ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Ethical Triptych (three stories to be folded into one), by Ricardo Nirenberg




Madelon, rare is the night when you don’t show up in my dreams.  Sometimes we’re in the front seat of my Renault Dauphine, parked on some dark street of Buenos Aires, my head between your legs, my tongue searching for full and eloquent expression.  Often you are unreachable, hardly bestowing a glance on me; now and then, when Pluto is in the house of Mickey Mouse, you let me in, but then, old man that I am, I’m barely adequate, and you don’t hide your displeasure.  Imagine my embarrassment.  Then a voice wakes me up: “Fool!  Are you’re the only one who’s adrift and splashing in the river of time?  By now she’s an old woman too.”  How true, I should have thought of it.  But it’s close to forty years since I last saw Madelon, and she still appears to me as she was then, fresh, lively and beautiful.

That last time I saw her was in Rome, when she was there with her parents.  Her father, a Jew from Thessaloniki who had forgotten his ancestors’ old Spanish and never bothered to learn more than a few phrases of the new, had adopted French nationality, French manners, French poses, a slavish submission to André Breton, and a French pipe.  He had not been to Rome before, and was pleasantly surprised because he found it resembled some De Chirico’s paintings.  Madelon and I had not seen each other since that fateful day when, following my star, I flew to the US to get a PhD in math.  In 1963 I abandoned home and country in search of wisdom, or, as today many prefer to say, “symbolic capital,” for “wisdom” is a word as obsolete as the word “soul”.  However, before a decade was past, I was determined to throw all that symbolic capital away and do something else with my life, something entirely different, something—with, well, more soul.  I wanted to write poetry and prose, I wanted to express my unique self thoroughly; above all, I aspired to achieve a harmonious synthesis of reason and passion, of the high and the low, of eternity and time.  And here, in Rome, I wanted to communicate this to Madelon.  I’m not sure what she wanted to communicate to me; in any case, we agreed that we had many things to tell each other and that it would be a good idea if we could spend some hours alone.

Rome—this can never be emphasized enough—is not like other places.  I once saw with my own eyes an old man pulling a cart, when one of the wheels got stuck in the ancient cobblestones; while trying to free his wheel the old man swore loudly, “Corno del papa!”  Where else would you find an old man swearing by the Pope’s horn?  Even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and materialist like the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said that Rome assigns to each his or her place, meaning that no matter where you are from, be it Berlin or Buenos Aires, regardless of what your background prejudices are, and your consoling, ego-boosting rotten lies, no matter what you imagine your role in life to be, once you are in Rome your true place in the universe is revealed—such is the belief and the feeling, anyway.  I was staying at a friend’s house in Monteverde Vecchio, the quietest part of town.

On the bus, I told Madelon about my plans: I had decided to quit research in math, and in preparation for my poetic future I was studying Greek so I could read Homer in the original.  She wasn’t encouraging.  Her attitude was that of a woman talking to a wayward child: my ambitious ideas must have struck her as an infantile disorder, to use Lenin’s phrase.  “At least, you should wait until you are a full professor,” she concluded.  This advice reminded me of how calculating she had always been, how she conducted her life much like a Soviet-type economy, with targets and five-year plans, a time for this and a time for that—I just lucked into her, happened to be around and courting her, when her age for copulation came up.  It must be said that this method seemed to work well for Madelon: she had already accomplished much professionally, she was already being mentioned in the French and German media as an example of how far women could go in the science; she had married and had had her first child.  Anyhow, what a price to pay for success, living on a plan!  For me, fate and surprise have always been the essence and the spice; my wife and I decided to get married on the twin spurs of the moment and of a bottle of wine, and it was our children who decided when they would arrive, not us.

And so we came to the end of the line of bus 75, only a few strides from my friend Claudio’s house, talking about nothing that I would wish to record here.  I cannot remember whether, back then, I smoked; if I did, I must have lit a cigarette as soon as we got off the bus.  Certainly I was nervous—how would you feel having your first sweetheart, now blossomed into beautiful maturity, at your side, going to a house in old Rome, and nobody there to interrupt you?  Talk about embarking for Cythera.  I invited Madelon to sit on a couch and I sat on a chair, facing her.

“Well?” she said.

“Tell me about what you’ve been up to, these ten years,” I proposed.  “I know that as far as science goes you are doing great.”

“I’ve had some lucky breaks,” she said in mock quasi-solemnity; then, with a sunny, enchanting smile that took me back to the old days, she switched languages: “En plus, le talent, ça ne manque pas”.

 “I know that,” I said gallantly.  “And for the rest?”

“For the rest, I haven’t had a single good conversation since I last saw you.  Nobody to talk to.”

There we are.  I knew from the start that when I got to this point words were going to fail me, and that is why I hesitated for so long about telling this story, and why it may still end in the trash.  It is remarkable that so many people readily buy into stuff like “I love you—or I owe you—more than words can say,” but when it comes to ethics, to what one ought to feel or to do, words never fail them (listen to American politicians and preachers, or try to talk to just any red-blooded American, liberal or conservative); when actually, if you think about it, it is, or should be, the other way around: words are perfectly capable of conveying a straightforward feeling of love, or a sense of gratitude (why, simply say, “I love you” or, “thank you,” as the case may be—what more could you aspire to?), but they are, invariably, woefully inadequate to describe ethical predicament.  Having heard Madelon’s cri de cœur, I felt sad, of course—but did I?  No, I felt glad, of course.  I guess I mean to say, I felt sad for her, but glad for me.  Sad for what I vaguely pictured as a lonely, aridly scientific life, but glad for my late vindication: anyone could have told her she wouldn’t find a better man, or one as interesting—it was her own fault, as it was Angelica’s fault if she had chosen the pretty but inconsequential Medoro over a real mensch.  What should I call it then—“a combination of sadness and gladness”?  Ah yes, the cooking recipe style: “a bit of oil, some drops of vinegar, mix thoroughly.”  But the problem is, you see, my dominant feeling at this point was neither sadness nor gladness, nor any combination of those, but rather more like a pure panicky perplexity.  What was she expecting I’d do?  And what should I do?  Should I move from my chair, sit next to her, embrace her and kiss her?  Or should I kneel before her and put my head between her legs, the way I used to do back then, in my Renault Dauphine?   She might reject that; she might be offended, or, more likely, dismiss me with a touch of sarcasm: “I said I missed good talk, not licks.”  After all, she was a married woman and a mother.  And then, by the way, so was I, a married man and a father.  “Aha,” you are about to say, “so it’s not so complicated as all that: you (meaning me) were simply afraid of being rejected.”  It is amazing how people will jump at the slightest cue, at any hint that a pre-labeled box might be ready to receive a mental situation or a complex feeling; the box “fear of rejection” is too attractive, too well-fitting to pass up.  Don’t get me wrong though—who am I to say that there was in me no fear of rejection at that point: but if there was, there was too, like in Newton’s Third Law, an equally strong but opposite fear of acceptance.  What would happen if I kissed Madelon and she kissed me in return, and, one thing leading to another as they usually do, we ended up being lovers as in the old days?  What would that do to my marriage and what would happen to my life?  Probably nothing pleasant.  If I moved in with Madelon, for the rest of my nights I’d be, in my dreams, alternatingly asking forgiveness from, and making love to, my dumped wife.  Also, I’d had to be meshuga to leave her whose loyal comradeship went so far as to study Greek with me, for a woman who couldn’t care less if I read Homer, and whose first concern was whether I was an associate or a full professor of math.  How true the old adage: rather love a true devil than a true professional.  But I am neither blind nor deaf: I can hear your snort and I can see your smirk—you are saying, “A narcissistic wound is what you sustained, my friend; your Madelon wasn’t impressed with your poetic-synthetic presumption, and your petulance wouldn’t stomach it.”

Look, if you insist on flattening my feelings and squeezing the ethical moment so they fit your ready made abstract categories, go ahead, I cannot stop you.  Anyway, if you would like to know what happened next, here it goes.  After Madelon said, “Nobody to talk to,” there was a pause, then I looked away wretchedly, toward a corner of the room; I averted my eyes as if I was suddenly pressed by an urge to weep, and perhaps I was.  There in the corner was my friend Claudio’s guitar.  He was a competent guitarist; I, on the other hand, have never been more than a clumsy beginner.  All the same, I picked up the guitar and became completely absorbed in tuning it, then thrumming one of the Etudes by Fernando Sor, a melancholic piece attuned to my mood.





Greg and I met when we were both members of the University Committee on Something or Other, at the time when we were all watching on TV the unrolling of Nixon’s fate and I was trying to figure out what to do with myself.  Greg’s carefully chosen words and quotes from Shakespeare, his stuff always in a neat pile on the table, a moleskin appointment book on top, which he would open toward the end of each meeting to jot down the date of the next one with a Montblanc, that's what first attracted my attention.  But it was not until I noticed a book in the middle of the pile, a book I had read recently about the teachings of a Yaqui shaman, that we began to talk.  He was wildly enthusiastic about the book, especially about the impeccable behavior of the shaman, and that word, impeccable, appeared often on Greg’s lips, in reference either to the way he aspired to live, or, negatively, to the ways of our colleagues in the committee.

Greg’s aspirations were close to mine: I too would have liked to live impeccably, and to be called “poète impeccable”, as Baudelaire called Gautier; but heavens, how mired I was in shit.  As for our colleagues, it was enough to focus for a minute on their petty ambitions to feel like vomiting.  They were not our equals, God forbid: Greg and I, if not noble, were struggling to be ennobled, while they were happy to be pimps.  After the committee meetings, Greg and I would go to Joe’s to have a sandwich and pretty soon we were marveling at how much spiritual stuff we had in common, so much that Greg started calling me his doppelgänger.  He was at least a dozen years older.

Greg, a New York Jew, found me weird: a Jew with a Spanish accent.  Back in 1965 I was looking to rent an apartment in Brooklyn and I was ringing bells at all the buildings around Grand Army Plaza: there wasn’t anything available anywhere.  Then I chanced on a super with coarse manners and a broad Brooklyn accent who said, like the others, “No, nothing”; but after eyeing me for a moment he asked, “What’s your last name?”  Immediately after I told him he said, “Have I got a beautiful apartment for you—you and your wife and two small kids, you said?  They’ll love it, I’m telling you.”  He had taken me for Puerto Rican at first, but then he must have noticed something, perhaps my nose.  He wasn’t used to fellow Jews with a Spanish accent.  I was delighted at how being a Jew made things easier in New York City, the opposite of what I had experienced in Argentina.  Of course, things were not always that way; fifty years earlier, Mr. and Mrs. Menuhin had walked those same streets in search of an apartment and after many refusals they were offered one by a lady who told them, “You will be happy to know that in this building we don’t admit any Jews.”  Whereupon Mrs. Menuhin, who was with child, decided to name it Yehudi, so no one would mistake him for a goi.

Greg had to submit to the strong evidence that I am a Jew whose mother tongue is Spanish, but he would still resent it whenever I talked in Spanish to another Hispanic: the proper and echt language in the USA was English, and being a proper and echt American, Greg was impeccably monolingual. I told him about recent Latin-American blockbusters and he tried a few in translation: he loved García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.  But music was the main bond between us, particularly Robert Schumann’s.  What delightful moments we spent commenting on hidden details of the Davidsbündlertänze!  Musical details of rhythm and modulation set against the silent understanding that we, Greg and I, were Eusebius and Florestan fighting against the philistines.  One day Greg went all out and gave me the ultimate test of friendship: he handed me a copy of a play he had written ten years before, and asked me to read it and to tell him my opinion.  He said it had been enthusiastically accepted by a well-known Broadway director and that Zero Mostel had agreed to play the main character, but then the director suddenly died, and the people who replaced him were not interested in the piece.

Read and judge, sounds easy.   There was a lot of shouting and cursing —but then, isn’t it true that many Americans utter a “fucking” or a “fuck” every three words or so?  In a realistic American play there ought to be a good dose of cursing, therefore.  Also, I didn’t find a trace of humor in it; but the piece was not a comedy, and you wouldn’t blame Aeschylus for not giving us more to smile about in his Agamemnon.  What disturbed me most was the ending, where the main character shouts “There is no God!  I am alone!”  The “there is no God” didn’t bother me, but the “I am alone,” I felt it was—how should I put it—self-indulgent.  At the time of my reading, however, those critical insights were only distant and incoherent whispers, immediately smothered by the rumble in my heart, which demanded total acquiescence.  Greg encouraged me as a writer; he claimed that it was obvious I had talent, and though he couldn’t read my poems because they were in Spanish, he said that what I told him about them gave him gooseflesh, and there was no better test.  In conclusion, I decided that Greg’s play also gave me gooseflesh, and told him so.  That sealed our friendship.

Yet not everything was perfect.  My main frustration was that I couldn't convey to Greg the enormity of my decision to abandon mathematics, my betrayal of eternal Truth, and all for what?—for trying to scratch the small and evanescent facts of human feelings and passions; mud, dust and pubic hair; the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.  He refused to be impressed: there is nothing special about math, he maintained; all professions, all callings are equally good and fundamental; the key is to be able to sing, and you can sing math as well as you can sing dentistry or even library science. We both aspired to devote all our time and energy to writing.  His position in that respect was better than mine, though, for he had recently married wealth. He soon resigned his university professorship and retired to splendid isolation on West 72nd Street.

I visited Greg there several times.  He had determined to give his play another chance, and was refurbishing it.  His small desk, exquisitely carved, made of some precious Malayan wood, with curlicues in bronze, reminded me of the desk in David’s painting of Napoleon in his study, except that on top of Greg’s there was the manuscript of his play, a big book on modern stage design, and a couple of fountain pens, instead of a sword, a scepter and the Civil Code.  As always, Greg’s neatness fascinated me.  The pictures on the walls were all views of the building from the outside, which produced in me, I don’t know why, a discomfort of the sort one associates with the breaking of a taboo in logic.  Greg explained that it was a historic building and those were historic pictures fully deserving their place on the walls.  It was on my second or third visit that I was told that things were not good.

Ingrid, his wife, had been smooching with one of the building’s handymen, a Cuban I think, in any case a Hispanic.  Greg was very depressed, and he referred to the apartment as “my golden cage,” something he would often do from that day on.  It was difficult to find what to say to him, and part of the difficulty was that I couldn’t help finding the situation absurd.  I’ve often wondered, what does it mean to find someone’s predicament absurd—isn’t it a way to wash one’s hands of it, to demean it as a subject for care, to save oneself the effort?  Absurd means irrational, but of course life is irrational, what did you expect?  Anyway, what has reason to do with compassion or empathy?  Nothing, and yet—and yet I felt it was funny, yes, absurd and funny, the Hispanic handyman smooching with Ingrid, the very paragon of the moneyed WASP. 

Since he couldn't find a producer for his play, Greg decided to start on a novel.  He called to ask if he could read us the first chapter.  Of course, I said, and asked how things were going.  “Bad, very bad.  Ingrid just dumped on me,” he replied.  I had never heard that expression; it was associated in my mind with, “Ingrid just pooped on me,” and so I said, “Good for you!”  Greg’s silence told me that wasn’t what he expected, so I quickly changed the topic and urged him to come, that my wife and I were eager to see him.

He drove up the following morning.  After lunch we went for a walk. We cut across some fields and climbed up and down some gentle hills while he told me about his troubles; his wife's trustees refused to deed over to him any significant sum —“I am not free, I’m inside a golden cage,” he said.  Back home, Greg read his work to the two of us, my wife and me.  It was about a boy and a circus.  This circus was a series of deceptions cruelly affecting the boy, who was innocent and sensitive; in one of the occasions a white man lifted his mask to reveal—horribile dictu—a black face.  My wife and I were appalled; we did our best, though, to assure Greg that it was an auspicious beginning.

He may have sensed our doubt; in any case, he noticed that his jeans were torn, so he lifted them to inspect his leg: a scratch! it must have been that barbed wire we crossed when we were walking out in the fields.  Tetanus!  He was about to die amid horrible suffering.  Nothing would calm him; in vain my wife pointed out that only puncture wounds were dangerous, not scratches, and that he could go to any ER and get a tetanus booster shot —Greg couldn’t listen and carried on frightfully.  Finally, in exasperation, I asked him, why such fear of death, don’t we all die some day?  His reply was, “Some day, yes, but not before two more plays and a novel.”  My mind did not register it right then, but the phrase slowly wormed its way in, spreading despair: Greg was a wretch, a pusillanimous poseur, and the artistic ambition, and art itself, were a sham, since they could serve to stage such poses.  You might object that here there was a logically unjustified jump, from judging one person to judging artistic ambition in general and art, but try to explain that to a worm.

Before he left, the following day, Greg asked me to go see the university vice president and let him know that he, Greg, would now like a job as an administrator: he had to break free from his golden cage, he explained yet again.  I did as he asked: the Vice President laughed at the proposal.  Quite agitated, I phoned Greg to tell him the result of the embassy; Ingrid answered: Greg was out; I told her that in my opinion Greg's quitting his job had turned out to be a poor idea.  An hour later Greg called to chide me, dryly, for sharing my opinion about his own decisions with his wife.

I was burning with anger like Ariosto’s hero: di scorno e d’ira dentro e di fuor arsi.  I wrote Greg an angry letter, he replied with an angrier, and I never saw him again.  Twenty-five years later I heard that he had suffered a stroke, and not long after, that he had died: my anger had not abated.  I’ve asked myself why: I think that shame is the fuel feeding the fury; shame that I was so needy at thirty-four as to cling to a man who could not even understand how hard it is to abandon the infinite and self-sufficient world of math. 




The economic troubles during the Ford administration brought about a reduction in State University funding, and Mr. Fields, the new president, set up the obligatory “task force” to recommend which programs to cut.  Twelve professors and deans sat around a table, representing different domains of knowledge; there were, besides, several administrators to provide guidance and help.  The great barons, the moving spirits, were the dean of the School of Criminal Justice, an expert on probation and parole, and the dean of the School of Business, who wrote studies on strategy implementation; the chairman of the “force,” a figurehead, was from the German department.  I was the youngest member, a newcomer to the world of university politics, and what’s worse, a newcomer caught in an equivocal position, bruised by the thorns and barbs that divide the fields of Academe.

It had been foolish to hope that by accepting to be a member of the “task force” I’d be forgiven for being dead wood: what saved me in the end was simply that firing tenured faculty takes too much red tape.  It was four or five years since I had published a paper in my field. I was being paid for something I wasn’t doing: extending the already vast imperium of math.  What I was actually doing may be told in a few words: I was trying to be an alchemist; my idea was to transform the dross of my past into gold.  “Come on now,” I hear you say; “you know very well that alchemy was a pseudo-science.  Even worse, the original alchemists were swindlers whose real purpose was to make base metal look yellow and then sell it as gold.  Glory be to Archimedes, the great mathematician, who found the way to tell pure from adulterated gold!”

Okay, if you insist.  Anyway, I had abandoned math for alchemy, and I had decided that as a first step I should learn Greek.  At the time of the “task force” I was on my third year of studying under Donald Prakken; we were reading Homer—just the two of us, no other students being interested in the subject (a few evangelical Christians took first year Greek every year, in order to read the Gospels).  Professor Prakken, a tall, big-framed, rawboned, austere Pennsylvania Dutch, was by then an old man; he smoked cigars and had for daily lunch a cup of Campbell's soup in his office.  Four years we worked together almost daily, reading Plato and Aristophanes as well as Homer, and yet we were never on a first-name basis; we were Mr. Prakken and Mr. Nirenberg to each other, and we both enjoyed it, conscious, perhaps, that the work engaging us—reading Greek— was fast becoming, much as the formal treatment, part of a past as irretrievable as Homer and his gods.  Mr. Prakken had a knack for detecting American accents; he could tell whether you came from Newark or Baltimore, or from the northern or southern suburbs of Philadelphia: this, to me, was diabolical, and I could not imagine how, having such a good ear, he wasn’t interested in the music of the epic hexameters.  I would linger on the spondaic majesty of the line beginning the story of Hera’s deception of her husband Zeus in Book 14 of the Iliad, but he would quickly pull me back to the construction of eiseîde: aorist, third person singular of the verb eisoráo.  He liked questions with distinct and solid answers, not vaporous ones such as related to rhythm or to whether u is a dark or a light vowel, the type that often concern the poets.  This difference in our characters only increased my fondness for him.

The meetings of the “task force” were held late in the day and sometimes lasted until midnight.  One by one, academic programs were examined, weighed, then either left alone, or condemned to elimination or cuts; in some cases, extra resources were granted, but this only happened with German, or with programs related to business or government (Criminal Justice emphatically included).  The Dean of Criminal Justice would declare a judgment settled or a matter closed with a sweeping gesture, sliding the edge of his hand on the table, as if he was moving away from him piles of poker chips; he would accompany this with words such as, “Next case,” or, “Let’s move on,” or something of the sort, but only the gesture has stayed in my mind.  That decisive dispatch was widely admired; I had to admit that it made the meetings expeditious, but I found it revolting.

You can imagine my relief when the Math department passed muster, since I was taken to be its representative; perhaps I felt that it wasn’t such a bad deal, being a member of this powerful “task force” that held in its hands the future of the university, but the feeling was short-lived.  That day the barons invited me to grab a bite to eat and I found myself in a car with both deans and the chairman of the German department.  On the way they rehearsed the signals whereby the three communicated secretly during the meetings—again I was revolted, to the point of nausea.  I knew I had to quit.  I had to resign, but how?  You don’t just walk off a mafia family.

A few days later the turn of the Classics came.  The proposals on the table ranged from eliminating the doctoral and masters programs, to closing down the whole department altogether and firing the four faculty.  The enrollments were damning.  The Greek and Latin languages were undergoing a second death in Albany, NY.  The following morning Mr. Prakken and I were reading Book 9 of the Iliad, the passage where Phoenix, Achilles’ teacher, reminds his pupil of the time when “you still knew nothing either of leveling war, or of the assembly where men win honor,” and I had a catch at the heart; I couldn’t tell my teacher anything about the discussions of the assembly, of the “task force,” for they were confidential, nor could I tell him that I was afraid to lose my honor.  Trying to hide my emotion, I asked, “Do you think that by now the study of Greek texts is pretty exhausted?”  “Why, we have barely started,” said Mr. Prakken; “thousands of papyri have not been read yet.”  Mr. Prakken took a while to ask, brightly yet with a tinge of pleading, “What do you say about you and I doing some Greek papyri?”

I refused.  Perhaps I was foolish, but I didn’t think Greek papyri would be of help in my search for the philosopher’s stone: there was so much famous stuff I hadn’t touched yet, like Aeschylus, or Pindar.  Had I belonged to a different generation—the earlier ones of Abaris the Hyperborean, or of Agrippa von Nettesheim, or the later one of my Potter-trained grandchildren—I might have grabbed the opportunity, for unknown papyri suggest magic and the occult; but I believed that magic and the occult had little to do with my search, which was public and rational.  Now I regret having said no, for perhaps reading papyri could have given Mr. Prakken some comfort in his last months: he died within the year, of a brain tumor.  One thing I did, though: that evening at the “task force” meeting I took up the defense of the Classics.

I said that just as it would be quite inconceivable to have strong science programs at the university, without a reasonably strong math department, because sciences like physics, chemistry, geology or biology are anchored in math, so strong humanities programs require the presence of a decent Classics department, because the humanities are rooted in Greek and Latin literature.  This caused general surprise.  “You mean,” said a chemistry professor, “that in order to have a good German program, we need to offer degrees in Greek and Latin too?”  I answered that it is so indeed, but no one believed me: I lacked the right credentials, not being affiliated with the humanities.  Then they all turned to the chairman of the German department and asked him, “Is that true?”  And the stolid figurehead simply replied, tonelessly, “No.”  A vote was taken, and the graduate degrees in Classics were terminated, with only one vote against and no abstentions.  The meeting was over and I was leaving in dejection, when one of the administrators stopped me at the door and said, “Excuse me for asking: are you of Greek ancestry?”

It was cold and very late; at the deserted parking lot, I couldn’t find my car: it turned out it had been towed.  I looked up at the stars and screamed, and who knows, my scream might have touched some kindly star, as I will tell in a minute.  The following weekend I tormented myself with ropes and knots of contradictory thoughts.  Was I making a fool of myself, aping Don Quixote?  Were they not right, those philistines and deans, that it made no sense to pay for the teaching of subjects no one was interested in?  Was I too full of myself, to defend obsolete Greek simply because I am taken with it, or because I am a snob, and in the process, to put my job in jeopardy? My gut feeling was unequivocal: those grasping and soulless barons and their goons were thoroughly repulsive—but should the gut overrule judgment?  Such overruling seems more suited to the amoeba than to higher mammals like us.  In that state of mind, I went to a dinner party, where I was introduced to a professor of German, Peter Strelka.

Somehow, after talking for a while about the novels of Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, which I admired and about which he had published several books, I told Peter about my scruples and my bitter labors as a member of the “task force.”  It may seem strange that I bared my burden to a new acquaintance; I sensed in this man, older than me by more than a decade, a certain spiritual quality: I sensed that he would not laugh or take me for a madman if I told him that I was searching for the philosopher’s stone, or perhaps I sensed that he too might be searching for it.  He listened to my troubles, then said, “Oh my god” in his strong Viennese accent, as if I had told him I had terminal cancer.  “Oh my god,” he repeated; “you don’t belong there, that is no place for you.  You should resign immediately.”

I did.  President Fields summoned me to his office and asked me why.  He didn’t agree with my arguments, all based on the axiom, evident to me, that the humanities are more important than business or criminal justice.  In support, I could perhaps have quoted Cicero in De officiis, but I didn’t.  Fields countered that many new developments and many state-of-the-art concepts in business have made it as scientific and important as nuclear physics.  I had to admit I was out of my depth.  He, on the other hand, proved to be cutting-edge: right after implementing the recommendations of his “task force,” Emmet Fields secured the presidency of Vanderbilt University on the strength of his now proven ability for cutting programs; he left Albany after a few months.

No one protested the termination of several humanities programs.  My math colleagues, the other scientists and the social scientists couldn’t have cared less, which wasn’t surprising; the odd thing was that those in the humanities, the ones who had survived, were convinced that this was due to their merit and to the superior importance of their fields.  Some twenty years later, in the 1990s, the German department was closed down—deservedly, according to the faculty of other modern languages, because the German professors didn’t get along.  Now, after another fifteen years, the French, Italian, Russian and Theater programs have been terminated, and I would be altogether surprised if the Spanish professors do not shrug, “Good riddance.”

After Fields left, the Dean of Criminal Justice was chosen President of the University; he served for thirteen years.  The administrator Bierwagen, the one who asked about my ancestors, is (I find in Google) a Professor of Higher Education at a large state university.  The figurehead chair of the "task force" has lately received the Goethe medal conferred by the German government.  My friend Peter Strelka is now eighty-four and lives in Vienna; last time we talked he told me he is writing his memoirs.

Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.

Return to Offcourse Index.