The Magazine

"Picture" Perfect

Randall Jarrell's classic novel of academic life.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you feel guilty. . . . Many a Benton girl went back to her nice home, married her rich husband, and carried a fox in her bosom for the rest of her life--and short of becoming a social worker, founding a Neo-Socialist party, and then killing herself and leaving her insurance to the United Nations, I do not know how she could have got rid of it.

--Pictures from an Institution

RANDALL JARRELL is most often remembered not as a poet or teacher but as a critic--a discerning and influential appreciator (of Frost and Whitman, for example, when neither was fashionable), but also a hit man with a double-oh number, a Gatling gun who fired devastating one-liners: "[These poems give] the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." Praise and blame sprang from the passionate belief that poems mattered.

His only work of fiction, Pictures from an Institution, turned 50 this year. It is sui generis--set at insanely progressive Benton College, but not a "campus novel" and not, in fact, a novel at all, if such niceties as plot, character development, and dramatic conflict are insisted on. It is, as the title suggests, a gallery of portraits. It is above all a performance, an exuberant high-wire act its author could classify only as a "prose book." One is tempted simply to quote--for example, the famous description of the president of Benton College as "so perfectly well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins."

As might be expected, Pictures delivers an impressive body count. As might be feared, it occasionally assaults the reader with epigrams, each trying gamely to top the last. (At least one critic has said that it's the sort of book you can put down.) But more than enough hit home to make the book great fun, even as it acquires emotional depth from a core of sadness. Like much of Jarrell's poetry, it's about loss. When earnest Flo Whittaker (a kinder, gentler Mrs. Jellaby) inevitably quotes, "We must love one another or die," Gottfried Rosenbaum, the book's moral center, replies, "We must love one another and die."

The archetypal loss is the loss of paradise--but Benton College is a paradise in the form of a cliché, the Idea of the Idea of heaven:

In Spring the air was full of apple blossoms and Benton was like--like Spring everywhere, but more so, far, far more so; in Winter the air was full of snowflakes, the red-cheeked snow-booted girls stood knee-deep in their pedestals of snow, and the frost-crystals of their window panes were not frost-crystals at all but cut-outs, of Matisse's last period, that had been scissored from the unused wedding dress of Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolate; in Autumn all Benton was burning, and the students walked under the branches of fire--how was it that they walked among the flames, and were not consumed?--and picked the apples the blossoms had grown into, and threw the cores on the tennis courts where Yin and Yang [the President's dogs] and the Rosenbaums' blue Persian played with them.

The prose is, typically, determined to err on the side of excess, with flourishes that can amuse even those of us forced to look them up. (In Le Morte d'Arthur Elaine dies for love of Lancelot.) And Jarrell the poet gives his catalogue a meaningful form: The seasons run backward, from spring to winter to fall; and, with time's arrow thus uncertain, apples might well precede the blossoms they grew from. Temporal and causal succession have no place in a paradise--even a comical one in which the animals with true gravitas are pets. (It's they, after all, who play with the girls.)

The passage is also seductive, provoking nostalgia for experiences the reader is unlikely to have had but might have wished for. Gottfried's sardonic references to the supposed epoch in which "the state has withered away" will remind us that paradise on earth is always an illusion, and rarely amusing. The charm of Benton, though not sinister, is suspect. Benton offers "second childhood. It had sloughed off the awful protean burden of the past: of Magdelanian caves and Patmos and palm-leaf scriptures from Ceylon; of exiles' letters from Thrace or the banks of the Danube . . . So, most of their burden flung off, the people of Benton went light and refreshed upon their way."

Pictures is filled with images of childhood and age, innocence and the Fall. It appropriately begins with Constance Morgan, who could qualify as a fairy tale heroine of the genus Neglected Stepchild. At an early age Constance lost not only her parents and grandparents but also (a Grimm touch) her twin sister. She has recently graduated from "a plain old-fashioned college" and become an assistant to President Robbins's secretary. To tout Benton, Constance is "of no importance." But Gottfried and his wife Irene know her value. So does the narrator, an unnamed faculty member difficult to distinguish from Jarrell himself--an Auden-loving, tennis-playing poet; a Germanophile steeped in painting and music; witty and married to a witty wife.

And "this was her last day"--her last, that is, as the president's assistant. It is the day on which the book proper will also end; and on it Constance will be born--by acquiring parents. She will become the secretary to her beloved Gottfried Rosenbaum. The richly cultured Gottfried (an Austrian-born composer) and Irene (a Russian-born singer) have not sloughed off the burden of the past, and they bear its marks. Gottfried greets his fellow man with a mix of good humor and Olympian detachment that amounts to a judgment on the human race: He could accept anyone because his expectations were so low that everybody met them. The Rosenbaums can open the world to Constance, as unburdened Benton never could have.

Her last day is, therefore, her first day, and its double nature underscores her (and our) final end. The narrator permits himself to wish that young and beautiful Constance, whom he's known all her life, might be suspended in her present state of becoming. He recalls her father saying that Constance didn't want to grow up--at which he himself had wondered why she had to.

Is the thought, or wish, that Constance need not grow up merely sentimental? The charge of sentimentality has been leveled at Jarrell's poetry, the accusation of yearning for an imaginary and idealized childhood. In Pictures, however, childhood and its usual associations--such as innocence and fairy tales--play a complicated role.

Fairy tales are not Disneyfied but dark: Constance, trying to learn German from an edition of Grimm's tales, works haltingly through the story of a woman who longs for a child, only to die of joy when she finally bears one. The innocence of the earnest social-improver Flo (who "live[d] before Original Sin") is not a virtue but a limitation. Childishness is the core of President Robbins's amorality. He remains in middle age a boy wonder, recognizably the Olympic diver he had once been, though regretting that years spent on his athletic career had allowed others a head start in the race to be called wondrous: "He possessed, and would possess until he died, youth's one elixir, Ignorance. . . . If you had said to people, 'Dwight Robbins was thirty-four when he was appointed President of Benton,' they would have said to you, 'You mean he's thirty-four!'"

Why, then, is the narrator's wish for Constance a blessing? One hint comes from Constance: She thinks of Gottfried as a child. Gottfried pretends, for example, to believe that all Americans eat pemmican and hunt buffalo--by which he recalls and savors the boyhood pleasures of reading westerns. That loyalty to childhood's joys was the source and subject of some of Jarrell's best poems. (One is called The Lost World.)

The great divide in Pictures lies between those who cherish the actual--children in the praiseworthy sense--and those who have confined themselves within worlds of their own imagining. Gottfried's respect for actuality extends to everyday social forms and duties. He has, after all, experienced what men stripped of society and tradition are like. Ponderous and heavyset, he negotiates the awkward travel connections necessary to attend the funeral of Miss Batterson, a former faculty member whom President Robbins had gladly turned out to pasture--while the president himself could manage no more than an expression of "grief in its Instant or powdered form."

Benton's relentless, progressive universalism has made it provincial--a Potemkin world inhabited by its builders, who believe it not just real but the measure of all things. Gottfried sums up their accomplishment in a parable: "The Patagonians have two poets, the better named Gomez; the Patagonians call Shakespeare the English Gomez."

The rule-proving exception is Gertrude Johnson. She, a visiting novelist, is in Benton but not of it. Fiercely witty Gertrude is a pro. Her take on every character--speech and manners, furniture and dress--is that of an entomologist sketching a specimen pinned to the board. Gertrude's novels are beautifully made but will never be first-rate because "[she] saw the worst; it was, indeed, her only principle of explanation." An inverse to Gottfried, Gertrude demands much of others and uses contempt for their failures to fuel her work. She is a frighteningly clever adolescent who lives not in Benton's ersatz utopia but in Hobbes's State of Nature. Wanting, like all adolescents, to see through the world, Gertrude projects onto it a crude and convenient determinism: "The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine. But to Gertrude this proved that a prayer-wheel is a turbine."

And yet, one can't help feeling grateful for, can't help seeing the Leibnizian necessity of, someone who could thus sum up President Robbins's welcoming address to the incoming freshman class. "You had to hear it not to believe it." Malice so stylish is a pleasure, if a guilty one. "After a few minutes with Gertrude you wanted to be good all day every day."

Gertrude and the narrator are twinned: writers, old acquaintances, childless, out of place at Benton, and gestating books about it. Gertrude had feared she might have blundered by accepting the job, until she met the president, looked around, and realized: The place is a gold mine. She had found her next novel. If Pictures itself were a novel, Gertrude's secret writing project would make something happen. It doesn't, beyond her occasional chats with the narrator about fiction. (They implicitly point out flaws in the book we're reading, such as the absence of plot and the presence of characters too gorgeously true to type. They might also have noted gross violations of the conventions of first-person narration--accounts of scenes the narrator could not have known about.)

Those parallels sharpen the contrasts: the novelist vs. the poet; the tone-deaf vs. the musical adept; the Gertrude who "did not know--or rather did not believe--what it was like to be a human being" vs. . . . a being whose moral superiority is left unstated but clearly implied.

Many readers find the narrator smug; and his obvious identification with Jarrell makes that especially off-putting. He repeatedly genuflects to the superior gifts of Gottfried Rosenbaum, but that can be dismissed as a gambit, since admiration of Gottfried is itself a sign of moral worth. The narrator, of course, is not a character but a device--an entertainer who disdains the machinery of dramatic movement and dares us not to be charmed by his voice. And that voice is constantly, bossily in charge, confidently judging all things. Even readers who have not taken the moral holiday of judging that all judgment is bad may need an occasional breather. Pictures bears us along, if it does, by its sheer zest and because its judgments do, after all, side with the angels.

Anyone who lives in a college town, or among some other group of self-denominated intellectuals, will recognize president Robbins and his snobbish wife, or Flo Whittaker and her pedantic husband. Pictures, however, directs our attention not toward the squabbles and intrigues of academic life but at what its characters see when they look at the world. It judges them by what they love.

The "progressives" of Benton (better to call them prelapsarians) embrace everything new in art and thought and politics, but their world is changeless. (The novel's stasis, an aesthetic flaw, is in that regard true to its subject.) The President is forever boyish, Flo Whittaker ceaselessly concerned:

Almost everything that happened to Flo and her family and friends was, after all, only private; and to her real life was public, what you voted at or gave for or read about in the Nation. Life seemed to Flo so petty, compared to real life. The trouble with women, people say, is that they take everything personally; Flo took nothing personally.

In Paradise nothing happens and the merely actual--the imperfect and unperfectible given, the passing thing that must be loved before it's lost--is of no importance.

"And so the last day came, and the last hour of the last day." The final chapter opens with this quasi-biblical incantation and makes of "last day" a refrain. The chapter's title, "They All Go," is odd since, in "They," the narrator includes himself. He has resigned to take a better job. Gertrude is leaving to finish her book, which will be quite different from the one we have just read. Constance will travel with the Rosenbaums, and by summer's end will have "transcended" Benton. The Whittakers will drag their long-suffering children around the country on an educational auto tour. And some foundation is sending President Robbins to make a Survey of Progressive Elements in European Education.

All endings are sad and all mean loss, a prospect reminding us that people are often better in practice than in theory. Gertrude dotes on Sidney, her rabbity third husband, who seems a blank to everyone else. Flo is ludicrous, but also selfless and kind. Her husband Jerrold, though a deadly pedant, is one of those rare people whose mind can be changed by an argument. Something about these absurd figures can be missed.

Missing from the list of persons to be missed is President Robbins. He may go, but he can't leave. When his campus empties, he mounts the swimming pool tower and launches himself into a swan dive. We last see him at the apex of his arc, the time-defying image of an athlete preserved at a moment of perfection--suspended, beautiful, "hung . . . upon the Wheel of Things." So maybe, after all, something about the president may, at some safely future date, be mourned--something of beauty, if not truth.

And after the last day, an elegiac coda: The narrator, on the way to clear out his office, is diverted by the sculptress in residence, who calls to him from her studio. He has always patronized this woman as being what she looks like, a bug he might set upon a leaf and shoo away. She has given no reason to think otherwise: To follow her technical talk "you would have had to be a welder," and to follow her philosophy and aesthetics "you would have had to be an imbecile." She now has something to show him, a brand new work, an anthropomorphized image of the East Wind. It is beautiful and moving, and she seems as stunned by this achievement as he. He has misjudged her. Has he misjudged Benton, too?

He will soon be gone, and rightly so, but will stay deeply loyal to moments, like this one, of inexplicable joy.

David Guaspari is a mathematician and computer scientist in Ithaca, N.Y.