’s prayerful scolding. Then they reared in the water, flapped their wings proudly, kissed their mom with their bright beaks, honked bye-bye to their dad, kicked their paws across the pond, and rose wetly into the sky. They circled Prudence, honked happy farewells to all their insect, fish, animal, and bird friends, and took off for parts unknown to all but themselves.

The frogs, wrens, bass, bees, weasels, and raccoons smiled as the boys vanished from sight. Sometimes even the sleeping bats woke up to eavesdrop on Ma Goose’s laments and watch the boys’ rousing take-offs.

As Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver became small white fluttering dots on the horizon, the creatures waiting below smiled, and said: “Those are the best goslings in the whole wide world.”

Ma and Pa Goose cuddled fondly on the bank and clucked: “They are very good goslings, it’s true.”


Chapter 2: A Lost Bunny

As the months passed, many creatures sought the boys’ help.

The first were Reynolds and Rayna Rabbit. They hopped frantically to Ma and Pa’s nest. They were distraught.

“It’s Raylene,” Rayna howled. “We can’t find her. She’s been gone all morning. She’s lost, lost. What if the humans caught her in a trap? What if that wretched Coyote took her? Oh, please ask your goslings to find her. Please, please, please. We beg you.”

Ma comforted the hysterical rabbits. Pa waddled across the bank, leapt onto the pond, kicked across the surface, and mounted mightily into the air. Everyone could see where the three goslings had inherited their uncommon skills.

He searched the skies with his bright eyes and bellowed honk after honk toward the mountain peaks. Gandolph heard his cries. They boys flew toward their Dad. They met in mid-air, and Pa Goose explained the problem. The goslings gasped, and with all possible speed they flew with their father back to Prudence.

The boys and their dad plopped powerfully onto the pond and swam like crazy to the nest. Gandolph asked the despairing rabbits where they last had seen their daughter, and in which direction she’d been hopping. Gulliver stroked poor Rayna with his wing as she replied. He comforted her. “Don’t worry,” he honked. We’ll find her, Mrs. Rabbit. We’ll guard her. We’ll bring her home to you.”

And so they did. They flew north, then east. They searched the forest with their brilliant eyes. They tuned out the rush of air and the flap of wings to listen for gentle bunny cries. At last Gareth spotted her. Little Raylene wasn’t crying. She was calmly grazing a meadow far, far from her home.

Raylene wriggled her nose lovingly when the boys landed. She loved the goslings. She felt horrified that she’d frightened her parents. “Oh dear,” she warbled. “I had no idea they were afraid. But why are they afraid? I know exactly where I am. I know exactly how to get home. Let’s go straightaway.”

When Raylene rose on her rear paws and tried to spot the right path, she felt confounded. Such a broad meadow. Such tall grasses and flowers. “Oh dear,” she chirped. “I’m not so sure of the way after all. Oh dear, what should we do? Will Coyote get us?”

Gulliver hugged her, and said: “Don’t worry. We know the way. We’ll get you home.”

Gareth led the way. Gulliver and Gandolph waddled on either side of Raylene. They hissed, and they looked as ferocious as they could to guard her from Coyote and all the other predators.

All the way home, Raylene blushed and murmured: “thanks, guys.”

What a celebratory reunion Reynolds, Rayna, and Raylene shared. They hopped with glee. They tumbled in the grass. They couldn’t stop thanking the geese and their goslings for saving their family.

That night at bedtime, Pa Goose whispered: “I’m proud of you, boys. You guarded well.” Ma Goose kissed them until they blushed beneath their plumage. “I’m proud of you, too. There’s no need for you to do your homework tonight.”

The next morning the whole pond echoed with praises. The goslings had done well.


Chapter 3: Many Other Lost Children, & One Lost Brooch

Throughout the summer, many other animal parents sought the boys’ help.

 Summer is a risky season in the animal world. Food abounds. Young ones chomp and chew delightedly, lose track of time and forget the course of their footsteps. Or, if they are flyers, the course of their wing flaps. Off they go, happy as can be, without a care and without a map or a compass.

Time passes. Their parents wonder: “Where has my child wandered?” Their parents feel overwhelmed with fear. They panic. “What if Coyote comes? What if the humans … oh, I can’t bear to say it. I can’t bear to think it.”

Then the parents dash, race, sprint to the goose nest hidden in the banks of Prudence and implore Ma and Pa Goose to put their goslings on the case.

The boys always succeeded in finding the wayward animal children, guiding them unerringly home, guarding them fiercely from Coyote and all other predators.

They saved Dontrelle Deer and Pontius Porcupine. They saved Scintella Sparrow and Selma Skunk. They saved Francine Frog and Charleston Chipmunk. They saved Oren Opossum, too (whom they found snoozing on a limb poised dangerously above a whitewater waterfall).

They saved multiple foxes, otters, and bats. They saved innumerable butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. They saved several bewildered fish. One evening they even saved Brutus, the black bears’ beautiful but dumb young cub. They saved many beings, and restored many families to safety and peace.

The more creatures the goslings found, guarded successfully, and led home the more their fame grew.

Their fame never made them vain, though. Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver loved helping their fellow creatures. They loved holding families together. And they loved it that their parents grew so proud of them. Even though Ma and Pa Goose still gave them plenty of advice about how they should be studying, staying close to home, and learning how to be better geese.

Once the boys even saved a brooch. It belonged to a gentle human named Sophronia whom the forest animals trusted, knew well, and loved.

Sophronia came often to the forest. She idled along the pathways, stroked tree trunks, sniffed flowers, petted mosses, and smiled at all the beings she met. Every day she stopped by a favorite tree, scattered bread crumbs and cheeses, and sat silently, stock still, as the creatures fed.

One day Selena Squirrel drifted toward Sophronia’s frock, and climbed carefully into her lap. Sophronia petted her quietly, and Selena snoozed. From that time onward, many other creatures cuddled with Sophronia.

Sophronia always was calm and gentle, kind and giving. But one morning she was upset. The animals saw her tearing at her hair as she stumbled uncharacteristically from side to side along her favorite pathway. They could hear their friend moaning and groaning because she’d mislaid a golden brooch that her parents had given her.

Hosts of creatures emerged to help her search for her lost jewel. No one could find it. Then Harold, the wisest of all hummingbirds, sang: “The goslings. They’ll find it.”

Evangeline Eaglet rose from the tree top and raced across the sky. She spotted the goslings on the far side of the mountain. How swiftly she flew. She arched around them in midair, explained the problem, and led them to Sophronia.

The goslings promised Sophronia and all the animals that they would find the treasured brooch without fail. And they succeeded. They waddled up and down the long twisting path until at last Gandolph spotted a telltale glimmer beneath a thick carpet of clover.

He plucked it from the grass, and the boys flew gleefully to their friends. They landed on the pine needles with three thick plops, waddled to Sophronia’s side, and gently lay the brooch in her outstretched hands.

She showered those geese with tears, thanked and blessed all the creatures who had come from their shelters to help her, and ran home to her family to tell them of the miracle in the forest and the brilliant goslings who had saved their cherished gift.

That night all the animals’ parents half-heartedly scolded their children for trusting and confiding in a human. Sophronia’s parents half-heartedly scolded her for trusting and feeding and touching wild feral animals. But secretly all the parents felt overjoyed that animals and humans could be friends, and help one another.


Chapter 4: Worldwide Fame

Sophronia told her parents about the goslings’ many exploits, their uncommon skills, their modesty, their kindness, and their wide circle of friends.

The humans told their friends about the miracle in the forest and the unusual powers of the three goslings. A newspaper picked up the story. Then a television station broadcast a report, and YouTube went crazy with the tale.

Many people felt enchanted to learn that all the creatures in the forest have complex, full lives. There grew to be much talk about the many beings with whom we share life and meaning. There arose especially broad and excited conversation about goose life.

In a distant valley called Silicon, two college boys who had grown bored with their studies worked hard on a bold, immense idea. Their idea had come to them while they were daydreaming and doodling.

The boys’ parents and all their teachers always had honked at them about being more serious, more studious, and more prudent. But like Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver the human boys needed to grow in their own way. Like the three goslings they were passionate about their instincts, and very good at what they knew.

The two boys embraced their dreams and explored their ideas. They journeyed far in their minds.

They tried and tried to make their dreams come true. One day they did. They built a way for humans to use computers to search and find, to map pathways, to discover what otherwise would be lost.

The human boys knew at once they should call their invention Goosel, because all they were doing was making a way for a machine to give humans the power that nature had given Gareth, Gandolph, and Gulliver.

Humans sometimes have a hard time with their language. Goosel was too hard for most humans to pronounce, so they changed their word to Google.

Sophronia told all her animal friends about the humans’ machine, its name, and its triumphant universal success.

All the animals laughed and laughed. Ma and Pa Goose laughed too, but they were very proud of their goslings.

Even though they now were famous throughout the world Gareth, Gulliver, and Gandolph never lost their modesty. In fact they never changed at all. They just kept on journeying, exploring, loving their lives, and helping others.


Stories For Children

The Problem

In this age of science and technology, many people believe children receive wondrous stimulation for their intellect and their imagination.

I think this is false. The vast majority of children I see are becoming every day more dependent upon provided stimuli: stimuli that grow ever more coarse, loud, and in many instances violent, in order to compel attention from jaded consumers.

Children love these spurs. That’s the problem. They passively await external excitations. They expect the exterior arousals to be ever more tectonic, rapid, and novel.

The corporations and individuals that generate these dubious products are infinitely skilful. The media they create are extraordinarily effective.

It is difficult for concerned parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers to counteract the products’ corrosive power. And almost impossible to insist the children for whom they care set the products aside.


A Cure

Nightly storytelling is one proven means by which caregivers can exert healthy influence. Influence that children need and love.

And will respond to. Respond by asking one thousand questions. Asking if they and their caregivers can draw pictures to illustrate the tales they like. Asking if the caregivers will extend and expand the story. Carry it forward. Reach back in narrative time, and relate the prequel.

The more preposterous a story’s characters and content, the more delighted most children will feel.

The more outlandish the characters’ names, the more giggly the children will become.

The more spectacular the tales’ liberties with the tyranny of fact, the more emancipated the children will know themselves to be.

Blankets tucked in. Lights out. Loving farewells. Good night. Sleep well. Good night, good night.

Before sleep, adrift in fancy, afloat in fantasy, the child wafts and flows. Imagines. Envisions. Seeks and accepts enchantment. Sleeps. Dreams.

Creates. Thinks. Finds and grows her own artistic gifts. Discovers and develops his own inventive capabilities.

Rather than stuffing earplugs into her eardrums. Pacifying his brain while zombie horrors unfurl on a screen. Scrambles her intellect while rappers grunt vile inane messages.  Stultifies his brain while his thumbs boogie across a glittering screen.


How Can We Do This?

Storybooks are often wonderful. Many family films have true magic. It’s lovely and it’s meaningful for families and classrooms to read books together, to watch and discuss films together.

Nothing else, though, is so magical is a caregiver’s own consciousness conveyed in craft. The more wholly personal the craft, the better. The more spiritual teaching we embed in our tales, the better.

Let the child see and hear the caregiver’s mind and heart. The caregiver’s moral imagination.

Let the child dive into the influencer’s imagination. Swim there. Reply with her own. Respond with his.

It seems hard to make up stories. But it isn’t. They will flow from you.

Because you remain a child. Inside the adult you are lives still the joyful, ingeniously original dreamer you were. Fecund visionary you were born being. Fun, funny, fascinated explorer who came to this earth so glad to be here, so enthralled by what you discovered all around you.

Everyone can make up stories for the children we love.

You’ll love doing it. The children you parent, the children you teach, will love you for doing it.



Often it helps us to experience examples.

It helps to explore instances.

We feel freed by them. The liberties another has taken teach us there need be no restraints, no limits.

There can be … outpouring. There can be play.

From time to time I will post on this site stories I’ve made up for my grandchildren and nephews. They liked them. I hope the children you’re looking after will like them, too.

If they do, please make up your own.

If they don’t, blame me and make up your own.

I will post the first example tomorrow:

I will post the first example tomorrow: The Wandering Goose Brothers.

To be followed shortly by: Be Bop And Alulua.

And: Chichester Cathedral And The Meadow Bountiful.




Not Dark Yet: Robert Pack’s Laughter Before Sleep

The original version of this essay was written for Explorations (Flora Levy Foundation, University of Louisiana-Lafayette) as a review of Laughter Before Sleep, by Robert Pack (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2011). Page references appear in parentheses following citations.


I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

                                – Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet

Robert Pack has built an unusual distinction. In a long career of teaching, directing the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and crafting a singular body of poetry – callings almost certain to generate widespread envy and irrational criticism – he has inspired almost universal admiration and affection.


In the eighty-third year of his illustrious life, Pack has published a new collection of poems called Laughter Before Sleep. The poems vary broadly in their topics and tone, but all emanate from and converse about the tolls of aging on body and mind, the immanence of death, and the condition of “blank seasonless oblivion” (25) he believes must devolve upon us when we die.


i. “My earth-bound life” (6)

Among all peoples it is an axiom that poets feel more than anyone else. I don’t think this is true, but certainly Robert Pack feels ardently. He feels with particular intensity and beauty about nature: landscapes, flowers, birds, animals, weather, seasons, constellations, our world, other worlds, the universe expanding, life abundant and ebullient, relationships complex and fulfilling.


Pack is an ecstatic. His poems are stunningly attentive to and in love with the infinite energy and activity of existence. He celebrates with exquisite specificity and grace the constitution and character of creation. His verse photographs in joyous free frame creatures’ mentation and processes, flowers’ movements and colors, cycles’ contours, nature in her sacral sublimity.


Not sacral. Sublime yes, but decidedly not divine. Pack never receives the universe he celebrates as a work of godly intention. He cherishes, but he does not attribute. He adores life and living, but he can neither recognize an ordainer nor reverence a maker.


Again and again in this intriguing collection the poet tells us that we must resist what he terms the delusion of deity. Repeatedly he scorns “the pretense that the universe is purposely designed” (16). He honors Freud in part because he “wished to free mankind from the belief in God Himself (46).” He favorably contrasts “my need for skeptical detachment” with his Aunt Pearl’s sweet persistent weakness:


She felt compelled to theorize

About God’s presence in the universe

Despite the earthly pleasure she derived

From jams and jellies and desserts (33).


It gives him no pleasure to repudiate the faiths into which he was born. With dignified acceptance of his mind’s convictions, he refuses even to console his dying visionless mother with the vaguest possibility that he ever can share her religious yearnings:


Stark disappointment caught her breath,

Tightened her lips; her eyelids closed

As if it were her choice then to be blind.

“Maybe what happens after death,” she said,

Depends on what we’re able to believe;

Maybe my sister’s sitting by a stream –

Do they have streams in paradise?”

Her mouth turned down in worry that

She’ll wait in vain for my arrival there

Because I can’t pretend that I believe. (64)


This man who so fervently loves existence confronts a sense of terminus inexorable, proximate, and horrid. He dreads and abhors but cannot prevent the fact that he soon will cease to exist. He who so revels in living and has lived so blissfully is aging, has grown elderly, and soon must die.


And when he does, he feels certain he will become abolished. He tells Socrates, a human he can revere: “unlike you, I do not have an open mind about an afterlife (43).” He refuses to equivocate. “No, no, there’s nothing after death (24)!” He who can create so copiously, invent so melodically, cannot contrive the smallest measure of tranquilizing ambiguity:


I have no winter consolation now

To offer you, no summer comfort to bestow,

Only abiding sorrow that enables us

To hold each other here and press

Against the multiplying void of nothing

Breeding only nothingness. (25)


Pack knows his existence is irremediably “earth-bound” (6). He rejoices in life but be conceives that “Nature destroys what it creates, including me (36).” He’ll have no truck with our species’ inveterate longing for renewal and perpetuity after earthly decease:


I do not believe that souls exist

apart from what mere hungry bodies are (44).


He insists “true stories have to end in loss,” and “shared sorrow is the only consolation possible for anyone” (97).


ii. “Who I am, has potency” (55)

Pack cannot find The Divine in the universe he loves, but he does discover a massively empowered personhood.


Laughter Before Sleep celebrates its writer as the missing engineer and regent who confers upon creation a gorgeous but unplanned and unmade ordering of reactive awareness.  He rescues the universal sublime by sensing it, loving it, naming it, and recounting his responses to it. Writing poetry doesn’t simply investigate experience. It authors existence, and confers upon it everlasting authenticity and meaning.


Watching and writing about a pileated woodpecker whom he feeds during stark winter months in Montana reminds Pack that, however transient his “earth-bound” life may be, he is throughout the period of his living a being vital and magnificent, indispensable to nature’s activity and authority, and the patriarch of his own:


That is where I come in: my consciousness

to praise, admire, and celebrate.

What else in all creation is so special

and unique, something not heretofore

existing in a mute, indifferent universe?

Observing him, I’m also the observer

of myself observing him – my own red passion in

my own reverberating light (39).


“I am,” he exults, “pure awareness that I am aware” (6).


Cultivating sentience and crafting poetry from cogency give their maker the power of imparting substance, beauty, and meaning onto what otherwise would be intricate nullity. These are attributes of godhead, and Pack locates them in himself. As he observes a red-tailed hawk soar above him, he cries: “I can see – I live, I am aware”:


This is his living moment

in which my life also is contained;

this is the moment I contain my life

as if I were the willing author

of my own design, as if the hawk’s

stark silhouette against smooth sky

were my original idea. (5)


This radical emboldening of authorship, this elevation of feeling and writing into a divinity of “willing,” has great and fascinating puissance. He thanks our “forefather Adam” and a dedicatee named Janet for teaching him to construct and “celebrate a world of worded things (58).” From the day he published his “first raw book of poems” he has felt “exalted by my words upon a printed page” (59). At this stage in his life “my own cup runneth over with the names of what I’m able to identify (57)!” Now, he sings, “who I am, has potency” (55).


His poetic vigor, joyful as art and crucial as ontology, has raised him to the highest levels of human achievement:


I’ve excelled in the great universal

Competition to distinguish who I am (93).


Pack stakes a high but not an autocratic or exclusionary claim. He assures us that everyone can share in the beatitude and authority of artistry that “forefather Adam,” mentor poets, and he have pioneered:


There’s something in us all enabling us

to reinvent ourselves with words (52).


This is his book’s intention and teaching. His poetry is “self-realizing work” (65), but he lives, writes, and publishes to help us all find our own significance and claim the sanctity that inheres in our selves. He has given us Laughter Before Dark because “I elect to share the pleasure of identifying (56).”


iii. “My diminishing” (10)

This power of heroic divining is problematic, though, because it weakens and in time perishes. We age. Our synapses slow. Our cognitions wax, wane, and in their end wither. Our creative capabilities falter, fade, and in their finale fail. We all must die.


If we truly have no spiritual existence transcending our tellurian physical death, we must die into blunt obdurate nonentity. If we truly are “earth-bound” in a universe marvelous with wonders but devoid of architect, empty of intent, and barren of eternality, our “rapt, attending self (31)” can become in its cessation no more than an impassioned “witness to oblivion” (36).


Pack invents no facile exemption or antidote.  He believes in his beliefs, and he’s willing to pay the appalling prices of pain they exact. However, he does find a laudable power in his – in our – ultimate powerlessness. He finds the power of courage, the dignity of steadfastness, the noble potency of a free man embracing his liberty to choose his choices again and again unto the end. In a delightful work called “Power,” he proclaims with earned pride:


They’re gone, the powers that I once possessed –

Control of lightning bolts and hurricanes;

Old age does that: fatigue, and care, and stress.

Accepting loss, my last strength, still remains (38).


“Accepting loss” doesn’t really matter, because he and we will lose our lives whether or not we agree to die or approve of dying. Nevertheless it’s impressive and sweet that Pack does consent, and that he feels “able to resign myself to going where the swirling waters go (16).”


These poems bill themselves as lighthearted, but most are mournful, elegiac, wounded, hovering on edges often of fear and sometimes of anger. No wonder. This wonderful man has been a fine husband, father, son, and brother, an admirable teacher, poet, and shepherd, yet he’s headed, in his opinion, into “unnamed innermost dark emptiness” (8). He believes he must soon vanish from his extraordinary intellect and delicate spirit into “palpable absence … where even hungry cougars do not go” (9).


This man is so likable. As we read his remarkably intelligent and moving verses we hate to see him frightened about and resentful of “my diminishing” (10). But what can we do? We cannot make his personality become devotional. We cannot grant his closed mind access into faiths his experience of existence has not given him. We cannot deed this exemplary person, this beautiful poet, what John Henry Cardinal Newman called “the Illative Sense”: the knowledge certain, rooted in conviction not logic, given to the heart and cherished by the yielding head, that we of course do exist as souls, we of course are shaped and loved by The Divine who is wise as we are not, gentle as we are not, infinite and eternal as we are not. One who has plans for us that we cannot and need not discern or name.


Laughter Before Sleep is such a perplexing book. It is an august and bewitching work of worship by an author who cannot worship. It is a love song by a singer uncommonly gifted who cannot open his mind to the one gift he most craves, needs, and has freely on offer before him. How can a human being see, hear, and speak so astutely, and yet end his journey blind, deaf, austere, and quivering with needs he need neither feel nor fear?


How? Well, are not most of us ensnared in Pack’s bleak fearsome place? Are not most of us blind in his way, deaf in his way, impoverished in his way, quaking as he does from percepts we invent? Do not most of us fail as he does to trust to the truths all of life trumpets?


“I have a vanishing to undergo” (83). Why is it impossible for the soul called Robert Pack to envision a condition of life after life? Why does he find it impracticable to conceive a state of existence other than that of the selfhood he now knows? How is it that he who has been given so much happiness cannot conceive new paradigms of joy? New epochs of plentitude and peace, fertile, verdant, changing or inalterable but never “diminishing?”


It’s good that he is not really in authority on earth or beyond. He can gibe his Aunt Pearl and his mom, but aunts and mothers often have more access to wisdom than their nephews and sons.


Other brave and brilliant poets may be wrong, too. Not Dark Yet is a song of genius, but Bob Dylan may be as ensnared as Bob Pack in the majesty of the momentary. It surely may be that, although we must age statically and die in darkness, we shall be granted light and life beyond our present ken.


Throughout his celebratory melancholic collection, this lovely poet repeats a tender melodious teaching, the summation of his learning at this stage in his pilgrimage. “Be kind, be kind! (71)” Pack tells us. I think you will close Laughter Before Sleep with that wish for its author. I have not discovered The Divine in my life, but I think you will close this moving volume by asking our maker, if we have a maker, by asking The Divine, if there be a Divine, that she be kind to this greatly gifted and greatly good soul when he departs from his life.


“Who Made Me?”: The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill

“Who Made Me?”: The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill

-The question “Who Made Me?” cannot be answered.

A version of this essay first appeared in Prose Studies (London, Frank Cass), v. 5, September 1982, No. 2.

WordPress does not support footnotes. I have attached a link following the essay’s conclusion. The link will take you to fully-documented version of this piece.


1. The Missing Subject

Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield opens with one of the most disturbing lines in literature. David begins his narrative and introduces himself:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

We cannot help but feel stunned by the magnitude of David’s dissociation. It unnerves us that he feels such radical uncertainty about the materials and meanings of his existence. His situation seems either novelistic or psychotic. Confusion so extreme about the substance of one’s selfhood and the ownership of one’s experience only could occur, we imagine, in a fiction or a madness.

A similar moment occurs in The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. In the memoir’s closing chapter, Mill declares:

Whoever, either now or hereafter, may think of me and the work I have done, must never forget that it is the product not of one intellect and conscience but of three, the least considerable of whom, and above all the least original, is the one whose name is attached to it.

The sentence is so disconcerting that we scarcely know how to read it. How can we account for this startlingly comfortable assertion of insignificance and unoriginality? How can we comprehend Mill’s cozy conviction that his identity, history, and extraordinary achievements have nothing to do with his own psyche, spirit, and soul but have evolved exclusively as the inanimate “product” of an inchoate, disembodied entity coded as a tripartite “intellect and conscience?” How can we explain his belief that his august sensibility and illustrious “work” were forged as the manufacture of two other persons’ intelligence, will, and ethos?

No one ever has doubted Mill’s sincerity. But these avowals seem astonishing, absurd, abhorrent.

We feel as troubled by Mill’s language as by his percepts. We note that he refuses the grammar of personality. “Me” and “I” neuter themselves as “it” and “the one whose name is attached to it.” The sentence derives its puissance from its speaker’s ascription of prosaicness and powerlessness to himself. The writing is captivating. But it captivates because it depersonalizes, deprecates, and decertifies the writer.

This declaration and the bleak certitudes that inform it are characteristic of Mill’s thought and art in the Autobiography. Throughout one of the most revealing personal histories ever composed, Mill testifies to his lack of centrality and substance in his own life. He repeatedly avers – quietly, tranquilly, placidly – that he is inadequate, unimaginative, and essentially passive: an impersonal, non-authoritative cryptogram embedded in his own existence and “work.”

This is particularly true of the Autobiography’s opening paragraph. Mill commences what he calls his “biographical sketch” of himself by stating that his reminiscences and his ways of describing them cannot possibly excite our curiosity:

I do not for a moment imagine that any part of what I have to relate, can be interesting to the public as a narrative, or as being connected to myself (3).

He apologetically tries to explain why he is memorializing his experience:

I should prefix to the following biographical sketch, some mention of the reasons which have made me think it desirable that I should leave behind me such a memorial of so uneventful a life as mine.

The rationales he cites are odd and alarming:

In an age in which education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period of English history, it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable…. It has also seemed to me that in an age of transition of opinions, there may be somewhat both of interest and of benefit in nothing the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others. But a motive which weighs more with me than either of these, is a desire to make acknowledgment of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to other persons (3).

The passage almost has no subject. Or, rather, it has a multitude of subjects that appear concurrently to cooperate and conflict with one another.

The paragraph concerns a man we know to have been named John Stuart Mill: a person many of us regard as a genius of monumental importance and influence. However, the prose cannot make its way to Mill’s history, character, consciousness, and accomplishments. It cannot even utter its subject’s name. The text can engage and describe the man only by drawing together a host of abstruse generalizations: the age, an education, successive phases, a mind – “any mind” – debts, “intellectual and moral development.”

These abstractions coalesce with one another, and advance themselves as the missing subject’s substance. John Mill is comprised, we are told, of his intellect, its influencers, and its evolution: all of which came into being during a recent and, we gather, a distinctive period of time in the history of England.

The person the paragraph tries to make tangible is a man whose materiality derives from the tangibleness of things other than himself. But the text simultaneously suggests that this scripted Mill is obscured and overwhelmed by the forces that sculpted him. The individual is dwarfed and ultimately displaced by his “debts” and his “development.” He is secondary to his origins – so much so that his genesis and pedigree seem to him far more “eventful,” “useful,” and “desirable” than the man they collectively produced.

The Autobiography’s opening paragraph defines a human being who has been both created and demolished by an assortment of phenomena that appear to have been too strong and active for the individual they engendered and then overpowered. The brilliant but bizarre passage portrays a person whose history has made him at once vital and amorphous, knowable and undiscoverable, conspicuous and indiscernible.

This is Mill’s dilemma and subject in the Autobiography. He wants to “think of [himself] and the work [he has] done.” But he does not know how to locate, value, or converse about himself. No wonder he so frequently selects grammars that dispossess and neuter.

Mill solves his seemingly insoluble dilemma by circumventing it. Because he does not know how to define his consciousness and valorize his creations, he makes autobiography about “his intellectual and moral development” and the “other persons” who determined it. Because he does not know how to identify and prize the qualities, emotions, and triumphant achievements that make him tangible, he discusses the etiology of his intangibleness.

This daunting challenge and its ingenious resolution are almost insuperably complex. And infinitely sad. In order to characterize himself – he is by any measure a very great man – Mill believes he must represent himself as his lack of character. In order to write about his wondrous substance, he believes he must detail “the successive phases” of his autonomic reactions to other, more obviously substantive people.

A genius set out to write a “biographical sketch.” He composed a tragedy.

James Mill

James Mill

2. The Imperial Father

The person who most powerfully affected Mill’s development was his father. It is for this reason the narrative portion of the Autobiography opens in the peculiar way it does:

I was born in London, on the 20th of May 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India (4).

From this point John launches a “biographical sketch” not of himself but of James. He discusses not his own but his parent’s opinions, writings, and impact upon contemporary intellectual and civil affairs. He can approach the fact of himself, it seems, only by recounting and celebrating the fact of his progenitor.

The tactic is intelligible. Perhaps it is inevitable. A son who believes himself to have been psychically determined by his sire will wish to think about and memorialize his father before he thinks about and memorializes himself.

The stratagem may be intelligible. But it is confusing as the opening of an autobiography because it conceals from us the nature of the discourse, the identity of the subject, and the position – so to speak, the rank – of the author. We soon shall see that it disguises these crucial materials from the writer as well

Here and always Mill’s prose is crystal clear. But as we read the book’s opening paragraphs we feel perplexed and estranged. Is this a biography, or an autobiography? Who is the subject: James or John? Whose life will give the book its topics, quotients, and energies? Whose character and consciousness will give the volume its visions, views, and voice?

We quickly discover that, no matter how puzzling we find the opening, it is entirely extrapolative of and consonant with the book’s content. As we turn page after page of this astonishing work, we swiftly realize the Autobiography predominantly reports, explores, and attempts to overcome the catastrophic circumstance that its author does not know how to distinguish himself from his father. We learn that the Autobiography chiefly concerns the sad and startling fact that one of the nineteenth-century’s preeminent geniuses can imagine and discuss his own existence only by visualizing and celebrating his masterful parent’s.

The beginning paragraph may disorient, perhaps even vex us. But it ingeniously enacts Mill’s disorientation and anger. It announces the fact that as we read the Autobiography we shall encounter a brilliantly gifted, remarkably tender, kind, gentle, and good man who is attempting to trace “the successive phases” and relieve the incapacitating pain of his terrible conviction that he is an unidentifiable and unimportant person – that he is, at best, a much less excellent and far less effective person than his imposing patriarch.

Let us look more closely at the narrative’s opening. As we study the strange, seemingly evasive prose we realize it is neither strange nor evasive, for it directly identifies the major source of its author’s confusion and suffering.

I … was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India.

The sentence’s blunt language suggests, anything but accidentally, that Mill was engendered, given birth to, and raised by a single parent. It defines John solely as the son of a father, not the child of a father and a mother.

The phrasing seems offhand and dispassionate. But there is nothing unengaged or unemotional about Mill’s emotions here. He is confiding his most primal interpretation of his life’s constitution, purpose, and meaning.

The sentence’s apparent inaccuracy or inarticulateness – the absence of the mother – is unconsciously intentional. Its surface impassivity is subliminally volatile. At levels beneath that of awareness, Mill fully intends to acknowledge bewilderment and discharge resentment.

Who was my mother, he is asking. I know who my father was. I know what he did. But who was my mother? Where was she? What did she do? What was she the author of? The carefully censored prose controls but does not conceal the writer’s bafflement, pain, and indignation.

The prose also indicates that almost as confusing and distressing for Mill as the notion of his father’s autogamy was the fact that for his father paternity and authorship seemed to have been wholly coextensive activities. The sentence’s appositional syntax conveys John’s conviction that for James parenting a son and writing a book had approximately identical attributes and import.

Throughout the Autobiography’s first five chapters Mill goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate that his father regarded and treated him as a species of tome. He makes it disturbingly clear that he believed himself to have been not so much parented, loved, and educated as previsioned, written, and edited.

What an awful apperception to have about one’s father. But it was accurate. Generations of readers have felt repelled by the manner and magnitude of James’s parenting. His immersion of John at a preposterously early age into intense, autonomic learning of tertiary-level curricula. His ruthless superintendence of every facet of John’s intellectual, moral, and aesthetic life. His unthinkable interdiction of John’s spiritual consciousness. His regime of forced, unrelenting, rigorous study, incessant assessment, harsh judgment, insatiable expectation – all in a surround of unvarying sterility and austerity. A childhood of uninterrupted, unending, joyless drab. Way to go, Dad.

Despite our revulsion, we receive titillation in reading about this famously difficult childhood. We feel shocked, yet not at all mystified as John converses with us about the completeness of his involvement with his father and the extraordinarily primal nature of their relationship .

It is not difficult to understand why Mill’s account of his subjugation interests us so much. It is because we know this father. To one or another extent we all feel dominated by our father. John Mill’s experience engrosses us because it seems a horrific but familiar intensification of our own.

Mill’s riveting chronicle compels us to compare our childhood with his. More accurately, we initially identify. Then we differentiate.

We all have felt the allure and authority of our father. But as Mill recounts the rococo story of his sonship we find ourselves wondering what it can have felt like to be made this subservient to so powerful a patriarch. What can it have meant – what can it have cost – to be not just normally or thoroughly but absolutely fathered? Not just inspired and shepherded but wrought, rendered, carved, cast, died, molded? Not just influenced, but processed, pureed, and poured.

Mill does not initially seem aware of his subjugation as an issue. As we first read the Autobiography we may think Mill’s power of acceptance and adjustment is as surprising as the entirety of his subjection. We feel struck by how serenely he appears to have reacted to experiences that we know gravely injured him, and assume should therefore have outraged him.

We marvel that he continually refers to his maltreated, truncated boyhood in only the most circumspect terms. We marvel that he invariably speaks of his father with respect and, often, worshipful affection.

Did he never feel victimized? Did he feel not one shard of confusion or fear or fury? Can it be that in the case of John Stuart Mill severe and sustained psychological abuse precipitated nothing but acceptance, gratitude, love, and titanic achievement?

This possibility puzzles us, but it also deeply attracts. Much of the Autobiography’s interest for its enormous worldwide audience derives from its ability to evoke and portray the sense of infinite human resilience.

More than this. We receive from Mill’s story much more than the pleasing idea of our species’ elasticity and suppleness. We also feel intrigued and moved by the book’s ability – an ability unequalled in English literature – to conjure the possibility of immeasurably deep and infinitely protracted infantile love.

Most of us learn first to spurn, then sublimate, then supplant the Oedipal hysteria. The Autobiography suggests Mill’s experience of the Oedipus complex was unqualified, ecstatic, lifelong, and magisterially productive.

As he describes it, his entire intrapsychical existence seems to have occurred as an eerie but epic tour de force of paternal worship. As we first read the Autobiography we find ourselves concluding that this redoubtable person, this wunderkind, was a man who was able to yield without resistance, remorse, or detriment to the primitive totem of the imperial father.

It is this that initially seems most compelling about Mill’s memoir. The work captivates us, as it did its author, because it summons into formal and excited order all the awe and adoration an infant subliminally directs onto an overly idealized progenitor.

The Autobiography captivates us because it organizes, gives voice to, and makes seem reasonable, healthy, survivable, and constructive an inadmissible compulsion that we all encounter, suppress, but involuntarily long to emancipate. It has established itself as one of the world’s most affecting and valuable books because it examines, directly and deliberately, the universally felt but universally proscribed instinct of father-worship .

I am proposing that we unconsciously respond to the Autobiography in much the same way Mill did. The work seems to us, as it seemed to its author, the tableau or tabernacle of an aboriginal and thrilling taboo.

3. Metamorphosing Fact

Taboos are taboo for a reason. Our initial euphoric appraisal cannot survive thoughtful reflection and return readings. The Autobiography is a vastly more complex text that we first understand it to be; and no one escapes a universal proscription unscathed.

As we more closely examine this somber study of an extraordinary life we discover that, with his unfailing intrepidity and incomparable intelligence, Mill did recognize and respond to the more terrible aspects of his history.

We learn that he suffered serious – during one period, very nearly mortal – damage from his supererogatory sonship; and he developed responses of acute pain and sustained anger. But in his memoir as in his life, he experiences his reactions covertly and expresses them furtively, as if he feels impelled to deconstruct his natural resentment and divert his unavoidable wrath.

Communicating adjustment, love, and productivity was agreeable and easy for Mill. When he writes encomia to his father his prose is quick, certain, and exultant, as if extolling his maker seems to him a prayerful activity: a hymning of hosanna, a canticle of thanksgiving.

His less contented scripts, however, exhibit symptoms of extreme disturbance. The few but potent passages in which he confesses objection and acknowledges torment sound constrained and reluctant, contorted, clotted, as though he feels that dissenting opinions and aggravated emotions are confusing and menacing synapses.

As we read and reread the Autobiography, we see that Mill controlled the dangerous material of his argumentative and antagonistic responses to his father by glorifying his gratitude, exalting his love, and censoring his ire. We see that he tries to conceal his dissident and indignant consciousness from himself as well as from his readers – presumably because he does not want or dare openly to confront the manifold contradictions of his innermost feelings about his despotic parent and his confiscated childhood.

As we study this cunning book, we learn one of the unspoken “motives” that shaped the Autobiography and fueled its immense creativity was Mill’s need to create a mechanism by which he could explore and relieve his untoward ambivalence toward his father without ever having consciously to acknowledge that he felt ambivalence.

The act of making memoir seems to have given Mill a means by which he could convert his intolerable experience into an existence he would have preferred to live if he could have authored his history. Throughout the Autobiography John writes about his oppressive youth in such a way as transform much of the indifference, domination, and restrictiveness he actually received from James into the love and liberality he wished he had received.

Mill never deliberately dissembles or deceives. Throughout his life he found it impossible to prevaricate. In his art he does not need to. Instead he can imaginatively reorder or, as it were, rewrite his past. He can subrationally deny and artfully recondition the realities that most intensely wounded him.

It is for this reason, subliminal in structure but coercive in necessity, that he describes his parent’s preoccupations and prohibitions in such a way as to metamorphose James’s disregard and abusiveness into abiding concern and care. He defines his unconscious emotions of loneliness, injury, and wrath into a consciousness of vast inclusion and tender nurturing. He treats the bewilderment, grief, and hurt of his childhood isolation as a happy awareness of patriarchal communication and communion.

Multiple readings teach us we should regard the Autobiography as a work not of inspired reminiscence but of brilliantly creative reconstruction and rehabilitation. We learn that one of the world’s canonical memoirs invents a life its author craved but did not live.

We can observe this fascinating process of honest self-deception and earnest fabrication throughout the Autobiography. Early in the narrative, for example, Mill remarks:

[My father] was often, and much beyond reason, provoked by my failures in cases where success could not have been expected; but in the main his method was right, and it succeeded (19).

He explains:

My recollection … is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success. It is true, the failures were often in things where success in so early a stage of my progress, was almost impossible…. In this [my father] seems, and perhaps was, very unreasonable; but I think, only in being angry at my failure. A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can (20-21).

Discourse of this kind enables Mill to know his anger, comprehend its sources, and release its energies. But even as in a supremely cautious and measured way he conveys his indignation, he demonstrates to his own satisfaction that his senses of solitude and sorrow are essentially baseless and therefore erasable. My papa proffered me salubrious stimulus, and his pedagogy succeeded on a grand scale. My pain was an unintended consequence, and therefore may be expunged.

This is not simply a defense of his father’s pedagogics. More importantly it is a discovery of his parent’s underlying love. John persuades himself in this intricate, subliminally strategic passage that James’s apparent lack of regard and gratuitous aggressiveness – what we would term his pathological pugnacity – must be interpreted as manifestations of the most affectionate and benevolent paternal devotion. He was abased and abused only because his father wanted him to accomplish “all he can.”

John acknowledges that James maimed him. However, he concludes “in the main his method was right” because it encouraged him to expect, seek, and achieve “success.” The father’s “method was right,” this is to say, because it was motivated by his profound love and beautiful hope for his child. He never meant to harm his helpless son. He meant to catalyze his prodigy’s sacral power.

Mill’s ability simultaneously to accuse and exonerate his father is especially evident and moving on those occasions when he describes his birth family’s cosmic frigidity:

The element which was chiefly deficient in [my father’s] moral relation to his children, was that of tenderness (32).

In an earlier draft, he wrote:

In respect to what I here am concerned with, the moral agencies which acted on myself, it must be mentioned as a most baneful one, that my father’s children neither loved him, nor, with any warmth of affection, any one else… I thus grew up in the absence of love & in the presence of fear: & many & indelible are the effects of this bringing-up, in the stunting of my moral growth .

Mill never recanted this testimony. This reluctant testimony: we note that he writes: “It must be mentioned.” But he does try to qualify its significance and minimize its salience:

I do not mean that things were worse in this respect than they are in most English families; in which genuine affection is altogether exceptional; what is usually found being more or less of an attachment of mere habit, like that to inanimate objects, & a few conventional proprieties of phrase & demonstration. I believe there is less personal affection in England than in any other country of which I know anything, & I give my father’s family not as peculiar in this respect but only as a too faithful exemplification of the ordinary fact (Early Draft, 184).

His preliminary draft dissatisfied Mill. He revised the passage for publication. In the final text, he declares:

I do not believe that [my father’s] deficiency lay in his own nature. I believe him to have had much more feeling than he habitually shewed [sic], and much greater capacities of feeling than were ever developed. He resembled most Englishmen in being ashamed of the signs of feeling, and, by the absence of demonstration, starving the feelings themselves.

Aha! James’s reserve and rigidity were circumstantial. They were not personal.

What was personal – what not only redeems James’s apparent lovelessness but transforms his coldness into an exposition of supreme love – were the necessities imposed upon him by his heroic choice to homeschool Mill and his siblings:

If we consider further that he was in the trying position of sole teacher, and add to this that his temper was constitutionally irritable, it is impossible not to feel true pity for a father who did, and strove to do, so much for his children, who would have valued their affection, yet who must have been feeling that fear of him was drying it up at its sources. This was no longer the case, later in life and with his younger children. They loved him tenderly; and if I cannot say so much of myself, I was always loyally attached to him (32).

In both versions of this enlightening material Mill recognizes that his father’s love was incomplete in its constitution and defective in its presentation. He brings himself to believe, though, that the “deficiency” did not lie “in [his father’s] own nature” so much as in his cultural enclosure. James had to be remote, “irritable,” and frightening because he was English, and all Englishmen are “ashamed by the signs of feeling” .

He even persuades himself that his father’s inability to convey “personal affection” must be understood as an indication of its profoundness. It was because James was “in the trying position of sole teacher” that he had to restrain his inborn desire to shower his children with sympathy, gentleness, and love. It was because James “did, and strove to do, so much” for his children that, most unwillingly, and only with great difficulty, he artificially inhibited his instinctive tenderness.

Mill goes even further. He interprets it as the sign of his special favor with his father that he was made to study an environment even more laborious and loveless than his siblings’. It was because James felt far less for “his younger children” that he gave them weaker requirements and mere patronizing affection rather that the impossibly high expectations and merciless rigor he reserved for his firstborn.

What an ingenious contortion. Because James loved John so much, he had no choice but to seem to have loved him not at all. “True pity” in his pitiable situation should be directed, this supernally loyal son concludes, not to himself but to the selfless parent who “would have valued [John’s] affection” beyond all things, but selflessly deprived himself of that deeply desired pleasure in order that he might give the child he preferred above all others a habitat in which he most fully could develop his profuse abilities.

The stratagem is as bold as it is byzantine. Throughout the Autobiography Mill records his patrimony of bewilderment, disappointment, grief, and anger. But he records the history primarily because he longs to reject and restructure it.

And he does. He metamorphoses it. In particular he creates the plausible illusion that he in fact did receive from his father the love he craved, but never could feel embracing, defining, and supporting him.

The more closely we examine the text, the more clearly we see its uses for its author. We see the autobiographer wrote the Autobiography not because he wanted to remember and publicly share his experience, but because he needed privately to renounce and revise it.

Mill’s strategy succeeded. He wrote a masterpiece: a discourse not of disclosure, but of denial.

4. Mama M.I.A.

A note for our international readers: “M.I.A.” is an American military acronym that means “Missing In Action.”

A crucial element of his experience that Mill felt especially eager to reimagine and reorder was the primal matter of his own and his father’s relationship with Harriet Barrow [sometimes spelled Burrow] Mill: John’s mother, and James’s wife.

We first become aware of his mother’s importance to Mill by her absence from the narrative. One of the most peculiar and engrossing circumstances about the Autobiography is the fact that Mill does not once mention his mother in the final text of the work . In his multiple early drafts he refers to her on but nine occasions; and only once in these subsequently discarded treatments does he speak about her at any length .

We cannot help but wonder at this glaring void. How can it be that in his entire lifetime this prolific author, one of civilization’s earliest, most impassioned, and most active advocates for women’s prerogatives, privileges, and rights in the family, the workplace, and society, wrote a single sustained, and by his choice unpublished, description of his mother?

Even this passage is abbreviated. It contains only ninety-three words; and they are shocking in their antipathy and anger.

Here is the paragraph:

That rarity in England, a really warm hearted mother, would in the first place have made my father a totally different being, & in the second would have made the children grow up loving & being loved. But my mother with the very best intentions, only knew how to pass her life in drudging for them. Whatever she could do for them she did, & they liked her, because she was kind to them, but to make herself loved, looked up to, or even obeyed, required qualities which she unfortunately did not possess (Early Draft, 184).

Here and in the few other sentences in his early drafts in which Mill addresses the subject of his mother, he expresses abject scorn and barely repressed aversion. He also conveys an urgent desire to deny both the fact of his mother’s existence and the meaning of his father’s involvement with her existence.

He asserts, for example, that his mother was “ill assorted” (Early Draft, 66) to James. He tells us that with his wife James “had not, & never could have supposed that he had, the inducements of kindred intellect, tastes, or pursuits” (Early Draft, 36). And he protests that James’s impulse to father numerous children with Harriet is beyond comprehension:

… A conduct than which nothing could be more opposed, both as a matter of good sense and of duty, to the opinions which, at least at a later period of life, he strenuously upheld (4). The mystification Mill voices in these agitated remarks camouflages but cannot conceal his almost consciously jealous determination to ignore and, if possible, negate the erotic content of his patriarch’s partnership with his wife. Rather than allow himself to identify the inescapably evident reason why James wanted to have “married and had a large family” (4), he permits himself to conclude that his parents’ response to one another was incoherent, irresponsible, and incomprehensible.

We can see, as Mill could not, that his expressions of bafflement weakly but effectually mask a clear, full, and painful understanding of his father’s “conduct.” We can see, as he could not, that his desire to make Harriet’s claims upon James a matter mysterious and inexplicable emanates from a longing to invalidate them, negate them, and insert himself into the positions, functions, and roles from which he expels her.

We can see, as he could not, that the resourceful adult who wrote these professions of perplexity was the direct descendent of the child who yearned to become not just his patriarch’s preferred son, pupil, and companion but his fully acknowledged helpmeet and mate.

We can see more. Mill’s decision to exclude from his published text even these few bitter, dismissive, and usurping comments about his mother constitutes not just a reprimand veiled as reticence but also a resolving retribution.

Banning from his memoir the mere mention of Harriet metaphorically but muscularly punishes her for winning the uxorial unification with James that had been prohibited him. Nothing Mill could do in his conscious, licit life more consummately could have enacted admonishment, discharged fury, and exacted revenge upon his mother than this flagrantly public absenting: this authorial annulling of her actuality.

Revenge indeed. Mill’s refusal to acknowledge his mother in the historical account of his life is not just an omission. It is an annihilation. By ignoring the fact of her existence in the public representation of his own, Mill discreates her. He salves the pain of a lifelong injury and assuages an enduring rage by committing an emblematic murder: an authorial assassination.

Of course Mill did not understand this at any level of aware thought. But that is exactly the source of the strategy’s efficacy, and the secret of its remedial power

The gratification Mill received from the Autobiography’s metaphorical matricide derived from its ability to behave as an entirely subliminal, solely symbolic act. Not a deed, nothing like a deed: simply a staging akin to dream. A presentation violent, viral, and discreet. A performance absolute and surreptitious. A depiction definitive: indeed, deadly. But displaced, distorted and disguised, and therefore deniable.

Ostracizing his mother from the story of his life gave Mill a solution that reality never proffers victims of the Oedipal emergency. The cloaks and concealments made available to him by the making of autobiography allowed the autobiographer to dispose of one of his principal fixations without ever becoming forced to disesteem himself for feeling it, freeing it, and acting upon it .

We have seen much. But there is more.

We can see that banishing his mother from the Autobiography provided its author with two other important compensations. Using literature to literalize Harriet’s triviality radically reduced his anguished idea of her import for his father. And it decisively situated himself as his father’s notional spouse.

  1. Mill cannot consciously concede either of these subconscious transformations. But his work in the Autobiography lets us hear him conceive it, implement it, and welcome its compensations: My mother is a nonentity: a literally forgettable figment of ignorant and inane frippery.
  2. Her place in my father’s life, accordingly, can have been of no real consequence.
  3. Therefore, not she but I have been the most consequential person in my father’s life.
  4. I am, then, not just my progenitor’s most favored – and thus most abused – child. I am as well his true and only conjugal coadjutor: his allegorical but operative matrimonial partner.

This intricate substitution of himself for Harriet as James’s nuptial consort luxuriantly discharges the Oedipal agenda. Mill’s refusal ever to mention his mother in the Autobiography permits him at once to express, avenge, and disregard the atavistic but unacceptable jealousy and alluvial anger he felt toward the mother he believed had abandoned him; and had attempted to usurp for herself the person he most loved and needed.

I am not contending that authoring the Autobiography cured Mill of his primal neuroses. I am proposing, rather, that creating his memoir reorganized and relieved many of the pressures the neuroses mounted against his mind; and that it did so by allowing their toxic fundament of bewilderment, grief, and vindictive hatred to become symbolically articulated, harmlessly acted upon, and yet ignored.

5. Compensatory Consciousness

Authoring himself as a man who could simultaneously confess and suppress the most volatile elements in his psychology gave Mill a confident sense of authority over his history and the imagination it engendered.

This empowering engineering animates the process and dominates the design of his self-portraiture. It became one of Mill’s principal purposes in the Autobiography to characterize himself as not as a damaged personality replying to injured percepts and volatile passions but an elegant intelligence venerating, replying to, and creating wisdom. He persistently defines himself in his memoir as a man in biology, but an intellect in essence. An intellect selfless and vast: a mature moral instrumentation ideally suited for dispassionate inquiry and impersonal truth.

We recall Mill expresses his determination to depersonalize his personality from the outset. Earlier in the essay we discussed the fact that he begins the book by asserting he is not important, and his life is monotonous:

It seems proper that I should prefix to the following biographical sketch, some mention of the reasons which have made me think it desirable that I should leave behind me such a memorial of so uneventful a life as mine. I do not for a moment imagine that any part of what I have to relate, can be interesting to the public as a narrative, or as being connected with myself.

Reading this modest disclaimer may cause us momentarily to disremember that its author composed it at a moment when he was one of the world’s most admired and acclaimed persons: universally respected, globally influential, at a peak of intellectual authority and impact unequalled in England or any other country.

Autobiography, indeed. Because I am of no interest, he tells us, the core subject of my memoir will not be the register of my experiences, the history of my psyche, or the story of my soul. Instead, I will portray the pedagogy my maker practiced upon my mind:

… I have thought that in an age in which education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period it English history, it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable.

I will not just make a “record” of the course of study my father created. I will record the “successive phases” of the mentation his pedagogy manufactured:

In an age of transition in opinions, there may be somewhat both of interest and of benefit in noting the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others.

These are emphatic dissociations. But they are not sufficient for Mill’s epically self-effacing intention:

A motive which weighs more with me than either of these, is a desire to make acknowledgment of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to othe persons (3).

This arresting sentence expresses, and clearly intends to express, an almost total failure of coenesthesia. He does not simply recuse himself as the subject of his own life story. He seems to relish taking this drastic step.

How can this be? Why does this wonderful man, this supremely accomplished thinker and artist, derive pleasure from refusing to recognize any actuality and worth in his own independent, extraordinarily successful individuality?

Why? Because renouncing his personhood allows him to disestablish everything subconscious, disconcerting, and objectionable in the person who resides inside his personhood.

It is to gain this long-sought control and elusive peace that Mill insists that he is not meaningfully a personality at all: that everything “connected with myself” resides solely in his intellect, the system of education by which it was instructed, and the methodologies by which it operates.

The totality of my selfhood, he tells us, exists solely as a bodying forth of absolutely conscious, rationally constructed “opinions.” By my father’s design and my own preference, I am an accretion of willed, lucid, cogitated, easeful, and healthy “thoughts.”

Mill makes his objectified cerebration not just his memoir’s chief topic but as well its leading character. Throughout the Autobiography he speaks of his mental activity as though it were an entity invariably supraliminal and somehow discrete from himself: an autonomous, purposive object rather than the elemental projection of a large and various, often subliminal, at least partially instinctive, acutely affective human being.

When we earlier explored the work’s opening paragraph, we noted the material is intriguing because it reveals how difficult its author found it to differentiate his true self from his life’s situations and sources. We now can see this symbolic sterilization was a choice rather than a fate: a decision as well as a patrimony.

As he wrote the Autobiography, Mill grew increasingly comfortable with and explicit about the idea of himself as a holistically ratiocinative, indebted, synthetic, and neuter intelligence. He ever more extremely represents himself as a man who has experienced tribulations but has developed in reply no reactive damages. No subterranean scars. Only hale awareness, immeasurable learning, and momentous capabilities – all of which are tributes not to him but to his male parent and, as we soon shall learn, his wife. His wife who shared his mother’s name: Harriet .

The Autobiography’s opening maneuvers are prototypical of all that follow. The lengths to which Mill goes in the story of his life to conceal the existence and actual nature of his life are strange and sad – although in an anomalous way exceedingly creative.

He rarely allows himself to depict his personality, its passions, or its modes of presentation. He seldom says: I felt, I sensed, I grew, I desired. Instead he crafts such clotted locutions as:

It was at the period of my mental progress which I now have reached that I formed the friendship which has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to effect hereafter, for human improvement. (111)

He never characterizes his emotions as active, energetic, unregulated sensations. Even when he describes love and marriage. In lieu of exulting that he met, felt electrified by, fell in love with, wooed, and wed a beautiful and brilliant woman named Harriet Taylor, he gelidly declares:

To be admitted into any degree of mental intercourse with a being of [her] qualities, could not help but have a most beneficial influence on my development; though the effect was only gradual, and many years elapsed before her mental progress and mine went forward in the complete companionship they at last attained” (113).

Throughout the Autobiography Mill systematically conceals the fact that he was a spirited, libidinal man. And he does so with palpable comfort and zeal.

6. The Alchemy of Autobiography

The autobiographer’s incongruously impassioned dehumanization of himself gradually comes to seem the Autobiography’s secret theme or covert plot. We feel as engaged and moved by the remoteness and automatism of Mill’s prose as by the remarkable history it relates.

As we read his happily dissociative language we perforce wonder what imaginative requirements he satisfies by depriving himself of his own tangibleness. Why does he delight in repudiating his primacy and renouncing his particularity? What pleasures does he win by devitalizing his individuality and annulling his autonomy?

We know the answer to these questions. The Autobiography and the life that produced the need to write it provide the explanation and its evidence.

We know that depersonalizing and subordinating himself gave Mill a considerable degree of control over the debilitating anxieties his childhood had built into his consciousness. By convincing himself that he can be defined exclusively as his cerebral cognitions and ethical intelligence he invalidates the content, meaning, and authority of the grievous injuries his parents imposed upon him.

He basks in his refusal to register awareness of himself as a man of feeling because this tactic frees him from having to be aware that what he always most deeply feels is confusion, anger, and suffering. The subconscious nature of the expedient makes it all the more efficacious and therefore gratifying.

Again and again he invokes this healing construct. I am a mind, not a man. I am not my hurt, stormy emotionality. I am not my perplexity, or my grief, or my indignation. I am my education and my opinions. I am innocuous. I am my equitable, detached, achromatic “intellectual and moral development.”

This is why the Autobiography’s prose is most elevated when it is least personal: when it is epicene. It may seem to us peculiar, perhaps even perverse, that Mill sounds so content and confident whenever he can represent himself in impersonal and inactive, indeed, robotic locutions. But we are not Mill.

For Mill, awareness of emotion must always have been awareness of torment. No wonder his language sounds most robust, skilled, and cheerful when he can avoid and thus demit all traces of affect. Neutering the actuality of emotion in his writing grants him an empowering insensitivity. Not a falsifying amnesia: a protective anesthesia.

Purging from his prose all reference to feeling gives him the prophylactic ability to imagine that his edification, not his heartache, his accomplishments, not his anguish, constitute his authentic reality. I am, he can suppose, my erudition and its educators. I am my ratiocination, and its indebtedness to my father and my wife. I am not, I certainly am not, my baffled, messy, potentially eruptive turbulence.

In Mill’s “biographical sketch” we confront a most rare phenomenon. We encounter a work that extended to its author the ability to transcend by evasion and transform by denial the pains and pathologies that originally inspired him to write it.

The Autobiography could not cure but it did confine and contain the traumas that brought it into being. It performs a salvific alchemy upon the life it purports to portray.

7. James’s Mandate, John’s Mission

At a level of consciousness just beneath that of awareness Mill cannot have failed to realize that the personality he invents in the Autobiography precisely resembles – nay, incarnates – the character who had been his imperial father’s imaginative ideal.

In his ingenious feat of self-effacing self-portraiture, the adult artist faithfully fulfilled the mandate of his childhood. He authored himself as the minimally individualized, purely intellective, invariably equanimous, entirely ancillary human being his powerfully loved parent always had insisted he become .

Or so it may appear. But a more subversive mandate is also in play here: a discreetly insurrectionist mission. Mill as well is researching the extent to which he can depart from the narrow parameters his parent permitted, and demarcate himself as his own man.

The manner and method by which Mill defines himself in the Autobiography – what we have called his maneuvers, the language in which he vests them, his whole verbal persona – establish him as an unequivocally dutiful son. Simultaneously, though, the uses to which he put his dutiful and dependent personality helped him become a self-governing, self-determining adult.

Mill wrote his memoir carefully. He expects us to read it carefully. He consistently records that he was in every respect an obedient heir. But he wants us to discern that as he advanced in years he also thought and acted in such a way as to fashion autonomous views and forward independent ends.

Here is how he launches the exegesis of his necessarily furtive duality:

I thought for myself almost from the first, and occasionally thought differently from [my father], though for a long time only on minor points, and making his opinion the ultimate standard (19).

As he grew older, he more openly averred his binary identity :

[My] writings were no longer mere reproductions and applications of the doctrines I had been taught; they were original thinking … and I do not exceed the truth in saying that there was a maturity, and a well-digested character about them (72).

Gradually, cautiously, circumspectly, he separated from his patriarch. But he did so in a custom quiet, nonconfrontational, and determinedly respectful of the person who had shaped him:

My father’s tone of thought and feeling, I now felt myself at a great distance from: greater, indeed, than a full and calm explanation and reconsideration on both sides, might have shown to exist in reality… On those matters of opinion on which we differed, we talked little. He knew that the habit of thinking for myself, which his mode of education had fostered, sometimes led me to opinions different from his, and he perceived from time to time that I did not always tell him how different.

He violates his principle of strategic repression only when he must. Only when he finds himself in disagreements with his father profound and pervasive. Only with regard to issues defining of character rather than illustrative of mere dialogic nuance:

I expected no good, but only pain to both of us, from discussing our differences: and I never expressed them but when he gave utterance to some opinion or feeling repugnant to mine, in a manner which would have made it disingenuousness on my part to remain silent (108).

As he expounds his experience in the Autobiography, Mill concurrently reaffirms and recants the father’s pedagogy and the child’s program. In his psyche, he persuades himself, he was a loyal and loving son. But in his work he was a free agent: and he gradually became in fact as well as by reputation the preeminent modern champion of human liberty.

Mill is writing a literature intricate and resolving. He is engaging in a portraiture that permits him to view himself as a complex concomitance: his father’s object, and his own person.

This sophisticated dance of subordination and sovereignty further elucidates the otherwise mystifying exuberance of the Autobiography’s often chill and cheerless prose. Now we more fully can understand why Mill always sounds most self-assured when his language is most self-deprecating and ensconcing. Why he sounds most serene when his syntaxes are most stark, staid, and striated. The reason is that the prose is accomplishing the seemingly impossible dyadic solution its author so desperately needs.

In his “biographical sketch” the child reveres and remains forever reliant upon his totalitarian father. But he also emancipates himself from him. The son continues permanently loyal to his parent’s enervating “mode of education.” But he also forges an identity independent, inventive, and wondrously productive.

The Autobiography allowed Mill peacefully and permanently to unite his infantilism with his adulthood. Crafting his complex memoir allowed him to satisfy, salute, and yet separate from his preternaturally powerful patriarch.

He is never defiant. But he does not remain a thrall. He constructs a mechanism by which he can represent his lifelong submission to his sire as a sane and salubrious evolution into individuality, freedom, and self-rule.

In his luminous Autobiography Mill accomplishes a miracle. The unfairly appropriated apostle transforms himself into an appropriately imperceptible apostate. He renders himself at once retainer and renegade, serf and suzerain, vassal and vanquisher.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Are not human beings – this human being, certainly — marvels of resilience, ingenuity, and tact?

John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill

John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor Mill

8. Narcissist to Another’s Imago

I have characterized the Autobiography as a narrative that is diffident by design. For reasons that his history embedded in his mentality Mill rarely focuses on himself in the story of himself; and he never lauds his character or even references his world-renowned successes.

This tendency became a defining trait of his conscious thought, and one of his seminal teachings. In his public and in his private writings he repeatedly observes that excessive self-involvement (by which he often seems to have meant virtually any self-involvement) is ridiculous and reprehensible.

To Florence Nightingale, for instance:

No earthly power can ever prevent the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure of human egotism from weighing down and thrusting aside those who have not the power to resist it. Where there is life there is egotism .

This is a characteristic declamation. In his literature, letters, and conversation Mill inveighs often and with atypical heat against the insipidity and destructiveness of “human egotism.”

Despite his campaign against self-aggrandizement, and despite his many motives for minimizing his importance in his own life and work, the Autobiography frequently assumes an aggressively self-assured and self-assertive tone. Lodged in the work’s discreet discourse we often encounter startlingly intemperate celebrations of self. The narrative is layered with passages that must strike us as egregious examples of “the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure of human egotism.”

What is riveting about these passages is the fact that they aggrandize not Mill himself, but his father and his wife. In the story of his life as in the living of it, he dedicates an inordinate amount of attention and regard to not his own but two other persons’ egos.

His testimonials to his father are especially excited and exorbitant. Early in the Autobiography, for example, he panegyrizes James’s achievements as an historian and political figure in terms that will sound to many readers consciously extravagant:

I still think [my father’s History of British India], if not the most, one of the most instructive histories ever written, and one of the books from which most benefit may be derived from a mind in the course of making up its opinions…. And his dispatches, following his History, did more than ever had been done before to promote the improvement of India, and teach Indian officials to understand their business. If a selection of them were published, they would, I am convinced, place his character as a practical statesman fully on a level with his eminence as a speculative writer (16-17).

Later he exclaims:

I have never known any man who could do such ample justice to his best thoughts in colloquial discussion. His perfect command over his great mental resources, the terseness and expressiveness of his language and the moral earnestness as well as the intellectual force of his delivery, made him one of the most striking of all argumentative conversers.

Not merely a genius of dialogue and sublime guru of strategic analysis, policy formation, and colonial administration, James was as well a metacognitive catalyst, an irresistible inspirer, a change agent of unparalleled power and beneficence:

It was not solely, or even chiefly, in defusing his merely intellectual convictions, that his power shewed [sic] itself: it was still more through the influence of a quality, of which I have only since learnt to appreciate the extreme rarity: that exalted public spirit and regard above all things to the good of the whole, which warmed into life and activity every germ of similar virtue that existed in the minds he came into contact with (62).

Mill’s displaced egotism is particularly conspicuous when he idealizes the scale and scope of his father’s impact. At one point he insists James’s sphere of authority – his potency – was a permeation pervasive, permanent, and heroically philanthropic:

My father’s conversations and personal influence made his opinions tell on the world; cooperating with the effect of his writings in making him a power in the country, such as it has rarely been the lot of an individual in a private station to be, through the mere force of intellect and character: and a power which was often acting the most efficiently where it was least seen and suspected.

Mill is generous in assigning a share in his sonship to many. He is happy to apportion his patrimony to many – to make it in essence cosmic:

How much of what was done by Ricardo, Hume, and Grote, was the result, in part, of his prompting and persuasion. He was the good genius by the side of Brougham in most of what he did for the public, either on education, law reform, or any other subject. And his influence flowed in minor streams too numerous to be mentioned (55-6).

His advocacy is ardent, but not unbridled. He acknowledges that Jeremy Bentham exercised a force more puissant than his father. But he does maintain that Bentham’s canon and consequence would have been far lesser had it not been for James’s indispensable inculcation tutelage:

The influence which Bentham exercised was by his writings. Through them he has produced, and is producing, effects on the condition of mankind, wider and deeper, no doubt, than any which can be attributed to my father. He is a much greater name in history… [However] it was my father’s opinions which gave the distinguishing character to the Benthamic or utilitarian propagandism of that time (62).

James’s magnanimity, wisdom, and grace “flowed”(65) everywhere. His power, like a god’s, “was often acting the most efficiently where it was least seen and suspected.” He was the unpublicized but formative force behind all the vital work of Ricardo, Hume, Grote, Brougham, and, as the Autobiography thoroughly documents, John Stuart Mill.

“Benthamism” itself is a misnomer. The entire “Benthamic or utilitarian” era in the history of western civilization should be known, named, and commemorated as the Age of James Mill.

Mill’s homages to his wife are even more hyperbolic than his plaudits to his parent. This is especially true of his introductory description of Harriet. In an access of overwrought devotion, he cries – he gloats:

Alike in the highest regions of speculation and the smallest practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter: always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as well as her mental faculties, would have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would in the times when such a carriere was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind (112-13).

This is paean passionate and sweeping, but it does not suffice. It is Harriet’s character and her heart, her undiscriminating goodness and empathetic tenderness that this love-starved celebrant most admires and cherishes:

Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and best balanced which I ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them, by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own. The passion of justice might have been thought to be her strongest feeling, but for her boundless generosity, and a lovingness ever ready to pour itself forth upon any or all human beings who were capable of giving the smallest feeling in return.

Harriet does not simply fulfill the conventionally quietistic feminine paradigm. She triumphs, too, in the assertive virtues and activist tropes normally attributed to males:

The rest of her moral characteristics were such as naturally accompany these qualities of mind and heart: the most genuine modesty combined with the loftiest pride; a simplicity and sincerity which were absolute, towards all who were fit to receive them; the utmost scorn for whatever was mean and cowardly, and a burning indignation at everything brutal or tyrannical, faithless, or dishonorable in conduct and character (113).

Like the passages that eulogize James, Mill’s accolades to his wife are so immoderate as to seem, despite their formal disinterestedness, vainglorious and vaunting. The subject of these effusions is not himself. But in the substitutive and symbolic senses their author required, the writing sounds and is egotistical.

We find ourselves in the presence of a uniquely vicarious genus of solipsism: by a considerable measure the most idiosyncratic instance of self-absorption in English literature. In the making of his memoir as in the conduct of his life, Mill could situate and value himself only by unduly magnifying the significance of the only two persons in the world he ever felt able to love.

We know this is how it had to be. If we remind ourselves of the Autobiography’s opening paragraphs – who could forget them – we will see at once that vicarious self-knowledge was the only form of self-awareness available to Mill. The early passages make it clear that Mill’s terrible family life and chthonic childhood deprived him of almost all the cognitions and certitudes most human beings need to develop a strong and spontaneous ego identity .

This is not jargon. It is not psychobabble. The paragraphs we earlier examined show us, as they showed their author, that John Mill had to devote the entirety of his formidable energy, intelligence, and creativity to generate and honor the mental image not of himself, but of James Mill.

John did develop a full complement of psychical constituents. Like other men, he experienced stimuli, developed affects, constructed percepts, created drives, and knew desires. But he could accept and allocate his own actuality only by regarding his selfhood as the overflow or gifts of his more powerful sponsor. He could delineate “the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure” of his egotism only by trivializing himself and aggrandizing his parent.

This was the only model he knew. So in his adulthood he replicated his self-estranging but successful art. He made a second substitutive identification with his wife: his excessively significant other.

For Mill intuitive and innate ego-identification was, in the language of psychoanalytic psychology, ego-dystonic. Ego-identification felt toward and expressed on behalf of his two ego ideals was ego-syntonic .

To us his situation may seem tragic or absurd or possibly even comic. We cannot conceive how any person could regard an identification based upon two obeisant subordinations as anything other than an impossibly humiliating infringement.

But, again: we are not he. The Autobiography abundantly demonstrates that an identity built upon even his truncated role as his father’s minion and his wife’s votary seemed to Mill incomparably more stable and satisfying than no identity at all.

If we look through the prism of his perspective, we will see that he was creating in his memoir not a displacement but an extraordinary intensification of identity. Writing the Autobiography showed him that in the course of living his exceedingly difficult life he had built a definable, explicit, persisting, and productive personality.

This was a discovery for him – a discovery not disturbing, not demeaning, but thrilling. Yes, the personality he crafted was in tendency submissive, to some degree subsidiary, often surrogate, in some measure subjugated. But it also was authentic and individual: his own, and no one else’s.

Recording the history of his uncommonly contingent “mental life” helped Mill realize that he had a mental life. Describing his ineludibly subservient character taught him that he had a character.

He was the man, he learned, who was the cherished son of an almighty father. He was the man who was the beloved husband of an omniscient and all-important wife. He was a man who was actual and important because he was profoundly involved with – he stood as proxy for – two unique world-historical geniuses. The sine and cosine of his tender psyche and his aching heart.

This is why his exquisite prose becomes so excited, so elastically “egotistical,” every time he exalts his sire and his spouse. Although he technically refers in these feverish passages to two other people’s virtues, strengths, and attainments, it felt to him that he was claiming his own substance and certifying – celebrating – his own significance.

Mill survived his childhood by generating from its unpromising fundament a strikingly unusual exteriorized narcissism. The elation with which he defines his dependencies and glorifies his two towering monarchs testifies to the relief, joy, and pride he derived from feeling himself able to assert any kind of identification – even a tragic, possibly an absurd, possibly a comic identification.

9. John Mill Made John Mill

Now we can decrypt the most important reason for Mill’s excitement in the Autobiography.

Early in the narrative he quietly notes:

The question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it (27).

Writing about his life provided him with enough “authentic information” to answer this basal question; and to answer it in a manner that gave him armistice and amity.

Recalling, reinterpreting, reshaping, and recording his history – literally authoring his biography – helped him realize know that, although his father, his wife, and his civilization all contributed mightily to his “intellectual and moral development,” it was John Stuart Mill who ultimately “made” John Stuart Mill.

In relating the story of his life Mill makes it clear that he neither chose nor rarely enjoyed his life. He makes it equally evident, though, that he did choose the reactions his experience stimulated: reactions which, in their sum and end, constituted his extraordinary adult sensibility.

As he wrote, rewrote, then at last told the tale of his “mental progress,” Mill discovered his memories, outlooks, and emotions comprised an “authentic information.” And he discovered the meaning of this information was himself.

As he composed the record of his history, he realized it was he alone who, against all odds, had wanted, fashioned, and fiercely protected the sage identity and sachem personality that had “made” him a majestic presence in the world and a legitimate subject for autobiography.

He knew his psychology was not entirely independent. He knew he was irreducibly linked to his father and cleaved to his wife. But in authoring the narrative of his life he learned it was he who had accepted these bonds, forged their chains, and acceded to their limits parameters. And he learned, for the first time in his life, he had made himself a distinctive, communicable, and exceptionally productive person by doing so.

Mill is an excited writer in the Autobiography because as he composed an entire volume concerned principally with the previously murky topic and shrouded topography of himself he consciously realized he was giving birth to and enjoying the strong pleasures of a fully defined and wholly accepted personality. A personality faithfully loyal to his father and poignantly loving to his wife. A personality he owned, named, and publicly declared as John Stuart Mill.

The narrative does not permit either its author or its audience to romanticize the personality Mill “made.” Aspects of the “authentic information” he assembled about himself are troubling. But the information is also coherent, unified, and of his own devising.

It is for this reason that, despite the often melancholy nature of its tale, the tone of the Autobiography is animated, confident, and, frequently, so sweetly happy. It is a stout and stimulating book because its author proved to himself by writing it that he was a sturdy, interesting, and worthy man.

10. Elegy for a Genius

This is what Mill discovered. But what have we learned about his journey? What have we learned about the ground John Mill found for himself in the self-penned story of John Mill?

We have learned why Mill believed he had to organize the conversation about this most personal of subjects – the subject of himself – in willfully impersonal ways. And we have learned how his estrangement and remoteness ultimately metamorphosed into intimacy, enfranchisement, and ardor.

Many people find Mill’s literature deficient in its emotions, sparse in its excitements, perhaps superannuated by the passing of time, the shifting of era, the mutation of epoch. To some readers his seems the least compelling of the major works of modernist autobiography.

I understand this reaction, but I cannot share it. I consider the Autobiography a masterpiece of memoir. I find it a mesmerizing and inspiring book. Initially heartrending, then ecstatic. Vulnerable, valiant, devoid of vanity, deceit, and guile.

Like it or loathe it, the Autobiography in my judgment is essential to any informed study of the industrial, scientific, and technological age. It is a literary and spiritual creation indispensable for any cogent comprehension of the boons our civilization has granted us – and the damages it has inflicted upon us. Upon children in particular.

Mill’s writing often does seem sterile and, yes, sometimes even sclerotic. But the emotions the Autobiography expresses, investigates, and resolves are singularly interesting and of volcanic intensity.

No doubt Mill’s cognitions, beliefs, and projections of personhood are far less individuated, forceful, joyful, and beautiful than, say, Wordsworth’s or John Lennon’s. Certainly he was less ardently involved with and less clairvoyantly aware of himself than Augustine or Rousseau. The Autobiography seems to me, though, fully as inventive, inimitable, and irreplaceable a creation as The Prelude, Across the Universe, or either of The Confessions.

For Mill shares these more widely loved autobiographers’ canonical and crucial compulsion: the need to know and proclaim an identity. The drive – perhaps it is a duty – to locate, seize, and make manifest a definitive, durable, and describable adult sensibility.

Mill’s embrace of this compulsion and his power to fulfill it are especially impressive when we take into account the deracinating wounds he suffered during his infancy, youth, and young manhood.

The Autobiography grants us privileged access to this private terrain. As we read about and react to his often hellish experience, we surely should regard it as miraculous that a person so trespassed against, a man so primally injured, chose not to collapse into self-annihilation, nihilism, violence, or accidie, but instead elected to rescue himself from the privation to which his life seemingly had been consigned by force majeure.

The wounds Mill suffered were such severity that they impermeably affected his ability to feel and his capacity to commune comfortably with others. But in respect for the man, in respect for the magnitude of his suffering and the greatness of his achievements, we should strive not to become misled by or impatient with the symptoms of his sufferings.

Sufferings? Let us give his conditions their right name: his illnesses.

Conditions or illnesses, Mill gives us the lens to see his spirit and an invitation to enter his soul. He reveals how we can unravel his inhibitions, anxieties, and inadvertent disguises. He shows us how to unearth in the text what he birthed by writing it: a living character, troubled but colossally gifted, indomitably resilient, magically creative. An injured child become by choice, by insistence, an heroically healthy adult.

11. John Is Us, We Are John

There is more to the story of The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. One chapter more. We have not yet quite said what makes this often stolid, sometimes stuffy work one of the world’s most magnificent, urgent, important, and esteemed books.

How is it that this initially uninviting work grasps, grips, and in the end enchants us? How is it that this apparently unique chronicle of an apparently diacritical existence beguiles its way into our heart, and speaks with us as an intimate familiar?

I think the answer is that Mill’s existence was not singular. I believe we recognize our own story in Mill’s extreme version of it.

I know we admire the courage, grace, and skill with which Mill interprets, survives, and ultimately makes fertility out of his initially devastating extremity. I know we admire his openness and honesty, honor his artistry, and derive hope from his triumphal resolutions.

Certainly Mill’s childhood was radical in its content and its consequences. But we all have experienced a version of its core elements. We all have been birthed into a cosmos of beliefs and a dynamic of behaviors we did not choose, and do not necessarily find compatible with our inborn nature.

Mill’s parents were unusual. My goodness, they were baroque. His mother was made a cipher in her family, and his father was a hegemon: empowered, proactive, agential, and insidious on a grand scale.

But we all have been parented. Like Mill we all initially project our progenitors as omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect in character. Less persons than paragons. Like Mill we acquire more correct insight. Gradually, with great ingenuity and effort, we adjust our gratitude, our awe, and our disappointment with their imperfections into informed love.

As was the case with Mill, the parenting we experience deposits sediments large, outsized, in many instances determinative, throughout the foundations of our aware thought and subliminal consciousness. Nevertheless, with great ingenuity and effort, we gradually make terms painful but mature with the immensely complicated crevasses and difficult tunnels through which we progress.

Mill’s education was extensive, stunningly effective, and horrid. But we’ve all been schooled. We all have found much or most of our schooling, however well intended, however effectual, to be humiliating, hurtful, harmful, and in its aggregate hideous. Nevertheless, with great ingenuity and effort, we gradually learn to respect what was valid and extract what was valuable in our edification, esteem our best edifiers’ best impulses, and eschew what may have been ignorant, invalid, and injuring in their instruction. Not as wisely or as well as Mill, but like him in principle, we eventually elevate ourselves into independent, self-reliant, lifelong pupils to our own tutelage.

Or we don’t. Then we shrivel into victimhood, dismal discontent, quiet or noisy triviality.

We love Mill’s Autobiography despite its flaws because in it Mill tells us how he learned to adhere to those he revered, yet accomplish parturition. As we all must do in the course of making, living, and enjoying our lives.

We love the Autobiography because we love John Stuart Mill. He was indeed a very great man. His work, its influence, his heritage: every one of us lives a life more liberated, more judicious, more august than we would have done had he not fought for and won his will to live, his right to life.

We love the Autobiography because it teaches us how this valorous mentor learned to reverence his mentors’ originality and accomplishments, yet free his own immense and immensely inventive intellect for its calling. Its genius. Its work of encouraging in England and throughout the world a culture of dignity, truth, justice, generosity, and high reason. A humane heritage of large, liberal, liberating love – our common longing, and our universal birthright.

Occasionally the book is arthritic. Occasionally its prose imposes tedium. But we forgive that. We love the Autobiography anyhow. We love it because it teaches us what many of its author’s contemporaries already knew: its author, that noble man John Stuart Mill, is a hero of the human spirit.

We love the Autobiography because it helps us frame, comprehend, and intelligently transact the momentous questions most of us commit our life to resolving:

Whom do I love?

Whom do I depend upon?

Who am I, within and beyond my dependencies?

And, for what reason have I been brought here? What work have I been called here to do?


To read a fully annotated edition of this essay, please click the link below:


Solidarity with the Solitary: Bill Bradley and LIFE ON THE RUN

Bill Bradley - 1Bill Bradley 2

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Hudson Review (Volume XXIX, Number 3, Autumn 1976).

I originally wrote the piece because I respected Bill Bradley’s basketball game, I admired his first book, Life on the Run, and I hoped he one day would enter professional political life. I’m now revising and posting the essay because I still admire his book, I respect his work as a United States Senator, esteem his enlightened campaign for the Presidency, and very much hope he one day soon will return to public office.


With one or another level of ability most American men (and now many American women) have played and loved the game of basketball.

We say “game.” But, like most sports, basketball offers itself to its players less as a game than as a mode of contact with those powers and limitations of body, judgment, and will that together comprise one form of the knowable personality.

This phenomenon is not reserved just for the gifted. One of the great appeals of sport is that it encourages a democracy of sensibility among its participants. Every athlete, without respect to the quality of her physical resourcefulness or the subtlety of his interpreting consciousness, enters while engaging in play into essentially similar energies of philosophy, purpose, and practice. Skills vary widely. But the arc and art of athletics create a host of approximate equalities.

The nature of this egalitarianism involves ethos as well as emotion. No one, no matter how blunt of mind, can play an athletic game merely as an exercise in entertainment or an errand of exertion. Sport’s choreographies of demand, its complicated and difficult requirements of attitude expressed in movement, make of its pursuits and proceedings a moral activity.

As the word implies, athletic “recreation” involves for its participants not merely amusement and refreshment but, far more important, a willful impulse of redefinition: a comprehensive renewal and an elegant declaration of one’s experience of identity. Each time he accepts the assumptions and protocols of a game, each time she moves her mind and body in sympathy with a prescribed dramatization of human possibility, an athlete places into expression the accumulation of her consciousness and competency.

In this sense the games of human sport, like the ritual forms of other animals’ play, elicit and depict the nature of our individualism within our species. For both public and private purposes of delineation and use, athletic recreation involves nothing less than the rediscovery and restatement of our personhood.

So democratic is this experience of game, so general is this awareness of a sport’s ethical and aesthetic significance, that no entirely selfish communion with its systems is possible. Whatever varieties of self-aggrandizement, anger, or aggression we may direct against our opponents in contest, within every event of sport we feel joined to our antagonists in an elemental sentiment of connection and acceptance. For without the opposing self-definitions created by the other, we would be denied the surface against which we can fashion and declare our own.

Similarly, and often exquisitely, we may create among our teammates in collaborative games extreme and elsewhere undiscoverable sentiments of unity. To explore within the constructs of a collective the patterns of our individual knowledge and the passions of our personal style, to produce one portion of a composite display of personality in performance, is to enter into an embrace of socialness that little else in our national, political, or spiritual life can provide. However temporarily, the primal bonds of this juncture almost always cross – indeed, they frequently explode – all frontiers of race, ethnicity, economic status, and every other nonsensically segregating cultural paradigm.


Basketball no longer is an exclusively American sport. Numerous other nations now play and celebrate the game, many with immense skill. No other society, though, so exuberantly has embraced the game’s stunning possibilities for personal and social expression. Of all the world’s peoples, Americans most instinctively have felt drawn to the game’s mechanics and metaphysics.

Basketball’s ceaselessly innovative repertoires of motion, mayhem, and magic captivate Americans’ ideals of identity. We love the game’s relentless demand for personal initiative seized from circumstances of fierce speed and enacted within overcrowded space. We love the game’s insistence upon the ceaseless substitution of improvised creativity for premeditated plan: the eruption of individualized invention in place of calculated and calibrated group action.

We also love the game’s refusal overly to reward or excessively to penalize any individual instance of result. It requires consummate skill successfully to score a field goal, or to prevent one from being scored. But the sport awards little consequence to either occurrence; and, in any case, the occasions of the game are such that the most accomplished achievement of person or team perforce will become reproduced in its final effect of points by the most fortuitous happenstance. A lucky bounce here, a garbage rebound there, a clumsy put-back, a wing on a prayer, will mean every bit as much as any feat of brilliance.

I think American players and audiences respond so potently to basketball because we share an unspoken conviction that the game reproduces in metaphor and manageable scale many of the defining opportunities, fulfillments, and burdens of American life. The game places premium similar to that of our culture upon brutally arduous pace, self-control and self-release, the husbanding of resources amidst their constant expenditure, the continuous expression of selfhood within the confining sanctions of the civic, the exciting sense that everything about our life is vitally important and our conflicting awareness that everything about our existence may be momentary, trivial, and possibly absurd.


Following a distinguished high school and collegiate career and, for a renowned athlete, an unusual interregnum for a Rhodes Fellowship and voluntary military service, Bill Bradley played basketball professionally for the New York Knicks from 1967-1977.

Bradley’s career was especially notable because his skills, although remarkable by many standards, were not of an order that in other professional team environments should have made for conspicuous success. The Knicks were unique, though, and Bradley fit into their intricate milieux in an indispensable and wonderful manner.

The Knicks developed a variety of basketball rooted in vastly more unselfish concepts and conformations of group play, than, at the time, any other team could envision or sustain. Their visionary stratagems and heroically integrated performance perfectly suited Bradley’s personality and talents; and he perfectly complemented his teammates’. He was far from the most accomplished player in the National Basketball Association. But in the singular surround the Knicks constructed, Bradley always was effective and often was devastating.

His history of play was interesting, too, because he seemed so intellectual, and so intellectually generous, an athlete. It wasn’t just that he invariably worked to maximize his teammates’ offensive and defensive opportunities. We also could see that, even in its most nearly solipsistic aspects, his game was intelligent out of all proportion to his physical skills; and always he was ebulliently communal.

We often could see the signs of deliberative thought before and while he sought position on the floor, set, drove, defended, rebounded, passed, shot. We saw his face work with the invention of idea. We saw he consciously strained to produce the efficiency and value of his actions within the flow – or the occasional breakdown – of his team.

More athletically gifted players, such as Walt Frazier or Earl Monroe, the team’s creative geniuses, or Willis Reed, the team’s heroic buttress and bulwark, were so skilled and existed in such graceful physical and spiritual relation with their skills, that they required none of Bradley’s more purely intellective purposiveness and willful resourcefulness. It was a joy to watch these decidedly different virtuosos accept, honor, and mesh their radically diverse gifts.

I’ve never seen a more genuinely generous professional athlete. During his games his countenance worked not only with the industry and effort of self-demand but, often, with acclaim for others. Bradley grinned or outright laughed when his teammates played well. When an opponent performed an extraordinarily move, he frequently made most engaging gestures of responsive gladness. He would shake his head from side to side, for example, with something of a spectator’s celebrative elation. Or open his eyes with surprise and wonder. Or raise his hands with gleeful astonishment.

Careful about his abilities, Bradley played the game in harmony with others’. Often, it seemed, on behalf of others’ – teammates and foes alike.


In 1976 Bradley published a book that brought the generosity of his spirit into more explicit articulation than even his eloquent sport had made possible. Life on the Run details Bradley’s participation in a three-week portion of the 1973-1974 season of professional basketball. More importantly, the work expresses Bradley’s sense of our nation’s circumstances and his responses to them. [Life on the Run, by Bill Bradley (New York, Quadrangle Press, 1976).]

Life on the Run speaks with astuteness and charm about what Bradley describes as his “involvement with the complexity of team ball”: the ways in which the game’s emphases may be made to shift by minds such as his own “from muscle to quickness, from pure individual skill to coordinated, intelligent group responses.”

The book works from this backdrop to examine the Knicks’ “intelligent group response” to basketball, and their attitudes toward the experiences that shape participation in the game at the professional level. It recounts salient elements of his teammates’ personal histories, and depicts many of their hopes, satisfactions, and sorrows. And it celebrates basketball itself on admirably located grounds: for its power to situate “body and mind in balance”; its exposure of “the limits of self-reliance, selfishness, and irresponsibility”; its insistence upon “making the group adjustments necessary to exist in a constantly changing environment”; its invocations of “smooth and effortless grace”; its revelations of “the beauty of a body in movement;” and its unambiguous and unembarrassed “flirtation with flamboyance.”

This is uncommon and intriguing material. But Life on the Run is most affecting for its evocations of its author. Writing the book extended to Bradley, as the act of playing basketball evidently no longer could, a field within which fully to develop his considerably interesting attitudes about his country and culture, and his fascinating sense of what he repeatedly calls the “situations” of his existence as an athlete, a citizen, and a private person.

The book is keenly alert to inequality and injustice. With startling intensity and ire Bradley talks with us about his gradual exposure to our country’s inequities, sickening bigotry, and dehumanizing squalor. He converses with particular vividness and grief about our society’s institutional mechanisms of isolation and loneliness.

Time and again he departs from his narrative topos of a professional basketball season to focus upon lonely individuals whom he encounters in his journeys, and to deplore circumstances in American life that seem to him in a programmatic manner to produce solitariness and alienage. Executives, managers, salespeople, soldiers, actors, waitresses, tourists, stewardesses, other athletes, he himself. Bradley’s book and apparently his consciousness at large are significantly preoccupied with persons whose “life no longer holds excitement, or escape, or independence.”

Life on the Run makes it evident that, at least in part, Bradley plays basketball for the same reason that he writes: to relieve his own loneliness. He loves his sport at least in part because it superimposes its graceful systems of inclusion and pleasing communion with others onto his inborn and otherwise irreducible psychology of isolation and discontent:

The locker room has become a kind of home for me, not simply a resting place. I often enter tense and uneasy, disturbed by some event of the day. Slowly my worries fade … I relax, my concerns lost among relationships which are close and real but never intimate; lost among the constants of an athlete’s life.

The games and their amphitheaters are even more channeling and solacing than the locker room:

Playing creates a release for my emotional energy. I have become dependent on the action, the physical contact, and the verbal bantering of the game … I pressed my physical and emotional life into basketball alone, and it made for a very intense feeling.

Bradley’s sense of solidarity with the solitary is unusual and impressive . All the more so because he fully understands that his life has been privileged; that he has received from his experience of profession a “remarkable range of human interaction,” splendid sensations of “unity” with his own nature and his teammates’, and sublime “creative freedom.”

Rarely do we find privileged persons expressing awareness of their blessings, and authentic gratitude for them.


This gentle star, this epically empowered man, suffers a touching guilt about his after all fully earned privileges. He fears that his exemptions from the life of the common human routine may prohibit him from truly comprehending and fully empathizing with other people’s exigencies. In his book’s most striking passage, Bradley confesses: “To me, every day is a struggle to keep in touch with life’s subtleties.”

He seems scarcely to recognize that it is not only insulated athletes who find it difficult to envision, sympathize with, and respond to the gratifications and distresses of ordinary people’s quotidian lives. But this diminishes neither the significance nor the quality of his demand that he should learn to engage other people’s hopes, ideals, contentment, and suffering.

Bradley’s approach to basketball expressed and served his self-imposed resolve to seek solidarity with others. Life on the Run consolidates and broadly expands his extraordinary commitment. “Loneliness,” he tells us, “can be overcome only by reaching out for contact.” In this sweet and serious work of his mind, Bradley greatly extends the more primal versions of “reaching for contact” he discovered and deployed as one of our country’s most successful athletes.

Life on the Run seems to me an important achievement in both its celebrative and subversive intentions. Certainly it is a work that, as Roger Sale remarked in the New York Review of Books, we should not domesticate as merely a “sports book.”

During the latter stages of his first career it often had been said that Bradley meant to enter our country’s political life. That possibility could have seemed discomforting when it had appeared that a widely known athlete might have wanted to capitalize upon his celebrity solely for exploitative purposes.

Life on the Run establishes that Bill Bradley is anything but exploitative in his imagination and his aspirations. The book makes it abundantly clear that the distinction and gracefulness of his play proceeded directly from his intelligence, and that its altruism derived from his character. This humane, tender, and responsible memoir tells an absorbing tale – and builds a compelling platform for its author’s further scales of possibility.


As I noted at the outset, I wrote an earlier version of these reflections almost 40 years ago.

In 1977 Bill Bradley was elected to the first of three successive terms in the United States Senate, where he compiled a record of exemplary and effectual legislative leadership.

In 2000 he conducted a bold campaign for the Presidency. It was marked by a singular command of the intricacy of the American nation’s economic structure, budgetary challenges, taxation quandaries, and excessive political partisanship. At great risk to his electability he articulated fervent concern and compassion for our country’s most disadvantaged and dispossessed citizens – and linked their terrible travails to manifestly unjust and eminently correctable imbalances in our polity’s policy preferences. He also voiced visionary concern about and resolve to address the now almost wholly ignored crises in our planet’s ecology and climate.

Events in our national life subsequent to his retirement from politics have made it palpably apparent that Bill Bradley’s consciousness, discourse, acumen, and audacity were prescient and precious. I believe we sorely need his conscientious and courageous activism recalled to national governance, and reestablished in leadership.