Much Madness is Divinest Sense


Through the Past Darkly

Part III

Much Madness is Divinest Sense

In which we join Aaron Sommers one last time in some reflection on his borrowed time as a wayward graduate student in the M.A.L.S. program[1] at UNH. We read of Sommers’ last semester in the graduate program, enrolled in an English class designed for undergraduates, but nonetheless appealing to him. He finds and loses lust. He crosses paths with brilliance. His writing is deemed remarkable by some, distinguished by others. He disposes of his work. The class ends on a dire note.

In 2002 I was the most hapless, errant student on campus. My graduate program allowed—encouraged—me to take classes from any and all disciplines. Naturally I avoided any math or science related coursework[2] and gravitated towards Hamilton Smith—the academic building housing all the artsy-fartsy types[3].

We of the musty books and discussions on the campus lawn could always find a reason to debate[4]. Because, unlike those cold, reductive engineers, we knew there was no Right Answer when asking, “what did Shelly mean by that dilapidated statue in Ozymandias?” We of the perpetually unemployed[5].

We, who were Asking the Questions Only a Handful of People[6] Give a Shit About.

Freshmen year made quite an impression. House in the largest dorm on campus, with about 1000 students, the floor I lived on had the dubious distinction of having the highest damage bill on campus[7]. My floormates consisted of fine, upstanding young men, like the Guy Who Smoked Peanut Shells, the Guy who Used Post-it Notes for Rolling Paper, the Guy Who Huffed Gas Fumes or, last but not least (well, actually…) The Guy Who Smoked His Sock When Campus Was Dry. So, lot’s of illuminating peers.

Back then the college still used these big books, like telephone books, with listings of classes, the level, title, professor, time, etc. You signed up and if there was room you were in. Simpler times indeed.[8]

I found one called “Madness in Literature.” It appealed to me immediately on three fronts:

  1. I’d only taken one “writing” class in my college career.[9] It was painful to share the space with a handful of students, most whom were destined for MFAs, without any talent and with less motivation. So I jumped at classes with LIT in the title.
  2. I was in the mood for some madness.
  3. It was scheduled early afternoon.

The class had the trifecta of criteria and I couldn’t wait to get started.

So, what was it all about? I’m still not sure. But Professor Deporte always wanted us to remember how important the text is, and how unimportant the life, reputation, sexual proclivities, rumors, stone-deafness, stone-blindness and general malaise—alleged or confirmed—of the writer was[10].

Because if the story is good enough to remember, the author did something right.

Aaron Sommers isn't known as a

If that meant everything else in his life was a shit show, all the more reason to keep our eyes on the story.

He needs energy first.

Professor Deporte died a year after he taught our class[11]. There wasn’t a word he spoke, either inside or outside the classroom, that didn’t have some knowledge in it. I vaguely remember he walked with a limp that may or may not have had something to do with his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (I didn’t realize he had cancer then), can slightly recall his pock-marked face, and, through the haze that covers most of my memories then, the distinct way he held Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, like he was cradling a beloved infant.

open wide

But today, thirteen years later,  right now,  I can hear him talk about Shelly’s Ozymandias and smile when I described the narrator of Tristram Shandy as “bookish” like it happened today, this afternoon.

I hear it and see it much clearer, as a matter of fact, than what I ate for lunch today or where my hat is.

Take that, Socrates.[12]

16A

[1] Read previous installments for clarification on this.

[2] With the exception, of course, of “Cosmology” (again, see previous installments!)

[3] Although, thankfully, I never ran into someone “studying” photography.

[4] During a lonely and desperate moment in the semester, I joined “The Socratic Club,” basically the red-headed step-child of the Socratic Society. We spent hours arguing topics like “Is Immortality a Worthwhile Goal?” and “Who is a Jew?” To ease the pain I entered the meetings three bong hits of hydroponic green stuff into the night and left with a belly full of decent pizza. They asked me to leave the club after the third meeting, where I lost my cool on some guy who stated the only way to understand life is to hunt. I still think he was a local gum-toothed hillbilly who walked on campus in hopes of scoring free beer.

[5] Or underemployed, from what I remember.

[6] Less than that, probably.

[7] Not to be outdone, someone tore down all the “Christmas Vacation Check Out List” sheets taped to our door and lit them all up in an inferno at the end of the hall. Chaos and destruction followed. A very cold group of students outside waiting for the fire men to put it all out.

[8] Jesus, that makes me sound old. Jesus I am old!

[9] Technically, not even writing. It was Introduction to Composition. Non-creative stuff.

[10] In other words, he looked at The Life of Samuel Johnson as a piece of literature. Sure, it was technically a biography, but anyone who’s read it knows the book is 90% Johnson pontificating (still great) on everything from the power of ale, the weakness of a drunk, the allure of a woman, the stupidity of men, and the general treasures and dumpsters that make up this world, and 20% Boswell trying to put these comments into context.

[11] Hopefully there’s only a coincidence there. We were slackers, but he must’ve been used to that…

[12] Socrates makes a case against writing by saying that the words themselves are not a complete representation of knowledge, but rather words are to knowledge as pictures are to their subjects. A load of baloney if you ask me.