In Memoriam Mr. Robert Mulgrew
“Every day was a new revelation… I have always said in my saying or teaching, ‘Make the result of teaching a feeling of growing.’ That is the greatest incentive to continue developing yourself. The feeling of growing. And today a little bit more than it was yesterday. And a little bit more than it was last year. You see? That you feel: I’m getting wider and deeper and fuller… I have made a sport of growing myself. That was a big sport, and therefore helped me with the sport to make others grow.”—Josef Albers
The last book Mr. Mulgrew suggested I read was Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2014). The irony would not have been lost on him.
“I must have recommended it,” he typed. “If not, check it out.”
He had. This was the second time he’d told me to read Lish, and I still hadn’t gotten around to it. Lish was his recommendation-in-reply to my suggestion he read Dan Albright’s last book, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (2014). In my three years of high school courses with Mr. Mulgrew, one thing I had learned was always take his recommendations for our two-man book club.
Mr. Mulgrew and I had been in regular correspondence since the day I graduated high school. Anytime I’d come back from the east coast to San Diego, I’d do my best to see if he was free for coffee. And so, I had drafted an email in response to his Lish suggestion, but I hadn’t hit reply yet. It’s always best to triple-check your grammar before replying to your English teachers.
I am, no doubt, one of a great many of Mulgrew’s students who kept in touch with him. He was that kind of teacher: the archetypal teacher-you-remember, the sort that you spend your lifetime arguing with, the one whose voice you can still hear in the back of your head when you forget the grammatical difference between “like” and “as,” (Winston tastes good…) or find a reference to Moby-Dick in your day-to-day doings. I think I took 4 semesters of classes with him, maybe more. He taught me how to read, and I felt it incumbent on me to remind him, periodically, that his lessons still mean a lot to me, that my world became a richer and more interesting place because of him. As he’d say, “you can’t get out of your head, so it’s very important that you make your brain a very interesting place to be.”
What is it about English teachers that so endear them to our hearts? I am honestly not quite sure, but it seems almost to be a trope: ask someone who their favorite teacher was and nine times out of ten it’s an English teacher. Perhaps it is because English teachers deal in doling out epiphany, bite-sized so you can chew it, yet always slightly more than you can swallow. English teachers are many students first mediator between ignorance and those sublime existential questions we all grapple with, or willfully avoid. They lead you to the edge of the rabbit hole, as Lionel Trilling described it, and insist you look in:
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: ‘Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes to your being whole, or well-rounded, students.’
English teachers have the peculiar task of putting up with reams and reams of dreadful teenage writing, which must be handled with the utmost care. The act of writing, being one so inherently personal and self-conscious, requires a great deal of trust between student and teacher that goes beyond the teaching methods of other disciplines. And high school students are so often a prickly batch, guarded by a high walls of insecurity, surrounded by a moat of jadedness and ill humor. I certainly was. It took Mr. Mulgrew nearly an entire year to convince me that you could read literature on the metaphoric and symbolic levels he was trying to teach us. I’d ask:
—Why does this even matter, Mr. Mulgrew?
—How can you prove that any of this symbolism is even there?
—Mr. Mulgrew, you’re building castles in the sky. The book says what it means.
—There is no way in hell, Mulgrew, that F. Scott Fitzgerald could possibly have planned for green, gray, and yellow to mean all those things you just said.
—How can rain signify sex? Chaucer surely didn’t intend that. (You lech!)
—Are you just messing with us, Mr. Mulgrew? [He certainly was. But not just.]
The act of reading, or learning to read, is a profoundly personal venture as well. When we read, we discover the limits of our imagination, beginning with the basic comprehension of the text, then further, training our empathic ability to put ourselves into the imagination of other characters, of the author, and then to extrapolate to the world beyond the book. Done well, this exercise is what Saul Bellow called “open[ing] the universe a little more.” This experience is a necessarily humbling one. Admit that thou knowst nothing, and thou shalt progress, Socrates tells us. Be humble before the text; don’t just run your eyes over the words; don’t assume you understand it easily, quickly, or immediately. The reader who reads a text 100 times cannot compare to the reader who reads it 101 times. For this reason, Mulgrew told us, “you should re-read Moby-Dick at least once every ten years. It’s a polysemous text, as protean as the whale itself. …Does anyone know what ‘protean’ means?”
In the process of asking us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, repeatedly, Mr. Mulgrew led us through wild imaginative journeys in time and space, always with his own peculiar pedagogy. He was a performer as much as he was a teacher. To us wide-eyed native San Diegans, his anecdotes reflecting on his time as a student at Brown and Middlebury made the east coast sound like an exotic, foreign continent, a snowy Tahiti. We’d often file into his classroom and he’d have some esoteric quotation written on the board:
Figuratively speaking, it is as if an error became conscious of itself as an error—perhaps it actually was not a mistake but in a much higher sense an essential part of the whole production—and now this error wants to mutiny against the author, out of hatred towards him, forbidding it to correct it and in maniacal defiance saying to him: No, I refused to be erased; I will stand a a witness against you, a witness that you are a second-rate author. (Kierkegaard)
“So, can someone paraphrase this?” he’d ask, “how might this relate to our reading this week?”
Other times he would pull out a copy of the New York Times or the New Yorker and ask in all earnestness, “Did anyone see this article? It’s straight out of Dostoevsky!” We had regular 5-point vocabulary pop quizzes, with a possibility of a 6th pop culture bonus point, if you got all the first five words right. What are Shakespeare’s dates? How to spell ‘Nietzsche’? Mr. Mulgrew is the reason I knew the word hapax legomenon at the age of sixteen. “They can’t take from you what you memorize,” he’d say.
Years later, he would still send me to the dictionary with his emails, or as he called it, an “electronic monkey rope“:
“I had a wonderful moment of anagnorisis” he typed to me once, “if so lofty a word can be applied to a moment in an NYC Greek deli, when I went back after years away and the owner recognized me. I think he bought a villa in the South of France on the profit from meatballs subs I bought on many a cold winter’s day in Manhattan.”
The deli in question, incidentally, is right next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if you ever find yourself there, go ahead and order yourself a meatball sub and think of Mr. Mulgrew.
He was a voice of calm, level-headed reason, even in the worst of storms. He had this superpower of exposing assumptions with the simplest of questions. I remember vividly how Mulgrew insisted on pressing issues or race, gender, sexuality, class, privilege, and inequality in class discussion, no matter how uncomfortably the classroom full of predominantly upper class San Diegan students squirmed in the seats of their conservative Episcopalian private school chairs.
I remember how he’d get us to speak up when his students were having a low energy day. He’d open up the book to a page and ask, “Does anyone want to read this passage aloud? Alicia? Brian? Evan? Nobody? Nobody? Well okay then; I’ll do it,” and that wide grin he always wore would suddenly fall away and he’d take a dramatic pause, and then he would read a paragraph of some great work as if he were the living incarnation of the muses themselves:
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. (Moby-Dick, Ch. 96, “The Try-Works“)
He would glance up at the pauses to see if any of us were salivating. Just listen to the words. Hear the music. Let it just hang in the air for a moment, all that delicious prose. And then he’d ask, “Can anybody think of any analogies for this?”
Satan, the blue angel on Jesus’ left, presides over the goats, separated from the sheep as described in Matthew 25:31–46:
But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Milton and Dante have nothing on the early Christian church, I had written, look at how welcoming it is! Even Satan looks like a welcoming handsome devil. It’s enough to consider converting.
A correction [1/30/2017], Mr. Mulgrew’s wife Francesca sent me back my postcard. Mr. Mulgrew had been using it as a bookmark in his Penguin edition of Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, which I am now reading, but I hope is not his last suggestion. Here is the postcard.
I’d like to think that Mr. Mulgrew would see the humor, given the circumstances.
When Mr. Mulgrew passed, I thought of that email sitting in my draftbox. I still hadn’t read the Lish, so I started in immediately on Preparation for the Next Life as a sort of apology. I recognized right away the aspects of the narrative he would have liked: the vivid descriptions of crumbling post-apocalyptic New York cityscapes, a pervading sense of simmering violence about to boil (“sublime violence,” he would call it), the layers of desublimated symbolism in the detritus of pizza boxes and Chinese takeout. It’s easy to smell the Pynchon and Faulkner in Lish’s prose. I googled Lish: he’s bald! A man after Mulgrew’s own heart, or head, rather; just like some of Mulgrew’s favorite characters, the Judge, for example, from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
“I wouldn’t teach Blood Meridian to high schoolers,” I had cautioned him. He agreed and told me he probably would teach All The Pretty Horses instead.
I thought of the way he used to say the word “awesome.” It was always the same joke, and it was always worth a laugh and a groan.
“Isn’t that awe-some?” he’d ask with eyes wide and grin Cheshire.
You could see the joke written in his grin: “Do you get it? Do you get it? I’m self-consciously over-articulating this word to convey the double-sense of understated, laid-back, California slang, i.e., ‘cool’, with the literal meaning of the word itself: ‘inducing a sense of awe.'”
Mr. Mulgrew was a profound influence on my life. He is a large part of the reason I studied Russian Language in college, why I double-majored in Art History and American Literature, why I spent so much time developing expertise in Melville’s Moby-Dick, why I felt I’d never feel like a complete human being unless I went to graduate school and tried to figure out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. I had to email him when I went all blubber brained at my first Moby-Dick marathon, or sailed along the Charles W. Morgan’s 38th Voyage, or searched for Gogol’s nose in Saint-Petersburg. He was a man of tremendous, resonating goodness—the sort of scholar who didn’t just read wisdom from dusty old books, but rather, put that wisdom into practice in the exercise of his daily life. I look forward to passing on his teaching, his intellectual genealogy to my own students in the years to come. Aeneas achieved immortality, reluctantly, by doing his great deeds. Vergil, by writing them. Mulgrew, by teaching them. He was a man whose life was permeated with symbolism and metaphor, which he would gladly teach us to see in our own lives, if we dared to live so meaningfully.
“From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.” —Moby-Dick, Chapter 13, “The Wheelbarrow”
Update: August 20th, 2016 ~ Memorial Service for Mr. Mulgrew