Frightful Symmetryby Ricardo Nirenberg
An image appears often in his mind, especially when he lies face up, looking at the ceiling. An old, rusty, useless ship come to anchor at this peaceful studio apartment at The Windsor Arms. Two active chimneys, one fore, another aft, a freighter of vague register and reluctant flag, she or he slowly heaves and sets on the slack water of a narrow, shallow harbor; yet, and this is something he has learned from recurrent dreams, Yankl is endowed, at bottom, with a capacious bilge. He doesn't remember when that self-image as a scuttled ship with a huge, dark bottom, presented itself to his mind for the first time. It was definitely after his coming to live in the USA, twenty-five years ago. It might have something to do with the real ship on which his parents and he, not yet two years old, sailed away from Odessa, just in time to be saved from the fate of Europe's Jews. But he doesn't remember anything from that first trip.
The freighter "Punta Arenas" is the first distinct boat in his memory. On her, in 1950, he and his mother left Cuba, the only country which had been willing to let them in. They glided south, along the obese belly of South America, toward the city of Porto Alegre, the trip paid by a wealthy cousin of his mother who resided there. Once and for all, together with the palm-lined, gleaming Cuban coast, receded from his view his father's grave in the Colón cemetery, with the stone bearing the inscription: "Emil Schreiber. Peace over Israel." And receded, too, his own tropical childhood.
The next vivid boat, blue and red chimney, is the passenger ship "Ville de Marseille", on which he left Brazil in 1960, after his mother's death. At twenty he sailed back to Europe, to attend the University of Paris. His Iberian name, Santiago, the name by which he had been called up in school to salute the Cuban and then the Brazilian flag, the name under which he had made love to a girl for the first time, receded too, soon to be replaced by Jacques. But that's old stuff. No one calls him either Santiago or Jacques any more: here in the USA he is known as Jack, but, especially at moments like this, when he lies face up on his bed and pictures himself as an old boat until he snoozes off and then all kinds of things can happen—he'll glide up and down poles like those in fire houses, or giddily go up and down steep and snowy stairs, or else get involved in philosophic arguments, too complex for wakefulness, with officers and crew—at moments like this he still likes to call himself Yankl, the Yiddish name his mother used to call him. This mental music, "Yankl, Yankl," makes him feel as if rocked by gentle tides, and calms the anxious feeling of bilge and the thoughts of darkness.
Yankl feels he is about to doze off again. He makes an effort, buttresses his head up with another pillow, and picks up the papers he has left by his side. About to start reading again, he suddenly changes his mind, gets up and goes to the kitchen for a cup of tea with a bit of rum, then lays himself back down, the sheets of paper on one hand and the cup in the other. Sipping rhythmically, he rereads the first couple of pages of Pete's memoir. He had trouble with them the first time. Yankl reminds himself, still again, that what these pages require is not professional skill, not a critical reading, but empathy and love. Pete Brzeski happens to be his best friend. Pete shows Jack all he writes—mostly scholarly articles having to do with Adam Mickiewicz' lectures at the Collège de France, but also ideas for improving America, and letters to The New York Times. Pete is always insecure, fretful and impatient for Jack's approval, so Jack tries to get back to Pete within forty-eight hours, usually by phone. But Jack is aware that anything critical beyond pointing out a typo could be hurtful. Since Pete is thin-skinned in those matters, criticism is something Jack does his best to avoid.
Pete gave Jack the present manuscript this afternoon, saying in a voice where even an ordinary ear could detect high expectation, "I'm inflicting on you the final draft of my memoir." "Inflict" is a verb Pete likes to use when giving Jack something of his to read. But "memoir" is something new, something which should hold more than a passing interest for Jack. How many times, over the years, have they talked about their childhoods. For Pete it's a big thing, being from a blue-collar Catholic Polish family in Chicago. When Jack points out that his father, a Jew from Poland, has been a barber in Havana, and his mother a seamstress, Pete sort of dismisses it all. "You have no notion of the kind of deprivation I am talking about, Jack. Chicago in the 1930s, and a family of six children. The depression. Working-class precariousness. I have never met a colleague in the Humanities with a similar impoverished background. Not a single one."
Jack will not get into a dispute about it - who's been more deprived, for God's sake! He has lived for more than sixty years and in more than four countries, enough to understand that personal narratives are like cushions, meant to prop your head up and make you feel comfortable. He's eager to read Pete's memoir, though, what he has to say about his childhood in blue-collar Little Poland in Chicago. Traumas, humiliations, no doubt. He expects them to be deep, strong, vivid, lasting, and well told. Traumas and humiliations to be twined to his own. Such intertwining, Jack feels, serves exactly the same purpose as the intertwining of threads to make a rope—or a line, to stay with his self image as a ship. The purpose is to get a tremendous gain in tensile, friendship strength. For without such friendships (which are so rare), what sense would life here have for him? Why not live somewhere else, in Brazil, or in India, or even in Europe, for example? Whenever, as often happens, Europeans express astonishment that he has chosen to live permanently in the USA, a country where (so they are persuaded) all human relationships are business oriented or professionally generated, or simply lacking, Jacques replies that, on the contrary, nowhere has he known friendships as deep and as warm as those which tie him to his close American friends. But he'd be in trouble if those Europeans were to ask him to name his close American friends. Thank god they never do, because the only name he would be able to come up with is Pete Brzeski.
While he looks at the ceiling, the certainty descends on Yankl that it is only that line, formed of the intertwined humiliations and traumas of two friends, that holds the Yankl ship to this shallow harbor. That if it weren't for that line, if it weren't for the intertwining of his life with Pete Brzeski's, he would have to start the rusted engines, disentangle the weeds from the propeller, free the rudder from crust, and sail off, leave for good. The idea seems threatening and so much in need of further development, that he lays the cup of tea and the sheaf of paper on the night table, turns off the light and closes his eyes. Setting off to sea, alone again, at sixty-five? When he crossed the ocean at twenty, his feelings weighed on the side of hope and he looked about with joy, just a tiny bit scared at his own freedom; but as he grew older, with each change of habitation the balance beam in his heart tended more and more to the tired but secure horizontal. And now, where would he go? The image of himself, an old boat, floating in the immensity with no determined direction, no prearranged destination, frightens him. Anaximander, one of the earliest and greatest of Greek philosophers, taught that the earth is round, a cylinder actually, supported by nothing, suspended in the void. Vulgar opinion would sneer at this and object that such a thing was impossible, for if unsupported the earth, just like anything else, would fall into god knows what abyss. But Anaximander, whose mind stood far above the vulgar, pressed that the void, if it is a true void, must be symmetrical, and that given such perfect symmetry, there is no reason why the earth should move, or "fall," as the saying goes, in one direction rather than in any other. Therefore, it doesn't move at all, it stays forever put. "Fearful," Yankl whispers, "fearful symmetry." And he falls asleep. He dreams that he is living in a country which is neither the USA nor Cuba nor Brazil, and definitely not in Europe. A country which is suspended somewhere far above the earth, in the void.
The next morning he tells his students about Anaximander's symmetry. It is a large class of undergraduates, "Philosophy 101, Critical Thinking," favored by those daunted by the alternative requirement of one semester of Calculus. He solicits comments, but since it is nine in the morning, and most kids are not fully awake from the torpor after a night's light beer, heavy metal and who knows what else and of what density, it takes some gentle prompting from the instructor. "Think about it: around you everything is totally, perfectly symmetrical. How would you react to such situation?"
At long last a student, the earnest one who usually answers questions from the first row, volunteers, "I don't see what symmetry has to do with staying put."
Some giggle. Jack lets the ripple pass and then takes a slightly, only slightly different tack: he explains the old problem of Buridan's ass which is unable to choose between two symmetrically placed bales of hay and consequently starves. Immediately he realizes he has made a bad move, he should have spoken instead of a horse, a dog, or a cat, or even a donkey, for now everyone is giggling as if he had cut a loud fart. Too late now. There was a time, earlier in his career, when he would have rescued the situation by dint of wit, authority and savoir faire; now he has only the energy left to stand there, in front of the class, while his heart fills to the brim with misanthropic contempt, and to lower his eyes so as not to show it. "Well, any further comments?" he asks after a minute, raising his head.
A loud and protracted yawn is heard from somewhere in the back rows, and this effrontery provokes more excited laughter. Jack exclaims, "Precisely! Bravo, very well! Before anything else, perfect symmetry is likely to result in perfect boredom. And make us yawn. Who came up with this excellent answer?" Pause—Jack looks intently ahead of him, like a sailor looking for a landfall. "What, too modest, or too shy? Well, whoever you are, you certainly deserve an A for the final grade."
Outside, the campus gardens are in bloom. A marvelously beautiful morning in May, made especially beautiful by the imminence of the end of this endless spring semester. A group of students are sitting on the lawn, like frogs forming a circle at one of whose otherwise undistinguishable points sits the instructor, this symmetry and lack of distinction between the positions of educator and educands being of the greatest importance in contemporary educational practice. Also and by the way, one shouldn't say "to teach," but rather the more symmetrical, "to share one's knowledge with." Using the word "share" and its derivatives wherever possible (pretty much everywhere) is a good way of not straying from the correct path. Even, "All I wanted was to share my H.I.V. with you" will sound benign. Yankl sits on a bench and lights a cigarette. He took up smoking again only a year ago. He had started smoking in Porto Alegre, at age thirteen; much later, in 1980, when he moved to the USA, he yielded to social pressure and stopped, only to start again now. Many look at his smoking with disapproval or disgust, but the need to mitigate his solitude proved stronger than the threat of ostracism: a lighted cigarette is an amiable companion. Often Jack talks to it in short interrogative phrases, such as, "Who knows?", "So, what are we gonna do about it?" or, not having any particular person in mind, "How could anyone be so damn stupid?", then he avidly sucks from his ephemeral, red-headed buddy. Naturally no one expects answers from a cigarette, but that doesn't detract from the companionship, rather the contrary.
On the way to his office on the second floor of the Humanities building, the Chair calls him. "Good morning, Jack. Come on in and take a seat." He sits and looks at the woman across the desk; she does not look at him, however, being busy examining the contents of a file folder she has just opened. For a long time this has been happening to Jack: when he looks at Traudl he is ready to conclude that there is no continuity between his self of twenty years back and his present one. How could there be? He finds it impossible to elicit any feelings of sexual interest for the woman, even though he acknowledges (the way one acknowledges that right now So-and-So is President of the USA) that once he did desire her, so madly as to ruin his own life, and that for a couple of years they made love together on a regular basis. The Jack Schreiber of back then seems to have little in common with the Jack Schreiber of today; in fact the former tends to appear as a totally indiscriminate beast, something like a drug-poisoned sex maniac.
"That student of yours in Philosophy 101. The kid has contacted the campus Gay and Lesbian Alliance," Traudl the Chair declares presently, "and they are demanding a formal apology from you."
"What am I supposed to apologize for?" he says in a serious voice, but secretly amused at the thought that maybe he should apologize for having fucked the present Chair long and long ago.
"For making irrelevant comments in class on someone's sexual preference," says Traudl, reading from her papers.
Jack makes a mental effort to recover the particulars of the case. "My comments were not irrelevant, Traudl. It was a lecture on computers and artificial intelligence; that so-called someone happens to be a genius, Alan Turing, and I was trying to suggest a reason for his decision to define intelligence the remarkable way he did. You may remember, he defined intelligent thinking as the ability to fool an interrogator who is trying to decide, by questions and answers, whether an invisible subject is a man or a woman. I suggested that, since Turing was gay, that particular ability might have had some special importance for him."
"There's just the rub," says the Chair, "you suggested. Suggestions. You should be aware of it by now: suggestions tend to raise misperception and innuendo."
Jack cannot repress a smile, hearing those words from Traudl Hildebrandt, of all people; Traudl, who first came to the Department as a lowly lecturer with a one-year contract, and has been able to stay on thanks only to his unstinting and far from disinterested support: their love affair used to be much talked about, sneered and snorted at on campus. All that, fortunately, belongs to the past, and Traudl has had a brilliant academic career on her own and almost, almost without his help. One night, in bed after sex, they had been commenting on the recent spat of academic feminist indictments of Newton as a rapist and of Newtonian science as a manual for rape, and Jack had joked that perhaps one should generalize and extend this indictment to other patriarchs of Reason and, more pointedly, to other, ever more heinous crimes. Taking a clue from his off-hand remark, Traudl proceeded to publish a series of groundbreaking articles in which the founding fathers of the Enlightenment—figures as disparate as Hume, Burke, Rousseau, d'Holbach, Lessing, Kant—are shown to have been child molesters one and all. As Traudl Hildebrandt takes pains to remind us in the foreword of her subsequent, seminal book (in which, incidentally, she nowhere acknowledges Jack's help), we should not take those words, "child molester," too literally; yet on the other hand we should be careful not to take them too figuratively either. Whatever the right interpretation and the just degree of figuration may be, the fact is that from that point Traudl's standing in American philosophy didn't stop going up, just as has been the case, mutatis paucis mutandis, in American musicology, with the feminist scholar who compared Beethoven's Ninth to a rape manual. However, no one seems to have taken up yet the intriguing question, among manuals of rape, which is the more effective, i.e. the most noxious, Newtonian science or Beethoven's Ninth? Anyway, a time-lapse photo of Jack's and Traudl's academic careers would have shown something like an X: while his own influence, citation indices and number of invitations to speak at other campuses kept going steadily down, Traudl's didn't stop growing. It was right at the point of intersection of their professional trajectories that their love affair, and most of their personal contact, came to a stop. Traudl is now an academic star of the first magnitude. For the past two years she has been Chair of the philosophy department; this coming year she will be on leave, however, having been granted the much-coveted Macarthur "genius" fellowship.
"So you suggest that I abstain from all suggestions in the future?" he asks, still smiling.
"This is serious, Jack. I don't want this to become a scandal such as the English Department keeps undergoing all the time. And I don't want to leave this issue unresolved to my temporary replacement."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Apologize, as they demand."
"You write the apology, I'll sign it."
"I have other things to do. And also, this should come from you, personally. I don't want it to be said that you signed it under pressure."
Jack shrugs. "Okay, just give me some suggestions."
Sitting in his office a little later, alone, the thought of retirement now naturally alights on his mind and demands attention. Sixty-five seems like just the right age to retire. But in his financial advisor's estimation, he needs five more years of service to start getting anything like a sufficient pension. And besides, he, Yankl, fears the blank prospect of whole unformatted years, not divided into teaching segments, which by now seem more natural to him than the solar seasons. The shadow of increased loneliness is even more frightening. He understands that this fear is unreasonable, for nothing short of serious illness would prevent him from seeing friends after retirement. Loneliness in retirement need not be an issue. He would go on meeting Pete regularly as he does now, for instance. The thought is soothing, but it also reminds him of the task he has been postponing. Reading Pete Brzeski's memoir is much more important than writing a letter of apology to the campus gays and lesbians. Infinitely more important, and, he dares say, a lot more pleasant. And so, retrieving the manuscript from his briefcase, he sits down to do his duty as amateur literary critic and bosom friend.
Pete Brzeski's parents moved to Chicago in the 1920s from their ancestral Poland. Pete doesn't think much of being able to visit the streets of his childhood whenever he wants to, and that may be because Avondale is no Havana, nor Porto Alegre; it is, in fact, a rather ugly, unfriendly neighborhood abounding in Catholic churches like St Wenceslaus and Catholic cemeteries. That Pete's father worked as a foreman at a local meat-packing plant and had a drinking problem, that his mother sang prettily and went to Mass every day, that he himself was a choir boy, and that well into adolescence he thought he was destined for the priesthood: such is, more or less, the extent of Jack's knowledge of his friend's early years. Pete will once in a while tell childhood anecdotes over a cup of coffee, but those anecdotes are strictly typical—brawls between groups of boys from different streets, for instance—and since in such telling there is hardly any effort on Pete's part to recover old feelings or old emotions—one might say there is even a resistance, or at least an American manly reticence—, the result is that the image which has shaped itself in Jack's mind during the course of twenty years of friendship and conversation is not so much one of Pete's boyhood as of a vague, stereotyped "Chicago-Polish boyhood." This is the reason he looks forward to reading his friend's memoir: simply put, Jack would like to learn more about Pete. About Pete's soul, the substance of which is intertwined to his own.
To Jack's annoyance, however, there is practically nothing about Pete's boyhood in this memoir. As the thing starts, Pete is already in college, with only a brief, grateful account of some of his high-school teachers who encouraged him to go to college. By the second chapter, he is already in graduate school, with loving references to his college teachers who encouraged him to attend graduate school. Further chapters deal, one by one, with each of the university campuses where he has served as faculty—instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, full professor. It looks like a nightmarishly overgrown academic curriculum. Jack leafs through the manuscript: no, not an evocative word about Pete's early years—why? Maybe Pete does not follow a strict chronological order? But no, he does, he does, and there's no evocative word about any year, early or late. Here and there Jack picks up a turn of phrase which causes a feeling of dismay sink deep down into his stomach—"Little did he know, back then…" or, "Unbeknownst to him…"
One major theme gradually emerges: Pete is enormously proud of his doctoral degree in Slavic Studies, which has allowed him to ascend from blue-collar Avondale to the relatively leisured, tenured groves of academe. Regardless of the modesty of its contents—Pete never mistook himself for an intellectual mover and shaker—his doctoral dissertation enabled him to escape, as he puts it, a future as a meat-packing worker like his father, or at best a bank clerk. This seems to Pete nothing short of a miracle, and having been a pious Catholic in his youth, he cannot fail to ask in wonder and trembling, "Why me, O Lord, why me?"
That's when Pete's other major theme comes in. This second theme has to do with justice; in other words, with symmetry. Pete has always felt it is not fair that so many people are stuck in the working class because they do not have, like him, a PhD. Page after page has Pete filled with "incontrovertible," "beyond dispute," and "so-manifestly-good-as-to-lie-beyond-debate" socio-economic ideas destined to make a PhD available to everyone who needs one. Naturally, it has not escaped Pete's notice that a degree by itself is not sufficient; in his opinion, every PhD is entitled to a job, and not just any job (part-time adjunct-professor jobs are shameless exploitation), but one with a good shot at tenure. However, as Pete points out, faculty in the Humanities are not promoted unless they publish a book, and given the present situation, the publishing industry will require massive subsidies from government if all deserving scholarship is to receive the imprimatur, as it ought. Regarding the obvious question, Who needs so many tenured Humanities professors?, Pete has thought about it and reached the following conclusion. The USA will continue being the brutal, know-nothing bully, hated and despised by the whole world, until it becomes a bilingual country like Canada, or even better, a trilingual country like the Duchy of Luxembourg. Whatever language(s) is (are) chosen alongside English, whether Spanish or Russian—Polish would not be a bad idea—the USA is going to find itself in need of a lot of PhDs, especially in the Slavic Languages.
Pete ends his memoir by repeating that justice and world peace will be brought about only as a result of MASSIVE governmental intervention across the board, from pre-school through housing to jobs, so that anyone will find him- or herself able to apply to graduate school, earn a PhD, and get his or her dissertation published by a prestigious press. The word "massive" is capitalized.
Jack lays Pete's memoir on the desk, sits back to stretch his shoulders and looks at the ceiling. "Massive," he says. His mind is a sad, infuriated blank. "Massive symmetry," he repeats. "Massive shame."
The phone rings. It is Traudl. She has forgotten to tell him: his written apology must be ready today by five PM.