- In psychic life, it is the heat, the fire of passion, the flame and ardor of emotion that provide the basis of illumination.
- Erich Neumann
In my early forties I was seized occasionally by a compelling urge to escape—not to run away from it all but to escape once in awhile, responsibly. The sleek, bright orange MG that I bought to wind round and round the roads outside the back gate of the Army post took me nowhere, but I got there fast. I also bought the Klipsch speakers I’d been wanting since high school, bought them so I could hear Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” as if I were inside Beethoven’s own head. I wanted to be transformed.
I’d been inside Willie Nelson’s head, or he in mine, for a long time. “Black Rose” was no surprise to me. I understood how a “cain-raising man” could turn from woman to woman for salvation and be left with nothing more to claim time after time than “a Rose of a different name”—a man duped by a mere projection, the woman inside his head wreaking havoc, transfiguring the ones outside.
Whether the woman in my head was there to hold me in tormenting limbo or show me the way, I didn’t know. Even C.G. Jung saw her in one guise as nixie, siren, lamia, succubus—the mad woman of fairy tale “who infatuates young men and sucks the life out of them.” But Jung would also see her as a way into the life behind consciousness, as anima, the feminine aspect of the male, his guide. Somehow, I had to come to terms with her.
I really couldn’t believe it was happening as I drove out the back gate of the Military Academy, my mind guiding me down the river of my soul’s desire. But before I knew it, as I crossed Freedom Bridge, I started peeling off my clothes: sweater first, followed by the tie, followed by the epaulets. Out the window they went, all the military ornaments, the badges of my profession. Then came the shoes, one at a time so I could still operate the pedals, then the trousers one leg at a time. Rid of the black stripes, the last vestiges of the disciplined world I was leaving behind, I struggled into my jeans and relaxed. Nobody could see me. Behind my Vuarnets, I was invisible. “Scarlet Fever,” blaring on the stereo, might have turned me around had I stopped to think, but I was beside myself, hell bent. Scarlet, in one of her many guises, had become “the envy of my dreams.”
She was waiting there where she said she’d be, high atop the meadow, and as I made my way up to her side, I wondered about the lay of the land—where we might go, what we might say. When I reached her side, I looked momentarily beyond her, into the distance where I could see for miles down the valley, and then our eyes met, hers reflecting the hues of the flowers rising from her breast, yellow daffodils and a single red crocus flaming up. Her radiant face, bathed in colored light, was surrounded by vine leaves flowing out of her embroidered shift. The leaves ran up her neck through the flowers and around her head, haloing her beauty. As I reached out to touch her, she moved comfortably into the space I created for her, and we sank to the ground entwined, awash at once in the rhythms of time, lost.
Maybe it was the sound of a mowing machine on the path behind us, perhaps just a call back from my conscious mind, but as the spell was broken and I discovered my hands, I spoke, I thought, as if for the first time. “Tha’s got the nicest arse of anybody. It’s the nicest, nicest woman’s arse as is! An’ ivry bit of it is a woman. . . . It’s a bottom as could hold the world up, it is.”
“Sir, . . . Colonel Hoy, sir, you’re not listening again. Come on sir, pay attention. I need to talk to you.”
I heard her voice but resisted. I had been staring into the sunlight so long I didn’t want to come back. But she was calling out of some deep need. So I swung my chair around, turning away from the window to face her and was shocked to see how beautiful she was standing there with the lambent sunlight playing over her body. She looked for all the world like a seraph caged in bars of light, flushed, burning feverishly. I could feel her passion.
“Sir, he sat there by me last night at the banquet, and he knew. “Miss Goodman,” he said, “I understand that you missed the picture-taking formation this afternoon.” Measured, deliberate, you know how he talks, sir. He went on baiting me. Wanted to know why I wouldn’t pose together with the other women for a class picture, without the men, for Life. He couldn’t understand the irony. Can you believe the Superintendent did that to me at a formal dining-in? I was his dinner partner, and he ruined it.”
“Molly, that was almost 24 hours ago. What’s going on? Why are you still so riled up?” I didn’t expect an answer. She was mad, frustrated, more agitated than I had ever seen her. Couldn’t seem to stand still. And I sensed a problem larger than the missed formation.
“Maybe,” I suggested, “the Supe was expressing his own limitation—he’s bound, limited, like the rest of us. But you did ignore an order and stand apart from the group of women who helped you survive this place. . . . Why don’t you sit down and stay awhile. Do you have a parade?”
“No sir. The other regiments have a parade. I can talk for a while, but we’ll have to listen for them to march back in the area. I can’t be late for supper formation.”
I wanted to ask her if she had talked to her Tactical Officer about missing the formation. He should have understood her conflict, but I suspected that he wouldn’t see her side very clearly. I was right.
“I’ve already talked to my Tac. He said I had no right to miss a required formation, but I have to call him back later to see what will happen.”
“Okay, Molly, let’s pull back a little and think. Imagine what must have gone through the Supe’s head when someone told him you wouldn’t pose for the picture. They broke down the doors of this male bastion, earned their spurs, overcame our prohibitions, survived, and now they can’t even get together for a picture. From his point of view, women have gotten everything they wanted. You defy his logic, you know.”
She was listening, settling down a bit, but I knew I was caught in the middle again—torn between my desire to change things and my anger at people who wouldn’t think independently without worrying about the “duty concept.” The Commandant called always for a “stiffening of the vertebrae.” He insisted on letter-of-the-law obedience. I never heard anyone from on high call for a supple mind. We were, nevertheless, supposed to be educating young men and women for a lifetime of service. Who would serve more wisely I wondered, the obedient servant or the maverick?
“Molly, do you really expect the Supe to understand how that formation—the one he approved after careful deliberation—singles you women out, separates all of you from the very men you’ve been trying to join? Wouldn’t he expect pride to draw you into the picture, into a moment of public celebration. It probably wouldn’t occur to him that celebration for a woman could be intensely private, that you don’t need public confirmation. He can’t get inside your imagination.”
“Well, they never can.”
“Really. Who are they? Right now, you’re having trouble geting inside his head. We’ve all got our notion of how things ought to be. Why, for God’s sake, after four years of this stuff does his problem bother you so much?”
She got up again and walked over to the book shelves, obviously tired of my efforts to reconcile her. I didn’t like my little speeches either because they put me too much at odds with her. But I was growing weary of the women’s whining, weary of their claims to independence and their calls for reassurance. I wanted them to act like men, wanted them to walk on their own two feet without my counsel or anyone else’s. But I wanted them the other way, too.
They had come to us alone, and we kept them apart from each other except in their rooms. Two here, three there— integrated in the barracks with the men. Yet separate and unequal. The male world they entered afforded no support. These women were first and always would be. The Army they were about to enter would adjust reluctantly. So would they, again and again.
One of Molly’s bitingly sarcastic stories had come to me signed “The fourth male personality of Molly Goodman.” Gender switching was normal for them, but seldom deliberate. The first stressful year stopped their periods. Few in the chain-of-command noticed: the doctors on sick call, later the medical staff, finally a major in the psychology department recording facts for posterity—a handful of observers, mostly male. Those of us charged with teaching and development didn’t know. Split, we split them . . .deeply, I think.
The institution hadn’t learned to deal openly, publicly with women’s bodies. We talked about “physiological differences”; that was our corporate phrase. Those differences would keep women from doing as many push ups and pull ups as men, something to do with muscle mass and bone structure. We said nothing about that other bloody business, nothing about normal, healthy differences. No one had anything to say about psychic changes, about moods, about the real significance of a woman’s body shutting down, denying its own natural rhythms. We had stopped their periods but had no idea what was growing inside their psyches. Physiological differences would keep women from being all they ought to be. For most men, that was the crucial fact.
For women, the problem was more complicated. They were in a male institution, seeking acceptance, seeking equal treatment. They were at West Point because they wanted to be. Something inside their heads was urging them, pushing them into it, demanding that they do it, some spirit of independence, some inner necessity. The rules of the game and the nature of the commitment seemed to demand it. Those young women had sought equality without realizing for a moment how such a notion could turn into its opposite.
I learned about the periods from Molly, three years after her freshman year when stress, loss of body fat, and who knows what else, had changed their private lives. But we changed their public lives in more serious and subtle ways, depriving them of their right to be women. They were issued skirts, but rarely wore them. Male pressure forbade it. The idea was to blend in: short hair, no earrings, gray flattening shirts, gray pants with black stripes, the standard belt with brass buckle, shiny low quarters, black socks—clothes without shapes. Eventually, the women would wear tiny gold-post earrings, but they would also have to wear men’s ties with their class shirts. Nevertheless, they prevailed, and after plebe year they began to redress some of the imbalances.
One night when I was serving as academic officer-in-charge, going around the barracks to observe study conditions, I found women in the hallways and in their rooms who had transformed themselves after the evening meal. They had rid themselves of the shapeless clothes, washed their hair, and donned T shirts with their fatigue trousers. Moving about the barracks, they had little in common with the female cadets who sat in my classes during the day. They had reclaimed their bodies.
Even during the day at formations, they added a new dimension to hazing, standing there nose-to-nose, chest-to-chest, close, eyeball-to-eyeball with an unsuspecting plebe, testing him while testing the limits of their own sexuality. They might look like a man in a class uniform, but they smelled better. If they knew what they were doing, the plebe was never sure. Neither were their own classmates at company parties. In civilian clothes, dressed to the nines, they were more difficult to think of as men. No one could get it quite right—who they were, why they were there, where they were going.
When I met Molly in one of my literature classes during her senior year, she was still curious enough about what had happened to her over those years to want to write about it. Swinging back and forth between her personalities, she tested me, found me receptive, equally curious, and safe. I could talk openly to her about herself. That I was a man made the talk more interesting. She was, after all, trying to reclaim her femininity, and I, paused at the menopausal node of my life, enjoyed the intimacy of a young woman. I was intrigued too by anima, my feminine aspect: feeling, intuition, imagination . . .my soul. Molly—my own private response to Molly—could tell me much about myself. But close to her there in the room, it was difficult to decide whether she was Rose in another guise or a seraph bringing light.
During those years, I thought often of gender differences. “Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?” Virginia Woolf had asked half a century earlier. But at West Point, we were bent on sameness. The defiant male chorus demanded it, mocking the women when they fell short on push ups, or when they failed in some way to measure up to the old dispensations. Yet Molly Goodbody wouldn’t be mocked. She wouldn’t give in.
Her back was still to me as the late afternoon sun, streaming through the windows, illuminated her. We had not worked our way to the source of her frustration. So I reached back to adjust the blind. I wanted to take off the bars, uncage her if I could.
“Molly, what about your paper? You making any progress?”
“Well, sir, not as much as you expect, but I’ve narrowed the topic a bit. I’ve been thinking about doing something called ‘Floors, Doors, and Ceilings: An Examination of Sexual Spaces from Salinger to Hawkes.” She paused long enough to smirk, and then continued playfully. “But you’ll probably crucify me if I go off on another flight of fancy. So I’ll probably stick with Lady Chatterley and try to figure out what Lawrence is talking about.”
She had already written about Mailer’s American Dream, trying to find out what Mailer knew about women and about men and women together. Now, she was turning back in time to Lawrence.
“I’m not sure if Mellors has any more balls than Clifford,” she continued, agitated again. “They’re all suffering from sex in the head. Lawrence too. What’s that tripe at the end about the crocus and “the little pentecost flame?”“
She didn’t wait for answers, didn’t really want any. She was devouring Lawrence’s words and mine, spitting them back up. Her mind was ablaze. She wanted to know what Lawrence meant by “warm-hearted fucking.” I wanted to tell her that the metaphor pointed to something so sacred that talk was a violation. But that wouldn’t satisfy her and might push her towards a kind of literalness that neither of us could afford. Talk, Lawrence knew, had obscured life’s most accessible mystery. “Warm-hearted fucking” had been taken by a whole generation as a mere physical feat. The myth in our time had lost its savour; the metaphor had become a fact. Talking to Molly about the metaphor itself posed no problem. But passing over into talk of my own experience was another matter, a violation of my obligation. And worse, she might not want it. It might undo the image she had of me—that I had fostered or that she had elicited to match some image she had in her head. I had to get to the mystery by a safer route.
“Molly, have you read William Irwin Thompson yet?”
“No, sir, I haven’t. I had to take the obstacle course this morning, and yesterday and the day before I had staff problems to solve, and the night before we had seminars. I really haven’t had time. I’m sorry, sir. I’m gonna spend the weekend working on my paper.”
“Okay. Try to get to Thompson; he might take you outside the limits of your own experience. He’s good on the relationship between the higher consciousness of language and the lower consciousness of sexuality. Think about that as you think about Connie, Mellors, and all that early talk in the novel about sex in the head. Think about submission, too. Try to understand Lawrence’s suggestion. A woman friend of mine would probably tell you that Lawrence “doesn’t mean yielding to tyranny but giving in to respect.” She would be very close, I think. That’s hard for us to understand these days, but it’s a fairly simple notion if you can set aside momentarily much of what you’ve learned and ease yourself away from the implied threat. See if you can enter the novel unencumbered, free of your cultural baggage. . . . Tough as it is, that’s your imaginative task.
“What’s a man supposed to do in this bargain?” she fired back. “Take his clue from Mailer and give her the time of her time as he strips away the layers one by one until the two of them lie there together in the spasms of the great mystery—he the agent of her salvation?”
“Not exactly. But in a way Lawrence and Mailer aren’t far apart. Violence plays a larger part in Mailer’s metaphor, though. The male warrior performs heroic feats for himself and the woman. Mailer’s man, trying to find himself, can’t always get it up.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Well, at least you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Not a bad sign on a bad day. Anyway, Mailer’s hero is always thinking about what he’s doing; he’s often outside the experience, acting out his self-appointed role as agent of salvation. Lawrence preaches tenderness in lieu of tyranny. Submission for women, tenderness for men, the two imponderables. Lawrence, like Mailer, hangs on to male authority, but for him there’s an equal authority for the woman. He calls it “hensureness.” And the male’s “cocksureness” has little to do with bullying.”
She seemed to reach for the sky, joining her palms over her head for a moment. I wondered if she had caught something in the cupped space between her hands. As she folded her arms across her chest, she began to speak in another voice.
“You know, I think bullying is the problem. That’s why I can’t quite find my way in this organization, even now. I still don’t know whether I can make it to graduation. Last night, after the banquet, I had a very strange, weird experience.”
She had been leaning against the filing cabinet, but suddenly moved away, set in motion again by the story she was about to tell. I caught a whiff of her perfume as she rustled over into the sunlight. Her blue eyes stopped dancing.
“There I was in my room and everything was laid out for today, the uniform and the boots and all that stuff, and I had this vision of myself at Fort Bragg in battle fatigues with jump wings on. I was scared. My body didn’t seem to belong in the uniform . . .didn’t belong in that place, didn’t seem to belong to me, you know what I mean? I couldn’t imagine myself jumping from airplanes, playing those roles, being there.”
Her face lost its tautness as her voice lost its edge. She moved over to the chair closest to my desk, hesitated for a moment, settled lightly into it, and turned her shining eyes upon me.
“At moments like that I don’t know what to do, sir.”
The sir was her last line of defense—her way of warding me off as she got closer. Her sir for my eagles. Fair play.
“I’ve come so far . . . too far, I think, to throw it all away. What am I supposed to do?”
“Molly, we’ve been over this a thousand times. You know that. Other things have upset you, not this much, but you’ve been here before, out of sorts with your antagonists. I really don’t think you can hope for radical change. I’ve been underground in this world for a long time, and I still like what I’m doing. I don’t want people like you to bail out and leave it to the diehards. We need responsible mavericks, people who care enough to question.”
I had often grown tired of fighting for change, but not tired enough to turn it over to people who were serving time so they could move up the corporate ladder. I liked being a safe distance from the institution I was serving, enjoyed resisting the romantic fictions many other men believed in. I thought about Santayana’s claim that “masks are arrested expressions and admirable echoes of feeling, at once faithful, discreet, and superlative.” He believed that we “define our sovereign temper” by the “visage we assume,” that one’s “deliberate character is more truly oneself than is the flux of our involuntary dreams.” I wasn’t so sure, wasn’t at all ready to “crystallize [my] soul into an idea,” but Santayana had a point about social discipline.
“Molly, you might try one other thing. Think of Bragg as a fictive world, one you can enter at will. The trick, of course will be to move in and out of that world deliberately, by an act of intellection. You need to be in charge of the switching, or at least be aware of when you’ve switched. There will be plenty for you to do at Bragg. No need to lose your soul to the corporation. You’ve got spunk and conviction. They’ll get used to you. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it. Your work will win out in the end.”
She had come momentarily to rest. Outside, the cannon broke the silence. Soon there would be another formation for the evening meal and then a bugle call for evening study period. The obligations would go on and on.
“Sir, can I come over again this weekend and bring Jim and my poems? They’re getting better.”
“I’m sure they are. But before you come over, think about staying around for graduation. What the hell, you’ve still got at least a month to make up your mind. . . . Then again, you could go ahead and resign. I’m sure the Supe would waive your military obligation, wouldn’t you think?”
She smiled. Anger and frustration hadn’t diminished her spirit.
“I hear the sounds of agony outside,” I said. “They’re coming back from the public performance. All shine and precision. Happy band of brothers they, marching home together. I guess we need to move on too. I have some reading to do for tomorrow’s classes. You know my advice about West Point anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, sir. “Make up your mind what you want to be, Goodman, and then get on with it. And, Goodman, if you decide to leave, don’t let the doorknob hit you in the ass.” Right, sir?”
“Right, Molly.” And she disappeared behind the swinging door, smiling again, back over her shoulder. Watching her, I heard Mellor’s words playing again inside my head: “Tha’s got the nicest arse of anybody. It’s the nicest, nicest woman’s arse as is!”
I knew that I had been wrestling with my soul. Through Molly I had begun to understand James Hillman’s claim about the necessary marriage between Eros and Psyche, his claim that “creative insights come at the raw and tender edge of confrontation, at the borderlines where we are most sensitive and exposed—and, curiously, most alone.” To meet Psyche, to find my soul, I had to become Eros, answering Psyche’s call for involvement, else I was destined to remain at the edge of life, apart from it, a mere spectator.
* * *
Molly graduated and rushed headlong into an Army that was unprepared for her and the others. The summer following their graduation, I was invited to dinner with five of them at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where I had been sent to teach senior officers and high ranking civilians to write more effectively. Once during the meal, the women seemed to forget that I was with them. Their talk turned to careers and babies, how they might handle the two together. They joked about what it might be like. “Hey, Herbie, your mom wears combat boots. Ninnie, ninnie, ninnie.” But they planned anyway.
By the time I saw those women in Oklahoma, some of their classmates were already married to other classmates, headed for what the Army would later call “joint domicile” assignments. Husbands and wives would be stationed within a hundred miles of each other in Germany, in Korea, in the states. Wherever. Guaranteed.
Before the summer was over, some of the women would have their assignments changed within the Field Artillery because the Army had decided—on second thought—that it would be unwise and inappropriate to assign them to certain combat-ready units such as the 82d Airborne Division. They remained separate and unequal, and it still didn’t sit well. Molly did not go to Ft. Bragg. Instead, she went to Europe where she eventually commanded a combat-ready Lance missile unit. The difference between Europe and Bragg was a matter of degree and prestige; it was also a matter of gender.
Over the years at West Point, my wife and I kept sponsoring a few students of our own choosing, providing an occasional meal or weekend haven for those needing a room for parents or space of their own to sort out problems. Eventually, I found myself greeting old friends at receptions during Parent Weekends and Graduation Ceremonies. The computer occasionally outdid itself and matched me in class with the son or daughter of old acquaintances from Arkansas or from the Army, folks I hadn’t seen for years. These chance encounters always reminded me of the passing years. No longer could I stand around at receptions joking with male colleagues about the mothers, trying to see who among us could eye the good looking one who had had the boy early and stayed stunning. Suddenly—it certainly seemed sudden—the mothers were younger, and I was looking at them from a new vantage post. And of course there were the daughters, Molly and her avatars. And the women officers on the faculty.
One afternoon when I returned to my office after classes and committee meetings, I had a letter from Molly. She had been invited by the English department to attend graduate school in preparation for an assignment to the West Point faculty. Her letter, the first I had received from her since the summer of her graduation, was a request for a recommendation. I had known about her selection and was pleased that she, along with others from her class, would be joining the faculty for a three-year assignment. They would be among the first women graduates to come back. But by the time they finished their graduate work, I would be retired, missing them altogether. It was my one regret about leaving because I wanted to see what they would bring to the classroom, what lessons they had learned that would make them effective teachers and counselors for the men and women they would get to know during those three years. Other students of mine had returned already, officers I had taught during my first assignment to the department. But I wanted to see what the women would do, how they might bring change and new insights . . .and I would miss it.
I had kept up with Molly and three other students who were in the first literature class I had taught after joining the tenured faculty. Two men were out of the Army, one a technical writer, the other a law student. Two women were still in; both had commanded units; both were on the way to graduate school; both would teach English. I had thought of them often over the years as I prepared my classes, thought about their spirited reactions and their needs. They asked more of me than any class I’ve ever taught, but they helped me find my way back into the classroom and gave me a clear sense of what I ought to try to do for my students.
During the ten years that had passed since their graduation, the women in my classes had taught me more than the men; they had kept me looking for new ways to interpret texts, pushing me as Molly had. With the men, I enjoyed an easy, playful camaraderie. When we read a story like “Araby,” I had no trouble getting them to understand the young narrator’s obsession with Mangan’s sister. They responded readily to the “soft rope of her hair” and her “brown figure” and knew instantly what the young narrator means when he tells us that his “body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” But the women in class wouldn’t give us the pleasure of an unexamined, male reaction to the text. They saw clearly that Mangan’s sister is an object of desire for the young narrator, and they often hooted at the men for not understanding how they project their own desires onto women.
Neither group had an easy time with the spiritual implications of those projections. The men and the women had trouble coming to terms with the narrator’s “confused adoration,” “the gauntlet” he was running, and the “chalice” he sought, and the hooting women often forgot their own susceptibility to adoration. Everyone resented the ending when Joyce turns the lights out on the boy’s hair, there in the very church that is Araby.
We all expect the lights of desire to burn forever, unextinguished, and knowledge of the young narrator’s “fib” amounted to self-knowledge about our own deceptions.
Those discussions always sent me back into my head, back into my imagination to examine my own life. I had begun to see myself as a happy victim, unable to deny my basic male urge, destined always to strive in some way to climb mountains and stake out new, conquerable territory. The terms of the metaphors changed, but the striving never let up. I found something both comforting and absurd about the feats I laid out for myself. The stories inside my head, the ones I concocted in order to live, began to seem more and more mythic, more and more commonplace. At bottom, they were the same stories we read and discussed every day in the classroom.
I took immodest comfort knowing that in many ways I had surpassed Virginia Woolf’s archetypal patriarch, Mr. Ramsay. I was not, as Woolf claimed Ramsay was, stuck at R, unable to evolve. I was growing accustomed to the women in my life, those in my head and the ones I encountered from day to day, and if occasionally I had to pay homage to the beauty of the earth as Mr. Ramsay finally did at Woolf’s behest, I accepted my fate charitably and more knowingly.
But Updike’s heroes, like Joyce’s, occasionally caught me up short. Still susceptible to wife-wooing and the seduction of language, I took great delight in Richard Maples, one of Updike’s luckless heroes. Richard the modern-day hunter, reduced to wrestling meat “warm from the raw hands of the hamburger girl in the diner a mile away” comes home a mere errand boy. Wife and children form a crescent around the fire, eat their meals oblivious to Richard’s thoughts about just rewards and the “parallel whiteness” of his wife’s thighs exposed to the fire. Drunk on desire, Richard conjures Joyce from “a deep Dublin den.” Seductive sounds. “Smacked smackwarm on her smackable warm woman’s thigh. . . . Seven years since I wed wide warm woman, white-thighed. Wooed and wed. Wife.” She hears nothing. All in Richard’s head. Later, tired, in bed, reading, she falls asleep over Nixon and Alger Hiss. Betrayed, Richard skulks in the dark, lost in anger and desire and rejection. The women in class always liked this story; the men joined me in self-defense as we toyed with plausible coverups about effort and reward.
I liked to get them all going about Sir Gawain. They always seemed to want to read the poem literally. Never could understand, without coaxing, that Gawain might have been traveling across psychic terrain as he made his way to the Green Giant’s castle, that the lady who came to his chamber was as much apart of his psyche as say Molly’s independence had been a part of hers. They had trouble with the Medieval Fair; the castle and the hunt and the green girdle, the fair of discovery, of temptation, of seduction, of honor, and of trespassing. It was fun to try to get them to see that the girdle was not a badge of shame; it was a confirmation of Gawain’s humanity, a reminder of his complex personality. The woman was there to tempt him, to temper his idealistic heroism, to bring him down to the level of his own humanity. Perhaps she had been there in his head all along waiting for him to discover her.
My reading of Gawain put them at odds with their preconceived notions about themselves, made them think about the morality of betrayal, the benefits of failure, the transforming, healing significance of imagination. The poem gave them a new way to think of their relationships with each other. I always thought of Molly.
Her letter had put me in a good mood that day, and when Ann called asking what time I’d be home, I was pleased that her day of teaching had gone well. She was ready to turn her positive energy toward projects at home, and I could sense where my evening would be spent even before I knew exactly what she had on her mind. I told her that I had gotten a letter from Molly.
“What does she need?” Ann asked.
I explained that Molly would be coming back from Germany and needed a letter for graduate school. Ann knew that we would be gone before Molly and others from her class returned from school, and she, too, was sorry. But we had to move on with our lives, and at that moment Ann had other things on her mind. “I was wondering if you’d frame Theseus tonight?”
She had wanted me to frame the print for a long time, but I had kept dragging my feet. It looked fine to me laminated, without a frame, but she kept insisting. When asked why, she just smiled.
I liked Theseus unframed, standing there dominating the foreground, even dominating the Minotaur. He seems to be musing about where to go, how to get out of the labyrinth the artist so cleverly raises in relief from the ground of the painting, giving the myth just the right emphasis. She locks Theseus dead center in that maze. And so he stands there caged, awaiting an answer, thinking perhaps that it will come from some secret messenger.
Theseus seems to have forgotten momentarily that he has a way out of the maze. Ariadne has already saved him, if only he could remember, if only he could remember to follow the thread of his own imagination. She would set him free.
“Why don’t we talk about Theseus when I get home, Ann. I was thinking about working on tomorrow’s lecture, but I could be talked into something else if you feel like fooling around a little bit.”
“Why don’t we go for a ride? See you later.”
As I rode down the elevator, I settled against the brass rail, exhausted and happy. Teaching had become more and more satisfying over the years. I liked being tempted and tempered as students pushed me to find new explanations, new possibilities. I delighted in trying to prepare them to be good Army officers, but I liked most the way they made me confront my own foibles and inconsistencies, the way they made me face myself to find answers for them. They kept my imagination working at a fever pitch.
I left the elevator on the F-level, deep down in the building, and walked out into the fading afternoon light. The breeze off the river stirred my spirit as I sank into the MG and headed for home, shooting up the hill, through the tunnel, out into the open air. For a moment, just for a fleeting moment, I imagined myself transfigured, soaring free.
I thought again of Molly and the others, wondering whether they would have to wait, as I had, another 15 or 20 years, for such moments of their own.