The English ward.
--Seneca, Letter XXVII. "On the Good Which Abides"
As an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, newly (even in her fourth year) immersed in an English department in a relatively small town, Emily is apprehensive about disclosing too much at faculty dinner parties. Much like Emily, Stephen, an MFA student in creative writing, fears that he reveals too much of himself, even by means of the subjects he pursues. He worries that the professors who have welcomed him into their lives are more concerned for his health than his development as a student.
Our independent study this semester is organized around the following questions: if the English Department is, as we have often joked, a hospital ward, what kind of specialists are writers and what kind scholars? What manner of cures and prolonging tactics are deployed by the various faculty and students in the English department in order to survive a geographical move? Via the useful analogues of the university as hospital, the teacher as doctor or therapist, the student as patient or analysand, and literature as medicine or analgesic, we seek to discuss our academic pursuits as they stand in relation to our everyday lives; we will attempt a therapeutic act. Although our project will certainly usher in exaggeration, even melodrama, we must steer clear of objective analysis.
Instead of holding a weekly meeting in Emily's office during working hours, we will read independently then meet on Sundays at an abandoned golf course where we will walk together for an indeterminate period of time. Anxiety and loneliness, like our walks, are at the heart of our project. How did we get here and why are we housed together? At the end of each walk, we will reflect on our conversation in writing.
Stephen just told Emily a little about his written account of our first meeting. Apparently, when she told him that we should go for a "walk" while we discussed our plans, he thought that she meant a stroll with her terrier mutt Rodney around her neighborhood. It is indicative of our teacher/student dynamic--a dynamic that both of us want to deny, especially Stephen--that he didn't let her know that climbing into her car, driving for twenty minutes, and hiking for six miles was not what he had anticipated. Whereas for Emily, it was clear what she meant when she proposed a walk. In Santa Cruz, California, where she grew up, it would have been obvious that she was talking about the woods, about getting out onto the soil until sunset.
Stephen wasn't even wearing walking shoes, a fact to which he had to draw Emily's attention. Right here, at the beginning, we had a moment of extreme misprision. Perhaps this is due to Emily's habit of walking in those woods every day with Rodney, along the same path, at the same pace. Because she interacts so little with other people, she assumes that they understand what she does if they join her, and perhaps--and this is more grave--the question "What do other people do and how do they do it?" no longer has the same importance to her as it once did. Stephen has also lost interest in such questions.
Emily doesn't really know anyone from here who is not her student or colleague. She has had various friendships for different periods of time with a handful of people, but each of these friendships ended suddenly and, in one case, with the help of the law.
In part, this project is an attempt to spoon in empathy. To write together is to write with someone who is also fundamentally alienated. Our conversation is already attended by the fact that while Stephen lives with his partner, Jenny, and will leave Tuscaloosa after he finishes his MFA thesis in March (Emily is a committee member; he hasn't yet given her his thesis, but promises to do so soon), Emily lives alone and is here indefinitely.
In Thomas Bernhard's Yes (1978), the narrator describes his interactions with a Persian woman, who has just moved to the novella's rural Austrian setting. Her husband has designed a windowless concrete box, reminiscent of a power plant, for her to live out her days. Over the course of a series of the daily walks the two begin to share, the narrator tells her about his own mental anguish, an anguish that is increasingly urgent due to extended isolation. As we read, it appears evident that thinking, walking, and conversing are interrelated, if not synonymous, for the narrator. Caulked in his home, the narrator can neither pursue "philosophical-scientific work," nor take crucial pleasure in either books or music.
Like the Persian woman and the narrator, we frequently remove ourselves from the community we live in and consequently experience extended periods of loneliness and isolation. Our intermittent sense that we are outsiders is likely a hallucination, and perhaps the most dangerous and self-defeating kind. On our walks, we pledge to rid ourselves of such paranoia and keep our paths as limitless as possible.
The question of gait is important. In Emily's view, Stephen has a singular way of walking. He is completely devoid of gravitas, yet must be taken seriously. Emily doesn't think that she is humbling herself to work with Stephen this semester, that she is taking time from something more important. Nor would she cast this as any sort of "service" on her part (the word service: a vestige of the American university's initial Christian orientation with its secular variant: citizenship). Emily is not sure that her heart is good, but she is convinced that she and Stephen will discover something together, that their awkward gaits will coalesce into a hectic and worthwhile rhythm. She wonders if Stephen was offended when she invited him for dinner and they sat on the floor eating leftovers while watching The Last Waltz. Stephen said: "You are a casual person, now Jenny and I know that we don't have to make a fuss." Emily said, by way of excuse, "I am a Northern Californian. I am an extremely casual person." Perhaps what she meant is that she has nothing to gain from formality.
We believe that the questions we have chosen to explore must be addressed in good faith. We will not ask these questions as liars or gangsters, as pseudo-soul searchers with conciliatory notes or sharp-eyed cynics with a whistle. At the same time, when we research the psychological ramifications of the geographical moves characteristic of academic lives, we feel alienated by articles whose studies recruit the most bland and unspecific subjects, as if the rest of us suffer alienation due to problems entirely of our own making.
Our walking is already a habit. This week we took a literal false path into the "no dogs allowed" arboretum and laughed at the optimism of our initial plan because it was working. Such fun. Yet we will not spare each other. We already anticipate a fight, a growing irritation, a disappointment with our project, even premature abandonment. We see also, from the first walk, that our questions about the structure of our professions and ourselves as members of those professions and departments are underpinned by much older questions: "As if I didn't have enough troubles," whined Emil Cioran, "here I am harassed by those that must have been known to the caveman."
Now we are reading "Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence" from S0ren Kierkegaard's Either/Or. Emily read it alone in a pizza joint on Friday afternoon before a weekend spent entirely alone except for her Sunday walk with Stephen. Kierkegaard reads like a friend; and just because he is dead! She thought about Andre Green's double narcissism of the reader and writer, the theory that self-gratification underscores a writer's adoption of his imaginary audience and the reader's adoption of a writer.
Our topic has been augmented. We are still talking about walking and collaboration, but also about boredom. Kierkegaard describes people so boring that they are unaware of their condition: "Inconceivable, too, that nature should need nine months to produce creatures like these which one would rather suppose could be produced by the score." We had little to say to one another this week.
Today, our conversation quickly gave way to a discussion of place and places, of home and former homes, of being both in and out of love with a particular place, or else a battery of places. We both take sudden trips: Stephen to New Orleans, Emily to New York.
It is an unseasonable 71 degrees in Tuscaloosa today, as if our walk is being honored by the elements. Despite the weather, Emily hopes to stop by the store on the way back from the park, and continue our discussion of Playing Watten and Either/Or while she buys dog food and washing detergent. If this written food is to sustain us at all, it will pass its test case, a walk through Target, a place Stephen would never frequent on his own. This share of mall walking cannot be excised from our project. Until this point, we sometimes chatted in Emily's office on weekdays. It looks as though our meetings will be exclusively Sunday meetings now that Emily's schedule is so busy with deadlines, new course preps, and an obsessive friendship. This adds muscle to our shared claim that workday pedagogical projects are basically job projects. We both admit that ours is, at least in part, a last-ditch effort to understand and cure loneliness.
For some weeks now, Stephen has been plumbing his own steps for significance, as if a modicum of effort could align his strolls and ambling with Heidegger's Holzwege (those paths that lead nowhere). At this time, regarding Emily's interest in gait--something he has considered on nearly every occasion he has walked since discussing it with her--he has nothing more to say than this: one learns of gait through gait, through walking and practicing the act of walking to exhaustion. We have noticed a point in our walking at which we become overly concerned with matters of posture and gait, to the extent that our respective manners of walking feel strange and even borrowed. Our discussions about literature are temporarily clogged. Oh god. Henry Adams: "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught."
The artificiality of our walks is something we often discuss. A dog walk--and all of our walks are dog walks--in Tuscaloosa requires us to drive, walk repeatedly around the same loop, or else up and down the same street. Our second trip to Target today doesn't seem like a striking departure from what we have been doing already, driving in order to walk. It isn't the Urwald; it's the University of Alabama's former golf course, now abandoned and gone a little wild. The quaintness of our peripatetic project: we could easily have met on video chat instead. The majority of Emily's conversations take place on Skype, phone, or video chat. She has friends who she's only seen from the neck up in years.
For the most part, people don't exist. A recurring motif: our shared failure to get anything going socially, the easy slide into disappointment, our abandonment of so-called extracurricular encounters.
Emily noticed someone in the supermarket yesterday. He was a walker, thin and agile, with dark hair and a striped hat, shopping with a basket and swiftly searching aisle after aisle as if he had never been to an American supermarket. Emily was rolling along with a cart. Now that she has a car, her first, she uses the cart, not the basket. The pathos of the cart, the way it makes you hunch to push it, the way it lets you know your life is over already. The man was in Emily's line. He was buying raw meat and vegetables and assorted spices. They crisscrossed each other with their carts in the parking lot and drove off in separate black cars. It was enough to see produce and spices on the conveyor belt to feel a sense of fellowship. Of course it hasn't happened yet.
Last summer in Paris she went to grand places every night with an elderly circus director. One night he steadied himself on her shoulder while he pulled down his old man sock to reposition a pair of brass knuckles lined with razors.
From Stephen's perspective, Emily effortlessly gravitates to the written component of the project whereas he falters when attempting to narrate his life. He fears that, despite the goals that he and Emily drew up together when they began walking, he will find himself unable to make a satisfactory contribution to the project. Emily fears the same with respect to her own contribution.
Recently, Stephen studied two self-portraits by Philip Guston in which he appears to be crying. In one image, we can clearly see the painter's face, while in the other he wears a hood with eyeholes cut from it. Although we can discern that the subject is crying, we can only assume that Guston lies beneath by means of the painting's title, Hooded Self-Portrait (1969). In these paintings, Stephen identifies a tension kin to his own; a never-ending struggle between gestures that elicit the empathy of others, and those that seem melodramatic and self-gratifying. He has pinned photocopies of each of these portraits above his desk, as if to position himself between the often competing demands of inner and outer directedness.
On a recent trip to New York, Stephen saw an exhibition of an ongoing project by Laurel Nakadate, entitled "365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears," for which the artist took a photograph of herself crying every day for a year. When viewing dozens of these photographs, his patience for the artist's suffering was exhausted, his sensations of empathy and sympathy repeatedly piqued, tested, confused. In some images there are tears, smeared makeup, a wretchedly contorted face, while in others, she is in bed, her face buried in her hands. She is alternately at home, in a hotel, standing on an overpass by the ocean, seated in a train, standing in an airplane bathroom. Nakadate appears in carefully arranged and stylized portraits and, at other times, standing before mirrors, permitting the audience to see the camera she aims at herself. Is she crying or acting for the project?
Stephen is scared that the occasional pain in his chest and back signals an impending stroke. He wakes up angry, but when he calls Emily in the afternoon or evening, he talks about Clarice Lispector's a.m. rage:
When they removed the stitches from my hand after they had operated between the fingers, I screamed with pain. I screamed with pain and anger because the pain was an insult to my physical integrity. But I was no fool. I took advantage of my pain and screamed at the past and present. I even screamed at the future, dear God.
"Tomorrow is another day."
"What is unfinished today can be finished tomorrow."
Rainy day, so no walk. Instead we sat in Emily's home office and wrote to each other on a shared Google document:
Emily: Here we are, back with Seneca, barking at each other from neighboring hospital beds.
Stephen: "For the most part, people don't exist."
Emily: One of us is under treatment right now. At least one of us is under careful supervision for obsessive thoughts. They say: "I can't help you. No one can help you but yourself. You must help yourself." If this, then that, per usual. I'll go insane if I spend one more day in this place.
Stephen: Walking, of course, is not considered a deleterious act. We are told to get some fresh air or to relieve tension via a walk in nature or else in civic space, as if such walking allows our characters to disseminate into the scenery, and turn into something airy and divine.
Emily: For the most part, people don't exist. THAT'S WHY THEY CAN'T HELP YOU. BUT WHY ARE THEY SO EAGER TO TELL YOU THAT THEY CAN'T? THEY TELL YOU AS IF IT IS THEIR MORAL DUTY OR ELSE AS IF YOU ARE ASKING TOO MUCH OF THEM. THEY ASK: "CAN YOU SCRATCH MY BACK?" But you can't, because they simply do not exist. Which doesn't mean that you can stop obsessing about them.
How does a person help her/himself and what kind of sadistic --?
Stephen: Has Nietzsche's Amor Fati been confused with Nietzschean Amor Fati? Has it been popularized as a cry for blind optimism in the face of despair, or else as a romantic filter with which to ennoble despair? In Tuscaloosa, I look forward to the arrival of my depressive episodes and fear the idleness and boredom which supplant their departure. As an insomniac, at least, I am guaranteed the privilege of a late night walk.
Emily: I am asleep by 10:30, sometimes much earlier. By the end of the day, I want to kill it. In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway writes about killing hot parts of the day during his safari. Into the bathtub I go and good night mood. Brief hope in the morning unless I'm not out of the door within an hour of waking. My relationship to conventional teaching lately, trying to get something off the ground as a group. In my undergraduate course, a small seminar, there are days when we are digging a common grave; on other days I have several listeners and I rattle out words and unfinished sentences that--amazingly--they understand. Someone always sleeps or else is in the process of falling asleep. I realize that my students could unite and revolt. The revolt that I imagine would be a revolt against me, against conventional forms of teaching, and even against the subject that I'm teaching. I could join this revolt.
In other news, fear of doing things alone, tempered by the ease with which projects unfold for a duo or a group. During my work with Stephen, third parties often intervene, especially by phone. This must be annoying although he hasn't yet said so. Three phone calls since we began writing. Three vastly different phone voices.
Amor Fati. I'm sick today. After Stephen leaves, I'll use my iPad to play two games of remote scrabble, one with one of my brothers, another with his wife. I am reaching out.
Stephen: As an undergraduate, I mediated a debate between my mother, Ann, and her sister, Louise, during a time when both of them were very ill. As patients, they could no longer be friends; each accusing the other of self-pity and an inability to empathize.
I have always been attracted to the sick and the dying. I was raised in part by my aunt, Louise, who has suffered from Crohn's disease since her teens. After a series of severe seizures in the late 80s, Louise had a large brain tumor removed. I frequently recall Louise bringing my then twelve-year-old hand to what she referred to as her "dent," and shudder with the same fearsome curiosity (six years later, I would faint in a pathology laboratory at the University of Virginia Medical Center, when placing the edge of a scalpel on the eyelid of a cancerous and excised human eye, to the sadistic delight of the ophthalmologist I was assisting).
My role in relation to the chronically and terminally sick has only been as a friend and an at-home caregiver. When talking to my mother when she was succumbing to cancer, or else my grandfather when dementia had nearly erased him, or my aunt when her memory is scrambled, my goal has never been to make anything better, but rather to be a good partner in conversation. This has often required me to act as someone who, in most cases, I would say I am not. Had my mother not been ill, for example, I would have rallied against her impulsive and frequently irrational statements. Had my grandfather not been senile, I would have not allowed myself to be referred to as one "Louie," and would have said that he must have been kidding. Due to his condition, I played along, and he happily recalled the memories he and "Louie" had together.
Emily: Stephen's choice of me as professor for an independent study. My scholarly interests or his concern for my well being?
This hospital we are building together. For a while now, one of us is in pajamas when we meet. This Sunday we met at 7:45 a.m. All of the works we read are ambulances crisscrossing in the night.
Because we walk nearly every time Stephen comes by, Rodney runs to the door whenever he pulls up. Stephen's attitude toward Rodney is indifferent at best.
"One of us," Stephen says, "will be that corpse drifting around this town of corpses. One of us, yet again, will find nourishment in poison or else the immaterial and insensate."
"Tomorrow is another day."
"What is unfinished today can be finished tomorrow."
Although academic programs in the humanities shed their scaffolding over the summer, little seems to change beyond an increase in dread and stasis. Maybe if you'd showed a little more interest something could have happened. Two summers ago, before Emily skipped town, she received a note from the kind elderly woman who lived on the other end of the neighborhood loop: "It looks like it's us against them." The summer is the time when, for both of us, music falls into two categories: music we can listen to while we read and music that we can't listen to while we read.
How to explain this feeling that has lasted four years: is this exile or else witness protection? Exile was the chief form of punishment by Roman law. When does life begin? How many of us are already dead? Why does the objectively possible seem subjectively impossible? How does a voluntary move come to feel involuntary?
This is what we have done, or at least tried to do: think about ourselves more honestly as members of an institution, as members of a research intensive student-centered hospital. Emily feels it acutely these last days. Summer binging is as destructive as it is necessary due to the notion of losing days. Oh, but all of those young old people, other youngish old people, and immature middle aged people. Preparation for summer: killing days, going on four hour walks in preparation for a binge, for gross consumption, for a cramming in. The summer has the rushed temporality of an unhealthy attachment, the only human relationship that matches the current rhythm of Emily's life.
Earlier in the year, she called a bank robber on Skype just to hear him say "allo allo allo," knowing that he couldn't hear her or trace the call. Still, she hung up in a panic. To each her own, right? But how did she get his number? This is what the summer is for. For research, for reading, but also for amassing numbers, for riding around in cars and gulping down the improbable, in part to say, upon return: I am not you, I am not of you, you cannot claim me, at least not yet, maybe never.
Disappointment with the project: English professors are keen to venerate writing as a tool for discovery, while also making students aware of the necessary initial failure of the author. According to this philosophy, if anything is to be learned, the student must embark from a position of not knowing. Likewise, the end product cannot be a reiteration of the student's original hypothesis; it is the evidence that remains after the collision between his or her idea and the chosen method or methods of testing it. This sort of proof is not only difficult to see; in the case of personal and so-called creative writing, it is nearly impossible to evaluate. In the academic community, where evaluation sometimes favors ability over a firm work ethic, we cannot help but feel a streak of dissatisfaction at the end of the semester. Although Stephen will receive a final grade, Emily will not evaluate his work, just as he will not provide Emily with formal feedback on the course. What has he learned? Was it ever possible for him to fail the course? Was it possible for us to fail more generally, to find nothing with our lanterns? Perhaps we have only succeeded in illuminating our individual mires, just as we now hope for intervention by an unsuspected party to tell us what we have gained and how it might prove useful.
Emily is always behind on the readings. She is taking advantage, she is indulging herself, she is leaning. There is always some reason but the reason could never become an excuse for the very reason that the reason has been, for some time, in fact all the time since we've been working together, something that cuts to the heart of our project together. We have not stopped examining the connection between letters and life, yet we laugh at but also fear our growing conviction that our project is a hospital project, and the English Department offers only moderately successful care.
We have become pests.
At a certain point the jumping around ends and one grabs a book or a nurse.
On our walks, we often speak about the chain of disappointment that subtends every learning experience and academic program. We outgrow every encounter that enhances us. Frustration is the flip side of our expectations, of the enthusiasm that surprised our colleagues. We ponder if the conniving and short-lived enthusiasm so characteristic of graduate students earned them the moniker "leeches." Stephen fears that he is wasting Emily's time, yet often leaves their meetings before she feels their time is up. Stephen has his own 2/2 Teacher of Record problems to deal with; he has his own acolytes. If graduate students are leeches, are undergraduates ticks in the process of settling? Tonight we are meeting at 8 p.m. It is Easter Sunday. Our project is bleeding into red alert mandatory off-hours time and we feel a bit big about ourselves. We won't impale ourselves during dead week; we are bigger than that. But this thought is part of the semester. No chance for off-grid living here. If you want Emily, here is her scrabble tag name. She will be living out of a backpack for the next year, reading books in the public domain by the light of her iPad. We are going to New Orleans to finish this project off in a burst. Regulated stuff during the term and wild projects during the interim, the summer months. Even fantastic rebellion at the circus is factored in.
Stephen: We can only survive the cure if we get away. A phantasmagoria: to line up and concuss ourselves as if we didn't live here.
Emily: How much more I could put up with if I drank.
The project's afterlife in New Orleans. We feel optimistic about this already. An increasing number of institutions have several campuses; some degree-granting universities are entirely online and accredited. But for years now we have lived here, rooted like our university, a quad-shaped crater. Fear: Was the conversation more interesting than us? The world one century later.
The risk we run, in Alabama, of turning ourselves into godly beings. Gorging ourselves on paucity are we not quintessential carpetbaggers?
Afterword: Uncounted Walks
Since the project's inception, we had planned to continue our walks and our writing; neither of us considered our project an assignment, although Stephen received a final grade for our independent study. After the tornado on April 27th, our meetings were different in nature. Stephen came by Emily's house to help her remove debris and vacate her home (she was afraid to be alone). Flying objects had torn holes in Emily's roof; our final readings were unread and drenched with rainwater. With the tornado as our subject, our conversations were suddenly germane to our locality, to Tuscaloosa, and other locations in Alabama and the Southeast, in a way that we could not have imagined in the past.
We eventually resumed our walks in the handsome downtown neighborhood where Emily was crashing with a friend, and where Stephen and Jenny were dog-sitting at an adjacent house for two professors from the English department. We were close enough to get in each other's way or to assist each other. Once Stephen threw a roll of toilet paper over the fence. Far from the line of damage, the neighborhood offered a loop much like the loop in Emily's neighborhood, and so we looped around time and time again with Rodney, alone except for one walk with a local therapist who did not hesitate to administer deeply felt advice.
Our final walk lasted three hours. Departing from the English professors' house, we walked miles to the blown out neighborhood of Cedar Crest. We walked through deserted student ghettos where concrete slabs and piles of debris told stories of interrupted undergraduate life: a busted mirror with the Anheuser Bush logo; a dented cherry red snare drum; a closet tilting perilously, revealing a row of button down striped shirts; a spray-painted plywood sign propped on a three-legged chair: ROLL TIDE! We love U Tuscaloosa! The three-hour walk ended at Chipotle, an untouched chain restaurant adjacent to ground zero, where Emily wolfed down two tacos and trashed the third, realizing only later that Stephen had no money on him and was only waiting for a fourth invitation to share her food (Stephen's impeccable manners and hospitality, Emily's crude ways--something we noted but never theorized).
The tornado made public displays of grief acceptable. As before we tried to not to compare wounds or individualize collective problems. We found ourselves weaving our questions and problems into the natural disaster and its aftermath, neither the rootless academic life, nor the family romance. The tornado quickly became the only hermeneutic for aberrant behavior, e.g. "Steve was not the same after the tornado, Jenny left for a few weeks, and well ..." "During the tornado, Emily locked Rodney and herself in an interior closet. After the tornado, she fell in with a grifter."
STEPHEN GROPP-HESS is an MA candidate in art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research is particularly concerned with the history of private and intimate space in the twentieth century. More of his work can be seen in journals including Sleepingfish and Unsaid.
EMILY O. WITTMAN is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama. She is particularly invested in reading and authoring collaborative works. She has coauthored several essays and translations. Two collections (co-edited with Maria DiBattista) are forthcoming from Cambridge UP: Modernism and Autobiography and The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.