A Few Words from the Editor
This first issue of Praesidium’s third year (at least, its third year as Praesidium: some of you recall the journal’s earlier incarnation as Arcturus) was quickly determined by three factors. The first was my own burning desire to write more about the teaching of foreign language—particularly, this time, as we find it prosecuted in our elementary schools. Needless to say, I spend a great deal of my space talking about Spanish, which is increasingly the only nag running in the Elementary Sweepstakes. The central issues, however, have a much broader scope. They concern not just which second language we learn, if any, and not just what kind of education our children receive (if any), but what role we in the West foresee clear thought playing in the race after the hearts of buyers and voters. If any.
The second factor was J.S. Moseby’s decision to begin writing a novel, one chapter of which he originally offered to me for this issue. Since the inauguration of Praesidium, I have been consistently puzzled by the difficulty of extracting fiction from creative writers. I find it hard to believe that all of them expect payment today when, thirty years ago, we no-names were happy just to get into print somewhere. The truth, I’m beginning to suspect, is that serious fiction simply isn’t written any more. (I decline to view multicultural propaganda and cartoon-like science fiction as serious.) In my ever more quixotic quest, then, to insert a little fiction into every issue, I have found myself deeply beholden to a few writers, one of whom is certainly Mr. Moseby. As our deadline approached and it appeared probable that we would have a lot of free space, I asked for a second chapter of this novel in progress, and it was graciously volunteered. Not long after that (as luck would have it), I was offered an excellent essay on realism and given a proposal for another essay on romantic fantasy, either one of which would have filled up our open space nicely… but I was already committed to the two chapters. I have every intention of publishing both of said essays in the spring issue. Meanwhile, I hope you like Footprints in the Snow of the Moon as much as I do, because it accounts for a third of what you have before you!
Which isn’t at all a bad thing in principle—devoting a large space to fiction, I mean. Would that we might do so more often! Sometimes I fear Praesidium’s becoming so profoundly philosophical that we give the impression of holding creativity in low esteem. On the contrary. All of our contributors over the years have been men and women who love literature, and impressively many of them have also referred to music and other of the fine arts in their articles. Why, one of the things that distresses me most about how we teach Spanish is that we provide no very effective gateway to reading Hispanic authors: we only prepare our children to gab with waiters or charm foreign investors. The third major evolutionary factor behind this issue, then, was a vague feeling of mine that it was time for us to "loosen up" a bit—not to be less profound, but to run our study over some of our landscape’s colorful cottages and hamlets rather than counting quasars. Legend has it that the Greek philosopher Thales broke his neck stumbling into a hole one night while gazing at the stars. The lesson is well worth attending: not just both feet on the ground, but an eye on the road.
I didn’t simply pull this third objective out of my hat and then approach people about helping me fulfill it. I was, rather, very lucky: people started sending me reviews of books and films before my idea had really crystallized. One of the book reviews—that of Peter Sacks’s Generation X Goes to College—was actually a collaborative effort (one person started it and another had to finish it). In such cases, I have always simply appended the label "staff" to the item, though we really don’t have a staff in any of the word’s recognized senses. I might add that we also abuse the same word quite often in cases where the writer offers a short, perhaps slightly caustic piece (but when have we ever been caustic?) and prefers not to be identified.
Otherwise, some of our most faithful supporters have chipped in, including Professor Bertonneau, Mary Grabar, Kelly Hampton, and Peter Singleton. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer so much variety, and produced by such fine writers. Note well, by the way, that we turn away neither the very short nor the very long: we attend only to content.
Finally, I ask formally that anyone contact me who knows of a genuinely bibliophile bookstore which might care to risk a small part of a shelf on Praesidium. One of my firmer resolutions this year is to attempt wooing a few such places with copies of our journal. If you have a favorite fearless bookstore on the corner and happen to mention us to the sympathetic person behind the counter, please remember that the quarterly is a non-profit venture—which means, practically, that the owner gets to pocket whatever he or she charges. All that we might ask would be an occasional small contribution to help defray production and postage costs.
Winter continues mild in these parts. May your spring bring you a bluebird or—if city-bound—a cherry blossom!
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Foreign Language and the Enemies
of Literacy: An Addendum
John R. Harris
In an earlier issue of this journal, I published some thoughts about the teaching of foreign language in the United States, mostly as practiced at colleges and universities.1 I expressed the opinion then that although foreign language departments seem one of the few pockets of the liberal arts likely to withstand the vast decline of literate habits, the sad realities of the classroom belie the discipline’s promise. Specifically, I noted an ominous shift in instructional strategy favoring verbal fluency over literate competence. When the shift began, the Free World (as we then called it) was fighting for its survival, and North America had recognized its prevalent mono-lingualism as a severe handicap in waging the Cold War. There are no more such vital concerns driving the pedagogical vector now. On the contrary, in times of peace and plenty, we simply neglected our literate heritage until, today, only the college student majoring in foreign language ever reads one or two very short novels or writes as much as a paragraph.
This disparagement of literacy has thoroughly percolated through the system. In the present addendum to my earlier comments, I wish to trace its effects upon the elementary school curriculum—up from which the toxic percolating has proceeded, I am told. Here my own son and his classmates are struggling before my eyes, as it were, to clutch linguistic substance through a miasma of merry conversational chatter. My testimony as a parent (admittedly anecdotal) and as an educator at many levels (somewhat more objective) must constitute my body of evidence, for an essay is not the proper forum to conduct an exhaustive survey of textbooks. If I may ballast my case from the start by appealing to common sense, I would invite anyone to search the Internet for information about foreign language instruction. The material thus dredged up will be heavily redolent of progressive new teaching aids (videos, tapes, software, CDs) and reviews of said aids. Since the essence of technology is to draw the student away from the "boring" printed page of the "stodgy" classic and into a world of fireworks-at-the-fingertips, no bright observer would need much convincing beyond this point that literature and literacy are in deep trouble.
Of course, one may be more objective still without claiming to be exhaustive. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, for instance, publishes a newsletter (partially accessible online) which gives one a sense of how professionals view the trends. My own sense, as primed by such perusal, is that foreign language teachers recognize two great crises afoot: viz., students are getting bored, and the old literary establishment—people like me—has not yet been annihilated. Actually, the lower levels seem confident that they have solved the boredom crisis. My essay is devoted to assessing their "triumph". At the upper levels, college professors appear less concerned that high school whiz kids cannot place out of French 101 than that placement tests are so rigorous. To them, the problem is not the freshman’s lack of basic grammatical knowledge, but a testing system which bestows a premium upon that knowledge. Recent "studies" (predictably enough) urge an inversion of priorities, based largely upon student interest (i.e., degree of fun). An enthusiastic adherent to one such report anticipates an indignant query from some atavistic grump about grammar’s disappearance, and offers the following response:
In their answer to this question, the authors [of the report] stress their efforts to change the emphasis from memorization of words and grammar rules to the exploration, development and use of "communicative strategies, learning strategies and critical thinking skills as well as the appropriate elements of the language system and culture"…. The document is intended as a corrective to past practices, where teachers were tied hand and foot to the grammar book. The authors seek to set them and their students free.2
These days, when you see the word "strategy" or the equative "as well as" used to attach the last member of a list, duck: a large ball of educationese is careering your way. "Document" is almost as ominous, while "set free" is a positive siren, warning that whatever has devoured your hook is likely to pull you into the deep blue sea. With such mushy jargon oozing from them at the slightest prod, no wonder the educators who write our children’s textbooks hold precise communication in low esteem! One can well imagine that they neither have much affection for order nor comprehend how to keep young students (who hate disorder) from rebelling. Over and over in my cursory reading, I remarked the terror inspired in these visionaries by the bored child—and the complementary delight stirred in them by entertaining "strategies". Every other consideration seemed to take a back seat. The college brain trust, particularly, saw enrollments shrinking and departments shriveling up if the ivory tower should fail to fall in behind the crayon-and-kazoo brigade.
How ironic it is, then, to hear one’s son of seven years denouncing such entertaining methods as tedious because they obscure basic grammatical relationships to his young mind! The truth is that chasing after a child’s whimsy is like trying to build a road to a moving target, whereas proceeding straight to a highly visible destination invites a few songs and games along the way. How did foreign language teachers come to adopt the flashy pedagogy of constant casual chatter which yields so many mixed results and downright absurdities? Was it simply a gambit to keep little children engrossed in their classes? Can it ever have been that at the lower levels, where every child I question registers frustration over the absence of rules and guidelines?
A great many studies—and, before them, the cogent testimony of practical experience and common sense—argue that human beings learn languages other than their mother tongue more readily while still on their mother’s knee. At an early age, it seems, you can get two mother tongues for the price of one. Of course, a certain amount of confusion results. The toddler is likely to lisp his own patois bred of the two languages he hears daily. There is plenty of time to sort this all out, however: building grammatical and dictional fences between the two gardens as they flourish is immensely easier than breaking ground for a new garden as another luxuriates within well-manicured boundaries. Let us, therefore, teach our children to say "pass the salt, please" in two tongues rather than one.
So goeth the case. The palpable consequence of such reasoning is the muscle-flexing dominance among today’s textbooks and pedagogical tactics of "real life" Spanish or French over charts, tables, and paradigms. Since children learn to speak before they read, and since few "real life" encounters these days involve any reading whatever (how many of us still characterize reading as either "real" or "an encounter"?), the officially blessed variety of immersion is conversational. Its vocabulary is trite and lackluster, its grammar is idiomatic to the verge of slang, and its context may be classed as leisurely/commercial—the ball game, the lunch room, the movie theater, the birthday party, the grocery store. Wherever we learned to jabber English before we learned to read it (if we ever truly did), there we are transported by the contemporary foreign language textbook. Life between these two covers is a festive array of piñatas, bananas, avocados, and sopapillas. It is colorful, yummy, sensuous. It requires no pondering or dissecting. I came, I saw, I tasted.
But my comments here impinge upon moral judgment: if I am not cautious, my next remark might indict the unworthiness and stupidity of the shallow life. Such a criticism would not be entirely fair as a challenge to foreign-language pedagogy, for it more accurately attaches to all celebration of idle chatter over deliberate writing—and our whole culture, of course, is becoming a "chatter" culture. Let me confine myself, therefore, to addressing this "real life immersion" pedagogy strictly as a means of learning another language. In my opinion, even its shallowest depths are quite sufficiently corrupted by shoals to render them unnavigable.
Point One: Total immersion in another language is a practical impossibility for most children. The youngsters who grow up speaking English and German or French and English at the same time live in bilingual households. The school teacher has control over about half of their waking hours—and in how many cases is this teacher also bilingual? One would hope, indeed, that math, science, music, and art lessons (not to mention English class) would be carried on in one language only: twice the linguistic presentation would mean half the math, science, art, and music. Foreign language textbooks tacitly acknowledge the futility of their own method precisely by being conversational rather than offering paradigms and logical explanations. That is, they undertake to supply the casual exchanges in the second language which the student would otherwise never have. But if the student is only "immersed" in casual chatter during one thirty- or forty-minute period of a very full day, then the immersion is scarcely so much as a kindergartner’s hand-washing. For most students, the kind of exposure needed to imbibe a second language from the routine of living could not possibly be achieved, even if such acquisition were truly the most thorough and reliable sort. Fortunately, this isn’t at all so, for the reasons that follow.
Point Two: Conversational language is often improper: its "lessons" must be unlearned later, and it has indeed no reliable instructive value even in teaching good phonetic habits. To my dying day, I shall remember how the chairman of my dissertation committee, Douglass Parker, confronted me with my misspelling of the word "helmet". A gentle man whose sense of irony was tireless, Dr. Parker was very hard put to find a way of saying, "You’re a doctoral candidate, and you don’t know how to spell helmet?" I believe his discomfort upset me far more than my own—was largely the cause of my own, no doubt. He was looking for a way to laugh something off which didn’t particularly move him to mirth.
Of course, it took him no time at all to diagnose the problem correctly: my Texas upbringing. I spelled the word as I had always heard it pronounced: helmit (rhyming with hermit). If I wanted to chafe against life’s little injustices, now would be my cue to indict a system which rates some people over others just because of where they’re born. Northeasterners who are not a whit smarter than the rest of us spell properly without effort (and probably interview far better for cerebral white-collar positions) merely because they were brought up to mangle the language less than those of us south of the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi. To be forever paddling against the currents of childhood and environment in pursuit of correctness is the ultimate raw deal… or would be, but for one thing. A good teacher (the grade-school equivalent of a Douglass Parker) can considerably reduce the current’s drag, and surely children in the world’s wealthiest nation have a right to expect one or two such teachers somewhere along the way. The ultimate raw deal, then, is not to be born into a sub-culture of defective linguistic habits, but to be aided and abetted in sustaining such habits by those entrusted with setting one straight.
Conversational speech is a veritable treasure trove of aberrant habits. When we speak informally, we contract, coin, and maim without suffering any chastisement whatever. Indeed, the unintelligibility which would cost us a chance at a good job writing handbooks or press releases may be the tie that binds among tight cliques of cronies. In a setting where people are heard to deliver themselves of utterances like, "Car’s bad loose on them hairpins," knowledge of exactly how to abuse the language can mean the difference between penetrating the inner circle and being waved back among the mass of outsiders. In other words, slang is élitist. It raises walls. Academic liberalism would have us believe (with the insufferably haughty histrionics of "going slumming") that, on the contrary, the observance of grammatical rules and standard diction is a ploy of the educated to keep the masses down—but this only happens when the educational system fails. The self-evident objective of rules and standards is instead to create a game where all can play. By basing foreign language instruction upon the parlance of the parking lot, the contemporary teacher ensures that students will be drifting away from the center’s "universalist" gravity, if not directly approaching the arcane gibberish of some certain fringe population. The student will be learning the language as it is used among those of its native speakers who have poorly learned it, or (at best) as its learned use it in their most careless moments.
I cannot think of a more succinct way to express the imbecility of this operation. For those who protest, "Yes, but my Mexican friends don’t understand the Castellano Spanish I learned in college," I would counter that a Chilean or a Dominican would probably understand these friends no better than they would understand a Spaniard. At least learning a fairly mainstream variety of Spanish gives you some chance of being understood tolerably by all groups. The main road leads to the possibility of reaching innumerable villages (and if some Mexican villagers need a new bridge to the Camino Reál, perhaps they should go back to school and study Spanish). A goat track to this or that village can only take you to this or that village. Again I ask the reader to ponder which of these two alternatives is more genuinely élitist.
Point Three: Typical conversation, thanks to its high density of irregular verbs, is actually the worst place to go looking for grammatical principles in action: to expect a child to induce such principles from such practice is outrageous. This point is quite distinct from the previous one, just as irregular but standard structures are distinct from slang. Strictly on the basis of logic, "he had went" is more defensible than "he had gone", yet it is sub-standard beyond any hope of reprieve. The logic of English has the preterite form and the past participle both emerging from the addition of –ed to the verbal stem: "he combed, he has combed". The formulations, "he went, he had went", would adhere to this pattern (or, better yet, "he goed, he had goed"). Over a period of centuries, however, certain odd preterites and past participles have become standard for certain verbs—probably, to be sure, because of the same forces which shape slang. People get careless, and the more times they use a word, the more likely they are to treat it carelessly. Familiarity breeds contempt. Irregular verbs are almost always those which have received the most frequent, most careless workouts. Words like get, take, do, see, go, and (of course) be are irregular in every language of which I have any special knowledge. The wind of human conversation has worn them into peculiar structures just as the winds of the high plains wear down rock into grotesque sculpture. Call this slang’s revenge, if you will: an irregular verb is an array of abuses which have become canonical.
We are stuck with each language’s Monument Valley of oddball structures. If we don’t learn them, we can’t communicate at the most superficial level; for, once again, these structures are almost always oddball precisely because they are on everyone’s lips all the time. They riddle the ordinary conversation of the ordinary person (even though not always in the irregularly standard form).3 In fact, I would guess that irregular verbs (if we include all appearances of "to be" in its many twisted guises) account for at least half the verbs used in any informal exchange. There have been no studies on the subject, as far as I know—but I would guess further that this same figure is well below twenty-five percent in most deliberate literature (i.e., writing which has been thought through carefully rather than rushed into print… i.e., writing as it used to be done). For instance, the casual remark, "I don’t see how he can take another hit like that," contains four verbs, every one of which is irregular! The same statement, written down with a teacher or attorney peering over one’s shoulder, might become, "I do not believe that he could have absorbed another shock of that kind." Only the auxiliary verbs remain troublesome. Just as conversation carries a much higher density of slang and slovenly error than literature, so it has a higher density of irregular verbs than literature. That thesis, subjective though its quantification may be, seems irrefutable to me on the basis of mere common sense. If you prefer, conduct your own experiments.
To return to our miserable youngster trying to learn Spanish or French from the contemporary textbook, its pages purged of conventional paradigms and filled endlessly with dialogues… this child has been posed a Herculean task. Under a steady bombardment of soy, estoy, voy, and doy (with he tossed in just to keep the brew completely muddied), he is to infer, over some untold number of years, that the standard ending for the Spanish verb in the first-person singular of the present tense is –o. I foresee three very likely "outcomes" (to talk the bureaucratic talk): he ends up believing immovably that the way to say "I speak Spanish" is Habloy español; he ends up believing with equal conviction that the way to say "I’m going to the store" is Vo a la bodega; or, most likely of all, he ends up not wanting to say anything, because he believes with some justification that he understands nothing.4
Point Four: English is almost unique among languages in its rigidly linear structure, causing English monolinguals frequently to underestimate the importance and difficulty of learning inflections in other tongues. Most studies of early multilingualism involve children in English-speaking households where a French spouse or a Spanish nanny introduces another tongue.5 English is a very special language in these relationships: its linear logic is exceptionally easy to follow for one who comes to it from another language, while one who must move from it into a less linear language does so most easily at an early age. In other words, the happy results which such studies show accruing to early bilingualism, while quite real, are probably skewed by the fact that one of the languages is English. Youth would otherwise be a less consequential factor.
No language that I have ever studied has fewer inflections than English. Endings of any sort are a rarity in our tongue. The standard way of designating a plural noun is to add an s, and the standard way of designating a verb’s preterite tense is to add an ed. Beyond this, very little goes on at the end of our words. We have no cases except in pronouns (and there only two), nor have we gender endings except for the now-infamous –ess (much deplored by feminists in words like actress). We ingeniously manipulate our verbs by a system of auxiliary words—be, will, and have—which snap into place, so to speak, like a toddler’s jointed blocks. A non-English speaker, armed with an adequate dictionary and allowed time to flip through its pages, could make himself understood among us as long as our occasionally Gothic spellings did not stop him dead in his tracks. If he were in one of our restaurants and wished to alert us that fish induces in him an allergic reaction, he could look up and piece together his vital communication word by word. I+can+not+eat+fish. The word can might create problems if, upon chasing it down in his own tongue, he should find the definition, "to be able". Even so, "I not be able to eat fish" makes pretty good sense. The only other real danger that I foresee would perhaps lurk in his not looking up the pronoun I; for in many languages, the subject pronoun is expressed by a verbal ending.
The same happy experience from the other direction—an American in Paris, say—would be difficult to imagine. I honestly don’t know what, if anything, a native Frenchman would make of Je non pouvoir manger poisson, the nonsensical list of dictionary equivalents with which our Yank would be certain to emerge. I know that it doesn’t come close to Je ne peux pas manger de poisson. The partitive genitive is especially perplexing to modern English speakers (though my wife’s family in rural Georgia smells of and tastes of things: in most places such usage died with Shakespeare). Without that small preposition, and considering the rest of the sentence’s grammatical nullity, a Frenchman might well conclude that his guest didn’t want to eat this fish, or perhaps that he simply had no appetite. At least the French language, like English, expresses subject pronouns separately from their verb. Should our tourist continue to Spain or Italy, he would be sure to draw even longer stares upon himself by emphasizing all his subject pronouns unintentionally.
I find that well-meaning people without much experience of foreign language believe its study largely a matter of learning new vocabulary. You learn the words, and you plug them into place as needed: what could be simpler? The new generation of textbooks encourages such naiveté. Besides chatty dialogues at the mall and the ball game, the one feature they are sure to display prominently is the vocabulary list. Every dialogue is usually accompanied by its own list: names of foods for the visit to the restaurant, names of decorations and favors for the birthday party, and so on. Memorize the chatter template and the list, and… you’re all set for your very own birthday party! You are not set, however—not after even fifty lessons on this scale—to write "thank you" notes to those who attended the party, to describe the feeling of being a year older, to discuss how you play with your favorite gifts, or to do conduct any linguistic activity whatever beyond the template. While you could no doubt import several of your new words into these other exercises, you would still not know how to interweave them with a coherence remotely approximating native fluency. You could only repeat the futility of the American in Paris: "Bicycle… birthday… thank you."
At this rate, we might as well be urging our children to draw pictographs intended for Barnard’s Star. A boy… a dog… a smiley face. Maybe they’ll put it all together themselves, whoever they are. After all, how stupid could they be? Piece One, Piece Two, Piece Three… doesn’t everyone think that way? What other way could there be?
Point Five: There is no genuine trade-off or balancing act between verbal fluency and logic (i.e., grammar) when the object is thoughtful expression. A constant and eternal war, rather, exists between the literate’s universal audience and the speaker’s tribal clique. The implicit assumption in much of the new foreign-language pedagogy is that grammar somehow damages learning. So subliminal is this notion that I can do no more than point to things conspicuous by their absence: the tables, charts, paradigms, highlighted rules, and other loci communes of the elementary foreign language text fifty years ago. Editors do not spring forward belligerently and proclaim, "Grammar is boring! We have suppressed all grammatical instruction so as to retain the student’s interest and put him in a mood susceptible to learning!" They simply suppress all grammatical instruction.
Of course, grammar really is boring to an untrained mind, as are all abstractions. Furthermore, most of those reverend texts which were the foreign language teacher’s Bible fifty years ago do not explain abstractions very well. They lay down rules and, at most, grudgingly allow an example to slip through. Their editors may have thought that the teacher would supply further depth and color. I have never seen an elementary Latin text in wide circulation, for instance, which handled the ablative case effectively. The Ablative of Personal Agent… the Ablative of Means or Instrument… the Ablative of Manner… the Ablative of Accompaniment… my first Latin textbook was awash in these Victorian phrases—as was everyone else’s, apparently. (The graduate students of my time used to joke about the hyper-analytical character of it all: they would propose additions like the Ablative of Pecuniary Reimbursement.) As far as I know, no mass-marketed textbook has ever taken the time to explain to students that there were once many more cases than we find in historical Latin, that the ablative case had become a kind of grab bag into which other cases collapsed, that most Latin prepositions are used with the ablative precisely because that case could scarcely preserve its pristine meaning under all the debris of accumulated meanings, and so forth. In other words, textbook-writers did not foresee a child with a curious mind, or at least did not consider such a mind as deserving of encouragement. The child was to memorize and regurgitate: explanations would only confuse the issue. Through an odd and very unfortunate series of associations, Latin became a rod for bending stiff necks. Military schools, hard-line Catholic schools, and private schools with patrician reputations—places where obedience was reckoned the supreme virtue—taught Latin because it was painful, and because pain breeds character.
I suppose the writers of the new textbooks may be responding to such traditions as that. If so, they are being very childish. They would be better advised to look up their fifth-form slavemaster or Brother Bruno and punch him in the nose than to continue torturing children from the other direction. They should recover their attention from over their shoulder, where they luxuriously sneer at yesteryear’s rigid pedagogy, and watch where they are steering the new generation’s bus. Bad explanation is boring, painful, and—yes—likely to make spirited children dig in their heels against the pedagogical endeavor; but no explanation is surely at least as ruinous. I have seen this method, by the way (uprooted from Dartmouth linguist John Rassius’s "crash course" context), inflicted upon ninth-grade Latin students. The experimental textbooks contained not a syllable of English anywhere—just Latin and pictures. The pictures were meant to explain the Latin, naturally; but if one picture is worth a thousand words, how many of those thousand words are appropriate to defining the picture’s relevant aspect? Children get some very strange ideas about the meaning of vocabulary and the function of changing inflections when cajoled into "absorbing" the language rather than offered straight answers once in a while. Soon their reading of the unfamiliar tongue begins to resemble a Rorschach test. Quot homines, tot sententiae, as Terence puts it: a different version for every pair of eyes.
I do not say that an awareness of grammar does not slow down the cataract of jabber. Obviously, it does. You can’t talk as fast when you’re concerned about the clarity and precision of what you’re saying. Delay is no doubt a grievous sin in the age of clicking on "icons". (How many years will it be, I wonder, before we simply flash cards at each other, or wear head-gear whose screen does so for us?) Since the object of the lesson is communication, however, surely the happy results of thinking things through are worth a slight investment of time. To addict people to brevity until they are no longer capable of original thought, then to applaud the flash-card, stimulus-and-response method of instruction because it accelerates their meaningless jabber, is a bizarre inversion of means and ends. Not too many years ago, educators would physically slap the left hand of any student if it were detected in the act of writing. Right-handedness was highly advantageous: desks, doors, and place settings were designed to accommodate it. Beating the left-handedness out of students was thus regarded as doing them a favor. Do we really want to adopt similar measures now for the left side of our brain?
I must observe that this fascination with coffee-house gossip and cell-phone babble has too many political undertones not to have been hatched deep in the nurseries of theoretical academe. I realize that many of us recall grim encounters with the "memorize and regurgitate" pedagogy (not that I can see any transformation in the new approach, except that trivial blather has replaced rule and paradigm as the matter to be memorized). The revolutionizing of the nation’s consciousness which the academic élite is forever trying to accomplish very often reaches the boondocks as an imminently practical way of getting quicker, easier, more visible results. I shall have much more to say about this in the next section. For now, I stress that there is a distinct flavor of rabble-rousing to today’s pedagogical romance with idle chatter. The People chatter—the proletariat. According to their oppressive oligarchs, they chatter in bad grammar and malapropism… but the oligarchs would say that, wouldn’t they? They want to preserve a world where no one outside their privileged circle is able to communicate in the "proper" manner.
I hope that I have already well demonstrated how gnostic exclusivity is the province of slang, not standard usage. Popular movements are infinitely more likely to generate their own parlance as a means of nudging outsiders away. I recall a film about The Battle of the Bulge (Battleground , starring Van Johnson) wherein a well-educated American lieutenant is very nearly shot by his own men because he doesn’t know anything about baseball—and therefore, in their minds, can only be a German! Or consider the case of one "Big Archibald" MacPhail, a Highlander whose traditional virtues distinguished him among his seventeenth-century clansmen:
He once met a Lowlander by Achnacone and greeted him in the Highland way: Beannachd Dhia dhuit, a dhuine!" God’s blessing on you, sir. The Lowlander, having no Gaelic, but seeing that some response was expected, replied that it was indeed a fine day. "Foolish man," said Big Archibald [in Gaelic], "do you despise the word of God?" Before the Lowlander had time to decide what this might mean, he was struck down by MacPhail’s sword. Big Archibald took the dead man’s shoes, musket, and a guinea from his coat pocket, and walked on to Ballachulish. There he told the Stewart laird what had happened, adding that to his mind it had been a profitable morning.6
This is the Land of Milk and Honey which awaits us in the post-literate world of Everyman’s preferred jabber. It isn’t a working man’s paradise of straight talk—of Mark Twains and Harry Trumans—where Jane and Jill are comparing how many teeth their babes have lost while Jack and Joe share a beer over the football game. That, to be sure, is part of the tableau (which is already insipid enough: how many of these Janes and Jacks would Professor Jones want in her revolutionary seminar?). Eventually, however, these people and their seemingly innocuous prattle become a tyranny. Everyone has to like what they like, buy what they buy, and talk as they talk. The proletariat has expectations of behavior which are every bit as suffocating as those of the middle class (a blunt truth with which the academic élite would be familiar if it ever had lengthy contact with working-class settings.) The great difference between the two is the universalizing tendency within middle class standards: the tendency, that is, to create customs and manners valid for all human beings, not just for this or that tribe. It is a tendency nourished by literacy far more than by capitalism (indeed, the historical development of open markets was itself fueled by literacy); for written communication is constantly seeking to justify its reasoning to an audience as large as the wide earth, whereas the oral communication seeks merely to lace itself into the swift flow of an exchange between two or three or twenty participants. To the latter kind of communicant, what’s right is what carries his raft into the smoothly running midstream. To the former kind, what’s right is what can be objectively demonstrated before all possible comers.
Grammar is hard, especially if it is poorly taught. Correct diction is the struggle of a lifetime, and each day conceals little blunders. Yet when the goal of all this toil and struggle is an open marketplace of ideas whose value is pegged, not by their point of origin, but by their intrinsic coherence and common humanity, isn’t the effort worthwhile? If some people start farther back in the race than others, should we exhort them to make haste, or call off the race? In view of the natural human zeal for competition (what is commonly human, as we know, is not always humane), we cannot suppose that other, less fairly arbitrated races will not arise. Should we not therefore embrace rules adumbrated over a centuries-long search for fair play rather than let every neighborhood bully make up his own? In terms of teaching foreign language, how can we believe that ignoring grammar to chase after the moment’s "hottest" phrases will prove a liberating exercise? At best, the "gangs" whose badges our students end up wearing in their speech will be benign little cliques of thoughtless consumers, stopping for tacos on their way to the movies, rather than Fascists and Maoists with passwords and slogan-catechisms.
Point Six: Vocabulary relating to intimate household and familial details is always more idiosyncratic than that relating to matters of more public currency. The latter often has cognates in geographically neighboring languages, and hence offers significant support for further education when compared the former. The above remark is probably a rather opaque view of a scene which becomes crystal-clear from any kind of close-up angle. The basic facts are these. A language is usually a series of overlays, beginning with origins so distant that they blur into pre-history. More superficial strata are deposited over the prehistoric core as neighboring societies invade or intermarry or otherwise merge with the local tribe. Usually these neighbors will be rooted, at least to some extent, in the same hazy source as the specific Language X under examination, so that learning any one language in the group will provide a headstart toward learning others. Together, they all form a family. Nevertheless, X has a few words all its own. Most of these belong to objects or behaviors which are more domestic than formal, more intimate than public, or more rude than sublime. The words for "family" and "reunion" may be shared, for instance, while the word for "stepchild" or "napkin" may be entirely unique to the mountains of X.
By focusing on those informal and even intimate occasions so fertile in chatty dialogue, the new foreign-language pedagogy deprives students of a chance to prepare a broad basis for studying other languages later on. It mires them in vocabulary words without cognates in any other tongue. The list below compares several words as they exist in French, Italian, and Spanish—languages which, of course, are all descended from Latin. The more formal or general words have been arranged on the left, the more informal or specific words on the right. The results are quite striking.
In most cases, the Italian and Spanish words on the left are either identical or different by only a letter. French is a little more distant from both, yet its kinship bond is still strong enough that anyone who knew Italian or Spanish would stand a good chance of guessing the French word. If we look to the right, however, we find a clear parting of the ways everywhere except for repas and pasto (which are nonetheless so dissimilar that only the best guesser could leap from one to the other). Just as clear, surely, is the reason for the departure: the words on the right are less formal, abstract, general, communal, or—in a "centripetal" sense—civilized. The contrast between words for "fish" and "fox" is indicative of how little politics or élitism is involved in the distinction. These are not "high brow" versus "low brow" words. "Fish" is simply more generic: were we to add "trout" to our list, we would once again find the road dividing. At the same time, "fish" is no airy abstraction, any more than "song" or "book". To desire that students learn a large quantity of such words as would appear on the left of this diagram is not to suggest that young children be tortured with philosophical readings far beyond their years. It is simply to ask that songs and books receive a little more air-time in instructional materials than pens, pencils, spoons, and shoelaces.7
There is an implicit connection between a language’s unique words of intimacy and its culture’s sense of having preserved itself. Even cultures which have been overrun and colonized by another power—have been so vanquished, indeed, that the alien tongue significantly fuses with their own—can take a certain solace in the number of "uninfected" words within the domestic threshold. The Celtic peoples in the British Isles, for example, not only have substantially un-Anglicized languages of their own (i.e., Welsh and Gaelic: Cornish, I am told, is a dead issue): they also widely circulate unique coinages in the "invader’s" tongue for intimate objects and relationships, such as boyo for "young man" and girsha for "girl". The same languages had earlier resisted Latin in cultural skirmishes which may now be reviewed quite clinically, since their final blows have long been struck. Welsh was far more influenced than Irish Gaelic by the Roman presence (for there was no such presence on Irish soil). Hence the language abounds in Latin words for military and political office (amherawdyr from imperator, "emperor, general"), words for weapons (cleddyf from gladius [sword] and saeth from sagitta [arrow]), and especially words for literate endeavor (ystyr from historia [story] and llyfr from liber [book]).8 Yet the Welsh domestic setting bears practically no trace of Latin nomenclature. While the invader’s culture deeply infused public life, it was virtually invisible in private life.
I raise this matter because it helps to explain some of the volatility of the "second language" issue in American politics. At least some of the resentment, I believe, often registered by Anglo-Americans over other languages in their midst—and here we might as well name Spanish outright—is caused by today’s favored pedagogy, which invades the home’s inner sanctum rather than contenting itself with roads, trees, birds, and clouds. A child may quite possibly come home babbling "cupcake" or "toilet" in Spanish before he knows how to say "flower" or "horse". I doubt that this astonishingly subtle "invasion of the patriarchy" can have been planned at any level but the most intuitive by the textbook-writing élite in the academy. There is most certainly such an invasion going on at conscious levels elsewhere, however, and I would by no means dismiss the notion that its captains intuit how subversive would be little Jimmy’s or Janie’s request in Spanish for a birthday party. Whether the parents of these children deserve to be wrenched from their complacency is not a judgment which should be handed down from an academic’s desk; but that they should not be so wrenched through their manipulated children must be morally transparent to anyone but a fanatic.
Let us pursue the broader objectives of what I call the academic élite. Let us stand back from specific classroom strategies which seem designed, not to teach students another language thoroughly, but to prepare them for parachuting into villages where it is spoken and making their way along alien streets undetected. In its entirety, this pedagogical phenomenon presents us with a very odd prospect—odd enough that it begs an explanation. Its theorists and champions cannot argue that they have simply tossed out the tedious rote learning of yesteryear, for they haven’t. If anything, this method involves more commission of senseless linguistic chunks to memory than ever. At least yesteryear’s drills ("amo, amas, amat…") inculcated paradigms which applied sweepingly to the language in question, and thereby liberated the child to go forth and compose or read virtually anything with the help of a lexicon. Today’s "hello, how are you?" drills are perhaps less tedious in that they apply to narrow, "real life" circumstances—but the same narrowness inhibits them from being exported to other circumstances. The student who has been forced to memorize dozens of lines of polite jabber is in nowise fit to go forth and read the language’s great novelists (if it has any: can the prattle-proctors, I wonder, name a couple?). Thanks to the demotic, quasi-slang nature of conversational language and its tendency toward top-heaviness with irregular forms, it is at best a tortuous route to great literature.
The cynic will already have unearthed a couple of motives behind "chatter" pedagogy’s far-and-wide adoption. First, it instantly captures the audience with an illusion of being fully "plugged in" to reality; second, people can teach it who have little or no knowledge of literature. It’s an easy sale, and the seller needn’t have spent years in school. I hasten to add that some teachers chatter fluidly, eloquently, and even beautifully. I will not deny a certain jealousy of such types, for I have never enjoyed the gift of gab in any tongue, including my native English. Still, one would have expected that the trend-setters at major universities, where chatter-strategies have not only been blessed but were originally designed, might stick up for literacy. The academy would hardly strike the layman as a likely place to encounter persistent hostility to literate culture. How can such antagonism exist where people have dedicated themselves to higher learning?
Sooner or later, I suppose I must risk whatever lucidity my discussion has by mentioning deconstruction, the dominant theory in departments of language and literature for the past thirty years or so (now mercifully in ebb). Academic readers may have noted with irony that the neo-Marxist romanticizing of ordinary parlance so visible in the chatter-texts exactly reverses the polarities of deconstruction—or appears to do so. Thirty-five years ago, Jacques Derrida delivered the pronounce-ment (extravagant from the start, and extravagantly defended since he made it in Of Grammatology) that writing actually evolved before speech in some sense. We are to suppose that Western culture’s speakers have harbored a grudge against its writers since the neighbor of Rousseau’s caveman scribbled, "He said that was his." I can see no possible profit in reviewing Derrida’s rhetorical loop-de-loops. The gist of it all is that the written text, by fixing words for subsequent careful examination, exposes that they are lies. Nothing is at the bottom of anything—but professional mouthpieces like priests and bards can get away with propagandizing for the political élite as long as their lofty claims are not put under the magnifying glass. Literacy does precisely this disservice to the ruling powers: hence they vilify it.
Indeed, there is truth in what Derrida claims if you can strain the political dialectic out of it (which leaves behind, however, a very bland fare). Writing, at least of the alphabetic sort which can be quickly learned by multitudes, eventually wears away oral-traditionalism beneath a steady onslaught of astute perceptions and rational qualifications.9 Yet this is not where Derrida and his footsoldiers want to go. The whole point of devising a Manichaean tug-of-war between writing and speech was to pillory the West’s conventional leadership. We have all been fed a steady diet of propaganda for centuries now: that is the message. The written/spoken rigamarole is a convenient means to a glorious end.
So it turns out that deconstructionists and chatter-champions are not at loggerheads, after all. In fact, they are on the same side of the battering ram, working in complementary motions to level the edifice of meaning, law, tradition, faith, order, hierarchy—everything resistant to the chaotic forces of whimsy which pass for freedom among this crowd. As far as I can tell, there was never even any sort of intellectual negotiation between Derrida’s urbane, facetious punsters and the cocksure crusaders who shared their beds around campus. That fact is quite astonishing. Just imagine. The deconstructionist suspends belief in everything, absolutely everything (for this is his one and only absolute); the neo-Marxist romantically "postpones" nirvana to a vague, gilded future and derives his rigid marching orders therefrom. The latter seems the preeminent example of all that the former chuckles over. Indeed, when post-structuralist "scholars" had to write about something distinctly literary to win their tenure, they almost invariably chose a romantic author—a poet rapt in self-aware self-delusion before a Grecian urn or chasing a waif which he knows to be incaptible.10 Bemused though they were, these same romantics bequeathed to us the lunacy of bloody revolution for a utopian vision—not general upheaval in the ancient world’s tawdry sense, when mobs backed a charismatic figure to loot under his banner (res novae), but vast slaughter of live humanity left and right to incarnate (or incarnadine) a "dream". If ever any sane adult might be wooed to deconstruction’s sophistical paralysis, it would be through the contemplation of such "principled" excesses as ideology has visited upon us in the last two hundred years. The rhetorical shell games of Hegel and Marx, no less than those of Benjamin Constant or Victor Hugo, veritably scream for deconstruction, if by that is understood demolition through mature analysis.
How could these two mentalities possibly coexist, and even be considered mutually supportive? The answer, I repeat, lies in that great common enemy of all hipster intellectuals, bourgeois decorum: common sense, common decency, common humanity… the suffocating blandness (as the intellectual often finds it) of life in a smoothly functioning, civilized society. If I have stressed above the logical incompatibility of deconstruction’s dégagé philosophers and the engagé campus radicals who sat at their feet, it is to demonstrate that no rigorous logical connection between the two ever existed—no developing pedigree of doctrinal kinship such as one would expect of thoughtful people. On the contrary, the idle intellectual’s script for two centuries now has contained little but phrases intended to shock the audience (or to delight an audience of self-selected rebels, I should say, by shocking the tastes of those not in attendance). The academy’s loathing of the bourgeoisie is a phenomenon extending well back into the nineteenth century. Indeed, Voltaire was theatrically crying écrasez l’infâme as the eighteenth rumbled to its unhappy conclusion.
Deconstruction’s grandiose claim to epochal insight is therefore absurd. We see no significant transition here: we see only the rise of the middle class, some of whose brightest children grow deliriously frustrated because their upward mobility is impeded or because pushy scoundrels are elbowing past them. An argument—a rational concatenation of facts—is not what we should expect from this crowd. We need merely note who is always deemed right by the rhetoric and who always wrong. On the wrong side, a system whose hierarchies have stood for centuries and are generally defensible by objective reason; and on the right side, everything anti-systematic. To paraphrase Milton’s Satan (another counter-conformist whose freedom is enslaved to shock effect), "Chaos be thou my order!"
For foreign language instruction, all this means that today’s reigning neglect of literature and grammar in favor of demotic parlance should not in any wise be construed as a back-to-basics rejection of pedantic folderol. On the contrary, the new trend is perfectly in step with the deeper rhythm of deconstructive chic. Forget about those theoretical tomes than which nothing more impenetrable to the common man—and the streetcorner chatterbox—has ever been written. (Or pause for a moment to reflect that these tomes, in their illegible jargon, tortured syntax, and disguised ignorance of basic grammar are indeed an assault upon literacy from another direction.) The grand design behind this campaign of many fronts is very simple: the subversion of the canonical, the traditional, the acceptable.
Now, the old establishment (and "old" is not redundant here, for the system is already a mere memory) was scarcely a hotbed of "English first" zealotry. If anything, its stalwarts put Latin first, or ancient Greek—or if English, then the English of Shakespeare and Bacon and Dryden, certainly not the picaresque oratory of the barber shop. And they fostered Spanish of the same caliber. In college Spanish departments, one studied (as well as Cervantes and the picaresque—for there has always been a barber in Seville) Lope de Vega, Calderón, and Cadalso. Today’s chatterers no more aim their pedagogy toward the bright constellations of Spanish literature than their high-brow deconstructive comrades addressed unreadable treatises to that quadrant of the sky. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could deconstruct literary convention and human bombast more effectively than Cervantes did (except, perhaps, Ariosto). A deconstructionist would have to turn tail and run from such testimony lest he be found naked in his own sophomorism.
No, the variously styled "old boys" or "dead white guys" were not trying to silence Spanish-speaking voices: on the contrary, they required that their children speak—or, to be exact, read—in more voices than one now finds in the typical public library. The war is not with oppressive Anglo-Saxon patriarchs who want all other comers to go back where they came from: if such "barbarophobes" are fast becoming a new establishment, they were never so before. This is the war in which student radicals occupied the administration building at Columbia, bullied professors of literature across the nation into teaching such "relevant" matter as rock lyrics, and voted with their parents’ checkbooks to eliminate philosophy and foreign language (by the way) from the core curriculum. It is the war against culture: against the Western tradition of independent thought, open discussion, and common-sense objectivity. Everything unfamiliar, capricious, intractable, unstable, anomalous, ungovernable, or irrational has long been stockpiled for ammunition. While deconstructive sappers were attempting to undermine the very possibility of rational discourse, hordes of barefoot buck-privates (whom the Greeks called idiotês) asserted the existence of lunacy with lupine howls from the trenches or suicidal leaps from the battlements. The latter have now taken over the siege.
And what is it which interests such people about Spanish? For the debate about foreign language in the United States is really about Spanish, and more so every day: does that fact in itself not suggest the answer? The Spanish-speaking population is much the largest group of Americans whose native tongue is not English. Hence it is an ideal wedge for penetrating the armor of common custom, of bourgeois convention. And why is it, then, that the commonwealth was not faltering earlier under the more intense "assault" of Latin, Greek, and French transmitted tidily by the educational system—was, indeed, more stable and judicious than ever, to all appearances? Because languages were then taught with a heavy emphasis on literacy—on reading and writing rather than speaking. Literacy fosters independent thought, which fosters an interest in open discussion, which fosters an interest in reaching objective consensus… all the centripetal values which build a sense of common humanity. Of these the antinomians want no part. Spanish-speaking Americans have caught their eye because they are a minority, and in many ways a frightening minority to Anglo America. The typical WASP cannot so much as comprehend their speech, even if he or she took four years of Spanish in college: that much is already dismaying.11 A literary education in Spanish would surely diffuse this tension somewhat: for it is true, after all, that you can’t scorn a people whose literature you have read. On the other hand, to introduce the colloquial palaver of this "suspect" people through the back doors of those who fear it and into their very hearths—by having all the little bourgeois toddlers trip home babbling it, no less—seems to me a surefire method of escalating alarm.
I have already discussed how conquered peoples have conventionally been able to conserve their own words for life’s most homely and most private objects, even under a massive effort of colonization (Point Six). Here we see from the textbook-writing élite, not a grand initiative to enhance the literacy of both cultures concerned, or indeed of either culture—but what looks, instead, very like an incendiary nurture of incomprehension among both cultures, and particularly aimed at the dominant culture’s foundations. Sandra Stotsky has noticed the same tactics in a slightly different context, where, at first glance, the textbook industry seems intent upon bewildering children rather than insinuating itself into their parties with candy and toys. Her thorough study of English readers (of reading texts, that is) for elementary students reveals a disturbing tendency to impose indecipherable, unpronounceable foreign words upon bourgeois scenes of intimacy. Bear in mind that Stotsky is considering the texts from which young children learn English. While the same foreign words might be more pronounceable in a foreign language class, they are presented in a setting where their correct elocution—and, indeed, sometimes their basic meaning—remains an enigma (for footnotes or explanations in the teacher’s guide are not always forthcoming). How could the effort to destabilize the young person’s warmest household rituals in bursts of "otherness" possibly be made more apparent? Writes Stotsky of one such passage (which, within fewer than one hundred words, hurls ten Swahili nouns at a fourth-grade readership):
How likely are you to see any of these Swahili words again in outside independent reading? The answer? Not very likely. They are not words that contribute to the vocabulary needed by the typical middle or secondary school student in an English-speaking country.
One can only speculate why such a story is offered as fourth-grade reading material since the teacher guide provides no justification for including it for instructional purposes. Is it there to teach nonblack children to respect other languages? To enhance the self-esteem of black children on the grounds that this may have been the language of their ancestors in Africa? (In fact, most of their ancestors came from the western part of Africa and spoke other languages.) Or to pique black children’s interest in learning Swahili as a second language? Whatever the reason, students and their teachers will spend valuable time learning the meaning of words with no real utility for English speakers, readers, and writers.12
To Stotsky’s far-from-rhetorical questions, I would respond with emphasis, "Destabilization!" Unknowingly, she produces in her sample passages the very kinds of foreign words which I cited above in Point Six as informal, intimate, or rude (in the literal sense of rustic or unpolished). These words are dubious enough even in the foreign language classroom, for the student in that setting is almost as constricted by their narrowness of application as the student in English class is by their being utterly incomprehensible. What clearly shines forth in both classrooms is the intimacy of the setting; and I ask any sane adult, would the "colonization" of this setting as it occurs in your child’s life by a culture whose words and ways you find mysterious not stir you to fear, and even to animosity? If we grant that perhaps you should not find these alien ways fearful—that you should probably go back to school yourself—is the infiltration of your own most private rituals a very prudent or humane means of eliciting your benevolent interest in the other?
With regard to Hispanic culture (and Stotsky concedes that most incidents of oracular inscrutability in textbooks involve Spanish), it is worth stressing that Spanish-speakers do not profit from the academy’s antagonizing of an Anglo mainstream which largely decides their fate. If the average American is already annoyed that he cannot communicate his order at the local cafeteria, he is downright neurotic about what he perceives as a new crime wave. In many areas (especially urban centers receiving a steady influx of immigrants, legal and otherwise, from very poor nations), the middle-class establishment is painfully aware that crime has risen—violent crime, above all. The phrase which haunts English nightmares is not Buenos días, amigo, but Plata o plomba!—"Bucks or a bullet!" The physically dangerous side to the Hispanic diaspora, while lending itself to demagogic exploitation, is statistical fact. The all-Spanish newscast out of Dallas-Fort Worth which I regularly watch features a story or two every week about the disproportionately high rates of homicide, traffic fatality, and alcohol and drug abuse among Hispanic youths. To these figures might be added the exorbitant rates of larceny practiced by the fluently bilingual upon recent immigrants—withholding wages from illegals, for instance, and pocketing money supposed to be wired to relatives down south. (Such crimes, I note in passing, would be largely expunged if immigrants were taught literacy in Spanish at the same time as or before they learned English.) To say that these children of the south are most often their own victims is also statistically accurate, but such sad figures and numbers remain a "public relations" disaster before a tremulous Anglo majority. When we—and here I mean all of us—consider that certain of our "best and brightest" who write textbooks are royally amusing themselves with the situation’s volatility, we should not shame to feel grave indignation.
Now, Hispanic culture (if such a thing still exists) is nothing if not conservative. Mothers worry about their daughters bearing children out of wedlock, fathers feel humiliated when they cannot feed their children, and brothers or sons as well as fathers will illegally cross a border hundreds of miles away to siphon a little money back home. This community is hit hard by the occasional violence of life on the edge, and is eager to work its way toward something better. To offer welfare payments or an abundance of blue-collar jobs, either one or both together, without also offering literacy is like clearing two escape routes from a burning house without applying water to a yet manageable flame. I repeat: reading and writing turn people into independent thinkers. An immigrant Hispanic boy who reads will perhaps not require membership in a gang to find emotional stability. His sister will perhaps not feel compelled to bestow sexual favors lest she be shunned. Their father, when out of a job, will perhaps not squander precious pennies on beer and cigarettes, even if reading does not successfully steer him through that famous sea of Job Applications to the fabled Better Position. A poster in our local library has actor James Edward Olmos declaring like some iron-jawed propagandist, Leer es poder—"Reading is power."13 This is true, I suspect, in ways which never occurred to the poster’s designers. Quite apart from enhancing income, reading affects how we live: what we buy, what we eat, what we do for pleasure. It renders us stronger on the inside—less vulnerable to circumstance, more self-reliant. It is a resource from which people already disposed to take responsibility for others would very much profit.
Am I saying with insufferable condescension that immigrant paupers should improve themselves by learning how to read? Well, I certainly believe that we should all improve ourselves, and the literate life is a shortcut to improvements of the deepest kind. Inasmuch as the pain of striving to "write truth" is that of honest prayer and confession, I am not disposed to apologize for urging anyone to improve so. If that seems insufferable to some, then I would ask them why they do not find instability, doubt, despair, and self-annihilation in the manic hysteria of gang-and-drug culture to be still less sufferable. But, of course, flight from such ruinous miseries is convergence back toward the human center of bourgeois, "universalist" values. Better that our saddest social statistics should continue to rise than that our academic élite should lose the Hispanic community as a fulcrum against middle-class America!
Consider the following passage from Emilio Romero’s novel about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, The Peace Begins Never. The hope which Romero claims here for all Spaniards, I say parenthetically, seems so humane and reasonable that it fully deserves extension to all people everywhere:
This people of mine deeply moved me with its originality, simplicity, and grandeur. From a certain perspective, it was indeed determined to stage a revolution to live better—yet under the condition that this revolution not remove everything which constituted our emotional patrimony. The communists call this bourgeois prejudice; and, in reality, I believed that the best revolution would be that which would make us all bourgeois, not proletarian. At the bottom of every naïve Spanish communist, there wasn’t a desire to impoverish the rich, but to enrich oneself—to be able to become an engineer or soldier or doctor, to marry a handsome young woman and go to the opera. Any revolution that would not pursue a higher level of life was no revolution at all, but a regression.14
When I say that literacy is the entrance to this vision, not just financially but also—and in particular—psychologically, I mean the reading-and-writing habit of life in any tongue. I should be quite happy to see our public education system fund a program for our Hispanic fellow-citizens which taught meaningful literacy in Spanish. Having a ballot printed in two languages seems to me no great threat to our society. On the other hand, having people who can barely read a ballot, whatever its language, and who seldom read anything longer than a paragraph is very possibly the greatest threat any democracy can ever face. As long as our citizens read (i.e., wrestle with each printed idea in their minds until they take possession of it), I shouldn’t care if they do the reading in Spanish, French, Urdu, or Mandarin. Our critical problem is not a multiplicity of tongues, but a paucity of reading matter and of readers.
Certainly my young son’s school, which I believe to be the finest in the area, has always exhorted him to read and write. I am told that he presently reads four years above his grade level—and, of course, this delights me. All the more cause to wonder, though, why the most advanced Spanish textbooks used in his institution’s middle school offer no literary readings: just dialogues ad infinitum. Forget about when my son will ever be able to read Romulo Gallegos or Antonio Azorín (two of my favorites): when will a girl or boy from a Spanish-speaking household ever be able to write a thoughtful editorial in Spanish—or read one—even if that child should attend this fine school? Why must both native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers be denied access to the Spanish literary tradition? How long must all our children keep drowning in this "total immersion" of Arcadian chatter where funny old men dance and candy falls from the rafters?
For Arcadia is a critical point of connection between Ivy League topsy-turvyists and the dedicated, warm-hearted teachers of Middleville. I have already alleged (with an appearance, no doubt, of mean-spiritedness) that the social-engineering project to force Hispanic culture down mainstream America’s throat appeals to the average teacher, not because he or she burns to stupify the bourgeoisie, but because chatter requires few lesson plans and little formal training. (In fact, it doesn’t really require a teacher—those teachers who have staked their future on a strategy so compatible with video technology are sawing off their limb of the proverbial tree.) Naturally, there are more humane motives behind this pedagogy, as well. The socialist vision of one big happy family sharing all its toys is hopelessly, even absurdly unfitted to adult reality: adults don’t like to lend their toys to others who abuse them. Yet the share-all frolic around the Maypole is a perfectly plausible—and even commendable—objective for an elementary school classroom. Traditions are not riveted into minds at this point. Susie and Ahmed and Joaquín and Bahar are just so many children with so many colorful names to one another, and their celebrating Christmas in different ways—or celebrating different holidays around Christmas time—is an intriguing curiosity rather than an invincible wall. A good teacher can effectively stress common humanity for a few of these Arcadian years before the gates of Eden close (as they most surely will: for the rivets are applied from within, even if the traditions are transmitted from without). To teach another language by drawing children into the intimate quarters of another culture—the kitchen, the birthday party, the year’s most exotic feasts and vigils—is thus a tempting way to rally them round a humanitarian morale (and, dare I say, a "universalist" ethic).
But the "party" approach remains, above all, a practical one; and it is to this pragmatism rather than to any excessively Arcadian commitment that cultural subversion owes its securest footholds in the elementary curriculum. Children, especially very young ones, like singing puppets and dancing clowns, whose appearance on the scene always imposes a chatty, extroverted occasion (Hola, niños!). Of course, birthday parties and holidays, besides being magically special, are also highly social occasions eliciting steady dialogue. Chatter in such surroundings is likely to interest the young student, even if he or she doesn’t understand it. And who knows? Since children are far more apt to soak up piñata and Feliz Navidad! than mansedumbre, maybe they will also soak up a few irregular verbs. A strategy which commandeers bright images and festive trim plainly holds youthful attention better than a lecture on grammar—and nothing good can happen without attentiveness!
To such bourgeois pragmatism as this, the élite game plan seems wonderfully savvy about adapting its methods. Time and time again, Middle America does the footwork for the Ivory Tower’s most fantastical causes. And why not? The two "polarities" here—the academic Left and the bourgeois Right—are really just alternatives of the pragmatic. Insanely idealistic though the socially engineered Arcadia of Marxism is, its furtherance justifies a cold, calculating suspension of all moral principles to the faithful. (Or, to state this view properly, all moral principles are a bourgeois illusion, sustained in the hall of mirrors which deconstruction exposes.) Ideological "change agents" can comfortably harrow the middle class with the incomprehensible chatter of its gardeners and nannies even as they woo its children with cakes and Christmas presents. The war, as I have said, has many fronts. Why wouldn’t it, since its objective is a romantic fusion with the indefinitely remote Not Here, Not Now—the n’importe où hors du monde away from which deconstruction (one would have thought) warns its congregants?
For their part, the solid bourgeois citizens whose children are becoming multilingual jabberers incapable of parsing a verb in any tongue are the most unlikely collaborators of all in this sad conspiracy. In the long run, they really don’t mind having their Anglo Christmases and birthdays go Spanish, or even seeing the Fourth of July merge hazily with Cinco de Mayo. After all, a holiday’s a holiday! They themselves have so heartily embraced the post-literate life that their rituals are skin deep, their inner sancta wired for cable and the Internet. As sanguinary as tribal disputes can be over arbitrary boundaries or meaningless items of dress (one slip of the tongue can get your head cut off, as Big Archibald reminds us), they are also soluble at what seems to a literate person the most superficial of levels: the pragmatic. Cinco de Mayo makes money. Hang out a sign, stock a few specialty knick-knacks, and watch the month of May soar into the black. You can’t hang out a sign—you don’t know Spanish? Ask your child. All the kids are learning Spanish in school now, and it’s not that useless stuff in old novels and poems that nobody reads. My son, your daughter, are going to know how to handle this lingo so that the average José with a dirty roll of untaxed bills in his pocket from a law-breaking employer will understand it. And a bill’s a bill, you know: the bank doesn’t deduct points for dirtiness, or even for tax-evasion.
That, of course, is the sordid side of the bourgeoisie—the side from which so many bright young adolescents were seeking refuge when they entered graduate school and adopted some neo-Marxist (or quasi-deconstructive, or crypto-nihilist) philosophy. The literate bourgeois historically sought liberation from the arbitrary chains of tradition to amass wealth, yes; but he also amassed knowledge of faraway places in the process of opening new markets, he learned how to treat those faraway customers civilly, and he began to suspect that a spiritual sameness unites all human beings beneath the differing skin tones and headdresses. In him, the god of goodness found a conduit. Unfortunately (from a marketing point of view), too much spiritual knowledge leads to too little interest in the world, which leads to declining profits and collapsing businesses. At some point, then, the bourgeois was forced to choose between the spiritual opportunities which venal curiosity had accidentally revealed to him and the worldly opportunities which directly satisfied his venal ambition. I venture to say (in the certainty of drawing much censure from "patriots") that we of the United States are living in the twilight of our predominantly venal choices. We have gone so far as actually to abandon that literacy, with all of its attendant habits (independence, responsibility, belief in objective goodness), which rendered us capable of arbitrating the world’s disputes. At the moment, we remain better arbiters, in my opinion, than anyone else around us… but how long can we be so, as we turn into utter pragmatists? If our most pressing concern about the very language in which we think is that our orders are not being processed conveniently, to what level of thinking have we descended? If our fondest hope for the second language which our children are being taught is that they may process more orders in that tongue for a higher profit, at what point do they learn from us the end of human existence?
Pragmatists, one and all: the élite textbook-writer, who will pull any punch to disrupt and destabilize; the teacher in the trenches, who will adopt any strategy as long as it reduces rowdiness and boredom; the all too insouciant parent, who will submit his child to any text-taught outrage or absurdity as long as a good job shimmers at the end of the rocky pedagogical road. I have been trying to promote the view for some years that material pragmatism is at last suicidal, since men and women are at last not material beings. The analysis—and it is often painful analysis—which literacy imposes upon their thinking is inestimably precious in how it awakens the sense of an inner, invisible, immaterial, life of universal value. On this basis alone, the shift in our instructional methods from literacy to speaking is a tragedy, whether we find it occurring in foreign language pedagogy or English or history or the sciences. Though few of us can influence the textbook industry, we should resist the shift in the classroom even if levels of boredom rise and resist it at home even when we cannot punctuate parental counsel with expensive toys. We should apply ourselves to recovering our human dignity.
Quite beyond that, however, and for the reasons detailed in this essay, teaching another language by conversational chatter is simply bad teaching. Use a standard as pragmatic as you like: it remains unwieldy, even indefensible. Our English-speaking children need a more generalized sense of the rules. Our Spanish-speaking neighbors’ children need the same thing, not only to understand our "book-learned" version of their language but to reassemble their ever more fragmented dialects. By continuing down the present path, we assure both the rootlessness of our own children’s language skills and the eventual dissolution of the languages they are trying to learn. And all for what? For a few more sales of piñatas? For a few more hours per week without lesson-planning? For a few more clever jabs at those selfish, heartless hypocrites of the bourgeoisie? Any shrewd huckster could make that out to be a very poor bargain.
1 See "The Intimate Message of Foreign Language: One Small Curricular Step Toward Restoring Reason" Praesidium 2.2 (Spring 2002): 5-16. I here renew my earlier refusal, by the way, to avoid "foreign" lest it offend. The word exists in no other language as we spell it in English (forain is extremely rare nowadays in French); therefore, anything linguistically foreign, and labeled "foreign", would simply be "non-English". Even a language spoken abundantly where English predominates (e.g., Spanish in the United States) would remain "foreign", not to American shores, but to the English language, because… Spanish isn’t English. A mind too obtuse to grasp this distinction or too pugnacious to accept it must be excused from any serious discussion of the issues.
2 From p. 13 of D. James, "The Impact on Higher Education of Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century," ACTFL Newsletter (Fall 1998): 11-14.
3 I have lived where "went" is indeed functionally the past participle of "go"; and I cannot help wondering how many egalitarian academics would rush to hire a candidate as Director of Composition who volunteered, "I’d went back home a while before finishing my Ph.D." To be fair to the "principles" of these professionals, their sure rejection of such a person might well have less to do with his churlish grammar than with his being a "Southern redneck" or "Appalachian hillbilly". That is, his grammar would designate him as affiliated with regional and ethnic groups inimical to the academic political agenda. In contrast, if an applicant from a northeastern urban center were to say with tight-lipped inflections, "All’s I’m saying is, it ain’t no big deal," he would probably be thought cute.
4 If the child is studying Spanish or Italian by the chatty new methods, he or she will mix with the bewildering mire of irregular verbs the archaic use of the third person in those two languages as a polite form. It’s impossible to steer clear of this form, in fact, while immersing (or deluging) children in questioning phrases ordinarily addressed to strangers (and hence requiring formality): cómo está?, habla español?, and the rest. A few minutes spent in trying to explain to a youngster why a person may be directly addressed in forms normally reserved for persons not present is enough to make any teacher simply cry, "Memorize it and don’t ask!" But isn’t this the sort of authoritarian approach which we are supposed to be sparing children now—and, in any case, for how long do we postpone the explanation of a curiosity which is bound to frustrate any novice’s theory about why endings change? How does an intelligent adult, let alone a child, "absorb" grammar when left alone to confront such Byzantine structures? Wouldn’t the saner approach, indeed, be to avoid conversation until the learner is more advanced grammatically?
5 The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) provides an online "clearinghouse" of research. My perusal of this source suggests that studies of bilingual households overwhelmingly involve cases where English is one of the languages, especially when a group of several families is procured. Exceptions crop up in and around Russia: but here one encounters bilingualism where the two languages a) have broad support within the general community, b) are scarcely written at all, and c) may often be closely related. The focus of such research is usually to establish that a politically "discouraged" language is doing no harm. Otherwise, there is little sense of urgency driving comparative studies in non-Anglophone Western nations. Continental Europeans are able to absorb other romance or Germanic languages with ease. The least educated Italian, depending on his location, may well have enough Spanish or German to render him the verbal equal of an American with twelve college hours in those same languages. Bilingualism in the United States, Britain, and Canada, on the other hand, is always controversial when advanced as public policy. For reasons explained hereafter, English is a very poor preparation for studying any other language.
6 From John Prebble, Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre (New York: David and George 1966), 42. I might add that when Gaelic was being resuscitated in western Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century, the effort was two-pronged: record as much lore from the mouths of local story-tellers as possible, and send schoolmasters out into remote areas to teach grammar and spelling in these communities. The endeavor’s founders were insightful enough to understand that the centrifugal forces of dialect, if allowed to run unchecked, would shred the language beyond recovery.
7 For the record, my own young son (second grade) has brought home the following words from my table in his vocabulary lists: lápiz, abuelo, and comida. From the left side of my table, I have not seen a single word appear in his lessons. How could lápiz possibly occur in his course of instruction before libro? I have no idea. Such absurdities seem to be par for this course—and, I should add, books and what one does with them are presented as quite dispensable in the whole process.
8 These particular words, by the way, have Irish cognates. Medieval Ireland’s isolation from the continent has been grossly exaggerated. The island maintained a lively commercial and cultural intercourse with parts of Europe.
9 The objective of such qualification historically, however, has been that very body of abstract, universal truth which Derrida sees dissolving under literacy. It is oral tradition’s misrepresentation of truth as inscrutable gnostic mystery, rather, which literacy erodes in pursuit of a more proper enunciation. Furthermore, the early literacy of the royal chronicle and the sacred history, by being entrusted only to an élite class (and often in those hieroglyphs which Derrida exploits so ingeniously where his logic buckles), actually shores up the status quo. Scribes and Pharisees are proverbial for using precious, seldom-seen documents to hallow their arbitrary pronouncements.
10 Cf. Eric Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1986), 50: "Derrida performs the service of stressing the romanticism which inspired Rousseau and has lingered on in the Lévi-Strauss perception of a mythic structuralism as a fundamental representation of the realities of human experience. But has he, any more than his predecessor, stretched his vision to comprehend that ‘primary orality’ which supplies the original key?"
11 Contrast with the situation in, say, France—or French-speaking Canada—where the same four years of college render one fairly comprehensible even to provincial types. Why? Because even the provincials have been to school and studied their language formally, through grammar and literature, thereby developing their sense of the linguistic matrix from which their dialects stem.
12 From Sandra Stotsky, Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction Is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason (New York: Free Press, 1999), 150-51.
13 I do not suggest that Mr. Olmos knew how his manly mug would be used on the poster. I have been a keen fan of his since The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (originally made for PBS, and aired in 1981) took television to new heights. To be sure, the historical incident behind that sad film involved flawed oral communication between English- and Spanish-speakers: a sheriff’s deputy did not recognize the word yegua, "mare", at a crucial juncture. Even in these cases, however (and I will not maintain that wide reading would have introduced the deputy to this particular word, though it’s common enough in Don Segundo Sombra), mere verbal drilling is a dubious solution. My teaching experience has shown me that speakers are far less likely to admit that they don’t know a word than are readers, perhaps because mere ignorance of one word is a minor infraction in translating texts, whereas in the moil of quick verbal exchanges it can draw charges of complete incompetence. In short, a fully literate person is more likely to confess humbly, like any good scientist, "I don’t know the answer to that."
14 My translation from p. 294 of La Paz Empieza Nunca (Barcelona: Planeta, 1957). That Romero’s narrator sympathizes with the Falangists, of course, would immediately disqualify everything the book says from serious consideration in an academic setting: the a priori invalidation again of those who choose the "wrong" side.
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Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
By Martin Amis
Reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau
The critique of ideology might be the most important of humane endeavors in the aftermath of the Modern Age. It is a task made more difficult by the fact that ideology since Marx has tended to appear under the guise of a critique of ideology. The image of a ranting deconstructionist or gender studies maven denouncing as false and pernicious the millennial cumulus of carefully sifted human self-observation while declaring the true and mandatory ordo seculorum will be familiar enough to establish the notion. The picture is risible, of course, but not the actual thing when it manifests itself. Bitter experience will have taught many that the ordo brooks no rebuke, least of all the one served up by a combination of broad smile and hearty laughter. As the announcement reads at the local airport: JOKES TAKEN SERIOUSLY HERE. That is to say: we have no sense of humor.
Outside the overlapping realms of airport security and political correctness, on the other hand, some quite unlikely things may be made the objects of jocund ridicule. There is Mel Brooks, with his Producers, or rather with its play within a play, "Spring Time for Hitler". You feel guilty for laughing and yet you laugh, guiltily, all the same. But is "Spring Time for Hitler" really outside the domain of political correctness? It’s not PC in the obvious sense, but one can hardly imagine the liberal Brooks building his comedy around a musical called "Spring Time for Stalin". Why not? One can laugh at some aspects of the Soviet Union and at some of its leaders, especially those of the gerontocracy just before Gorbachev. Rush Limbaugh even pokes fun at Gorby, for his birthmark, which looks from an oblique angle (Rush says) like a map of Russia. As Martin Amis puts it in his new book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million this license to chide or giggle is due to the fact that
there’s something in Bolshevism that is painfully, unshirkably comic. This became palpable when the Russian experiment entered its decadent phase: the vanity and high-bourgeois kleptomania of Brezhnev, the truly pitiful figure of Chernenko (an old janitor with barely enough strength to honor himself as a Hero of Socialist Labor). Both these men, and Andropov (the KGB highbrow), whom they flanked, presided over a great landmass of suffering. The country was living at African levels of poverty, malnutrition, disease, and child mortality.
Especially with hindsight, in the knowledge that the terror, if not the misery, would eventually slacken and then altogether cease, the post-Krushchev First Secretaries can appear comically puffed up and foolish―and so can their post-Soviet successor, Yeltsin. But just behind the comic-opera antics, as Amis reminds us, lay that “great landmass of suffering”. Amis himself used to laugh about Communism and the USSR with his friend, despite a non-correspondence in political stripe, Christopher Hitchens; in the early 1970s they both wrote for The New Statesmen. Amis records a number of their talks in his partly autobiographical, partly biographical (the subject is his father, Kingsley), and partly historical book. Amis once asked Hitchens about the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s: "There wasn’t a famine," Hitchens answered, "there may have been occasional shortages."1 Another time Amis wondered aloud to Hitchens "about the difference between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany." "Don’t fall for that," Hitchens said, "don’t fall for moral equivalence." Amis wanted to know why not, to which Hitchens replied (it seems non sequitur), "Lenin was… a great man." Even so Hitchens could joke about the Soviet Union. Amis quotes a longish jape about the failure of a centrally planned cocktail lounge. The waitresses wear the appropriate, western influenced, skimpy garb ("cupless brassieres… thongs… G-strings"). And then there’s the additional attraction: "they’ve all been loyal party members for at least forty-five years." Note, however, that the fall guy in the story is the gerontocracy. About Lenin, the "great man," Hitchens did not caper or jest. “As a socialist, he needed to feel that October had not been an instantaneous―or indeed an intrinsic―disaster.” His making fun of the Brezhnev’s self-parodying USSR, Amis thinks, revealed Hitchens’ insecurity about the line he had chosen to adopt: if only Trotsky instead of Stalin…. "He knew it wasn’t true. But truth, like much else, was postponable." By 1975, however, or around the time that these corridor dialogues transpired, the postponement should no longer have been morally tenable. The second volume of The Gulag Archipelago had appeared. Yet Amis’ left-wing acquaintances hardly seemed to have registered it.
For honesty, Amis enjoyed the example of his father and of his father’s friend, Robert Conquest. Kingsley Amis joined the Communist Party in 1940; he left it in 1956 when the Soviets crushed Hungary after which he swiftly became a Tory. The Amis residence, to which the family referred ironically as "Fascist House", hosted a stream of refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. The younger Amis knew from first-person testimony what conditions had prevailed under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin and he had inherited his father’s sensitivity to mendacious denials of the facts. He recalls an exchange between the elder Amis and A. J. Ayer, who argued that, "in the USSR, at least they’re trying to forge something positive." "But it doesn’t matter what they’re trying to forge," said Kingsley, "because they’ve already killed five million people." Or twenty million, as Conquest counted them in The Great Terror. In this irreconcilable disagreement, Amis comes to the fundamental syllogism of the true believers. I’d phrase it this way: Socialism is an absolute value; anything other than socialism has less value than socialism; therefore human life has less value than socialism.
But it’s not entirely syllogistic. Magical thinking accompanies the proofs. Thus socialism, whose chief characteristic is that it doesn’t exist, exudes an aura; anything touched by that aura partakes in socialism’s primary glamour―even the repulsive “Man of Steel”. (Also known as “the Big Moustache”.) Hitchens might describe himself as, of course, anti-Stalin, but he would spend his weekends passing out Leninist and Trotskyist pamphlets in working class neighborhoods. He could joke about his hopes for Great Britain: "rule by yobs" or in less colloquial language the dictatorship of the proletariat. Amis returns repeatedly to the squeamishness in the jokes:
Pace Adorno, it was not poetry that became impossible after Auschwitz. What became impossible was laughter. In the Soviet Case, on the other hand, laughter intransigently refuses to absent itself. Immersion in the facts of the Bolshevik catastrophe may make this increasingly hard to accept, but such an immersion will never cleanse that catastrophe of laughter…2
Amis devotes part of Koba the Dread3 to documenting how the sainthood of Lenin, preached by those who want others to believe that Stalin murderously hijacked a pure and noble experiment, is insupportable: "Lenin bequeathed to his successors a fully functioning police state," complete with the prison system for dissenters. So "the differences between the regimes of Lenin and Stalin were quantitative, not qualitative." Lenin’s comparatively short reign explains the quantitative discrepancy. Lenin had barely five, Stalin over twenty-five years to express the persona of the revolution. The myth of Lenin as the good man betrayed remains nevertheless deeply imbued in the view of the contemporary left, who, in default of the proletariat, have long since nominated themselves for the redeeming class. Amis cites Vladimir Nabokov gently but firmly chastising Edmund Wilson for the latter’s fatuous treatment of Lenin in To the Finland Station and Travels in Two Democracies. Wilson rejoined the correction by withdrawing from the friendship. In a section called "Ten Theses on Ilyich", Amis draws on his own research as well as that of Solzhenitsyn, Conquest, and others to lay plain the character and modus operandi of Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov. Lenin emerges a fury: "Civil war became inevitable when Lenin took power"; he was a man, in the words of Adam Ulam, "at once childish and nightmarish"; his policies 1918-1921 resulted in "the obliteration of [Russia’s] industrial base and the worst famine in European history"; in warring ferociously against religion, which he did by murdering priests and nuns and by confiscating and razing churches, he made war "against human nature"; he originated both "executions by quota" and "the notion of ‘collective responsibility,’ whereby the families and even the neighbors of enemies of the people, or suspected enemies of the people, were taken hostage." Amis points to Lenin’s "studied amorality", his "giggly response to violence", and his "flirtatious nihilism". Trotsky too was a "fucking liar" and a "nun-killer". Stalin for his part saw the value of all these traits in the pursuit of absolute power. Stalin, who in his hatred for everything "bourgeois" at least equaled Lenin and Trotsky,4 might have seen to Lenin’s demise (Amis says this is now less certain than some used to assert―he saw anyway to Trotsky’s), but he was still Lenin’s successor.
The Gulag Archipelago is a big work in three volumes. People talk about it more than they read it. The same goes for Conquest’s Great Terror. Amis offers, in the long middle of Koba, the "Short Course" on Communism in power in the USSR under Stalin and after him. Lenin told Maxim Gorky that the artists and intellectuals were not the "brains" of the nation but its "shit". Stalin, who in Amis’ analysis actually had some feel for literature, more cannily than Lenin saw how artists and intellectuals could be made to serve the regime. Stalin flattered Gorky, who edited a glowing volume, with scores of contributors, on the building of the White Sea Canal; then he put him under house arrest and probably had him murdered. He couldn’t murder Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells (or a hundred others from the West), so he merely flattered them, showed them Potemkin villages, and feasted them from a menu unimaginable to the average Russian. At this time in starvation-stricken Ukraine, as Amis points out, cannibalism was widespread. The westerners returned home fulsomely praising the tyrant. (He was "trying to forge something positive.") The litany of real events is by now well known: the engineered famine for the sake of "de-Kulakization" and the collectivization of agriculture beginning in 1933; the ceaseless arrests, deportations, imprisonments, and executions, which continued policies first emplaced by Lenin; the purges and show-trials; the swelling of the gulag. Amis writes of the "negative perfectionism" of the Stalin regime and of "hard Bolshevism" from 1918 to 1953. There are words, he says, for what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945: Shoah, Holocaust. There is none for what happened in Russia. Every Russian, however, knew what was happening and that was the point: to make terror and obedience ubiquitous, to make it invade sleep. The outside world should have known, for the evidence lay at hand, but the intellectuals adamantly closed their eyes to the facts.
The mendacity starts with the predisposition of the chattering classes to two things: resentment of the existing, "bourgeois" order, which does not heed their chatter, and a deeply seated presumption that nature can be remade in accordance with ideas. It continues with an attraction to two things: the claim of the revolutionaries to be remaking the "bourgeois" order in conformance to a radical agenda and the pragmatic triumph of the revolution. The triumph especially grants to resentment a sense of power―vicarious power, it is true, but intoxicating all the same. The dialectic tells one, furthermore, that the victory is inevitable. This means that arguments against the revolution, or objections to its doctrine, have all failed in advance. One is vindicated a priori without having to answer one’s critics. The temptation for people who put their life’s stock in winning arguments must be great indeed. But in order for the formula to work, the subject has to blind himself against an inconvenient reality of blood and bone.
Koba the Dread’s concluding section begins with an open letter from Amis to Hitchens. To Trotsky (the real advocate of the pure revolution, betrayed by that scoundrel Stalin), Hitchens applies the reverential term "prophet". "What was he a prophet of? A Communist England? A Communist USA?" Amis suggests to Hitchens that he should "reread the twenty-four volumes of Lenin’s works in the following way: every time you see the words ‘counterrevolution’ or ‘counterrevolutionary’ you should take out the ‘counter’; and every time you see the words ‘revolution’ or ‘revolutionary’ you should put the word ‘counter’ back in again." Hitchens claims that 1918 redeemed a society in which "the value of human life had already collapsed." Amis demolishes the proposition. Amis always returns to the moral swindle required by defenders of the Bolsheviks. Suppose in 1921 that Lenin and Trotsky have built the workers’ paradise. "Knowing that 15 million had been sacrificed to its creation, would you want to live in it?" Many have echoed Eric Hobsbawn’s "disgraceful" affirmation. They uphold the inescapable conclusion: therefore human life has less value than socialism. Amis’ address to Hitchens is as generous as it is rhetorical. It belongs to Amis’ own search for a decorum that will allow him to go on speaking to those who can make light of the "Satanic arrogance", as Nadezhda Mandelstam called it, of the Bolsheviks.
I mean both to give a compliment and make a recommendation when I say that in Koba Amis has written not a scholarly, but rather a human, book. He is not a savant and we should hope that he never becomes one. He has made a moving and meritorious contribution to understanding one of the purulent afflictions of the twentieth century (and indeed of the incipient twenty-first): the willingness, namely, of the indulgently disaffected. He to set vindictive ideas over the ordinary human relations that have come out of the agonized laboratory of prior millennia to the present as a common property. Amis’ study conveys an apposite knowledge to those who contemplate the reigning distortions in academia. In the university, the vicars of fanaticism can do no great, but only a little, evil. In politics, the actual fanatics admired by their vicars have stuck and bled a century. The context is different. The principle is the same.
1 When I studied comparative literature at UCLA in the 1980s, in the usual left-leaning academic context, I heard precisely this argument still being made by the proudly fellow-traveling privilegentsia among the graduate students. When I taught English at Central Michigan University in the 1990s, there were still framed portraits of Lenin hanging on the office walls of some faculty. I am speaking of isolated, rural, Central Michigan. Hitchens stands for a great many people.
2 Are there any comedies about the USSR? Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka is a decidedly black comedy, in no way friendly to Communism, although profoundly decent in its solicitude for the plight of the Russian people. There is a movie from the mid-1960s called Morgan, about a British Marxist; I remember almost nothing about it, except that its title character owned a gorilla suit. A "Monte Python" sketch called "The Bicycle Tour" involved an early post-revolutionary meeting of the Central Committee and some imbroglio about Trotsky, but was otherwise simply an exercise in randomness and absurdity.
3 Koba was Stalin’s code-name during the period of revolutionary activity right through the years of the Civil War. Lenin once sent a telegram asking (it was either Trotsky or Kamenev) what "Koba’s" real name might be. He had forgotten. Stalin took the name from a nineteenth century novel about revolutionaries.
4 That is to say, Lenin and Trotsky forecast Stalin to the proverbial t.
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No More Mr. Nice Guy for "Zero Tolerance"
Peter T. Singleton
Dr. Singleton, former educator with an easily upset stomach, gentleman of private means, and frequent contributor to this journal, hails from Tidewater Virginia and is currently seeking to escape north Texas.
My highly informal survey of friends and colleagues suggests that the phrase "zero tolerance" is slightly more than ten years old—maybe twelve or fifteen. I myself can distinctly remember its floating to the surface during the earlier rounds of high school shootings. In that context, it is still widely and officially applied, as in "zero tolerance" policies about weapons on campus, student threats of violence, and fish sticks leveled off in the lunch room like gun barrels. If anyone should ever compile a lexicon of late twentieth-century idiot-speak, this phrase will at any rate have to figure prominently beside "family values", "learning experience", "distance learning", "self-image", "self-esteem", and "sex life". The volume might be titled, Idiologicon: A Dictionary of Content-Free Noun Phrases from the Era That Uninventing Thinking.
My bœuf against "zero tolerance"? I contend that the impulse behind it reveals "zero" thought. In fact, I contend that the phrase is a saber-rattling celebration of "zero" thought. I was probably unimpressed with this phrase the first time I heard it, for any sign of the laboratory encroaching upon public discourse alarms me. The substitution of "zero", as an adjective, for "no" is clearly meant (or was originally meant) to mimic the language of clinical science. "Sherman, set ‘tolerance’ coordinates at ‘zero’." But I have enough admiration for smooth rhetors that I might have been placated. The initial consonant of "zero" can be grandly protracted, and the long "e" can be made to circle around (or zero in on) the "o" in a rivetingly sensuous manner. By comparison, an emphatic nnnoooo seems weak and childish.
So Z.T. and I might have shared a living space with relatively little friction if only one of the two parties had not grown so full of himself that he began to intrude into every cupboard and slip behind every picture frame. This is usually the case with our idiot phrases, by the way. I won’t declare pompously that I can’t abide them under any circumstances, or even that I personally never use them. It’s just that they seem to take over without any regard for balance, modesty, or sanity. I shall spare everyone an essay on "sex life" and nudge it forth, instead, as an example which needs no elaboration. Zero taste.
What I am trying to demonstrate as I discuss early moments of patience with Z.T. is that I actually thought about the phrase. Before you think about something, you must first, in some sense, tolerate it. Such practice makes some people very nervous, of course. If I attempt to understand the motives of a serial killer, I will sooner or later be accused of having sympathy for him. As I struggle to express what I believe passed through his twisted mind, someone will be sure to pipe up, "How can you defend this man?" But if understanding constitutes a defense, then either the crime wasn’t so heinous, after all, of else the person who "understands" must be equally sick. In the latter instance, that person is less probably I than the other who fears my effort to understand—because I am confident that to understand is not to defend, whereas my indignant fellow-jurist seems to fear understanding as if it would open a door upon some horrid recess of his own soul. I choose to think things through, for any number of healthy and respectable reasons: because we may have the wrong man in the docks, because uncovering motive will help us uncover evidence, etc. My cringing companion chooses not to think things through, because thinking would involve complicity—and what can that mean, other than that he is a potential serial killer himself?
In the military, falling asleep on guard duty, especially during time of war, has always been severely punished, sometimes by death. There was "zero tolerance" of such misconduct. On the other hand, walking one’s rounds on one’s palms would not have been handled so summarily: it would at least have drawn an inquiry. Why? Because soldiers are not normally attracted to it. They are attracted to slumber after a long, nerve-racking day. We rigorously censure those actions to which we are all almost irresistibly inclined, but whose commission would jeopardize the entire community. There are really very few acts of this order in civilian life, it seems to me, perhaps none. Even rape and murder we punish with a great deal of variation and "flexibility" (though rape less and less so, as our "sex lives" have rendered us steadily more ungovernable.)
Why, then, I ask, would we instantly toss an adolescent into the dungeon and throw away the key upon finding a knife in his backpack? The crime is extreme, I agree—but why can we not hear the culprit out and allow our response a certain discretionary room? Do we believe, then, that our children are all well nigh irresistibly drawn to murder each other?
On the contrary, I would imagine that most of us find murderous behavior in children far less likely and more monstrous than murderous behavior in adults. Shouldn’t we study it intensively in general, and review specific cases of it under a very high power of magnification? It hardly seems like something from which most children would need to be dissuaded at all, let alone from which they must be bullied with threats of summary expulsion in the event of a suspicious gesture. We hold a tight rein where human nature wants to charge off in folly, or where it is tempted to go by a logic which runs contrary to the community’s goals. If we do not think our children natural-born killers, then do we think killing in the typical high school’s corridors a logical response? A response to what? To adolescent hormones, or to something we adults have imposed upon young lives? If hormones, than ought not these dangerous puppae be nursed along in small chambers rather than broad corridors until they emerge with shiny new wings? If the danger is of our own making, then why have we made it, and why don’t we change it? Exactly why is it that we shut down thinking of all kinds in these situations?
I have stayed with an example of "zero tolerance" non-thinking which was much in the news before the attack on the World Trade Center. Since then, we hear the phrase more often in contexts relating to the war on terrorism. We are warned, for example, that officialdom will have "zero tolerance" of jokes and pranks. This is truly, definitively stupid. Are we to incarcerate anyone who is overheard muttering that he will rush the cockpit if he’s served one more bag of peanuts, while we are absolutely to abstain from "profiling" adult male travelers under the age of sixty with citizenship in an Arabic country? There is certainly a difference between a transparent joke murmured by a weary businessman to his neighbor and an exploded firecracker. Did we need a "zero tolerance" policy to spur us in pursuit of the latter kind of rascality—wouldn’t we have thrown the fool who set off the firecracker in jail before September 11? At what point do we decide that a joke is something so far from the threatening that taking it as other than a joke is in itself ludicrous? Or, to look at another facet of the same question, how far do we allow the observer’s subjectivity to define an unfunny joke? If a waitress recovers a napkin with the words, "Meet you same time next week if my plane doesn’t blow up," scrawled on it, is she allowed to infer that the scribbler has a plot afoot? What if she sees another customer who happens to be an engineer sketching something very like (in her excited mind) the diagram of a small bomb? A subtly hilarious film of the fifties, Our Man in Havana (based on a Graham Greene novel), followed a vacuum cleaner salesman recruited to be a British spy as he sent back to London sketches of his latest models surrounded by little men in hardhats. What if our engineer leaves out the little men—what if he’s just sketching his latest dust-i-vore for a client? Should the waitress be arrested, perhaps, for wasting the government’s time? Should we couple our "zero tolerance" of jokes with a "zero tolerance" of outrageously stupid misinterpretation of jokes, or outrageously stupid interpretation as jokes of matter which was never jocular?
I dislike the word "stupid" almost as much as the phrase "zero tolerance", though for different reasons. "Stupid" is a perfectly good word: it’s simply overused, and often very stupidly misused. The Latin stupidus is an adjective describing someone in a stupor—that is, someone who is so bewildered in a certain situation that he gapes and stares, incapable of speech. People do not have to be certifiable morons to have moments of stupidity. When I use the word "stupid" over and over in the previous paragraph, then, I am not necessarily denouncing anyone’s unintelligence. I am saying, instead, that the people in question have switched off, shut down, and tuned out their intelligence. (Pardon the evocation of Timothy Leary: as I’ve said, I admire good rhetoric.) I see no way around the conclusion that "zero tolerance" is cipher for "suspended thinking", and that strikes me as definitively stupid. To hang a man after he’s had his chance to offer a defense is one thing, and may well be the thing to do in the circumstances; but to hang a man on the spot because he is found with a "dirty" nuclear bomb in his suitcase is to confuse the enormity of the potential crime with the man’s proximity to the criminal instrument. Maybe this man was hauling the suitcase to FBI headquarters. What about the courteous gentleman who opened a door for him—do we hang him, too? What about the woman who chatted with him as they walked down Fourth Street? Do we offer her life without parole if she agrees to divulge the names of the conspiracy’s other members? Do we send a SWAT team in at midnight to ransack the house of her sister’s husband’s uncle in Boise who is known to work with biotoxins?
At least the latter of these extreme deeds show some degree of reflection, though they have already accepted guilt by association as given. We are not interminably stupid, most of us: we switch our brains back on after a brief pause. What I ask is why we should enthrone a policy legitimizing the brief switch-off in critical circumstances. Why should we ever not allow an accused person the right of rebuttal? As they say in the old westerns, we can hang him after he’s had his fair trial. This is the bottom of the matter, I think: the advertisement of severity. We already have the situation under control by the time we drag the student and his weapon-laden backpack, the passenger and his Swiss army knife, into the security guard’s office. We can now conduct inquiries at our leisure. The public hanging that follows does not so much show our unwillingness to conduct hearings as it does our eagerness to stage a horrible spectacle. We want to frighten potential malefactors not yet caught, and this is how we do it. The whole thing strikes me as Koranic. Chop off the thief’s right hand, and you prevent innumerable future thefts. When it becomes known far and wide that a crime will be punished with stupifying severity and also with stupid incuriosity, that crime will very likely be little committed.
Koranic, yes. And also very "PC". Part of the animosity toward tolerance implied by its new prefix "zero" must surely stem from the gross abuse of the word "tolerant" by forces on the cultural Left. During the last three decades of the twentieth century, tolerance was demoted and disgraced to being a synonym for that postmodern verbal and conceptual atrocity, "non-judgmentalism". To judge is to review a body of evidence with dispassion and reach a logical, objective conclusion about the truth behind it. (Notice, by the way, how the stock of the word "passion" rose over these same years.) Hence to be non-judgmental in the purest form is to fail to reach any such conclusion. It is to be stupid, once again—to exercise a zero-tolerance of effective thinking. I’m beginning to suspect that all of the entries in that yet-unwritten Idiolexicon may ultimately be glossed with "stupid", which is an excellent argument for not writing it, of course. Give an overused word a break!
But the point here is worth stressing. As stupid as it is to turn the blind eye to human sacrifice, say (such as the Hindu custom of suttee), when it is practiced by a non-Western culture, turning a blind eye to possible reasons for that practice in that culture (such as the absence of provisions for widows) is just as stupid. Two blind eyes make a blind man. The zero-tolerance reaction to the tolerance cult of the seventies and eighties has in common with that cult a childish impatience with deliberation. When I listen to these two crowds screaming at each other in chorus—"I sleep with my sisters and I kill my babies! Don’t judge me!"—"Everyone is a baby-killer who isn’t on my side of the line! Cross or be damned!"—I hear a kind of awful harmonizing. Both sides are off key on just the same notes. And make no mistake: though their hateful scowls are screwed up straight at the other side, their common enemy is we of the examined life who think any other life not worth living. If they agree upon nothing else, they agree that we must go.
Anyone who doubts that Left and Right have fused in the cult of non-thinking should return to the Political Correctness movement proper. A young man looked too long at a shapely coed? Mandatory suspension. A Christian student positively refused to read a Gay Activist pamphlet? She’s booked for the next Sensitivity Training session. Zero tolerance. Perhaps my connection of PC to the cultural Left is somewhat daring; it is certainly called so by many of my friends on the Left. PC, they would argue, is the very opposite of the non-judgmentalism which they stand for. (As our great philosopher Groucho once remarked, these people stand for something—in fact, they stand for just about anything.) This curious excommunication of dogmatic activists by elder liberal intellectuals is a tough nut to crack, perhaps because it is already in a thousand pieces, all too small for the nutcracker. Its rationale is self-annihilating. PC dogma really is leftist insofar as the behavior it proscribes is precisely the proscribing of any behavior. People who make hateful remarks about gays must categorically be hated, people who block preferential treatment of certain minorities must categorically be denied access to the system, and so forth. Here we have non-judgmentalism turned into a Koran. Yet I can see how the Left would notice a similarity with tactics on the Right, for this new religion fresh from our intellectual desert is none other than Zero Tolerance of Intolerance. Would it not be just as accurate, however, to say that the Right turned Left when it decided to discard reason from its practice of living? And would it not be more accurate still to say that Left and Right have no more intelligible meaning in a culture which has declared war on intelligibility?
It makes me angry to see kids getting suspended from school for shouting, "Bang, bang!" on the playground. It makes me angry to hear that I’d better not crack a joke about an airplane over a cup of coffee. With policies that send up red flags at such moments, who needs Al Qaeda? With such a glut of frivolous incidents flooding investigative agencies, what good will a new Department of Homeland Security do? Listen to the kid: he says that his little brother slipped the toy gun into his backpack, and the evidence confirms his story. Let him back in school, you idiots! Look at this poor man: he’s flown between Chicago and Seattle three times this week, and he grumbled, "They missed the radio jamming device in my shoestring." That was funny, you jerks! No humanity, no humor, no common sense. My tolerance of zero-tolerance has reached its limit.
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Generation X-Minus-One Goes to Hell in a Tenure Package
Things are happening altogether too fast nowadays. The effects of life beyond the fast lane—the consequences of sailing over the guard rail—are observable in a great many quarters. Most such effects are more lethal than the lag-time between new books and their reviews. Of course, we speak from the earth-bound perspective of the literary journal. E-reviews are available within days of a book’s appearance, and, yes, they bear their own traces of the giddy sail through the air. If a) anyone reads them, and b) the same person is also likely to read the book which they review (or any book at all), then c) that person will have to contend with insights on the level of "I spilled my coffee because of this book, and I’m still mad at it." But why would someone who enjoys reviews written with such feckless caprice possibly want to read a genuine book?
Faced with that alternative, then, maybe you’re better off waiting an extra year or two for a proper review to appear. For our review of Peter Sacks’s Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America (Chicago and LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1997), you will have waited well over five years. In fact, the book is now in its third printing, having been released in 1996. We have the advantage, at least, of being able to assess the book itself, its reception, and the efficacy of its prognostications. Book reviewers are ordinarily supposed to be prophets rather than retrospective analysts, to be sure: the publishing industry has no use for them except right when an item hits the stands and shelves. Praesidium, however, has no use for people who must have a use for everything. Mr. Sacks (or whatever his real name is) has already made a pile of money and a formidable (if pseudonymous) reputation. We are far less concerned with passing a verdict on the book as its ink dries than with weighing for our readers the entire phenomenon which it represents.
Would it be brutally uncharitable to say that Sacks’s book is itself yet another manifestation of hyper-accelerated life in free fall beyond the guard rail? Generation X is both a fully just condemnation and a brilliant example of everything it condemns. Its reception among teachers, especially college teachers, was understandably warm. All who have taken that particular yoke upon them can sympathize with the ingenu professor’s shock at students who cut class, who blabber or snooze or whip out a cell phone when they do come to class, who get up in the middle of a lecture and exit, who seldom do homework, who half-do what homework is done and offer it late, who expect study guides after having taken not a note for weeks, who refuse to tolerate any sort of chiding for their slovenly efforts, and who—above all—seethe in righteous indignation if they fail to receive the minimal B- on any assignment. These young people are a disgrace to themselves and to our culture. They are lazy, rude, arrogant, smug, irresponsible, dishonest, careless, contemptuous, undisciplined, and utterly self-absorbed. That they should lay claim to exemption from rebuke as voting-aged adults even as they wander in and out of class with a piratical swagger unknown to A.D.D.-afflicted first-graders is prima facie outrageous and absurd. If there were one ounce of sincerity behind the mission statements of our institutions of higher learning, a good two-thirds of this royal lot would be tossed out after a single semester on its collective gluteus maximus just where the real world’s spit-and-oil infused pavements pose the perfect landing pad.
In short, teachers hear a spade called a spade so seldom that Sacks’s exposé of academe’s dirty little secrets was assured a hearty round of applause. Frankly, the subject deserves a far better treatment. It deserves more maturity of style: Sacks’s chatty confessions read very like a long distance conversation with your favorite freshman-calling-home. It deserves more coherence of presentation: the book has little sense of design beyond being a chronicle of Sacks’s first year, and thereafter reels and stumbles among various diagnoses and prescriptions. It certainly deserves that these same diagnoses and prescriptions should be fully developed: Sacks runs one cause after another up the masthead, and his closing recommendations are miserably inadequate (as they would have to be after so weak an assessment of the problem). Ironically, all of these shortcomings mirror the failures which he very plausibly claims to see in the work—especially the writing (he teaches journalism)—of his lackluster students. The kids ramble on about themselves rather than addressing the subject objectively, they have little sense of order or purpose, and their incapacity for analysis is virtually complete. Sacks toys occasionally with the popular theory that they have all seen too much TV, a view which is by no means unfamiliar to readers of Praesidium. Yet he has nothing to say about the specific nature of the influence, nothing to say about computers and the Internet (1996 wasn’t that long ago), and nothing to say about how the electronic revolution fits into postmodernism. This latter, greater phenomenon he unveils in the book’s second half as if having discovered how to fuse atoms with hardware from Wal-Mart; and in his enthusiasm for postmodern aporia as a catch-all explanation, he forgets earlier, "lesser" causes. He also fails to see that the mystical vagueness he bestows upon postmodernism is no more explanatory than a dark cloud visiting muteness upon some fantastical Arthurian kingdom.
We’re playing hardball now, and our allegations are as severe, no doubt, as our space is limited. Well, then: consider in evidence a few minutiae whose cumulative effect is not at all minor. Would an author who is capable of indicting our educational collapse properly have left the following typographical errors in the third printing of his opus; or, rather, does the persistence of these errors not argue that they are not typographical at all, but the product of a writer and publishing house whose combined effort did not suffice to safeguard basic standard English?
I felt he was one of the people to whom I could really talk to. (66)
… the demands by students to be entertained has produced a sharp split among educators… Students’ desires for entertainment has become a fact of life. (146)
"For the first time in our history, the weird and the stupid and the course are becoming our cultural norm, even our ideal" (quoting Carl Bernstein, 150)
It’s bad enough when you don’t know to whom your prepositions have just referred to. Two "to’s" are too many, to whom it may be of concern to. Honestly, though, to misidentify the subject at the head of a prepositional phrase twice in one paragraph is twice too often; and even if Mr. Bernstein was responsible for the misspelling of "coarse" as "course" (we are dubious), the writer owes the reader a bracketed sic as a courtesy. A professor who doesn’t know that much probably doesn’t know how to spell the word, in the first place; and a professor who doesn’t know that much, to repeat, is very poorly situated to assess the damage done in the contemporary university by "student-centered" commercialism.
Commercialism: Sacks’s whipping boy, at least before he finds the Holy Grail of postmodernism. (Like the influence of TV, commercialism oddly vanishes as a cause once Sacks begins to ponder Auschwitz and The Bomb.) Of course, the campus has indeed gone commercial (just as surely as TV has retarded our mental acuity): colleges today are full-fledged degree factories. They cut core courses in the humanities and ban challenging class assignments in order to convince students that a quick, easy sheepskin leading to big bucks is just a few payments away. The situation is at least as disgraceful as that surrounding the typical student’s attitude, and is deeply implicated in that attitude. Even if freshmen enter college already possessed of an overweening arrogance, the system confirms their posture by bowing and scraping beneath young scowls.
To say blandly, however, that this surrender is the logical consequence of capitalism is to kick the academic’s favorite straw man without adding one iota of insight to the analysis. Why have college administrations actually grown more cynically commercial as they have become more closely tied to the public sector and as American society across the board has come to depend more and more on the government to solve its problems? A narrow examination of just how and why top administrative offices have changed over the past thirty years would have been most apposite… but Sacks will not touch such questions with a ten-foot pole. He is evidently as shy of offending those who pull his strings, even behind his pseudonym, as he is lion-hearted in his pursuit of money-grubbing collegiate robber barons.
All of this begs the question, can a pseudonym be morally responsible in a non-fiction work whose intent is of a "whistle-blower" nature? One cannot cross-examine Mr. Sacks or engage him in any sort of public exchange.* One presumes that, since the publisher’s background information locates Mr. Sacks yet among the ranks of the professoriate, he would expect reprisals if his true name were known. In that case, though, administrative despotism must rage at Stalinesque levels throughout the academy; and in that case, how can Mr. Sacks possibly decline to name administrative despotism as part of what’s wrong in higher education? As a matter of fact, such decapitation-friendly leadership as is implied by this pseudonymity has no place in the give-and-take world of a successful capitalist venture. A good businessman cannot afford the anemic counsel of sycophants; and if he punishes all other varieties, then he will soon have paid an exorbitant price for his vanity. The tin-pot Pol Pots of the ivory tower need to be called to a full account for having presided over our nation’s dumbing down in a manner which, in the private sector, would certainly have seen them hauled into court. Mr. Sacks is not up to this task.
But then, Mr. Sacks is just another careerist, by his own rather proud admission. Early on, he tells of how he lied to secure a tenure-track appointment:
In fact, I could hardly say the latter book shaped me in the slightest, because I’d never read it, but it was one a former editor of mine suggested I use in my lecture. An honest answer to Anita’s question would have been to talk about Kafka or Camus, but I thought better than to bring up existential angst during a job interview. So I coughed up the baloney about The Word, and I watched one of the committee members, Beth, nod appreciatively. (6)
To be sure, this "baloney" is of the little white species—clearly not of Paul de Man proportions. That’s Mr. Sacks’s modus operandi: he tells what lies he "must" in order to get on—the ones "everybody tells"—and then whispers out of class, under an assumed name, about how horrid it all is. By the end of the book’s first section, he again seems rather proud (as in the citation above) of how he beats the devil. He stages his "Sandbox Experiment": that is, he fawns upon students, gives them easier assignments and higher grades, shows plenty of videos, represses his urge to correct preposterous assertions, and in general does all that he needs to do, all that everybody does, in order to win good ratings on student evaluations. The experiment is a success. He beguiles his enfants terribles into ranking him high in the beauty contest, and tenure is the result.
Hasn’t our biggest complaint about Generation X usually been its deficient sense of ethics? Here we have one of its teachers telling lies and corrupting standards, first because all of his peers routinely do the same things to survive, and secondly because principled attempts on the part of a rare few to alert the administration are greeted with cynical neglect (you know: the presidential "grade inflation must stop" speech at the general faculty meeting coupled with a sharpened axe for those whose student-eval numbers go down). The whole system, upstairs and downstairs, is as rotten as an old galleon. How could its architects and sustainers have anything to teach Generation X about ethics—how could Gen X have anything to teach them about feint, subterfuge, confidence rackets, and bald-faced lies?
Sacks blames it all on postmodernism. The naiveté with which he relates his readings on the postmodern malaise is almost poignant: here, he is certain, we find our answer. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Those world wars cold and hot, those nuclear bombs and meltdowns, those gas chambers and killing fields… our children just don’t care about anything any more: nor, apparently, do we. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t ours. We should all simply accept that twenty centuries of escalating scientific rationalism have midwived the birth of this rough beast. After all, postmodernism isn’t really so bad. As long as we can salvage our belief in "hard" science from plagues of right-wing cultism, waving goodbye to stale philosophical and literary traditions (not to mention religion—but that, of course, is part of right-wing cultism) will not be so traumatic. In fact, our young students aren’t entirely wrong. Western tradition really is pretty boring, and the new ways of doing things really are more exciting:
… when knowledge becomes a commodity the only interesting game in town then becomes what new things one can dream up to do with that knowledge. It follows that using one’s imagination while working on one’s skills then become [sic] the twin philosophical pillars of the postmodern educational enterprise. And there you have it: at last, the marriage of praxis and theory, which I imagine many educators would view as educational nirvana. In a postmodern sense, any given course would be one in learning how to do something, and at the same time you’d be thinking about what you’re doing, wondering why you’re doing it, and imagining new ways of doing it. (180)
Who’s sounding commercialist now? Using knowledge as a commodity—isn’t that rather like "selling" the classroom as the floor show in a cabaret? And this, then, is a philosophical pillar? Which pillar—the evasive ethical one, perhaps? Utilitarian exploitation run amuck? The other pillar would be aesthetic, no doubt (leaving empiricism mercifully untouched: Sacks is ever conscious of the need to preserve the ER’s competence). The imaginative marketing of knowledge-nuggets will include such enriching exercises as splicing Marilyn and Humphrey into a Coke commercial or ingeniously tweaking downloaded images with "html" until they pulse and migrate across the screen. Michelangelo, eat your heart out. Yet the aesthetic experience will also be empirical, after all, because you’ll be thinking about what you’re doing and wondering why you’re doing it as you do it. Or is that an ethical thrust again? Or is it simply the long-lost state of consciousness? Is that Sacks’s point—that the computer will rouse the classroom’s back row from slumber? Is that our nirvana?
Naturally, computers are the star of this show. They make a sudden appearance in Sacks’s conclusion (as if they had nothing to do with the earlier mentioned phenomenon of TV and dumbing down). When you see a book offering an integral part of the problem as the keystone of the solution (along with stop-the-press brainstorms like stemming grade inflation), you suspect that you’ve been wasting your time; but this is not so in the case of Generation X. The prosecuting attorney, it turns out, is also the perpetrator. If your purpose in picking up the book was to understand our contemporary educational debacle, then here you have both the superficial case made superficially and the agent provocateur revealing himself accidentally. That’s a two-for-one deal for you knowledge-shoppers.
* As we go to press, we learn that Mr. Sacks is no longer claiming pseudonymity and that, indeed, he vigorously promotes his oeuvre at petersacks.com. Macte virtute!
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"Rings" on the Screen: Peter Jackson’s Valiant Defense of Moral Coherence
Kelly Ann Hampton
Kelly Hampton has long served as Praesidium’s youngest (and probably most youthful) advisor on the Board of Directors. She has done extensive graduate work in English but (like so many of us in that troubled discipline) has not found a comfortable niche in the post-literate, anti-literary world. She is currently working on a novel.
When books get made into movies, many things can happen. If the book itself is full of either violence or sexuality, no matter how stupidly staged, the movie is likely to be, also; and as a general rule, the movie will be a hit. This was the case with films like Interview with a Vampire and Total Recall. Now if the book has depth, a stupid movie may still result, because directors fear the translation of complex moral lessons, well thought-out plots, and fully realized characters might go over the average movie audience’s head. In some cases, this fear is founded, because there are people who will not watch a movie if they have to think in any way. They want spectacular explosions, attractive stars, and happy endings. These facts made fans of Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien) very nervous until one year ago.
Would they get it right? That was the question on every Tolkienista’s mind. The consensus since the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released has been a heartening, "Yes." Being a long time Tolkien geek and a bluntly honest person, I must offer a more complex opinion. I am far too straight-laced to say that director Peter Jackson got everything right. However, knowing the books, I acknowledge that it would have been impossible to get everything right, and I must say I am impressed that he got so much more right that wrong. I am even further impressed that, while there was action in the movies, so much of the screen time was devoted to Tolkien’s moral lessons.
Yes, the look of the films was fantastic. Yes the details, loyal to Tolkien, were meticulous. Yes, New Zealand was lovely as Middle Earth. However, all of that only scratches the surface in the matter of Peter Jackson’s desire to "get it". What I loved was that he "got" the plot, the characters, and the message. When Tolkien’s actual lines worked, he showed no desire to alter them. When they did not, rather than edit the lines out or alter them, he often preferred to move them to a more suitable part of the script. He even managed to preserve lines I never expected him to include (since they did not seem "movie" enough). The best example I can think of is a conversation between Gandalf, the wizard, and Frodo, our hobbit hero. Gandalf tells Frodo, "Many that live deserve death... some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?... Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgement." This line, while key to the book, I hardly expected to see in the film. Yet there it was.
Of course if I went through every moral theme of Tolkien and discussed how well Peter Jackson dealt with each, this essay would be far too long. I shall therefore confine myself to the moral theme of the temptation of the ring, and its use as a tool of evil which leads to a fall from grace. Most major characters at some point are tempted by the ring’s power. Jackson does not ignore this.
First there is Isildur, the human prince who took the ring and kept it. He fails, and dies due to the betrayal of his newly acquired trinket of power. Jackson does not have to include all the details Tolkien provided of Isildur’s story. He could have simply told us that the Dark Lord Sauron lost the ring in battle. Why then does Peter Jackson inform us of Tolkien’s story of Isildur’s fall? The answer is because it sets the ring up as an object of temptation and power for the rest of the film.
Next there is Gollum. He too fails and is devoured spiritually by the ring. While more could be said about Jackson’s treatment of this character in the second film, where his part is greater, Gandalf’s crucial line about granting pity to Gollum is included. Frodo is told that he must pity Gollum. He will learn the reason in the next film: Gollum’s fate could be his own if he himself falls under the ring’s power. It is by the grace of God and not our own strength that we all resist temptations like the ring.
The next person to deal with the temptation of the ring is its finder, Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit. Bilbo’s situation is unique in that the ring’s seduction is only beginning to take hold of him. The interpretation actor Ian Holm presents is much like a person who has only recently become an addict. This adds a harsh, dark element to Bilbo’s character. Peter Jackson could have chosen an interpretation that was softer. After all, Bilbo is one of the good guys, and is, indeed, the hero of the children’s tale The Hobbit. Again, the slightly darker edge to Bilbo reinforces the idea that good people can fall. With the prompt intervention of a friend (Gandalf), he recovers and gives up the ring before the damage becomes too great.
Gandalf’s response to the ring’s temptation is also unique. He refuses to touch or hold it, even to keep it safe. The reason is that he fears what would happen should he be tempted to use it. He realizes that his good intentions might be the cause of his downfall. The movie quotes the book directly. "Do not tempt me... I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe." The book’s Gandalf further states that the ring’s path to his heart is his desire to do good, but that he would become too powerful "like the Dark Lord himself". This is reworded somewhat, but also remains.
Perhaps the most tense temptation scene is that of Galadriel, the powerful elven queen of the golden wood.* Critics of the film have said that she was too "heavy" in the film, but the book constantly refers to her in a manner that makes it clear she is somewhat dangerous. Her words to Frodo when he offers her the ring in the movie are almost entirely intact from the book. The best way to compare them is to set them side by side.
Movie: "You offer it to me freely. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired this. In place of a dark lord you would have a queen. Beautiful as the dawn! Treacherous as the sea! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair!... I pass the test. I will diminish and go into the west and remain Galadriel."
Book: "I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer... You will give me the ring freely. In place of the dark lord you would set up a Queen! And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain. Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightening. Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love me and despair... I pass the test... I will diminish and go into the West and remain Galadriel."
Aside from the fact that she says slightly more in the book, there is little difference in the content. She sees at this moment clearly what she would become if she had failed the test. It is also at this point in the film that Peter Jackson chooses one of his most powerful effects shots, showing Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in all her potential power. While some effects in movies these days are merely to thrill the audience, the book description of Galadriel justifies Peter Jackson’s choice. "there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful." The film captures this description quite well.
To fully capture all the potential responses to temptation, Jackson needs to include not only examples of people who fall and are unredeemed (Gollum), and people who for one reason or another succeed (Gandalf, Galadriel, Bilbo, etc.); he must also include a person who falls but then repents. For this I must give him praise for a character that I consider to be one of the most fully realized in the film: Boromir.
I admit, Boromir’s character had always been one I considered to be least important. He doesn’t survive the first book, and his status as a traitor makes him seem less heroic than the others. However, Peter Jackson takes Boromir and makes him sympathetic by doing two things. First he constantly reminds us of Boromir’s motives, often moving lines that betray his intent to places in the story where his actions are worst, and second preserving the lines that are there in the book. The scene where he attempts to take the ring from Frodo is absolutely a perfectly done moment. "I ask only for the strength to defend my people," he cries in frustration. In the book his line is, "We do not desire the power of wizard lords, only the strength to defend ourselves, strength in a just cause."
This is not the only point in the film which mentions the fact that Boromir’s people are seriously threatened and bear the brunt of the war that the Dark Lord has unleashed. At the council of Elrond, Boromir states in the film, "By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe." This reminder is important, because to fully understand Boromir’s desire for the ring, it must be understood that his motives are good. He seeks glory, yes, but more than that he seeks the salvation of his dying people. That is a motive both noble and just.
However just his motives, his attempt to take the ring was wrong, and that fact is not whitewashed in the movie. What is also clear is his almost immediate repentance. In both book and film he quickly exclaims, "What have I done? Frodo, Frodo! Come back!" Further than that, he is willing to give his life in defense of Frodo’s hobbit friends, Merry and Pippin—a fact that is not revealed until the second book, but which brings more closure to the first film when included. This is an act of repentance, and the film did not take that lightly. The movie’s emphasis on his death is not merely to show us violence. We see clearly in his face that his actions are a choice. He chooses to defend the hobbits even when his painful death becomes inevitable. He even continues to fight when he realizes his defense will fail and they will be captured. In both book and film, Boromir is unable to rest in peace until reassured that someone will defend his people, once again reminding us that his concerns were not merely for himself.
Peter Jackson could have chosen a different script. It would have been easy to make Boromir simply treacherous and secretly evil. That would have been the choice most directors would have made. After all, villains are fun and translate easily on screen. It would not, however, have been true to the story and the moral lesson Tolkien wanted to tell. Rather than an evil, power-hungry man, we are given a sad, tragic man who did the wrong thing for the right reason, fell from grace, repented and was ultimately redeemed. That was a harder story to tell, but was, in my opinion, worth it.
At the beginning of The Two Towers, the remaining members of the fellowship that accompanies Frodo mourn for Boromir. With a film that successfully captured the sadness of his fate, it is easy to see why. On a positive note, though Boromir lost his life, through repentance he kept his soul. This is a message consistent with Tolkien’s Christian faith. It also is a message we all can apply when we realize we have fallen short. Rather than despair, we, like Boromir, can fight on.
Will Peter Jackson’s success shift Hollywood’s position in the battle between the trite and the true? One can hope. The Fellowship of the Ring was, after all, nominated for best picture. I, however, am doubtful. I hear one of New Line’s next projects is a marriage of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth. Apparently, Freddy will fight Jason. Is there anyone who will be able to keep track of the body count in this one, or who will bother trying?
* An Oxfordian of the old school, Tolkien had many a good fuss with well-meaning, well-educated editors over his choice of words. If we were discussing Santa's helpers, "elfin" would be the correct word. However, in discussing Middle Earth, to refer to Galadriel, White Lady of the Golden Wood, as "elfin" would make Professor Tolkien roll over in his grave. He chose "elven" to avoid connotations like the ones the Keebler company invokes. For further information, I recommend the "Note on the Text" in the latest Houghton Mifflin edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, and also appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age," at the end of The Return of the King.
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Mary Grabar is a frequent contributor to Praesidium. She recently received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia (Athens), where she is a postdoctoral teaching fellow for the current academic year, specializing in American literature since 1865.
In the earlier part of the last century, such disparate thinkers as Theodore Adorno, Martin Heidegger, and Walker Percy commented on how the technologically projected image has come to define our sense of identity and reality. The tourist snapping photographs of the Grand Canyon could no longer see the Grand Canyon, commented Walker Percy in one of his essays. The Grand Canyon is presented by the postcards, brochures, and photographs that define it for us. Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Percy’s first published novel, as the typical mid-century American consumer, has lost his own sense of self to such an extent that he needs to identify with movie actors. The novel’s plot revolves around the search for and recovery of Binx’s soul.
Things have gotten worse. Don DeLillo made this point in White Noise, where depictions of all kinds— even of gratuitous violence—have become identified as art, to be analyzed by the stars of the postmodern academy. The "most photographed barn" is famous for being a "photographed barn". We can no longer see reality--a barn qua barn, a dying woman, or a dictator, implies DeLillo.
The photographed, mediated image has a way of distancing us from the real. And the real involves the ability to feel pain.
To be included in this category are pornographic images of women (as well as of children and men, of course). The men gawking at them are only tourists in terms of their experience of sex. They are more connected to each other (in a perversely erotic way) than to the women they leer at.
This, I believe, is the larger point demonstrated by the film Auto Focus, dismissed by many critics as a moralistic biopic of Bob Crane, the lead of the popular television series, Hogan’s Heroes. (The film suggests that when there is anonymous groping, it doesn’t matter whether the hand doing the stimulating belongs to a man or a woman.) A point that the film leads to is that pornography, disrespect of women, and objectification of women (whether cast in religious or feminist terms) lead not only to ‘unhealthy’ relationships between men and women, but between men and men as well. The producers imply that the unhealthiness involves homosexuality.
Joining such movies as Ice Storm and Last Days of Disco, Auto Focus examines the excesses of the sexual revolution. It is a tragedy about a man, Bob Crane, whose flaw was his compulsion for anonymous sex. The sex in Auto Focus is graphic and abundant—and probably as stimulating to the viewer as it would be to a bouncer in a nudie bar. It is intended to cancel itself out, much as does the taste of a good Chardonnay to an alcoholic on a binge.
But don’t say that to a reviewer writing for a sophisticated publication. Even if the reviewer is female, the last thing she’s allowed to do is to condemn someone for exercising his First Amendment rights to view pictures of naked women. That would be puritanical. In a Sex and the City culture, to criticize a man for the stash of girlie magazines in his garage and then imply a slippery slope from gawking to cheating to meeting a tragic end would be unconscionable. Surely, there is something wrong with Bob Crane for having an addiction to pornography, though not for consuming it occasionally. A practice is only considered bad nowadays if one needs twelve steps to overcome it.
The consensus of the critics is that Auto Focus makes a valid moral point when it shows the dangers of addictive obsession—or of the ‘perfect’ Catholic marriage’s repression when it leads a man to such an outlet. (A scene simply showing Bob Crane and his first wife at Mass is taken as evidence enough by some reviewers that church attendance leads to hang-ups. In the popular media, church scenes (unless at weddings or funerals) are short-cut methods of demonstrating conventionality, repression, or dysfunction.)
There is a larger point to the movie, far from the ‘biopic’ to which many reviewers reduce it. (Hence the objection of Crane’s son to the liberty of adding that Crane had a penile implant and taped women surreptitiously is beside the point). This is as much a story about a man with a healthy sex drive as Hawthorne’s "Birthmark" is about a birthmark or Frankenstein is about a monster.
All the swinging group-sex and graphic displays of body parts lead to the point that Bob Crane is a lonely man. Despite the endless stream of women that throw themselves at him, his one companion in the end is Johnny Carpenter, who, when feeling abandoned, murders Crane. Pornography leads to male bonding. It ultimately excludes women as it distances them. There is hardly a more pathetic image than that of Carpenter and Crane in a room decorated in seventies decor watching themselves having sex with women on the screen in a four-some and then autonomously gratifying themselves in front of the flickering images. Sexy. Yeah, baby.
Because of the graphic overload of nudity and explicit sex, I doubt that the conservatives will give this film serious consideration (but then, they might be accused of voyeurism by the left if they were to do so). But while television routinely titillates with near nudity, while such ‘action’ films as the PG-13 Spiderman rely on the female lead ‘s tight wet tee-shirt, while even conservative commentators on talk shows show cleavage, and while teenage girls follow suit in the classroom, shopping mall, and even church, we scoff at the ‘puritans’ who would dare criticize the behavior of someone like Bob Crane. This movie rightly carries an R rating, but it is ultimately less erotic than a Friends episode. This movie may have more nudity than an old-time porn movie, but in the end it is anything but sexy.
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The Forsytes Were Better in Hindsight
The mass media continue to offer impressive evidence of catastrophic dumbing down. The raw tastelessness of filming body-built twenty-something twits as they chug-a-lug arachnids or initiate copulation before their parents is perhaps less pure a measure of general stupidity than the labeling of it all as "reality TV"; for what dumbfounds one the most about these gauche tours de force is their separation from the reasonable occupations of reasonable beings. Meanwhile, "dramatic" serials also pride themselves on a realism bred of the precious and the perverted. As crime investigation units discuss autopsies, our screen accelerates us arthroscopically down arteries into lurid landscapes of guts and gore. Murderers are invariably having kinky sex with their victims—no one just blows you away for your wallet any more. Lawyers, in turn, are springing all kinds of clients because the same cops who are searching computer data bases on Channel 8 cannot seem to line up an exit wound with a hole in the wall on Channel 10. The one cop drama of last fall in which anyone around here detected a convincing dose of "life on the streets"—Robbery/Homicide Division—died in about eight episodes. Does the American public really think it is being fed reality?
Well, there’s always PBS. The recent airing of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, though, reveals how invincibly inimical is true realism to technologically enhanced framing and cutting. The camera’s lens is constantly too deep in our minds, riveting a character’s features or gilding a London suburb into an idyll the way one word from a CSI examiner plunges us into a gut-shot fantasy. The heavy-handed rewriting of Galsworthy’s dialogue was bad enough. If you could possibly get a copy of the original BBC Forsyte Saga from the late sixties (you can’t), you would instantly appreciate the difference between Victorian parlance and the soapy, slang-seasoned mush infused today into downward "re-makes" of the classics. But a comparison of scripts deserves a much longer space. Suffice it to say here that true realism sees the whole room, as did the camera of the sixties. It sacrifices cover-girl close-ups for the distances which we must observe in normal conversation. It even has a tendency to colorlessness (the former Saga was filmed in black and white), especially when the dominant theme is precisely life’s suffocating routine and hypocrisy. Today’s BBC has given us a pastoral in pastel of modern history’s dreariest era. Well done, lads.
Where, oh where, are those sixties reels? Did the storage vault at Pinewood Studios catch fire? In any case, a black-and-white Susan Hampshire seen from a distance was more beautiful than the best they could primp and paint this time.
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in the Snow of the Moon
Mr. Moseby has frequently contributed short stories to Praesidium. "Footprints", as will be apparent to all who read it, is the first chapter of a novel in progress. Our experience of trying to serialize long works in a quarterly format has not been encouraging; but this chapter, despite leaving one with a hunger to know what happens next, stands very well on its own as a psychological study.
More and more, I find the labor of writing to be oppressive. I don’t mean putting one word behind another: that’s no labor at all. I do it daily, do it abundantly, and do it in complete confidence that nine out of every ten words will never be read. Reports and reviews, recommendations and evaluations, budget proposals and defenses of said proposals… these I grind out by the dozen, or perhaps the hundred. The very rare scholarly paper I have attempted on certain case studies is another matter, but it presents difficulties of a welcome sort: questions of accuracy, of correct deduction, of alertness to other research. I’m not really the clinical type, but I find that the remove of such discipline appeals to me. I should like very much to be able to observe life from within the armor of a white lab coat and the comfort of last-names-only.
But writing, real writing, is almost beyond me now. Thirty years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I would never have dreamed that I could regard my first love with such dread. Though my dad eventually "talked sense" into me, I never surrendered my passion for scribbling even as a science major. The student literary magazine seemed especially pleased to have something from someone down the icy corridors of dissection and autopsy, so I never wanted for laurels in those early years. The literary influence, besides, must have had a role in drawing (or "warping", as Dad would probably have said) my scientific interests toward social science, and eventually toward counseling. In fact, I find (for it is a discovery: writing continues to inform me about myself, even now) that I have passed most of my life believing in its coherence. My creative and my analytical halves harmoniously joined in a career, my career sufficiently profitable while also serving the betterment of mankind… I have come, in middle age, to view myself not just as a successful man, nor just as a man who didn’t have to sacrifice one talent to another—though that would already make me a wonder of the world—but as a good man. I not only like what I do for a living (or thought I liked it until now): I like myself for doing it.
So why am I no longer able to write? Why have even personal letters become impossible for me? The advent of e-mail supplied me with a generously floppy carpet under which to sweep all kinds of ugly confrontations. My correspondence became quick and shallow because it could be so, because it had to be so—"no time… just a note… fyi… syl." I kept palming off electronic rain-checks on my conscience, nipping my confessions in the bud with technological shorthand. And I had absolutely no idea that I was doing so. The miracle is that I know now.
So this is a confession, maybe. Agony—alack-a-day! If there’s one thing upon which I have grown surfeited over the past thirty years, it’s narcissism. People talking endlessly about themselves, perhaps in the illusion that they are confessing—or often beginning in sincere confession, but quickly snapping the thin thread connected to duty in the labyrinth of self-preoccupation. As I look back over what I’ve written so far, I count an "I" in almost every sentence. If I were a reader, I would be on the very edge of bailing out right now. Not another confession—not another indictment of society, of everyone else, disguised as a confession! Everyone accusing everyone else of ruining his life, her life… I stopped reading fiction a long time ago (just before I gave up serious writing) exactly because I got so sick of it all, all the baying at the moon. So why am I of all people now talking about myself so much?
The oddest thing of it is that I wanted to talk about her, she whom I have not yet managed to name. That isn’t a discovery whose gate my writing has just crashed: I knew all along that this was about Celine. The discovery is that I cannot simply begin writing about her as though I were composing a report—that I can only reach her by talking about myself. I should have expected that, no doubt, since Celine is laced into the very core of my being. Maybe Celine is the reason I gave up writing—because the core of my being has become divided against itself.
But no, people with divided hearts are precisely those who write the most, and the best. Celine isn’t my writer’s block. It’s you, my readership—or, I should say, those of you who are not reading this and who, like me, have given up reading anything. You won’t understand. What’s the point of setting this down for you? You might understand… but you won’t try, because you’ve slid too far down the slope. So have I. You don’t have the wits or the patience to listen, and I don’t have the wits or the patience to tell the story. Good God, how we’ve fallen! If we weren’t already so begrimed with an infernal mud of hell’s lower circles, I could throw my arms about you and have a good cry (at which point you would sock me in the eye, and then we would have an uproarious brawl straight out of Dante).
So I will keep my hands to myself, rest assured. Only allow me to prepare you for some of the quaint trappings which you will not understand, or will not have the patience to understand. People used to fall in love. They were falling in love even as late as thirty years ago, though by then they were already getting the hang of falling around or through or just shy of love. They were already starting to speak of attachments as "relationships", using that clinical dispassion which I personally admire for its objectivity only in circumstances where one is an observer. I have never suffered from any desire to be a distant observer of my own emotional involvement, and I certainly have never been able to keep such distance at the very climax of my longing. But all around me, thirty years ago, the people who attended high school and then college with me were beginning to make a great deal of noise about their "wants" and "needs" without registering any interest in commitment. In my view, it was my generation’s least attractive characteristic: we lived, breathed, sang, and sighed love, but we were always very clear about not being tied down. Our children now deplore our fickle hearts, we are told—the children of our divorces, rebellions, and experiments; but they are our children, and I frankly see much of our worst side in them. They have a right, maybe, to know nothing of love and to have no patience with love. If there is bitterness in the evolution of our "relationship" into their "hook-up", they have a right, I’m sure, to that bitterness—to the quick, the coarse, the childish, and the cynical. I just want to warn them away from my story. They won’t understand it, because they won’t understand love. Their parents are just beginning to understand it in many cases, and some of those parents I would like to slap in the face. And yet, those same parents, maybe, will sit still for my story. My classmates, my brothers and sisters—my hypocrites lecteurs—you destroyed Celine, some of you, and Celine’s destruction has destroyed the best part of me. For that I hate you, I hate us all; but I expect, at least, that you can understand my feelings and will not be apt to "click" me off for being "boring".
Another thing. People still paid attention to detail thirty years ago. They were beginning to ignore it, and they would make rapid progress in that direction until, today, their children are wholly incapable of perceiving anything outside the paradigm of movie formulas, TV clichés, rock-star poses under the strobes, and a menu of computer icons. My classmates were already starting to dress the same, wear their hair the same, listen to the same music, and always—always—mouth the same lines about being independent. But for a little while in my youth, it still mattered how you said "hello" and "goodnight" on a date. I suppose it matters now, too. What I mean is that, back then, your degree of deviation from the mass-produced paradigm was rich in nuance and was read minutely for important hints. A stammer, a smile, a hanging head… none of that matters with our children today, it seems to me, except as an indication of failure to enact the paradigm. I have witnessed young people of the present eructate a "Hey, dude!" at peers of either sex in an oily, gravelly tone which sullies every notion I have of childhood or innocence or decency, and receive for these Uriah Heap-like contortions immediate entry into the clique. Willing members of such cliques, if they could possibly have worked this far into my story, should exit now. My images are "tainted" by unwrinkled blushes and candid glints of the eye whose mere memory weighs upon my heart and has probably—I wouldn’t be surprised—cheated its lifetime of a few thousand beats. People to whom that sort of thing ranks no higher than "boring" should not waste their time on these pages.
Finally, there’s the matter of sex—the sex act itself. Today, nobody can even define such a thing. Little girls with crosses around their necks are convinced of their virginity because they only bestow fellatious intercourse on their pimply beaux. More conservative types who insist on having their pleasure the old-fashioned way come armed with condoms, which are now a household word (and, in some households, as available to passing teenaged fingers as salt and pepper shakers). Those who have grown crazed after pleasure, on the other hand, as an alcoholic is crazed for moonshine, court death and release from their mania in the same motion, copulating in all postures with both sexes—perhaps with several species. Somewhere amid this chaos, maybe among the last group but sociopathically bereft of the skills necessary to capture prey alive, sit millions and millions of frustrated men before "live performances" of entrepreneurial females on the Internet. Disease, lunacy, and murder raft through the whole brew, competing for castaways to haul away to hell.
Words begin to fail me again. How could any young survivor of this Lepanto ever imagine a world (and yet it existed only a few decades ago!) where a single act of consummation was a major stake in the great game? The risk which loomed over everyone’s head was also the prize: an emotional attachment more forceful than anything else on earth. Of course, there was the risk of pregnancy, as well—the risk of social ostracism for young females, the risk of premature adult commitments for young males. The fear of sex was really a fear of society, or of society’s begrudging of necessary supports. The two people involved knew (or thought they knew) how they felt, and lying together in rapturous embrace was the climax of that feeling which kept intruding its images upon every touch. But how would they live after, she rejected by her family and he unemployed? All the artificial pressure and poignancy of melodrama imbued these situations as they repeated themselves dozens of times in every graduating high school class. There were no death’s heads dancing in the frolic around the Maypole, or not until Roe v. Wade let in the first band of those uninvited revelers. How insipid it all seems now—now that the polarities are life and death, aversion and perversion, the girl’s constant risk of rape and the boy’s of criminal prosecution, the two faces of Jekyll and Hyde versus the castrated half-body of a Heaven’s Gate convert. But does this mean that our children have proceeded farther into something "real"? Doesn’t it mean, rather, that they have lost touch with reality? Professionally speaking, I have often been moved throughout my career to make the observation that, from a certain point of view, freedom leads to insanity.
Celine. Earlier generations of men (and of women, even more) would have described—rather crudely and quite heartlessly—someone who had been through what she had as "damaged goods". Today’s generation would find her anguish entirely ridiculous. Our children find nothing hard to comprehend about a person eating spiders or feces on television for money: they call the subject’s aversion "fear", having no concept of disgust or disdain within their moral ken. The idea that a woman in her mid-twenties might actually "crack up" because one man has enjoyed her body and then disposed of it in one brief "relationship", her first and only "relationship", would never pass review for a television script. Far too improbable. Just doesn’t happen. There, you see? There’s the source of my writer’s block. Here I sit, trying to write about the most important encounter of my life—about the great love of my life (a flattering cliché I flippantly bestowed above upon writing, but it belongs to Celine)—and the whole thing can never have happened. Too improbable. No movies or TV shows or lives of the rich and famous to confirm the precedent. It is not retrieving stardust from the past’s ruin, but trying to admire the past in the present’s sulfurous stench, which blunts my efforts.
I was home from graduate school for the Christmas holidays. I have to convey that part of the setting, because, for all I know, it had a major impact on the most extraordinary day I have ever lived. The best way I can portray my state of mind is to say that I was nervous but confident. A year of teaching high school after my first degree had fully convinced me that I was on the wrong track: now I was enrolled in a program which would allow me, I thought, to fulfill my destiny. That’s not too strong a word, for I was twenty-three, and I believed in destiny. I imagined that I had discovered a special mission to bridge past and present. In a combination of arrogance and devotion such as only young people can generate, I fancied that the problems of contemporary life lay in the too hasty rejection of ancient wisdom. I wanted to revive the classic stories of the world now that the world seemed to have forgotten them (an enthusiasm which hadn’t gotten me very far with ninth-graders). I was going to revolutionize clinical therapy, specifically, by using great literature as its basis; and I was going to dedicate my Master’s thesis, instrumentally, to the neo-Jungian idea that recurrent literary sequences and myths flesh out the essential neuroses to which the human spirit is most prone. I expected, grandly and obtusely, to make a big splash. I was enamored of structuralism at a time when it was passing quickly out of style, I mistook the academy’s accelerating surrender of all standards for tolerance of new approaches, and I misread the demoralization going on around me as a post-Vietnam daze which was bound to wear off as cooler heads prevailed. I was twenty-three, and I had my whole life ahead of me. How could I help but be optimistic?
The Vietnam fiasco itself had completely ended a few years earlier. I remember that my birthday had come up Number One in the lottery the year before I was eligible for the draft. The following year, I was given a Selective Service number in the low three-hundreds. That, too, probably fueled my tendency to confidence: I had dodged the bullet which had claimed a few of my friends, and also my older brother. (I speak figuratively: Damon spent most of his stint shuffling papers, and only one of my acquaintances ended up dead in a rice paddy—apparently from friendly fire.) Though Dad was gung-ho on supporting our country and had himself brought back a Bronze Star from the South Pacific, there was undiscussed agreement among our clan that this action was a big mess. Random sniping, hikes through mine fields, tracking the enemy into sectors where only women and children were visible, living with leeches and fever, surrounded by drugs and illicit diversions in a stationary wait for the next round of pandemonium… no, I won’t deny that I was happy to have been spared all that. I will say, even, that my having avoided the war’s slippery vortex made me believe more in destiny than ever. And now my brother was back safe and newly married, and everyone around me was still spinning in a childish intoxication, listening to childish music and wearing childish clothes—all a vast cultural reaction, I theorized smugly, to years of fatally misplaced gravity. Any day now, a small élite of intelligently and correctly grave men was going to step forth from the bell-bottomed fiesta and lead civilization into the twenty-first century. In some very vague way, I felt in my bones that I was going to be among those men, if only as a lieutenant. For I was twenty-three.
Damon’s marriage had also bequeathed to me, for the first time in family history, the Number One Son spot around the holiday hearth. I had not really been old enough to enjoy that position the one Christmas when he had been away in the service; and Christmas a year ago, he and his new bride had hogged the spotlight at our home. Now Patty was pregnant, and the two had agreed to lavish their holiday presence upon her parents. That left me king of our domestic mountain, and this time I was prepared to relish my office. With a bachelor’s degree and a year of "real life" employment under my belt (or wearing me under its treads, more exactly—but they didn’t know the difference), I wielded an august authority over my college-freshman brother and high school-junior sister. I felt old, in that delightfully self-satisfied (and rather inane) way that only the young can feel old. Even Dad, I sensed, was somewhat out of the "real world" loop into which I had been admitted. For I had already begun to realize (how could I have failed to realize instantly?) that grad school was no open exchange of brilliant ideas, but a kind of intellectual shake-down from which only the fully cooperative—the spiritually subservient, the creatively null—would be allowed to emerge unmolested. I brought home invisible wounds from a battlefield which people like Dad could not begin to conceive of. He thought I was doing science, after all, and he also had a general respect for higher education (part of his military background, perhaps—he always believed that hierarchical systems worked). I don’t know what it would have done to him to learn how squalid were the games played in such respected places, or if he could have learned by any means at my disposal. After a couple of lackluster attempts at serious conversation on the subject, I gave up. It made my wounds hurt a little more, for I had never before been so completely cut off from Dad’s advice, from the calm sanity of his mind; but in compensation, as I have said, it made me feel more mature. In a way, Damon had probably brought home less from Vietnam that Dad could not assess at its proper value than what I brought home from my graduate program. That put me in a pretty special place, for no one in our household had ever explored terrain unknown to Dad.
When he died a couple of years later, claimed in his sleep by a heart attack whose discomforts he must have decided to tough out rather than complain about, I understood what a pompous young ass I had been that Christmas. How could I ever have imagined that I was the ascending head of the household, the resident Master of the Real World! Our family members flew apart like the cars of some overheated carousel whose center has finally snapped. My mother lived in a mild sort of stupor for the rest of her life, and we four children settled into unconnected cracks and fissures separated by hundreds of miles. It was Dad who had always held us together, even though he was the last to know when anyone arrived for a visit, the last to give you a grudging pat on the shoulder out in his workshop after everyone else had hugged and laughed and flailed about in removed coats and transported baggage. He was always at the control center. None of us has proved remotely his equal, even in our own growing families. How could I have worn such a big head on my shoulders that Christmas? Put it down to twenty-three.
One more thing. I don’t know how to write this in a few words, but probably no young man could ever be more ready to fall under Celine’s spell than I was then. My experience of women was not exactly wide and varied. A couple of my little sister’s friends had fawned on me constantly as I loafed about the house during my high school years—which kept me, I suppose, from ever being unduly afflicted with low self-esteem in that area. On the other hand, the girls I actually went out with were few. On most of the many festive occasions of those years, I appeared publicly in the company of Beverly Brady, largely because my mother was convinced that she was a thoroughly "nice" girl. The Homeric phrase "cow-eyed Hera" has always evoked memories of Beverly in me—and not, I am afraid, just because of her dark, limpid eyes. What I originally took for shyness in Beverly was more likely a deep temperamental passivity. There were times in my senior year when I desperately longed to ask out someone else, but by then Beverly and I were taken so much for granted that I hadn’t the heart to destroy her idyll. I waited patiently, instead, for college, which brought new opportunity with a vengeance. There I set my sights so high that I encountered nothing but rejection—or perhaps Beverly had so swollen me with false confidence that I had never developed the necessary seductive powers for big-game hunting. I was so humbled by these experiences that I actually sought Beverly out over a summer break. One of her close friends would only tell me (with an invincibly stupid laugh) that she had become "really wild" at college. Another was more explicit, if hardly what I could call helpful. Beverly, it seemed, had wandered so far "out of her shell" at college that she passed for promiscuous even in a dormitory of coeds eager to earn their stripes of feminist liberation. She was currently enrolled in a drug rehab program (and, I later figured out, bringing an unwanted pregnancy to fruition). I never did manage to see her face to face. The odd thing is that the compassion I felt for her then was by far the strongest draw she had ever exerted upon my emotions. I literally wept for her.
The news of Beverly’s running amuck festered deeply and, in some way which I can’t entirely explain, left me ice-cold at the center—stunned numb, perhaps scared stiff. Coupled with my own failures at wooing the most splendid figures on campus, it turned my nose back into my studies for the rest of my undergraduate years. Afterward, during my ill-conceived venture into teaching, I had neither the time nor the energy to devote to girls and dating. Not that I had any intention of remaining a bachelor for the rest of my life: that, indeed, was one of my concerns about teaching. I didn’t see how I could keep at it and also ever have a life of my own. Then came grad school. For the first time in my mortal existence, I was both far away from anyone who might have tattled on me for misbehaving and also surrounded by young women who wanted very much to misbehave. (This was less true of my undergraduate years, not only because I just didn’t crave to see "the far side" with the hunger characteristic of my peers, but also because I boarded with my grandmother and attended several classes with a first cousin.)
Here I arrive at the very heart of my… oddity. My susceptibility to Celine, perhaps. I am no plaster saint, and though we were all raised in the Church, I heard plenty of criticism of the clergy at home for its involvement in political issues (more accurately, for its choosing what seemed to my dad the wrong political side). So I had not abstained from sex throughout my young life in devotion to holy principles. I wish I could say that I had—but it was really more of an accident. However I happened to reach the ripe old age of twenty-three intact in this peculiar manner, I was made aware in grad school as never before that "adventures" were constantly sitting in the chair beside mine, just waiting for a nod or a smile. Maybe if these girls with an axe to grind had been prettier, or had allowed themselves to look pretty… but no, besides being "sexist" (I plead guilty, if it is sexist to be repelled by a belligerent mug), that explanation only gets at minor causes. The main reason was power. Power: a noun which these harridans used in every other sentence. And they were right about power—that was the point. If they had harvested me—if I had allowed myself to be harvested by their club-and-cave technique—I would have been just one more male scalp on their belt, while they, in turn, would have deprived me of something very precious, a kind of integrity upon which I had blundered by the grace of God and the luck of the Irish. If I had not held out this long, I would not have held out now; but having held out this long, I could not see the need to grope after such puny, temporary favors. And yes, the un-prettiness of these young women was part of the puniness of their favors—not because I was such a young sexist pig, but because they were offering their favors on that level. Just sex: just a night of wine, weed, and rumpling the mattress. I would sooner have sought out a dazzling professional than I would have given away first bragging rights to such as these. But I figured that I could do better than both, with a little endurance. I’m sure some of them sensed the specific nature of this reserve about me (there were many student-lounge conversations about bourgeois hang-ups which got quite personal—these were some of the deepest secret wounds I was carrying about that Christmas). The general resentment of my moral reserve, of my "mystification" before sex—of my power to hold out, to hold on—among our tight clique of graduate students made me more determined than ever to hold aloof. I occupied the position of greater strength, and I enjoyed the feel of that strength. I possessed the power to forge an ultimate union with a woman stronger than any that my rude critics could ever forge with a man, and they knew it, and they hated me for it. And they knew that my choice would not be one of them. Hippolytus and Phaedra, with the number of Phaedras multiplied by ten.
But whom, then, would I choose? Beverly was out of the question now… and would there ever be another Beverly at this late date? After all, I was getting old: I was twenty-three.
The first words Celine ever said to me are burned into my brain—or, rather, they forever float about behind every thought I have had since, the echo of a waterfall or the sigh of a breeze which has grown inaudible through familiarity. I was at the mall looking for last-minute Christmas gifts. I was alone, my windbreaker zipped about my neck, an important man with bills in his wallet and a bank account. I can see myself as I was, because I literally saw my own figure just before Celine appeared. Much of the old mall (which was all new back then) opened upon a pleasant network of outdoor colonnades and landscaped promenades especially popular in the summer, but also traveled on mild winter days like this one; so my pause before a jeweler’s display window had brought me up before my mirror image, dark but clear against the parking lot’s shimmering backdrop. In that instant, my eyes had strayed from a bracelet I was considering for my sister to the silent face that considered. It was reserved but not intimidating, I thought, intelligent but good-humored, full enough to smile expressively but muscled enough to set its jaw firmly. Was it handsome—was I handsome? In two seconds, I must have grazed many of the thoughts which I have lavished the last several pages on. A jeweler’s store… why wasn’t I standing before this window in search of something special for my girl friend? Why didn’t I have a girl friend? A man with my promise, with my command of life… it wasn’t fair that I should be alone like this.
"How long are you going to pretend that you don’t recognize me?"
The sidewalk was not crowded in that quarter, and the voice was so soft, so near, that it could only have been addressing me. I looked up in a combination of startled embarrassment (for we are not supposed to study our faces publicly, are we?) and absolute certainty that a mere pivot of the neck would produce an apology—for nobody with a voice like that knew me well enough to speak with such intimacy.
This is where the formula calls for me to write that I was thunderstruck by the most beautiful woman I had ever… etc., etc. In the first place, Celine was not what I would call beautiful. She was a sprite, a nymph: she could easily have played one of those Shakespearean girls who masquerades as a young page (and who were played in Shakespeare’s time, of course, by boys). She was cute beyond cute, but she was too energetic—too boyishly agile and restless—for the stateliness of a classic beauty. Yet I have to confess, at the risk of cliché, that I was thunderstruck. The fair blond races cannot imagine what such eyes as hers, pale green and brilliant, do to gloomy tribesmen like me. Everyone in my immediate family is brown-eyed. To look into such eyes for me, then, has something of an encounter with a photographic negative or with anti-matter. For a moment, it is completely arresting, completely disorienting. After that, for me, it partakes of a religious vision. Two broad pupils staring at me through the crystalline empyrean, pure light descending upon my soiled clay… it was irrelevant that these particular pupils stood the better part of a foot beneath mine. The transparent splendor in which they swam marked them as heavenly bodies, while in my mind lingered the dusky afterglow of my own image in the window.
Over the years, I have tried to measure how long in real time we must have stared at each other—tried until my calculations were hopelessly garbled by previous attempts at calculation. One thing’s for sure: that gilded green gaze never betrayed a hint of having mistaken its object. My best guess is that I awaited the inevitable apology—and then remained stupified that no such apology came—for the better part of a real-life minute. We use the word "minute" very carelessly. Sit before an old-fashioned clock and watch the minute hand sweep out thirty seconds… well, it was close to that much, anyway. Many people who’ve been married for forty years have never looked into their partner’s eyes silently for so long. Even before the conversation that followed, I had absolutely no doubt that this lovely elf of Winter Wonderland believed we knew each other very well. A sight like that freezes all the clichés and formal platitudes which spring to the tongue. (Besides, I am morbidly sensitive to clichés, as I may already have indicated: unlike today’s kids, I would have run the other way if I saw one coming, even at twenty-three.) How many responses must have died on my parted lips in those thirty seconds? "I’m sorry, you’ve made a mistake," would have expired at once. "I assure you, madame, I would have remembered"… anything in that form, you know, I would never have dared whatever my degree of confidence. But these eyes were so certain that they shook me to the core. I am positive that at least a physical shiver must have passed down my spine. And since an integral part of the "showdown" (as I must have sensed, despite my youth) was for her not to help me out by uttering another syllable—was for me to be kept on the "spot" where she imagined she had me—I could expect no way out of this terrifying rapture which didn’t arise from my own throat.
"You know," I finally laughed (though I doubt that the smile carried any sound), "my cousin did that to me in my last year of college. I mean, she mistook me for someone else. My own first cousin! She was absolutely positive that she’d seen me the night before at some wild party where her date took her—and she kept insisting on it in front of my grandmother, to make matters worse. It’s the eyes, I think. I mean, I’ve got unusually dark eyes—"
"Yes, you do."
"—and I… what was I saying?"
"That you have dark eyes."
"You have very… very green eyes. I’ve never seen… well, anyway. Yes. People with unusually dark eyes are typed in our culture. They all look the same—we all look the same. To people with… to fairer people, you know. I mean, more Nordic people. The people of the midnight sun. My cousin comes from the side of the family that has blue eyes occasionally. Through intermarriage."
"With people of the sun."
"Who visited your island on a dragon?"
"Something like that. I remember… you know, there’s this photo of me in the high school yearbook. I’m sitting behind this girl who’s reading, and I’m leaning forward in my desk for some reason. The caption reads, ‘Anthony Toole contemplates violence.’ That bothered me for years. And what made it worse was that I really did look like a heavy about to strangle the girl. All because of my eyes—because the angle of the camera threw their shadow over my face. Anyway… I guess that’s why I get mistaken."
My mysterious sprite bit her lower lip. Perhaps it was then that I consciously perceived, for the first time, how the hair-fine lines radiating outward from the exact center of her lips had reinforced the sense of beams humidly rising, not just from her gaze, but from her whole face. The disruption of that perfect center, especially where it creased the bottom lip more heavily in two, was sure to capture attention. (At least, it always captured mine.)
"So you don’t go by Richard any more…."
These words were said with such a fading tone of sadness—and they so clearly implied that the celestial stranger didn’t buy a word I’d said—that I must have gaped for another several seconds. Of course, her stubbornness took me completely by surprise. How could it not have? We were now crossing the border into something very unorthodox, she and I. Something not yet unhealthy, not quite unhealthy—but far, far beyond the bounds of any polite script. I had not yet recovered from meeting this vision on a sunbeam, and I was supposed to confess some degree of intimacy with her which, perhaps, was more than I had known with Beverly Brady in high school. I certainly sensed that it was more. I felt like one of those fabulous travelers, maybe an Arthurian knight out of Mallory, who enters a strange castle and finds a beautiful queen welcoming him home. What man living would have had the strength not to sit in the prepared chair before the prepared feast?
"My middle name is Richard," I volunteered at last.
"Your middle name." She brightened a little—just enough to make her seem even sadder. Surely she must have blinked before then—but that was the first time I noticed her blinking; and the smile which wryly upset her perfectly centered lips was as painfully picturesque as a cloud draped over the setting sun. "I suppose I’ll have to make do with that." And she looked back up at me keenly. "As a concession."
For the first of several dozen times that afternoon, I reflected that I had to choose between convincing this Ariel of unknown name that I was not her estranged beau—thereby losing her forever, quite possibly—and allowing her to believe that I was someone precious to her who had proved disappointing, and must still prove so in acting out a cruel forgetfulness (how could I play it otherwise?). I very nearly drew out my wallet then and there with the intent of showing her my driver’s license… but I was frightened at the thought of chasing her off. Later. Maybe an hour or two later, maybe a day or two. I would know when… but not now.
We had started to drift down the sidewalk together, she apparently thinking that we had picked up where we left off some weeks or months or years ago, I without a thought in my soul’s coolest recesses of prying myself away from her. The great luxury of being admitted to instant intimacy in this way was that I didn’t have to strain for small talk. We seemed to have reached the point (or she and "Richard", whose existence I already blessed and cursed) where complete silence was acceptable. In fact, the more steps we took without a word, the more genuine our intimacy became. I could feel it growing in dense, warm folds about us. Her shoulder and mine were virtually rubbing when she happened to turn up her impish nose (I counted three freckles) and delicate chin at my lapel.
‘What were you doing back there, pricing a ring for your latest conquest?"
I stopped on the spot. That bracelet had been ideal for Meg, and Christmas was just four days away. At twenty-three, neglecting to buy your little sister a suitably gaudy present is a direct blow against reality’s foundations, especially if you have just anointed yourself the clan’s high priest of reality.
"I… will you come back with me?" I babbled.
I could tell that she was again utterly nonplussed. For all my resolution to walk on eggshells, I was turning over carts left and right. The tiny cleft bisecting her lower lip was already beginning to fascinate me as much as her green eyes: now it seemed to grow rounder, as if she were going to whistle.
"It’s for my sister," I continued, miring myself still more deeply in un-Richard-like detail, no doubt, before I could rein in my tongue. It was too late now. She would either have to think me the most inept liar in the world (which wouldn’t be all bad) or an outright lunatic (which might even be better).
That was probably the very matter she was trying to settle in her mind. Her pupils widened in their Venusian orbs, the cleavage in her lips spread outward to became a fissure, and her thin golden brows twisted acutely. All I can say is that the fear of what might be bubbling up behind these features I already wanted to see every day of my life must have made a lion of a mouse. I grabbed her slender wrist with as much playfulness as I could inject into the act (keeping my touch carefully to the cuff of her shirt) and sped her back toward the shop. Later I credited myself with having felt instinctively that she didn’t really want to be deprived of her recovered Richard—that a decisive gesture of tenderness was sure to trump material fact and logic. Though I felt her fingertips tremble and recoil the one time they grazed the back of my knuckles, I also noticed that she quickly fell into step, her heels tapping smartly over the concrete beside my silent sneakers.
We passed a nice little quarter-hour in the shop. I latched onto the bracelet without any show or discussion, then floated along beside her as she examined the merchandise no less eagerly than a child would have a candy store’s. I was beginning to notice, having now memorized every curve and color of Celine’s face and every scent in her hair, the fine points of her general appearance. She plainly had an artist’s eye for details in her dress, and willingly occupied herself with them. Her shirt was a kind of dull golden, her slacks dark green, and the sweater-vest bridging the two a gentle beige with Indian designs running across it in brick-red and forest green. The weather, though mild for the season, was perhaps too brisk for mere shirt sleeves. No doubt, she wore the sleeveless sweater at some small sacrifice because it snugged so faithfully about her trim midriff and flowed out along her compact but angular bust. She was a perfection of balance. The flared cuffs so popular back then (except with me alone, apparently, among the twenty-somethings) seemed to emphasize that she could cut a cartwheel with ease at any moment. Of course, she must have known well that shades of red and orange—and green, naturally—were her colors, though she had the taste never to choose loud ones. Her short yet richly bodied hair (which obediently lifted its touch from her temples but converged and amassed thickly around the neck) was a deep blonde color, almost russet. Women always tell me that tint is called a strawberry blonde; and when they tell me so, I can usually surprise a note of envy in their voices.
Somehow—one more thunderclap, I suppose, in this afternoon when miracle rained upon miracle—the return to the jeweler’s had been just the thing to cure our sudden intimacy of its sadness. Surely, I reflected, this sublimely mistaken girl couldn’t believe that I was buying trinkets for other conquests when I had dragged her back to observe my purchase. However jocular her remark may have been, I felt that she was relieved to be here beside me. She nudged me more than once to look at a piece, more than once held something to her neck or finger in an earnest "What do you think?" pose. The earnestness impressed me. There was coquetry, all right, in her doings; but I am convinced that it was mostly unconscious, because there was far more of the studious artist mixing designs and matching effects. I can vouch that she had no inkling of my asking the saleslady to slip a gold Celtic cross with a tiny emerald at its center out of the casement. At the time, she was kneeling down before an array of wristwatches, her back completely turned.
Meg’s bracelet was already a bit steep for my budget. I had rather finely calculated how much I needed to register next semester, buy books, and pay January’s rent. Buying the gold cross with the emerald, besides being an act of gross presumption and even sheer folly, was the sort of fiscal irresponsibility I have never committed before or since. It didn’t clean out my account, but it assumed, at the very least, that the King of the Real World would be larded with a rich haul of Christmas leftovers to cart back to grad school, or that he could otherwise make do on bread and water. How could I have done it, I of all people—the rationalist, the reserved skeptic? I did it because gold and emerald were her colors. I did it because, at the time, I could not not have done it. I did it, if you want a specific motivation, because the saleslady seemed so utterly convinced that we were a pair, Celine and I. As she removed things for us and followed us about the shop with her eyes, I surprised her a couple of times in a smile—not a suspicious scowl, but a smile. Imagine! That smile was no sales tactic, for I had surprised it. Rather, it was objective verification of everything I felt in my heart: that this was my girl, this girl whose name I did not yet know and who knew me by another’s name.
At least I had the sense not to present the necklace to her in the shop and risk public humiliation. But no, what I really did was to preserve my salesclerk-witness’s false "objectivity" by stealing the moment of truth away from her. The man that I am now cringes to remember that moment. I have counseled professionally many a stalker who regaled his idol with expensive gifts as innocently, and as clumsily, as I did then. No doubt, it worked in my favor that the necklace wasn’t quite as extravagant as I boyishly thought it to be, meant it to be: it seemed so to my budget, but Celine, who lived and breathed such things, must have known that this was no mink coat. Still, the look she gave me when I detained her before a gurgling fountain, drew the small case from my sack, and opened it against her collar was even more perplexed than that which had preceded our visit to the shop. In it were mingled fear and—most mortifying of all—anger. The fountain’s purling chatter helped me to conceal the nullity of my stammers, but she must have discovered in my eyes that I had no very good explanation. Only the obvious one… but that, you see, was the problem. You boy of twenty-three, couldn’t you have foreseen that that would be the problem? An ex-lover doesn’t suddenly fall head-over-heels in love. I had betrayed the part which I had half-agreed to play. My love wasn’t simply too much too soon by any normal standard, it was too much too late by the standard of this farce which I had consented to. I had placed her in the position of having to admit either that I was another, completely different Richard or that the old Richard was up to some kind of incredibly, indecipherably subtle mockery.
I would write out some of our verbal exchange here as I have elsewhere, for I recall almost every word which passed between us that day—but there was scarcely any exchange at all. "This is too much," or, "How could you?" or, "It’s lovely"… none of that conveys what nervous looks fluttered back and forth, avoiding each other yet constantly crossing each other. I was never closer to losing Celine that first day, before I even knew her name, than when I presented her with that beautiful, baleful necklace. She slipped it back into the case, which she kept tightly clasped in her right hand, a thing both precious and dangerous.
But she could not leave me then, after all—not without flinging the necklace in my face; and she could not fling the necklace in my face without being sure that I knew why she was doing so. By accepting it, she accepted the possibility that I might really be enthralled to her; and by accepting that possibility, she was accepting a new admirer, and hence accepting more time and more intimacy. Yet the reason she would most have wanted to run away, even more than if I were the old Richard playing a cruel prank, would be if I were a complete stranger. It was an impossible predicament for her. I realized it at the time, belatedly. My clumsiness had brought the thumbscrews to their tightest twist. The least I could do now was just to keep quiet: to climb back up on the eggshells and stay there.
Gradually, the activity around us restored a certain equilibrium between us. We walked among the shops and stores and displays, diverted almost as much by other shoppers (many of whom were about our age, but none of whom seemed as sensible as we) as by the wreathes and strings of lights and store-front Santas. Whether we slipped indoors to follow a corridor among a cluster of shops or escaped those overheated spaces to enjoy the brisk afternoon again, Christmas carols were piped steadily about us. The highly staged scenes before which we lingered—a toy train running through cotton snow, a mannequin in ermine poised like Miss Eskimo after her Jell-O diet, an armada of color televisions running the same sharp picture without antennas—always supplied matter for a few words (mercifully, for our silences had grown hazardous since the necklace). As I recall, our comments were often salted with a mild irony (the Miss Eskimo crack was my original) or barbed with genuine astuteness (she volunteered how much worse the TV shows were getting as the pictures improved). By tacit consent, neither of us wandered into family matters, jobs, friends, or anything remotely personal, let alone our own troubled history which—I knew, and she must have suspected now—had never existed.
Things loosened up over lunch. As we sauntered past a restaurant, I was assailed by the scent of grilled hamburgers and suddenly realized that I hadn’t eaten since early that morning. It was now after two-thirty! My visionary companion did not decline to break bread with me, though she ended up doing little more than foraging among the contents of a rather large salad. Upon being given the option by the waiter, I had requested that we be seated on the "patio". Here we were suffused in sunlight yet happily concealed from any breeze. Celine’s shirt sleeves were no longer a worry to me (yes, I had worried about her taking a chill before: I had twice offered her my jacket). Thanks to the odd hour, we had only a handful of diners to guard our comments from, if the inspiration and courage should overtake either of us to be forthright. But for the opening minutes, at least, we drank hot tea and admired each other a little groggily. I complimented her sweater, and she said I looked dashing in my Navy blue turtleneck—"like James Bond," she cajoled with her wry smile. "Or better yet, Sean Connery."
If I should die and go to heaven, I have no fonder hope than that God will let me resume that off-hour lunch with my young Celine in my own young pelt between performances of high praise. If I should die and go to hell, I can think of no more exquisite torture than being forced to view that scene forever from some gutter-level grate as the real Richard plays my role. For I was happier in those moments than I had ever been before, or have been since or shall ever be; yet the lazy sunlight was not so purgative that it entirely managed to dissolve the shade of the other man. How could it have done? He flitted between us like a gossamer thread every time one of us spoke to the other, warping all our words in their invisible passage through him. As I listened to Celine chat more and more freely about her work, about her intimate likes and hopes, I understood (since her little revelations were tailored to his level of knowledge) that this captivating young woman had given her heart away to a man who had learned very little, after all, about that heart—who had exploited its generosity without pausing over its secrets. And I both rejoiced and feared. I was exhilarated that I had already come to know her soul so much more privately than he had; yet I grasped that, by default, the nature of her profound involvement with him could only have been of one kind, of the remaining kind. Of my ability to compete with such memories, I was agonizingly uncertain.
I have lived half a century without knowing a man who desired to strangle another with his bare hands when he could neither give this person’s full name nor describe the first detail of his appearance. Only I have been that man, and I began to be him on that day.
Someone named Mona kept coming up in Celine’s remarks. (Was she now talking about herself so much to avoid discovering more contradictions in her false Richard?) At first I took Mona for a sister, then a best friend: of course, I didn’t ask for clarification, but just followed it all knowingly over my hamburger. Finally I decided that Mona was a kind of employer-cum-mentor. Mona had brought new commissions for her to work on when she was recuperating, and Mona had granted her an extended leave of absence while she resumed her interrupted bachelor’s degree work. I was struck by two things along this conversational corridor: that she wanted to lay before my eyes a series of solid accomplishments, and that she wanted to hint at some grave indisposition’s having overtaken her while she accomplished them. Being a student myself, I didn’t have to feign an interest in her career, especially since it seemed artistic. I gathered (again, I avoided asking questions too directly) that she designed background matter and illustrations for a magazine, or maybe an advertising agency. The sinister gap in her young life left me far more timid; yet it was here, I suddenly reflected, that the other Richard would have forced some query. Had she fallen desperately ill and he failed to come see her, to track down the causes of a disappearance? Alarmed that I might already have allowed my cue to pass me by, I clumsily intruded, gulping spectacularly and coughing as if to indicate that a mouthful had stifled me for several seconds.
"You said… excuse me… you mentioned something about recuperating. Were you… what was that about?"
Had I misread the cues? For a moment, I thought I had ruined everything. She abandoned her fork, rolled her green eyes as if checking for signs of the sky’s splitting open, and hugged her elbows to contain a shudder. A cynic would probably say that I had been taken in by theatrics for several hours now, but no gesture of hers had seemed remotely theatrical to me before this one. It seemed altogether too much for the provocation… yet its artifice ended up relieving me in a very temporary way, since the little show clearly declared the subject to be off limits.
"Thanks for asking," she finally murmured over an empty swallow. "It happened right after you… after the last time I saw you. I don’t really want to talk about it right now."
Maybe she didn’t, and maybe she did… but just as her manner relieved me of pursuing the issue, her "right after you left" warned me not to do so. I would inevitably have tipped my hand if I went further. Then again, I had been tipping my hand all along. Perhaps I was a little vexed that she insisted on continuing the charade: perhaps stepping around a secret that she probably wanted to reveal was my way of exacting revenge. Perhaps that’s why I even dared to add, "Well, I hope you’re all right now. Are you sure you don’t need my jacket?"
She waved me off, resuming her fork and her pleasant ramble. She could easily have asked to see the contents of my wallet, I mused now for the umpteenth time—and mused again in a moment, when I paid off the waiter so that he would leave us in peace. But then I mused further that nothing was keeping me from shoving my identification under her nose.
"It’s funny how few women go into designing women’s fashions. Mona thinks I should go in that direction. She says our business is slowly going to dry up… that bigger companies with more hi-tech stuff are going to take it over. But I don’t know… I don’t know if I have the pushiness to be a fashion designer. That’s probably why women don’t do it. I’ve been working on being more assertive, but… I guess you think it was a little pushy to come up to you the way I did."
I dealt my empty plate my best Sean Connery smile. "Pushy has negative connotations. It’s entirely the wrong word to describe our meeting."
She hadn’t really laughed before then—maybe just a bar or two: but at that moment she played me the whole tune. The sunlight caught her teeth, the coffee cups on the surrounding tables seemed to peal in harmony, and I noticed the patio’s remaining couple turn our direction from thirty feet away (the woman with a glance, the man in lingering admiration).
"You’ve really changed, Richard! You’ve really, really changed. I’ve been noticing it all afternoon. Here I’ve been talking about myself all this time, but what I’m really thinking is, ‘What’s he been up to? What’s made him so different?’"
"Is the change for the better?"
"Oh, I should say so."
My deep satisfaction with the compliment was clouded by my realizing that I had just—quite accidentally—implied a confession that I was him. I squirmed vigorously. For a penny, I would have asked, "Was I so bad before, then?" But I was not going to let my curiosity about the other man block me off from establishing my own version of Richard—of Anthony Richard. With just a little more priming, then, I hazarded a few vague sentences about my entry into graduate school. I skipped over the bit about teaching for a year: I said only that my earlier employment didn’t challenge me, and that I needed something which would put my mind through its paces regularly. I described my meager graduate fellowship (they were being doled out left and right to keep the psychology department afloat) as if I had received some prestigious grant; and I’m sure I made my projected thesis sound less like an ingenu’s literary effusions than a government scientist’s formula for truth serum. It wasn’t that I was trying to seem brilliant or important. On the contrary, I wanted to stay obscure, like a real secret agent… but I’m afraid my obfuscations had the effect of puffing me up.
Was it that cloak of importance in which I wrapped myself (with maddening credibility), or was it the mere notion of Richard going to grad school? She grew more and more still before me as I spoke. Her bright eyes widened, her brows lifted toward a red-gilt shock of hair which beckoned them, and her cheeks flattened until that mysterious, microscopic "o" in the heart of her lips opened again. While I spun my yarn, I fought off a million questions swirling in the back of my mind. Does she like this new Richard better—is now the time to press home the point about his being a different Richard? Or is it, rather, the prospect of a new depth grafted onto the old lady’s man (for so I pictured him), full of fine phrases but empty of insight, which fascinates her? Would not amputating the latter from the former be a disastrous mistake? Couldn’t she have cut the incision herself a hundred times already if she wanted a clean separation? Indeed, if I distanced myself too much from the old bounder—the young bounder of earlier days who must, after all, have looked a little like me—wouldn’t I chase her away forever? More than once, girls had left me smarting under the charge that I was too intellectual, too cool. (I remembered those painful undergraduate rejections.) For once in my life, I had a chance—but maybe it all depended on this borrowed skin.
"You’re just so different," she almost whispered. "I can’t believe it." I would have cut my life’s years in two and thrown away the part without her if only she had smiled, just a little, in saying that.
When we left the restaurant, shortly thereafter, we had to exit either into the mall’s inner labyrinth again or engage the wide walkway which divided it from the parking lot. We did the latter without saying a word or even exchanging a look. Yet we proceeded slowly. Though we knew that the road back to those scenes of our incredibly unsteady first hour—the jewelry shop, the fountain, the storefront Santas—was sealed behind us now, we were in no hurry to be parted. We ambled and basked in the sun. I honestly don’t know which of us made some prosaic comment about the gentle weather—probably both at about the same time.
"Indian summer," she daydreamed. "That’s what my grandmother would have called it. It doesn’t seem right for Christmas… but it seems right that everything should be all golden, just now. Like Easter, maybe. I like the sound of that better. Indian summer makes me think that it’s bound to end in a day or two. Do you think it will end soon?"
"Christmas and Easter are really the same thing, you know," I said in what must have struck me as a straight answer at that instant, craning my neck at the parking lot so that I could feel her hair graze my chin. "The rebirth of longer days… the rebirth of green plants… the triumph over cold and death. It’s never too late to begin again…."
My voice fell flat, leaving a wide gap where her name should have been. Her name. This had gone on long enough—I had to know.
But the mischievous god who had presided over this midwinter day’s dream (in fact, that very day was the winter solstice: no wonder the sun was so low and liquid at our backs) sprang into action before I could rend his delicate, maddening web.
"Mona is always saying that," she had already picked up. "That I should begin again—look at today as the first day of my new life. ‘Celine,’ she says, ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life, not the last day of all you’ve done before.’ I really like the sound of that… I really want to make a clean start, Richard."
She stopped and stared straight into my eyes. Those large pupils in their pale brilliance again reversed gravity and turned me upside-down. My spirit flailed about. Yes, tell her we’ll start again—but I was not him, there was no again with me, and to play this part much longer would be to annihilate myself utterly in the role of someone I detested. All I found to hold onto in my somersaults was her name.
"Celine," I said. "Celine."
Perhaps she thought that was an answer in itself. Her lids fell deliberately, and her head bowed toward my shoulder.
In my struggle to find just the right words now while also sneaking a touch of her hair across my lips, I believe I almost grew a little dizzy. Who had time to think about breathing? "Your name… I’ve always wanted to ask you…" Always? Careful! "Celine… it’s such a beautiful name. It sounds French. There was a French impressionist painter by that name, wasn’t there?"
I just wanted her to keep talking, for I still had next to nothing. (I missed both the medium and the period of my French artist, by the way: I’m not trying to dress up my pompous blunders, for I was young and erudite enough to leave them strewn behind me at every step.)
"I had an aunt named Celina," she said as we resumed walking. Dare I reach for her hand? Dare I not? "Mom thought that Celine sounded more French, actually, though I never heard about a painter."
"Maybe ‘Selena’ was with an ‘s’," I strayed off in my damned pedantry—or was I chasing a metaphor? "The Greek goddess of the moon."
"This was with a ‘c’. Maybe they changed it from some earlier great-grandmother, or something."
I wanted to say, "My land of dreams, at any rate, starts with a ‘c’"—but that kind of courtly frivolity has always been beyond me. I hope my stuffiness occasionally gets reckoned in my favor as honesty, or at least modesty. What would he have said, I wondered? Maybe, "Let’s head back to my place, babe"? Was that what she wanted to hear, just maybe?
I never did find the courage to take her hand on the way to her car. By way of covering my awkwardness, I thought to fish out a pen and blurt, "Why don’t you give me your number?" I bit my tongue just before I said, "It’s probably changed." Instead, I added, "I’m staying at… staying with friends. For the holidays. I can give you the number there, if you like. No telling who’ll answer—it’s a big family."
"Sure. Give me the number." We had rounded a group of cars to a small two-door sedan: hers, I supposed. This was it—these were our last precious moments, my last chance to garner information. I recall trying—ridiculously—to memorize her license plate in one nervous glance.
"Just let me see if I have a piece of paper in my purse."
"No. I… here, here’s an old sales receipt from the university bookstore. Thought I might sell back a couple of textbooks if I dropped a course."
I had not planned the effect—in fact, I would probably have caught myself if I’d thought in time—but the validation of my story about graduate school sent a visible shudder through her trimly angled shoulders. (The sweater-vest emphasized their perfect T, as she must have known.) Her right side actually twitched with such suddenness that its tendons tugged her chin in a flinch. With my wallet poised in my left hand like a writing pad, I briefly paused and calculated how I might turn my "gaff" into a chance to press my case—to press home the truth. "Somebody will answer here at any time of the day or night," I continued very slowly as I scrawled. "I’ll tell them that someone might be calling for Richard."
When I gave her the scrap, I pretended to dig around in my wallet for more paper. I managed to eavesdrop on her flipping the receipt over and cradling it in her palms.
"Ah… I’ll use this for your number," I said airily in mock triumph. "My Selective Service card. They’re obviously not going to draft me now. I could have gotten a deferment, anyway, since my brother went."
As she distantly droned her number for me, I feared that I had pressed too hard. Only a few minutes earlier, the fragrance of her hair had filled my nostrils. Now she was looking absently around the parking lot as if to flag down a passing car.
"I’ll call you tomorrow," I broke out cheerfully, sliding the wallet back out of her sight. "I’ll… I’ll call you tonight, about tomorrow. About when we can meet. Unless… maybe it’s too much, for right now." Too much, too soon—or too little, too late. How apparent was the panic within my forcibly vaulting tones?
Celine had been in the process of slipping my receipt-with-scrawl into her purse (a woolen design matching her vest so well that I’d scarcely noticed it until now) when she must have seen the jewelry case. She lifted it out and held it tightly to her ribs in both hands.
"Why did you give me this? You never gave me anything before. Not like this."
My panic mounted. Do not say, "I’ve changed," I told myself. Her eyes seemed almost blue now with intensity. I had to focus on her clutching fingertips before I found enough breath to answer.
"It’s just as we said, Celine, we’re starting ov—" Do not use over with starting, either. "We’re starting, just starting. For the first time, everything is new. Nothing has ever happened before now. Today is the day that Celine meets Richard and Richard meets Celine."
But now, for some reason, she wasn’t buying it. The receipt, the wallet, the draft card, my brother… yes, I had gone too far. Broken eggshells lay all about me. All I could do was try to restrain my gesturing hands as they reached in her direction, searched to soothe her quavering figure. Whatever phantom car she was going to flag down must have sprouted wings, for she intensely directed her gaze to the sky, her elbows twitching as if she would suddenly hail a late sunbeam. Her freckles grew browner as her cheeks flushed, and her lips swelled until they would no longer seal. I was witnessing a kind of breakdown.
"At first I thought that maybe you were confused—that you’d had some trouble. Like my trouble. But I never really believed that. You of all people could never have that kind of trouble—no one would ever be allowed to get that far inside you. You’d never let them in. But then, why?" Here she looked down at the jewelry case and squeezed it ferociously in one hand while the other caressed it. "You didn’t owe me anything. That’s what you told me, anyway, two years ago. And you believed it. Why would you think otherwise now? Besides, what you did owe me—what I thought you owed me… you could never pay it off this way. Or get out of paying. Not even you could have believed that."
"It belongs to you," I babbled stupidly, as afraid of being evaded by her eyes now as of meeting with them. I tried to soothe both of us by letting my worship utter a kind of prayer. "It’s gold and emerald. Like you. It’s rare and precious and beautiful, and perfect and delicate and sparkling. Like you. A few dollars made it change hands, but it was always yours, and it will always be yours—"
"Don’t, Richard. Don’t. You need to take it back." Still she wouldn’t look at me, only at her intricately agile hands, her wonderfully limber wrists, as they extended their charge to me.
"Then I’ll take it and wear it under my shirt, where no one will ever see it. Next to my heart. It will still be yours to me—it will be you. It’ll be waiting for the day when I can put it around your neck. It’s your colors, Celine." And I laughed and repeated, as if this argument clinched my victory, "Gold and green are your colors!"
"I know… but you couldn’t have!" Finally she stared straight into my eyes, her upper body swaying toward me over the fondled necklace so that I could count her lashes. "You were color-blind!"
I made no movement to take the box: I was suddenly incapable of any movement at all. In the same instant, she spun away, the necklace still clasped tight in her right hand, and leaned with her left heavily on the car’s roof. Despite the sweater’s burly concealment, the space between her shoulder blades began observably to quake. I saw the left hand make a fist over the car, and could not help but admire, even in my daze, the perfect little squares which its knuckles formed beyond the broad cuff. And then, as a slight breeze blew or as her head twitched convulsively, I saw the impishly upturned nose, the chin which God’s thumb brought from a heavenly lathe, a glint of her front teeth… and I heard a sigh captured by a sob.
"I’m so frightened! I’m so frightened! I’m so frightened! I couldn’t believe it was you, after two years and an eternity—after nearly losing my mind over you. Now I can’t believe it’s not you. Your face, your voice, your manner… did I imagine them all today, or did I forget them all two years ago? It has to be you! Oh, you’ve changed, yes. I… I said that to you, didn’t I? I kept telling myself that people change. Who doesn’t change in two years? And it was okay while it was just… just books and ideas. People can grow up. Maybe you grew up. Or maybe I never knew you very well to start with. You never let me know you—you always kept so much from me. So maybe I just never saw that part of you before. Or maybe you’ve been faking it this afternoon. How do I know? Maybe you’ve been stringing me along today. It wouldn’t be the first time! Myths and Greek words and French painters… how do I know if any of it is true, or just made up? You know I don’t know! Maybe you’re just refining your act, practicing for some heiress."
I couldn’t take any more of this. I knew the man she meant, all right—the kind of man—and I hated him as much as she seemed once to have loved him. I was indignant, frankly, that she had squandered herself on him. I grabbed her shoulders gently but firmly. The feel of the soft flesh beneath her thin shirt evaporated any last trace of timidity in me.
"Do you really think this has been an act? Look into my eyes and tell me I’m acting."
She looked over her shoulder, instead, at my hand. The lowered lid showed no fear—it held a full tear for seconds on its lashes—but it also signaled a strange distance, almost a state of trance.
"I know you’re not acting. Because of your eyes—your eyesight. Because of the necklace, and what you said earlier about my sweater and that TV that needed tuning. You can see colors, Richard!" She bent very close to my fingers, which rose on her contracted shoulder, and whispered into them, "My middle-name Richard!" That was the first moment when I confided to my conscious mind, in so many words, that I loved Celine.
"And you see things with taste," she went on. "You have an eye for beauty now. You, of all people—you who used to make fun of my designs. But it’s not you. That’s just it. All of this, it’s not the kind of thing anyone could fake. So then you’re not Richard, after all, are you? And me taking you for him all afternoon, talking to you as if you were him… I’m not cured at all, am I? Mona told me I’d be fine, but my mother was right. I’m not there yet—I’m not even close. Maybe I’m farther away now than I’ve ever been—maybe I can’t even remember what he looks like. Now I’ll have to go back… back there. I don’t won’t to go back there!"
I was losing her to the convulsions again. What I did next was all wrong, from a professional standpoint. But I had no profession then. I was a lost young man who had found his way, or so he thought, in this lost child. And so I folded her trembling shoulders from behind in the blanket of my arms. My jacket was unzipped, and I held her slender, shivering spine against my broad, warm chest. I had no doubt that I could smother the tremors just as my gaze could at once have purified all her doubts about my sincerity. And, indeed, I felt her calming in my embrace. Maybe a boy knows some things better than a man. With my lips, I sought her ear through a sweet, smooth curtain of hair, and I spoke the spell which love and whimsy suggested to me.
"Listen to me, Celine! Who I am and who you are... it all started today, when we first met. There’s you, there’s me, there’s right now, and there’s all our lives from now on. Call me Richard—Richard’s fine. I like Richard. I’m the Richard who’s not blind—who knows gold when he sees it. We can go anywhere we want, do anything we please. Who’s to stop us? We’ll join the circus. You’ll tell fortunes, and I’ll tame lions. We can live in a little shack—I’ll unload boxcars by day, and you can make spaghetti for my dinner. What’s it matter—what’s any of it matter? All I know is that my life began today, the minute I saw you. You can’t leave me now. Half a day isn’t long enough to live, not with our whole lives ahead of us. I can make it all okay for you. That’s all I want to do with my life from now on… to pay you back for that time you lost, to make you forget the pain. This is the day when the nights stop getting shorter. This is the day when the sun starts to come back."
Then I pressed my cheek down into her hair, and I held her that way until my shoulders told me that our lungs were going up and down in unison. At last the thick wave of thin locks shifted slightly under me, and I felt a moist whisper upon my neck.
"All right," she said. "All right.
My life immediately grew very complicated. In a way, it grew very simple, too: its sole focus was Celine, and the sole purpose of getting up in the morning was to see Celine. But accomplishing that purpose required a subterfuge which rendered all of my comings and goings very intricate. My mother was at once alert to the strange distance which she saw in my gaze and heard in my vague answers. I’m sure my younger brother and sister were also impressed by it, though they must have ascribed it to the kingly aura of the "independent adult" rather than to any more specific cause. In fact, I could have squeezed as much savor from the role of Worldly Graduate Student as I’d wanted if I had had any time for such trivial pursuits. That’s the irony of the whole game, of course. Only a juvenile heart longs to bask in the admiration of those who admire its maturity: a truly mature heart doesn’t even notice that it is being admired, or perhaps smiles at the admiration’s childishness. I don’t think I paid enough attention to my family, however, to entertain these uplifting thoughts. All of them—Mom, Roger, Meg—were just so much clutter on my radar which I had to steer around or navigate through. I guess I was being immature in a different way rather than showing any growth spurt. I was exchanging an eagerness to impress my family for an eagerness to fling myself at Celine’s feet, the latter actually being a far more fanatical eagerness than the former had been. If I had truly possessed some kind of manly poise during those holidays long ago, I would have paused to reflect that my family had a claim upon my affections, too, and hadn’t seen me for several months. But I can’t be too hard on myself as I was then. A young man is constantly trying to put his boyish past behind him and hurl himself into the future. This is probably nowhere more true than when he first meets the woman who represents that future for him as does no other single person on earth.
Dad was a different story. In an odd sort of way, I think the situation brought me closer to him than I would have been if I were strutting about the house dispensing superior smiles over all the gift-wrapping, tree-trimming, and candy-making. I can’t imagine a man so little afflicted by the need to show off finding my ostentation at all interesting; and the one serious topic that I had already tried to tackle with him—the politically poisonous atmosphere of grad school—was probably one of the few grave issues under the sun which he couldn’t handle knowledgeably, as I wrote earlier. But now he was almost like a co-conspirator with me. Over supper during those four days before Christmas, I was always in the hot seat. I would invariably have done some skulking around in the day or be planning some for the evening which I wasn’t inclined to explain. (Of course, I couldn’t very well skip out on our family suppers to court Celine: the barbarity of it wouldn’t have stopped me, but the indiscretion of it warned me off.) My attitude was absolutely beyond my mother’s comprehension. Hadn’t I gone out last night? Why was I going out again tonight? To see Jimmy Warwick again? Since when had we become such good friends? If I went to his house, could I deliver a box of cookies to his mother? We weren’t going to be drinking, were we? The probes did not come all at once, but between seams of the conversation and under the cover of comments they trailed with the loosest of logic. If I had been faced merely with the chore of fighting off one stiff onslaught, I might have toughed it out without much trouble. But the effect of this constant sharp-shooting was very wearisome, and I must have sighed pretty heavily between mouthfuls sometimes. Without Dad’s help, I might very well have lost my temper. His ability to deflect Mom’s questions was flawlessly good-natured. "Cookies! Since when have you become such good friends with Mrs. Warwick?" he smirked once, and later, "A twenty-three-year-old man who’s never been drunk a day in his life isn’t going to start because he’s seeing a few high school friends at Christmas."
It was actually Mom who ended up getting angry. I could hear them later on through the vent of the upstairs bathroom, which sometimes brought me reconnaissance from the most unlikely places. This conversation was probably being waged just below me in the laundry room. "I can tell when something’s not right," my mother kept repeating. "You should be helping me rather than interrupting me." My father might have indignantly clamored for a more responsible use of the word "interrupt", as I would have done… and then push would have come to shove. Instead, he picked up on another word. "I am helping you. I’m helping you not to ruin Christmas for yourself and everyone else."
The only problem that really occupied me at the time, however, was how to arrange meetings with Celine without smothering her in my attentions. I had virtually no idea of what family commitments she had for the holidays, but she was apparently going into her job right up until Christmas Eve. That was just as well for me. Otherwise, half of me would have been wanting to spend the whole day with her, every day. But the other half was restrained by something like decency, if not sanity—or even more probably, by something like self-consciousness. I dare not seem overly pushy and scare this rare bird back into the forest forever, just as I dare not play it too cool and let her follow her inclination to run away from the "wrong Richard". I settled for meeting her at lunch time the day after our encounter at the mall—we had a very low-key half-hour at a sandwich shop which, she said, was within walking distance of her job. From then on, we scheduled our rendezvous in the evening (including one that same evening, at the park). The hour had to be fairly late in the evening, since we only finished supper at home around seven o’clock (more like seven-thirty: I’m afraid I rather rudely gulped it all down and took French leave, to use my mother’s terminology). As I look back now, I’m surprised that the obvious explanation didn’t occur to Mom: I had met a girl, and I had a date each evening. But then, what young man returned from grad school for Christmas suddenly "meets a girl" in his hometown and starts chasing after her like a teenager? No, I’m not surprised at all. I’m only surprised that I behaved like a teenager. I was probably surprised in that respect at the time—I certainly wasn’t unaware of my situation’s silliness. But I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t so much as summon the will to wish that I could fight it. On the contrary, nothing like this had ever happened to me.
Celine never breathed a word about having to spend this or that evening with this or that parent or relative, so my discomfort about pressing her too hard wore off quickly. At the same time, I wondered how she could be so alone. I have written that we met in the evenings after one attempt to squeeze our time together into the narrow window allotted everywhere for lunch. Those evenings are blurred together for me now, after all these years. In a way, they seem many in retrospect, twice as many as their true number could have been; and in a way, they seem a single long, intimate exchange between two people, one of them increasingly in love with the other, that other always a little frightened and confused. After more effort than I would like to admit or would ever have believed necessary, I can separate our encounters into distinct occasions. None of this is to say that my memory is going, or that what I’m about to write is a story-teller’s invention. I’m sure I’ve already used artistic license here and there in trying to resurrect a conversation that happened decades ago, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. We embellish even what we recall from yesterday or this morning. But I’m also sure that I am being very faithful to the substance of each exchange. There are certain visual images, and even certain sensations of the ear and nose, which I shall remember until my heart lies still and the blood ebbs from my brain—whereupon, if I go to heaven, I shall recover all those images intact and multiplied. What I’m saying is that everything else around them—the circulation of the day which made them possible, the composition of the day which almost made them impossible—is now a great gray swirl. It is the sallow, crinkled edge, that vital background detail, around some ancient photograph in whose middle a beloved face is forever young.
The walk through the park on the evening of our rendezvous for lunch proved a bad idea. Although the weather continued clear and the days had an amber, wine-like quality which left you slightly tipsy, they nevertheless ended early. Once night descended, the temperature quickly dropped. I recall that we had to walk fast just to stay warm, and our swollen lips almost missed the "r’s" on the few words they exhaled from upturned collars. Yet I recall, too, the joy of bending to catch Celine’s eroded words in my ear, and to capture her frosty breath in my nostrils. I recall saying at the end of the jaunt, "You’re shivering. It was wrong of me to drag you out here at this hour," and then holding her tight—so tight—against my jacket on the pretext of warming her up. I’m sure that neither of us was very much deceived by the pretext, especially when I closed my eyes and rocked her back and forth.
The next night began in the grocery store, of all places. Celine had remarked over the phone (when I called her: she never presumed to call me) that she was about out of food and had to make a trip to the supermarket. I was the one who had the bright idea of meeting her there. The arrangement reassured me: obviously, she could not have been concealing very much if she would allow our trysts to be diverted into something as prosaic as getting groceries. Yet this glimpse into her intimate routine also renewed my wonder at the desolation of her personal life. Why was she getting groceries the night before Christmas Eve? Why wasn’t she being feasted by a doting family, like me? If she got along so well with this Mona, who appeared to be her best friend as well as her boss, then why hadn’t Mona given her a few days off for the holidays? Especially if her family lived out of town, what was she still doing here—why wouldn’t she have left to be with them? It certainly wasn’t for me… was it? If it was for me, then was it for the Richard whom I was supposed to be—or not supposed to be, I should say? How could it possibly be for a stranger she met a few dozen hours earlier at the mall? Was she, then, planning to spend Christmas Day alone in her apartment? If so, I had to know about it—because I wasn’t going to let that happen. Even if I had to leave my own family—even if I had to have some definitive falling out with my mother—I had already decided that I wasn’t going to let Celine be alone on Christmas.
I actually enjoyed shopping with her. The word "charming" has been so overused, and used so artificially, that I can’t quite bring myself to write it now. But I did indeed feel as if someone had struck me with a magic wand as I wandered up and down aisles with her, standing with my hands in my pockets while she examined apples or compared the price of cheeses. The other men who passed me in the company of women were most certainly husbands. What I wouldn’t have given, then and there, to be able to go home with this fair-haired child of the Aurora Borealis, help her store away cans and boxes, sit with my arm around her before the evening news, and then find a dark retreat with her under three winter blankets! When we finally reached the checkout counter, I was pierced with an unexpected twinge of humiliation and regret upon realizing that my checkbook had no part to play here.
We hadn’t discussed doing anything afterward. When she had mentioned the grocery store over the phone, I had just dived in and said, "Well, then, let’s go grocery shopping!" I think we had both been somewhat intoxicated by the idea’s… its what? Not its absurdity, for it seemed anything but that to us. By its very sensibleness, in a way: by the fact that we could do something so sensible, so ordinary together. What could be more intimate than that? Only the rites of a couple puttering around their little domestic nest… and maybe that’s why Celine resisted my offer to drive her home, help her unpack the groceries, and then trek back to my car. She said that it was too cold for me to go rambling in the dark, that the distance was too far; but when she added that her apartment was a mess with last-minute gift-wrapping, I knew that, at the bottom, she wasn’t quite ready to have that space invaded by me. I backed off.
I also knew that she wasn’t entirely alone. I don’t mean that I suspected her of harboring another person in her apartment, but only that I registered the plain fact of her having some friends and family around, since she had been wrapping presents. And in the oddest sort of way, I felt my relief on that score grow overshadowed by a disappointment. I suppose something in me had wanted the two of us to be alone against the world: Christmas Eve transformed into The Eve of Saint Agnes!
So instead of going back to her place, we stood talking after the last brown bag was stored in her trunk. Once a few minutes had passed, I suggested that we sit in my car, parked next to hers. I said that her frozen things wouldn’t thaw very quickly at this temperature, and that we might as well keep ourselves warm if we were going to talk for a little while.
"What a nice car!" she shivered after I’d shut her door and run around to let myself in behind the wheel. "It still smells new." Our hermetic enclosure made her voice seem suddenly right on my shoulder: in her s’s I could hear all the crispness of a tongue against moist teeth.
I turned to her, the vinyl seat moaning drowsily under my coat. "It’s my dad’s."
Her pale, brilliant eyes darted away from me to the ceiling, and kept darting behind her nervous lashes. With my first sentence, I had already blundered. How badly… how hard would it be to get back from this ledge? But no, I wasn’t going back. I leapt forward with all the confidence of a man plunging to his death.
"I’m staying with my family, Celine. I… I live here. I grew up here."
"Really? I’ve been meaning to ask. I mean… yeah, that’s what I mean. I’ve been meaning to ask. Because I didn’t know. I don’t know anything about you but what you tell me."
Now her eyes were fixed upon the darkness straight out the front window, like a driver’s who is unable to see the road through a thick fog. I watched her pupils grow larger, watched her chest rise and fall beneath her woolen pullover (where, at the height of inhalation, her breasts defined their roundness from the folds).
At some point I shook off a spell concocted of fear, doubt, and something like sensual longing. "Anyway… yeah, I was going to speak to you about my family. About my staying with them. I was going to say that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea if you called and asked for Richard. Because they don’t use that name for me at home, and my Mom’s already suspicious about why I keep leaving the house at strange hours."
I could have fallen on my knees and said a long prayer of thanks to the God of Graces when she queried, with the flicker of a smile, "And what do you tell her?"
"Certainly not the truth!" I laughed—and then realized that my hearty chuckle would sound serpentine if she hadn’t guessed that it sprang from her recognizing me as not Richard. "I mean… the truth would be something like, ‘Mom, I’ll die if I can’t see this girl that I met at the mall over the weekend. I know this is Christmas, and that I’ve been away for months, but… I can’t… I’ve got to go!"
Her smile kindled from my laughter a bit, though she remained gazing out the front window. "I don’t like the sound of that! I don’t want to be destroying your family’s Christmas!"
"It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. It’s just a little chipped here and there… and that’s my mom, it’s not you. But if you call and someone else answers, and you ask for me—"
"You mean, if I ask for Richard," she said glumly. Her gaze ahead was all at once no longer searching, but riveted. A furrow appeared between her slender brows, and her jaw rose in a way which made her minutely fluted, precisely modeled lower lip protrude during her brief pause. A strip of radiance from the parking lot’s floodlights ran smoothly over that lip just before the deep line where it merged with the upper one. "I ask for Richard, and she says I have the wrong number, and you snatch the phone from her hand, and then you have to explain to her why I call you Richard. You have to tell her that you’re seeing a girl who’s a little off her…"
"Celine, don’t!" I insisted.
"I’m to call you… Anthony, is that right? You only told me once. When we first met. Your very first words, almost. If I phone you, I’m to call you Anthony."
I followed this incredible concession (incredible to me… why? because I had actually thought her mentally unstable?) without taking a breath. When it was over, my voice, almost too faint to hear, sounded sad to me. I should have expected it to sound happier. "Yes. Yes, that would be better. But she’ll be suspicious no matter what you call me. That was my main point. And… as far as we go, you can call me Richard all the time. If you want to. It’s my middle name—I don’t know if you remember my telling you that, too. Nobody’s ever called me by it before, and I kind of like the idea of your doing it. I mean, because… because I’ve never known anyone like you before." When I saw her face begin to soften, I added, "In a way, I became a new person when I met you. I feel like I became alive for the first time. So I’m really not the same person, you see."
Her eyes had sunk from the window to the dashboard to her lap, and I thought she was going to speak once when, instead, she closed her lips again and puffed out her cheeks. I watched her left hand, just a few inches from where my fingers dangled over the arm rest, flex and relax over and over in a geometrician’s dream of perfect circles and perfect squares.
"My mother is funny about things, too," she finally said, still studying her lap. This was the only time I would hear her speak openly of her family in those early days. "Before I left home, when I was still in high school, she always had to know who I was going out with. If it was a boy, she had to know all about him—how I’d met him, how he’d spoken to me, how he dressed and cut his hair, what I knew about his family. If I didn’t make the right answers, I couldn’t go out. And I usually didn’t go out, because all the answers were never right. Sometimes I cheated a little, just to get out of the house. But then I’d find out later that mother had been right, after all. That was the worst of it. She was always right. I didn’t mind her being right, but… I minded her being right about everyone else being wrong. About all the boys being… being what they were. It got to where I got really scared of boys, because I was scared that I would be alone all my life, but scared that there was nothing else but this, no other choice but this—that this was the only way out. Boys, I mean. One time, in my junior year, one of them threw me out of his car because I wouldn’t do what he wanted. It was right about here. He’d parked in this parking lot. I ended up… there’s the phone booth I used over there. I expected mother to give me an ear-full, but she never said a word. Not one single word. That night, before I went off to bed, she ran her hand through my hair. It was like her telling me, ‘You poor kid, you’re doomed, and there’s nothing I can do for you.’ Or like her telling herself—like her thinking, ‘The evil prophecy is beginning to happen. I’ve done all I can. My girl will be destroyed.’"
I must have been almost gaping by the last few sentences of this soliloquy. The thought of a girlish Celine being almost raped in the very spot where we sat, then trembling and sobbing in the very phone booth that I saw fifty feet away, held me bound and gagged before the outrageous prophecy of doom which, in some vague manner, Celine continued to reveal.
"It’s not that you don’t appreciate it when your mother gives you advice… or it wasn’t that I didn’t, anyway. But there should be some hopeful advice, too. Or if the advice is all about all the wicked people in the world, why does it have to be such good advice? Why does it always have to be true? If that’s all there is, wouldn’t the best thing be to let your child find out for herself? Wouldn’t that be better than knowing… knowing that every man was hopeless the instant you met him?"
Thank God, I did not launch the protest that was on my tongue: something like, "And me? You think I would do something like that to you?" There was no reason to force myself into these bitter recollections. The more proper thing was to let them keep rolling along, as recollections. I’m sure that my sense of timidity kept me silent far more than whatever sensitivity to others I had… but silence was the right response. Finally, in what may actually have been a true flash of emotional insight, I remarked, "It doesn’t sound as though your mother has had a very happy life."
Celine gave a voiceless laugh—an outrush of breath through her nostrils, since her lips shut tight in a smile. I found it a rather warm smile, under the circumstances: her large eyes warmed it, looming over it with the streetlights caught in their glaze. "Poor Mom! No, she’s not what you’d call a happy person."
"Did you… did you live nearby here, back then? I mean, if this pig decided to choose this particular parking lot…."
"Not too far from here. Over in Westbrook Hills."
"That’s a very nice part of town."
"Yeah. That neighborhood and the ‘boy’ thing were enough to ruin my reputation at school. They all decided that I thought I was better than they were. The funny thing is, we couldn’t afford that house. We had a piano when I was younger, but that got sold pretty soon. Most of the rooms upstairs were almost empty." Then she noticed the look on my face: it was good to realize that I was receiving a glance ever so often. "What are you thinking? You look like you’re trying to remember something."
"I was just thinking… with us living down the street a few blocks from here… and back then I was probably just sitting up in my room, as I did on a lot of weekend nights. If only I’d known that you were here, that that was happening! I would have put on my cape, jumped out the window, and been here in a flash! That guy would have ended up between the apples and the bananas!"
I couldn’t have put in the plug for myself at a better time. Since she had offered me a penny for my thoughts, I was not gate-crashing upon her sad reminiscences to assert my ego—and my protest against the young gorilla’s behavior, as I see now, may well have been something that she wanted to hear from me. I can look back now and marvel at how I made just the right moves at just the right time; but the truth, of course, is that these were not "moves" at all. Nothing could have been less calculated. Age forgets that youth, quite without wisdom’s help, can do right things from love. My weathered mind and withered heart have to struggle sometimes to appreciate the kind of energy which inspired me then.
Since we’d reached a pleasant note, and since we knew that we needed to part company about now, we both began to talk about tomorrow night as if on cue.
"It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow," I said. "I guess you’ll probably want to go be with your mother… or someone else in the family. Maybe if I could just see you… I don’t know. We could always try lunch again. It was kind of a madhouse yesterday, but at least I’d get to see you."
"I won’t be going to my mother’s until Christmas day. Her new husband has two children, so they have their own sort of…."
"Chestnut-roasting ’round an open fire," I joked, and won that sad wry smile from her, the broad high point of her right upper lip climbing, her lashes falling like a curtain. I held back from observing that the same mother who had warned her against all men clearly hadn’t refused herself a little indulgence—that was way too far out of bounds; but the thought certainly crossed my mind. "So you’ll be over there on Christmas day?" I pried instead, anxious for one more glance in the family closet.
"Christmas morning. I’ll go over so they can open their presents. I’m skipping Christmas dinner since I’m going over to Mona’s for supper. She has no one—her only son is in… Allentown, I think. Pennsylvania… right? The steel town? Too far for her to travel."
"It’s not very comfortable for you, though, is it? I mean… at your mother’s. It seems like you don’t really want to go there, very much."
The fingertips of her raised hands interlaced in a gesture whose purpose escaped me. All I could think of was the miraculous elegance of the two thin wrists looping from the pullover at right angles.
"He’s all right… her husband. And the little girl, she’s about ten. I get along well with her. Stacey. I got her a sewing kit. I think she’s really going to be surprised. But the older boy—well, he’s no boy. He’s about our age." With a big sigh, she concluded, "I just don’t like being around him."
Again with the wisdom of age, I have decided that the inclusion of "he’s about our age" leaves no room for doubt that this stepbrother, too, had been brushing up against Celine and pressing her into tight corners. And with the genius of young intuition, I’m again sure I recognized the same thing then. I was a little bewildered that, no matter which direction this girl of my dreams and I walked, some avenue or corridor always opened up with a bone pile or a burned house at its end. To fight the sense of impending doom which Celine exuded at such moments drew upon every ounce of optimistic energy I possessed.
Perhaps that very metaphor of wandering through some populated labyrinth entered my mind at the time: perhaps it caused me to turn my eyes out upon the suburban street corners surrounding our island of concrete and parked cars. At any rate, I was privy to one more inspiration that evening.
"Christmas lights! I’ll pick you up at your place tomorrow, and we’ll cruise around and look at Christmas lights!"
What an idea! A slow tour of the neighborhood’s decorated house fronts would be blandly holiday-cheerful, it would save us expenses which neither of us could well afford now, it would be one of those things of homely intimacy like grocery shopping (which obviously attracted her as much as me), and it would keep us moving—would save us from more anguishing confessions. Yes, love had served me well in my want of wisdom. As she suddenly let herself out of the car, surprising me a little with the abruptness of the resolution, Celine caught my wrist and squeezed it, allowing her chilly fingers to run the length of mine and return for a split second upon their tips.
The next evening was indeed an idyllic Christmas Eve for us—perhaps the best of my entire life—but I paid dearly for it back home. I had rushed through supper, as usual, and was in the process of mumbling the curt excuses which had become typical of me. I don’t blame my mother a bit for losing her composure. Now that I’m a father myself, I can imagine how several evenings of being sloughed off in this manner must have wounded her. If only everyone had known about Celine, if only she had been my high school sweetheart… a parent can accept neglect at such a level, and even feel sadly happy about it. But how on earth could I explain Celine? I was aware that I had been utterly, definitively "swept away" by her, and a young man is ashamed of no emotion before his parents more than a purely irrational one. He does not want to give them good cause to mistrust his reason just when he’s trying to establish his competence for handling life. I couldn’t have told Mom alone, either. Dad would have been brought into it: Mom would have run to him instantly. But that actually states my problem inside-out. If only I could have explained it to Dad, I think he would have understood. He was a man, and a gentleman, as they used to say. The honor of devotion would not strike him as something irrational, but rather as something necessary for survival. And he would have kept my secret. But I didn’t need a father-confessor or an advisor: I needed Mom off my tail.
When I got up from the table to leave, her face grew as slack as if I’d slapped her, and she said (in a voice more accusatory than plaintive), "I thought we would all go look at Christmas lights after supper."
It was then that I very nearly spilled the story about Celine, in two or three sentences and in front of all four of them. Something like, "I’m going to see a girl, okay? I’ve been seeing her every night. I have to see her. If you want to kick me out of the house, I’ll go stay in a motel." Of course, that would not have been the story about Celine at all, and I couldn’t possibly have devised a worse way to introduce her to the family. Fortunately, my own stars are lucky ones, not the ominous group which tormented Celine. I have always been endowed with the happy quality of chewing on my words before I spit them out. My younger brother Roger would, in my shoes at that moment, have let something fly which nobody present would ever forget. The tense silence which preceded my own ruthless announcement, however, was broken by my father, so that announcement was never made.
"You didn’t tell me you wanted to see the lights," said Dad with mock simplicity.
"Do I have to make an appointment?" fired back Mom, still aghast—now more than ever—at the churlishness which had invaded her household. "Are we not a family any more? Do I just assume that you’re all going to be gone on Christmas Eve unless I check your schedules? I certainly know better than to expect anyone to go to midnight Mass any more… but I thought some of you might at least stay on the premises."
The unwise appeal to the whole table sealed the defeat of her proposal. My sister Meg would never have opened her mouth until someone else had taken the brunt of the attack: now she thought it safe to speak up. "As a matter of fact, Mom… I told Melanie that I’d stop by tonight. I did mention to you that they were having a little party." Probably a complete fabrication, off the cuff. "And anyway, I’ll only be gone about an hour. We can do something when I get back." Also completely disingenuous. Three hours minimum, and she knew Mom would never take her up on her generous compromise.
Mom looked at us all as though we had betrayed her to the Sanhedrin: it felt more like the Eve of the Crucifixion. "What about you, Roger? Would you like to drive me around town to see the lights?"
"Hey, I never said I wasn’t coming," said Dad. "The only way you can keep me out is to let Roger do the driving."
"Why don’t you two go?" shrugged my younger brother with that aplomb he displayed only in matters requiring verve. "I was going to watch Mannix."
Everybody probably knew all along that the whole scene revolved around my strange behavior over the past few days. Nevertheless, Dad insisted that Mom leave the kitchen alone and get her coat. There was another flare-up when he asked if I needed his car again, and I remarked stupidly, "No, mine’s fine in the cold as long as I don’t let it stop running." Mom overheard, and unleashed a howl whose split-second insight frightened me: "So you’re not even going to turn the car off? You’re just cruising the town?" But I knew by the way that Dad shushed her up that the real purpose of their jaunt was to have Round Three or Four or Five about me where they could not be observed. He passed his keys to me and waved me out the door. Over my shoulder, I heard arrangements being made to take Meg’s car (which had been bequeathed to her by Dad, of course), drop her off at Melanie’s, and pick her up two hours later. Give her an hour more than she’d said she needed but an hour less than she would have taken: generosity and discipline in one and the same stroke! That was my father. God bless his soul, and God forgive me for harrowing one of his last Christmases.
Honesty compels me to confess that all the anguish I was putting my mother through, as well as all the noble sacrifices my father was making on my behalf, passed from my mind as I sped off through the suburbs, intent upon finding the street which led to Celine’s apartment complex. I had never appeared on her doorstep before, but the venue was nothing very revealing. Neither posh nor the worst that money could buy. I could probably have left my little Chevy coughing at the curbside while I ran up a flight of stairs if I had been reduced to traveling third-class—our city certainly wasn’t crime-free, but the riskier spots were still on the other side of town. (What idiot thief would have stolen that car, anyway?) Having Dad’s Buick at my disposal, however, was unquestionably an ego-booster. I played the grand host that night precisely as I had intended to do, never getting very personal, always whisking my lovely but brooding charge away to some new curiosity. I had taken care to feed our acquaintance with such moments from the start, a feat of sensitivity which, again, I can only put down to the genius of love. That evening was pure neutrality, rich in emotional sugar and carbohydrate, void of protein. We didn’t settle anything or even broach anything. We just logged time together. I had intuited that the more our bodies simply occupied the same proximate space, the better I would be able to wrestle with Celine’s demons when they could no longer be avoided.
My good luck also spared me the thought that I might cross paths with Mom and Dad while cruising the town. That particular horror only occurred to me in retrospect, as I lay in bed sleepless and without any ear for reindeer and sleigh bells. In the very deep retrospect of the present, I rather doubt that my parents actually went a-gawking as Celine and I had. More likely, Dad had forced Mom to sit with him through some movie—the sillier the better—or to calm herself in some overheated ice cream parlor. It was probably a Christmas Eve that she would never forget, either.
Celine and I parted very good friends, wishing each other a merry Christmas. I left her at her door, and she didn’t offer me any fruitcake or cookies. I think we both understood that the evening’s "therapy" called for us to stop well short of whatever intensity was just beneath the surface (and in me, of course, was the makings of a volcano). I didn’t even kiss her: I had not yet kissed her once in the four-day eternity that I had known her, and I wasn’t going to chance the first one now. I just held her hand until I couldn’t tell if its heat were more mine or hers.
A major reason that I have difficulty separating the various settings of our trysts, I think, is Christmas Day. There it stands in my memory, impossible, incredible, unique. It shouldn’t even have been in the file. By rights, Celine should have spent the whole day with her family, I with mine. We were just a couple of mainstream bourgeois naïfs: what a daring rupture of convention! One of the oddest things about the occasion, in fact, is that it so clearly turns oddity right back around in my face. I was odd! I had created the occasion, I had willed it against all propriety and common sense. Celine had an excuse to be eccentric—had several excuses: her split family, her recent health problems, her sentimental topsy-turviness over the hateful Richard. What was my excuse? How long had I been floating far adrift from the Standard Deviation Curve?
In fact, Celine had tried to dissuade me from meeting on Christmas Day as I had nosed the Buick back before her apartment the previous evening. The only time she could slip away, she had said, would be mid-afternoon: she had her mother in the morning and Mona in the evening. Maybe, she had said, I shouldn’t chance an exit at such an awkward, observable hour if I was trying to keep our secret. I hadn’t thought of this myself. It made good sense—but I remember being more disturbed that I had so successfully enlisted Celine into keeping our love a secret (her paranoia was contagious: was she, perhaps, ashamed of me?) than that I would have to extract myself from a household swelled in number by two grandparents and probably an aunt’s family. Aunt Martha’s family… well, the conundrum carried the seeds of its resolution. Aunt Martha’s family was enough to give anyone cabin fever, and very plausibly. I would simply arise at three o’clock and announce that I needed some fresh air (or I would sneak away behind the bodies, more likely, and whisper a word to Dad). Then I could walk the six or seven blocks down to a local oasis containing a drug store, a bakery, and a laundromat. I’d meet her in front of the drug store, I had exclaimed triumphantly to Celine—and not without a laugh. On Christmas afternoon, there would be no cars parked before these businesses, nor any snooping eyes of strolling adults and biking kids. (But why did I care about the snoopers? I recall being pinched by that thought, as well.)
Celine’s only objection had then been the weather, which was predicted to turn very cold. Possible snow flurries. She had been sincerely, visibly worried about my getting chilled during my seven-block hike. I had been so delighted by her concern that I don’t think I ever registered its logical content. I had said something like, "You really care, then, don’t you?" and she had answered, with a wounded pout that melted me—whose mere memory could have warmed me through a blizzard, or so I must have thought—"Of course I care!"
If I had nevertheless been the least bit bothered by her protest’s possible lameness ("Is she just afraid to tell me straight out that she doesn’t want to see me?" I kept thinking on Christmas Eve between visions of sugar plums), the next day justified her worries completely. Christmas morning was colder in broad daylight than the previous evenings had been, and with the vengeance of a strong north wind. It was a dry cold: a few flakes of snow milled before our timidly opened drapes, but we saw no accumulation of white upon the tawny dead lawns about us. Traffic moved freely, if rarely. Nothing prevented my grandparents from arriving at their appointed time (and I should say that I genuinely enjoyed talking with them that morning: my love hadn’t reduced me to utter boorishness or indifference where third parties were involved). We opened presents on cue, we had Christmas dinner on cue, Aunt Martha’s mob arrived on cue just when my family felt like dozing off (Grandad actually retreated to my room for a nap: he braved the stairs lest his rest be negated by little feet pitter-pattering to and from the downstairs bathroom)… everything went according to plan. Their plan… and mine, too. At the specified hour minus thirty minutes, I stretched luxuriously—but not ostentatiously—and sidestepped my way around kids playing with missile-launchers, comatose adult males, and women of a certain age murmuring on and on about… well, about subjects like my romance with Celine, probably, if only they had known. That was why I had to keep the lid on. I would decide my own fate and live my own life, thank you very much.
The only snag in my slick escape was Meg. Decorum absolutely demanded that I tell someone where I was going, and I chose her as least likely to impede my progress… whereupon she insisted that she wanted to come, too. She made just enough noise that Mom, who must have been keeping an eagle-eye out from the kitchen on my movements, noticed us at the front door. Her hands folded in her apron, she came staggering toward us across the marbled foyer floor (doing kitchen work in those dress shoes must have been comfortable!) without ever a word, glancing over her shoulder, obviously eager to keep intruders out of whatever family crisis she thought she was immersed in. Her look was more imploring than severe. It made me feel guilty as nothing she could say would have done. I uncorked my well-prepared and ridiculous excuse for plunging into twenty-degree weather, knowing that my not taking a car absolved me of all the most desperate sins, knowing also that it magnified the mystery of my behavior tenfold.
Of course, I instantly forgot about all of these anxieties after pulling the door behind me. I had anticipated delivering myself to my most delicious memories of Celine: holding her tightly to me at the mall, embracing her shivering shoulders in the park, feeling her fingers on mine as she slid out of Dad’s car, hearing her object, "Of course I care!" last night… but the wind, alas, was simply brutal. It knocked everything out of me, all thoughts guilty and giddy, repentant and ecstatic. It reduced me to a walking machine, and a very inadequate one. My toes felt frozen after one block. I was wearing a kind of parka, and the hood provided a little cover for my ears but also chuted gusts down behind my neck. I struggled to arrange the forward collar so that it would cover my mouth and nose. When that effort met with little success, I pulled on my elastic shirt collar and snuggled my chin and face down in it as far as I could. All things considered, I would probably have been all right—seven blocks, after all, is no trek across the Yukon—if I had just not left so early. It was the one point in which I had not adhered to my plan. I couldn’t help myself. At a certain moment, I just had to be off to see Celine.
Add to that the misfortune that Celine was fifteen minutes late (how I reproached her infidelity as I stomped along the concrete walkways before the closed stores: was she, then, not even a little impatient to see me?), and you have the picture of a thoroughly miserable young man. Did I write "miserable", and "misfortune"? What blessed folly, to be twenty-three! Five minutes later, I was the most transported, passionately raptured human being on the face of the planet. Her yellow hatchback came wheeling through the empty lot at a speed which would certainly have drawn attention if any living soul had stood by to watch. She flung open the door before my gloved but frozen fingers could reach the handle. I was instantly beside her—close beside her. Maybe my haste to get in out of the cold had carried me into the passenger seat before she could vacate it, or maybe she was reaching to shut the door behind me. Maybe, too, she was trying to warm me back to life: certainly that, because she babbled some horrified remark about my face being blue and some abject apology about not being able to get her car started over at her mother’s. "They made me park in the street, of course," she whimpered in my ear as she reached inside my parka with both hands and pressed my body to hers. Between my coat’s unwieldy vastness and the gear box’s irritating presence just at her back, we had both sunk into an impossible position. As I gathered her around the waist and dug my heels in to right us, my half-frozen lips slid right across hers. Through the coldness of the Arctic, I felt the coolness of heaven. I kissed her, and then kissed her more times than I can count. Between rounds of measuring the perfection in her lips, her chin, her cheeks, I drew deep, cold breaths through her frosty hair, and I told the mind contained therein, "I love you," enough to match the number of our kisses. I said, "I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you"—not I want to, but I’m going to. I said, "The day I don’t have you any more is the day I stop living." I said, "Nothing that could ever happen to me could ever matter as long as I have you."
After a while—as her face lay half-buried under my parka and the winter stung my right shoulder through the window—I told her that I was going to start putting things in order. I said that, once I’d finished the spring semester’s course work, I could begin writing my thesis in earnest, which would not require me to be on campus regularly. I could even move back here, I said, and just make the trip to the university when I had to see my advisor. I could stay there a night or two in a motel, and I could get books through library loan. Over the summer, as I wrote my thesis, I could look for counseling jobs. I could get it all set up: in just a few months, maybe by Christmas next year, we would be all set up.
I said these things rather than repeating, "I love you," another hundred times because, first of all, they were what sprang to my tongue, and they sprang there from my heart. They were what I really felt. There was no maneuvering involved. To me, describing for Celine my vision of the two of us permanently, stably together—not my vision, but my very realizable design—was a way of repeating, "I love you," with force. Call it bourgeois or crude, if you like. It was at least not naïve: these were things I could do, even though they all demanded great energy. She would have seen that, too: she did see that. Proclaiming that I would have slain a dragon for her would have been empty bombast, a stain of dishonest excess: revealing to her how I would muscle a space for us in the adult world was an actual step into the line of fire. And as for bourgeois, and crude, is it less of these to want a woman’s body and tell her lies leading to its capture, or more? If it is bourgeois to lie for money, is it less so to lie for carnal relief? The joy I felt in kissing Celine and holding her that day was as much spirit as body. It was one part now, and one part forever: one part exploring the crease that bisected her lower lip, and one part caressing a sunbeam. I could easily cover my tail now before the cynics by reiterating—yet again—that I was twenty-three. Frankly, though, I was far older than the cynics then, and I hope I have not regressed.
The leaden lining of this silver cloud was that I took sick that night. The two women who most ruled my life, and whom I was terrified of bringing together, had both advised me against my trek through the cold air, and they were both proved right. I probably trapped too much moisture in my lungs when I covered my mouth with my shirt again for the trip back home (for I would not let Celine drop me off even within a couple of blocks: I think this foolish stunt was improvised for her eyes as some kind of medieval sacrifice, like wearing a hair shirt or walking barefoot up a mountain). Or maybe my body had finally just been taxed too far by missed sleep, curtailed meals, and hyperventilating anticipation. I wanted to fight against the despicable weakness of the flesh, of course, but my rattling cough soon convinced me that I would have to yield in this particular struggle. My mother seemed strangely pacified in her grim concern. Her silent frown was a combination of, "I told you so," and, "Now you’ll have to stay home."
As severe as was my own disappointment, I discovered that it, too, was tinged with peace. The last few days had been like a race, me against my shadow—my love of Celine, my invincible need to have her, against that other Richard who soiled and caricatured all our touches and kind words. (Or was it, perhaps, myself that I was running against—that other Anthony whom two princesses had cruelly snubbed in college and whom the girls at grad school regarded as fit fun for a dull weekend?) I had never been a moment without the fear of failure in the back of my mind, the fear of having pressed too hard always equaled by that of not pressing hard enough. Now I was off the hook, for a day or two. I was sick. There was nothing I could do but loll around in bed. For the next several dozen hours, I was allowed the luxury of reveling in a great race finally won.
My one poisonous anxiety upon waking up with a chill and a cough was that I might not be able to get word to Celine before evening. I now knew where she worked and could look up the number… but what if she had taken the day off, or were unavailable? And when would I be able to get at a phone unnoticed? (There were two in our house, but neither occupied what you would call a private position: on the contrary, the jacks seemed to have been strategically positioned to permit eavesdropping from four or five directions at once.) The latter problem quickly solved itself. My mother, satisfied that I was hors de combat, took off with Dad early in the morning to return several gifts of clothing that didn’t fit (probably at that same mall where I had met Celine). Roger was sleeping till noon these days after his grueling nights of watching whatever movies The Late Show found to throw at him. With similar predictability, Meg would burst from her room at about nine-thirty, make a fifteen-second pass through the kitchen (I have no idea what she imbibed in transit: I could never turn my head fast enough), and vanish through the garage door in a jingle of keys. The field was mine, then, by ten o’clock. I could stump miserably, robed and slippered, to the upstairs phone in full confidence that my privacy would not be invaded.
It was Celine, in fact, who answered the number I dialed. "Images Unlimited," her voice chirped through the receiver, "how may I help you?" My own voice was so convincing in its raspy morbidity that merely identifying myself was a greater challenge than explaining my business. "Richard!" she finally exclaimed in hushed excitement. "I told you you shouldn’t have come out yesterday!… I’m glad you did, too, but… no. Yes. Positively, you need to stay in today. And tomorrow. As long as it takes…. Me, too."
Those were the highlights. I ascribed the terseness to her being in a room full of other employees, or perhaps clients whose names she didn’t even know. Certainly the concern in her whispers sounded genuine. The "me, too" was in response to my parting, "I love you"—and it was delivered with feeling, even though it was not verbally embellished. What could you expect in those circumstances? I would have been far more uncomfortable if she had advertised effusions in front of strangers. Celine wasn’t like that: whatever expression of emotion you got from her was the real thing, and couldn’t be appraised on the basis of how much noise it made. At that moment, I had absolutely no doubt that she loved me… nor do I now. Maybe what I should write is that I hung up without any inkling that another big bump lay just around the corner. I saw only smooth coasting through infinite fields in full blossom.
It actually did take me two days in bed—two evenings without Celine—to recuperate tolerably from my hacking cough. I’m seeking a seam somewhere in my story now to break off the chapter, for what was about to happen definitely began a new chapter in my life, even if it was temporally still attached to the Christmas holidays. I prefer to leave those first days bundled in bright foil and bound with a golden ribbon, just as I shall set them apart in these pages. For there were moments when being with Celine was pure heaven. The other moments cast a cold, dark shadow over these, but did not stain them: they always remained the happiest days of my life—the most blessed, holy days—despite their being stockaded in depression and paranoia. Even when I realized that, in some grotesque fashion, they caused the other days—that extreme happiness somehow threw Celine into a panic, so that she would crush her head on the pavement rather than wait for the sky to fall on her—I will never be able to view the good days as anything other than my making true contact with the true Celine. She loved me as much as she possibly could. If she perhaps would not have managed much more than that "me, too" even in complete privacy, the "me, too" was still a triumphant assertion above the terrifying voices of her demons.
There were two interesting encounters in my bedroom over the next two days (they may have come in the same afternoon: I honestly don’t remember). My mother had removed the tray of soup and crackers which she’d served me and had come back to see if I needed anything else. Of course, I’d felt a lot worse than this at college on occasions and had no one to wait on me hand and foot, so I was sensitive to her attentions. I never wanted to hurt her at any stage of this affair—far from it. But there wasn’t much I could do to keep her from hurting herself. As she retreated from my room the second time, she hung back and dealt me a long look which electrified me. I had seen that face, just days ago—but not on her. The haunting, dark-eyed stare, searching and searching for a lighter corridor among thick clouds… at last it came to me. The mall, out in front of the jeweler’s shop—just before I met Celine. My own reflection in the display window. I remembered how, as a child, I had often heard it said that I looked more like her than any of the other children. It was a compliment, for she was a handsome woman.
"You do know," she finally said at an impressive crawl, "that Beverly Brady isn’t the same girl she once was…."
I was astonished. I think my lips started to frame a gigantic Who? when the name suddenly conjured up certain very sad associations in me—certain feelings which had once made me weep. I regrouped, and came back with a question like, "Did something happen to Beverly?"
"Yes, she… but I thought you knew this, Anthony! You were the one that first told me, about three summers ago."
"Oh, that. I thought you meant she’d been in a car wreck, or something. A drunken car wreck," I couldn’t help adding in cruel jest.
I had now astonished her, in turn. I think it was the jest that dumbfounded her, for she had imagined herself to be charting a course through very delicate waters. She began to work her wedding ring around and around with the fingers of her right hand, as she always did when she was extremely perplexed. "But even though she’s back home now," she said still more slowly—almost in a drone, "and even though she may appear to have all the pieces back together again… you should know that appearances can be deceiving. To protect yourself, you should know. I was talking to Mrs. Lambert…."
At this point, her voice trailed into nothing. She must have been waiting for some sign of agitation on my face, or perhaps of irritation. Instead, I think I must have looked faintly bored. I pitied Beverly Brady as I pity Dido of Carthage, but the one was no more real to me then than the other.
"So you haven’t seen Beverly?" she very nearly whispered.
I sighed and leaned meditatively back on my pillow. "About a week after senior prom was the last time I was alone with Beverly, and the last time I saw her at all must have been the day I graduated from high school."
Obviously, Mom had imagined that she had put all the pieces together. I should have shown some mercy on her, no doubt; but instead, I could only keep picturing what mincemeat she would make of Celine if she had now decided that I needed protecting from Beverly—Beverly, the good girl whom she herself had pushed me toward all those years ago. I was probably also slightly alarmed that, ludicrous though her error was, she had found her way into the right ballpark. In fact, her intuition about such things could be unnerving. That I had scored a small victory over it, therefore, gave rise to a wicked little smirk on my face as the door closed. I’m not proud of that smirk… but as a middle-aged adult now, I can say that she had left me no exits where I wouldn’t soil my knees or elbows. Parents who want their children to keep clean consciences should not paint them into moral corners.
Either later that afternoon or some time during the following day’s, my sister Meg also blessed me with a visit. She came right to the point (as she always did when she intended the point to be reached at all). Cynthia Cooley (or some such initiate of her set) insisted that I was in Danforth’s Deli a few days before Christmas with "this beautiful, beautiful girl". And then Meg gazed upon me as if I were Mick Jagger. If she had held a piece of paper in her clasped hands, I would have offered my autograph.
Immediately I recalled the college incident when my cousin had sworn up and down before my grandmother that I had been sighted in some swinging dive a few nights earlier. This confrontation was part of our family mythology now, thanks largely to me: I had been deeply offended at the time, and I made sure all on my side of the family knew it. I could easily have played that card heavily upon Meg’s eye-witness. I could have lifted my brows and said, "Hmm, here we go again with these sensational sightings of your brother being hip in public places." Frankly, though, I felt far too proud to be vexed, or even alarmed. The praise which Meg lavished upon my mysterious companion’s unearthly aura was manna to me. I simply smiled and waited for her to dish out more.
"Is she really beautiful? Cynthia thinks everyone’s beautiful who’s not overweight… but she said really, really beautiful. That’s why you’ve been going out every night, isn’t it? Are you going to marry her?"
And then she got to the point of her point. "What will you give me if I don’t tell Mom? Can I have another charm to go on my bracelet?"
A thought seized me, and I started to laugh. I laughed some more—I laughed so hard that I careered headlong into a violent fit of coughing. And then I laughed some more. What if Meg told Mom? What if she told her that I was courting the most exquisite girl on earth? It wouldn’t have come from me, so Mom would harbor no illusions about my soliciting her advice or approval. (My reluctance to invite her judgment of Celine was surely at the heart of my not breathing a word to her: I knew that both discovery and judgment would be bound to happen eventually.) Maybe this hot scoop from the deli would set some of Mom’s worries to rest, at any rate. But it would also torment her with new ones. She would be eaten up by the desire to know more. All in all, it would be a zero-sum gambit: the losses would match the gains. And since it wasn’t worth encouraging, the best answer was no answer. Say nothing. I well knew, having served years of apprenticeship as a big brother, that teenaged girls observe some unwritten law against divulging anything to a parent unless they can extract hard cash or clear profit from it.
"Close the door on your way out," I croaked weakly as I nestled back under my blankets. "I feel a swoon coming on."
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De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia
In a recent U.S. News and World Report [September 16, 2002], I noticed the following two very awkward phrases within three pages! In a story about West Nile Virus, this sentence: "That’s many times as high as the risk of getting HIV through blood." Shouldn’t that have been "higher than"? Then, in a story about human genetic mutation, "The mutation knocks out the gene for a form of sialic acid, a sugar that coats cells. Chimps and most animals have this form; humans have none" (my italics). As I say, these phrases strike me as very awkward. Are they not just plain ungrammatical? I am also dumbfounded that such wording could pass under the eye of a well-paid copy editor and not be red-flagged. What are these editors supposed to do, if not make reading smoother for those of us who can’t read the writer’s mind? U.S. News, besides, has always seemed to me the most "black tie" of the three mainstream news magazines (Time and Newsweek being the other two). If the USN staff is incapable of handling the English language any better than this, then how bad a shape must our whole culture be in?
Just Want the Facts
We would never presume to pass a judgment upon the relative merits of weekly news reporting’s Glossy Triad. Let it suffice to say that if you could compare the 1980 version (or even 1990 version) of any one of these three with the best of them today, you would confront unimpeachable witness to the decline of our writing skills. Besides the two brow-benders which you cite, any given issue of these publications seems routinely to contain a dozen patent grammatical errors nowadays.
The use of the equative ("as high as") in comparative circumstances ("higher than") is on the border of misuse, but must probably be allowed to slip past. Logic is more on your side. One building may readily be understood as three times higher than another, whereas to call it three times as high as another may invite an instant of discomfort among keen wits like yours. The latter phraseology has a kind of poker-chip logic: "I’ll see your building, and I’ll see it again, and once again," as if three quarters were being smacked down beside one. On the other hand (and by the same token, since we have dealt ourselves into this metaphor), the poker-chip visualization does make sense in its context. Think of situations involving "twice". We say "twice as fast", not "twice faster than"—and so we should, for "once faster than" would be nonsense, whereas "once as fast" could be glossed as "equally fast". What "twice" means is "just as fast, and once again as fast". Of course, "twice" is a legitimate adverb on its own. Strictly speaking, "many times" should be used adverbially only in a prepositional phrase, though such stickling is now archaic. In your instance and related instances, the preposition "by", as in "by many times", has been suppressed because its intent may be assumed. Now, would you say, "The risk is as high by many times," or, "The risk is higher by many times"? The comparative option (the second choice) is indisputably the better: the first option looks periphrastic enough to excite an attorney.
I might mention a pet peeve in passing: the popular abuse, "as high or higher", "as fast or faster", and so on. The equative expression must be completed before one shifts into a comparative expression: "as fast as or faster". This is the sort of gaff which goes everywhere unremarked today, even in the most highly reputed sources, and it is simply not defensible except in telegrams, last-breath confessions, or reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
In a postscript to my digression, I might also add that I recently heard a character on the relatively high-brow primetime drama, Law and Order, observe while pondering a seven-out-of-twenty statistic, "That’s almost a third." To at least one professional scriptwriter, one highly remunerated copy editor, one director, one actor, and countless other cue-card flashers, crewmen, stage hands, and camp followers, seven is almost a third of twenty! I already knew that Americans can’t read; know I suspect that we can’t count. The confusion over equatives and comparatives may quite possibly have more to do with mathematical than grammatical incompetence.
Your second faux pas is a clear case of an excessively remote antecedent—the kind of thing which freshman-comp teachers destroy their eyes and numb their brains correcting ad nauseam and to no apparent end. The "none" which humans (or their cells, to be exact) possess is sialic acid. Yet the previous clause has substituted "form" for "acid" as the noun of impending reference, and the demonstrative adjective "this" stands as a signpost in case we should lose our way. Unfortunately, "none" always implies a partitive genitive (as we used to say in Latin class): none of it, none of them; and "form", by definition, resists any sort of internal quantification. Half a mold is good for nothing. You can’t have more or less of a form as you can of an acid: you either have it or you don’t. Sloppy, sloppy writing! Even without Latin, a professional writer should have enough "ear" to shy away from this one.
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