Mountain Boy Meets Plato from issue 71
One fine spring evening when I was in college, I decided once and for all that I was dumb. A rather unlikely figure caused this crisis in my mental historyㅡ Charlemagne. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know who he was. I surveyed my roommates, four strange fellows with whom I shared the top half of a house (Berkeley, the late sixties). Three of the four identified him with the brusque confidence of game show contestants on a roll. Willie was my last hope. He was a poet and the first person I knew to drop acid and use the word “uptight.” I found him in the kitchen washing the dinner dishes. My question slowly drew his attention from the sudsy water. I watched him grope through the mist of historyㅡhis own as well as that of medieval Europe. “King of the Franks?” he said. I asked him for the date. He giggled and said, “Eight hundred?”
Willie was a strong argument that being relatively drug-free gave me no intellectual advantage whatsoever. My life was clearly a sham. Sure, I had been the top student in high school, but look at the high school, filled with sons of foothill cowboys and daughters of snow bunnies, provincials who divided the world into two geographic zonesㅡ (1) home: the Gold Rush village of Sonora, California, pop. 2,500; (2) “down below”: the nearby Central Valley (Modesto, Tracy), the more distant Bay Area (Oakland, San Francisco), or anywhere else (Chicago, Copenhagen). All those places were “down below.”
In elementary school I had been a boy genius. I was the one the teachers asked to help other students with their math, the last soldier standing in spelling bees. An older boy who discovered my report card read my grades out loud across the baseball diamond and shouted, “Jeez, Dave, who are you, Einstein?”ㅡa name unknown to me. I remembered two older girls on the playground, fifth-graders, asking me to spell hard words that they themselves had just learned in their higher grade. They laughed and petted me and clapped with delight at my performance. I thought, They are petting me because I am smart.
High school reinforced this self-image, but with disturbing moments of contradiction, especially in my last year. Mr. Hanft, a well-traveled teacher new to my school, liked to shock us with world context. Early in our senior speech class, he began musing out loud about the college experience just ahead of many of us, and he asked if there were any straight-A students in the class. Everyone pointed to me. I was gladㅡnow I would have an edge when he gave out grades. But he was no fool. He said, “Congratulations, David. In college you’re going to be a straight-B student.” I bristled, but I also thought, What if he’s right?
Someone once said that there are just two plots in fictionㅡa stranger comes into town or a person goes on a journey. In life, these are precisely the two kinds of experiences that can wake up a hayseed to his mediocrity. After Mr. Hanft, another illusion-buster came to town with a visiting Marine bandㅡan 18-year-old who nimbly performed Haydn’s E-flat trumpet concerto. I didn’t know the tune, but as the first-chair trumpeter in our band, I attended closely to his tone and technique. Afterward, a French horn player in my class, a plain girl with no role in my life to that point, walked up to me and said, “He sure showed you up.” (One thing about high school: you get feedback.) As she walked off, I plumbed my soul. Her words were doubly cutting, for, yes, on consideration, the Marine was the better player, but I hadn’t bothered to compare him with myself because he was, after all, a whole year older. And right there was the second cut: how stupid of me to assume that another year would bring me to his level. Not only was I not as good a trumpeter as I had imagined, I was too dumb to know it.
This episode has a coda of further humiliation. Since Sonora lacked a music storeㅡsince, in fact, no musical instruments, score, or even a single note could be purchased anywhere in the countyㅡon my next trip to the valley I tracked down Gottschalk’s Music Shop in the slightly bigger burg of Modesto and bought the Haydn concerto. I was determined, you see, even though in the end I would never master it as the Marine did, would never come close. When I carefully asked for the piece by name, the clerk smirked, as did two other customers. (Was the whole world crueler then? Was it?) At the time, I assumed they thought the purchase overly ambitious of such a young lad. But now I suspectㅡand I only recently figured it outㅡ that they smirked because at that age I must have pronounced Haydn with a long a instead of a long i. In other words, they laughed at me in Modesto for being a boor. In Modesto!
Valley towns were a source of many a humiliation. When the local Bank of America Award was given to me near the end of my senior year for four years of virtuous achievement, I went on a journey to the regional contest down below in Stockton, a big city to me because it had more than one high school. There I met the larger world, represented by two Asian-American students, a boy and a girl who knew each other from prior competitive head-knockings. They huddled and chatted at a feverish paceㅡ warming up, I later realized. The way they ignored me, after polite handshakes, should have alerted me to their swift shared assessment; mountain boy poses no threat.
The three of us were ushered into a room where a dozen businessmen sat behind a table. They gave us a question to ponder for three minutes: “How can young leaders of today encourage other young people to take advantage of cultural opportunities?” My two competitors delivered flawless speeches bursting with allusions to current culture drawn from resources that clearly went well beyond the Sonora Daily Union Democrat. I didn’t have much to offer in the way of cultural examples. Guessing that I would score few points for talking about how my friend Jim Pedri had recently bagged his first buck and brought the bloody carcass by the house in his pickup truck during dinner. My response relied heavily on the phrase “What is past is prologue,” which I thought sounded pretty damn smart and well worth repeating. I had learned it the week before at the Sacramento Governor’s Conference on Traffic Safety, attended by young leaders like myselfㅡ “What Is Past Is Prologue” had been the conference theme, posted on every piece of paper that had passed through my hands.
If, indeed, what was past was prologue, the outlook for me was not rosy. I knew it as I rode back home from the competition, clutching my dinky third-place ribbon and thinking, “I am less than I reckoned.” I knew it as I delivered the graduation speech telling my class how to achieve world peace. I knew it when I arrived at the college dorm and met my roommate, a freshman geology major with a four-foot slide rule and a massive Bach LP collection. I remember his wordless inspection of my own recordsㅡ The Dixieland Dandies, Spike Jones, The Moanin’ Sax of Ace Cannon, Frederick Fennell Conducts Victor Herbert.
My limits received sharper outline in the classroom. Beginning German was taught by Professor Kawczynski, a central European so old that when he pointed to call on a student his index finger bent ambiguously and four people answered. Herr Kawczynski had us pronouncing German in the first minute of class, and somehow half of the students could already do it. In Freshman English, when I got my first essay back, it bore the improbable grade of F, along with the comment, “Master the material first, then criticize it!!!” Apparently Miss Riley, toward whom I bear no ill will, was not persuaded by my critique of Plato’s Republic. In psychology, taught by a man almost as ugly as the pig-faced Miss Riley, students with cigarettes asked long questions full of psychological terms that we hadn’t covered yet. I sensed that the questions were insincere, the students “phonies”ㅡ Holden Caulfield’s favorite word, though I didn’t know even that, being so unread and all.
I was fighting back, you see, and this was healthy because intellectual insecurity forbids any sort of navigation through life. In Beginning German, I soon learned that the precocious pronouncers were really losers who had taken German in high school but had performed so poorly in it that they had had to start at the beginning again. Their glory faded as the semester wore on. As for the psychology phonies, I had made the right call: they stopped asking questions after the first week. And it turned out that Miss Riley was simply using the then-common SWAT-Team grading strategy of making violent attack noises at the initial encounter. Within a few weeks she graded by realistic standards, and I ended up with a B in the class (Shut up, Mr. Hanft.)
This pattern of alternating retreat and advance defined ny college experience. In first-year chemistry I wanted to sing “I Can’t Get Started” like Bunny Berrigan, whose lugubrious rendering of that forties hit I played in my dorm room over and over. But I fared better in American literature as taught by Mr. Zimmerman, a pacer and arm-waver. He opened Huck Finn for meㅡ my first deep introduction to the book. He called Emerson “slippery,” which encouraged me. Zimmerman was full of questions, some rhetorical, some not. I misunderstood his intent once when he quoted D. H. Lawrence on Natty Bumppo: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Zimmerman looked up at the class and said, “Is hunting a part of anyone’s life here?” I raised my hand for the first time all semester, planning to tell him about the time Jim Pedril bagged his first buck and brought the bloody carcass by the house in his pickup truck during dinner. I caught myself and lowered my hand. Zimmerman went on lecturing. It was a narrow escape. If I was going to become an intellectual, mountain boy would have to stay in his cave.
That same semester, I took a sociology class from Ernest Becker, a campus favorite whose fame would later widen with the publication of The Denial of Death. (It’s one of the books that Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer buys for Annie Hall in his aggressive broadening of her.) Most of my instruction came from a fast-talking, angst-filled T.A., who would balance his burning cigarette upright on its filter on the rubber-topped seminar table while he expanded on a point (we watched his cigarette). But once a week, in the large lecture hall, I experienced Becker. Without notes or a hint of preparation, he would stroll in and transform an audience of unruly, revolutionary upstarts into an adoring throng. We were still just children, after all, and we longed for an adult we could respect. Becker was cool about the adoration, pretending not to notice, and I admired that. I also admired the way he twitched his shoulders. The twitch seemed to involve a resettling of his sports coat, so I wore a sports coat and twitched and resettled it day and night. I admired Becker’s walk, too. As it happened, his route to campus took him by my apartment on Dana Street, and I would gaze down and twitch as he walked by and twitched. He often wheeled a baby in a stroller. I wanted to know where he got that baby and how I could get one.
I majored in German because I was good at it. If I had been good at lizards, I would have majored in lizards. German sounds like a smart major, but it isn’t. How is your thinking going to develop from learning an additional word for every word you already know? Why would anyone with their wits about them major in a foreign literature, where one can never attain perfect intuition about style and lexical nuance? But I wore my major proudly, and I added adornmentsㅡ glasses (having willed myself nearsighted), tobacco, and silence. I became a tortured Teuton.
I am sure my trappings and twitchings fooled no one, but many posers succeed, and today’s poser is tomorrow’s bully, and I say shame on them all. Shame on anyone who opens a topic, meets with lackluster response owing to the listener’s ignorance, then persists in working the subject like a dog head-whipping a stuffed animal. Shame on anyone who delivers a borrowed argument as if it were personally inspired. Shame on those who are never surprised by what others say. To express surprise, after all, is to admit prior ignorance. Nervous academics have this flawㅡ historians, especiallyㅡ and they say “of course” when they convey information, apparently feeling that for maximum impact they must treat all knowledge as longstanding givens. Shame on philosophers for the way they scoff at other disciplines for operating in the absence of answers to the fundamental questionsㅡ the job of philosophy. I guess we’re all supposed to wait until they’re finished. This arrogance goes back to Plato and his boss, who condemned every field but their own. As I dragged my freshman body through Platonic dialogues, losing flesh all the way, I longed to ask Socrates why, if all he knew was that he knew nothing, he was so obnoxious.
The Greeks loomed large in my life. On my dorm floor was a philosophy major with an Aristotelian quote for all occasionsㅡ Brian, an Irish-faced fellow with a quick smile. (Everyone told him he looked like Donovan, a name that meant nothing to him.) Brian became my best friend and mentor. With his humor, his vocabulary, his curiosity, and his Great Booksㅡ he had the whole series there in his dorm roomㅡ he reached down and pulled me out of the Slough of Ignorance. Brian helped me spelunk Plato’s Cave. He taught me Ockham’s razorㅡ in Latin. He taught me the Horatian proverb he threw at anyone who enthusiastically voiced travel plans: Caelum, non animum, mutant qui trans mare currunt. (“The sky, not the soul, changes for him who flees across the sea”). He would say it with a grin, oblivious to any irritation he aroused. It was Brian who captured the cultural essence of Sacramento. “Yes, they have a symphony orchestra,” he said with a sigh, “but the audience claps between movements.” Brian walked with a bounce, ready to spring on any inconsistency lying in his path. He often wore a tie to class and always used a cartridge fountain pen. A professor once remarked to him, “You’re a bit of an old-fashioned boy, aren’t you?”ㅡ an appraisal Brain reported with delight. He sounds conservative, but he was actually a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee hell-raiser.
Brian taught me for four years. He dragged me to incomprehensible lectures like visiting scholar Noam Chomsky’s “Language and Mind.” But I gave him a few things in return. I took him to German films like the hilarious post-war Wir Wunderkinder. I introduced him to Mozart and the gang, where he lagged mysteriously. (I cannot remember when or why I began to enjoy classical music.) I corrected his terrible spelling and his occasional language lapsesㅡ he thought “prose” was a plural noun and would say of a writer, “his prose are beautiful.” But most of the instruction went the other way. I never really appreciated how much I had modeled myself on him until another friend, spontaneously imitating my speech style, came out with “We need to make a distinction here.” Trying to sound like me, he sounded just like Brian. One day I realized that I could not have a thought on a subject without first considering what Brian’s thought would be, and at that point what was left of me grabbed me and pulled me backㅡ not back to stupidity, but to autonomy. I spoiled the friendship with a peevish declaration of independence when we graduated. I was like the confused narrator in A Separate Peace, who deliberately jostles the branch high in the tree and makes his best friend ㅡ a lively, affable fellow superior in all respectsㅡ plunge to the ground.
Brian went on in philosophy and became exactly what I became, a humanities prof at a Midwestern university. When a novel of mine was published, he decently broke the silence between us to write and tell me how much he liked itㅡ qua book. He had taught me qua, so I knew what he meant. A few years ago, I called up his departmental page on the Web, out of curiosity. Like me, he’d been teaching for a quarter of a century, but on his page he described his upcoming courses with the joy of a fresh convert to the life of the mind. I had imagined him to be rather tired by now, overweight too, but the photograph on the page could have been taken back at the freshman dorm. Sitting at his office desk and grinning over the banana he was eatingㅡ an e-lec-tric-al banana, perhapsㅡ he still looked just like Donovan,
Affectation and imitation usually signal what someone wants to be, and so they can be the first steps of a real change. When I puffed on my pipe, sometimes I puffed on my brain, too. I began to take long walks not in order to be seen taking them but in order to think. Better thinking led to a field more suited to meㅡ linguisticsㅡ and eventually I found myself standing before a class explaining the very book based on the lecture that has once baffled me, Chomsky’s Language and Mind.
I like linguistics both for itself and for the impression it gives you that I know things you don’t. But there are many things you think I know that I don’t, and my shame is great. I’m stupid about everyday subjects too, and when they come up I leave the room. A good example is birthdays in relation to what grade a child is in. Every time a parent talks about a kid’s birthday and whether the kid is young or old for his class, I fog up. I just can’t follow it. My wife is good on this subject, and I admire her and try to learn from her (but not too muchㅡ remember Brian). I tend to see both sides to a question, and that makes you look dumb. I also have a restless mind. I may have thought hard and even well about some controversy, but if you bring it up years later, I’m a lunkhead. I find comfort in knowing that Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain is the quintessential novel of ideas, complained of a blankness in his head when readers approached him years after the novel’s publication to take up its themes.
Like the claustrophobic who takes a pass on an invitation into a stuffed elevator, I avoid situations that trigger the old symptoms of insecurity (a rapid emptying of the brain, shallow breathing, self-loathing, an emotional cascade into a terminal pool of nausea). I shun monologists, for example; they make everyone look dumb, for they allow just two responses, either “hear hear” or flat contradiction. I will not go to a gathering that is self-consciously smartㅡno salons for me, thanks. An atmosphere of goodwill is necessaryㅡ I go stupid at the first whiff of hostility. And there must always be room for humor.
But I am generally more relaxed on this subject than I used to be. I think that for others, too, the drive to seem intelligent weakens with age. The people I hang out with are more concerned with seeming to be other things nowㅡseeming funny, seeming happy, seeming to be a good parent, seeming to be able to get unbelievably low air fares. It helps that we no longer get graded evaluations of our brains and that we’ve proven we can feed ourselves and sometimes even one or two others besides. I hope never again to cry out, with the rube-hero of The Damnation of the Theron Ware, “I am the most ignorant man alive!”
Looking back, I realize now that when my over-rated mantle of junior achievement was repeatedly stripped awayㅡwhether the result of a stranger or a journeyㅡI suffered because I had no perspective, not even enough to think of the obvious cliché, Big fish in a small pond. A fish without such self-awareness, on venturing into new waters, does not calmly think, “I’ve been impressive in a limited pool. In a larger one, naturally I will be bested. After all, I am certainly not the biggest fish in the world.” Instead of relocating myself in some global hierarchy, as I should have done, I felt a collapse of the entire mechanism of evaluation, as if my little town had raised its children on hallucinations.
In other words, I had no concept of “the second tier,” where one can live respectably and have some good ideasㅡnot ceaselessly, but every now and then. That is where I finally concluded I belonged and where, when I finally grew up, my intellectual life began to run its proper, measured course.