Untethered

The author was an English professor for over 40 years. What follows is an excerpt from an essay he wrote after his retirement. An essay (to quote a phrase from a longtime reader of Goodheart’s work whose correspondence helped inspire it)“in the spirit of one no longer bound by job or profession or any other tethers (except the inevitable one of mortality), someone sailing under his own wind wherever it might take him.” 

Having taught for more than forty years, I had begun to have the feeling that as students pass through college and on to a life beyond it I remained stuck in the same place.  I would come to seem to them, as my professors now seem to me, relics of the past, much of what I said in class (transferred to notebooks, anxiously crammed for exams or papers to be written) wholly forgotten.  Or if not forgotten, what will be remembered is an idiosyncrasy like an odd gesture or a verbal tic, a homiletic statement in a glow of nostalgia or a pedagogical reprimand in a flare of resentment.

I looked forward to retirement as an untethering, a lifting of a burden and a vague prospect of a new beginning, telling myself I would now do only what I wanted to do, as if somehow my real wants and desires had been held in reserve for this moment.  I would fill my time with reading and writing…

It gradually became clear that the sense of new freedom was temporary.  A burden had been lifted, but now I had to cope with unresisting days.  A retired friend who had been an editor at a major publishing house found that his phone had stopped ringing—relatively speaking of course, since, after all, he told me this after I had rung him up.  He missed the tethers of editorship as much as he might have complained about them before retirement.  He found himself increasingly isolated from a life of routine and habit.  My own sense of time has altered.  In a life filled with routines, demands, assignments, time passes quickly; you live against its movement, always checking your watch in your concern about being on time, about running late.  I now feel remote from the experience of younger friends, who seem always under the constraint of the passage of time.  Lunch with those still on the job is a race against time, an appointment always looming over the last bite.  I have gotten used to the feeling of being abandoned, as I remain the last one sitting having no place where I have to be.  I now experience with an acquired equanimity slow time or its being frittered away.

I write only when I feel like it or am driven to; the hour doesn’t matter.  And I try, not always successfully, to suspend the sense of an ending, so that anything of value in what I have to write will have an unhurried chance to appear.  While I write time stops; when I come to a stop I am surprised by how much time has passed.  Emptiness threatens when I am away from desk or when I am haunted by the knowledge that what I have written may not be seen by others and will simply evaporate.  To write is to want to be read by others, but in the meantime you write for yourself.  I have become my own reader, so that I can keep alive what I have put down.  I now mistrust my impulse to complete as impoverishment.   As I read and reread I make insertions and deletions, always on the lookout for what is missing, for what deserves to be said.  Writing has become a conversation, even if only with myself.  Every termination is provisional like the conclusion of lunch with a friend, the conversation to be resumed at some later date.

All serious writers, whatever the differences in how or what they write, express themselves.  They may conceal their identities and refuse to acknowledge their presence in the characters they create, but that is only a ruse freeing them to confess their most intimate thoughts and feelings.  I don’t have the gift for the ruse, which is the gift for fiction.  I have only the first person pronoun as a resource.  I know the temptations of concealment and deflection.  I know too that the act of writing can pull you away from the truth.  The shape of the sentence or the paragraph has its demands, its own logic.  There is the ultimate tether of language, the requirements of grammar and syntax, limitations in the meanings of words and idiom, so though you have powerful feelings that you want to express, you may not be able to contain them no matter how hard you try.  Or you may think the feeling is powerful until you try to express it.  And then there are the desperate times when the mind goes blank, comes to full stop and says nothing to you.  The monitor recording your “mind beat,” if such a device existed, would show a straight line without spikes.  You may not recognize the blankness and write from habit until you realize, if you do, that you are only filling space with words. The great fear is that you will become permanently stuck, that no sentence that you write will contain anything to surprise you or your reader, that you will in the words that you put down hear what you have heard from others or from yourself a thousand times before.

For some writers fullness is at the beginning, and writing is an outward flow from beginning to end.  Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Lawrence are like surfers on the high waves of words.  They are athletes of the spirit, forever in motion, unable to endure more than a moment of repose.  For others, Flaubert, chief among them, each sentence becomes a struggle to find the right word, the right phrase, and the right ending to the sentence that prepares for the next one.  The final effect may be the smoothness of the paragraph and the inevitable transition to the next paragraph, but you can sense the struggle in the care that went into finding the rightness of the word and perhaps a sense of exhaustion from all the effort.  (Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Lawrence are inexhaustible.)  I am no Flaubert, but like him I struggle from sentence to sentence, but without the misery that he complained about to his friends.  And then there is Proust whose manuscript was like an accordion.  He would constantly insert passages in the interstices of his text.  There is a scene in Celeste, the wonderful German film about him and his relationship to his housekeeper, in which you see him holding his manuscript, folded as if it were indeed an accordion, and expanding it to the place where he could insert a new passage.  Built into The Search for Lost Time is the principle of the endlessness of narration.  The imagination is a splicing machine. There is no consummation devoutly to be wished.  It is always possible to add to the beginning, to the middle and to the ending, for life is an endless supplier, and only the limits of Proust’s mind and his mortality prevented him from going on forever with the story he wished to tell.  Writing is an effort, ultimately futile, to resist an ending.  (Is it possible that the inventors of the word processor, with its mechanism for cutting and pasting, had Proust in mind?)  For Balzac, Dostoevsky and Lawrence, time must have stood still or maybe its passage was so swift that it may not have been noticed.  For Flaubert time must have weighed heavily, the hours ticking away and so little to show for it.  Maybe the investment of time in finding the right word may have increased the sense of value of each word.  Was Flaubert familiar with the labor theory of value?  For Proust time itself is the subject, and he created in his imagination an eternal present that could absorb into itself every past that he could recall.

I have little of the antinomian desire of modern writers who believe that in letting it all hang out they will find themselves in a state of grace.  But most writers have the desire to be known through their writing.  Apparent exceptions: Kafka willed the incineration of his work, and Salinger locked himself in his house and, for all we know, stopped writing.  Are they exceptions?  In withdrawing themselves from the world, they have aroused, as have few writers who theatrically display themselves, a passionate curiosity about themselves and their work. Their very absence creates an aura.  It is hard to believe that they did not know this.

The desire to be known on a grand scale is the desire for fame.  Milton called it “that last infirmity of noble mind,” meaning that it was the hardest weakness to get rid of.  Why?  Fame has a root in the very desire of each of us to survive.  It is immortality in our shadow world.  Evolutionary psychologists one day may even find a gene for it.  Even the shy and the diffident, those who seem to declare by their demeanor that they don’t want to be noticed, have a way of calling attention to themselves in the very act of withdrawal: Kafka and Salinger again.  Everyone wants to be acknowledged and recognized; a sense of self-identity depends upon it.  We all have within us Dostoevsky’s underground man, who wants his existence acknowledged at all costs.   Failure, shame, humiliation are what hold our attention, even more than success.  The ancient writers celebrated the extremes of heroism; lacking examples and occasions of the heroic, modern writers find their satisfaction in the extremes of anti-heroic behavior: scandal, outrage and betrayal.  (The contrast with the ancients may be illusory, for the heroes of epic and tragedy knew scandal, outrage and betrayal on a grand scale.)  To go the route of extremity carries too many risks for those I care about and for my self-esteem.  I am willing to go so far and no further, even when fully conscious of what I can confess.

I find that my sense of what speaks to me and what doesn’t has become sharper in my “untethered” state.  No one can rid himself completely of a lifetime of habits, prejudices and dependencies. I would like, but know how difficult if not impossible it is, to overcome the need to please.  What if I succeeded in achieving total independence and became, so to speak, a monk of the spirit?  Without God or some other being to address, to connect with, to hear from, one would have only himself or herself to speak to.  Impossible.  The great writers are beyond my reach. Above all, I want to hear in every sentence I write the authentic sound of what I truly feel and believe.

I read John Williams’s remarkable novel Stoner.  Its episodes are filled with reminders of the petty rivalries of academic life, battles over promotions, salary increases and awards.  The novel describes intolerable department and committee meetings in which well-wrought sentences of blather are spoken.  In one episode, professors of literature examine a graduate student whose rhetorical gift conceals his intellectual and scholarly emptiness.  On display is not a quest for knowledge, but rather the vanities and timidities of the professors and the intellectual fraudulence of the student.  The genius of the novel, however, is in the portrait of its protagonist, Stoner, the offspring of a hardscrabble farmer from the Midwest, who through an acquired love for scholarship and sheer perseverance becomes against all odds a university teacher of literature.  His marriage is an abysmal failure.  The graduate student with whom he has an affair is forced by the authorities to leave the school.   His wife undermines his connection with his daughter and effectively drives him out of his home into his faculty office.  In the university he suffers the indignities of a mean spirited department chairman.  Failure marks every aspect of his life, and yet he maintains a stubborn integrity, a heartbreaking authenticity, in his devotion to literature and to life.  No one can take away from him the books that allowed him to enter a world infinitely larger than the academy that tried to contain it, no one except, of course, death.  The novel ends with his death, the last act a letting fall from his hand a book that he had been holding.  Here is the ending of the novel.  “He opened the book, and, as he did so it became not his own.  He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive.  The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay.  The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.” And the final one sentence paragraph:  “The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.”  I am the son of immigrant parents, not of the hardscrabble Midwest, and yet (is “yet” the right word?) I find myself, though happily married and successful in ways Stoner was not, in him.  Leaving the academy alive unlike Stoner, I take the books that have nourished me.  I suspect that at the end I will let fall a book no longer mine “into the silence of the room.”

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