Sunday, May 8, 2016

Resurrection: A Fable

A train trundled into Grand Central, and Professor Alfred Smithson raced to finish the page he was reading. Today’s reading was the Maude translation of Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief:
To avoid falling into human illusions we must think not of the physical but the spiritual life. If a man understands that life consists solely in now being in the Father’s will, neither privations, nor sufferings, nor death, can seem dreadful to him. Only that man receives true life who is ready at every moment to give up his physical life in order to fulfill the Father’s will. And that everyone may understand that true life is that in which there is no death, Jesus said: Eternal life should not be understood as being like the present life. For true life in the will of the Father there is neither space nor time…
The train lurched and stopped; Alfred closed his book and stuck it into his jacket. It was a little volume, just narrow enough to fit into the breast pocket. Tolstoy passed out of his mind in the scuffle: he got off the train, walked through the crowded concourse to the IRT shuttle, and changed at Times Square for the uptown 1. He spent the ride up to 116th street staring blankly at the man sitting across from him.

Alfred was a professor of German at Amherst College, which he hardly ever left. But this week, it had turned out that an uncle of his had left a thousand dollars in his will to Columbia University, and as the late uncle’s closest living relative, he had been asked to make a speech in his honor on the steps of the just-built South Hall.

It had been a long two days. Alfred left Amherst early on Friday morning, taking a bag of lunch from his wife, who was going to Boston herself for the weekend to visit her dying mother. It was always a relief to be gone from her. Their marriage had been long and infertile; but intact, for each party was kept from adultery by a combination of sloth and ugliness. He stayed in New Haven for the night with his brother, who was also a German professor (not, to his shame, at Yale, but at New Haven University) and took the train down to New York in the morning.

Alfred arrived at Columbia, and he found himself standing under a little canvas tent, drinking sugary wine and eating cheese and crackers off a china plate. He found the two people he knew—professors Lawrence and Braunschweig, both Nibelungenlied specialists—and cleaved to them next to the tea table. He couldn’t follow their conversation—it was about Middle-German textual criticism—and he could sense that both of these learned men held him in contempt. In fact, they had chosen their conversational topic in an unconscious attempt to humiliate Alfred. But the world is just: unknown to Alfred, neither of these professors was taken seriously at all when they went to conferences in their own field.

After fifteen minutes or so, the president of the college clapped his hands to silence the tiny crowd, then invited them cordially to start making your way, please, to the Hall, it’s almost time for the speech to begin. They obeyed, and the group of twenty-or-so aging men were soon sitting on metal chairs under the hot sun. The president made some remarks, had his photograph taken for the university newsletter, and then invited Alfred to speak.

Alfred got up, and began to read from a piece of paper on which he’d typed about three paragraphs about his uncle and the importance of scholarship to a healthy society. He explained to the crowd why his uncle, despite having spent his life in Pittsburgh in the silverware industry, always remembered fondly his years as an undergraduate at Colombia. But the audience never got to hear why scholarship was important, because Alfred was shot by an insane man from the street before he got to that part of the speech.

He felt no pain at first, only a sickly wave of heat. He backed up from the lectern, making for a small wooden seat behind him. He was too dizzy to get there, though, and with a whimper fell to his knees, then onto his back. 

The paramedics who arrived pronounced him dead on the spot. Soon after, someone pulled the bloodspattered Gospel in Brief out of his jacket. It was a thin blue volume, containing only a few selections from the gospels and a little commentary by Tolstoy. The bullet had gone right through it.

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