The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran into pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth….The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of Earth was one with the mystery of the stars. — , The Brothers Karamazov VII.4
I sat many hours in Northwestern University’s Harris lecture hall 107 during my years as an undergraduate and graduate student from 1968 to 1982.
As an undergraduate I listened to Alfred Appel lecture on James Joyce, Nathaniel West, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, and the modernist significance of the great jazz artists of the 20′s, 30′s, 40′s, and 50′s: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker. How many college lectures have a soundtrack?
Appel’s lectures on Nabokov and the pop culture motifs that form much of the substance of Lolita informed and entertained us. Much of the content of Appel’s lectures on Nabokov and Lolita can be found, mutatis mutandis, in Appel’s still authoritative Annotated Lolita. Students listened in attentive silence to his lectures on Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and how Nick Adams found healing and relief for his battle-scarred psyche through fly fishing. This silence was atypical: more often than not, many of Appel’s lectures were punctuated with frequent laughter.
Appel made a lot of people laugh. I’ll never forget sitting in a Romantic poetry class on the second floor of University Hall when, just as Professor Gerald Prince was reciting these lines from Keats Ode to a Nightingale, “Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,” Appel walks by the door opening to the hallway, flapping his arms like a bird. The class roared with laughter; Professor Prince, his back to the door, just stared at the class, mouth slightly open, dumbfounded.
In the early 70′s I also remember two other lecturers who held forth in Harris 107: anthropology professor Stuart Struever and, guru to the hippies, Stephen Gaskin.
Hearing anthropology professor Stuart Struever explain how the Vietnam War was essentially “maladaptive” encouraged students to continue or begin their protests of the war. I was so impressed and moved by the perspectives that an anthropological approach to understanding opened up that I changed my major to anthropology. During the 1970′s Struever was host to 100′s of student assistants who helped in excavating the 10,000 year old Hopewell burial mounds in Greene County, Illinois, about 270 miles south of Chicago. Struever was a colorful character who wore denim jeans and khaki short sleeved shirts as often as a tie and jacket, who interjected into his lectures stories of the years he spent buying and selling artifacts for import and trade in Africa. Think Indiana Jones.
One warm spring evening in 1970 I listened to Stephen Gaskin — eventual founder of The Farm coop that settled in Tennessee — give a talk from a seated zazen half lotus pose, a talk about Buddha, weed, psilocybin, LSD, Jesus, and enlightenment — not necessarily in that order. That lecture was eventually anthologized in Monday Night Class, still in print forty years later. I will also never forget wandering outside after Stephen’s talk to the parking lot along Lake Michigan and being invited into one of the caravan school buses that followed Stephen’s lecture tour from the left to right coast and back again. I hung out for an few hours with a several guys and girls who were sharing a converted school bus. To this day the smell of patchouli oil brings back with hallucinatory vividness that evening and that after-lecture party in a converted school bus.
As a graduate student teaching assistant some 10 years later in the early 80′s, I remember Martin Mueller’s lucid background lectures on Shakespeare, especially his talks about The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. The last lectures I attended in Harris 107 were given by Henry Binder in a course comparing literary and cinematic treatments of the “American West” with evening screenings of Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and The Wild Bunch.
These memories of hearing experts on various and sundry topics holding forth on their chosen fields of literature, philosophy, religion, politics, history — memories now thirty and more years old — wash over me in mostly, but not always, pleasurable waves of nostalgia. Nostalgia cloys, does not really satisfy, but that is part of its poignancy, part of its seductive charm — the fact that it does not satisfy is part of what makes it what it is.
Recently I discovered Bound to Please, an anthology of a quarter century’s worth of book reviews by Washington Post Book World editor, Michael Dirda. Dirda has spent his professional life reveling in the writings, thoughts, and works of various authors, translators, biographers, artists, and historians who have each individually in turn dedicated their individual lives to exploring the works, thoughts, or times of their chosen subjects and fields of research.
Reading these reviews is like sitting once again as a bearded young man listening to an inspiring, knowledge-laden professor holding forth in Harris 107.
Postscript: By chance I happened to read recently that Harris Hall is being renovated. New generations scholars and, perhaps, a next-gen hippie-guru or two await their turns to lecture in Harris 107 to new generations of current and yet-to-be born Northwestern students preparing for their futures.
Certain memories continue to fascinate me. I find myself conjuring these memories often — images, places, and scenes from summer 1968 through fall 1977, involving Northwestern, Evanston, and Chicago Museums. Like many (most?), my real life began upon finishing high school and leaving home — for me that meant enrolling and moving into a Northwestern dorm just weeks after graduating from Ridgewood High School. Now, thirty years later, in this month of beginnings, March 2007, just days until the first day of spring, I am finally putting in writing and found images what until now I have done only privately.
I think of Emily Dickinson’s choosing a “certain slant of light” to communicate what must have been a most private, obscure feeling. She clearly hoped someone, somewhere, somehow, sometime similarly had contemplated a ray of light hitting a rug, floor , hosting a myriad of glistening, floating, drifting dust crystals. There is a certain light that colors my memories of Northwestern and Art Institute — memories of the years in which I first began to dream dreams. And the “certain slant of light” that illuminates these memories are no small part of the memories and feelings themselves.
The places with which I became familiar and intimate during those years, the places that came to carry these feelings were each glimpses into what were to me amazing places created by the already achieved and accomplished. My setting foot in them somehow made me feel connected to great possibilities: the Lunt Building classroom where I took differential calculus from Professor “Ma” Clark; the large reception lounge on the second floor of Scott Hall, filled with dark red, green, and black leather chairs and couches, and long, oak reading tables, incandescent reading lights, shaded lamps on the end tables, high, high ceilings, arched stained glass windows; the Tech Library study carrels reached via narrow, spiral metal stairs ; the reception lounges of the Alice Millar chapel — good for many hours of studying; the study carrels in the Seabury-Western seminary library; the Impressionist galleries at the Art Institute; the Bahai Temple in Wilmette; and the Shakespeare Garden.