Remembering love in the time of finals.
By Ed Navakas, AB’68, PhD’72
My first year in college was tough. I grew up in south Florida in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, and the only thing I could imagine becoming was an astrophysicist, though I don’t think I knew what that meant. But at 17 I was sure about who I was and who I would become. When I landed at the University of Chicago on a warm and russet October day, everything seemed right on course.
My optimism began to erode with the first snowfall. By late autumn, the roof and the statues of Zoroaster and Plato on Rockefeller Memorial Chapel were buried in snow, and I found myself going from class to class in a paper-thin “winter coat.” But it was more than the cold that got to me. I wasn’t at all ready for the 8:00 a.m. chem lectures in Kent — nobody’s fault but mine. I was ill prepared, didn’t know how to study, and could barely make out the chicken scratching scrawled on the distant board (I can barely see my nose in front of my face even with my glasses).
Soon I was sleeping in. By second quarter I had bailed out of the science curriculum altogether, having passed out of math and physics on my entrance exams, and was free to embrace the aggregated muses of the humanities.
By mid-January, though still cold most of the time, I was warmed by the fires of Christian Mackauer’s course in Greek and Roman history, was having great fun rereading Aeschylus’s dark trilogy for Hum 1, and had begun to dabble tentatively with the Founding Fathers and Alexis de Tocqueville. Though still pretty unsure of myself, I had begun to feel that there just might be some warm, tiny alcove that I could comfortably inhabit within this great limestone monastery.
That hope exploded into certainty on meeting Chloe. It happened (mirabile dictu!) when we were discussing Keats in humanities class. We were sitting around an enormous wooden table, some 20 of us desperately looking for something bright, or even just plausible, to say about “The Eve of St. Agnes.” The instructor offered preliminary remarks and there followed the usual silence. Someone in the group trenchantly observed that “St. Agnes Eve must have special significance,” a second that “the atmosphere sure seemed brooding and portentous,” and a third that “this stuff must have influenced Edgar Allan Poe” — reasonable comments all from a group of poetry-free American first-years.
It all seemed rather pithless to me, though. Vaguely recalling that porphyry is jet black, or darkish anyhow, I offered the anachronistic suggestion that this was a tale of an interracial or interethnic love affair. Befuddled by the ramifications of my own interpretation and finding myself attacked on all sides, I mounted a furious defense that brooked no evidence to the contrary and deserved the oblivion it earned.
There must have been something about my exhibition — I like to think of it as akin to a majestic stag beleaguered by a pack of baying hounds — that caught the attention of a pale, delicately featured young woman with full red lips. She stared composedly at me through eyes of what seemed — you guessed it — polished porphyry, their irises adorned with flecks of molten gold.
The scene went silent and everyone but her faded into sepia. We were alone in that holy space created by eye contact. I instantly lost my place in my argument and, hopelessly confused, lapsed into sullen silence, staring down with furious intensity at the tabletop in search of my point. When I swallowed hard and looked back up, she closed then opened her eyes with deliberateness and smiled. That’s when I realized literature was for me.
Spring term began as happily as I had hoped. Chloe and I laughed together over pizza in our rooms as we read and reread “St. Agnes,” the Federalist Papers, and more. The weather changed too, in the best demonstration of the pathetic fallacy that this budding literary scholar could ever have imagined. Soon my brown rag of a winter coat lay crumpled in the corner of my room and Chloe and I gamboled happily over the fast-greening quad.
The best thing that spring was music class. After about half a quarter acquainting us with the key musical vocabulary of the past three centuries, the instructor confronted us with a quartet by Joseph Haydn, to be the subject of our final examination. We had five weeks to determine its basic structure, its principal key changes, how it arrived at its conclusion, and, most mystifying of all, how all its parts contributed to “its complex power to move us.”
We listened in groups and alone, in common rooms, in our dorms and on the quads, on cassettes secreted into the library. Never before, I submit, had a single work of Haydn’s been heard so often by so many in so short a time. It became part of us all, the Class of 1968, woven into the fabric of our collective neural network.
One sparkling Saturday morning I was hiding out to study for finals in the wainscoted gothic library of the Oriental Institute. It wasn’t a traditional undergrad haunt, and I was almost alone in the huge high-vaulted room, its long oak tables arrayed in faultless rows, its bookshelves loaded. Spread out before me were the Federalist Papers and three stacks of notes I had compiled for each of three essays I’d promised to write for a Soc 2 study guide. Alas, my summaries were at least as long as the essays themselves — no help to anyone pressed for time.
Then it hit me. Why not diagram the logic of each piece, in as few words as possible? By that time I had dimly glimpsed the logical shapes of the essays behind the flourishes of their 18th-century prose. Three hours later I had six sheets of paper before me, arrows and boxes arranged into a neat tool for efficient study. In the process I had looked intimately into the minds of men, dead for more than 200 years, who had helped to shape my country.
The day had warmed and the librarian had cranked open the row of huge mullioned windows that face onto University Avenue. (Who knew that such medieval things could open at all?) There were no screens, and the fragrant air of a northern spring gone wild, steeped in magnolia and crab-
apple, flooded the room. The warm breeze, laced with cool currents, ruffled my note papers. With it came a hundred animated voices enjoying the brilliant day on the grassy lawns, all lost in the subtleties of Federalist 10 and the structure of the Haydn.
Then, with shocking clarity, I seemed to hear the unadorned melody of the movement’s first few phrases, its simplicity succumbing to luxuriant harmonies, at first only between the violins, ultimately embracing a richly toned viola and a sonorous cello, to produce the complicated and unresolved variations at the end of the second section and imply the deeply satisfying denouement of the third.
I think of what happened next as “the great fusion reaction” (a vestigial remnant of my scientific dreams). Everything came together, not just the Haydn, but the urgent luxury of the spring, the sweet logic of the Federalist argument, my classmates’ eager pursuit of ideas, and my green-shoot passions for Chloe, all growing without surcease, budding as I watched in astonishment, promising to blossom brilliantly in colors that I never knew existed.
The quartet encompassed all of that and more. Not just for me and for Chloe, but for all of us in the Class of ’68. Our hopes were as alive as the promise of springtime, with direction and purpose and the certainty of fruition. When I happened to glance up from my notes in the library, all that I’d felt seemed to distill from thin air into the purest droplet of water, pendant upon a spring-green shoot, refracting and intensifying the light of the reawakened sun, redolent of the future, incorruptible by time, in endless reverberation of Haydn’s last triumphant chord.
It hardly seems possible that more than 50 years have passed since that bright spring morning. Except for a few brief sojourns in Berkeley, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, Chloe and I have spent most of those years in the suburbs of Chicago, raising our kids and pursuing our careers. But no matter how busy life has been, we have found ourselves returning to Hyde Park at regular intervals to see our former professors, to restock at the Seminary Co-op, or to spend a spring afternoon at the Hyde Park Art Fair.
Sometimes we just go to visit old haunts, to stroll past the limestone row houses on Blackstone where Shelly, PhD’60, and Jean, AB’39, Sacks or Gwin, AM’46, PhD’49, and Ruth Kolb would host gatherings of the English department accompanied by copious amounts of good Kentucky bourbon and Glenfiddich. We laughed recently on a visit as we tried to remember the house (also on Blackstone) once owned by Ronald Crane, LAB’38, AB’42, AM’47, where Gwin, himself a trembling grad student, had rung the doorbell to deliver a late paper only to have none other than T. S. Eliot, hat on head and cigarette dangling from his lower lip, pop his head out of the door and ask in a less than civil tone, “And what the hell do you want, kiddo?”
They’re all gone now, of course, Shelly and Jean, Gwin and Ruth, but also Wayne Booth, AM’47, PhD’50; Ned Rosenheim; Arthur Heiserman, AB’48, AM’51, PhD’59; Anthony Yu, PhD’69; and some of our old Berkeley friends. Over the past 50 years we’ve made more visits than I care to remember to Rockefeller Chapel, Bond Chapel, and the First Unitarian Church on 57th Street to celebrate the lives and pay tribute to the work of these special and generous souls.
When you think about it for more than a minute, you realize that the place isn’t the same any more. Really, no university is or ever can be. They are hardly monoliths, these strange, mutating artifacts of culture. They change from term to term, from professorial retirement to professorial hire, even with every incoming class. Our son earned a master’s degree at UChicago almost a generation after we finished our PhDs. A few of the names remained the same, but the culture and experience were almost unrecognizable to us, though perhaps less so to Chloe, who had remained current in critical theory and gender and women’s studies. I won’t try to characterize that difference but do insist that it is so.
Maybe it is no more complicated than the fact that the spring of 1965 was a simpler, more naive time, when one could imagine that young love, a flamboyant springtime, classical quartets, and the pursuit of great ideas could exist, even for a moment, in a sacred space, secure from tendentious politics, world events, and the sort of barbarism we all believed was a thing of the past. But, obviously, my literary-critical biases are showing. I’ve always tended to look at the text — or the moment for that matter — as a magically created object, detached from time and apart from external cause, offering its own unique beauties and pleasures to those who care to look. I might add in my defense that in the spring of 1965 I was still theory-free, and few of us could have imagined what was to come.
Looking back now, I am able to see that many of our Hyde Park visits carried a note of urgency. Like most of us, we’ve had our share of difficult times — the illness of children, the death of parents and friends, business setbacks, and, in my case, career changes. I remember one particularly dark time when I wandered Hyde Park alone — Chloe was at a conference in the city — and explicitly sought to recapture something of the lost magic.
Nothing worked, really, not walking into the main quad along 58th Street or sitting for a bit in the library of the Oriental Institute, not even a Mexicana at the Medici. On more than one occasion I even tried to locate that magical quartet, imagining that just one listen would make everything right. “It shouldn’t be so hard to find,” I would try to encourage myself. “I can see the canary yellow album jacket with its white oval framing the drawing of the bewigged ensemble, and how many did he compose anyway?” But I’ve had no luck. I have grown accustomed to the fact that it is lost to me forever.
And so Chloe and I continue our periodic visits to Hyde Park and to the University of our imaginations, sometimes in good spirits, sometimes in less than top form, resigned to the fact that we are older now, and that, like Odysseus in Ithaca, are fated to enjoy nothing so much as an excursion into the past.
On a bright late spring morning not long ago, Chloe and I awakened with the same idea: “How about we go to the 57th Street Art Fair today?” When we got there, I was heartened to see that there were more exhibitors than ever before and that the crowd was huge and eager, happily diverse in every dimension as only urban university communities can be. Parking was tough, as usual, and so we decided to take our traditional campus stroll before wending our way to 57th. We took a right on Kimbark, walked by the site of the “old” New Dorms (now the “new” University of Chicago Booth School of Business). “Feel like pizza?” Chloe asked as we turned left on 58th toward Woodlawn and soon found ourselves on the 58th Street Mall, the “new” gateway to the main quad.
To our left was the little park behind Rockefeller and the venerable mass of the Oriental Institute, and to our right the beautifully restored Chicago Theological Seminary, purged of the wonderfully labyrinthine Co-op Bookstore and now the proud citadel of Saieh Hall and the Department of Economics. In the far distance, just beyond the western parapet of the old quad, we could just make out the sun glint of the new hospital complex.
“Wow! It just keeps changing, doesn’t it?” I muttered to Chloe, who nodded resignedly.
“Maybe we should simply agree that it’s not the same place it used to be and continue to love it anyway,” she said after a pause.
I turned to look at her, my darling wife of almost 50 years, and was reminded of her many years as a college teacher and her legion of grateful students, my own patients at several local hospitals and public health clinics (not to mention my piles of stories and poems, most yet unperfected), our kids working away at their screenplays, scholarly books, and family building — and I realized with astonishing clarity that I, at least, had gotten it all wrong. Everything was still with us, our college experience, the words and images of our many mentors, our passion for ideas, our sense of the University community still vital after a half century and, of course, the love that blossomed and bore fruit in that unforgettable spring.
Chloe must have felt it too, for she turned and kissed me quietly on the cheek
And that was when I heard the beginning phrases of my lost quartet, rich and harmonious and promising fulfillment. I recognized at last that as long as I live, it will be there, as fresh and alive as ever, waiting to invigorate me still.
Ed Navakas, AB’68, PhD’72, is a psychiatrist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: This story originally appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine’s Spring/17 issue.