Teaching, when it is very good, amounts to nothing more than the imparting to students of an irresistible temptation to learn.
Letter, G.S. Markle to Alan Guskin, circa, 1972.
Here's an early one for you.
The scene is a crowded lecture hall at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. It's nighttime, and this is a lecture I'm giving, or about to give, once I am introduced by the Academic Dean, Dr. Alan Guskin. Not that I need any introduction. The four hundred or so undergraduates assembled here are boycotting a boycott in order to come and hear Professor Markle speak tonight. To see me speak, I mean, since they are in for more of a show than a lecture, and they know it.
Boycott of classes, hell!
How does canceling classes promote a prompt cessation of the Viet Nam War? You get smarter that way? Who are you kidding? It has to do with getting out of going to class. Laziness in peacenik drag. I knew that. They knew that. I would lambaste and interrogate my students on this score unmercifully.
"Listen here: are we now going to indulge ourselves in what amounts to an additional, self-inflicted immolation of our minds, just because we're angry at Lyndon Johnson? Is that the answer?"
Never. Professor Markle's classes would not be canceled, at any rate. No, indeed. It was show time when Gil Markle taught, and the show must go on. Here, tonight, for example — anti-war classroom boycott or not.
It is thus with a sense of triumph that I twist slightly about in my seat, to better estimate the number of persons in attendance. Outside I had just seen dozens of anti-war placards and large political signs on sticks, all thrown down on the ground in a heap. That was fine by me. The protest could wait. In here, there are hundreds. Hundreds of people. Some of them are waving to me. In the back of the auditorium there are people standing up.
I had filled the place.
"...and so, the sponsors of the Academic Lecture Series take particular pride in bringing forward a man known to you all here on Campus... a teacher in whose courses, Philosophy courses, mind you — some sixty per cent of the current undergraduate body are currently enrolled... a man educated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, at the University of Paris where he studied as a Fulbright Scholar, and at Yale University, from which august institution he has recently received his PhD..."
This is it. I've got to be ready. I check to see that my lavender velvet shirt, largely unbuttoned, is properly tucked into my gray bell-bottoms, and that my bell-bottoms are not hung up on my leather boot straps. These pants are tight. I can feel myself inside them. In a moment, it may be apparent to others in this lecture hall that I can feel myself inside them. That's O.K. That's why they are here, some of these thoughtful, young, moist co-eds. I take a deep breath.
"Doctor Gilbert Scott Markle!"
I am propelled up onto the stage by a thunderous applause. There are whistles and yells.
"Lay it on us, Gil!" shouts a Sophomore in the second row.
There's a gaggle of faculty wives at my feet. They're clucking and nudging each other, not sure what to expect from me. They've heard things.
"Cogito ergo Leary!" I hear from the back of the room, this in reference to my recent and vocal support for Timothy Leary — the Harvard professor who would occasionally perform experiments on an estate in Millbury, New York, dedicated to a clarification of the neurophysiological bases of consciousness. He was using LSD as a tool to prompt such a clarification. These were the headiest days of the nineteen-sixties.
I let them yell and scream for a few seconds, pretending to adjust my papers on the dais. I stand beside the dais, not behind it, arms akimbo. I feign great seriousness, allowing this mask to collapse every so often into a gentle, come-hither smile under soft eyes. This drives them crazy. Some of the girls scream and elbow each other at this point. But I know that this is blind, hormonal energy which, were it not for the obstinate scheduling of this event, might have been spent with equal enthusiasm in boosting the reputation of some Black Panther, or Yippie. Better used this way, I muse, as the crowd cheers, now on its feet. Even the faculty wives.
O.K. That's enough. I give them the body language that says "That's enough." and the roar quiets somewhat, then subsides altogether. The room becomes silent, and I motion to my lieutenants in the projection booth to dim the lights and let the first tape roll.
Yes, tape. This is no ordinary lecture, but a multi-media presentation featuring a live actor — me — and slides, and audio tapes. Also, a few ringers in the audience who are supposed to do certain things on cue.
Tonight's topic? Sartre's theory of love. That's right. On this day which saw the cancellation of university classes and the picketing of Deans' offices nationwide, I'm here talking to these kids about an ontology — a theory of being — which entails certain conclusions, not all of them uplifting, on the topic of getting along with other people. We bring other people into the world as objects, not as subjects — no matter how hard we might try, from time to time, to establish a temporarily common view on things, as in a romantic flirtation. Flirtations are intrinsically instable tightrope walks. A long-term shared subjectivity; that is to say, true love, is impossible.
So says Sartre, and, you've got admit, he seems to be describing the world we live in. "And that's why you guys are having such a tough time feeling really right about each other. Isn't it now? Tell me that it's not so. The fact is, you're all at each others' throats, without knowing it."
Until perhaps tonight... here in this crowded lecture hall, illuminated as you are by reflections off a silver screen, bathed in rock 'n' roll music, and under the welcome influence of the penetrating gaze and body language of young Doctor Markle. It's tonight that you may learn why there can be no such thing as everlasting, romantic love. Or can there be?!
God, they ate it up.
* * *
It was at four o'clock on this same day that I had met with Dean Guskin, who served in effect as the supervisor of faculty at the university, on the topic of my career. I had just pushed my way through an angry knot of professional-looking demonstrators in the lobby below. They were carrying signs and chanting "Stop the War... Now!"
"Well, you just don't have to pick up and go, just like that," Alan said to me, over his large, cluttered desk. I was sitting across from him. "You've just gotten Tenure, without ever having published a word, I might add..."
"You had no choice, Alan." I interrupted. "Half of the kids in this university are enrolled in my classes. You tell them I'm being fired and they'd take over the Administration Building in an instant, and be smoking President Ferguson's cigars with their feet on his desk an instant later. You know that as well as I do."
"Well, we still can't meet your demands. There's not a dollar free for that sort of thing... tape recorders, TV cameras, mixing consoles and the rest of the garbage you put on that list. We just can't do that."
"That's all right, Alan; you don't have to. But then I've got to move on. I have other sources of support..." I was referring to my avocational endeavor, the student travel company called ALSG, which was attracting enrollments in its spring and summer overseas travel programs which now rivaled in numbers those of the university itself. ALSG was already a multi-million dollar company, much to my astonishment.
"Just do me this one favor." Alan said. "Don't make a big deal about it... no inflammatory announcements to the student body or anything of that sort. We need that like a hole in the head. This place is like a ticking time bomb. You saw those punks downstairs. No more issues, thank you very much. Just do your job, and walk off into the sunset if you must; but no confrontations, please. That you don't owe us."
"Hey," I said, "who's gonna talk about Sartre tonight? Me, right? On a day that the remainder of your tenured professors canceled their classes and stayed home. Looks to me as though I'm doing my job."
"Not everyone stayed home," Alan Guskin said. "I'm the guy who's going to introduce you tonight."
Which he did do, as we have seen, in a glowing and complimentary manner, and here I am only a few moments later, under the lights, smack in the middle of yet another show for several hundred war-jaded, pot blasting, often spoiled undergraduates in a university forty miles west of Boston, as the crow flies. It's the nineteen-sixties, and it's Markle giving his Sartre show. My mind races ahead to my next line. If I'm at least a line ahead in my mind, I become a passable storyteller. Ask these college kids.
Some of them know it's all an act. There's Mike Eizenberg and his girlfriend Suzanne half way back along the right-hand isle. Mike wants to study philosophy and take a closer look at what Dr. Markle is doing with this robust travel business, ALSG. He'd like to drive an XK-E, too.
Mike Eizenberg is of course the same person who surfaces from time to time in the telling of this story. Here you see him as an undergraduate at Clark University, and as a protégé of mine. He knows it's all an act, but he likes it. He's inspired by it.
Then there's lovely, nubile Nancy Wilcox across the isle, in a ratty, full length fur coat. She knows it's all an act too, since I've told her so, in bed. Nancy's also a protégée of mine, a second-year student nineteen years of age, who will one day become the mother of my children. She too is mentioned elsewhere in this narrative.
Back to the lecture hall.
* * *
"Hey, don't you think you're being just a bit egotistical?" shouts a tall, gangly Junior towards the rear of the room, startling all in attendance. Heads twist about. A collective breath is drawn in. One does not interrupt Dr. Markle when he is lecturing; he does not entertain questions. He hates seminar teaching. He's putting on a show, and he doesn't want to hear from you.
"Hey, don't you think you're being just a bit egotistical?" the tall, gangly Junior shouts again. But he's a plant, this guy is — a ringer. It's in the scriptthat he should challenge me in this manner, and give me the opportunity to answer this particular question, surgically, with a show of great confidence, and near infinite disdain for this line of inquiry.
The crowd realizes it's been fooled, but they love it. A question lurking in the backs of certain minds — just how does he get the balls to do this? — has just been dealt with, skewered, annihilated, and lies dead on the floor. He knows he's doing it. He's doing it on purpose.
Music up! It's a live stereo recording of B.B. King made by me a month ago using brand new Sony condenser mikes and a high-speed Revox tape recorder. The result was an outstanding and incredibly realistic recording of this amazing blues guitarist. I had long since memorized the long, pleading musical introduction, and my lecture now takes the form of a sing-song voice-over, in between guitar licks. Only, the voice-over's recorded too. I'm lip-synching here on the stage, and have been for the last minute and a half. Mike Eizenberg is hysterical with laughter and seems to be hyperventilating; nubile Nancy Wilcox finally gets the joke and gives me a secret lovers' sign. She'll want to drive the Jag on the way home tonight.
My mind races ahead to my next line. Got it! Desire as a clogging-up of consciousness, under the gaze and gropes of one's lover. This easily exploitable theme will make this undergraduate lecture climax and pop for these young libidos.
It's now that the gloves come off. I prowl the stage like a cat, calling words down out of the air above, always a line ahead of myself, in my mind. Thrust, parry, conclusion! I whirl about, feigning a spontaneous recollection. I look right at you — nailing you with these eyes which are now burning brightly, aren't they, fired to all appearances by the excitement of philosophical discovery. Thrust and thrust again! It's just you and me, you sweet thing, here in this lecture hall. You, me, and the idea!
Nooooo sweat. It's over now — the hard part, at any rate. Time to let them down now. Easy does it. You could hear a pin drop if I stopped talking, which I won't do... not for a while. I've got this bunch in the palm of my hand; I can tell you that. And I'm going to keep them there, just for a little while longer. Let me bask some.
Such fine results, proceeding out of such noble motivation in the young professor!
I, Gil Markle, using my person as a tool, am causing these undergraduate students to love philosophy. What a calling. What a performance. What a teacher!
Only, I was not going to do this forever. Six years of work for Tenure and a Sabbatical was quite enough, thank you. Anyhow, this show was getting old. Maybe they couldn't tell you that — any of these kids in attendance tonight, taking a night off from Bobby Seale and Worcester's own Abbie Hoffman and learning about French Existentialism instead — but I was getting tired of it, and was not going to commit myself to another six years of service in order to get another year off. I would leave the university instead, in search of a wider audience and a Tower of Babel I could call my own. This job as a professor I was perhaps fitted for, but what about the rest?
"I am speaking, my boy, of the circus!" 1
For a start, I would buy this place in the country called Long View Farm.2
1 Jimminy Cricket to Pinocchio, in another fairy tale. Also, Sören Kierkegaard, in his thrilling discussion of the Either/Or. Cf., Diapsalmata.
2 Fifteen years later, with the presence of The Rolling Stones to be reckoned with only a few miles away, the Clark University Scarlet thought back on the crowded lecture halls where Markle would hold court in the sixties, and said it all started there.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.