By Shaun Nanavati
Dedicated to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
He always wore the same thing on the first day of class: a fitted white shirt, linen beige pants, and comfortable brown shoes. He polished the shoes himself. He did not like the idea of having someone else polish them. It wouldn’t fit with his egalitarian character. This was the fifth year of teaching his literature class. On the first day, he had a special ritual: he would take a leisurely morning walk through the West Village, stopping at his usual bookstore for a new short story, then at a coffee shop around the corner where he would read it before heading to school. Today, he read Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut.
The literature class was his baby. Each year, he made a special effort to improve the class; he would listen carefully to his students concerns and make the appropriate adjustments; he would pay close attention to what sections the students enjoyed and fine-tune them even more for the following semester. He loved teaching the class and the students loved taking it. He had quickly become one of the school’s most popular teachers.
The Dean asked him to come by his office before class.
Dean McCauley stood with his back to the doorway as the professor entered. He turned and motioned for the young man to sit down. The Dean had a small paunch, the kind that develops from an extended, comfortable middle-class existence. He was typical of his generation: he liked things to run smoothly and did not like altercations; he usually voted for whomever he thought would put the most money in his pocket. He wore khakis, a good-quality dress shirt and turtle-shell eye-glasses. His shoes – though more formal and rigid than the professor’s – were also polished. On his desk sat the young professor’s course packet. The title on the cover read: From Diagnosis to Poetry: On the Bipolar Nature of Existence.
“Well,” he began, “I’ve asked you to come here so I can talk to you about this class you teach.”
“Sure. Thank you. What about it?”
“Well…” He paused, carefully thinking about how to phrase his next comment. “Are you aware that one of your students is the daughter of one of our board members?”
“Uh … no … I was not. Who?”
“Dr. Servatius, who is also a board member of a leading pharmaceutical company in the U.S.”
“No, I meant what is his daughter’s name?”
“Oh, Ariel. Yes, she is a big fan of your class. But it seems as though some of the things you are teaching are creating a little tension in their home.”
“Really? Such as?”
“Does the following stanza sound familiar?
“He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue…
How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening.
Those sugary planets whose influence won for him
A life baptized in no-life for a while,
And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgettable baby.
Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”
The professor’s face had slipped into contemplative bliss, though the Dean could discern a touch of melancholy.
“You read that beautifully, Dean.”
“Uh … thank you. But that is not the point. What is this exactly?”
“It’s Sylvia Plath.”
“Who? Whatever. Have you ever thought about how this makes the doctor appear to his daughter?”
“Well, it ruined their family’s Thanksgiving. A Thanksgiving, I should mention, where the President of this University was a guest.”
“And? We do not live in a utopia. This university has fiscal responsibilities. You’ve got to play the game, just like the rest of us.”
“Play the game? My job is to teach these students to think critically.”
“Look, if this were an isolated incident, I could overlook it. But this course reader of yours is a like some manifesto on resistance.
“Dean, this is a collection of short stories by some of the greatest artists our culture has produced, talking frankly about their experience of mental distress. If we do not allow the patient’s narrative into the dialogue, by dismissing it as ‘splitting’ or paranoia, then medicine runs the risk of solipsism and the mistakes of diagnosis that go with it.”
“Oh, yes, paranoia. Listen to this one:
“Of course, I didn’t know what Bellevue would mean-I thought they just put you to bed and let you rest. I was sped up, tired out, I couldn’t think who I was, I wanted to lay down and sleep. I was like a child lost with people milling all around me and no one to love me. My brain was like a crazy TV set flicking picture stories in color and black-and-white … I had a small fatty tumor on my arm and he found needle marks from the shots the reducing doctor was giving me. Right away he asked if I was a junkie. I tried to explain but he didn’t believe me, I could tell by the way his eyes looked at me behind his rimless glasses. Then I heard him say to the other doctor, ‘Negroes are paranoiac, unrealistic people who believe the whole world is against them.’
“ ‘Tell me, is this paranoia we all have curable?’
“And he said, ‘Yes, this is what I am so happy to tell you. I can cure this disease with a simple operation on the frontal lobe called a lobotomy and then you will be all right.’
“You know we have a special relationship with Bellevue, don’t you?, for our graduate students? It took a lot of time to cultivate. But of course, your course packet just continues down this path.
“HELLVIEW OF BELLEVUE
“1. The time schedule alone is enough to destroy a night worker like me. They shout in my ear to get up before I even get to sleep.
2. Some kinds of bigs are leaving marks all over me. They itch.
3. The toilets are a drag.
4. Dr. Bonk keeps saying I am a failure.
5. I know now the reason I came was a childish protest against my doctor because when I missed two weeks in a row he wrote me and said he could hold no more time open for me.
6. Dr. Bonk talks to me two minutes at a time and hurries me off. What does he expect me to say in two minutes?
7. I have learned my lesson. Let me have my freedom. Thank you and good-bye.
“Who wrote this anyway?”
“It’s Charles Mingus, from his autobiography Beneath the Underdog.”
“Look. I don’t mind if our students are playing his music in a bar late at night, but I do not think we need his personal ramblings corrupting our youth.”
“Corrupting our youth.” These words reverberated in his head. The absurdity of this exchange did not warrant a rebuttal. He closed his eyes and held his tongue.
“There was another incident that was brought up at the Directors Meeting this weekend. You are becoming quite a sore spot for the people on whom we depend.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You are familiar with Senator Calley?”
“Of course, William Calley. Yes, he also sits on the board of the university, right?”
The professor spoke with growing apprehension and a certain expectation of disappointment. He knew what was coming. He sighed.
“Yes, we do have the honor of having him sit on our board. He is also a highly decorated military man. Well, he has mentioned your use of a particular poem, Dulce et Decorum est, by Wilfred Owen.”
As the Dean picked up the course packet, the professor knew which part of Dulce was coming.
“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like the devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
“Did you realize that Dulce et Decorum est was the senator’s campaign slogan?
“No, I didn’t. But our soldiers are protecting our freedom and Senator Calley supports our young men and women. So that would make sense.”
“Dr. Servatius and Senator Calley have petitioned the President for your removal.”
“And I am sorry. We are going to have to let you go.”
“You’re a goddamn prince, Dean.” The young man – no longer a professor, but now a wiser man – left the Dean’s office, went back to the café and read another short story, Harrison Bergenon.
Shaun Nanavati has been telling stories all his life. He was formerly the editor of The Catalyst while an undergraduate at Bucknell, where he was influenced profoundly by the beats Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Paul Bowles. Chasing the ghost of Jack Kerouac, he spent five psychonautically-inspired years in Boulder where he was a journalist for The Boulder Weekly. He is now a graduate student in Psychology at the New School and can be occasionally found sharing adventures from his youth at coffee shops and pubs throughout the West Village.