Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Professor

The Professor and I became close companions during those years when I, like any young and curious man, was so deeply out to sea, amidst what I now recognize as the darkness of night, the confusion of the half-born, that I was unsure I would ever find myself and thereby be able to return safely from the journey — and in one piece, so to speak. Professor Scott Saft was my doctoral thesis advisor at Columbia, and in this capacity, he was also the single lighthouse available to me as I drifted about in the world of books. He was a remarkable, old-souled, independently-minded man who’d lost his father in World War II. He also had a knack for remembering quotations from literature and a penchant for delivering them with an uncanny sense of timing. Once, a long time ago and just before the events of this story, I walked into his office, pathetically heartbroken, my first love lost, and before I had a chance to tell him what had happened concerning Madeline and me, he cast this nugget across the room, “We never learn a thing from the ones who return our love.” I was momentarily speechless; what’s more, miraculously, instantly, I felt better. The man somehow saw the world move into place just before he himself ever dared to budge. And never did he fail to cite his sources, for as I took my seat that morning and told him my sad story, he recommended I read Lawrence Durrell, before, as he put it, “You lose watch of your heart again.” Since his suggestions translated in my mind to injunctions, I had the Alexandria quartet finished within a few months, but never even mentioned to him that I had undertaken the project. Because for us there were always more serious topics to discuss than romantic love. The Professor, though a committed Platonist, lambasted love as “that mad, grasping religion of the troubadour,” and suggested one never permit the spiritualization of love for another person to happen in one’s soul. But why do I even discuss this here? Love! The Professor himself would howl at me until my humiliation was complete, until my education was achieved.

One night in late autumn, the Professor, his wife Suzanne and I took in an authentic Irish production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Lincoln Center. We then decided to brave the chilly wind and stroll across the south end of the park towards the Safts’ apartment on the East Side for a nightcap. The Professor was delivering his view of the performance.

“Masterful,” he said. “As close to Beckett’s original vision as I’ve ever seen. So raw, so naked. Much like this wind.”

“The comedy too,” I ventured, “not over done, not awfully hammed up like I’ve seen it done before.”

“Yes, their comedy was thin, transparent. You could see right through the jokes to the inner emptiness.”

Personally, I had found the performance rather painful to watch, an effect I suspect Beckett had intended, and any cheerful instinct I may have oftentimes enjoyed after a show was nowhere to be found on this evening. I felt gloomy. The Professor, on the other hand, was glowing, and as we passed the carriages lined up on Central Park South he spontaneously began talking to one of the horses.

“What are we waiting for, horsie? Tell me, for you must know better than I.” He looked into the horse’s eyes and the thought occurred to me that the Professor was one of these souls in communication with animals, with any source at all that would speak to him.

“Let’s take a ride!” he bellowed. And suddenly, we were in the carriage, trotting through the park. Mrs. Saft, also a professor at Columbia, an esteemed Professor of Religion, mentioned how utterly Buddhist Beckett’s view was. She expanded upon her theory, making connections between Beckett’s nothingness and Buddhism’s emptiness, as well as their common emphasis upon the essential suffering and tedium of life. It was an interesting position and I engaged her in conversation, wondering out loud if Beckett himself had ever encountered such eastern philosophies in his lifetime. Meanwhile, I heard the Professor mumble, as if he’d lost the strain of the conversation and drifted off, “What are we waiting for, horsie?” He appeared to be leaning over the side of the carriage, trying to get a look at the horse again. I glanced at Suzanne who nodded at me solemnly, as if to say, yes, such moments of unusual behavior in Scott have become more frequent as of late.

Then I directed my question to the Professor, asking, “Scott, do you know if Beckett ever read much on Buddhism?”

Then he was back with us in full, explaining in detail exactly where Beckett was with the Buddhists and where his view differed. His lucidity in moments like these always amazed me. “Yes, Beckett read Schopenhauer, who was instrumental in bringing Buddhist thought to the West. The Buddhists say that eventually one comes to see a vivid, shimmering quality in the emptiness — they call it luminosity. It is said to take a long time to get there, and perhaps Beckett never did. On the other hand, I believe Beckett was simply more honest about the human condition. After all, the Buddhists are alchemists, so one must be very careful.”

Mrs. Saft jumped on the alchemist comment and another nightlong conversation ensued, Mrs. Saft defending the view of religion and the Professor defending that of literature. How a confirmed and committed atheist, Scott, ever ended up with Suzanne, a student of, and in her own way, believer in all religious traditions, was beyond me. Moreover, these two were married thirty years and still they could engage in such debates well into the night. It was astounding. It must have been the play; it was a fine and moving performance. We sat in the Safts’ living room and drank scotch and talked and laughed. Eventually Suzanne put a record on and retired to bed. The Professor and I sat alone without words and listened to the simple beauty of Brahms’s songs. As the Professor closed his eyes and opened to the music, I noticed how handsome he was. In a way, he looked old for a forty year old man, gray and tired; but the twist was that the Professor was in fact a young looking sixty-four. My eyes fell shut and I let the end of the day come. I felt the fullness of life inside me as I drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

A few days later I was in the Professor’s study. Here was a room. Walls lined with bookshelves, and the books themselves organized chronologically according to the author’s date of birth. So the entire oeuvre of an author would be placed between that of his contemporaries, with time advancing left to right along the walls, so that one could see the written word develop historically, in terms of the evolution of consciousness. The great desk was messy with papers and journals and open books. A cup of untouched coffee and a half-eaten croissant lay at the Professor’s elbow. Meanwhile, he was sitting upright in his chair, eyes shut, doing nothing in particular.

A day earlier I had put a short story of mine in the Professor’s mailbox. Of course, I was supposed to be working on my thesis — a theory of monadology in the works of James Joyce, for what it’s worth, which wasn’t much — but my real aspiration was to write fiction. The Professor knew this and had read many of my previous attempts. But he was never encouraging. He urged me to stick to the life of the scholar, mostly because such a vocation was more honest and honorable. While he admitted I may have possessed an inkling of talent, instead of suggesting I cultivate this talent, he instead chose to warn me of the pitfalls of the creative life. This guidance, a form of the Professor’s deep pessimism, rankled my soul, and so I continued to try and persuade him of my storytelling abilities. Each time I sat down to write, I wrote for him, and seemingly, for him only.

“Well,” I said, taking my seat before the desk, “what of my latest efforts?”

The Professor came to and said: “Oh, what? Your story, yes, of course. I’m sorry, but I haven’t had the chance yet to read it.”

Immediately he launched into a strain of thought far away from the contents of my story. He talked again about Beckett and how he was coming to see Beckett’s work more and more as the cornerstone of twentieth century thought. On and on he talked, and even as I tried to concentrate on the pigeons on a wire outside the window, as an expression of my resentment for his not having read my story, I listened. Then suddenly he shouted —

“Contemplation, Jake!”

“What about it?” I asked.

“The whole of western thought can be summed up in this single word — contemplation. Don’t you see? There is nothing else to do. Not even think. Not even write. Not even wait.”

He was pacing the room now and his excited state was contagious. I wanted desperately to bring the conversation back to my story, but that was hopeless now. His attention was not to be caught by the pale projections of my imagination. As he walked hither and thither and spoke about all the writers and thinkers who, he’d concluded, were merely suggesting a man stop and reflect a while before proceeding, I felt inside me a fierce distaste for his manner of ignoring my presence. A mere sounding board was I. Yet, I stayed and I listened, ever intrigued by his ideas.

“Do something with me,” he said, coming around behind me and putting his hands on my shoulder.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Just sit here with me in silence a while, will you?”

It was a strange request. Conversation was the lifeblood of our relationship. What I loved was how the Professor seduced me with his words.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Just sit here with me, say, for fifteen minutes. I’ll sit in my chair, you sit in yours, and we’ll just sit here.”

I agreed, and the Professor eagerly took his seat and gave a modest but ceremonial little bow of his head as if to say, okay, begin now. And so we sat there. I thought about my story, and about Madeline; God knows what the Professor thought about. Then I could have sworn I saw him shed a tear or two. But I wasn’t sure, for at the time, I couldn’t imagine what must’ve been going on inside him for a simple bout of silence to have caused such emotion.

After the time had passed, I rose and excused myself for I had another appointment. Outside, back on the street, I breathed in the cool city air, and I felt a brief but profound sense of liberation: I was back in the real world, the normal world, escaped momentarily from the increasingly strong and bizarre spell the Professor had on me.

A few weeks passed and I didn’t see much of the Professor. I labored away in my apartment on my thesis, arguing that Joyce and his work proved that each man, each soul, was a monad, in the Leibnizian sense: an instance of, and not merely a part of, the universal. The breadth of expression in Joyce’s work, his utter universality, showed that an entire world existed within each man and woman. Blah blah blah. I toiled on with it, fully realizing that I was adding nothing significant to the already unimaginably bloated world of Joycean studies. While I had at one point been very inspired by my thesis, I now saw it for what it was, a commonplace bit of wisdom: a man was a world unto himself. Go tell it on the mountain, genius. I endeavored to make clear how this view was vastly and critically different from the view that a man or woman was merely a part of the universe, but as the pages amassed, I realized how futile my project was. How poorly chosen was my form, the doctoral thesis. Or at least I hoped that was the problem. So after a hour or two of solid work in the morning, hyped up on coffee, I spent the afternoons wallowing in my despair, a state of being that seemed to me even more mundane than my thesis was unoriginal. The park in the wintertime provided modest daytime comforts. But all in all, somehow I was living the most prosaic life I’d ever dreamed of.

Yet, I still had my fiction. On the rare and lucky occasion, something would spark and I would scribble madly for hours into the night. Each time I wrote a story, I thought about the Professor, and whether he would like it or not. I mailed a story to my mother and she called to say she found it “delightful.” At this evaluation, I despaired even more deeply. So I resolved to write a story that my mother would hate, and then proceeded to fail to produce a single sentence for eight days.

Meanwhile, the goddam thesis had to be written, else my life would go nowhere. So I plodded on, each paragraph driving me more insane than the one before it. One afternoon, I tore out each and every page of Ulysses and taped them to my walls. The master’s words were surrounding me and so I figured there was now no way I could not think about my thesis. Of course, I was wrong, and I watched another six or seven days slip by without any work getting accomplished. Instead, I lay in bed hour after hour and just looked at the words on the pages. Just stared at them. Just fucking contemplated them!

Meanwhile, it should go without saying, my debts rose like the sea in a great and violent storm and let us never underestimate the stress of that swelling underneath what was going on day to day.

Finally something happened: a new and excellent recording of all of Beethoven’s string quartets was released on Deutche Gramophone Records. In other words, I had a reason to spend nights in the Professor’s company. I bought the six CD set on credit and presented it to the Professor as a gift. Then we spent a week straight in the dim and familiar light of his living room, listening to the recordings one after another, in order of composition date, and then we did a second, more programmatic run-through. The performances were at turns sublime and devastating. Again I felt the heavens and earth move above and beneath me, nightly now, in the comforting confines of the Professor’s apartment, lying stretched out on his couch, half-drunk on scotch. And the Professor himself, across the room in his armchair, eyes closed, listening intently, the world inside him swelling in concert with the sounds of my latest and most astute purchase.

One evening near the tail end of our immersion in the late quartets, Mrs. Saft invited me over for dinner. I arrived a bit late and yet the Professor was no where to be found. The kitchen smelled of pot roast and apple pie as Suzanne and I chatted.

“How is your batch of students this year?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re all right,” she said. “Another godless bunch it seems, but I am long past complaining about such things. There is one girl who writes beautifully about the difference between faith and confidence. I am learning something from her.”

There was nothing I could do to help prepare for Mrs. Saft was a one-woman maestro in the kitchen. I sipped on my wine and gave Suzanne the false impression that my thesis was coming along just fine. She nodded politely without prodding any further. Finally, I asked where the Professor was. Her answer shocked me: “Probably working on that damned novel of his.”

“His novel?” I asked with an incredulous chuckle.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know about this?” she asked, setting her pot holders down and appearing a touch disconcerted.

“No,” I said honestly. “I had no idea Scott was working on a novel.”

Mrs. Saft quickly grew upset and I could see her mind working on the appropriate solution to the perhaps mistaken revelation of the Professor’s secret project. Suddenly she looked imploringly at me.

“Oh Jake, perhaps you could help. Scott has been working on this thing for twenty years. It’s a thousand pages long. I assumed you knew. Of course, it’s good, of course it is. Of course he needs to write it, I understand this. But I fear, well,” and here she sat down and placed her hands calmly on her knees, “I fear it’s no good for his health.”

I took a seat at the kitchen table across from Suzanne. There was already too much that was odd and unclassifiable in how I felt about the Professor, and this news further complicated my view of him.

“How long did you say he’s been working on this book?” I asked, hungry for more details.

“On and off for twenty years. He considers it his life’s work.”

His life’s work. My God. The words were so heavy. Suddenly, behind us, Scott appeared, as if he’d been there all along. For whatever reason, he was “Scott” now as I looked at him. He seemed perfectly giddy, too. I figured he’d had a good writing day.

“How are my two favorite people in the world?” he said, hugging and kissing, first his wife, then me.

“Where’ve you been?” asked Suzanne. “ Jake’s been here a half an hour already.”

“Oh, you know, the usual,” he said, and then he added with a theatrical flair:

“I have studied, alas, philosophy,
Jurisprudence and medicine, too,
And, worst of all, theology
With keen endeavor, through and through —
And here I am, for all my lore,
The wretched fool I was before.”

The Faust quote implied to me that the Professor had been deep in study all day. But was he deceiving me? Had he rather been writing his novel as Mrs. Saft had suggested? Such a difference between the two! I was trapped in the mystery. Suzanne rolled her eyes as Scott fetched the scotch. He poured two tumblers nearly full and brought one to me. Then we sat down and enjoyed a hearty, wintertime meal. Later Mrs. Saft again excused herself early, saying she had some reading to do, leaving Scott and me to drink more and listen again to the Beethoven, whose music I could ingest night after night without growing bored in the least.

I must’ve been terribly drunk. Scott had poured large drinks for the two of us all night long. But at some point, after the music had stopped, and after an extended silence during which Scott and I allowed each other the space to either pass out or at least drift off into those private, half-conscious, midnight reveries, I stood and walked over to where the Professor sat in his armchair. His eyes were closed. The silence was unbearable. The room itself as woozy as my mind. I looked at Scott and felt a deep longing; in truth, I felt a desire of a sexual nature. The feeling coursed through me and then must’ve found its way into Scott’s own body, for he opened his eyes, took a look at my face, and said, “Sorry, Jake, maybe in times past, but not you, not tonight.”

I was appalled. I had said nothing to suggest anything of the sort. To assume such a thing! With his wife in bed upstairs! The Professor meant so many things to me, but not that. In fact, the entire scene was inexplicable, alien to any former understanding of the world I possessed. In humiliation, I gathered my coat and scurried out the door without a word. Looking back, as I rounded the corner onto the avenue, I saw Scott looming in the window of his living room, the soft yellow comforting light of the room aglow behind him.

Weeks later I had more or less forgotten, or rather put out of my mind, that strange and singular encounter with the Professor. Then, late one afternoon, I met my mother for tea and a walkabout. She had recently been divorced, for the second time, and as we walked through the park in last days of winter, we briefly connected over the idea that the two of us were the only single ones left in the family. For my other three siblings were all married with children.

“I suppose I’m a little lonely these days,” she said simply.

“Yes, me too, Mom.”

She looked at me a little disapprovingly as I pulled up the collar of my coat. “What ever happened with you and Madeline anyway?” she asked.

“Oh, Mom, that was months ago now. And I told you already. We failed to see the thing through to the end.”

“By thing, I suppose you mean relationship. What is it with the way you put things, Jake? So carefully,” she said, half-teasingly, half-seriously. “What do you mean anyway, ‘through to the end’?”

“I mean through to the end, Mom” I said, making an arc of time with my hand in the space between us, as if to say: from here... to the end.

A light snow began to fall and I knew my mother would soon grow too cold for much more of our little stroll. The branches of the trees looked as bare and as bleak as loneliness itself. But there was something delightful in the fluttering flurries.

“Well, you’re a bright, young, handsome man, Jake. You should go out on more dates. It seems every time I talk to you, you’re hanging out with your thesis advisor.”

“His name is Professor Scott Saft, and he’s a good friend of mine.”

“He’s also older than I am.”

There was nothing to say to that. We stopped on the Gapstow Bridge, arched over the northeast end of the Pond, and my mother asked me, entirely out of the blue:

“You ever talk to your father?”

I answered straightaway: “No, Mom, not in five years now.”

She nodded and I saw a pain in her that she rarely let show. In a way, I wished I could have changed my answer, but there is no changing the truth. It always wins. No matter what words I choose. Nothing dramatic happened between my father and me five years ago. In fact, he had long been at a remove from my life. For I grew up in a single-mother household, and eventually, I came to see how irrelevant my father was to me, and so, little by little, we simply stopped communicating. Though, I admit, the last few conversations I’d had with him had been particularly harrowing. For it seemed to me that my father, an intelligent man, had lost his sense. In fact, it appeared to me, according to a few things he’d expressed — either paranoid ideas about the poison in all foodstuffs, or twisted, solipsistic notions of how taking care of one’s self was really all that mattered, or other simple but appalling gaps in logic — yes, it appeared that my father had lost his mind, and I was afraid, the more that I thought about it, that losing one’s mind was simply what happened to people as they grew older, especially intelligent people. This idea freaked me out, so I just stopped talking to the man.

I moved behind my mother and rubbed her shoulders in order to warm her up.

“Let’s get you home,” I said.

“You’re staying for dinner?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Good. I’ll cook your favorite.” I didn’t know what dish was my favorite, or else couldn’t remember what my mother thought my favorite dish was, but this is what I loved about my Mom: she still knew a few things about me of which I was unaware.

There was one last brutal day of winter left that year, and on that night Scott and I had tickets to see a performance of Beethoven and Brahm’s symphonies at the Lincoln Center. By this point, my thesis was a lost hope, and I was unsure I would ever get my doctorate, and I didn’t care. Scott and I had grown even closer over the last few weeks, for when I shared with him the depths of my despair at my failure to complete my thesis, he shared how he had never completed his first attempt either. Fourteen months, he said he spent working on the damn thing, and all of that time wasted. Again, Scott found a way to comfort me, as well as reveal something about himself that surprised me, for I still couldn’t envision the man failing at anything, not at a novel, and especially not at a scholarly work on literature. After all, he had published many successful books on literature — one on young Irish playwrights, another on New York City poets, even one on Japanese novelists. As for his own novel, it was still a subject we never discussed; the very fact that I knew about its existence was still a secret between Suzanne and me. As for my own fiction, the Professor had finally read that story I had placed in his box months ago, and again, he gave me only a lukewarm reaction.

“It is good,” he allowed, “but there’s still too much in there. You must learn to simplify. And really you should stay away from fiction altogether; but you already know my stubborn opinion on that subject. It’s a wonderful thing to do, to write fiction, but at the very least, Jake, find another way to make your money.”

Yet, despite the endless stream of Scott’s discouragement, I was still obsessed with the man (as well as with the writing). I was drawn to all of his peculiarities and mysteries. And I was always so comfortable in his presence; perhaps I felt that just by being with him, I would imbibe some of his wisdom, some of his basic sanity.

I asked him as we walked along the south end of the park after that night’s less-than-inspiring philharmonic: “Tell me, Scott, what is it that you have against my writing fiction?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Absolutely nothing.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“It’s hard,” he offered. “That’s all.”

“I don’t believe you, that is, I don’t believe that’s the root of it.”

“No, it’s not,” he admitted.

“Then tell me, really, what is it?”

We stopped and rested along the wall, facing north. He gazed across the length of the park and considered his response. The carriage horses neighed behind us.

“There’s no way to say what I want to say, but I will try for your sake, Jake: it’s dangerous.”

Oh how seriously the Professor took everything! I laughed hard at what he said! I couldn’t help myself. It’s dangerous! What a thought! Yes, and walking across the street is dangerous, too, but I do it! — that’s all I thought to say in response but I was laughing too hard to say it. Behind us the sound of a horse going wild grew louder, and suddenly this horse passed us on our right, flying into the park and carrying the carriage and the horseman with him. The horseman was a great big brute of a man and he began viciously whipping the horse. Next thing I knew Scott was chasing after the man and his carriage and screaming at the man to stop flailing his horse.

But the flogging continued. I had no idea of the history of this situation, how the horse had come to go wild, and how the horseman had come to deliver such a brutal lashing upon his own horse. But it happened. And we watched it happen. And eventually the horse succumbed to the cruel beating and fell down on its side. The horseman leapt off the carriage and continued to flog his horse. Other people besides Scott screamed at the man to stop, but such pleading was futile, for the man was possessed. After another unknowable amount of time passed, I watched as Scott threw himself upon the belly of the horse, taking a powerful kick in the head from the horse’s leg at the same time. I stood aghast and immobilized by the scene.

Then I heard it. Those words again. I heard Scott muttering, “What are we waiting for, horsie?” Now his use of the word ‘horsie’ sounded awfully infantile to my ear. What are we waiting for, horsie? He screamed it once, twice. The horseman howled at him to get off his horse, and then the whip came down upon Scott’s leg. I rushed in finally and pulled Scott off the horse, while he went on with his pathetic muttering. What are we waiting for, horsie?

“Are you all right?” I asked breathlessly.

But Scott was gone, no longer with us, splintered into a thousand pieces. He never did answer my question. The police arrived and I said we needed an ambulance. I sat Scott down on the lawn and tried to talk some sense into him. I held his face in my hands, and for the first time, I saw his age in the wrinkles of his skin. When the ambulance came, they put him in a wheelchair and wheeled him into the back. As we drove to the hospital, I held his hand as he continued to mumble incoherently. The Professor was never to speak another lucid word in his life.

This all happened years ago now. I visit Scott at the home whenever I can, but it is very hard for me to see him as he is. In the beginning, I tried to convince myself that he would get well, only to learn how well we deceive ourselves. Ultimately my pessimism was confirmed when the doctors diagnosed syphilis. This caused me to speculate even further about Scott’s surreptitious exploits. A few months after that terrible night, Suzanne invited me over to the apartment for dinner and after the meal she gave me Scott’s manuscript. In my opinion, the novel is masterful, a cornucopia of words celebrating the yes-saying spirit of humanity; but I doubt I’ll ever find a publisher for it. Yet the search continues. My own search too, onward; I still write my stories. But if I write less than I did before, and it seems I do, it is because of what the Professor taught me. So on some nights, instead of scribbling madly, I simply sit and contemplate; in other words, I do nothing in particular. And when I do, I usually come back to the same contemplation, I return again and again to what it means to be fatherless.