The life you save may be your own
Charlie Ducey | Monday, October 5, 2015
I’m a big fan of browsing shelves. I do this all the time, compulsively. I’ll enter an office, lounge or dorm room, and before I know it, I’m scanning the bookcases in the room. A novel by Vonnegut, a pre-calc practice book, a copy of the Ignatius Bible. You can inform yourself about a person fairly well by knowing what titles that person keeps on the shelves.
Another variant of this compulsion is just the plain old “wandering of the stacks.” The added feature here is that every now and then you actually slide a volume from the shelf and take a look inside. I did that today on Hesburgh’s fourth floor (PR-PZ Languages and Literatures) in preparation for this column. Boy, was it informative.
But informative in a very unexpected way. In stack wandering and shelf browsing, serendipity is the name of the game.
I had never heard of Amanda Cross, much less read any of her dozen books. But I was intrigued by the title “Death in a Tenured Position.” It sounded serious and foreboding but also clever. It can be hard to come across both seriousness and cleverness married in a single volume. Books tend to either dryly discuss important issues or lavishly boast about their own ingenuity.
The first pages of “Death in a Tenured Position” fell into neither of the above extremes. This Amanda Cross, whoever she was, was a talented yet unpretentious writer. The novel opens with the (fictional) letters of several male academics searching for a new female professor so that their university will receive special funding. This token woman is professor Kate Fansler, the protagonist of the book.
From what little I’ve read, I understand Fansler’s character to be insightful, pragmatic and oppressed. Consider this pearl of wisdom from page six: “Odd, Kate thought, the years it took to learn one simple fact: that the prize just ahead, the next job, publication, love affair, marriage always seemed to hold the key to satisfaction but never, in the longer run, sufficed.” She is a character who acknowledges the sources of her own dissatisfaction and wishes to “move the world, however slightly, in the direction of humaneness.”
As Wikipedia informs me, this mysterious writer was not unlike her novel’s protagonist. Amanda Cross, however, is just a pen name for Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, who, like the fictional Fansler, was a “professor of literature at one of New York’s largest and most prestigious universities,” namely, Columbia University. Indeed, she was the first tenured female professor in its literature department.
Heilbrun was an accomplished woman, but at the age of 77, on a routine walk with her fellow academic Mary Ann Caws, she said, “I feel sad.” When asked why, she responded, “The universe.” The next day she was discovered in her apartment with a plastic bag over her lifeless head.
Heilbrun wrote in a book of hers decades prior that she would prefer to die at 70, knowing that “there is no joy in life past this point, only to experience the miserable endgame.” With a note beside her body that read “The journey is over. Love to all,” Heilbrun joined a sad list of writers to die from suicide, among them David Foster Wallace, the Hemingway brothers (Ernest and Leicester) and her feminists-at-arms Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.
Maybe Heilbrun felt a sorrow similar to that of her novel’s protagonist: The sense that nothing would suffice; that oppression, in this case the oppression of aging and senescence, would gradually inflict its terrible decay unabatedly. She thought that choosing one’s death was a right all people should have. Yet in her chosen demise, I see the unachieved possibility of another great 20th century female writer, the southern Catholic Flannery O’Connor, whose story title “The Live You Save May Be Your Own” I have borrowed for this column. Of course, O’Connor would eschew such classifications, preferring to be known not as a Catholic writer or a female writer but just a writer, thank you.
Unlike Heilbrun, O’Connor died young. She suffered from a debilitating lupus disease that ran in her family. Had she lived to Heilbrun’s 77, I doubt self-chosen escape would have even crossed her mind. Heilbrun certainly had her reasons for fleeing the dilapidation of old age, “the miserable endgame,” as she called it. But the consequences for her husband, at the time still living, for her children and what writing she might have had left, seem a heavy price to pay for self-determination.
Heilbrun’s end reminds me of another book I once perused while wandering the shelves. It was a short story collection by Vonnegut, “Welcome to the Monkey House,” which described a futuristic world in which the elderly are encouraged to choose euthanasia to stabilize the planet’s rising human population. The issue of suicide, whether out of autonomy or desperation, is a tough one. Last week’s display of discarded backpacks on South Quad, part of a suicide awareness imitative, is one way to confront it. I just happened across it wandering the shelves, where you can never be quite sure of what you will find.
Charlie Ducey is a senior studying the languages of G. K. Chesterton (English) and Edith Stein (German). Please contact him with questions, comments, complaints, appraisals, invitations, prognostications and prestidigitations at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.