"Mr Arth? ... Gareth ...?"
Ambushed in the corridor like this, the suavely fluent Gareth Arth found himself momentarily tongue-tied. An unaccustomed sensation, but easy enough to explain.
For weeks, Gareth had been doing his best to steer clear of Zooloda, whose ardent admiration bespoke a naive accessability. In the last four years, Gareth had bedded seven of his students, impregnating three and marrying two. He was currently in the throes of his second divorce, and had taken a solemn vow to lead a life of monkish celibacy, at least until the end of the semester.
But now here she was! Zooloda. Much younger than Madonna but just as blonde. Licking her Lolita lips, a question forming, she's going to ask you to
"I wondered, uh, uh ... if you, uh ... it's a draft, just, like, what do you think. Okay?"
"Uh ... give it here."
Standing in the corridor keep it in public, stay on your feet Gareth flicked quickly through her essay. The predictable disaster. Though Gareth had told his students nine times over that a plot summary does not constitute an essay, Zooloda had chosen to rehash the story of Hamlet's career of indecision and its tragic terminus. A total fail, but we'll be charitable. Give it a C, yes, and scribble something about research, about sustaining an argument.
"Well?" said Zooloda, anxiously. "What do you think?"
"Okay," he said. "Couple of spelling mistakes, give it a quick read-through, hand it in, okay?"
And with those words he dismissed her and escaped into his office. They teach us in biology that there are two sexes, but I deny the fact.
While working on his own research an inquiry into the relationship between Shakespeare's plays and the history of undergarments Gareth repeatedly found his thoughts drifting in the direction of Zooloda. Departmental policy is that human sexuality will find neither direct nor indirect expression on campus. But this is Shakespeare we're teaching! A writer from the age of the codpiece. Mad Lear lusting for Cordelia, and the lusty Moor yearning for Iago, and Caesar embracing Brutus, and
Stop hallucinating, Gareth! Focus on Hamlet! On Hamlet, forcing his way into the innermost privacy of his mother's bedroom, where Madonna is singing something sultry on a CD, and perfumed undergarments lie strewn in the shadows, and the uncoiling blonde hair swoons down, her cool hands soft against his neck, her swansdown passion
"You do want tenure," murmured Gareth to himself. "Don't you?"
Yes. Very well, then. Hamlet entered his mother's bedroom. And what did Hamlet say then? Since Gareth Arth did not have Shakespeare by heart, he asked his computer. A CD-ROM whirred and the answer promptly popped up on the screen:
"Yeah, I was feeling real depressed, but things seem to have come right ever since I started taking Prozac."
Oh no! No way!
While Gareth was no great scholar, he was good enough to be on the tenure track. And, besides, even a half-witted idiot could recognize the Prozac reference as an anachronistical forgery. The light-hearted forger had not even been trying.
"Kids!" said Gareth in disgust.
Some too-bright student with too much spare time must have cooked up a do-it-yourself CD-ROM and then (with a stolen master key? or how?) must have accessed Gareth's office to swap the forgery for the original. (And yet think of the effort involved! An entire CD-ROM? Well, perhaps they downloaded the ingredients from the Internet).
Irritated the lecture presently under construction was due to be delivered at 3 pm, barely two hours away Gareth pulled down his copy of the collected works of Shakespeare and flipped to the passage he wanted. Finding exactly the same drivel about Prozac.
Romeo to Juliet: "We should cool it, a teenage pregnancy is the last thing we need."
Juliet to Romeo: "Yeah."
The witches to Macbeth: "Sure, you want to kill Duncan. To kill is human: mercy takes a god. Prescription? Activate the latent godhead in yourself! Show that you too can participate in the Living Mercy!"
Macbeth to the witches: "Sounds good. Show me."
Flip. Flip. Flip.
Lear. Titus Andronicus. Othello. The whole way through, the same puke-making mix of banal common sense and New Age psychobabble, the same idiot mix of anodyne sweetness and light mixed with the ragged lightning of incoherent evil. Evil not operatic but banal.
Confused, Gareth stumbled to his feet. The room swayed around him. With a growing sense of anger and bewilderment, he went scrabbling through the contents of his bookshelf, riffling through different editions of a dozen different plays. And then, finally, through his facsimile First Folio. All changed.
"You can't do this!" said Gareth, shaking with apocalyptic rage.
A remote, detached, ironic part of his consciousness registered the fact that perhaps the correct response to the trick which had been played on him the mature, tolerant, forgiving response was simply to sit back and admire the sheer energy and effort which must have been expended to engineer this stunt.
But he could not.
He was too angry.
Okay: granted, on one level of cynical and self-serving calculation, Shakespeare was his mealticket. Granted, too, there was something farcical about the entire Shakespeare industry, the idolatrous raising of vast monuments of scholarly endeavor to celebrate, morpheme by morpheme, what was, when all was said and done, an entirely human enterprise, riven by the flaw and error which characterizes all human works.
But even so!
"Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," said Gareth.
Dead, and not to be resurrected. Like Cordelia: dead. And Desdemona: murdered, strangled, suffocated, dead, and Othello striking himself down and dead, committing suicide. That was what would you call it? Limit experience? Yes. Pushing things to the limits, defining our human nature by showing ourselves our own human limits.
"Passionate, are we?" said Gareth, anger collapsing as amusement took over.
This whole situation was preposterous. Time enough later to sort out exactly what was going on. The forged CD-ROM, the rewritten books maybe they would even be worth money. Sell the story to the media. Five and a half seconds of TV fame, somewhere in the slack hours between 4 am and 6. Meantime, he had a lecture to give, and in less than two hours.
As Gareth's extravagantly ferocious crescendo of rage ebbed away, he settled down to work. Now he could see the joke, and was amused at the strength of his own over-the-top reactions. Taking pen and paper can't trust the computer, not since someone's been messing with it he settled down to write the lecture he was scheduled to shortly deliver in a big auditorium packed with students.
An auditorium: a hot medium, to use McLuhan's terminology. There, you could unleash a bit of ranting passion without seeming ridiculous. In fact, that would make a subject in itself. The auditorium: a modern analog of the Shakespearean stage. Hot medium. Big spaces. Live audience. Sense of occasion. Basic requirement: a larger-than-life presentation of the self. The lecturer analogous to the Shakespearean character in soliloquy. Send the students out to read McLuhan's "The Medium is the Massage".
"A short book, you can read it in an afternoon."
And they could, too.
Filled with an unaccustomed sense of fervent inspiration, Gareth penned the opening words of the new lecture which was rapidly shaping itself in his head:
"Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."
In front of his eyes, the words buckled and dissolved, then reformed themselves:
"Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are in hospital and are expected to make a good recovery."
So that's it.
Not some over-energetic students messing about with books and computers, no, not that at all. Rather: schizophrenia. Or some similar disturbance of brain chemistry.
"That's it, then," said Gareth. "I'm nuts."
He felt perfectly calm, which did not surprise him. In the modern world, or so he had read, casualties of such brain disturbances frequently possess a knowledgeable insight into their own condition. We've all seen this stuff analysed in the much-maligned media. Consequently, most of us know such conditions can usually be controlled perfectly well by medication.
Feeling relieved a world of responsibilities had just been canceled, including the need to give that 3 pm lecture Gareth picked up the phone and called the clinic, meaning to make an appointment. But he could not get through. The line was overloaded. Okay, then. Wander over. Have a talk with the doctor. Hi, doc, I seem to be hallucinating.
"Let's do it," said Gareth decisively.
Put your sanity up against the wall and shoot it. Goodbye, tenure track. Mother would welcome him home, and Mother, thank God, had money. No muttering shopping trolley future for him: he would not be out on the streets but safe in the family home.
Or so he thought.
But, when he exited his office, reality revised itself. Because he found Zooloda sobbing in the corridor. Why? Because her essay had rewritten itself. Her painstaking reconstruction of the plot of the play had been trashed. She had poured her heart and soul into her essay, only to have her text mysteriously mutate, rewriting itself just before the hand-in deadline.
"It was fine, just a little while ago."
"I know," said Gareth, soothingly. "I know."
"I checked. I checked! And!"
And Gareth could already guess the rest.
Twenty-four hours later, as the global consternation was approaching its height, the ad hoc Academic Emergency Committee met for the first time. Gareth was there representing the Dean of Arts, who was still recovering from his gall bladder surgery. It was an unexpected honor, and the honor made Gareth uneasy. In the bitterly competitive academic world, uncontested privileges did not usually come so easily.
"The first thing we should consider is our name," said Erwin Mozoy, the glibly sophisticated bean counter who, for the last two years, had been head of the much-dreaded Rationalization Committee.
"Our name?" said Gareth incredulously, resisting but with some difficulty the temptation to ask Erwin exactly what he had been smoking, and whether he belonged to the ranks of those who chose to inhale. "Our name! We're in the midst of a cataclysmic global catastrophe!"
"Are we?" said Erwin.
"Well, obviously! I mean Shakespeare!"
"A name to conjure with, to be sure," said Erwin dryly. "But let's be objective. It seems the world's supply of stories has been, uh ... recontoured in the direction of socially approved norms. Is that necessarily such a bad thing?"
"Oh, come on," said Gareth, unable to believe he was hearing this. Then, looking around the committee for support, realized he was on his own.
They were all afraid of Erwin, that was the thing. Erwin, whose latest stunt was abolishing Jihad Studies and Ancient Greek in favor of Downsizing Strategies and Ski Resort Management. Well, the hell with Erwin!
"What we have to do is obvious," said Gareth. "We've got to pool our resources, pull together, make sure our heritage survives. Memorial reconstruction, the resurrection of an oral tradition if that's what we've got to do, that's what we've got to do."
Too late, he realized he had been booming expanding recklessly, using a larger-than-life rhetorical style better suited to the hot medium of an auditorium. In the cooler confines of the committee room, this style made him seem hectic. Over the top. Out of control.
"An interesting idea," said Erwin cooly. "But what about our legal liability?"
"Our what?" said Gareth, incredulously.
"Examples influence," said Erwin crisply. "Any psychologist will tell you that. The legal department tells me a story can be viewed as an instructional rubric. If we by our teaching valorize socially transgressive models of behavior, then we could be legally liable for the consequences."
"Say what?" said Gareth. "But we've taught this stuff for generations!"
"True," said Paradom Sook, Dean of Social Science, the first of Erwin's supporters to declare himself. "But we have taught it in the unexamined privacy of the academy. Now, however, we are very much in the public eye. Or would be, were we to attempt to reconstruct Shakespeare. Obviously, the unknown agency the, uh, agency of revision, we might call it has called into question the entire, uh, literary enterprise."
"The word miracle has been bandied about," said Ishmael Zoid, the sat urine lord of Statistics.
"Face facts," said Zip, the bald little guy from Architecture. "The only reason you've got away with teaching this stuff is that most people don't have a clue what it's all about. I mean, guys tearing their eyes out, women raped by animals, monsters ripping people into bloody pieces, teenage passions, adultery, transgressive lusts, murder, slaughter, suicide."
"You do follow the point, don't you?" said Erwin Mozoy. "Shakespeare methodically works through the whole gamut of the perverse, from transgressive lusts through to assassination. Previously, the academy has represented itself as the custodian of the hallowed past. The status which comes with great antiquity, coupled with the effects of familiarity, has made the true Shakespeare unexaminable. Nobody has been able to see how gross and grotesque the Shakespearean writings truly are."
"Okay," said Gareth, fighting back, "so now we're into a defamiliarization situation, this could be the best thing to happen to Shakespeare studies for a century."
"Your point of view is understandable," said Erwin, "but are you prepared to pay our legal bills the first time one of our students gouges someone's eyes out or assassinates a Federal official? Frankly, in the current climate of heightened publicity, the best thing is to keep quiet about it. To forget that we ever taught Shakespeare. Or that other stuff."
Oedipus, Europa, Leda and Beowulf. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Zeus and Ganymede. Achilles and Patroclus. Odysseus and Calypso. Cassandra. Agamemnon. All to be lost? Apparently so.
Outside the committee room, Erwin allowed himself a moment of smirking triumph.
"Of course," he said, "there is the one group of stories which hasn't changed. But I don't know that you'd find a place for your Shakespeare there."
"What're you talking about?" said Gareth.
"Don't you know?" said Erwin.
"No. Tell me!"
"Oh, I'm sure you can work it out," said Erwin. "An interesting, uh ... research project for you."
Then he was gone, taking his secret with him.
A place where stories are permitted. Real stories: stories which model the bloody extremes of the real world in which we live. Assuming that the collective unconsciousness of humanity had decided to censor such stories out of existence and that, at the moment, was the most popular theory what hidden sanctum would provide a refuge for the unprintable?
Gareth's first thought was the Bible. Five minutes later, he was in the library, checking. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan:
"Once upon the time there was this guy who was driving down the freeway when his car ran out of gas. So there he was, miles from home and no way to get anywhere. Now, a certain TV evangelist came by in his limousine, but he didn't stop, no way. He would if he could, he said, but the TV studio was waiting, he was due to go on air to speak live to five million people."
In the rewritten Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan both survived and did not survive. On one level, you could argue that the essence had been preserved: the man who had run out of gas got no help from the banker, the stockbroker or the TV evangelist, and was only finally rescued by the homeboy from the ghetto, the despised outcast at the bottom of the social heap.
And yet, something was missing. What? Consequence, that was it. The sense of absolute consequence in human affairs: the sense of the threat of an absolute disaster which no amount of New Age attitudinizing can repair. For that, you needed a sense of the fragility of the human body. You needed the Biblical story in its old, traditional version: the victim beaten bloody, stripped naked, thrown groaning into a ditch.
Absent blood, filth, violence and despair, there was no real story left. No true sense of consequence. And no connection with the real world. And, in the real world, despite the rewriting of the world's stock of stories, real people were still being raped, killed, starved, shot, tortured, abducted and generally subjected to absolute consequence.
"I have to do it," said Gareth.
He had to discover the last permitted locus of the true story. Even if that meant risking his career. (But, absent Shakespeare, what career was now possible for him?) And so, armed with a crowbar, he levered his way into Erwin's office. Kicked open the splintered door, stepped into the bean counter's pristine domain, and started rummaging.
The flashbulb went off in Gareth's face even as he turned.
"I thought you might do something like this," said Erwin.
With him, he had a photographer and two security guards. On Erwin's orders, the guards escorted Gareth off the campus there and then.
"I think you're exceeding your authority," said Gareth.
"Oh, I don't think so," said Erwin. "In any case, this could easily become a police matter. If you decided to make a fuss."
"I will," said Gareth, recklessly. "Unless you tell me."
"Okay," said Erwin, smiling. "The stories survive in the one uncensored place. Our collective unconsciousness, it seems, still permits us this realm of free play."
"What place?" said Gareth.
"In a very small room," said Erwin. "The smallest."
It made sense, really. Most people, most of the time, seem to find the enduring reality of rape, murder and torture inoffensive. We can forget about them. What is offensive is to have these realities brought into consciousness, where they are less easy to evade and avoid. And so it happens that representations of the barbarous and libidinous elements of human life commonly attract more opprobrium than actual acts. Lady Chatterley, for instance, incurred more public wrath than any real adulteress ever, and Lolita's fate became a matter of concern to a society capable of bland indifference toward its flesh-and-blood children.
But, on the nation's most private bulletin boards, all manner of messages have been permitted to circulate, because such messages, compelling no public recognition, present no threat. The threat of the book, the play, the movie the threat comes from the public nature of these creations. By compelling communal recognition of that which is painful, they break the treasured spell of our easy amnesia, and do so in a way quite different from graffiti.
"Graffiti is like our dreams," said Erwin, who was a smart guy, and had had more time to think about this than Gareth. "It's often obscene in exactly the same kind of way, and we can dismiss it in exactly the same kind of way. Because it possesses the same kind of privacy."
"I see," said Gareth.
"So," said Erwin, permitting himself a smile. "What are you going to do? Teach a course? Bathroom Scripts 101? Kids are going to pay tuition fees for that? I think you'd better start looking for a real job, Gareth."
Defeated, Gareth got in his car and drove home. And found Zooloda waiting on the doorstep. His blonde siren. The temptation he had resisted on account of his career. And now?
In disaster, Gareth found freedom. Free! Really free! Free to cram caution into a dirty old paper bag and throw it to the ravaging winds.
"Come on in," said Gareth.
Two hours later, when they finally found time for a cup of coffee, Zooloda proposed the solution:
"You could, uh, you know, always apply for a grant."
And so he did. Which is how, to cut a long story short, Gareth Arth became head of the Cultural Survival Institute, with its army of ardent youngsters armed with stencils and spray cans, all duly licensed by the government, and all dedicated to telling, if only in briefest outline, the old traditional stories. The stories in which Hamlet murders Claudius and mates with his mother Gertrude, in which Romeo and Juliet murder their parents to liberate themselves for love, in which the adulterous Penelope slaughters the homecoming Odysseus, and in which the man rescued by the Good Samaritan goes into a shop, buys a really sharp knife, and then sets off boldly for his father's home and an appointment with destiny.