September 01, 2009

In memoriam, with a touch of guilty ambivalence

Writing here is not, generally, a form of therapy for me. Well, I guess it is, but not directly ... I write this because I have a pathological urge to pontificate, an urge that borders on the papal. But it's not like I'm trying to work through issues, as far as I know, because I think that's a lot of hooey.

Once I was driving along listening to a radio shrink on public radio, and she was describing a condition known as generalized anxiety disorder: "excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday things that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry." Turns out it's a "condition" that can be "treated." Holy crap, I thought ... my whole damned personality is a condition that can be treated. My point is, I guess, that any issues I have are mine, and I'm keeping them.

But today ... today a colleague and erstwhile friend died. Erstwhile? Well, yeah. I hadn't seen him in several years, and we were not on good terms, particularly. I had heard, through mutual friends or acquaintances, that he was unhappy, that he viewed me as Part of the Problem, even though I wasn't too sure about what the problem was ... to the point where I didn't feel like I could pick up the phone and talk to him, even though I'd heard he was gravely ill. Well, hell.

Fifteen years ago, he hired me. Of course, the department hired me, but he was my main proponent as far as I could tell, and when I went to Charleston to look for a place to live, he graciously allowed me to stay in his home. He also gave me a TV. He was generous, maybe too much so. If I were able to join our friends in mourning, I'd gladly recount dozens of stories about the ten years we worked together, some of which would probably surprise those of you who knew him as a serious and demanding professor.

And, finally, we had our differences ... unimportant in the grand scheme of things, I'll freely admit. No point in dwelling on them now, though my memories, and probably those of our mutual friends and colleagues, are infused with these disagreements.

So, there's that. There are a lot of poems about death, and they're not necessarily the ones I'd quote here. But one of my favorites is Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which reads, in part:

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Goodbye, Tunie.


MG said...

I swear to God -- and no offense to you, et al -- he was so much responsible for the writer I have become. Every time I cut down an unwieldy sentence, I think of him. He gave me an F-plus on a paper, and I was so shaken by it that I had to whip myself into better shape. I never knew before that something was wrong with my writing, and after that course I know it will never be right -- a very good thing for me, my writers, and my students. I'll put on some Saint-Saens today and think of him. Thanks for posting and for the affection that you and I and everyone begrudgingly carried for him, I am sorry for your loss.

alan said...

I'll say this for Dr. Romein: he was the most difficult English professor I ever had. Like MG above, he made me a better writer by showing me how far I still had to go.

He also advised me not to elope in between semesters. My brood may be glad I didn't listen, but it was probably sound academic advice, as I was in his Literary Criticism class at the time. :)