Sunday

Sep. 14, 2003

Al and Beth

by Lewis Simpson

SUNDAY, 14 SEPTEMBER, 2003
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Poem: "Another Boring Story," by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

Another Boring Story

Chekhov has "A Boring Story"
about a professor. The old man's wife and children
don't understand him and don't care.

His wife's only concern is
to marry off their daughter
to this blockhead, a nonentity.
So the old man goes on a journey
to investigate, find out what he can
about their future son-in-law ...
and finds himself in a hotel room
in a strange town, wondering
how on earth life brought him there.

He has a friend, a young woman.
They're not lovers ... loving friends.
She had an affair that turned sour
and now she's at loose ends.
She asks him what to do, what to live for,
and he has nothing to say to her,
not a word. That's the end of the story.

Here's another boring story about a professor.
Years ago he embarked on an affair
with a young woman. It became a scandal.
His wife threw him out,
then she took him back. They young woman
tried to kill herself, I'm told.

I see them fairly often.
He and I talk about literature
and what's wrong with the country
while his wife knits or does some ironing.

I find myself looking out the window
or at the walls. Some surrealist
recommends staring at a wall
till something unusual happens ...
an arm protruding from the wall.
He mixes drinks, she lays out cheese-dip.
Then the children come running in,
streaked with dirt from wherever they've been.
They make for the cheese-dip,
stick their fingers in and dabble.

I've seen them at the table.
They snatch the meat from the plate
with their hands.

She smiles at her little savages.
One thing's sure: she's not raising her children
to be members of any faculty.


Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher and educator Allan Bloom, born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1930). He's best known as the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), about what he believed was the decline of higher education in the United States. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Cornell, and he witnessed the student protests in the 1960s that drove universities to stop teaching their required western civilization classes. Bloom argued that by giving up on the Western canon of literature, Americans had given up on wisdom. He wrote, "We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. [We] play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part." He called the book "a meditation on the state of our souls." Even though it was filled with difficult philosophical writing, the book became a bestseller. Allan Bloom said, "The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is."

It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison, born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. When she was 19, she went to live in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. She gave up the faith three years later and got a job as a secretary. She started writing journalism on the side, and in 1978, more than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the book, she described how she struggled with her memories of the Witnesses, because they had been controlling and oppressive but also tremendously kind and courageous. She went on to write several more books of essays, including Off Center (1980) and The Astonishing World (1992).

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