Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 5

More about Girls

Tom's tutor had his office, not in the Philosophy Deppartment's Emerson Hall, but in the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. Tom always entered the huge pile, named for someone who had been stupid enough to sail on the Titanic, with a certain sense of adventure. Although the chance of encountering an iceberg was slight (there are no absolute certainties or impossibilites in the empirical domain), the sheer weight of learning contained in the tons of volumes was enough to sink a smallish ocean liner.

MacDuff was quite welcoming on this first meeting in the academic year. A late-thirtyish man who looked more like an electrical engineer than a philosopher, MacDuff's Scots origins were expressed in his sharp black-haired profile, but not in any peculiarities of speech.

They had discovered, the previous year, that the ideas that came naturally to Tom, expressed in numerous little papers, could be combined effectively with those of MacDuff. The latter were worked out much more rigorously before being published in the professional journals, but there was still room for Tom to contribute a little raw material.

After they had laid down some plans, MacDuff remarked,

"In the summer I got a letter from a young lady who seems to be in an institution. It was on that last Phil Review paper of mine. She made some quite good points, and we've exchanged a few letters since. Some of this might be of interest to you."

MacDuff handed over a two page letter, evidently expecting Tom to read it on the spot.

Unlike so much philosophy, it was clearly written and contained an argument which Tom found reasonably persuasive. Remarking as much and handing the letter back, Tom asked,

"What sort of place do you think this Allwyn Institute is?"

MacDuff smiled gently and replied,

"I happen to know through a cousin of my wife's that it's an expensive private psychiatric hospital out in Belmont. This girl's obviously very bright, and I suppose she must be at least moderately crazy to be there. You'd never know it from her letters, though."

"Could she be a nurse there?"

"I don't think so. In her first letter, she rather apologetically gave her age as seventeen. You might want to take her name and address and send her one of your own papers on this topic."

MacDuff smiled again. Tom knew that he thought he was up to something, but it was part of their relation that Tom take it straight. He therefore copied down the name and address as if it were a citation of a paper in a journal.

Back at K-Entry, Tom found Kent downstairs with his door open and told him of this new development. Moving outside so as not to disturb Sid, Kent replied,

"So you're going to try your luck at the asylum?"

"What is there to lose?"

"She might attack you with a curved kitchen knife or try to bite off your ear."

"One great advantage is that, if nothing else, I can talk with her about philosophy. I told you about my last date, didn't I?"

The previous spring, Tom finally found someone at a Jolly-Up who responded favorably to his telephone solicitation the next day. He did wonder if she might have gotten his name confused with that of someone else, an easy thing to do at a Jolly-Up, but he nevertheless proceeeded.

Things had gone all right at first. The young lady was petite and attractive, and Tom, in those days before neuter gender, had gone into a state of definite but fairly well concealed lust. They managed to generate a meaningless but amiable conversation, and had burbled on in that fashion until they reached the movie house.

It was only when they came out of the movie that an old Boston drunk, probably Irish, had called after him,

"Aren't you ashamed to go out with such a little girl?"

Tom had been amused, but the young lady asked to be taken home in a voice that didn't invite questions. Indeed, she hardly uttered a word after that.

Tom originally thought that the drunk had upset her, but the majority view in K-Entry was that the movie had given her a chance to consider Tom in detail. She had then found him wanting in some essential characteristic. Kent remembered the incident and replied,

"That girl may have decided that you were crazy. But, since this girl is probably crazier than you, she won't be able to object on those grounds."

"Right. And it was the supposedly sane girl who suddenly went silent. This one probably won't."

"She may have a catatonic seizure in the ice cream parlor, but, until then, she'll probably chatter like a magpie."

Upstairs, Tom put the matter to Eric, who replied,

"That may be a good thing for you."

"Even though she's crazy enough to be in an institution?"

"But, Tom, we've read our Dostoyevsky and our Kafka, not to mention our Thoreau. The crazy people may all be outside the institution looking in through the bars at the sane people."

"Well, yes, in theory. But we also know that she must have done something pretty dramatic, very likely including a suicide attempt, to get put in there."

"Some great people have attempted suicide, and some have succeeded. But, surely, there's hope for such a young person. Particularly one who hunts up professional journals in philosophy and writes to the authors. I didn't even know such journals existed when I was in high school, and I bet you didn't either."

"No, I certainly didn't. I guess I will write to her. MacDuff suggested that I send her one of my own papers. I wonder if that's too pretentious. After all, she's used to reading top of the line stuff."

"He wouldn't have suggested it if he didn't think your papers would measure up pretty well. Why don't you call her up and ask her if she'd like to see your stuff?"

"That's pretty nervy, isn't it?"

"I don't think so. It's natural and straight-forward in the circumstances.

The Allwyn Institute sounded mightily confused that evening when Tom called up and asked for Sharon Seymour. The receptionist asked,

"Are you a family member?"

Tom explained, and was asked to wait. Before very long, a woman with a pleasant voice came on the line and said,

"I'm Ann Barnes, one of the nurses here. Did you say that you wanted to speak to Sharon?"

Tom explained over again, this time a little more cogently. The nurse replied,

"I know she's been corresponding with Professor MacDuff. It's terribly nice of him, and I'm sure she'd also like to see your work. She's occupied just now, but I imagine she'll be free to talk with you late tomorrow afternoon if you could call then."

Wondering whether Sharon was at the moment screaming in a padded cell, Tom promised to do so.

He had gone to a phone booth in the main house that provided some privacy to make his call, and Eric congratulated him when he got back. The others had heard about the matter by this time, and a lively controversy as to its wisdom had sprung up. The consensus was that practically any avenue that led to a girl was worth exploring.

That having been resolved, Tom felt more like taking a walk on the river bank than studying. Kent, who almost never felt like studying these days, went with him.

Crossing the high curved foot bridge over the Charles, they turned right along the bank. On both sides of the river there were what amounted to long narrow parks with mowed grass. The police intervened if drunks became too loud, or threw bottles at cars, but there were often entwined couples on blankets. This night was cloudy and dark, and no one was visible. After passing a bridge and the crew boathouse, the mowed grass gave out. In fact, with a wild thick growth of high bushes and only a dirt path winding among them, it became slightly sinister.

As tactfully as he could, Tom asked Kent whether he intended to study that year. He replied,

"It isn't clear to me yet. I may feel some urge as the weeks pass, but I'll probably be part of the general decline."

They had previously agreed that Harvard did most students more harm than good, and that, over time, there was usually a decline in morale, academic enthusiasm, and even the degree of intelligence displayed in casual conversation. This decline generally began in the sophomore year, and was particularly marked in the junior and senior years. Most other people that they knew, at least the ones who considered the matter at all, agreed with them. Tom remarked,

"That really shouldn't happen. Here are these enormous educational resources, and you'd think that, somehow or other, they'd rub off on practically everyone."

"That's the assumption probably made by the administration. In fact, Harvard convinces a great many students that they're stupid. At that point, they give up and just work enough to graduate."

"That certainly hasn't happened to you. You were doing fine as long as you were working."

"It has in its way. I had a solid B average, which put me in the upper third of the class, but most professors are only interested in students they can imagine as future colleagues. Even a student who gets A's may not be perceived in that way."

"Of course, you may have irritated them with some of those papers."

Kent was an anthropology major, and one of his complaints was that the faculty members didn't study their own culture, that of anthropology professors, in the way that they studied exotic cultures. He replied,

"I have written some little pieces arguing that most anthropologists remain blissfully ignorant of their own culture."

"You were the one who didn't want to continue to observe the close-to-home culture of Joe, Dick, and Pat."

"I know. I've caught their disease to some extent. But I'm willing to investigate the academic culture here at Harvard in a serious way."

"If they're looking for people who want to join their culture, someone who's highly critical of it and them might not seem a very good bet."

"One of them did say to me that you don't have to study yourself to be a good social scientist. He even suggested that the study of oneself, and one's own culture, is best left to outsiders. He claimed that they're likely to be more objective."

"And you replied?"

"That all judgments we make about others are relative to ourselves, and that they're meaningless unless we know ourselves."

"That seems to imply that everything they're doing is worthless. No wonder you aren't wildly popular in the department."

"There is that. They're striking back by telling me that my papers are shitty. But, whether or not I've brought this on myself, faculty contempt for students is pretty widespread. Your room-mate, for example, has been made to feel that he's not very bright. I doubt that he's been going around trying to prick people's bubbles."

"It's too bad about Peter. Freshman year, he used to read Shakespeare for fun late at night, and then talk about it at breakfast. He hasn't done anything like that for a long time."

"Have the faculty been mean to him?"

"I don't think so. He's just another guy majoring in economics because they don't have an undergraduate business college here. He'd have to do very well to be noticed in the middle of that mob."

"Yes. He's intelligent, but not brilliant. Those are the people at risk."

"Part of it's my fault. Whenever he says anything at all speculative, I argue with him, using all my newly acquired philosophical techniques."

"How do those work?"

"You first pretend not to understand. Then, when the other guy tries to explain what he means, you jump on any inconsistencies or incoherencies that you see."

"That sounds pretty obnoxious. I've never noticed your doing that."

"I guess I do it just with Peter. Probably because I'm jealous of his having all those girls."

"Well, he's wound up substituting his success with girls for his relative lack of academic success. At least in terms of being able to hold his head up in our little world."

"I don't suppose anyone'll ever feel sorry for Peter. He'll graduate and use his charm to make money. And have a different woman practically every night if he wants one."

"From the way women behave in front of me, I can hardly imagine that there are any who'd be willing to take their dresses off in front of a man, much less do anything else."

Tom nodded agreement, and Kent added,

"There are some cultures in which Peter's activities would be greatly constrained."

"He recently asked me if I thought it was immoral to seduce girls."

"He must be impressed with your philosophical knowledge."

"He shouldn't be. I have command of a set of techniques, but none of them have anything to do with ethics, much less seduction. I wish he wouldn't ask me things like that."

Kent seemed amused at the situation, and asked Tom how he had responded.

"I said that it was wrong, particularly if the girls were virgins. Boy, that sounds stupid! I can't imagine why I said it."

"It may be a good thing if he doesn't get a lot of these girls pregnant."

"I wasn't even thinking of consequences. I was just being the village moralist. The kind who tries to spoil everyone else's fun."

"Are you going to apologize?"

"Probably not. Would I have to tell him that I'm full of shit, and that he should put it to every virgin he can find?"

"Anyhow, we help him get the girls over the fence. Actions are probably more important than words."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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