January 9, 2005
Anna Gets What She Wantsnna in Cairo asks for the next chapter following the one in my First Post, and I believe in giving the audience, even an audience of one, what she wants. Here you go, Anna:
****Chapter 9 ****
The students couldn't get out of that room fast enough. I joined them and waited outside the door. Bendbridge came out and gave me a grim look.
"You must be the man my daughter told me about."
I caught a slight whiff of whiskey. "Mackenzie's my name, Professor. Can we speak in your office?"
I didn't offer to shake hands. He grimaced and gestured for me to follow. He walked like a man soon in need of a walker. Bent forward, somewhat lurching. We made our way to another building, passing Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, six life-size reproductions reflecting the soon-to-be-programmed aspirations of many new students.
He opened a ground-floor door into a stuffy, cramped office, overloaded with books and papers and other strange piles on his enormous desk that barely left room for a pair of wood chairs, his on rollers, the other without. One small window with slitted blinds allowed in slivers of sunlight. A petite, pudgy woman sat in a chair. She turned as the door opened. Black-dyed hair with stylish silver streaks on the sides, olive-wrinkled skin, no makeup around brown eyes. Her eyes were moist and red from crying, though her cheeks were dry.
"I have a guest at the moment," he said, stepping aside to reveal me standing in the doorway. "I'll come to your office when we're done." He spoke sharply, impatiently.
She rose with her head down and stepped past me without looking up. Short and plump. Pale, translucent skin from spending too much time indoors.
I sat in the chair she vacated. Stepping around the desk, he sat in his chair, staring at me, waiting for some justification for my taking his time to view me through the folds of his slitted lizard eyes. Age makes time more precious.
"My daughter said she wanted to hire a private detective," he said. He said it with about the same respect I received from many members of law enforcement. "You don't look like one. They normally have enough sense to wear a suit and tie. But then, you're my first and all I have to go on is Bogart. Perhaps you can apply your ratiocinative skills and tell me what you thought of the short lesson I just gave to one of my students."
I guessed him to be in his late-fifties, not all that old, but his attitude added ten years of ugly. I liked him. His wall was one that required burrowing from the inside. I was good at that. It was a risk. But I suspected he had little tolerance for indirectness and sweet-talk.
"The stereotype is one of relying as much on fists as on brains." I smiled the smile of a military nurse readying an enema bag. "I understand. I'd be happy to tell you what I thought of your nuanced performance, Poorfessor. I enjoyed your brief exordium on vocabulary framed in the Socratic Method. But I must qualify my enjoyment by pointing out that you did what Socrates would never do. You turned his method away from a mutual exploration of truth and into a bludgeon of ridicule. While I would tend to agree with your implied assessment that the girl has been taken in by a rather jingoistic superficiality, how many young people her age have escaped that? I would presume, Poorfessor, that you subscribe to the classic definition of a liberal education, the education of a free citizen. That education leads one out of the slavery of ignorance into the freedom of knowledge. And that your job, Poorfessor, is to aid the ignorant, like that young woman, in a manner that enhances her self-examination, increases her desire to expand her scope, and puts her feet solidly on a path that leads out of mere ignorance and acquired superficialities."
I paused long enough to emit a short barking sigh.
"But I am afraid, Poorfessor, that today you have failed. Instead of opening a door, you may well have welded it shut. Through your ridicule, Poorfessor, you have provided her with an excuse, not only to dismiss you, an obviously insecure ethnocentric white male only interested in keeping women on eggshells, especially of the Black-Hispanic-lesbian variety, but also to dismiss Shakespeare as well. In my view, Poorfessor, you have committed an intellectual crime. Rather than lead her out of her ignorance, you have confirmed her in it. Unless she's made of sterner stuff than most freshmen living away from home for the first time. And because you ridiculed her publicly, you have effectively shut down the entire class. Who would dare put a thoughtful question to you now, after you have revealed yourself to be a rhetorical rocket launcher?"
* * *
His face grew red, his eyes slitted even more. I had achieved one mission objective.
"I know I don't look like a much of a sophisticated rocket launcher myself, Poorfessor. But I'm curious; how does it feel?" I gave him my patented sardonic smile.
He didn't answer. Several more creases appeared on his forehead. He stood up and walked over to the window, looking blasted. Good.
"But there is a way out," I said, transitioning to my second mission objective. "You could devote your next class to self-humiliation. Blow up your own authority. Allow them time to have at you with their explosives, which they will likely use, but more gently, after you have used your own on yourself more ruthlessly. Devastate yourself. You could then use the rest of your class to rebuild your ethos into one of openness and humility. You might actually get through to some of them. You can even rotate that diamond of Shakespeare to reveal the facets of humiliation and draw out some examples, since we already know that nobody has explored the variety of emotional states associated with humiliation and their consequent value in improving character with the exquisite precision of Shakespeare. Too bad the spring quarter is about over."
I waited. After a minute of silence, he looked at me with a raised bushy eyebrow. I'd won the first round.
"Where did you receive your education?"
"There is no university in such a place."
I shrugged. "When I was eight years old, my parents bought me an old set of Britannica's The Great Books of the Western World. You know, that 54-volume set you see in finer used books stores? The one that looks nice in the home but nobody ever reads? The first volume outlines a ten-year study plan. I'm the only person I know who has ever actually put himself through it. At first my mother tried to keep up with me. Later my father took over. I finished it by the time I was eighteen. You can imagine how out of place I felt in the small public schools in Redding. The local community college was no better. I tried Chico State University for a couple of semesters and then left for love and marriage. After a year of that, I joined the U.S. Army. I learned how to use my brains and my fists. I now have enough of an education to teach myself. I still read a great deal. And I pay attention."
He gave me an odd look. He didn't crack. He held on to his anger. I didn't tell him about my Master's at George Washington University. Security Policy Studies. It always led to questions that I refused to answer.
"You don't look military."
"I get that a lot." Members of my particular branch of the military preferred being underestimated. That perception has helped us achieve more mission objectives, often without our targets knowing who did what, or how.
"Let's get on with this," he said, abruptly sitting down. "What do you want to know?"
"Tell me why your daughter is concerned about you."
"Undoubtedly she has told you that. Why should I...? Oh, I see. Multiply your sources to crosscheck information. Fine. Keli is concerned that I am participating in a marginal group of zealots who see conspiracy everywhere. She thinks I have been sold a bill of goods and that they are taking advantage of my reputation in the academic community to make unwarranted inroads into the hearts and minds of gullible students. So I assume your job is to investigate me and them for signs of idiocy and senility and the kinds of mold that can grow in an intellectually insular environment. The fact is, Mr....?"
I handed him my card.
He read it and then eyed me in a way I'd seen countless times. "Mercedes Macintyre Mackenzie?"
"A literary collision," I said. "One survivor. Most people call me Mac."
He didn't laugh. "The fact is, Mr. Mackenzie, my daughter is partially correct in her assessment. I leave it to you to determine if she is completely correct."
Ugly but sensible. "She wants me to investigate this organization. What do you call it?"
"The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship," he said. "SOF for short."
I made a note of the name. "She also wants me to investigate Shakespeare. Ferret out the truth."
He actually attempted to construct a smile, but the architecture collapsed. "She believes that a private detective can determine the truth about who wrote the plays?" he said. "Amusing. I suppose you would like my help?"
"I'm sure you can recommend the most persuasive books to read. People to talk to. I'd also be interested in any critiques of your Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship."
"Your timing is impeccable, Mr. Mackenzie. There is an SOF conference this weekend in Carmel at the White Sands Hotel. I will be delivering a paper that will rock the Shakespeare establishment, and I will be engaging in a debate with Professor Raven Teagis of Harvard. He's out here doing research at Berkeley. Calling it a debate is rather misleading. He does not debate. He merely ridicules. Like all Stratfordians. That is what they have been reduced to."
I wrote as he talked. "Stratfordians?"
"Those who believe in the myth that Shakespeare," he pronounced it Shaksper, "of Stratford, that illiterate country boy, was the author of these magnificent plays. I number among the Oxfordians, who have demonstrated that only an educated Englishman of the nobility could have written those plays. Our man is Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the first earl of the realm under Elizabeth." He had turned on his oration voice. Louder, deeper. He sounded snobbishly oracular.
I decided against pulling out the paper at this time.
"She knew Oxford was Shakespeare?"
He gave me a Mona Lisa smile. "Oh, I would say Elizabeth knew more than history has chosen to record."
"Let's just say that there is plenty of explosive material that would shock, not only your average Englishman, but also the English government. They would not be happy with that material becoming public."
"Mr. Mackenzie, I realize you want to put me in the conspiracy nut box. But before I condemn myself in your eyes by explaining prematurely what I have discovered, perhaps you ought to do a little background reading first."
"Okay. If I were to read, say, two or three books on the subject, which do you think would be most helpful?" I asked.
He got up and pulled a book from a bookshelf. "I will presume that you return books that are loaned to you, Mr. Mackenzie. For background, you should first read Thomas Looney's Shakespeare 'Identified'." He pronounced it Loney.
The book was old and thick. I checked the date. 1920. "This seems a bit old. Has there been nothing more recently published?"
"Anything recent will be available at the conference. You're holding the true foundation of this movement. That will give you enough to chew on."
"Thank you, professor. I was wondering. What real difference does it make? I mean, we have the plays. If you are right, they've survived hundreds of years without the world knowing the true author. Does it really matter who wrote the plays?"
Bendbridge stood with his hands on his desk and took a deep breath.
* * *
"Does it really matter who you are, Mr. Mackenzie? Does it matter at all that others are able to attach your actions to you? I think it does. Identity clarifies reality. Confusion over identity causes many of the ills that plague our planet. Those who identify themselves and others primarily with skin color or ethnicity, or some other superficial characteristic that supplants their essential humanity, have caused horrible strife. People who have their identities captured with programmatic ideologies have voluntarily participated in mass slaughter. Millions of school children have been led to believe that their education, their life, and their experience make no difference when it comes to writing great poetry or great literature. In some areas, it is true that extraordinary things can be achieved without training. We have idiot savants who are math geniuses. However, no idiot savant has even written great literature. No one without extraordinary access to learning has written, not just one work, but a whole series, a whole lifetime of works that marks an experienced genius. To believe in the Stratford myth is to believe in a kind of divine grace that simply has no example in any other life lived in this world."
He straightened up and crinkled his face at me as if I were a student in his class.
"Great poets, great writers experience the life reflected in their works. Their works represent a kind of unconscious psychobiography. They have lived their ideas and the passions. And Shakespeare above all other writers has the ideas and the passions. His life must necessarily have been one of leisure, one that allowed him the time, the learning, the experience, to live the life we see reflected in the plays. To believe otherwise is to denigrate learning, to marginalize experience, to sideline the necessary ore mined for a great life lived. A life worth reworking into fiction. Look at all the great authors, Dante, Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce. Their works speak of their lives, reveal intimate glimpses into their experiences, expose the state of their being. A great author lives the life that in one way or the other is revealed in great works. Not literal autobiography, perhaps. Rather an autobiography of mind, experience, and learning. But if you listen to Stratfordians, Shakespeare is the one great exception. A man of no significant experience, no significant learning. In fact in all documented biographical details, he is an insignificant man, his an insignificant life. All I have to say to that, Mr. Mackenzie, is horseshit. Pure unadulterated horseshit."
Thus endeth the lesson.
"I see," I said. "Thank you. Your daughter tells me that you were converted to this new author within the last couple of years. Care to tell me specifically what made you change?"
"Do you like a good mystery, Mr. Mackenzie?"
"I'm a private detective, Professor."
"Then you should be able to appreciate this. Who wrote the works of Shakespeare is the greatest of all literary mysteries. He is acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language, perhaps in any language. You will find him quoted more often than the Bible. He has influenced every art. And his plays are still performed everywhere in the world today, 400 years after they were written. And yet, many intelligent scholars still ask one simple question: Who was he?"
"That's interesting, Professor, but that doesn't tell me what made you change."
He sighed as he reseated himself. "Young man, I don't have the time right now to give you what has taken others years to deduce. If you are as intelligent as you seem to think you are, then after reading those books and listening carefully this weekend, you should be able to figure it out. Let's just say that I don't give a damn about academic reputations, mine or anyone else's. And perhaps because of that, I can see where other orthodox scholars are blind. Now run along and do your studies. We can talk in a week or two, after you have digested the basics."
I changed my mind. I pulled out the ripped note, unfolded it, and placed it on his desk. He stared at it before picking it up and putting it away in his drawer.
"I see my daughter has become a snoop." He looked up at me. "There are always cranks, Mr. Mackenzie. Cranks who refuse to let go of their cherished fixations. If you want to understand what this...disturbed person is concerned about, come to my lecture Friday. I assure you that there is nothing sinister here. I am in no danger."
"I'll do that. One last question, Professor." I pretended to look at my notes. "Would you say you have a drinking problem?"
He jerked out of his chair, uglier, redder, angrier. "That's none of your damn business. Now I have an appointment to keep. Get out."
*** Are we having a relationship, or just doing research on each other? Ashleigh Brilliant
Posted by witnit at January 9, 2005 6:02 AM
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