The Question – The Awl

TheQuestion

Anybodywhosupposeshimselfwiseisalreadydemonstratingthereverse。

Thereforethecleverest,mostbeneficialadvicemustalwayscomedisguisedassomethingelse。

Becausewhocaneverreallybelievethatheknowsbetter?

Ididn’tevenrecognizethebestadviceIevergotforwhatitwasuntilmanyyearsafteritwasgiventome,andIdon’tflattermyselfthatIgetit,even?

yet。

InthemistsofantiquityIembarkedonwhatwouldprovetobeamortifyinglycheckeredacademiccareeratSt。

John’sCollegeinSantaFe,NewMexico。

Iwasaveryidealistic,verydeludedkid。

Ambitious,too。

TherewasnosuchthingasIndianaJonesinthosedaysbuthadtherebeen,heisexactlywhatIwouldhavetoldyouIaspiredtobecome。

Conversantinallmysteries,alllanguages,allbooks;achameleonwhowouldcrisscrossthevintage-lookingglobeinanimatedarrows,longandflowing。

IwouldbeaseasyandelegantinaMoroccandivebarasinalecturehall,expoundingonGreekantiquities,orgivingevidenceataCongressionalhearing。

AtSt。

John’sonMondaysandThursdaysabellwouldringat8p。

m。

callingthefaithfultoseminar。

Ihadnoideawhatpreciousnessevenwas,andsowouldnotyethavedreamedofcharacterizingthemanyBritishconventionsofSt。

John’sinthatway。

Twotutors,ajunioroneandaseniorone,wouldpresideoverthisceremony。

Weweretoaddressoneanotheras“Mr。

”and“Miss,”aformalitymanyofusenjoyed,sometimesmockinglybutmoreofteninsecretearnestness,desperateaswereallywereforanykindoforder,forsignsofrespectandcomity。

Forloveofthecivilizationthathadreallybroughtusintothosewell-appointedroomsinthefirst?

place。

Onetutorwouldopentheproceedingsbyproposingaquestiononthereadingassignedforthatmeeting。

Andthenthetwo-hourconversationwouldbegin:veryyoungkidsexchangingtheirviewsonAeschylusorAristotle。

Abizarreidea,onthefaceofit。

And,onreflection,averygenerousone。

IttakesapatientadulttoagreetodiscussPlato(notjustgivealecture,butreallytalk)withapasselofpupsstillwetbehindthe?

ears。

Somaybetwentyteenagers,someofwhom(Ileaveyoutoguesswhich)wereextremelyvoluble,andsomevery,veryquiet。

Somecrazysmart,andsomefarlessso。

TherewasonewhowouldinvariablyattempttoshoehornSigmundFreudintoeveryexchange,totheeventualeye-rollingmiseryofall。

Onlyimaginethedreadinwhichwealltrudgedthroughthecoldblue-and-goldbrillianceofaSantaFeeveningtodiscussSophocleswiththischaracter!

Weplannedtoaskhim(butneverdid),“Mr。

Rosenstein,haveyoureadthis?

book?



ButIshan’tdenythatthepleasuresofliterarydiscovery,likeallotherpleasures,aresweetershared,evenagainstthatanarchicbackdrop。

WesmokedalotofweakpotandlistenedtoBeforeAndAfterScienceasitsnowedinasilenceunimaginabletoakidfromtheLBC,silencesodeepandplentiful,nourishing。

It’sverybeautifulinSantaFe。

Veryoften,peoplewouldgatheronsomebalconyorhillspecificallytowatchthesunset。

Thesunsetwasatopicroutinelydiscussedoverdinner,asonewouldthetraffic,orafootball?

game。

Therewasallthisreadingto?

do。

Anyway,attheendofthiswildepisode,whichtookplaceinanatmosphereofpermissivenesswithrespecttosexanddrugsthatwouldbeincomprehensibletotheundergraduateoftoday,IknewthatIwouldhavetoseekfulfillmentelsewhere,thatacareertheacademywasnotforme,forreasonstoocomplicatedtoenterintohere。

ButIlovedreadingancientGreekliterature,especiallyEuclid,whoseclarityandmethodwouldremainanidealallmylife,andPlato。

IamstillsomethingofaPlatonist。

Thesenseofmystery,beautyandfaithatthesourceofPlatomadeitselffelttomeevenasakid,andnever?

left。

WhichbringsmetotheadviceIwasaftertellingyouabout?

earlier。

Attheendoftheyearevenfreshmenweretowriteapaperaddressingtheyear’scoursework,againintheEnglishfashion。

MyhubriswassuchthatItookonPlato’sPhaedo。

ThisisthedialogueaboutthedeathofSocrates,aboutthesoul’simmortalityandsoon。

Ican’trememberwhatkindofhopelessnonsenseIspouted,thoughIdorememberthatIchoseasanepigraphtheThurbercartoon,“Well,I’mDisenchanted,Too。

We’reAllDisenchanted。



Yourpaperwouldbereadandmarkedbybothseminartutors,andanoralexaminationconducted。

Oneofmyintimatecomradeshadn’tspokeninseminarallyear,notevenonce;alovelyboywhomIwillcallCharles,whowouldplaytheguitarforus,sweetsongshe’dcomposedhimself,inthosegoldenevenings。

Hewasfailed,andverycruellyfailed,byourtutors。

WelovedCharlesandhadhopedtheywouldgoeasyonhim:hispaperwasweak,butbynomeansasghastlyasanynumberofothersI’dseen。

TherewasonesoshatteringlyawfulIrememberthetitleofittothisday:“IsAChristmasTreeArtorNature?

”Soitspookedme,whatseemedlikeourtutors’peremptory,altogetherunnecessaryharshnesstowardthisshyandworthyboy。

Iapproachedmyownorals,then,ingreat?

fear。

Intheevent,myseniortutor(myfavorite,forhisacidulatedsenseofhumor)wasverylenientwithme,engagingmyfeebleideasteasingly,inhisloftyEastCoastway。

Thejuniorone,though,amanbythenameofVanLuchene(pron。

vanLOOshen),waslesskind。

Unsurprisingly。

Ihadnotfoundhimacongenialconversationalistallyear。

Hewassober,austere,Catholic,hopelesslysquare。

Nokindofajoker。

Tallandslender,asceticatatimewhenasceticismwasnotatallthething。

Heseemed,too,somethingofamilquetoast;hehadnotruckatallwithattemptsatéclat,asInow?

realize。

VanLuchenefoundmywritingfacile(itwas),thoughhedidn’tputitthatway;instead,hegentlysaidthatmyskillwithlanguagewasindangerofblindingmetotheweaknessinmyarguments;heillustratedthispointwithhumiliatingexamplesthatIcannolongerremember。

WhatIdorememberisthatallhesaidwassoblindinglytrueastoreducemetoapulp,moreorless。

Morequestions。

Andthentheone,theadvice,thethingthatIstillrememberconstantly,afteranhour’sconversationaboutPlato,aboutthePhaedo,theafterlife,thesoul,immortality,theideal,the?

eidos。

“Whyareyoudoingthis?

Whyareyouinterestedin?

it?



Thespeedingtrainofmybabblingwashereforcedtomakethesuddenacquaintanceofabrickwall。

Irealizedatoncethatthiswasinnowayabullshittablequestion。

Bloodpoundedinmyears。

Thisguy!

Clearlydidn’tlikeme,hadneverlikedme,whywouldhe?

Ugh!

Thiscoldfish,thisBlifil!

Okaythenthinkfast,answerthequestion。

Whyareyoudoing?

this?

Youknowwhenyouareinacaraccidentorsomethingandtimeismovingsovery,veryslowly,andyouhavetimetothinkamillionthoughts,itwaslikethis;somethingshiftedsodeepinmyhead,asubtleleverbarelytouchedandIrealizedthatthiswasn’tanattack,butamostseriousquestion,indeedtheonlyreallyPlatonicquestionIwouldeverbeaskedbyateacher,devoidofperformanceorconventionoregoorcantoranythingbutitself。

PleaseunderstandthatinmyignoranceIflewstraightpastthesignificanceofthisevent,evenasmyopinionofVanLucheneunderwentaninstantaneousreversal。

WhatI’dthoughtofallyearascoldnessInowdimlyunderstoodasgravityintheserviceofahigherpurpose。

Thiswasaverydamngoodquestion,Ithought。

Infactitwasthequestion。

Stoppingthetideofmyhoped-foreloquence。

Achild,wildlyoverindulged,toldfartoooftenthatshewassosmart,persuaded,sure,thatnodoorwasorwouldeverbeclosed(thankyou,Iamverygrateful)butencouragedalsotosupposethatexcitementandpleasureinideaswasenoughinitself,achild,inlovewiththesoundofherownvoice。

Books,ideaslikeawhirlofconfetti,purposeless,ornamental,withoutflavororsustenance,likeplastic?

fruit。

Supposingherselfwise。

Orpre-wise,Ithoughtprobably。

Amongthose,Ibelieve,whoalsothoughtthemselveswise。

AndthatisjustwhatPlatoisnotabout;heisaboutmakingyourselfcompletelytransparentsothatthetruthhasawayin(andout)。

It’stheleastshowyperson,perhaps,whoquiteoftenhasthemosttosaytous。

Youonlyhavetoknowto?

listen。

WhatthehellwasIgoingtosay?

Thissilencehadbeengoingonforanalarminglylongtime。

Manyseconds,aneternity。

Imustspeak。

Andasuddenjoyovertookme,forIknewIwasabouttotellthetruth,equallydevoidforonceofperformance,egoorcant,foralmostthefirsttime,maybe,inthattinylittlelifeofthemind。

Astaggeringepiphany。

“Idon’t?

know。



Bothtutorsthenspoketome,verygently,seriously。

It’sbecauseweareinvolvedinit;itisourselveswearetalkingabout。

Thisisimportantbecausetheseareourquestions,too。

Sodidthespeedingvehicleofmyambitionsreallystop?

Notexactly,orjustforamoment,likeacarchaseinterruptedinarainofflyingproduceandcollapsingmarketstalls。

Istoppedandthoughtbutreallykindofrevvedupmyenginesandtoreoffagain。

Butcontainingnowthisrealization,ortheseedsof?

it。

TheshameofhavingtotellyouhowquicklyIspedpast。

IwasmarriedbythetimeIwastwenty,Iwenttootherschools,IstudiedFrench,startedalittlebusiness,traveled,lookedaftermyailingfatherandmymom。

Divorced,andmarriedagain。

Otherthings,so?

many。

ButonceinawhileIwouldthinkofthatmomentandrealizeagainthatifthereisanythingwemusttrytounderstandhereitis,theunanswerablequestionthatcanneverbringusanythingbuthumility,patienceandquiet:whyarewedoingthis?

There’sonlyonethingthatisworthtryingtounderstand,anditisthis。

Centeryourselfonthis。

Bringyourselfbacktosanitywiththis。

Knowthatyouwillneverknowtheanswer:butyoucangetalittle?

closer。

Mr。

VanLuchene,Iamsuperoldnow,man。

ButyoursistheadviceIhavereturnedtomostinmylife,notjustthisyearbuteveryyear。

Thankyou,thankyou。

Thank?

you。

Previouslyinseries:TheSundayNightFacebookCookingClub

Alsobythisauthor:IronyIsWonderful,Terrific,Fantastic

MariaBustillosistheauthorofDorkismoandActLikeaGentleman,ThinkLikeaWoman。

PhotobySteve?