Merck waited impatiently for Ronald until six-fifteen, giving short shrift to several students who wanted to change their course plans or discuss their term papers. As he left his office he found a note in his box telling that Ronald had called the day before to postpone their meeting until the next afternoon. He searched for someone to reprimand and was fashioning the coffin of Gretchen Pfeiffer, the secretary, until informed that she had been out sick for two days.
Now he waited impatiently again and Ronald checked in a little before six, directly from Penn Station, at the little room choked with books, with a big window that conveyed efficiently the noises from the street three floors below. Ron half expected to hear that the chapter had not been read, and that, if it were read, it would be torn to shreds, and, worse, that the encounter would consist of "Hello, here are the shreds, good-by." He had sunk low during his travels.
Instead, he was well received. Merck seemed gentle enough. He shook hands. He seemed concerned that Ron take the proper chair one where he might sit face to face with Merck and see, on the desk, still alive and breathing gently, his chapter. Merck launched upon the subject immediately, pedantically, as if he had rehearsed.
"I've read your chapter. Some things I liked. It has promise. Obviously the work of an educated man. I was expecting something more simple-minded, frankly."
"Thanks," murmured Ronald, his heartbeat speeding up, as the doctor reported upon his insidious disease.
"Of course, I don't know the plot yet, but I am puzzled by the genre. You are not intending to be another Tolkien, I suppose." He didn't wait for Ron to verbalize his look of protest. "It's set in the future, although 1982 may be upon you by the time the book is published and reviewed; does that matter?"
"It matters because an earthquake takes place. If it doesn't, then it matters that I'm wrong, but it will happen."
"You don't say! Are you predicating the plot upon another San Francisco earthquake? Really, now."
"Yes and no. You'll see better when I give you the next chapters to read."
"I hope that I shall." Merck thus committed himself, before he realized it, to further reading. He had looked forward to a certain amount of begging and teasing before consenting graciously in the end. Irritably, he attacked.
"It's neither fish nor fowl. It's prophecy. It's science fiction. It's cynical realism. It's even surrealism. What is it?"
"Does it have to be labeled?"
"Humpf, you don't know how books are sold. If it's placed in the wrong section of the book list, and then on the wrong shelf, and then among the wrong reviewers, and so forth, do you think all of this will help its sale?"
" It's a general, all-purpose novel."
"You don't know the book business, my friend, you'll learn . . . I suppose your hero is part Chinese because there are so many of them."
"Right, and Ella, you'll see, is part black."
"If Mao Tse Tung stopped the Chinese from reading Confucius, what chance do you think you have?"
"He'll come back."
"You're claiming to know who will be resurrected then, too?"
"Alright then, no."
"The way the Chinese today launder history, they'll soon think 'Panku' is a brand of chewing gum."
Ron fumbled in his bag of clichés. "Human nature is rooted in religion."
"That is, chewing gum is the heavenly ambrosia dripping from Panku's broken sky." Merck's sneer was too slight to reach Ron.
"Hey, that's good, Merck," he said.
"Thank you. Now on this matter of the setting, San Francisco. Hardly the typical city of all history. You even make it worse by populating it with squares and queers."
"When I wandered around the world, Merck, for three years, after dropping out of high school, I saw many cities. Yesterday I saw Washington -- no exception Crummy places, all of them. San Francisco was the best of them and it will be the first to go. When doom approaches, people tear down the best first, then the good, and finally the evil is washed away. It's the tip-off on the universal doom of cities. It's past the point of no return. The squares have built it into a set of watchtowers over a compound in which the queers prowl about working off their dependency and hostilities."
"I'm sorry. Words fail me."
"Mr. Havok is a square. His profits go into a new high-rise condominium. Panku, whom I love as a character, is one of the queers. Ella is a queer prostituting herself to the squares."
"Yes, she's coming up."
"I suppose you have your reasons, If you will pardon my use of the word, for such unusual names."
"Well, Panku you know of already. I wanted names that stand for many things, which must include gods, because words begin with religion, like we name people Jesus or Christopher. Panku was the first Taoist, they say. The two other names come from a book by Cohane, a business man who was last seen in Ireland. He searched for the most ancient words of mankind. He found a handful of words that were originally ejaculations to gods and then conveyed to all things in which the hand of a god was perceived -- haue, og, el, mana, tema, ash, bar. Maybe a million people, places and things around the world have these gods in their names. Ella is out of el, eloah, haloa, hello, elohim, allah and so on. Panku's Mr. Havok is directly from 'havoc' destruction and confusion, but the word 'havoc' is composed of two god names, Haue or Hawwah plus Og or Oc. They must have caused great catastrophes. Haue was the earlier goddess. Hawwah means the first goddess, the first woman - 'Eve' is a form of the word."
"Yahweh won't like that, he's very macho. But go ahead."
"Og night in Ireland is a Christmas time orgy of drinking, going back to the earliest pre-Christian times, and they drink a cream called 'uach.' I think that the mystery of the word 'O.K.' is solved. I discovered that its first usage was as a label on a keg of whiskey in America. Stonehenge in England is surrounded by 'og' and 'oc' place names, and there are many elsewhere in the world. Og and Haue were the most powerful of early god-names. O.K. ?
"No, not O.K. What are you handing us -- a novel or an etymological dictionary?"
"James Joyce . . . "
"Oh, alright. So Ulysses is loaded with mythological allusions. Let it pass. I want to get down to some of your basic problems." Merck fondled his six-gun -- an innocent looking folder at the far end of his desk containing his notes on the first chapter. He was, however, more interested in watching Ron talk, so he let pass the urge to take them up. If Ron were a woman, he thought, I would fall in love with him, her; what an attractive manner of address -- personal, serious, melodious, lovely really. He complimented himself on how readily psychologists could permit themselves deviant thoughts, how offhandedly. (A psychiatrist colleague, on the other hand, might have turned upon Merck to ask him why it was that men who are so hard and brittle, even martinets, who have never developed for themselves that indiscriminate region of the psyche called 'brotherhood' that warmly accepts people for their own sakes, why such men may feel sexual as soon as they become 'soft' toward a person, whether woman or man.)
"You talk much in symbols and mysteries," he said. "Do you ever tell what the great truth is that you purvey? I see no sign of it in what you write or say, unless it be the bizarre craftmanship of Panku? . . Is yours a real truth, which works beneath all phenomena of history before emerging finally in triumph? . . or is it a mythical truth, an idea that you find in some part of human existence, then defend, and then elevate as the flag which all men everywhere and always must follow, whatever the consequences?"
Ronald was luckily spared the task of unraveling this Gordian knot of interrogatives, for there came a knock on the door and a student stuck her low-browed head into the room. With the time that Merck took to arrange an appointment, Ron composed an answer, foolish, but diverting. "I do not concern myself with truth, but with self-fulfillment. Let every person fulfill oneself, and there is your truth."
"Oh is it? The general who slaughters many enemies is fulfilling himself, as is the burglar who cracks many safes."
"They only believe so, and wrongly."
"Wrongly, says who?"
"Says something within us. In our hearts we know."
"Are you prepared to lay down a list for us ignoramuses? A long one? Long enough to cover the whole of our behavior?"
"Maybe, but not now. I can't discuss everything in just one book, only the things I feel sure about."
"How do you know that these few things come near to the centrum of our universality? It was you who set the universal as the theme of the book. Maybe you'll be wide of the mark -- probably so, I should say . . . Think about it . . . There is also the matter of the plot, granted that you have not exposed it to me yet."
"I do have a plot."
"Precisely. Why? Who requires that the novel for all time must have a plot? Why must two elements conflict and resolve into a denouement? What problems are indeed ever solved? Aren't they simply kicked around until they disappear?"
"Probably. But it's the plot that tends to excite the universal interest. The human mind wants an end to a problem."
" 'Better a terrible end than an endless terror." That's an early Nazi slogan . . . You're probably right. But then the universal novel must be selective. It resolves a conflict, proves a point, caters to an audience. It falsifies in order to strike its target, so it cannot be universally true . . . And here's another basic contradiction regarding characters in novels: the more universal the characters, the less appealing the novel, and therefore less universal. Take your novel; since there are more women than men in the world, shouldn't your hero be a heroine?"
"Ella is almost as important as Panku," Ron offered feebly.
"Then shouldn't your hero be born in a small village, for when you add the village populations of China, India, etc. , etc. ,"
"O.K., Panku was city-born, but the world is cityfying"
"Bosh . . . Further shouldn't his father be a tiller of the soil . . . Most humans are, and always have been."
"But will not forever be!"
"Bosh again . . . and why does the villain, Havok, run a small business, a dying breed. Shouldn't he be a worker, an insignificant clerk of some sort, whose number will forever be legion?"
"Granted, but it's the audience again."
"Of course it is. Why do you think so many novels are written about writers. True -- writers are lazy, and they're narcissistic, but, also, writers, if they are so foolish as to try to live by writing, must undergo a peculiarly repulsive and fascinating set of experiences and further can dredge up an equal number of fake similar experiences that will titillate an audience that can expect such events to befall a pen-wielding fool . . . "
"But perhaps the writer is the heir of the scribe who is the heir of the priest who is the heir of the man of secrets who is the heir of the gods."
"Ahah! I see you have thought about that one . . . But then who is this audience -- in all times and places? Very few people read the American masters of the late nineteenth century. They confuse Edith Wharton with Lydia Pinkham -- I know; I saw the item in a test once. "
"Oh that's not so. Practically every college student has to read something of Henry James, and I had to read Howell's Silas Lapham in high school."
"Had to. Probably most kids didn't read them even though they 'had to.' The word 'had' or 'must' dooms your thesis. Are you setting out to write a book that will be foisted willy-nilly upon all literates by the machinery of the state?"
"Of course not -- although, now that I think of it, I might be mean enough to expect it to be required reading."
"Ron, you shock me. You are preparing to drop the blade of the guillotine on a most precious human liberty, that of the freedom to read what one wants to read."
"Somebody has to choose, Merck. The teachers, if not the government, have to tell their pupils and students what to read."
"Yes, and the choices vary from year to year, and century to century. If you are willing to trust your book to the tender mercies of these cannons or thrust them upon people by more violent cannons, good luck. You'll need it."
Ron smiled sweetly and admiringly at the puns, and Merck appreciatively smiled back and drank in a long moment of conceit.
"You know what you are telling me, Merck: you are reducing all the basic ingredients of the universal novel to the audience, and then you are telling me that the audience itself is anything but universal."
"Right you are, my dear Ronald, and, believes me, I sympathize with your plight."
"Why, why . . . I don't know. I like you, that's why, and I like your heroic impulse to create an eternal message for everyone out of weak words. But everything I know says that you are bound to fail. If you could lash the world with a thunderbolt of Jupiter, or pull the nuclear bomb trigger, then, yes, you could give the world an undying -- wrong -- an enduring message."
"Well, if fail I must, at least . . . "
"Oh, I don't mean bound to fail in writing a good book -- or even a great one -- although your goal may prevent you from writing a good book -- I mean that your universal mission is likely to fail . . . Excuse me for a moment." For there was another knock at the door, another female head, another appointment arranged.
Ronald was not feeling well, but not badly, either. At the least he was talking with someone who could come to grips with his ideas. He felt a fondness for this severe critic who was at the moment addressing sharply the figure in the corridor.
"But even those few who compose the universal audience, were they such a thing, are they enough?" he asked Merck as he reentered the office.
"Come on, Ron," said Merck, "let me buy you a drink. I don't expect anyone else. It's six-thirty."
Merck brought Ron to the Istanbul Middle East restaurant and bar up University Place, where the dinner crowd had not yet begun to arrive. "We can talk better here," he commented, calling forth shortly "Two martinis please, straight up, Bombay gin, with a twist," and renewed the conversation.
"Frankly, I have my doubts, but I should like to see you write the book. It's a noble ambition. These days, the youth is only writing to spill its guts. You're a stable type. I don't know why -- I have my theories -- and that's a precious gift or achievement, whichever one it is. If I say this, it's because I think it a fact -- psychology is never flattering. A person like you is capable of a hedonistic life, you could just enjoy living -- sex, food (you do like food?), playing the guitar, sunning yourself, discotheques, etc., etc. For some reason -- who knows? -- you're not a mad genius, and possibly you'll be able to go beyond normality into creativity without madness. Now to me, as a psychologist, that's a phenomenon -- in the Hollywood sense, i.e., extraordinary. I've always wondered about the Italians of the Renaissance -- or even, I think, some of the English geniuses of the Renaissance there, like Francis Bacon -- how could they be so creative and so normal -- on the whole, anyway -- and I know there were exceptions -- Leonardo probably a homosexual, Michelangelo, ibid, but they were so in practically normal terms. They didn't prance around on high heels, or wear black leather undergarments -- you see what I mean. Generally what you found were robust, all-around men . . . Now here then came modern times and the nineteenth century and you find the creative people -- Darwin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Proust and many others quite on the brink of madness. And you have the Italian criminologist Lombroso, averting his eyes from the Renaissance effectively, and coming up with a scientific law, no less, that genius is a form of madness. And I've seen it in my students: either they're normal and dull, or bright and crazy . . . We'll soon have to set up educational institutions in acknowledgment of the principle. A good school would be set up as a clinic . . . I didn't attend the University of Chicago (I'm Groton, Amherst, and Harvard myself), but for a time at least, there came to be a professional as well as public recognition that the place was an asylum for brilliant crackpots. Interestingly enough, when this fact was realized -- that it was a kind of clinic for the bright ones, they took steps to efface the image and seek the normal, and the school began to go downgrade."
Ron had no way of judging the truth of Merck's remarks, but, particularly since he was being promoted into good company -- the Renaissance man -- normal and masterful and creative -- he felt very good, and had another drink and another, and he could have listened to Merck harping all night long.
Merck, too, had enjoyed one drink and then another, and they were good-sized martinis, not the kind served at more a la mode bars thereabouts. So some of the ideas that had found their way into his 2:00 A.M. manuscript, and many hours of production since then, began to find their way out and were pushing to the forefront of his attention. Pitiable Panku and the rest of Ronald's opera cast had to wait in the wings of the theater while Merck gave birth in front of his new friend to the vivacious ideas with which his friend had impregnated him. The restaurant had begun to fill with diners, but in their dark and quiet corner where the bar met window looking upon University Place, the last redoubt to be seized by the hungry, they could comfortably carry on, with their own pangs of hunger and time anaesthetized by alcohol and good fellowship.
"Forgive me, Ronald, dear fellow," Merck begs, his eyes glistening in the dim light, as if he is apologizing for his forthcoming parturition.
"Of course, but of course," says Ron, not knowing what is to be forgiven.
"I've begun a grand work of my own, inspired by your intrepidity. Usually, the litterateurs follow after the creative work that they feed upon with a reasonable interval of time. The Books of Moses had to wait a thousand years for the first flurry of exegetes; Shakespeare's work had to shake off a clot of competitors before the writers about writers found in him a treasure for their analyses, commentaries, eulogies. He has since become a major source of employment, equivalent to a large shipyard, everyone hammering away on him and fastening something to his hulk. The bibliography about him attaches to the list of his works like the tail of a comet to the head of the comet, millions to one. No scholar can encompass it but many make a living at it around the world in high schools and colleges, prattling of any Shakespearean theme whatsoever beginning with whether he was the Earl of Oxford or the butcher's boy and etc., etc. You hear people say of Professor Grimshaw, "Ah, yes, he's the great authority on the rhythmic scheme of Midsummer Night's Dream -- wrote a book on it, he did -- consulted too for the Hollywood film, you know, the one with James Cagney, etc., etc.: (Merck has the same problem with "etc." that Ron has with "Wow.")
"Nowadays the time gap is closing. Proust and Joyce and T.S. Eliot and Thomas Mann had courses going on themselves while they were still alive, at least in the more avant garde centers of learning. Nowadays the critics follow the bandwagon closely. Fame is instant and the college catalogues are annual. The colleges, the publishers, the film producers, the faddist reading public pant after the prodigy and overcome his work even as he brings it out. There were many people, distinguished professors, eating off the board of Robert Graves, before ever he received appointment as a professor to Oxford. Think of how many pundits were making a living from Dylan Thomas, who hardly ever could earn a wage, by the time he died, dead drunk . . . How is your drink, by the way? . . Want another ? . . immensely erudite scholars and critics are ready with exhaustive biographies and concordances a la minute. Books on Lolita appeared by the time all the mourners had returned from the funeral of the little bitch.
Ronald listens avidly, waiting to pounce upon the point when it appears, vocalizing "I see . . . " and "Right . . . " ten times prematurely. But the point is yet to come, and when it does, it is contrary to his expectations. Merck will not increase the respectable distance by which he follows the bandwagon, presumably that of Ronald. Merck is going to abolish the distance. He is going to be on the bandwagon; perhaps he will even drive it.
"I've begun a serious work," Merck announces, solemnly "a treatise on The Psychology of the Universal Novel." He has in fact only this moment thought of his article in such majestic terms, but the idea in his now fully-blown imagination has assumed the form of a large, immaculately printed volume, published in both a hardcover cloth-bound edition and a paperback, more inexpensive edition. "It will proceed step by step with your novel. What you give to me, I'll give back to you. And what I give to you, you'll give back to me. True, inter-disciplinary, collaboration."
"Wow," Ron exclaims, and then, ruing that he has still to kick his habit of juvenile exclamations, adds, "What an extraordinary concept."
Overcome by the accord, Merck's long teeth flash in a brilliant smile in the gloom. He reaches over and takes Ronald's hand in his own, a gesture foreign to him from birth, and is about to say "Let's have one more drink, to ourselves," when, outside the window, he perceives two shadowy yet unmistakable figures, one a poodle, his poodle, the other a woman sunk in a woolly coat up to her ears, his woman.
"Muriel," he blurts, "That must be Muriel! What time is it? Damn. She hates to walk the dog. Ron, quick, go tell her that we're coming, while I pay the bill."
"Who? What?" asks Ron, and then, peering outside, he grasps the situation and scrambles out the door to execute his mission, without considering at all that he had not yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.