While organizing the files of a certain Professor M last week, I came across a dusty piece of parchment, folded elaborately in such a way that it resembled a flattened leaflet of origami. It was only because I glimpsed the edges of scrawled ink along some of the pointed folds that I was able to discern that it was, in fact, a document to be read. Thinking that perhaps it might contain some of the Professor’s musings to be considered for publication in the forthcoming collection that I was assisting in editing, I carefully unfolded the parchment. Crouched in between two filing cabinets in the dusty office, I retrieved my reading glasses from my pocket and adjusted them across the bridge of my nose.
The document read as follows:
Ah glorious days of when I would write, and the words would just flow from my pen as if they were thoughts themselves, or rather, written, my mechanical activity preceded thought, my hand crafted it, the pen a burin in the medium of grey matter that I molded like a luxurious, molten wax. Neurons: sparks of electric energy created from the friction of the scratching of that pen across the surface of whatever canvas or paper I chose, which, according to this reality was the very material of the world. I remember living in such a world, before everything became dull, before the blank paper bore holes into my eyes and entered through the empty spaces, curling up inside my body cavity like a parasite
Nowadays I just sit here, perched in this chair while my hip joints scream for relief. The days are sometimes tolerable; after all, I’ve plenty of work to occupy my time, and most of it is interesting to me anyways. And yet, I can’t shake the sense that something is stuck inside of me, because I can’t operate like I used to, sail along the currents of thoughts and concepts. There are only glimpses of it when I am falling asleep, and my mind cavorts and contrives innumerable strange visions and combinations of words that leave me aghast. So much so, in fact, that in many of my dreams the most beautiful themes, images, songs, and poems are attributed to others, and when I wake up, if I remember any of them, I feel like I am a fraudulent plagiarist. You see, it is because in my day to day living, I’ve revoked my license for imagination, opting instead for humility in hopes that I will not further endanger my soul or that of my beloved.
What if I were to try it now, accessing this state of mind, this escape into pure creativity that produces for me and me alone the most wondrous conceptions, flavors, and emotions? Would it not be of benefit to share some of this with the world? Or am I so arrogant as to assume that my own world is better than that of others, that their own individual realms are impoverished with comparison to mine? It is impossible to know.
And then there is the worse option to consider: that my ideas are not that interesting after all, and that they only appear this way to me as a sort of psychological mechanism so that I do not fully enter into despair, but only just skim it.
And this in this missive, to any readers real or imagined, please accept my deepest apologies. It is a product of my own arrogance and vanity, when really, I have far too much to learn about the world to be writing about it. My glory days were my mental infancy, and to that world, I must return as a cloaked visitor, so as not to destroy it.
-M, dated 6 January 1948
I sat to ponder for several minutes the meaning of this document. I considered first the date. 6 January 1948. The feast of the Epiphany. How old would Professor M have been at that time? Certainly not beyond the age of 23, my present age. I couldn’t help but consider his romantic attachments. I did not know when Professor M had been married at that time; I only knew that he’d had multiple wives of various backgrounds. The first wife, I recall, was a Russian who’d defected from the Soviet Union during the war. Had she been with him when he wrote this?
I made a mental note to review what biographical details that I had of Professor M when I had the chance, and continued about my work without giving much thought to it.
It was not until two weeks later that the recollection of this strange document looped itself inside my thoughts once more. I’d been at home that evening, sipping my customary glass of wine. I can’t say that I am much of a connoisseur, but from time to time I’d enjoy a few glasses, reflecting on my life.
At this time in my life, I didn’t have much in particular to think about. I lived alone in my small, one-bedroom apartment. I’d leased it furnished, glad that I didn’t have to go through the trouble of looking for affordable furniture to haul up the three flights of stairs to my place. My small apartment, with its brown, corduroy couch and Queen-sized bed, made me feel less alone somehow, on good days. In reality, though, I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life.
I was a graduate student in an American University. As the only female in my department, I felt as if I was working towards something greater than myself, that in seeking this opportunity to expand my mind, I was also somehow going to open the door for other women who might not otherwise apply themselves to the discipline required of Philosophy.
I should also be honest; yes, I do think that these grand illusions were, in part at least, motivating my work. But if can speak truthfully, I was really just a vain student. You see, I’d been raised by two very successful people. My father himself was a professor of some renown, and my mother was a celebrated concert pianist. To say that I’d come from a high achieving family was a little bit of an understatement.
Consequently, I felt quite a bit of pressure to do something great myself. My early ventures into music had proven to me that I’d not inherited my mother’s prodigious gift. Nonetheless, I had remained hopeful that my academic prowess would provide an avenue for development. Thus, when I was only 14 years old, I set about doing everything I could to prepare myself for the vocation of Philosophy. By age 18, I’d already read every major important work in post-Kantian ethics. I spent every minute of every hour perfecting my knowledge; I memorized bibliographies, consulted all available resources, learned four foreign languages in addition to the three that I already spoke fluently. If you’d asked anyone around me, they would certify my genius. After all, isn’t it rare to have mastered so much material at such a young age?
And yet, five years later, I found myself with a great emptiness as I marched along my path. True, I was doing well in my graduate program. In contrast, many of my peers struggled to make it through their oral exams. I would overhear their complaints in our lounge. In past years, I couldn’t relate at all to their struggles. What was so hard about studying? Yes, obviously committing oneself to graduate work requires a bit of sacrifice, but in the grand scheme of things, could you really even call it a sacrifice? They complained about the long hours, about the harsh things their professors said to them, of the general sense that there was no promise of long-term employment. I never said anything in protest of these statements. And besides, no one ever spoke to me directly, mostly because they all knew that none of their problems really applied to me as a woman. Even if I had been uniquely talented, I was still just a girl to them, and not worthy of consideration. And yet, if I did overhear anything, I’d mime sympathy, and glide out of the room.
Ultimately, I just thought that their problems were not problems, but rather just excuses for their poor level of insight. I really did think that I was so much more developed than they were in every way. And who could really argue with me? I’d been the only person in the entire history of the program that had passed orals with a perfect score. If anyone had asked my advice at that time, which no one did, I think I simply might’ve said that they should reconsider their line of work or just put in more effort. That was it.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve called into question these earlier assumptions. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine the cause of my misfortune. It was like a big black shadow had swooped down on me as I began work on my dissertation’s third chapter, a chapter that dealt with the aesthetic preoccupations of Marx in his earlier works and their relationship to Schelling. I’d always loved Schelling and had been looking forward to writing this chapter for quite some time. In fact, I’d delivered some lectures on Schelling at a few conferences last year that were all very well received. There was no reason why this section should present me with any trouble whatsoever.
But there is another thing I should mention. I started this chapter around the same time that I accepted the editing project for Professor M. This involved reviewing and editing his manuscripts.
To say I’d idolized him was really not sufficient. In fact, he’d been the entire reason that I’d applied to this program in the first place. I simply loved his work and had been delighted to find that he was just as luminous in person as he had appeared to be in his academic texts, many of which I’d reread over and over again in my youth in the same way that one might reread a favorite novel. To put it another way, there was simply no other person that even came close in my mind to comparing with this man, whom I’d fashioned into my own, private idol.
During my time at the university, he was already advancing in years, though he continued to teach a few classes here and there. I would visit Professor M every week to discuss what I’d been reading. Our conversations ranged a number of topics. Of course, our mutual interest in philosophy was an important theme in these conversations, but over the years I came to find that Professor M had a vibrant imagination and a deep affection for the Old Masters.
I also intuited from our conversations that Professor M had led a tumultuous personal life. He’d begun teaching during the war. Though he’d been born in the United States, his parents were Dutch immigrants, and many of his family members had died in death camps. Whenever we spoke about this subject, he didn’t offer much for me to go on. Our discussions here would turn to the subject of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He had a number of monographs in his vast personal library, and at these times he’d take to locating them on the shelves, hauling them down, and flipping through the color plates with me for an hour or so.
His favorite was Bruegel’s The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow from 1567. It’s very famous, and you may be familiar with it.
Just glancing at it, you wouldn’t know that it has a religious theme. Rather, it appears to be a cold, wintery scene from Flemish everyday life, and in some ways that’s part of it. Extraordinarily, the artist relegated the scene of Christ’s adoration to the margins. You can barely make out the three magi as they bow low before the manger, beholding for the first time, the messiah who would unite all nations and bring about the resolution to the whole of salvific history.
And what of the nation here depicted? It is much like the one you and I occupy, but the whole teleological trajectory of the world has shifted, and nobody notices it. I think that a lot of people are attracted to Bruegel for this reason. I remember a famous poem by Auden that unspools the genius that characterizes his painting:
…even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree…
But there was something about this painting that went beyond even these astute observations, and Professor M felt it. I can’t put it into words, exactly. Was it the Flemish winter? The falling snow, like ash, obscuring the vision of that ordinary life, so yearned for? The promise of a savior?
I only know that whatever it was that he felt, it deeply moved him, and witnessing him react to this image affected me so greatly that even to recall it brings tears to my eyes.
During all of my time at graduate school nothing nurtured me more than my time spent with him. He would thoughtfully listen to everything I had to say, slowly considering my words. Many times, I was just so eager to impress him that I surely embarrassed myself, but he took these with such grace that an outside observer wouldn’t have realized it. Frequently, I brought manuscripts of short musings that I’d written, asking for his thoughts. And each time, he’d read through them carefully, making notes in the margins along with suggestions for further readings. Often, he would just hand me a stack of books to take home. I still have a number of them sitting on my shelves, and I can’t quite bear to part with them, even though I am sure that they would do more good in his library than in mine. But to me they are the closest I will ever come to having a part of him.
I felt that Professor M was the only person in the world who could ever understand me. And yet, I knew that he did not feel the same way about me. After all, he’d had many intellectual admirers, many of whom would have had much more important things to say to him. He was a celebrated professor after all, and in no need of my companionship.
You might have perceived by now, and you would be correct, that I was deeply in love with him. Never mind that he was 40 years my senior, old, gray, and stooped. None of that mattered. I was mad with passion for him, though I’d try my best to conceal it. Being the perspicacious man that he was, there is no doubt that he knew it too, but he never held it against me.
Besides, he was married. His current wife–his fourth–is a wealthy heiress who has gained some fame for her best-selling cookbooks. I don’t know much about their relationship, but it is safe to say that they must not have been particularly close for reasons that will become evident shortly. What I could glean from our conversations was this: his wife lived in another town, in upstate New York, where she owned a specialty food store. Each weekend he’d travel back home and enjoy gourmet meals and baked goods that she’d spend days preparing for him. I’m sure they owned a handsome home, and maybe even a boat, I’d imagined. They probably got on well with the neighbors, and frequently spent evenings drinking expensive single-malt by the fire.
Or maybe I’ve not understood him at all. Or worse, I am willfully misrepresenting him here to cover my own shame. In all of my imaginings, one thing is consistent: his life without me. What could his world look like, when for myself, I can’t picture my own life in his absence?
Imagining these scenarios has helped me over the years to keep my passion at bay. If I hadn’t done so, I’m not entirely sure that I could have restrained myself.
Thus, when I was asked to participate in this large editing project, I was thrilled. Yet, as I’d soon find out, this marked the beginning of my life’s greatest personal tragedy.
Professor M had recently decided to take a sabbatical. He was going to London, he said, to help with a project at Oxford College. It was to be the culmination of something he’d been working on for a very long time, and this journey was much needed to see that everything came together as he’d hoped. He didn’t tell me much about the project before he left, but he assured me that he would be eager to hear my opinion on the results when everything had finished.
I remember before he left we’d had one final meeting in his office. There, he’d told me about the project to edit the manuscripts. My role would be to collect and organize some documents and provide them to the editorial board for review. I might also be engaged in some of the actual editing should they need any help. Even if all I was doing was really just secretarial work, it felt like a grave responsibility to which I was to dedicate myself fully. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. After all, I would have died if it meant securing the success of any project associated with his name. That was how devoted I was.
As he explained the general purpose of the project, he showed me around his office and indicated where I could find a variety of files, correspondence, and notes.
“I know that the committee has already determined what is going to be included in the published edition, but you can have access to anything here. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something that can be of help to your dissertation. Please feel free to read anything that is in these files.”
When he placed the key to his office in my hand, I shuddered with pleasure. I began to sweat profusely in my oversize sweater, my pulse elevating up into my throat like a great whale rising to the surface of the ocean. My mouth went dry and I waited several moments before feeling stable enough to respond, praying that he would not notice my agitation.
“Thank you. I really look forward to helping on this project. You’ve no idea how honored I am.”
“I think you’ll do a fine job,” he replied warmly. He placed his hand on my shoulder, and gazed at me with deep eyes that burned cold beneath milky pools of cataract jelly. I felt the weight of something descend from my upper story to my bowels, like a large shelf of ice sloughing off the side of an enormous Patagonian glacier.
A week later, he’d left for London, and I returned to my typewriter to conduct the rough workings of my dissertation’s third chapter.
At this point, everything came crashing down. I couldn’t seem to write a word, no matter how hard I tried. Every morning, I’d wake up early, make my breakfast—coffee and toast—and head off to the library to work. Nothing had changed with regards to my health. In fact, I felt quite strong physically, and my doctor assured me that I was well. I went about my same writing routines as I always have. I am a very disciplined person and, as I’ve already mentioned, I never had any problem getting words on paper before. And yet I here I found myself sitting for hours at my desk spinning off in disorganized thoughts, staring blankly ahead or picking at the dry ends of my hair.
It felt throughout this whole time that I was merely dreaming awake and not really living. When I looked at my surroundings, I’d have been able to tell you where I was—the library, or my office—but I was really just wading through vast mud puddles, trudging through frosted winter scenes, across paths strewn with excrement and straw, rotted animal carcasses and stinking fruit.
I saw myself as if from the edges of a picture plane, my image roughly described in agile brushwork. There I was, in the upper left of the composition, huddled under my thick overcoat, trying to stave off the cold. But my lips were blue and my eyesight precluded by the thick clumps of falling snow. The roads a mess of dog shit, slop, and ice, and everything around me stinking so terribly of oil paint.
There were times when I felt so nauseous that I had to rush to an alley way in between two dilapidated structures and dry heave, my knees crushing into the small pebbles that lay scattered across a swamp of refuse and slush. Bile, black and bituminous, coated my tongue like a mould that I couldn’t remove, no matter how hard I tried. My mouth dried open like that as the paint set while I sputtered lame coughs into the wind.
The only time of day when I felt at ease through all of this were those moments when I went to work in Professor M’s office. There I had discovered a first draft of Professor M’s first monograph, which, as it turns out, had an entirely different chapter that had not been included in the original edition. When I notified the editors of this discovery, they were quite surprised. They agreed to include it in the new compilation.
And yet, for some reason, I couldn’t muster the same sense of purpose and apply it to my own writing. After all these years of achievement, and I found myself stalled on the easiest part of my project. Wouldn’t my classmates kill to be in my position? And they could barely string together an intelligible sentence, yet even now I saw them progressing in their work, surpassing me, in fact. One might say that I’d been flattened. I was bitter, distant. I felt low, like a collapsed subterranean pipe. And the more I thought about it the more and more my world shrank within the strictures of the cold, 2D scene in which I found myself.
When I came to think about this strange document that Professor M had composed all those years ago, I decided upon the obvious fact that there must be some message in there, meant for me and me alone. When an obsessive person latches upon such a notion, all of life’s signs and images become imbued with further meanings, and even the planetary motions seem to organize themselves around the object of the obsessive’s devotion.
As I retraced the loose set of dates I’d pulled together over the past few weeks of researching in his personal files, I realized that he had written this piece right after his first marriage ended. Irina Gavrilova, her name had been. They’d only been married a few years. I was unable to verify what exactly precipitated the demise of their relationship, I only knew that she’d suddenly been hospitalized. Soon after her discharge, she had disappeared from his life.
What had happened to her?
Having convinced myself that resolving this question was a matter of my own survival, I scoured his office for any contact information for his former colleagues who might be able to give me some answers. I needed to be cured of my curse and begin writing again.
An old friend of his at UC Berkeley had been able to confirm for me that Professor M’s early marriage had ended with Irina’s departure in the winter of 1947. That was really all that he told me. I think that most of our conversation revolved around the plot of some obscure novel. The colleague had insisted that the author intended for us to infer the death of the protagonist, even though it was only vaguely referenced. I disagreed, contending that the author meant us to understand that the protagonist had gone on living; he’d only dislocated himself from the drama of the narrative. The colleague had no rejoinder for this argument.
Other efforts to contact friends and family members proved unfruitful. No one had any idea why Irina had left, nor could they recall whether Professor M had been particularly upset by the circumstances. I perused as many records as I could lay my hands on, but sadly was unable to turn up much besides a few photographs of the couple together. What I did learn was this: she had been beautiful: with low, dark eyes, a high forehead, and long, luscious hair.
So, I decided that the answer to my problems were to be found in his first published work, released in 1949. Returning to the unpublished manuscript and the missing chapter, I only discovered one clue, in the form of a quote from Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and its footnote. I’ll share it here with you:
Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically-cultivated person…Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return—that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent—a misfortune.
I have read this passage over and over again. For a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d found so significant here, but ultimately, what I think Marx was saying is that Love Sucks.
I realized that I would never see Professor M again.
I abandoned my dissertation all together and moved to New Hampshire. I took up with a handsome man for whom I have no feelings. He makes sculptures out of trash and is a member of a farm co-operative. We go to art shows together and he explains things like the Lacanian gaze and feminism to me. I suppose you’d say my life is pretty good, even if on the inside, I know that everything is finished.
In some small, Flemish Bethlehem, Professor M hustles down a narrow side street towards his office where he will transcribe reports from the New World for publication. I will bump into him on my way to the market, but I will not notice.
As the snow falls silently on our dirty little world, a child is born that will promise to clean it all up. But for now, only three wise men know anything about this, and they aren’t going to share their secrets.
Sonya Wohletz is a bat that was born in a golden cave in New Mexico. She transformed into a human a few decades ago and flew to the Pacific Northwest to roost. Now that she enjoys the use of opposable thumbs, she writes fiction, poetry, and paints.
 The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 105. Professor M writes: Note here the affective dimensions of human exchange. Without love, man (and philosophy itself) is impotent.