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Black Lamb


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Sic transit horror mundi

June 1st, 2003


Eventually, it deteriorated into an unfriendly competition, of which she was completely unaware. It had begun friendly enough, I suppose. She was an English literature major, and I was majoring in music. I would cap her quotes, and she would cite diconsolatereadermusical excerpts from compositions I’d never heard. In this way we marked our intellectual territories. It was thrilling to pit brain against brain, and for some time I fooled myself into thinking it was an innocent, and academically sanctioned, endeavor. We packed our dormitory rooms, and later our little cottage, with all the intelligentsia we could entice to join us for evenings of verbal games. She believed we were entertaining in a most gracious manner. For me, it decayed into a sordid competition against each guest, and most especially against her. Through twenty-nine years of marriage I never let up. But I failed to win, and that failure became no small part of my social aberrance.

While my imprisonment revolves around many factors, in the “influential books” context it was my inability to read one great American novel, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that punctured my fantasy of self-aggrandizement and left my pride severely wounded.

The shift from competition as entertainment to an unhealthy obsession came when I realized she, as well as our brilliant guests, were, well, brilliant, an appellation I did not deserve. Over time they received many of the academic accolades reserved for the truly gifted: Summa cum laude, Arête Society, Danforth Fellow, Fulbright Scholar, Rhodes Scholar. I did not. I slowly realized there was depth to these people. They knew more than just two things about their chosen disciplines. Not only that, many were musically talented as well; they played piano, organ, guitar, solo instruments; they composed music, performed music, and all better than I could manage — yet I was the music major.

I determined to show them. I would read this great novel of white tenant farmers during the Great Depression. And I would speak eloquently about it. If I could only borrow enough time to “schlag” through it, I would surprise and amaze them all by my perseverance and dedication to their discipline. I would quote from Sirach 44:50, from which the book’s title was borrowed, and I would delight them with grand rhetoric and persuasive oratory concerning the plight of the poor during the Great Depression. I would learn that history. I would analyze Agee’s style and literary forms. I would be ferocious in my pursuit of this knowledge. I could be as good as they were. I’d show them. I was desperate.

To that end, I neglected my music studies while I pursued with a vengeance things literary. It would prove to be of no use. Try as I might, I could not manage Agee’s dreary book. Even the deceptively simple photographs by Walker Evans left me puzzled, trying to comprehend a culture that was undeniably pathetic. I had clearly overreached my depth. It seems the book, like Poe’s tell-tale heart, was beating against me. I managed to keep abreast of the upcoming disaster by commandeering conversations and using the full force of my charisma and stage presence to steer all conversation to me, my pursuits, my knowledge base.
Underneath that brash exterior, I had become the man in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…

But there was no happy, redeeming couplet at the end.

I can only guess that Agee had irony in mind when he borrowed his title from Ben Sirach. The personal irony is that for all I had wished to be, I am become a horror: not famous, but infamous, ignominious, someone discreetly forgotten — much like Jeshua son of Jozadak (Sirach 49:12), who was, as everyone knows, one of the “famous men.”

I have negotiated with Agee for twenty-nine years; each year I make a solemn effort to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is as far beyond me as my estranged wife. Perhaps now that she and I are separate I can approach Agee with a new and healthy purpose, and in my elder years lay this spirit of discontent to rest. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Suess | Link to this Entry


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