The Sense of the Past (A Lesson from the Master)
Allen Stein

The Sense of the Past (A Lesson from the Master)

One night, some months back, I had a dream in which I stood and watched myself as I was more than fifty years ago, sitting on a park bench in New York and reading a book while nibbling indifferently at a sandwich. My younger self seemed aware of my presence but not about to look up until he finished the passage in which he’d immersed himself. It was the summer of 1964. I was on lunch break from a dreary summer job, eager to start college that fall, and the bench was in Bryant Park, behind the grand library.

That image of myself as I’d been recurred in my dreams for weeks and lingered through my waking hours. Even as I was teaching my classes, it would appear before me, sometimes making me pause for a long moment as my students wondered, I suppose, whether I was having a brilliant insight or merely a stroke. I began suspecting that my younger self of that long-past summer was somehow still there, expecting me. And so, at last, I tried to discover if that was indeed the case. What I found was, I think, educative. Perhaps you’ll agree. As one of Raymond Carver’s most appealing characters said (I’m sure you’ll recall), “Learning never ends.”

By the way, this Pinot Noir is nice, isn’t it? Especially on the department’s dime. I’ll order us another bottle before I go on, if you don’t mind. This whole evening has been most pleasant so far. It’s intriguing to hear a young fellow like you talk about the “arc” that you anticipate your career taking. When I myself began, so long ago, I was naïve enough to care only for reading, for talking to my students about what we’d read, and, occasionally, for writing a little piece about something that particularly interested me. Thoughts of the “arc” of my career never occurred to me. This made ultimately for a rather flat trajectory, I confess.

You know, to be candid, it’s not often lately that the department asks me to take a prospective hire to dinner. When our Head and the search committee think about who might make the best impression, who might advertise most “impactfully,” as they say, what the university administrators love to call our “brand,” a fusty septuagenarian such as I doesn’t come naturally to mind. I’ll share a private thought with you: I think our Head wishes fervently that I’d retire or die. He could bring in a new tenure-track candidate like you and an inexpensive adjunct beside for what they pay me, and committee meetings would no longer be jarred by my little snipes at colleagues whose “research” shows that they know more and more about less and less.

Ah, here we are. Let’s hope this new bottle is every bit as nice as the first. Have another swallow, won’t you? No? Well, that just leaves that much more for me, doesn’t it? How fortunate! With each passing moment I’m less disappointed that my colleagues had to cancel at the last, though the search committee would, I’m sure, be horrified to know that I have you here to myself. They’re a nice enough sort, I suppose, the pair who begged off. He’s in something called “Digital Humanities.” She’s in “Theory.” Both of them, then, are engaged in an endless deferral of the moment when they will actually have to read a story or poem. True of the profession generally, wouldn’t you agree?

That’s all right, you don’t have to answer. I understand. You needn’t worry, though. I’ll report only that I’m confident you’ll fit in seamlessly and that your research will advance our university’s brand admirably. Even though I didn’t come to your presentation today, I’m sure it was all I might have expected. Your subject was what? Oh, yes, “The Male Gaze in Wharton’s Novels.” And your argument was what? Ah, yes, essentially that Wharton’s men look at the ladies closely and appraisingly, often imagining them as objects of sexual gratification. Who would have guessed? Forgive me, I’m just having a bit of fun. I’ve no doubt the talk was well-received. Pity I didn’t make it.

Well, then, just another sip and back to the story of my search for my younger self, whom I’ve left reading on a bench in Bryant Park. It’s a story you, my future colleague (as I hope you are), will be the first to hear. I’ve kept it to myself, but something tonight—perhaps merely the wine, perhaps not—prompts me to share it with you. Ah, I saw you peek at your watch while pretending to scratch your wrist casually—you remind me of my students glancing surreptitiously at their “electronic devices.” No offense intended, or taken, I hope. But if you find my little narrative a bit of a bore, like its teller perhaps, you can get up and leave me to this Pinot Noir. No, it’s all right, I’m teasing, of course. I know you won’t walk out on me.

It occurs to me that my tale is somewhat reminiscent of “The Jolly Corner.” You remember Henry James’s story, of course? No? What a shame. But I know you’ve been busy studying Wharton’s male gazers. Well, then, James, “The Master” as writers of his day called him, tells of Spencer Brydon, who in late middle age seeks the self he would have been had he chosen a different life. He literally finds his alternative self, is horrified by that self’s repulsiveness, and faints dead away, only to wake up assuring himself that he could never have had it in him to be the hideous fellow he saw. The reader might disagree.

Unlike Brydon, of course, I wasn’t looking to meet an alternative version of myself—the version I’d lived seemed perfectly satisfactory, thank you. I was simply committed to contacting my much younger self, walking up to him as he sat there, book in hand, in the summer of 1964. And I couldn’t really say why, except that I thought he might want me to. And there was no one to speak to about any of this. I have no contact with either of my ex-wives, and my son—my only child—has distanced himself from me ever since I left his mother for the grad student who became my second wife for a time. The few colleagues I was at all close to have retired and moved off, or are in the ground, or simply have proved disappointments to me. I suppose I’ve typically held myself aloof from people, more or less—more rather than less. Few people are as interesting to contemplate as the great works, don’t you think? Again, you needn’t answer. But facts are facts.

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Allen Stein

is Professor Emeritus of English at North Carolina State University. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Hudson Review, Poet Lore, Salmagundi, Southern Poetry Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among other journals. He is the author of two poetry collections, Your Funeral is Very Important to Us (Main Street Rag) and Unsettled Subjects: New Poems on Classic American Literature (Broadstone).