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Alfred de Grazia: Ronald's Norm


Merck stretched his pace along St. Mark's Place. He was curious to see Ronald and his two-and-a-half room, which could mean anything in this part of Manhattan, where bathrooms hung out of kitchens and vice versa, and closets were called rooms. His expectation that Ron's rooms would be tolerable was preserved even as he passed through the filthy entrance where every overflowing garbage can wore a stinking halo, and climbed gingerly up two uneven flights of stairs to where a hall was blocked. On its framed plug was nailed a sign that "Silence is Golden," lettered in gold, and another inscription below, "Home is Where the Heart Is." No number of locks sufficed hereabouts, yet, or perhaps therefore, Ronald had satisfied himself with only one, with a hasp for a padlock that had perhaps been stolen.

The door was ajar, and Merck could enter. Ronald was expecting him and greeted him from an enormous upholstered armchair, threadbare, at the far corner of the clumsily enlarged room. Beyond one could make out another room with bed and stove, and, still further on, the enamel of a toilet gleaming from a bathroom with a light on.

Merck looked about for the proper place to sit. Where one sat was important, he knew. He had spent two years in the Bureau of Naval Research during the Vietnam War studying Committees and how to exploit them for backing up one's decisions. They had set up many seating arrangements, and, controlling everything, including the motion of a ship, they had determined what seat was most effective for the guy who was to make the "group decision" and where to place the man who might try to wreck the decision. (They had not yet had to control the experiments for females.)

But here was a chaos of seats that the infantry officer knew more about. A pickle barrel capped by cushion, the armchair that Ron squatted on like a frog amidst bulrushes, a rustic old wooden swing whose motion was frozen, a heap of rug fragments tastefully piled up, a box reading "Herring from Iceland, 8 doz. #10 cans" varnished to the color of old oak, and, yes, an oak rocking chair. Like the Harvard beagle that he was, Merck pointed to the rocking chair and settled into it, poised for propulsion in the event of pronouncement.

"A tidy sloop you keep here," he commented graciously. "You forgot to batten down the bulkhead."

"I've kept the place two years without trouble, it couldn't be safer."

"Very nice indeed," said Merck, looking all about. "I'm comfortable already. Where do we begin? Let me tell you that I like your chapters up through the Sixth Message. No question in my mind that you have a book.

"Regarding the plot as a whole," he continued, "I observed that it follows a formula which, if you must have a plot, is as nearly universal as you are likely to find. Actually it is a formula for human behavior in general. A person, a hero, does something, by some means, to affect someone. The hero seeks to achieve some good or bad purpose by means that may be fair or foul in order to change some human relationships or state of affairs. I doubt that any plot is more universal.

"Here, I've drawn it for you in symbolic form," and he whipped out a piece of paper and lunged forward to hand it to Ron. Standing over him then he explained it: P = A (M/G) -- -> C, where P is the plot, A stands for the actor or Hero, M is the Actor's Means toward G, the Actor's Goals or values, all transforming into C or the Consequences or results of the Actor's activity, the changed world.

"Inasmuch as a hero's traits are expressed in his means and ends, perhaps the whole formula can be reduced to P = A -- -> C. You might call it 'Merck's razor.' " (He felt his chin; his twilight shave had been smooth.)

To Ron's relief he became more relevant. "So you have Panku, a good hero, finally achieving by good means the salvation of the world. Not bad. Certainly as close as you can get to universality.

"But truth is the victim in your story. I mean that Panku's virtues are largely the result of magic. Spooks pass messages to him. His victories are achieved by others, which of course, is not uncommon in history. Just as the Americans took Vietnam from the Japanese and handed it over to the French, somebody neutron-bombs your Heavenly City and Panku's children can walk into it. The personal happiness that comes to Panku with the recovery of his old love, Ella, is coupled with the achievement of a happy community -- this is beyond the bounds of reason and is typical of the legend or fairytale.

"So there you have it: a universal plot manipulated by magical means, just as Panku's puppets are made to behave like human beings. All together you have, I think, a fairy tale going back to some deep legendary materials à la Carl Jung.

"I brought along a passage from Joe Campbell's Hero of a thousand Faces for you . . . Do you know the book?"

"It's one of the few books I confess to have read," said Ron. "My story extruded from me unconsciously, even though it fits his universal monomyth of the human race." He sounded like Merck.

"Still, here it is," and Merck brought forth a card, "the key passage: 'A hero ventures forth from the world of common days into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow men.' Any child can prove his thesis from her book of fairy tales. It fits Prometheus who brought fire to mankind, Jason who brought back the Golden Fleece, also Aeneas the mythical founder of Rome, Dante who went through Hell and Heaven, Buddha in his incarnations and stages, and even may be said to fit the life of Christ."

Ronald listened respectfully to the professor in the rocking chair. He said, "I follow you and have no objections -- only something to add: I confess to have used Merck's razor." Merck smiled. "I have plagiarized the monomyth of mankind. Now I only wish that I could plagiarize the hero, the good norms, the bad norms, and the good results -- then I'd be all set. Provided, however, that I could also hit upon the basic vocabulary, gestures, and behavior of all mankind. What I'm saying, I guess, is that the perfect universal novel is the supreme act of plagiarism and whosoever writes it will be the world's greatest novelist."

Merck was delighted. "You've said it marvelously . . . Only one piece lacks: the grim specter hovering over all novels, which keeps so many in oblivion -- that is the audience -- about which we've already crossed swords."

"Really I've done something with that as well," said Ron, proudly, "after having given it much thought . . . I wonder what you will think." He uncurled from his couch and picked up a notebook from his table. Finding the page, he read, "Audience is the attention freely given by people to a story. This readership is always disgracefully smaller than the good story should possess. It is never universal. It is most universal when people would like the story if they happened to read it (or hear it) and are influenced or forced to do so."

"I wouldn't argue with you," said Merck. "Take out prejudicial words like 'disgracefully' and 'should' and you have a scientific law -- Ronald's Norm. . Here, let me take a crack at it." He took the opened notebook that Ronald handed him, and, fetching a pen from his inside pocket, he began to scribble, scratch out and scribble again, on the back of his little card. It took quite a while, with many a hiss and bang from the old radiator intervening, before he came up with "How's this?"

"A story may be termed most nearly universal when -- plotted according to Merck's formula, employing a hero whose traits and values are most typical of heroes, using an archetypical language, and competing for its readership where only a constant influence is exerted on behalf of all stories alike -- it achieves the largest readership of any work of fiction."

"It sounds great. May I see it?" and Ron studied the writing carefully, while the radiator continued its rhythmic improvisations. "It would take a lifetime," he finally said, "just to compare my story with the rest of the field."

"That's right," Merck said. "Setting up the measuring apparatus for Ronald's Norm would engage legions of graduate students. Science has a way of making your problems impossible to solve before you open your mouth."

Ron laughed. He felt depressed and elevated at the same time. "Don't give up on me, Merck, I'll learn."

"Give up on you, dear fellow? We are just at the commencement of a beautiful friendship . . . Don't you have anything to drink, by the way?"

"Just some stale wine."

"That'll do splendidly . . . Until just lately I've been rather melancholy, but I feel better now . . . you must know, I'm not as carefree as people think. I look upon myself as rather unhappy. It's not often that I get close to a person or that anyone gets close to me. For a while I thought it was because I had my career in science . . . article after article, convention after convention, promotion after promotion. Then I went to a psychiatrist because I began to feel depressed and impotent. Two years later I liberated myself from that. It didn't help much. I was the same person who entered his office, now totally bereft of the old ideals that seemed to justify everything. I was left my old traits -- prideful, sarcastic, demanding, yes, sadistic."

He paused to sip his wine. Ron hopped back upon his soft chair and crouched there attentively, rather like a gargoyle above a cathedral resounding with culpa mea's. "Most people are fooled of course. They think that this is the normal behavior of a professor driven by the exacting requirements of a science. I've been this way all of my life. So I became a hypocrite as well, selfishly demanding in the name of my work, which was meanwhile diminishing in quantity, if not in quality as well. But how common it all is. Muriel is a godsend. She is so cynical that she can know all of this without its bothering her."

Then, seeing that Ron had begun to stiffen his spine and would protest, he quickly went on: "No, wait, I know that you like her. You see her in a different light. But I warn you: She is quite unmoved by the plight of others. She perceives the source of any unhappiness -- which is a sign of superiority -- but she neglects it, the unhappiness, therefore, for she cannot see how anyone need depend upon ideals in the first place. Or even why one should pursue a fixed way of life, which, of course, scientific research is.

"I still believe in the way of science, for lack of better. Naturally, I don't believe in god, and science is therefore my religion. The Ph.D. is the sweated blood of the Garden of Gethsemane. The Oral Examination is the crucifixion. The First Appointment is the Ascension. Tenure is a place in Heaven beside the Almighty. To be against tenure is to oppose religion . . . Give me more of that awful wine."

Ron popped off the chair and poured out more wine. He was quite interested. The master is dropping his trousers, he thought. But not yet.

"There can be no eternal novels in science. The book of science is a daily journal composed from thousands of individual journals. It is always being freshly written -- unless the humanistic savages get to it and make a fetish out of some paragraph in the scientific journal with which they happen to have become obsessed. Like the medieval humanists worshiped Aristotle, like the St. Johns College faculty reveres and compels the Great Books . . . A novel, Ron, I fear to tell you, is just a lazy hunch about life built around erratic action, with which some readers associate themselves in self-flattery and in their ignorance believe to be true."

Merck's eloquence no doubt fed upon his problems with publications, that in the past had amounted to some articles in professional journals, two monographs, and a well-reviewed treatise on psychological testing. Except for the last work, that had penetrated the classroom in a few cases, his readers numbered in the hundreds, ten times less than he would admit, 100 times less than was tolerable, 1,000 times less than was profitable, 10,000 times less than a flashy best seller, and the number of footnotes referring to his work elsewhere was dwindling to the point where he did not look for them anymore. He had worked not only Ron, but himself, into a state of occupational demoralization. The two men sat, in a kind of satiated reverie of gloom, staring alternately at each other and at the objects in the room. "Sic transit gloria mundi" Merck muttered; had he drunk too much?

"As we sit here, stars that shined for billions of years stop shining. Millions of globes circle somewhere out there with intelligent beings." Merck could hardly begin to prove this inasmuch as Ron's window looked out upon a wall.

"What if it is all in our minds, Merck, something we conjure up to keep us interested."

"To defeat ourselves, you mean. The show turns us off."

"Well, in our minds, anyhow."

"But we know our minds. They are fair registers of reality, when proper instruments are employed. They are a hive of cells, too many to count, turning on and off like stars, some dying every time you take an aspirin. A lot of blobs, barely enough organized to support a division of labor. The universe and the mind are Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

"Should I then be ready to quit?" asked Ron.

"No, why? Just because you don't believe in god or science?"

"No, because my story is reduced to a lazy hunch and a string of erratic actions."

Merck smiled. "I see -- turning me against myself. I suppose so, then. If you don't quit, it's sheer machismo. You want to be the writer with the biggest genitals in history. That's the key to understanding humanists -- machismo and fear of impotency . . . Without god, without science, there is no third party to demand duty of you and guarantee your reward. Here is the contradiction of your vaunted individuality -- better, your anarchy. You set a goal of lasting fame -- a mundane substitute for immortality -- oh, yes, you say it's for your work, not you -- but that's an illusion, it's you all right, and it's what makes you such a vulnerable and dependent creature."

Ron grasped for a straw to escape drowning in egotism. "However, say my goal were only to please Muriel with my story -- and she is pleased. Then I am fulfilled, I am happy, and that's the end of it."

"It's a simple-minded goal . . . but yes. Still, please note how completely dependent you become upon Muriel. And, furthermore, take note that Muriel, seeming as easy to please as she does, deprives you of the advantage that might come from criticism such as I, for example, might give to you. In fact, Ron, I have been meaning to tell you just that, observing your willingness to devote serious time to my dear friend, promising, too, your chapters to her, etc. etc. . I doubt that it will get you anywhere."

Merck could not properly say what he felt: If you call in a physician to treat your illness, and he finds you under the spell of a herbalist, he will say, 'Either she or I must go.' Instead, he said, "It's not a serious way of working, that's all. Perhaps what you believe that you are obtaining from Muriel is only imaginary. She'll read the final book, anyway, maybe -- she's not a reader . . . And I find myself receiving your problems and ideas second-hand . . . It would be better if the book were something between ourselves."

"Muriel wouldn't like that."

"She wouldn't mind. She has plenty to keep her amused."

"But I like her company, Merck."

"Look, I'm not jealous. It's just that I want to keep the book between us."

"O.K., if that's the way you feel. I'll tell her stories about my job. She'll like them just as well."

"Ron, I am becoming impatient with you. I don't understand why you think that Muriel is so sympathetic, anyhow. She told me that your story was childish and immature."

Ronald looked as if he had swallowed a live fish. "She did?"

"Yes. But pay no attention to it. That's the way she is."

Ron cannot pay attention to anything else now, even if he may no longer speak of it. The fish in his stomach bites him, he pales, his eyes narrow in pain. But he still sits at attention, and Merck goes on talking.

"I'm impressed by the visual aids on your wall." He is referring to several lettered signs that hung from clasps that would allow them to be changed. "What are they -- eternal veracities, clichés?" He reads off the large green scrawl on one placard, entitled "Home Sweet Home.": 'a hearty breakfast -- it does a person good to see him eat -- a good provider -- you can't imagine the things that go on in this world -- the good die young -- the way to a man's heart is through his stomach -- she ran around like a chicken with her head off'."

"I picked those up my last visit with my mother," Ron explains in a perfunctory way. "I'm trying to figure whether they contain a quality of truth that makes them so ordinary."

"Also that one?" Merck asks, pointing to another, obviously not yet completed: "All the world loves a lover -- whispers sweet nothings in her ear -- she had eyes like stars and teeth like pearls."

"Yes . . . I'm thinking of adding, 'He is a fool for a pretty face' and 'He places women upon a pedestal' and 'They've come to a parting of the ways.' "

"Why the placards?"

"Perhaps the image is a kind of fake window view . . . And most are cliché views, like 'Hark, the Lark' and symbols, like the crucifix."

Ron resumes his recitation from another placard, musingly "A watched pot never boils -- Too many cooks spoil the broth -- He has a finger in every pie . . . You'd be surprised how many clichés come from cuisine . . . Did you ever read Frank Sullivan's Mr. Arbuthnot stories? He's the only man I know who wrote deliberately in clichés, but comically, not seriously . . . I'm collecting clichés . . . I have over two thousand. You know how to tell a cliché? -- if a bright child thinks it's great and a professor of English marks you down for using it."

Merck is rocking slowly back and forth, catching up his wine glass from the floor every now and then. "I accept that," he declares. "But if the child lacks experience?. . How would one know today that a chicken with its head cut off flaps all over the place. Not one child in a hundred has seen it happen . . . Perhaps, with royalties, Ron, you can set up a museum to reenact

the prototypes of outdated metaphors."

Ron smiles, but he still doesn't feel well. Hr thinks that Muriel had let him down.

"Who's Giuseppe Reggio, Ron?" Merck asks, indicating another sign, this one framed to a degree of permanency and well-lettered. Whoever else he was, he must have been the man who declared, "Every big step you take is a forty millionth of the way around the world."

"He was my grandfather, a railroad worker."

"It is a truth," announces Merck, "a little fact, and not a cliché, and it has to tremendous effect upon me."

"I know," says Ron. "Me too . . . But if everyone knew the saying and repeated it, would it not become a cliché and then lose its effect on people? And someone would have to invent another expression to do exactly the same job that this one does, which everyone knows . . . So it goes, ages unending"

"Precisely," agrees Merck. "And have you noticed how people today cannot communicate with each other, but they will persecute clichés and feverishly coin new words . . . quite a contradiction; it's self-destructive."

"Then it's not a bad idea of mine to write in clichés."

"Maybe not . . . What a concept -- lending comfort and order to the world by propagating clichés! Ron, you're a joy . . . But perhaps I should think of leaving . . . You look a bit down . . . Your beautiful green eyes are drooping."

"I'm in no hurry to get into bed. No one's there waiting."

"I doubt that she'd help much, if it's a woman that you're thinking of . . . We have our possibilities; we have our problems -- you and I. We have our missions to achieve, one way or another. Women have been called 'earthy' -- why? -- I suppose because they root in their bit of turf called the hearth. But aren't they well known as sprites, too, witches flying about, a contradiction, not so? No matter -- except that they are not us. They're all about us, the shadows of the world, never substantial enough to satisfy us for long. . The compliments of Muriel hardly move me. She scratches the skin; I need gashes in my flesh to make me jolt ahead . . . This Yin and Yang conception of male and female, I think it must be false. Look at the positions in the Yin and Yang: they must both be male." (Why are you talking nonsense?" complained his ego of his libido, but Merck suppressed it.) "Societies rig up the hearth and the cradle -- the one tempts you to the trap; the other snaps shut upon you."

Ron has governed somewhat his despair. He is hypnotized by his friend, who had accelerated his rocking as he became inspired and who has ejected himself and is now pacing about the room. Ron's head is following Merck's movements from his monstrous chair like a chick's form a nest.

"You could never visit me like this if I were a woman and you a man. . There'd be a presumption of scandal," comments Ron.

"True enough . . . Perhaps we ought to avail ourselves of this myth that man has invented to escape the hearth . . . I should ask myself: Have I invented my own book in order to be in your chambers, your boudoir, without guilt -- at least without conventional guilt?. . I'm sure it's all tied together. And I don't mind. Indeed I love it. The intellectual and the erotic go together -- and come together." He pauses and looks to Ronald for agreement. Ron bobs his head.

Merck pauses in his movement. "Now I suppose that I must go . . . I really must . . . I suppose so. . I'm not being ordered out, I know . . . but still," he walks over and crouches before Ronald. "My dear friend, when love comes, it comes fast, I've discovered." He takes Ron's hand warmly in his own. Ron is feeling snug and his face shows a flush of feeling toward his friend. Merck passes his hand through Ron's heavy curls. "I am no different from many others, Ron," he confides in low even tones, "I have needs. I have conceits. I have passions."

Ron speaking even while Merck's hands were on him, and his voice is rather muffled, or thick. "I understand, Merck . . . You're not the first. Nor, I suppose, will you be the last."

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