February 1, 2008
Aspects of literature that occur in reality can be highly traumatic.
Entirely too long ago, I taught English at Emory University in Atlanta, where the bookstore sold T-shirts declaring accurately, "Harvard—-the Emory of the North." Every Emory student had a best friend with whom s/he had jockeyed for the honor of high school class valedictorian. Both were accepted at both universities; at Harvard the friend partied and got As, while the Emory student slaved, got Cs, and complained.
The department assigned me the freshman preceptorial for winter quarter. A seminar for advanced freshmen, the preceptorial met on Mondays and Thursdays for an hour and a half. Invariably it attracted only a few students, but I offered 18th- and 19th-century Gothic fiction and astonished the faculty by filling it up (somewhat deceptively—several students were fans from my Introduction to Fiction course of the preceding quarter).
Emory required the faculty to count class participation as part of the grade, and 90 minutes is a long time to ask freshmen to sit still anyway, so I assigned each student an oral report intended primarily as a break. The topics from which they could choose consisted of fun things that were background or peripheral to Gothic fiction such as The Frankenstein Monster in Films and The Vampire Figure in Literature (a student reported on the latter dressed as and artfully impersonating Bela Lugosi). One topic was The Legend of the Wandering Jew, because that interesting individual appears fortuitously in the lurid 18th-century novel The Monk, which we were reading.
The only Jewish student in the class, whom I'll call "David," was the department pet. David was from the small town of M-a-a-con, Georgia (and made a point of informing everyone at length as to its correct pronunciation). He was the kind of student who would copy an article at the library and stick it under an office door with a note saying, "Have you seen this? I thought you might like it," without any intention at all of sucking up.
David took one look at the Wandering Jew topic and immediately snapped it up. On the scheduled Monday, he delivered a fine report explaining the legend about a man who had been in the crowd while Jesus was carrying the cross. When Jesus fell, the man stepped forward, slapped him on the back, and said, "Go on, go on—-why dost thou tarry?" Jesus turned to him and replied, "I will go, but thou wilt tarry until my return." This condemned him to continue living until the Second Coming, when presumably he will be forgiven. Meanwhile he wanders the earth doing good deeds to atone for his sin, wearing a hat or headband to cover his forehead, which is marked with a black cross.
On Thursday, I came into class to find David hunched down in his seat, arms crossed defensively, obviously upset. "Dr. Cauwels, I have to talk to you right away," he said. "You know how I explained that the Wandering Jew is marked with a black cross? I was sitting in the cafeteria yesterday having lunch when in came all of these students with black crosses on their foreheads. What’s going on? Has the whole world converted to Wandering Judaism?"
He was sitting next to "Bridget" (already renowned on campus for the glaring discrepancy between her buxom beauty and her nonchalant virginity), who upon hearing this erupted into a fit of giggles. After thinking a moment and recalling what day yesterday might have been (purely by coincidence), I asked her to explain to him about Ash Wednesday.
I happened to have a Wandering Jew plant in my office, and upon returning from class, I cut some slips from it and stuck them into a small paper cup of water. The next time David stopped by, I told him that because he had suffered a trauma, I was giving him the slips for occupational therapy. I explained how to keep trimming the plant and rooting the slips to make it full.
The following year, when I was teaching at the University of Minnesota, David wrote to say that despite his best efforts to contain it, the plant had wandered all over his dorm room. When his roommate began complaining, he gave it to his mother to take home after a visit. Presumably it continued thriving to wander throughout M-a-a-con, Georgia.
The last I heard, David was an associate professor of English at one of the better New England universities (having presumably cultivated his literary sensitivity in analytical contexts while steeling it against real ones). I would love to report that having become frustrated with small-town life, the plant migrated to New York to create the lead role in Little Shop of Horrors, but such was not the case.
The good deeds of the Wandering Jew perhaps set an example for all those whose foreheads bear black crosses on the appropriate day. Happy Wandering Wednesday to all, and to all a short Lent.
Copyright © 2008 by Janice M. Cauwels, Ph.D. All rights reserved.