Life & Living III (School)
Because I have grown up to be someone whose primary interest is reading-and-writing, I often wonder why school was not a brighter part of my life. Encouraged by prevailing notions of personal responsibility to consider the matter as my failure and no one else’s, I examined myself and discovered the usual faults. I was restless and easily bored, impatient and conceited. If I was poor at imagining long-term goals, that might be because I was used to having things handed to me. I was clearly not a cooperative sort of person, not in any reliable way. And so on.
Even when I blamed myself for everything, however, the question would not rest, so I began to think about schools.
The first thing that appeared to me, when I began my inquiry, was the opportunistic symbiosis between two completely different endeavors that characterizes education, from the most elementary to the most advanced levels. One of these endeavors is ancient: scholarship. The methods of scholarship have changed greatly over the years, but the clarification of mental activity that we call understanding has always been its goal. We know things; we want to see how they relate, if they do. We want to know what causes them. We want to know why they happen at all. For a long time, scholarship was conducted without special equipment. There were observatories for tracking the stars, but almost anyone could be shown how they worked. In more recent times, scholarship requiring precision devices developed into modern science. Modern science has a legitimate claim as the successor of traditional philosophy, but its effect on scholarship that does not require measurement — because people are individually unique — is still ongoing. What we call “the humanities,” as a body of study, is still gripped by the desire to measure things. There is no doubt that some kinds of measurement are very useful, but it is sometimes difficult to be sure of the point at which they might become misleading. Statistical studies are obviously valuable, the more accurate and inclusive the better. But it must be remembered that statistics cannot be used to predict how any individual will behave under pressure or in the face of real novelty. We remain haunted by the Enlightenment notion that we, like the clockwork universe in which we live, are little machines. And that is not altogether bad. Modern medicine would not exist otherwise.
Scholarship is pursued by — scholars, men and women who submit to lengthy training programs before they are allowed to take up the work of scholarship, which is tested and evaluated by fellow scholars. Professionally, scholars have little or no interest in what people who are not colleagues think or do. This is why they appear to live in ivory towers. Another distinction is the rigorous standard of professional honesty and integrity. It is this, and this alone, that prevents scholars from applauding work that they know to be bad. There is no such thing as the good-enough scholar. There are only good scholars and fakes. The demand for honesty and integrity, however, does not spring from the nature of scholarly inquiry, however. It is the legacy of philosophy, a kind of learning that predated and engendered scholarship. Philosophy asks, how ought we to live? No matter how narrowly focused, all branches of scholarship do the same.
So much for scholarship. The other endeavor is universal education. What this means is the cultivation of uniform standards of literacy and numeracy. Although it has roots in the Protestant Reformation, which sought to apply the Hebrew standard of universal male literacy to Christians, education as we know it is the utilitarian product of the Industrial Revolution. It was all right if rural farmers could not read. It was not all right if urban laborers could not read. The modern state quickly came to depend on laborers not only to read public announcements but to file reports, to the state as well as to their employers. Expanding bureaucracies required literate clerks and secretaries. The expansion of liberal democracy depended for its vitality on the literacy of the electorate. It is much easier to inculcate uniform levels of literacy and numeracy in the entire population than it is to decide which adults don’t actually need it.
Everything about universal education has a purpose, a purpose that can be expressed clearly and distinctly. To the extent that we may compare the purpose of education and the solutions by which it is effected to questions and answers, then we can say that education is a matter of answers. Scholarship, in contrast, is the pursuit of questions. Some scholars, such as field archeologists, do, in fact, approach their work in search of answers to questions left open by earlier research. Most people probably entertain an idea of the all-purpose scholar that looks a lot like the archeologist digging up pots and bones or the archivist searching for documents. But the center of scholarly gravity is on the formulation of questions. What sort of documents are important? A couple of centuries of modern historical research have taught us that every document is potentially important. New questions, as yet unimagined, may send us to the archives looking for something that has never seemed important before.
The endeavors of scholarship and education are symbiotic, or work symbiotically, because both require teachers, or instructors. I have come to regard this as a category mistake. The teacher of first-graders is not a teacher in the way that a law professor is a teacher. The higher you go on the scale from elementary to advanced study, the more you must, as a teacher, count upon your students to teach themselves. There is a point at which mimicking the teacher’s writing or copying his arithmetic operations is no longer a feature of learning. There is a point at which the student’s imagination must be enlisted.
This point is hard to discern, but it is probably reached a year or two before the eighth grade. Until then, good teachers motivate students to learn, or to want to learn. Afterward, good teachers open up imaginative worlds. But the utilitarian objectives of universal education do not include enlarged imaginations. To the contrary! And this is where the symbiosis begins to lose its effectiveness. We call the problem adolescence, but it is really high school.
There you have my little theory about what goes on in schools, considered broadly. What we call “academia” is clearly the world of scholarship, but it’s a mistake, as I’m trying to suggest, to regard elementary school as the training ground for scholars. A question occurred to me as I was thinking about this: when did the boys who became monks and priests in the middle ages, a time without the very idea of universal education, learn to read and write? How old were the beginners? I suspect that they were third- or fourth-graders at the youngest. Modern universal education begins with the the proposition that, by the time they’re seven, most children are autonomous enough to manage themselves in the classroom and to learn reading and writing. But the pressure to begin teaching these skills at the earliest possible moment did not exist in the middle ages; or, to put it differently, the pressure then was quite different. Modern education is imposed upon almost all children. Medieval institutions could afford to wait to see who the bright children were, which ones were likely to make good clergymen. And they could go about the teaching very differently. They did. The earliest use for Latin in a young person’s life was to participate in a choir.
All I want to do here is to open up the possibility that there might be (at least) two complete different ways to go about teaching reading and writing: one for future members of the general public, and one for future scholars. Having said that, however, I must quickly add that mere proficiency would not be the criterion to test in making distinctions between one track and the other. Anything but proficiency!
I wish I could tell you how much of what I know about the world began in stamp-collecting. Postage stamps are probably doomed to extinction, but during their heyday, which lasted for something more than a century, they comprised a world in which beauty and information were brought together to produce millions of small pieces of paper, in thousands upon thousands of designs, from all the sovereignties and colonies of the world. They were a preliminary badge of legitimacy; no political order dared to try to do without them. They were quickly put to pedagogical use, memorializing heroes, battles, kings, popes, councils, treaties, territorial acquisitions, and every other conceivable type of national trophy.
Many stamps survived their issuers. Stamps for Manchukuo, the Japanese satellite in Manchuria, still exist. So do stamps for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Soviet Union. I have the stamp albums of my mother and my grandfather. I don’t look at them very often, and I no longer collect stamps myself, but I am always on the lookout for a child who is ready to learn philately’s many lessons, which of course include the basic principles of any naturalist’s hobby.
I was encouraged to start a stamp collection, but I soon got carried away, something that might not have happened if I had been working with an adult. I might not have been so erratic, buying bundles of cheap, common stamps and then finding out where in my album to paste them. I might have been more methodical about pursuing stamps that would fill gaps in my collection. I might, in short, have been much more grown-up about stamp-collecting. But why? For me, the world of stamps was a giant swimming pool of color and funny words, of portraits and scenic vistas, of indecipherable characters from who-knew-where? It was, or implied, a puzzle of borders on all the settled continents. I learned to distinguish French from Spanish and Portuguese, and to remember that none of these languages by itself meant that the stamp came from Europe. I began to learn about the reigns of English monarchs, because every British stamp, home or colonial, bore the profile of the ruler of the day. (And many of them featured the Queen Mother as well.)
Simply by splashing in this pond for several years, I learned a lot of basic information about how human beings have divided up the planet. There were no tests.
I seem to have begun with two characteristic dispositions. I did not care for fantasy at any time. I was as beguiled as any child by strange and wonderful pictures, but pictures is what they remained if I knew that they were make-believe. My imagination was not interested in unicorns. Equally odd was my intuitive disregard for what came to be called “trivia,” for stuffed pockets of information with few or no connections to other pockets of information. What I know about “the movies,” the body of cinematic work going back to the coming of sound, I know from watching them, not from studying lists of Academy Award winners. Aside from Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock course at the New School (which was a revelation but which I merely audited), I never studied film in an organized way. Even music is a self-taught thing. I plodded through a theory course in boarding school that used Walter Piston’s Harmony as the text, and, boy, did that ever give me respect for composers. For the most part, I am a serious but rogue listener.
Learning about the world may have begun with filling stamp albums, but it hardly stopped when I set them aside. Collecting stamps provided the ample foundation for a lifetime of trying to understand “world events.” It began with the lesson that I was standing at a latter point in history: things had been different before. There had always been a United States (in the age of stamps), but there had not always been a Germany. In fact, there had been a Germany, for a while, but there wasn’t one anymore, not in the late Fifties. There were two, and the difference between them was strongly suggested by their stamps. (The East Germans had printed a stamp commemorating Schumann, with a portrait of the composer but a scrap of music by Schubert.)
You could say that I have never wished to escape the confines of Planet Earth. But I was never happy in the confines of the classroom. I doubt that many children are. Most, however, do a better job of suffering through it than I did. I think that I am unusually deficient when it comes to letting my mind wander. It happens, but only when I am comfortable. When I am somewhere I don’t want to be, the avenue of escape offered by imagination is closed. I needed physical distraction. I doodled extensively, but not interestingly. I was never absorbed by my doodles. I did not teach myself to draw. I flipped through the pages of books. I shuffled in my seat. I whispered to my neighbors. I got in trouble.
The thing was, the teacher was either teaching something that I already knew or teaching something that didn’t interest me. It was usually the former. I was one of the bright kids, and I knew it. But I was also one of the stupid kids, because I couldn’t behave myself. As I mentioned at the beginning, I went into kindergarten a year early. With my January birthday, I ought to have been held back until the high school class of 1966. I would have been one of the oldest kids in the class. Instead, I was one of the youngest, maybe the youngest. It was thought that my cleverness would compensate, but it didn’t. By first grade, it was too late; holding me back then would have been a humiliating disgrace. The fact that I was the youngest kid was completely obscured by my size. In first grade alone, I was expelled twice. I was told to fill up my shoebox with my things and to take it home, and never come back. The nuns could do that. They could pretend that they could do that. They could expel me from the garden, and make sure that I felt expelled, too. I remember tears freezing as I waited for the schoolbus, half miserable regret and half wild dread of the punishment at home to come. In second grade, Sister Patrick Claire threw blackboard erasers at me, and never missed. Needless to say, I never saw them coming. I wanted to be good. But I wanted to be interested.
It would be wrong to say that grades were not important. But they were never as important as being interested. If I was bored by a class, I could not do well in it. I could not pay attention; I couldn’t do the homework. I was told that I lacked self-discipline and I agreed. How could I not? But what was the point of self-discipline? The rewards on offer were not very alluring. The company of students who performed very well was not attractive. As a promise, “You’ll go far!” did not mean very much. Kathleen remembers working very hard to get the best possible grades, because she wanted to escape her stepmother. I didn’t worry about escaping my mother because I knew that, sooner or later, she would throw me out of the house, and indeed she did, shortly before I went off to boarding school. She said, “Get out of this house!” and pointed to the door, just as in a cartoon. I walked through the door. I stretched out on the front lawn. An hour of this was all they could bear; didn’t I have the decency to run away?
Fourth Grade seems to have been a relatively good year. My teacher wrote in my yearbook that he hoped that I would grow up to be a writer. I can’t imagine what prompted this comment. I like to think that he saw something in me, of course, but what can it have been? I wasn’t much of a reader, not then. I suppose I did already like to gab, and it may have leaked into my copybooks.
I was never good at arithmetic. Geometry and trigonometry would turn out to be no problem, but I could not add or subtract. My daughter scoffed when I tried to explain this as a design flaw. Owing to some profound miswiring, I argued, I read numbers as strings, not as computable numbers. But I’m sticking with it. I found the numbers seven and nine to be particularly irritating, along with thirteen and seventeen. I was as put off by the sight of them as you might be to pass a playground enemy in the hallway. I did not wish to work with these numbers, and I still don’t. At subtraction I am even worse. Eight from twelve is six, because “in my mind,” I have read six for eight. Long division and fractions were plainly purgatorial — there could be no other point to them.
I was a student of inappropriately strong feelings. The way to deal with a nasty piece of work like Napoleon was to refuse to learn anything about him. The entire Nineteenth Century, for the matter of that, was unspeakably bourgeois — and all those hot clothes! History became a multimedia affair at a tender age. I have always known how people dressed at any point in history from the late Middle Ages on. The first victims of photography had the misfortune to be the first to learn about the peculiar way that the camera has of lying. It emphasizes wrinkles that nobody sees and makes clothing look too tight. As for hair, I believe that our vast arrays of hair-care products are a direct response to photography. But I didn’t figure that out until much later. I thought that Queen Victoria and her subjects were miserably overdressed in clothes so rumpled that they might have been slept in. The less known about them, the better.
The resume in a nutshell: parochial school from Kindergarten until Sister Patrick Claire. My parents had no objection to her reliance on projectiles to subdue me; rather, they were concerned that my grades were inflated. Somehow it filtered back to them that I wasn’t working very hard to get my top marks. So I was sent to Iona Grammar School. For a little while, I went to third grade on the college campus, but presently the grammar school moved to its own campus on a large suburban plot, or small “estate.” The mansion was still standing; the Christian Brothers of Ireland who made up the faculty lived in it. In sixth grade, I developed a medical situation — headaches; perhaps the teacher was too high-strung — and after a lovely holiday I was sent to the local public elementary school, which was not Bronxville School because we didn’t actually live in Bronxville itself, but only “Bronxville PO.” That situation was remedied two years later, but my one year of Tuckahoe High was alarming. It ought to have been broadening, but I shut down. I did my homework and minded my own business. Then I went to Bronxville School for three years, after which I left for Blair Academy, a boarding school in western New Jersey. As you can see, I was never anywhere long enough to develop longstanding friendships. The one good thing about Bronxville School was that I knew a lot of the girls from dancing school, but that may have been a bad thing.
It was in Tenth Grade (still at Bronxville) that I realized that I liked to write. Already a very strange young man, I decided that I must have a Latin motto of my own, even though I had not studied Latin. I arrived at Lux per sccribendam, which was supposed to mean “light through writing.” Maybe it does. It certainly doesn’t sound like Horace, though. I mention it because it was one of the first clicks.
(To explain what I just said, it will be helpful to recall the film War Games. I’ve seen War Games many times, but I can’t remember just now why the massive computer, called “Whopper” (but not quite), takes so long to figure out the launch codes, which aren’t all that long, but, no matter: happily, it does take a few days.)
At about this time, I was doing a lot of browsing in one of my mother’s old books — of which there were not many. Why she kept the 1936 edition of the Victor Book of the Opera around, I have no idea. Basically a record catalogue in a fancy-looking binding, it was totally out of date, and I never knew my mother to take an interest in opera plots or singers. The illustrations were a black-and-white array of production photographs and archival prints. One of the latter captured my imagination and gripped it so firmly that I created a permanently distorted image of it. As it happens, I still have the book, so I was able to find the picture quickly, and I was shocked by its difference from my recollection. In the book, it is an engraving by (or after a painting by) August von Kreling, and the caption reads “Faust tires of life.” We see Faust in his study, leaning on a window sill but looking down at his desk, which at first looks littered with crap. The lamplight is blinding, but it also throws the chamber into shadows. Next to the lamp, a skull sits on a piece of fabric, the folds of which fall dramatically (if pointlessly) to the floor. Folios stand open on stout bookrests. Behind a globe rises a shelf that holds more fabric and more bones. Alchemical apparatus and a fireplace oven lie in the opposite corner.
Faust stands with calm weariness, and he wears a hat. In my recollection, he is bareheaded and bent in agitation over a book that he grasps tightly, as if to force it to yield its secrets. He is sitting in the window, which is the only architectural element in the picture, and very deep. Clouds and mountains replace the night of Kreling’s original. There is nothing in the chamber but books and more books. It is the picture of furious, almost ecstatic scholarship, and had it only existed, I could reproduce it here, and give you a very good idea of what, at the age of thirteen, I wanted my life to look like. That Faust was an old bearded man was very much part of point. Again, I chuckle.
Let us not overlook, however, my propensity to misbehave. One day, our science teacher (new to the faculty and probably to teaching as well) rather foolishly tried to make a point about volumes by asking us to imagine drinking a cubic foot of water. I leaned to the boy sitting next to me and whispered, “You’d have to take a wicked piss.” This was seen by the teacher, who asked me to repeat what I’d said. I declined for obvious reasons: there were ladies present. My confidant was asked to repeat it, and he declined, too. The teacher must have been supremely irritated, because he intensified his folly by asking for a third student to volunteer to hear the remark and repeat to the class. Eager hands shot up. The teacher chose one of the girls. She wouldn’t repeat it! It was only when about half the class had had my witticism whispered in its ear that one brave lout said it out loud, and he did so with a certain scorn that was not aimed at me. This sort of thing was typical of my entire academic career.
Even at Blair, I contrived to be thrown out of classes, along with the fellows whom I’d reduced to helpless giggles. Twice. Only twice. And both in English classes, provoked by poetry. For the most part, I was a good boy at Blair. And for a good reason. Blair kept my mind at a good pitch. I shouldn’t say that Blair was tough. I never thought of endurance. Nor did I think of it as demanding, because I met its demands comfortably. But the demands were greater than any I had known.
Bronxville School was said to be one of the best public schools in the nation, and I daresay it still is. As public schools go, however. In my last days at Bronxville, I was getting As in everything but math (and science). At Blair, my first English paper got an “E,” with the comment, “This paper is a tissue of circumlocutions.” I had to look up “circumlocutions” — it didn’t sound like a good thing, but it might be. Similarly, “E” might stand for “excellent.” But, no: I’d failed. As deserved. I was to have read The Iceman Cometh over the summer, but couldn’t bear it. For the first time in my life, I tried to bluff my way through a paper about a book that I hadn’t read. (Yes, it was a play.) Never had I needed such skills. So I failed doubly. I learned that I wasn’t cut out for crime.
Blair was not one of the boarding schools, like Andover and Exeter, that I had ever heard of. My parents and I drove out in the late winter of 1963 to have a look, and let Blair have a look at me; we also visited a few other schools. It was rather late in the year to be trying to get in. The Hill School, as I recall, wouldn’t have me. I think that Perkiomen would. I don’t know that I actually applied to Wyoming Seminary — yes, there’s a Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, and it is the source of the state’s name. In the end, I was happy to go to Blair. It happened to be closest to home, although we soon forgot that. The construction of Interstate 80 had bogged down around Morristown, so it was four-lane streets most of the way out, and each trip seemed to take longer than the one before. I took a train once.
Blair was a quietly Presbyterian school. In fact, it was owned by the Synod of Whitby; one heard that it was the only prep school that was the property of a Protestant Church. But the chaplain was a new man. We read the Bishop of Woolwich, we read Martin Buber, we read Paul Tillich. The God of Blair was a Newtonian, rather than a Tanakhian, figure. He was no more interested than you would be in whether your classmates masturbated. This was never stated, of course, and, as I suggested at the beginning, I mightn’t have known what the chaplain was talking about — what exactly. Under his tutelage, I encountered unadulterated Scripture for the first time. It was a little late to develop a familiarity and too early to understand why familiarity would be desirable. I was just beginning to understand that the question of God’s existence was up to me. He, I was earnestly assured for the first time, was not going to make the first move. If I decided that he did not exist, then it followed that he wouldn’t punish me. I might be wrong, but if I thought I was wrong, then I didn’t disbelieve, did I?
The Bible turned out to be interesting, but what I loved were the hymns. We had Chapel every day (except Saturday, I think), and at least two hymns were sung at every service. This was all new to me. I may have had inklings of Anglophone condescension for Catholic music, but I didn’t need them now to see that what I’d been singing at St Joseph’s in Bronxville was neurasthenic kitsch. Almost overnight, my favorite hymn became “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” which may be the most normal thing about me; I burst into tears in the senior commons room, toward the end of my second and last at Blair, while we watched Winston Churchill’s funeral on television. They were tears of celebration. To quote the crusader from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I had chosen well. I also liked “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded,” still ignorant of Bach’s Passions; it now seems much more than a hymn.
I have two ways of remembering Blair. One is anecdotal and rather noisy. Here’s a snapshot: in very chilly autumn weather, four of us are standing in the small graveyard behind the Old Academy. One of the coolest guys in the class ahead is teaching me how to smoke cigarettes. In our wool jackets and ties, we look like an ad for something — well, that’s what it felt like when you started smoking in those days. I can’t believe that we’re getting away with this forbidden pastime, but we wouldn’t be here at all if the cool guy weren’t absolutely sure of our safety. So we do get away with it. In the other way of remembering Blair — the more common one — I am sitting at the typewriter producing a paper for English History. Or I am sitting reading. The sound is Mozart’s G-Minor Piano Quartet. Sometimes I am walking along the mill race between the school and the town. I am always alone. That is why another one of my anecdotal memories reminds me that I was a waiter in the dining hall even as a senior. If you had any brains at all, you buttered up one of the masters and sat at the foot of his table; you were, in common parlance, his foot. If you were like me, you didn’t bother with that, and so were just another student, liable for waiting duty when your turn came round.
My fiftieth reunion came by recently, and I thought about going, but in the end I didn’t. There was a flurry of email from classmates saying how much they were looking forward to getting together. The more they talked about it, the more they talked about sports, and the more they talked about sports, the more I wanted to stay away. It did not appear that anyone whom I’d been really fond of would be there. My first roommate, whom for literary purposes I call Fossil Darling, lives on the other side of town, and we talk all the time. The wonderful thing about Fossil is that he is family, so I don’t have to see him. He decided not to go to the reunion either, and, since he would have done the driving, that settled the matter for me. The other classmate with whom I’d formed a lasting friendship settled in Southern California, where I visited him in passing a few times. Then, about ten years ago, he quite deliberately disappeared. Not from my life but from almost everybody’s. This was not a complete surprise, and I have made no attempt to track him down. Otherwise, there are no ties to the school. I have “visited” the campus via Google maps, and the school is, like Notre Dame, more expansive than it was in my day. I’m not curious to see the changes. Blair has gone back to what probably isn’t even called “coëducation” any more (because default settings don’t need names); I should have had difficulties with that. Surrounded by boys, it was easy for me to keep my solitude. Girls would have been a distraction. Solitude is essential to education.
There’s no going back to what was best about Blair, because I took it with me and have cared for it ever since. If I am an educated man, it is because a few masters at Blair inspired me to be one. Without cruelty or belittlement, they persuaded me that it was a disgrace to be intelligent but uneducated. They taught me to speak clearly, and to understand the implications of what I was saying. They swatted down verbiage without content. They insisted on one’s having a good reason for opening one’s mouth. And, possibly because we were at Blair, not one of the grander schools, and partly because the ones who inspired me were young, the masters weren’t full of themselves. They were energetic and enthusiastic — perhaps too much so for me, a natural contemplative (so long as I have something to occupy my hands). They were high-minded in the best sentence. Their first loyalty was to the English language. They saw to it that we wrote reams and reams of it.
One thing that did not change at Blair was my lack of interest in grades. I see now that this was a symptom of my unreliability. You couldn’t really depend on me for anything. If you asked me to do something now, I should probably do it, but as to doing things tomorrow or next week, I was likely to forget or to be tied up in something else. I could manage a regular everyday routine, showing up more or less on time for everything, but little variations, one-off side trips and the like, soon disappeared from the calendar that I didn’t learn to keep.
And I was a quitter. I found that out one day in chorus, when the master in charge irritated me so badly that I walked out of the rehearsal and never spoke to him again. This defection meant that I had to drop out of the a cappella group, The Tweeds, and I knew it the moment I stepped off the risers. It didn’t stop me. I do often stop to wonder why it was that I always went in for singing, and never for writing. In college, I would do a little bit of journalism, playing theatre critic. To say that I didn’t know what I was talking about is another way of saying that I had no instincts as a reporter. It never occurred to me to pick other people’s minds. The idea of playing reporter was rebarbative. Making a lot of unwelcome phone calls, talking to strangers with strange ways of speaking, running around and sweating — that was not for me. I was Faust in the deep embrasure, working in solitary storm.
If I were an historian, I should try to find out how there came to be a course in English History at Blair. I doubt that there would have been one of if the master who taught it hadn’t been on the faculty, but he can’t have been on the faculty just to teach it. He was a slight, untidy man; I’m sure that he would have seemed less odd at home in England. His wife was associated with Timothy Leary, the LSD man. Speculation was rife, but also dumb, since we didn’t know how to talk about our guesses as to what went on. The wife was rarely on campus. Meanwhile, the textbooks for English History weren’t enough for me, and, besides, they were American books. I required English books. Immediately upon reading a profile of Blackwell’s in The New Yorker, I contrived to open an account there. As an historian, I should have to find out how I paid for the books that I bought, for I had neither a checking account nor a credit card. The Internet has made it almost impossible to imagine how transactions were conducted. How did I order a book? How long did it take to arrive. Did I still care, by that time?
When did my fascination with the Fifteenth Century in England begin? How did it get started? I recall a book, Everyday Life in Medieval England, attached to the name of Peter Quennel. But it doesn’t exist and never did. I discovered in the library at Bronxville School, and pored over it, especially the plates of the people in costume. Wouldn’t it be something to walk around wearing that! I discovered the Princes in the Tower, so to speak. I discovered the Wars of the Roses; this may have happened at Blair. From Blackwell’s I ordered FR Jacob’s contribution to the Oxford History of England, England in the Fifteenth Century, and S B Chrimes’s Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Henry VII. I bought a pocket (but clothbound) collection of the Paston Letters. Not quite on this subject but very doughty was Prothero’s Statutes and Documents Illustrative of the Reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.
As an historian, I should have to dig up my English History papers (impossible) in order to find up how useful my imported library was to their composition. Did I manage to quote any of them? I know that I made a somewhat odd impression, but did anyone realize how odd I was? Do I now? I can see the pretentiousness of it all; that’s the easy part. I can see the arrogance, too, and the tidal waves of ennui that overwhelmed me when I tried to read material for which I had no background. The idea that one must begin at the beginning was anathema to me; my drive to reject it, to live in spite of it, was nothing short of pathological. I might boast to the English History master that I had acquired such-and-such a book, and he might have given me a look, but that was the extent of it. I did not ask for advice. I already knew everything that I needed to know about how to learn.
It seems to me now that I must have been engaged in some sort of game of Dungeons and Dragons, but doing without rules and using actual English History. I wasn’t playing but fighting my way through some inexplicable mental barrier on the other side of which I should find myself transformed someone else. I knew nothing about this someone else except that the world would probably not notice the difference. Inside, I should be quite different, but it wouldn’t show. It wouldn’t show because nobody was going to pay very close attention to me. They would notice if I forgot to zip up my fly, but nothing deeper. So other people’s opinions never had much to do with this intense desire for a new self. It would take a very long time to finish the fight, and even to understand that I was fighting would take a while. But the fight began in earnest at Blair, with me in my room, gripping books. All that I wanted to show the rest of the world was that I was immensely knowledgeable, and I knew as if to a turn how unsystematically this illusion might be created.
Eventually, it came time to think of college. There was an obligatory interview with the college adviser. When I said that I expected that I should go to Notre Dame, he could not suppress a reflexive grimace. Crossing the Appalachian Mountains, and to go to a Catholic school! Whether it was his idea or mine, I also filed applications to Hamilton and Colegate. Colegate, I think, put me on its waiting list, but there was never any question about what I was going to do about college. My father had decided that long ago, and I was too consumed by internal affairs to take much interest in the matter.
At first, college was a breeze. It was easier in every way than prep school; plus, I wasn’t homesick like everybody else. South Bend and the crowd of people from Chicago were initially quite exotic, if only because they were so loud and flat. As the semester wore on, however, things got complicated. I attracted a girlfriend from Iowa who introduced me to kissing and then pulled back a little at the strength of my enthusiastic response. I was well-mannered, and did not put my hands where they had not been invited to roam, but my kissing seemed to bind me to the young woman from St Mary’s (the women’s college across the road); I began to feel honor-bound to marry her. My parents adored her. Misgivings mounted like a hangover in reverse. Back home at Christmas, I went to a few parties and was an escort at a debutante cotillion. I lived pretty much on Coca-Cola and pâté de foie gras. Now I was homesick: homesick for everything about the East Coast of sophisticated girls and black ties. Back at Notre Dame, facing exams for which I had not bothered to prepare, I did what I’d learned to do: I quit. I swallowed a bottle of aspirin. I lay myself out on my bed while Walton’s death march for Hamlet played on the phonograph, and, when that didn’t work, I told my best friend down the hall.
That ought to have been the end for me at Notre Dame, but it wasn’t, and I have to say that I’m glad that it wasn’t; in fact, I’ll say why presently. There was a resistance to taking me back, but my father prevailed. I spent the rest of the school year at home, working at my summer job at the Bank of New York; I got my driver’s license, finally, and was rewarded by the invention of Mostly Mozart at Lincoln Center. When that was over, I went back to South Bend for my Second Freshman Year. This was much more successful, although it began with my ejection from Stanford Hall, where I had lived the year before. There was no way Father Whatsit was having me back. So I was shunted off to Dillon Hall, on the main quad, and bunked with an extremely uncongenial young man whose heart, however, was in the right place. We knew that we should never be friends and that we could not honestly respect one another, but although he was burly and athletic, I was bigger, so we called it a draw. This would be my radio station year, and I almost lived there; toward the end, I was spending the nights at the off-campus house of senior staffers. The academic side of things was little better than it had promised to be the year before; I remember a whole round of emergency sessions with my adviser, who quite frankly told me that my father was worried about me (this explained why my adviser was worried about me) before working out deals with each one of my professors. It ought to be made clear that, without my father’s persistence, I should have become a homeless person. I’m not joking.
One of the things I missed out on by trying to kill myself was the chance to participate in the inaugural year of one of Notre Dame’s first sophomore-year-abroad programs, at Angers on the Loire. By the time I was gurneyed off campus, most of my friends were fellow-participants, and of course they all went. When they came back, I was a sophomore and they were juniors. They remained my principal network of friends until they graduated; during my last year, I was thrown back on drugs for company.
At the beginning of sophomore year, my best friend from down the hall in Stanford was now my roommate in Dillon, and through others in the group I met another St Mary’s girl, this one from the same suburb of Chicago in which my mother spent her early childhood. I was in love. Or, according to an Angers alum who stared at me in a penetrating way, I was in love with love. I didn’t want to hear it, but there’s a reason why I’ve never forgotten his saying it. I blush to think of all that happened because I didn’t listen. I have what I suppose is the usual burden of embarrassing memories, but there are not very many things that I’m truly ashamed of having done, as distinct from merely mortified to recall. My second undergraduate romance is at the top of the list. Being in love with love is self-love with lover obbligata. I never did anything like it again.
Despite the modest plethora of social vicissitudes, however, I was glad in the end to have gone back to Notre Dame, because I found myself in the Great Books. Rather, I should say that I found a great space in which to conduct my inner fight.
In those days, the Great Books program at Notre Dame, called the General Program of Liberal Studies, was a major that commenced in the second half of the sophomore year, so that the course included five semesters of Great Books seminars. Where did the list of Great Books begin? With Gilgamesh, probably. We worked our way through the Greeks and the Scholastics and the Humanists and the Enlightenment and finally the big books of the Nineteenth Century. The only thing that I remember of all this reading and discussion was not reading Moby-Dick. I consulted a crib for that. My only distinct memory, then, is a negative. Any other recollections have been effaced by subsequent tours of the same literature, plus more discussion and more writing. The Great Books seminars were the beginning of my life.
Also required were three semesters of the History of Science, and two semesters on the Scientific Method. I forget how many semesters of Philosophy were required. There were topical courses on Drama and on the Novel, and then a course whose name I forget that seemed to be built around Friedrich Heer’s Intellectual History of Europe. (The professor introduced the book by telling us that a better translation of the German title would have been Spiritual History.) We had room for one elective every semester, and I just about flunked all of those, because they had nothing to do with anything. The General Program faculty was very tight and very bright. There was even a brilliant woman. And she was a nun!
Sister Suzanne Kelly taught History of Science at Notre Dame, and also moderated more than a few of the Great Books seminars. She was a remarkable woman, working in a remarkable moment. The moment proved to be transitory, or at least premature: Sister Suzanne was not the harbinger of gender equality (or normality) within the Roman Catholic Church. So far as that was concerned, she beat a path to a dead end. But we did not know that at the time.
Sister Suzanne was a nun, a “splinter Benedictine” I think we used to say. She was one of a handful of highly-educated nuns who left not so much the cloister as the habit. They did not cover their hair; Sister Suzanne’s was dressed in the common mid-Sixties style to which the Queen of England has hung on all these years. They did wear black and white, but their white blouses had short sleeves. They wore low pumps — well, Sister Suzanne did. I don’t know how to convey how amazing this was. Sister Suzanne could be mistaken for an ordinary woman! Until you entered into discussion with her, that is, and discovered that she was a lot smarter than you were, and not shy about it, either.
I ought to add, I suppose, that Sister Suzanne was rather pretty. Perhaps “handsome” is the word. The point is that she was good-looking, and not at all plain. You never suspected for a second that her vocation might be rooted in unattractiveness.
Sister Suzanne had a favorite word, “weasel.” She used it to describe tendentious, flimsy, or spurious arguments, and she directed it quite often at me. “That’s a weasel term,” she would say, as though it were her job to point out when people farted. It was certainly as clear to me as it was to her that the charge was deserved. At that stage, I was like a lawyer who will say anything on behalf of his client, and rely on the judge to assess its validity. Sister Suzanne’s impatience with weaseling may, I’ll concede, have been a tad womanly. Women have good reason to find wearisome the mere cleverness of male show-offs. Over time, I’ve come to feel the same way.
I knew that Sister Suzanne was exceptional. But then, I was exceptional, too. Most of us were, in those classrooms. The fact that Sister Suzanne was a woman was, I’m afraid to say, remarkable. But it was not distinctive. Those of us with ears to hear came away from our classes with her with the sense that there was no positive difference between the thinking of a man and the thinking of a woman. The sexes might have different weaknesses, but their strengths could be matched.
Mine was an extraordinary experience; most students at Notre Dame never came across anyone like Sister Suzanne.
Was Sister Suzanne Kelly a feminist? That’s a tough question at the best of times, but I think that I should have to say “no.” I say that because I believe that feminism has to accommodate motherhood. Regardless of her costume, Sister Suzanne led a celibate life, and did not have to juggle the balls of home, family, and career. All she had to worry about was her career, just like a man.
The History of Science course was the hardest I ever took. Somehow I wound up beginning in the middle, and floundering all the more as I studied medieval science without any grounding in Aristarchus or Pythagoras, much less Plato and Aristotle. The very idea that science has a history was mind-bending. I had thought that “science” was a chain of discoveries that resulted from the application of a basic experimental method to every problem. In reality, of course, it is the branch of intellectual history that teaches us more than any other how the educated worldview has changed since the Greeks began disallowing explanations that attributed natural events to divine interference. It also teaches us how resistant the educated mind can be to better, more comprehensive explanations that require the sacrifice of an intellectual sacred cow — what I now recognize as a kind of sunk-costs problem. It teaches us that history does not show man learning more and more new facts. It shows that the facts are always the facts, and that, to learn them, man has to change the way his mind works. I have come to believe that human consciousness has its own evolutionary history. To be a little less abstract: I believe that changes in human self-perception wrought by the Protestant Reformation is what made the writing of novels possible.
It was by now the late Sixties, a febrile time. There were always students, even at Notre Dame, ready to question what we were doing there. They weren’t necessarily arguing that there was something that we ought to be doing instead, they just thought that college was pointless. In a way, I agreed with them; I felt that there ought to be more point. I felt that we all ought to have been better-educated, taught more, made to memorize more. I felt that a new age was dawning, just as everybody did, but I thought that this new age would require better skills than we possessed. We needed more training in the history of intellectual change, for one thing. We needed to recognize the bottlenecks and the siren calls when we encountered them. The only way to learn new things was to learn all the old things, but while holding all the old things at a distance, as examples of mistakes. Everything that we knew was wrong; we needed to know more of it. If we knew enough about what was wrong, we would reach a critical mass (whatever that meant) and be catapulted over into what was right. I was just as screwed up as my classmates, but I was dressed for the guillotine.
I took a lot of acid during my senior year. I learned very quickly that LSD was not fun, but I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t physically addicted — I don’t think that’s possible — but I was romantically addicted. It was true that LSD altered perception, but it did not alter what there was to be perceived. The world remained right there, what it always was. I was never wowed by a gigantic, terrifying hallucination, and I was bitterly disappointed. The way in which I saw and heard and touched what was always there, that did change. Consciousness became hyperconsciousness; everything registered. Time slowed to a crawl. Hours passed in the mind while minutes ticked by on the clock. Nothing happened, but at a majestic, intergalactic pace. The present moment occupied so much of my awareness that there was none left over for petty everyday worries. I was placed in a state of emergency boredom, where the boredom was so intense, right now, that I might need intensive care. Nothing happened. And then it got meta. Nothing happening got boring. It was the difference between speed and acceleration. But instead of being unendurable, this newly intense boredom wiped out all memory of having been bored. And eventually it became too exhausting to continue. Boredom is, after all, a response to irritation. Eventually, with LSD, the irritation that the drug caused, and that heightened all the everyday irritations before vaporizing them, wore away to nothing; it could no longer be felt. I believe that I took LSD as a sedative.
Law school was different in a way that suggested that the “Before” and “After” snapshots had been reversed. I left Notre Dame the first time as a ruin; I returned as a reasonably responsible adult, if still an occasional funseeker. Funseeking now bore a strong, almost hyper-realistic resemblance to the kind of high-jinks that healthy, normal college students used to get up to. We would drink beer, but not a lot. We would laugh. We would have a sock hop. We would imitate the professors. We would gossip. We would pretend that law school wasn’t happening.
Mostly, law school was happening, intensely. I have nothing to contribute to the abundant literature on the psychosis that a rigorous first-year law school program induces, except to acknowledge that it permanently altered the way I looked at the everyday world, which is why we lawyers are a breed apart. Suddenly now, just walking down the street, I saw a network of legal relationships that arose whenever, say, a shopper (an “invitee”) entered a shop (real property issues galore). I saw torts everywhere in the making. Perhaps this was the hallucination that I had hoped for from acid. The intensity of the vision wore off after a few years, but just as there are men who always know where they stand with regard to the exits and potentially armed enemies, so I am always aware of the legal relationships in the room. It is a classic déformation professionelle.
In law school, I noticed some interesting changes. For one thing, I cared about grades. Perhaps I didn’t care enough, and perhaps I was still distracted, in almost every first year course, by the tendrils of tangential interests. For example, it might have been better for me if the passion that I got from Contracts for the opinions of Benjamin Cardozo had not taken up so much of the time that might be been devoted to working out the intricacies of conversion chains. But I did care, and I continued to care long after the first semester grades determined who would be on the Law Review. (I considered “writing on,” submitting a note that would demonstrate my skills, but the effort fizzled out.) For the first time, I went over tests with professors, sympathetic professors. From the Vietnamese refugee who taught, among other things, the Uniform Commercial Code, I learned that it was necessary to point out the obvious. “But everybody knows that,” I whined about a UCC provision that I had neglected to cite. After she explained, I realized that there are contexts in which you really do have to mention that the sky is blue.
The reason for my studying so hard for the LSAT exam — like all ETS exams, the LSAT is held to be an objective test of aptitude that requires no preparation — was that I had learned that I didn’t think like the people at ETS. Whether right or wrong, I needed to think like them in order to get into law school. I went through books stuffed with practice exams, and quickly saw how my thinking diverged from the self-proclaimed norm. This was particularly interesting in matters of grammar and syntax. My habit of writing long, complicated sentences with many internal interruptions was already leading me to view simple statements with different, “abnormal” analytical principles. I made different inferences. I arrived at different conclusions. I no longer read or speak American like a native. And I still don’t. But I learned to fake it for the LSAT, and again for the New York State Bar exam, and for most of the tests in between. But learning to remember to say that the sky is blue still stands out as an example of my unprecedented if partial submission to real-world expectations.
Unfortunately, the more law I learned, the less cut out to be a lawyer, at least in today’s world, I seemed to be. I had no interest in courtroom life, and was one of the few students in my class who dared not to take Trial Advocacy, a demanding two-semester course in which students prosecuted well-known cases, filing motions and conferring with judges as needed. I hated the hustle of courthouses — just as I hated the hustle of journalism. (I don’t function well in a hustle.) But the courthouse was the only legal arena in which a peculiar fellow like me might find a berth. Corporate law was too sleek for me; I bristled with fins and whiskers and other protuberances in all the wrong places. During the first summer vacation from law school (there are two), I read and summarized depositions taken in a massive lawsuit between my employer (another pipeline company) and a huge corporate client. It was uninspiring, but, more to the point, I was uninspiring. I was told that the policy of the pipeline’s legal department was not to hire anyone for two summers. It probably was, but it would have been waived for the right intern. The right intern might have been sheltered in an internship at some related company. I only asked about coming back because it would have been very convenient. But I was not surprised by the answer.
My solution to the problem of the second summer was to beg my uncle, a sole practitioner in southern New Hampshire, to take me on without pay. My father would have to bankroll this but he was willing enough. For Uncle John, I made frequent trips to the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Nashua to do title searches. I am not sure that he did not do them, too, just to be sure. The archive was not a pleasant place. The deeds were packed tightly together and I was never certain that I had the right volume. Once or twice, I was asked to sit in on a client meeting. I had good reason to remember, forever, the little old lady who wanted to change her will so that her adopted grandchild did not share equally with his or her siblings. I became fascinated by the problems of a local executive who was being taken to the cleaners by E F Hutton. I could not know that E F Hutton would be my last employer, sooner than I thought. But the vibe from Uncle John was consistent with the consensus. He never actually told me that I was no good at being a lawyer, that there was something missing — diligence? reliability? thoroughness? (variations on a theme) — because I carefully avoided putting him on the spot. I preferred to see it the other way round: I was too inner directed to follow any procedure more complicated than a recipe. I could not do as I was told, and only as I was told; I had to add a little something here and subtract something there. I was a monstrosity, a personalized professional.
Desperate, I sought the advice of the Dean. I had met the Dean at lunch, the year before law school. The guest of honor was myself. My father had flown us to South Bend in a company plane so that he could take the Dean and two other professors to lunch at the Morris Inn, then at the edge of the campus and a very short walk from the Law School. I can’t believe that the lunch itself had any impact on my application for admission, but my father might very well have taken the Dean aside and made some financial assurances having “nothing” to do with me. I was not only legacy, but conspicuously legacy. There were a few of my classmates who might have enjoyed similar lunches, but I never asked round and certainly didn’t advertise my own. It ought to have shamed me, but the years in Houston had purified me of honor. I was being handed an opportunity to escape an increasingly unbearable situation. I took it without looking. And the Dean watched me do it.
What must he have thought, then, when, as a by now undistinguished student — an interesting character perhaps, and certainly very bright, but: an undistinguished student — I requested an hour of his time to discuss my future and asked him what I ought to do in order to become a judge?
There is a jingle in law school: the A students go on to become law school professors and judges. The B student become partners at big law firms. The C students are the millionaire businessmen. There is no way in our world for a B student — and I’m not sure that I was even that — to become a judge, except either in a remote, underpopulated place, or in an extremely corrupt jurisdiction. I wasn’t thinking of living in either. I was thinking of being a judge because I understood now that I could never be what the Code of Ethics calls a “zealous advocate” of one party. I could only see both sides of an issue. It must not be imagined that this comprehensive vision made it difficult for me to reach decisions, but a tendency to root for the “right” side means rooting against your client at least some of the time. As a judge, I should be excellently impartial. I should direct juries to agree with me by displaying the most exquisite balance.
I forget the Dean’s advice, and cannot imagine what it might have been. Perhaps he counseled me to think some more about it, and perhaps by the time I shook his hand and left the room I realized what an idiot I had been. The one consolation was that he couldn’t have been surprised.
I think that it must have been the history of science that prepared me for the history of law. Legal history turned out, for me, to be far more exciting that the history of science. I never took much interest in science itself; there was too much math. The only difficulty with the history of English law is its persistent use of “Law French,” which could just as well be called “Low French,” since anyone with a smattering of Latin and French can read it. The only unusual words are terms of law, such as mortdancestor or puisne. Never mind what they mean; I’d have to look them up myself. Many of the words are contracted, but regular study reveals the conventions.
The history of science is really the history of two very exciting periods in human history. In the first, the Ionian Greeks abandoned the gods as explanations of anything. In the second, the same thing happened — God had crept back into the place once held by gods — but on a much broader field, with much greater detail, and with the result of explaining the causes of sensible phenomena. During the Seventeenth Century, man’s view of the world snapped into focus: for the first time, it seemed that we knew what was really going on, and, what’s more, we could demonstrate our proofs. Since the Nineteenth Century, science has slithered back into speculations on things that we cannot experience with our senses. The history of English law follows an altogether different contour. There is no “reality” with which to accord, but only different ways of dealing with squabbles among human beings. For most of its history, English law has been concerned with one of two things, criminal justice or the settlement of property rights. (Personal injury resulting from negligence used to be chalked up to bad luck, and acquired legal significance only with the Industrial Revolution.) Criminal law never interested me very much, possibly because it can only approximate the ends of justice at best and quite often fails to do that. Property rights are the other way round; they have been shaped by the lawyer’s ability to manipulate them. From the start, legal proceedings concerning land were a field of play for the rich. Land was so valuable that the money spent to defend or contest title was never much of an object, at least for one party.
I studied the law of bastardy. This was an interesting subject because there were two laws, according to two different legal systems. Bastardy happened to be one of those issues about which the Church had something to say, and what it had to say was in some cases the direct opposite of the common law. The commonest form of bastardy to appear in the law court was the child (a son, presumably) who was born before his parents got married. According to the Church, such a child was not a bastard; the birth defect was remedied by subsequent marriage. This was not the view of the common law, according to which such premature birth could never be cured. It seems that, at least in the best families, weddings followed births not infrequently, because the charge of irregular birth was itself never disputed in court. (Or, if it was disputed, the case was shunted off into another classification, one probably not very interesting to the law clerks who kept the records of court proceedings.) In pleading your case, you had to be very careful to avoid saying that your opponent’s client was a bastard, because then the matter would be sent to the ecclesiastical courts, where the issue would be settled in your opponent’s favor. You had to allege that your opponent’s client was “born before the marriage.” This was not always as easy as it sounds.
Another very interesting thing about these old court reports, which begin to thicken in number shortly before the ill-fated reign of Edward II and peter out in early Tudor times, is their betrayal of a complete lack of interest in outcomes. Who won? The lawyers and the judges couldn’t have cared less. What about the jury? The jury never came into the courtroom. The courtroom, as best I can imagine it, was a sort of tented booth in Westminster Hall (which still stands), as to the side at modern-day Wimbledon, several proceedings were in process at the same time. There would be a judge, and two legal teams, but there familiarity stops. The lawyers would banter — again, tennis comes to mind — about the nature of the case, with the judge kibitzing. The reports read like plays, with the name of the judge or the lawyer (not that you can tell right away who’s who) at the beginning of each line. Imagine the bidding at bridge. — Blackacre belongs to my client. — Blackacre was given to my client’s uncle by your client’s grandfather. — Your client’s uncle died without issue. — My client is his uncle’s heir. Eventually, cards would have to be shown, and, when they were, and the issue was “joined,” the result was a question, not a judgment. The question was sent out to the county in which the disputed land lay. There the jury would be summoned — to act as witnesses. They would be asked the question, which could be answered “yes” or “no” only, and their answer would decide the matter for the disputants. — Your client cannot be his uncle’s heir, because he was born before his parents were married. Was this true? The lawyers didn’t care. They never dealt with witnesses, or juries. They dealt only with one another.
My swim in legal history came at the end of law school, in the form of “Directed Readings” guided by a faculty member, in this case Robert Rodes, who taught Civil Procedure and Jurisprudence. We spent a lot of time together, discussing not only my studies but his footnotes, which I was checking in the library. I helped him with the second volume of Ecclesiastical Administration in Medieval England, from which I learned all about “advowsons,” those curious property rights in immaterial goods, familiar to all readers of English novels in the form of “livings.” Early medieval disputes about parish churches, between the local bigwigs who built them and the Church whose orthodoxy they must observe, was settled by permitting the builder (and his heirs) to “present” a suitable candidate to the bishop. Once confirmed, the candidate became the vicar and enjoyed the living — the income from lands donated to pay for the maintenance of the church. (This will explain why livings were so unequal.) Where the novelist or historian writes that the parish of Sts Femur and Tibula was “in the gift of” Squire Clavicle, the lawyer would say that the squire owned the advowson. It might not have been a material thing, but it was the ghost of one.
A further source of discussion was the annulment of my marriage in Houston. Beginning with the brief papacy of John Paul I, and lasting a few years into that of his successor, the window on annulments was all but flung open. Formerly very hard to get, the annulment of a marriage, whether or not it had been performed in a church, became a much easier business. Instead of requiring central processing, local tribunals were established, and they were rather liberal. Once upon a time, children were an obvious problem, making it impossible to claim that the marriage had not been consummated. Getting around that one required things like the claim of consanguinity that didn’t work very well for Henry VIII. Now, in the late Seventies, “psychological immaturity” emerged as grounds for finding that a wedding was sacramentally incomplete. Consent had always been required of bride and groom, which is probably what explains the disappearance in the West, except at exalted social levels, of arranged marriage. Obviously, there were human beings who were incapable of consent, because of birth defects or the results of disease. Now it was allowed that psychological immaturity might be a bar to consent.
Arguing my psychological immaturity, even at the age of 24, was not an issue that anyone ever regarded as problematic. The delicacy of the thing was all in the procedure. Professor Rodes, a convert to Catholocism and an advanced student of the Church’s functioning, took an avid interest in the paperwork that arrived from the tribunal in Houston. He quickly realized that we must treat the response to the questionnaire as what in an American court would be called a motion in opposition to a motion for summary dismissal. In plain English, we had to overcome the Church’s default setting, which would be to refuse the application for annulment. I suppose that he acted as my counsel. I remember confessing to him what might prove to be a problem in the case.
The reader will have assumed that my first marriage began with a shotgun wedding. This is not really true. When I bought the ring and made my proposal, I had no idea that the woman whom I was asking to be my wife was pregnant; nor did she. I found that out about a week later, because when she accepted my proposal, the woman who put the ring on her finger wasn’t feeling very well. She felt so poorly, in fact, that her mother — a very influential physician who could make such a thing happen — slapped her into Methodist Hospital, for tests. At some point, I asked an intern about X-rays, for what could the matter be. The intern smirked irksomely and pooh-poohed X-rays as dangerous, lest the patient be pregnant, as indeed she was.
So I hadn’t proposed marriage as the solution to an embarrassing problem. (My fiancée would soon be muttering about abortion, anyway.) I had proposed marriage because I planned to settle down and start a family. All very well, but as Professor Rodes no doubt suggested, I wasn’t really in the position to do such a thing. I made hardly enough money to support myself, I had never given such things as mortgages and insurance a thought, and as for plausible plans for the future, which, let’s face it, are still even today a big thing that the man is supposed to bring to the table, I hadn’t any. I had a job, yes, but I enjoyed it so much that you might almost argue that, like the lilies, I neither toiled nor spun. (Plus, I got paid in sunbeams.) The facts, in this view, conduced to a judgment of psychological immaturity far more strongly than a shotgun wedding would have done. We proceeded with brio.
Ding dong. Even when the annulment window was open — it would bang shut soon enough — it was not quite Liberty Hall. On one point the tribunals adhered to unsmiling tradition. Annulments were not issued as blank checks. In order to get one, the applicant had to demonstrate the intent to marry again, preferably to another Catholic (which my ex wife had not been). I did have such an intent, an open and notorious intent to marry my classmate, Kathleen Moriarty. By the time the annulment came through, Kathleen had developed the intent to marry me. This had taken some doing on my part, but, for the most part, it had required great patience. This was another change. Where Kathleen was concerned, I never quit.
We were friends from the start, but Kathleen’s resistance to romance was also immediately clear. Because we both understood that it would be a forever sort of thing (as it has proved to be). This, together with the fact that I wasn’t her type, precluded romantic intimacy. I never gave up, but it’s probably more important to say that I never allowed frustration to provoke me to quit. I continued to be Kathleen’s friend. I did not harp on my dreams of our life together; I simply tried to be a person with whom she liked to be. I did ask her twice to go to the annual school dance with me, and she declined twice. I went with other women, also friends. On at least one occasion, I seriously considered pursuing another woman in the class. This campaign, however, consisted of little more than appreciating the lady’s considerable virtues. I never got very far trying to imagine myself in the same picture. Whereas nothing was easier with Kathleen than to imagine our going on together forever. This might have been delusional, but I think it reflected the fact that I was tuning my character to suit Kathleen. It is something that I have never stopped doing. By “tuning,” I mean to suggest slight, almost painless adjustments. A lifetime of these can lead to big changes; it has certainly made me a happier person. It has also confirmed my native gradualism.
Of course it was a condition of my all-expenses paid law school holiday that I should return to Houston when it was over. I had no definite ideas about this at first; what made life in Houston a pain was my poverty, which law school would presumably empower me to ameliorate. By second year, I was thinking that Houston’s legal community would never welcome me, except on terms little better than the ones that the radio station had to offer. By the end of that year, however, I was sure that I would never return to Texas.
Kathleen changed her mind about me in the early spring of 1979. Her resistance crumbled into dust on an evening whose date we forget, although we remember everything else about it very well. A classmate who was and remains a very good friend of the both of us had just learned that she had been made an offer for the summer by a utility company in the West. I don’t think that she seriously considered leaving her native New England, but it would be a good job and her second summer was spoken for — jolly good news. Kathleen and I (understanding that I would pay the bill) took her out for a drink, to the bar at the Morris Inn, not a student hangout by any means.
Now, during the recent winter break, I had flown out to California to see Bee, and Bee and I had had a very nice time. We had even flown down to Burbank to visit the radio station’s former engineer; he was living in Reseda and working for one of the big networks. It had all been great fun. Returning to Notre Dame, I told Kathleen, in her capacity as my closest friend, that it had been great to refresh ties to Bee. I said no more, but my eyes sparkled. Later, Kathleen would recognize this news as the end of her independent life.
Over drinks at the Morris Inn, we fell into a discussion about the old practice of separate bedrooms. In the great hôtels of Paris, husbands and wives of the ancien régime occupied not only separate bedrooms but separate wings of the house. This seemed very wise and sophisticated to me. Our friend didn’t have much to say about it (which I’m sure she thought was pure nonsense), but Kathleen did, and our friend has not forgotten spending the following hour as if she were watching a tennis match. Kathleen thought that separate bedrooms were barbaric, a sign of arranged, insincere marriage. I said that it didn’t rule out husbands and wives sleeping together, just that they could manage their things and their, er, affairs separately. Pretty soon, Kathleen was angry with me for advancing this position. She didn’t just disagree with it, as she would have done one upon a time; she hated it. She looked like she might begin to throw things. Our friend began to smile. It turns out that a number of our friends had come to regard Kathleen as a bit of a Beatrice.
Kathleen still says that what followed was the worst night of her life. The prospect of spending the rest of her life with me, me, was appalling. But then so was the prospect of doing anything else. There followed what we called “the negotiations,” hours spent with carafes of coffee in a booth at the Howard Johnson’s on Route 31. This was roughly comparable to the stage in which the parents in an arranged marriage hammer out the terms: the dowry, where the young couple will live, perhaps trade a bit of property, and so on. We had all of that plus all the emotion that went with it. We stopped worrying about crying in the booth. There wasn’t very much that we didn’t know about one another, but we went over all of it now as if we were our first clients.
The third change was that I made a lot of friends in law school. Most of them were not permanent friendships, but they were real enough at the time. I belonged to a fairly large circle and felt very comfortable in it. At the time, I did not see the ominous potential of this new thing; perhaps it would be better to say that I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t accept, how integral our all being together in law school and at law school in the middle of nowhere was to the whole happy picture. I do remember that, as we drove east after graduation, lugging a fully-loaded U-Haul van and watching the Gold Dome recede behind us, we both burst into tears and continued crying for miles.
And we both took up smoking again.