By a Friend.
CHAPTER 1: PROTO-PROFESSOR.
A story is told of Prof. Wenzell’s early days at Duck Hollow University;—and when I say that it is told, I mean that I seem to recall having heard it somewhere, perhaps years ago, but of course the details may have become clouded with the passage of time and sherry. But here is the story.
At that time, Prof. Wenzell had only just arrived, either the day or the year before (that is one of those clouded details, you see), and he had not yet achieved the reputation which his later work would one day thrust upon him. It would not be saying too much, or putting the case too strongly, to say that he was a relative unknown in the field he later came to dominate so dominantly. So much so, indeed, that one day he had forgotten the key to the office he shared with another faculty member (and although it seems impossible to imagine a time when Prof. Wenzell was considered so unimportant that he shared an office with another faculty member, yet we are assured that there was a time when he was even more unimportant than that): and for that reason he asked the custodian, who was known to possess a pass key to all the faculty offices, to open the door for him; whereupon the custodian looked him directly in the eye, and, without any sign of irony whatsoever, asked him, “Who are you?”
Astonishing and unlikely as this anecdote seems to us today, I have chosen to begin with it because it illustrates (whether it is strictly true or not) the obscurity from which our subject rose. The depths at the beginning of our story make the heights at the end all the more dizzying; for height, after all, is a relative measurement, as Prof. Wenzell himself so conclusively demonstrated when he utterly demolished the notion of “sea level.”
We begin, therefore, at the beginning of the story; or, rather, a little before the beginning, with the necessary preliminary information regarding Prof. Wenzell’s ancestry. His mother was a part-time state senator of good Anglo-Iberian stock, and his father was the only banjolele player in the Coral Sands Hotel Mandolin Orchestra. They rarely saw each other, and still more seldom their son; so that young Rutherford was reared mostly by a pack of half-domesticated wolves living in the back yard of the family home in Stanton Heights. The wolves taught him basic arithmetic and read him bedtime stories from the Critique of Pure Reason, and indeed I recall very clearly what a surprise, one might almost say a shock, it was to Prof. Rutherford to discover, during the course of a lecture to a freshman philosophy class, that hardly a one of his students had been acquainted with Kant before junior high school at the earliest.
As soon as young Rutherford learned to read, he devoured with eager relish the only books in the house, which were the instruction manuals for the various kitchen appliances. Their influence on his own style has been incalculable. They were kept in a drawer next to the refrigerator; and, for the rest of his life, whenever our subject saw a refrigerator, he immediately felt an overwhelming desire to read a book. Many of us among his acquaintances believed that this unusual mental association accounted for his almost emaciated appearance later in life. Often he would walk into the faculty lounge intending to retrieve his lunch, only to come running out again at a gallop in the direction of the library. There were whole weeks, nay months, when the same lunch bag sat in the refrigerator; and at the end of that time, of course, the food was hardly fit for consumption. It was generally at about that stage that Prof. Wenzell consumed it.
I have been told that Prof. Wenzell never set foot in a school until the day he arrived at Duck Hollow University to assume his professorship. But I have also been told that he was homecoming king and the star quarterback on his high-school football team. I have been told both these things at different times by Prof. Wenzell himself, so you see that I do not know which one to believe. I regard it as a matter for further research. But I have not done the research yet, and experience has taught me to expect that I shall probably never do the research.
Something ought to be said of the early romantic life of our subject, since such formative experiences often have a great effect on one’s thoughts and notions of the way the world is constituted. Something ought to be said, but it will not be said by me. Prof. Wenzell was a very private man when it came to the subject of his,—well, of his private life. When I knew him at the university, there were of course always rumors that one heard and dismissed. I do recall that once, arriving slightly early for a meeting in his office, I saw three attractive young women emerging from his door, each dressed as a chimney sweep and carrying a copy of Kalkbrenner’s Reflections on the Theaetetus of Plato. I assumed there was some perfectly ordinary explanation for their presence and appearance, and for the cricket bats and bits of broken pottery that were strewn about the floor of the professor’s office, and therefore did not bother him with trivial and superfluous questions. At any rate, a man may have his private peccadilloes without being called to account for them every moment of the day. I myself am immoderately fond of apricots.
The rest of the story of young Rutherford Wenzell cannot be told in a connected fashion, but only as a series of images or vignettes. Though he seldom spoke of his early life per se, Prof. Wenzell allowed little flashes of it to leak out in conversation once in a while. Thus we are able to say with some certainty that he knew want and deprivation: for I recall his telling a group of students on the grand staircase in Wheedle Hall (I cannot remember what brought the subject up), “When I was your age, we didn’t have fripperies like stairs. When we wanted to go upstairs, we had to wait for the elevator.” This indicates a youth of poverty, since it is well known that stairs were in use among the well-to-do more than a generation before Prof. Wenzell was born. Again, when the Acting Professor of Nineteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic Literature (who at the time was the youngest member of the faculty) complained that her feet were aching from a long walk across town, Prof. Wenzell replied, “I couldn’t afford feet when I was your age,” which speaks for itself.
Some critics have detected hints of a hidden sorrow in Prof. Wenzell’s work, and in their speculations have invented tales of early losses or romantic disappointments. They may well be correct, but I should like to ask them how they have detected this sorrow if it is hidden. I say that there are enough sorrows in the world to account for any taint of sadness in anyone’s writings: there is war, and disease, and asphalt, and artificial sweetener, and pitch correction, and television. What need have we, then, to turn over the dead sod of a man’s past life to find the root of a present melancholy? I have no recollection of the professor’s having mentioned anything about a secret sorrow himself, except once, when he told me, “I always weep when I see a dinette set, and nothing will console me for hours”; but what, after all, is there in that? Who has not felt the same?
On the whole, it seems useless to speculate any more on the unknown and unknowable youth of our subject. We may find fodder for infinite speculation in some of his quirks and eccentricities; but perhaps, after all, if a man runs screaming from the room whenever he sees a single sprig of celery, it may mean nothing more than that the man does not like celery. It is time, therefore, to leave the youth behind, and to face the man fully formed; it is time to meet the professor who astonished the world with his first work at the tender age of thirty-eight. It is time, in other words, to begin another chapter.