The Question

Anybody who supposes himself wise is already demonstrating the reverse. Therefore the cleverest, most beneficial advice must always come disguised as something else. Because who can ever really believe that he knows better? I didn’t even recognize the best advice I ever got for what it was until many years after it was given to me, and I don’t flatter myself that I get it, even yet.

In the mists of antiquity I embarked on what would prove to be a mortifyingly checkered academic career at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was a very idealistic, very deluded kid. Ambitious, too. There was no such thing as Indiana Jones in those days but had there been, he is exactly what I would have told you I aspired to become. Conversant in all mysteries, all languages, all books; a chameleon who would crisscross the vintage-looking globe in animated arrows, long and flowing. I would be as easy and elegant in a Moroccan dive bar as in a lecture hall, expounding on Greek antiquities, or giving evidence at a Congressional hearing.

At St. John’s on Mondays and Thursdays a bell would ring at 8 p.m., calling the faithful to seminar. I had no idea what preciousness even was, and so would not yet have dreamed of characterizing the many British conventions of St. John’s in that way. Two tutors, a junior one and a senior one, would preside over this ceremony. We were to address one another as “Mr.” and “Miss,” a formality many of us enjoyed, sometimes mockingly but more often in secret earnestness, desperate as we really were for any kind of order, for signs of respect and comity. For love of the civilization that had really brought us into those well-appointed rooms in the first place.

One tutor would open the proceedings by proposing a question on the reading assigned for that meeting. And then the two-hour conversation would begin: very young kids exchanging their views on Aeschylus or Aristotle. A bizarre idea, on the face of it. And, on reflection, a very generous one. It takes a patient adult to agree to discuss Plato (not just give a lecture, but really talk) with a passel of pups still wet behind the ears.

So maybe twenty teenagers, some of whom (I leave you to guess which) were extremely voluble, and some very, very quiet. Some crazy smart, and some far less so. There was one who would invariably attempt to shoehorn Sigmund Freud into every exchange, to the eventual eye-rolling misery of all. Only imagine the dread in which we all trudged through the cold blue-and-gold brilliance of a Santa Fe evening to discuss Sophocles with this character! We planned to ask him (but never did), “Mr. Rosenstein, have you read this book?”

But I shan’t deny that the pleasures of literary discovery, like all other pleasures, are sweeter shared, even against that anarchic backdrop. We smoked a lot of weak pot and listened to Before And After Science as it snowed in a silence unimaginable to a kid from the LBC, silence so deep and plentiful, nourishing. It’s very beautiful in Santa Fe. Very often, people would gather on some balcony or hill specifically to watch the sun set. The sunset was a topic routinely discussed over dinner, as one would the traffic, or a football game.

There was all this reading to do.

Anyway, at the end of this wild episode, which took place in an atmosphere of permissiveness with respect to sex and drugs that would be incomprehensible to the undergraduate of today, I knew that I would have to seek fulfillment elsewhere, that a career the academy was not for me, for reasons too complicated to enter into here. But I loved reading ancient Greek literature, especially Euclid, whose clarity and method would remain an ideal all my life, and Plato. I am still something of a Platonist. The sense of mystery, beauty and faith at the source of Plato made itself felt to me even as a kid, and never left.

Which brings me to the advice I was after telling you about earlier.

At the end of the year even freshmen were to write a paper addressing the year’s coursework, again in the English fashion. My hubris was such that I took on Plato’s Phaedo. This is the dialogue about the death of Socrates, about the soul’s immortality and so on. I can’t remember what kind of hopeless nonsense I spouted, though I do remember that I chose as an epigraph the Thurber cartoon, “Well, I’m Disenchanted, Too. We’re All Disenchanted.”

Your paper would be read and marked by both seminar tutors, and an oral examination conducted. One of my intimate comrades hadn’t spoken in seminar all year, not even once; a lovely boy whom I will call Charles, who would play the guitar for us, sweet songs he’d composed himself, in those golden evenings. He was failed, and very cruelly failed, by our tutors. We loved Charles and had hoped they would go easy on him: his paper was weak, but by no means as ghastly as any number of others I’d seen. There was one so shatteringly awful I remember the title of it to this day: “Is A Christmas Tree Art or Nature?” So it spooked me, what seemed like our tutors’ peremptory, altogether unnecessary harshness toward this shy and worthy boy. I approached my own orals, then, in great fear.

In the event, my senior tutor (my favorite, for his acidulated sense of humor) was very lenient with me, engaging my feeble ideas teasingly, in his lofty East Coast way. The junior one, though, a man by the name of Van Luchene (pron. van LOO shen), was less kind. Unsurprisingly. I had not found him a congenial conversationalist all year. He was sober, austere, Catholic, hopelessly square. No kind of a joker. Tall and slender, ascetic at a time when asceticism was not at all the thing. He seemed, too, something of a milquetoast; he had no truck at all with attempts at éclat, as I now realize.

Van Luchene found my writing facile (it was), though he didn’t put it that way; instead, he gently said that my skill with language was in danger of blinding me to the weakness in my arguments; he illustrated this point with humiliating examples that I can no longer remember. What I do remember is that all he said was so blindingly true as to reduce me to a pulp, more or less. More questions. And then the one, the advice, the thing that I still remember constantly, after an hour’s conversation about Plato, about the Phaedo, the afterlife, the soul, immortality, the ideal, the eidos.

“Why are you doing this? Why are you interested in it?”

The speeding train of my babbling was here forced to make the sudden acquaintance of a brick wall. I realized at once that this was in no way a bullshittable question. Blood pounded in my ears. This guy! Clearly didn’t like me, had never liked me, why would he? Ugh! This cold fish, this Blifil! Okay then think fast, answer the question. Why are you doing this?

You know when you are in a car accident or something and time is moving so very, very slowly, and you have time to think a million thoughts, it was like this; something shifted so deep in my head, a subtle lever barely touched and I realized that this wasn’t an attack, but a most serious question, indeed the only really Platonic question I would ever be asked by a teacher, devoid of performance or convention or ego or cant or anything but itself. Please understand that in my ignorance I flew straight past the significance of this event, even as my opinion of Van Luchene underwent an instantaneous reversal. What I’d thought of all year as coldness I now dimly understood as gravity in the service of a higher purpose. This was a very damn good question, I thought. In fact it was the question.

Stopping the tide of my hoped-for eloquence. A child, wildly overindulged, told far too often that she was so smart, persuaded, sure, that no door was or would ever be closed (thank you, I am very grateful) but encouraged also to suppose that excitement and pleasure in ideas was enough in itself, a child, in love with the sound of her own voice. Books, ideas like a whirl of confetti, purposeless, ornamental, without flavor or sustenance, like plastic fruit.

Supposing herself wise. Or pre-wise, I thought probably. Among those, I believe, who also thought themselves wise. And that is just what Plato is not about; he is about making yourself completely transparent so that the truth has a way in (and out). It’s the least showy person, perhaps, who quite often has the most to say to us. You only have to know to listen.

What the hell was I going to say? This silence had been going on for an alarmingly long time. Many seconds, an eternity. I must speak. And a sudden joy overtook me, for I knew I was about to tell the truth, equally devoid for once of performance, ego or cant, for almost the first time, maybe, in that tiny little life of the mind. A staggering epiphany.

“I don’t know.”

Both tutors then spoke to me, very gently, seriously. It’s because we are involved in it; it is ourselves we are talking about. This is important because these are our questions, too.

So did the speeding vehicle of my ambitions really stop? Not exactly, or just for a moment, like a car chase interrupted in a rain of flying produce and collapsing market stalls. I stopped and thought but really kind of revved up my engines and tore off again. But containing now this realization, or the seeds of it.

The shame of having to tell you how quickly I sped past. I was married by the time I was twenty, I went to other schools, I studied French, started a little business, traveled, looked after my ailing father and my mom. Divorced, and married again. Other things, so many.

But once in a while I would think of that moment and realize again that if there is anything we must try to understand here it is, the unanswerable question that can never bring us anything but humility, patience and quiet: why are we doing this? There’s only one thing that is worth trying to understand, and it is this. Center yourself on this. Bring yourself back to sanity with this. Know that you will never know the answer: but you can get a little closer.

Mr. Van Luchene, I am super old now, man. But yours is the advice I have returned to most in my life, not just this year but every year. Thank you, thank you. Thank you.

Previously in series: The Sunday Night Facebook Cooking Club

Also by this author: Irony Is Wonderful, Terrific, Fantastic

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman. Photo by Steve Terrell.