BASS 2020: William Pei Shih, “Enlightenment” from Virginia Quarterly Review #95.2

I suppose with the story I wanted to highlight the powers of inclusion and diversity and openness, and the dangers of what might manifest otherwise in closures – that there is so much more to life than simply coexistence.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

There’s one in nearly every BASS: a story that’s so far over my head, I can’t even fake an understanding of it. Even the Contributor Note – from which I’ve excerpted only a very small part above, we’ll get to the rest of it in a moment – is over my head. And, sadly, this is the story Jake has chosen to take a pass on, and there goes my safety net.

On the most straightforward level, we have another Misbehaving Male (I can’t wait to get to my wrap-up post to go into this further). But the story is written with missing pieces, creating an air of mystery, and is told against the background of academia and David Hume and Samuel Johnson, so I get the feeling there’s a lot more to it than simply another sexual harassment case.

The story works hard to create sympathy and understanding for our MM by showing us a bit of his early years as a lonely outsider:

Harvard, 1966. Abel Jones is in his third year. He is an exceptional student, head of the class. He is studying history. His area of focus, the eighteenth century. England and France. Still, there are days when he is lost. Days when he is perplexed. For one, he is excruciatingly shy, soft-spoken. A young man from the country. There are times when he even feels out of his depth. The university is distinctively male, overwhelmingly white — a kind of white. It is marked by class. Even one’s residence defines him. The best rooms are on the second floor, where the most well-to-do reside. A scholarship student, Abel lives on the top floor. Sex is possible. It is commonly available in the bathrooms. At times, he can’t help but think that he’s no better than a pervert.

At first, I thought the mention of whiteness indicated Abel was non-white. That seemed odd as the story went on, since it was never mentioned again. Given his date with a blue-eyed (and presumably white) blonde woman, I would have expected additional mention. Turns out, the comment seems to be preparatory for a showdown over the viability of Harvard for a future student who is, explicitly, non-white.

The relationship with Daphne, the blue-eyed blonde, also sets up some of the backstory. When Abel can’t consummate the relationship in spite of his wanting to do so and her equal willingness, he doesn’t explain more than “I can’t.” He’d seen a psychotherapist who’d told him he wasn’t really gay, the sex with boys way just sexual panic and he needs the love of a good woman to straighten him out. Yeah. Psychotherapy in 1966 wasn’t much better than the gossip over the backyard fence. But it seems his interest in Daphne was more instrumental than romantic:

He can already tell that she will be the type of woman who will pave the way, shine a spotlight on all of his best qualities. It would be easy for people to admire him, as they admire her. A lifetime, ripe with possibilities. Windfall after windfall. He would never have to fear the risk of losing his leverage in the world ever again.

Yep, that’s a 1966 view of a woman’s role in a man’s life, all right. Alas, it’s all too often a 2020 view. But he still can’t close the deal.

Flash forward to the present: Abel is sixty-eight, retired from what seems to have been a solid career as a professor at a Connecticut college; that is, not Harvard. But now we get to the heart of the story. Abel (or should I call him Dr. Jones? That sounds too Raiders of the Lost Ark, Abel it is) hits on a student. It starts over the Dialogue in David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals – a fascinating episode I haven’t encountered before, part of his defense of morality as based on what we feel rather than on reason, a little jaunt into relativism by disguising the revered ancients of Greece and Rome as Alcheic, a resident of a  fictional land of Fourli who is revered though he commits incest, patricide, and suicide, and, oh yeah, cheats on his wife with boys at the local university – and intensifies with dinners, a visit to a gay bar, and extravagant gifts.

I could feel Christian’s discomfort at the showering of gifts, but it isn’t until Abel kisses him – “Why did you do that?” – that he backs off for a while. He returns, asking for a recommendation letter for his application to grad school at Harvard. It’s something of the reverse of Abel’s relationship with Daphne, in that the interest is instrumental, not personal. But in this case, it’s perfectly appropriate, since a student has every right to request a qualifications boost from a professor. That it builds on Abel’s obvious personal interest may show a bit of manipulation on Christian’s part – playing the guilt string – but he seems more interested in Abel’s status as a Harvard alum and member of the Samuel Johnson Society.

Abel has a complicated reaction to this. He wants Christian to stay within his circle for salacious reasons, but he also has concerns based on his experience decades before:

The wasted years. Days of drifting about, feeling entirely out of one’s element. The torture of being friendless, invisible. The absurd self-loathing. All the self-destruction. How would he ever be able to explain what that was like?

“You will fail,” he proclaims. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Christian’s experience might be different, that Harvard might be different – at least a little – or that Christian needs to make his own decisions. He refuses to write the letter. Talk about failing. Can you say lawsuit?

But we jump again, not in time but in focus, and discover Abel is still friends with Daphne: “there is another kind of love there, and it is no less true.” That was a surprise. It’s no small thing to maintain a friendship for that long, and nothing I’d read in the story seemed to indicate he would have the interest or the ability. Maybe he was able to use her as a spotlight in spite of the lack of romance between them. Maybe she was a mentor to him, as he failed to be for Christian.

The story closes with Abel, following his visit to the annual Gala of the Samuel Johnson Society at the Harvard Club, thinking of Christian, trying to come up with ways their paths could intersect. He sends the kid yet another email.

Again he is at his desk. The computer the university had given him, its bright screen before him. He watches the cursor, its metronomic blinking reminds him of a countdown. “Abel Jones,” he says to himself. “What in heavens are you waiting for?” 

I don’t know what it is he sees himself waiting for: to get over Christian? To find a lover? To die? It seems to me he’s waiting for a reply from Christian, which has very little likelihood of arriving. Is it maybe that he’s beginning to realize that, and he’s asking, not “What are you waiting for, let’s get started” but “Just what do you think is going to happen as you sit here staring at the screen?” It’s something like the last scene from The Social Network, rather than a realization that it’s time to move on.

I don’t read the Contributor Notes until I’ve finished a story, and often I find an interesting origin story for a piece. Sometimes I’m surprised at how the author envisions the story. In this case, I’m struggling to 1) understand what is being said, because the Note is as difficult to interpret as the story, and 2) relate it to the story. It isn’t just that I read a different story; that happens often enough. It’s that I feel incredibly stupid because there’s a lot of richness there, and I want to know what it means.

So let’s go back and look at the parts of the Note that I didn’t quote above:

For me, one of the emotional engines that came about as I was writing this story is the idea of goodness – the human endeavor of choosing not only between good and evil, but the everyday and less-acknowledged choices between two disparate goods, and how choosing one good over another is often done, whether inadvertently or not, at a disservice and even the annihilation of the other. In the end I wondered at what point such choices enter the territories of wrongdoing.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

I’m thinking of the choices Abel made, at which ones might be between two disparate goods. Heterosexuality and homosexuality? Isn’t that something that’s more or less hardwired? It seems to me his relatioship with Daphne is one of the best things in his life; I don’t see how that would have annihilated other options, and it wasn’t annihilated by his gayness. By seeing Christian as a romantic partner, did that obliterate the possibility of seeing him as a protégé, as someone whose career he could help build? Probably; but that’s a very difficult transition to make.

I was also thinking about all the many kinds of unrequited love and lonelinesses, how an essential part of being human is that longing to connect meaningfully in some way with someone else – to relate – and how often times people might need a little more time to explain themselves. I was thinking about how commonalities seem to help. Likenesses and likemindedness also do much of that necessary work. Phenotype is another factor that comes into play. At the same time, shared experiences assume and imagine perhaps too much. Falsifications take hold; pluralities become grossly ignored. In short, one runs the risk of giving people who are seemingly like oneself too much of the benefit of the doubt.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

This  makes more sense to me.  Abel sees Christian as himself, and that leads to all kinds of assumptions: that Christian wants emotional and romantic guidance, that he needs a certain kind of academic setting, that he’s looking for personal help rather than academic firepower. It’s a reflection of Abel’s first encounter with Daphne. Somehow, that relationship righted itself and grew; alas, it seems that won’t be the case now. Then again, we have no knowledge of how his friendship with Daphne managed to survive, or what bumps in the road it hit along the way. 

And then there is always the expanding and accelerating universe of the unknown, which one might confuse with disappointment. Despite the fact that we are always more than the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell each other, so much of what’s unrequited and unreciprocated gets wasted away into the undiscovered and what-could-have-been.

William Pei Shih, Contributor Note

This seems to fit the comparison with Daphne again, and might be the key to the story. If Abel could get his head around the fact that Christian isn’t interested in a romantic or sexual relationship, he might be able to find a different kind of relationship. He’s wasting so much, and he already has the model of his friendship with Daphne. I don’t even get the sense that he’s in the throes of unrequited love; it’s more that he’s trying to rescue someone he sees as his younger self, except Christian doesn’t need rescue.

The entire story takes place against a backdrop of Hume, to whom I’ve had some exposure though not much to his views on morality, and Samuel Johnson, about whom I know little other than his dictionary. Maybe if I knew more about them, the story would click into place. Then I think of the title, and the emphasis on reason in the Enlightenment, as opposed to Hume’s idea that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” I think part of Abel’s problem is that he thinks  he’s acting on reason, but he’s really reacting to his passions. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself – Hume saw our sensation to be the basis of morality – but it’s the lack of self-awareness that’s hampering him, sitting in front of a bright computer screen, watching the tick-tock of the blinking cursor. It’s a lovely closing image.

This story is available online at Virginia Quarterly Review.
The Dialogue from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning The Principles Of Morals.

One response to “BASS 2020: William Pei Shih, “Enlightenment” from Virginia Quarterly Review #95.2

  1. Sorry I was no help. At some point, I have to decide to love myself enough not to go traipsing all over creation in search of something to say about a story I didn’t enjoy, even after two sympathetic readings.

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