If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

“And comes that other fall we name the fall”

What can I say about my professor John Hollander, who died on Saturday?

He was a brilliant teacher and poet, and he was kind to me.

I thought of commenting on Robert Frost’s sonnet “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” which I hear in Hollander’s voice, as he recited it. But that would invite the wrong meanings–something about his “oversound” and how “probably it never would be lost.” No, that won’t do.

“The Oven-Bird” and Hollander’s commentary are a different matter. They fit the day precisely by not fitting. The mismatch makes good angles in the mind.

Still, I don’t want to comment on either one right now. I’ll let them stand as they are.

I have tried in the past to describe his teaching; I don’t think I achieved an approximation. There was no one like him at the time, and there are fewer now.

Literature’s Mischief

My favorite literature professors in college had one trait in common: a sense of mischief. They were serious, devoted scholars, leaders in their fields—but their eyes and words twinkled when they spoke. They understood and conveyed the aspects of literature that wriggle away from us, stump us, play tricks on us, tease us with allusions, and run away.

They stood outside of literary fashions and jargon. Elsewhere I would hear people say “subversion,” “embodiment,” the “I persona,” and other such words, over and over. Such terms did have meaning, but many used them for safety. “Subversion” was one of the most frequently abused; any tilting, any twist of a trope becamse “subversion.” Sometimes I wanted nothing more than to gallop off into the fields and read with bees, not buzzwords, in my midst (though I am allergic to bees).

Later, I found a similar tendency in K–12 education, in the emphasis on “reading strategies.” Here again, jargon stood in for crafty, well-tuned reading. Students (supposedly) learned how to predict, make inferences, and determine importance, as though these skills could be applied uniformly. The strategy-promoters treated literary works as interchangeable, replaceable, and subordinate to processes.

But literature doesn’t bow to strategies or to fancy terms. It makes its own way and takes a feather-duster to our thoughts. On January 1, 1917, Robert Frost wrote to Louis Untermeyer, “You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.”

Here Frost points to the egoism of casual reading. When you read something breezily, you tend to make it what you think it is. It becomes, in some sense, an image of yourself. It’s attentive reading that takes you into the surprises and the mischief.

It would be foolish to try to locate mischief in every literary work; not all literature is mischievous, and mischief takes many forms.. The point is to recognize it where it does occur and to have room for it in oneself—room for zigzags and leaps and wiggles.

Examples of mischief in literature abound. I’ll give just a few.

1. The opening lines of Reflections on Espionage, a spy tale in verse by John Hollander:

Cupcake here. Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands….

Here’s the utterly unlikely opening “Cupcake here” (who ever heard of a poem beginning with “Cupcake here”?) set against the humdrum “Hardly anything to report / Today.” And there’s already some suspense: what is it that can be done in the morning and on the outlying islands? The reader is drawn into the tale, the verse, the codename (there will be many more), and the rest.

2. A passage in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There’s hardly an unmischievous passage in that book.

I define a nose, as follows,—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

The narrator is clearly inviting the reader to find other meanings in “Nose”—but that’s not all. There’s the impish digression—the beseechings, the moral buildup, the syntactical crescendo—all leading to the truism “a nose is a nose.” There’s something suggestive in “of what age, complexion, and condition soever,” as though the reader’s physique had something to do with the matter. There’s the appeal to the “love of God,” when all the while the narrator is using the wiles that he attributes to the devil.

3. This will be the last example: a poem in Saul Bellow’s short novel Seize the Day. The mysterious guru Tamkin has written the poem for T0mmy Wilhelm, the central character, who finds himself adrift in midlife’s muddle. The poem is dreadful, by Bellow’s design—forced, silly, bombastic—but like Tamkin himself, it has a few flecks of truth. I’ll quote only the title and first stanza, so as to stay within “fair use.”

MECHANISM VS FUNCTIONALISM

ISM VS HISM

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

With these three examples I have only dipped into the topic. There are thousands more. I have not tried to classify mischief or to provide a history of it. But the examples have these traits in common: they bend to no fads (though they may play with a fad or two), they bring out possibilities of language, and they push a person into thought and laughter. And if  there is a God who looks down upon our bumblings, it may well be such passages, among other things, that convince Him (or Her, or some Mysterious Pronoun) that we were worth the ruckus.