Proustian texture in a 25th Reunion book.
In my own case, I think I had the usual marvelous time at Harvard: that is, a sequence of intermittent depressions, often unrecognized (save for those that coincided with the Cambridge winter), broken now and then by periods of great spiritual exaltation or sexual overexcitement, depending on one's point of view.
I didn't take any intelligent or demanding courses (or mighty few of them), which was dumb of me. But I worked hard at writing, especially if it was extracurricular, which I guess was a good idea, though sometimes it strikes me as too bad that I now need a subscription to Scientific American to understand how the other half lives.
I did some single-sculling, though not as much as I like to remember.
I saw a lot of movies. And had any number of intense relationships, that were intense mostly, I think, because, as a result of not taking any intelligent or demanding courses, one could stay up so late and talk so strenuously that the other person, male or female, eventually took on a soulful and appealing look, probably bordering on the catatonic. I also had a number of poetic thoughts about single-sculling, about myself single-sculling, or rather about a character like myself single-sculling (possibly in escape from a doomed, intense relationship), which I filed away in my head for use in a forthcoming novel.
In short, I suspect I had the kind of college "experience" that I now rant about to my children when they, having cleverly attained puberty along with their first molars, now threaten having similar experiences during their all-important high school years. "How can you waste your all-important high school years lathering around about relationships!" I storm, Polonius dressed as King Lear, brandishing an unbalanced checkbook. "I'm not paying the bloody bills to have you bloody find yourself!" And so forth.
But underneath these memories of youth or young manhood, which are always the easiest memories to come by--that is, the easiest literary memories to come by (for who is so displeased with him- or herself at 20 that he or she won't be happy to tell anyone who will listen about it 15 years later?), there lies another level of recollection: hazier, more mist here, less lyricism, less control over one's past self.
The figure single-sculling was sculling in a dream. But what dream was it?
I think that 25 years ago we undergraduates moved in a variety of dreams, but there were two in particular. The first one had to do with war, or rather with the aftermath of World War II.
For when I first arrived at college, the signs and traces of this mighty war to end all wars were still all around us. Veterans everywhere! Professors and students returning to pick up careers that had been interrupted by service in Europe or in the Pacific: the men from the Pacific theater sometimes still had that yellow pallor that came from taking atabrine, an early anti-malarial drug. A boy down the hall from me in Weld had escaped with his mother from the Warsaw ghetto. That fall the indoor gym for a while was filled with cots to acommodate the sudden influx of returning soldiers--occupation troops from Europe or MacArthur's command.
It was what was called the "postwar period." Everyone was back to work: to being serious or else relentlessly unserious. The newspaper headlines sometimes spoke ominously of distant matters--the H-Bomb, Berlin, Soviet takeovers in Eastern Europe--and the point was not that these matters were ignored, for on the whole they weren't, but that so many of us were plugged into a collective act of will that asserted that everything before the war had been old and that everything after the war would be new.
One of the dreams the single-sculler sculled in, oars dipping in the gentle gray-watered Thames, was the dream of a New Age. Flowers out of the rubble! The rebuilding of Europe! The resurgence of major league baseball! A generation (at least!) of peace in which to enjoy the fruits of our national good fortune! Some of us certainly worried about larger concerns, notably the menace of atomic war--the worriers coming late to their worries for media puberty was more retarded then. To worry was to be grown up; presumably, if one had been too young for fighting the good fight, one could now make up for it by worry or concern, and the more international the better, for this was an international-minded era. But worry was one thing, protest another. There was mightly little protest, neither by me, nor by any of my friends, nor (as far as one could tell) by anyone else in the country. And I think the reason was simply this: we had our watches wrong, we were mistaken as to time. We were not part of the dawn of a New Era but were the long, and I suspect often deadly, trail-out of the Old Era. We were of the prewar world, notwithstanding the giant, murderous orgasm of the war, itself terminating in the A-bombs over Japan--an apparent note of finality, of something finished! But it was only coitus interruptus and I don't think many of us knew it. There was Korea, while we were still in college. The H-Bomb. Always Berlin: facing down the Russkies--who, with Stalin as Dreamer-in-Chief, were surely well-caught in their own ghastly dream. Our dream led right into the '60s, helped create the '60s, created or helped create the shell through which the blacks and chicanos and antiwar protesters had to break--in fact, still have to break: an eggshell dream.
I mentioned two dreams. The second was sweeter in some ways, and not our fault (as the first dream was not our fault either) though the fact of living in any dream ususally, in the end, makes what we have of life too difficult to bear. The second dream was sex: that is, especially the entwinement of sex with marriage.
This is not to speak out against sex in marriage but suggest that one of the oddities of our era was its strange, willful, almost childlike insistence on the eroticismof marriage.
There were sexual dabblings outside or before marriage, of course. Adventures. But the point was marriage, not really for the marriage but for the sex.
I remember going with a friend of mine, both of us sophomores, nineteen, to dinner with a mutual acquaintance, himself a junior, but 23 years old, married, a veteran. He and his wife and newborn child lived in a small apartment off Central Square, below street level. There was children's wash hanging in the living room, which was moved for the occasion to the kitchen. Some old furniture. School books. Our host served wine from a huge dusty jug, itself an idiosyncratic and mature thing to be doing in those days. We had dinner, some sort of casserole. Talk. More wine. We listened to our host's Dixieland records. His wife tended the baby, smoked cigarettes, sometimes laughed, looked tall amd tired. All I could think of was: he and she will be sleeping together tonight, in the same bed, touching, panting, writhing...sex! Our host's good fortune seemed beyond bounds. The baby's cries seemed hardly noticeable, at least no more so than the trolley cars which clanged above our heads, outside. Close to midnight, by which time our host and we had drunk silly quantities of wine, his wife appeared in the doorway of what must have been the bedroom, wearing an old flannel bathrobe. "Are you coming to bed soon?" she asked. Her husband shrugged himself out of his chair, his shirt hanging loosely from his trousers, purple stains of zinfandel on all three of us. My friend and I went reluctantly to the door, shook hands, climbed the stairs to the street and started down the sidewalk. After a moment my friend spoke. "Do you think they're doing it now?" he said. "You bet," I said, or something to that effect. I was vaguely reassured that he had had the same general response as I, and vowed that when I got married, which I prayed might be very soon (though on the face of things it was unlikely), I would get us an apartment at least on street level, and perhaps closer to Paris than Central Square.
It seems strange now, from the vantage-point of the Pill amd of the "sexual revolution" and also of all the human distress that has accompanied the present era of family breakups, to look back on this other dream of marital eroticism. Such a daring dream, really, or at any rate one of great challenge--or foolishness. To dream that we were back with Dorothy in Kansas when in fact we were watching Mick Jagger get his first guitar; when Kansas itself was already changing, subtly, beneath the surface; when in fact everything was changing, getting ready to change, bursting forward, and only we, the well-meaning inheritors of our time-cube, now joined with our parents--parents always coalescing with parents, another divine joke--were holding things back.
I'm not sure that anyone has done any better, which I suspect is what people always say, sometimes with a sly glance in the direction of the Almighty. But it would be interesting to know what dreams enfold the present occupants, the new men and women: the scullers now sculling on the river, down by the traffic.
Michael Arlen '52 lives in New York.