Following is the eighteenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 18: Pages from the Same Book
Well, well, so you’re one of those who believes that time exists?
The truth is that out here I’m on my way to losing my sense of the sequence of events. It’s as if time were no longer so important here. I feel a bit as if I were in the world of Schopenhauer. When he says that “reality” and “dreams” are pages from exactly the same book. Only that we read them in a somewhat different manner.
Wasn’t that the beginning of the Dean’s story?
“He was sitting there one morning, without any warning you might say, on a camping chair with the right leg crossed nonchalantly over the left, a leg that he playfully swung up and down – as if he wanted to remind me that I could no longer move my own. That appeared to me to be a completely unnecessary affront. And that leg he was swinging was in battle fatigues that were unusually well pressed for a camp outside Saigon. His uniform had medical insignia and he wore the rank of a full colonel.
“He was wearing a surgeon’s mask over his mouth and nose. Strangely enough that did not hinder me from hearing everything, unusually clearly, that the unusual doctor had to say. In fact I couldn’t see anything more than a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. Perhaps they were misted over? In any case I couldn’t perceive any proper eyes behind the glasses. And I had a strong feeling of being examined. More, in fact: examined with keen curiosity.
“Clearly he had something to do with me since he was sitting there as confident as if his sole assignment was to watch over me. Was I really so significant and interesting that I justified such total, patient attention? I had the impression, I don’t know why, that he had been sitting there day after day, watching me with the same nonchalant and curious attentiveness.
“Shouldn’t a surgeon in a field hospital in the midst of such an going enormous battle have a bit more than that to do?
“ ‘Excuse me, colonel,’ I said, surprising myself as I heard how weak and rusty my voice had become, as if it hadn’t been used for a very long time, ‘Sorry, but does the colonel have the correct time?’
“The voice that answered me was very cultivated, difficult to identify. Where had I heard it before! I knew that I recognized it from somewhere.
“ ‘But Uncle Ingram,’ I said. ‘How can you be here? And why are you dressed so strangely?’
“He put an admonitory finger before the place under the surgeon’s mask where his mouth should be. Clearly, he didn’t want to talk about it. But he was Uncle Ingram.
“Closer to a tenor than to a bass, a tenor that perhaps could hit all the possible notes in the male vocal range, who perhaps could easily be able to go down into the deepest bass, yes, somewhere even deeper than the usual deep register for a man. I knew, without his having used it, that he could just as easily turn into a coloratura soprano. How did I know that?
“It wasn’t a voice. It was something else. Something else that could be interpreted as a voice.
“ ‘Well, well,’ said that nasal, elegantly polite non-voice:
“ 'Well, well, so you’re one of those who believes that time exists?’
“ ’Actually, no. In fact not at all,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’m not so sure. Does it? Which time?’
“And it annoyed me that I clearly sounded like a nervous student at an examination. Who out of sheer desperation has begun to guess at the answer to a crucial exam question.
“As if he had hear my thought he said in fatherly fashion, in the easy manner of a company leader,
“ ‘It’s obvious that I’m your uncle, Ingram Chapman. Who has come here to keep an eye on you, my boy. But it would also be splendid if you called me Doctor Bob. All my other patients do. You see, one can’t be certain about all that to do with time. Perhaps there’s not so much before and after as you think.’
“ ’Then what does exist?’
“ ‘The spume of time. Everything else, I can promise you, is just chaos. If you knew how frightfully unprepared things are in the world your head would spin,’ he said with an almost aggrieved tone in his voice.
“ ‘Don’t blame me,’ he added quickly. ‘I’m not the one who invented the whole thing. The one who did, knew what he was doing. You can depend on that. He made certain that no one would be able to follow in his footsteps.
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Following is the seventeenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 17: The Handicapped League
“My head feels entirely empty, Spencer.
"Of course my head can’t be completely empty. What would that imply if someone’s head were entirely empty?
"I know. I'm familiar with that mental state, also.
“You understand, most of those here who call themselves philosophers, professors of philosophy, that is, and whatever else they might be, those who sit in their ivory towers and publish books and win prizes: They have no notion of what philosophy is trying to tell them.
“Taking philosophy seriously means understanding that it is not something we write down on pieces of paper or on blackboards, but instead something that we do with our lives. We orient ourselves and place ourselves in relation with the world.”
# # #
It’s hard to say how it started, but I believe that it began this way: One morning he comes into my room, rolling his wheelchair so fast that he almost had trouble braking it to a stop, and said:
“Spencer! Have you seen this?”
“Why is everyone along this hallway suddenly hobbling?”
“This is unbelievable! I don't see how this can have happened, but suddenly every single person in the hallway is limping. It seems like a sort of ritual and reminds me of something I would rather not think about.
“A clerk in the office, Rose, broke her big toe when she stumbled Sunday afternoon on her own stairs . Perhaps she drinks even more than I thought? Morgan, your esteemed fellow assistant dean, wrenched a hamstring because he was foolish enough to engage in a sport obviously completely inappropriate for a man of his age.
“And then along comes that cute little administrative assistant, the redhead with the short haircut and huge melancholy brown eyes, dragging her perfect right leg, still extremely attractive in her black hose.
“There’s scarcely anyone around here who can walk normally.
“And they secretly suspect each another of mimicking one another. Don’t you think so? I'm the only one they can’t accuse of that. I 'm already sitting here in a wheelchair.
“That’s one thing that one can safely say about me, isn’t it?
“What’s that? You don’t understand what I mean?
“I, for one, do not limp.
“This afternoon it occurred to me what I should call them: the Handicapped League.
“Say, isn’t that a splendid name?”
Yes, well, dear God, what was I supposed to answer? He often has such inspirations. And fifteen minutes later he came back into my office again (without knocking – why would a dean bother to knock?), and he launched into his story without a blink, as if he was continuing a lengthy narrative:
“Once, outside of Hoc So, in the jungle on the way up an extremely steep hillside, a sergeant from my squadron went up in a pink cloud. It lifted him high up in the evening light, and only when he came down again did he understand that the pink cloud had been both his legs. Vaporized by a mine explosion. Surrounding him like a pink cloud. Amazingly enough, that man survived.”
# # #
“How did I wind up in Vietnam and, at the end, commanding a squadron of sixteen helicopters? I didn't have much choice. One day I was standing in Yale with a letter in my hand, and I could either report to Fort Benning on Wednesday for duty or abandon everything and go to Stockholm the Friday after that. That was about the extent of it. I thought really seriously about the options. I do believe that I was already a pacifist back then. But that wasn’t the crucial part of it. The fact is, I was frightened.
“But I believe that what decided me was the fact that I found it impossible to imagine spending the rest of my life in Stockholm. I simply couldn't conceive of it -- as I often say -- when I tried to visualize it.
“So I chose suffering over boredom. To quote Schopenhauer.”
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Following is the sixteenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 16: Is This Really A Good World?
“If you sit down, for example, and watch nature programs on television,” said the Dean, “and you’re endowed with normal intellectual capacity, you’ll find yourself with a lot to think about. You can see as clear as day what it’s all about. This cannot be a sympathetic or benevolent world by any stretch of the imagination! We can see that Nature is almost unremittingly evil. It is an incomprehensible, ingenious machine designed to cause pain and to keep on doing that.
“What are those nature programs all about? Small helpless animals hunted down and killed. By larger and stronger, quicker and more cunning animals. They’re hunted down and killed but not spared from suffering, crippling anxiety, even humiliation.
“And the strange thing is that these are presented as educational, more or less instructive programs for the general public. You can almost hear a breathless, apologetic eagerness in the voices of those nature lovers when they try to explain to us how ingenious and charming it is when a wasp lays its eggs in the completely crippled, helpless body of a butterfly pupa. You have the impression that they actually want us to be enchanted by all that! The precision with which those vicious little machines, little more than computer programs, stab their egg tubes into right point in the poor body of the host animal, the predator’s hunting methods and the shrike, a butcher bird, with its cruel attacks on field mice. The ant lion’s trap that doesn’t give its victim a chance, the spider’s ingenious web. Why should we be enchanted with those?
“Can you imagine a crueler way than evolution for developing life on a planet? A more painful, more brutal, more indifferent one?
“Why do people try to hide all that? This world is no warm and cuddly creation. And the only consolation for mankind is that we – at best – can see that’s the way things are.”
That was a theme to which he often returned.
“There is a split between mankind and nature. Yes, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it extended across the whole universe.
“In such circumstances, what is our duty?
“To be unnatural. Naturally! To take on nature wherever it goes, to challenge it, question it, correct it. The first human beings who realized that they didn’t have to put up with all of the plants that happened to be growing in a place, who saw that they could cultivate some of them and pull out the rest, could be considered of greater moral stature than anyone who ever came after them. Theirs was the first step toward artificial control. And the more we use manmade methods to control that evil nature, to turn its own resources against it, the more we are serving divine ends.
“What could those ends be? Maybe for this creation, all of it, to disappear. In a moral sense, wouldn’t that be a much more satisfactory condition?”
# # #
I can’t reproduce all of those monologues by the Dean. There were so many and they were so astonishing. Some of them seemed reasonable to me and others unreasonable. But they enticed me onto a path – on which, I’m afraid, I still find myself.
Later there came a time when he began giving me assignments.
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Following is the fifteenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 15: Wastelands Are Not Always Flat
This account really belongs in the city. Austin, with its gleaming modernity and comfort and efficiency, somehow luckily established itself in Central Texas, well to the east of the fabled and almost always dried up Pecos River. It is a historical tale best heard in the shade of the oaks and the elms on the extensive and fairly elegant campus of the University of Texas, which succeeded in discreetly gliding out here in the nothingness.
It has serenely come through many floods to grow and develop into a city of modest, agreeable aspect.
At the same time we find ourselves here in one of the planet’s greatest and most sterile desert regions. The Chihuahua Desert, which stretches out from here far up into Mexico’s highlands and far out into New Mexico. An incomprehensible, unpopulated labyrinth of bare surfaces where the wind holds sway, drawing up dust devils that totter along over the dry lands, a network of arroyos that resemble one another so closely that the inexperienced visitor has every chance of getting lost here.
But here and there along a limestone path down in one of those arroyos, sheltered by a stone overhang from the unheard of rain that occasionally falls in thunderstorm weather, and high enough so that the water does not reach them, are those pictograms. A striking language of images in ochre or cinnabar, many marks intended to tell a story or to post a warning.
Marks engraved in the cliffs by the nomadic tribes that lived here thousands of years ago. No one knows their names, where they came from or where they went.
And for them there was no other world than this one. They must have lived and died with the conviction that the universe looks just like this.
Here and there in the Study Butte district it looks as if snow had fallen. But there is no snow. There are great white salt surfaces in the wastelands, completely infertile ground. This is where FM 170 and Texas Route 118 come together. Farm to Market route 170 goes further westward toward Terlingua and Lajitas, the first of them a ghost town built around a played-out quicksilver mine, and the second of them a tourist camp on the Rio Grande for riding and canoeing where no one stays any more.
There’s a certain kind of cyclist these days who loves to risk his life by riding and sliding down those slopes. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes not. Those who have it the worst are the ones who use their brakes.
But there’s more than that to talk about.
Somewhere around here, say the locals in their tall tales, there’s something very strange: a way down to the Underworld. It starts in an old automobile graveyard. A small narrowing canyon leads away from there, an arroyo that just gets narrower and narrower, sloping downward, until it ends at the opening to a grotto.
Anyone who goes into that grotto would be well advised to have made certain preparations.
How can I know about that?
There used to be here – at least, several years ago, I haven’t paid close attention recently – a barber shop called -- no, I don’t remember that, either -- with a big blonde woman barber named Windy.
The Dean happened to admire her, for some reason that wasn’t easy to make out. In fact, he spoke about Windy fairly often and ascribed to her talents that were clearly magical. I don’t know exactly what that might mean, but he insisted that she had them.
If you believed the Dean’s account, she was striking, a mixture of a bag lady and Pythia, the priestess at the temple of Apollo. The truth is, the Dean always surrounded himself with such peculiar friends. Windy was just one more. Now that I think of it, I wonder what can have become of her.
As a rule, they had nothing at all to do with the university; he enjoyed finding them in all imaginable and unimaginable places. There might be a woman taxi driver, the girl cashier at the quick stop grocery store, or that charming, exotic book saleswoman, ladies that people thought he shared somehow with Judge Caldwell. A man from whom not much is heard any more.
Anyway, it was that Windy who claimed to know something about the path out by Chisos Mountain leading down to the Underworld. To the real Underworld.
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Following is the fourteenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 14: A VERY STRANGE PLACE
It’s not the automobiles on the roads out through the barren desert that bother you.
There are few of them and they don’t come through at night.
If someone is outside driving in the dark, you can be almost certain that he’s smuggling people. Or that maybe he’s a bandito. So they tell me. I don’t think there are so many banditos around here. My innkeeper has some reason for his tales about them. He doesn’t want me to drive around out there on the roads at night. The way I did the first few days after I arrived.
Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want me to discover exactly what he himself is up to?
Or maybe it’s just a habit of mine, one I’ve lapsed into after everything that has happened?
The habit of believing that everything and everyone is hiding a secret, an unrevealed agenda?
Drug smugglers from the borderland. Smugglers of human beings. Who on top of everything else are said to be even worse to deal with.
Other types of traffic prefer the daylight hours. The big trucks are mostly of the rundown, rattletrap sort. A few private vehicles with whole Mexican families, with sewing machines and chicken coops and young children. All of them loaded up together with inexplicable optimism on the bed of a pickup truck. A family on its way from one end of the road to the other, day workers on the way to live out their new dreams. Or in any case to survive them. No. Those are not the ones that bother you. It’s something less than that, something less evident. The Mexican neighbor’s chickens, an amazing variety that has feathers draped over its claws – they look as if they were wearing slippers – make a frightful racket and are a hell of a nuisance during the few hours than one can write before it gets too hot and the smell from the blocked-up toilet down the hall comes seeping into my room. It seems as if light bulbs are shorting out all the time, it seems as if they can’t tolerate the changes of air pressure out here. Between nighttime and daytime. Between the west wind and the south wind. Sometimes I have the impression that they can’t even withstand all the sorts of thoughts flying around here.
The impression, in other words, that I myself am the one who is making them implode haphazardly here and there. If that’s the case, then there’s no danger that Mr. Primrose will discover who the guilty party is.
I have nothing more modern or more eye-catching with me than an ancient portable typewriter, a Remington, but thank God I am well supplied with paper. I brought along two whole boxes full when in fairly hasty fashion, as you might imagine, I made off from my room in the West Mall Building, and that certainly shows that I am in essence a completely rational and well organized individual. Or was I not so sure about that?
How did I wind up here?
And how did I, of all people, become an assistant dean? It’s easy, of course, to ask questions, more difficult sometimes to answer them. Wouldn’t it have been better if I had gone one teaching my course Theathetus and the Rationale of the Dream, or the seminar for doctoral students, PHL375 if I remember correctly, The Concept of the Void in the Philosophy of Aristotle?
Courses like the ones that the Dean also used to conduct.
Now that the Dean is gone forever, I surprise myself (several times a night, and every time I wake up frightened and in a cold sweat) by asking for the first time a question that I should have asked a long, long time ago: Who is he, really? An eccentric and powerful professor with a past in that far away war in Vietnam? Was he the real author of Winnicott’s novels? An arch-heretic? An original philosopher with a few truly original ideas about a number of things, perhaps? An enemy? A friend?
Is that how it is? Am I still trying to impress him?
© Lars Gustafsson, 2003, translation by Michael Meigs (© 2010)
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The American-Scandinavian Foundation selected this translation as the winning entry in its 32nd annual Translation Prize competition. Selections were published in the spring 2012 issue of the Scandinavian Review.
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