Excerpt: 'Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy' by Randall Jarrell
From the cover of Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell, Phoenix Fiction edition, 1986. Cover art by John Sandford
Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and spoken for the other. A visitor looked under black beams, through leaded casements (past apple boughs, pas box, past chairs like bath-tubs on broomsticks) to a lawn ornamented with one of the statues of David Smith; in the months since the figure had been put in its place a shrike had deserted for it a neighboring thorn tree, and an archer had skinned her leg against its farthest spike. On the table in the President’s waiting-room there were copies of Town and Country, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and a small magazine—a little magazine—that had no name. One walked by a mahogany hat-rack, glanced at the coat of arms on an umbrella-stand, and brushed with one’s sleeve something that gave a ghostly tinkle—four or five black and orange ellipsoids, set on grey wires, trembled in the faint breeze of the air-conditioning unit: a mobile. A cloud passed over the sun, and there came trailing from the gymnasium, in maillots and blue jeans, a melancholy procession, four dancers helping to the infirmary a friend who had dislocated her shoulder in the final variation of The Eye of Anguish.
In this office Constance Morgan had been, for a year, the assistant to the secretary of the President; this was her last day.
Her job was like most jobs, except for its surroundings: either she did what she did not want to do, or wished that she had it left to do. By four o’clock there was nothing left. She sat in uneasy content, in easy discontent—she could not tell—picked an envelope from the top of one pile, put it on the top of another, and took a last last look through the drawers of the desk. Dr. Rosenbaum’s old St. Bernard’s voice came to her from the tennis courts, and she felt once more the pleasure she always felt at any reminder that he existed; she saved for him St. Augustine’s best sentence: I want you to be. Two voices from the President’s office—the President’s, Gertrude Johnson’s—she heard with different feelings; she could not have said exactly what they were.
Gertrude Johnson was, of course, the novelist; she had come to Boston six and a half months ago, late in the fall, to replace a new teacher of creative writing who had proved unexpectedly unsatisfactory. Gertrude had, as her enemies put it, a hard heart and a sharp tongue; but her heart was softened a little, and her tongue dulled, at her first interview with the President of Benton, Dwight Robbins. He was a nice-looking and informal and unassuming man, a very human one, as he sat there on the edge of his desk, in the winter sunlight of his office; she felt—people could not help feeling as soon as they met President Robbins—as if she had just taken a drink. Everything was blurred a little with attractiveness, and she almost believed, as she did not ordinarily, in Friendship at First Sight. President Robbins wore a simple, grey flannel, undergraduate’s suit; his fair hair kept flopping into his face; in spite of once having been a diver in the Olympics, he gave an impression of slightness. He had what novelists used to call “an engaging grin,” but it was engaging; one liked the way the skin crinkled around his eyes. Gertrude tried to think of a word for him, and did: the word was boyish.
The President, for his part, saw a short slight woman who was from head to foot, except for her pale blue eyes, a pale, pale, almost wholly unsaturated brown. Her lips were painted a purplish maroon; she had put on no other make-up. She wore her hair more or less as our mothers wore it; her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished. Then one noticed that she had an obstinate Irish—or, perhaps, an obstinate apish—upper lip. Her face seemed a ground on which anything could figure: one felt that when she wore new earrings her husband, the children in the street, and the blind beggar on the corner would congratulate her on them. This is what you saw. Yet when you knew her how different it all looked: Gertrude’s spirit shone through her body as if the body were an old pane of glass, and you thought, “My God, how could I have been so blind!”
They talked a little (Gertrude in her anomalous Southern speech, President Robbins in Standard American) about the job he was offering her. The salary was not what either would have wished it, but he explained why it couldn’t be in a way that was new to her: his married alumnae either died before their husbands, who left money to their own colleges, or else on their husbands’ deaths left money to the husbands’ colleges as memorials; and his unmarried alumnae left their money to cats and dogs and causes. Gertrude and the President laughed. Gertrude had not met a great many college presidents, but she knew from fiction, conversation, and Reason what all of them are like; President Robbins was different.
The job seemed unusually undemanding: one taught classes only twice a week, and did the rest of one’s work in individual talks or “conferences” with the students. Gertrude smiled and said, “There’s nothing I’d rather do than talk.” It was true.
President Robbins laughed—he admired frankness—and said heartily: “Good! Then Benton is certainly the place for you.” They both sounded a little too hearty, but they both knew that one necessarily sounds that way in such circumstances: who comments on the weather with all the lack of interest that he really feels?
Gertrude was, as novelists say, “between novels”; she had taught writing once at an old-fashioned, high-schoolish college in Missouri, and knew that after it Benton would be a breeze. The President seemed to feel—several sentences implied it—that she would be a great acquisition to Benton; this was so, of course, but she was pleased that he both knew it and showed that he knew it. They arranged everything: President Robbins took her back to the station in one of the school’s cars, and they had a drink on the way; late that week Gertrude and her husband found an apartment in Mount Pleasant, the little city that Benton lay at the edge of, and on Monday of the next week—a snowy Monday—Gertrude taught her first class at Benton.
Now she had taught her last class there, thank God! Suffused in summer, blind with bliss, she sat saying goodbye to President Robbins; and President Robbins, blind with bliss, sat saying goodbye to Gertrude Johnson. Constance, in the office outside, could not help hearing every word of their somewhat self-conscious, wholly delighting voices; they both sounded a little hearty, but they knew that one necessarily sounds that way in such circumstances.
Gertrude and the President’s Friendship at First Sight had lasted only until they took a second look at each other. After this look Gertrude no longer felt as if she had just taken a drink, but as if she had a long time ago taken a great many: that look awoke both of them from their amicable slumbers.
What a pity it was that that party had ever been given!—the party that brought with it their first terrible quarrel, a quarrel that ended their friendship after eleven days. Without the party, they both felt bitterly, it might have lasted for weeks. One could not help blaming Gertrude a little more than the President; the President, like most people, behaved in a different way after he had had a great deal to drink, but Gertrude, knowing no other, behaved exactly as she always behaved. But the drinks at the party, the almost unavoidable intimacies of the party, what they had said and what Mrs. Robbins had said and what people had said they all of them had said at the party—these, the memory of these, made Gertrude and the President look narrowly at each other, and their eyes widened at what they saw. George looked at the dragon and thought, Why, that woman’s a dragon; and the dragon looked at George and thought, That’s no man, that’s an institution.
The word had come to Gertrude at the party, when she had found herself reflecting, “This institution’s drunk.” For days after the party the President felt, Another such party and we are lost—his ordinary disorderly executive existence had not prepared him for Life; Gertrude felt, yawning, Another party. It was one more pearl on the string of her existence, and she had come here to string pearls; when the pearls gave out, she knew, Godfather Death would come and cart her away.
But Dwight Robbins; President Robbins, that is; the President, that is—the President interested Gertrude; she realized, suddenly, that she was no longer between novels. She looked at the President as a weary, way-worn diamond-prospector looks at a vein of blue volcanic clay; she said to herself, rather coarsely—Gertrude was nothing if not coarse: “Why, girl, that Rift’s loaded.” How can we expect novelists to be moral, when their trade forces them to treat every end they meet as no more than an imperfect means to a novel? The President was such invaluable material that Gertrude walked around and around him rubbing up and down against his legs, looking affectionately into the dish of nice fresh mackerel he wore instead of a face; and the dish looked back, uneasy, unsuspecting.
Mrs. Robbins, the Robbins’ little boy Derek, the Robbins’ two big Afghans: these and the Benton—and Benton!—interested Gertrude too. Derek and the Afghans didn’t really, except as properties: Gertrude thought children and dogs overrated, and used to say that you loved them so much only when you didn’t love people as much as you should. As much as you should had a haunting overtone of as much as I do—an overtone, alas! too high for human ears. But bats heard it and knew, alone among living beings, that Gertrude loved.
If you loved people as much as you should, Gertrude told you that you should not “extend to or expect from created things the love that belongs to their Creator.” Gertrude’s wheel was fixed, everybody soon found; and yet most of us, fools that we are, could not resist going back to play at it.
Gertrude thought Europe overrated, too; she voyaged there, voyaged back, and told her friends; they listened, awed, uneasy somehow. She had a wonderful theory that Europeans are mere children to us Americans, who are the oldest of men—why I once knew: because our political institutions are older, or because Europeans skipped some stage of their development, or because Gertrude was an American—I forget. She would have come from Paradise and complained to God that the apple wasn’t a Winesap at all, but a great big pulpy Washington Delicious; and after the Ark she would have said that there had not been the animals, the spring rains, and the nice long ocean-voyage the prospectus from the travel-agency had led her to expect—and that she had been most disappointed at not finding on Mt. Ararat Prometheus.
Age could not wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony: in fact, neither Age nor Custom could do anything (as they said, their voices rising) with the American novelist Gertrude Johnson.
If Gertrude had asked Dwight Robbins what two times three is, he would have hesitated a fraction of a second and then spontaneously replied—or rather, would have replied with charming spontaneity, with a kind of willing and unconsidered generosity, of disinterested absorption in her problem—
What did it matter what he would have said? You could always find it worked out in percentages in the monthly poll of public opinion in Fortune, back under the heading Opinions of Liberal Presidents of Liberal Arts Colleges. He loved to say to you, putting himself into your hands: “I know I’m sticking my neck out, but. . . “ How ridiculous! President Robbins had no neck.
From The Wealth of Nations one learns that the interest of each is, in the end, the good of all; if one observed President Robbins one saw that the good of all is, in the beginning, the interest of each. We have read, in the Gospels, that the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light; but both, when they choose between God and the world, are stupider than the men who know that we do not need to choose. President Robbins had no complaints about this Paradise, the world. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Life, he knew; and President Robbins lay sleeping in its branches, his parted lips smelling pleasantly of apples.
About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers—that gives, even, the typographical errors in the back of the book.) President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.
Had it not been for Mrs. Robbins, President Robbins’ life would have been explicable down to the last detail, and he himself the only existing human representation of the Theory of Perfect Competition: one looked at him, thought of the marginal producers who because of him must have been forced out of living or whatever it was they did. But why had he married Mrs. Robbins? It was a question to which there could not be an answer. Marianne Moore has said, We prove, we do not explain our birth; and this is true of marriages.
People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry. She was a South African—not a native, not a Boer, a colonial. She had been a scholar once, and talked somewhat ostentatiously of her work, which she tried to keep up. To judge from her speech, she was compiling a Dictionary of Un-American English: if lifts and trams ever invade the North American continent, Pamela Robbins is the woman to lead them. Often, when you have met a true Englishwoman—the false ones are sometimes delightful—you feel that God himself could go no further, that way. Mrs. Robbins existed to show what he could do if he tried.
For Mrs. Robbins understanding anybody, having a fellow-feeling for anybody, admitting anybody else exists, were incomprehensible vices of Americans, Negroes, Continentals, cats, dogs, carrots. She was “half British phlegm and half perfidious Albion,” according to Gertrude Johnson, who loved to refer to Pamela as the Black Man’s Burden; any future work on Mrs. Robbins will have to be based on Gertrude’s. Incidentally, this half. . . half. . . formula was Gertrude’s favorite: she said that the President was “half jeune fille, half faux bonhomme.” I hadn’t liked her formula for Pamela, so I accepted her description of the President with bored matter-of-factness, as if she’d told me that he was half H2 and half SO4; but then I thought, “It’s so; it’s so.” Sometimes Gertrude was witty without even lying.
For Mrs. Robbins life was the war of one against all; in this she was another Gertrude, a commonplace, conventional, jointed-hardwood Gertrude. (Yet her conception of this was that of a Hessian prince of the eighteenth century, while Gertrude’s was that of the director of some War of the Future, a war in which the inhabitants of the enemy country wake up some morning to find that they have all been dead a week.) Mrs. Robbins asked: “If I am not for myself, who then is for me?”—and she was for herself so passionately that the other people in the world decided that they were not going to let Pamela Robbins beat them at her own game, and stopped playing.
Once Mrs. Robbins had a long and, in its later stages, surprisingly acrimonious argument with several of her guests (to Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all) about a book of Evelyn Waugh’s called Brideshead Revisited. She believed it to be a satire on the Roman Catholic Church, since she was sure that its author was “too intelligent a man” to believe in “all that.” Her guests had few good arguments, and she many bad ones: yet, say what she might, the guests stayed unconvinced. Finally she exclaimed, drawing herself up: “I have lived among the English aristocracy, and I know.” I had always loved Cleopatra’s “The man hath seen some Majesty, and should know,” but before this I had never really heard it.
Mrs. Robbins fought to acquire as much—not merit; what did she know about merit?—as much prestige or position or face as possible. For her mankind existed to be put in its place. She felt that the pilgrim’s earthly progress is from drawer to drawer; and that when we are all dead the Great Game will be over. Mrs. Robbins poured tea as industrial chemists pour hydrofluoric acid from carboys.
To hear her was to be beginning to despair: Constance Morgan’s beloved Dr. Rosenbaum once murmured, like the Spartan boy, “I do nodt like de tune she says zings to.” Gottfried Rosenbaum, that kindly—or, as some people said, that crazy—composer, could as easily have pronounced the Hottentot click sounds Mrs. Robbins had grown up among (though to hear her, she seemed to have been born in an air-liner over the Cape of Good Hope, and to have arrived in Sussex on the second day) as he could have pronounced th. He said d a third of the time, t a third of the time, and z a third of the time, and explained, smiling, that after a few years, ass sure ass Fadt, these would merge into the correct sound. It is true that his d and t and z were changing, but not in the direction of any already existing sound: his speech was a pilgrimage toward some lingua franca of the far future—vadt ve all speak ven de Stadte hass viderdt away, as he would have expressed it.
It was never the individual sounds of a language, but the melodies behind them, that Dr. Rosenbaum imitated; for these his ear was Mozartian. To hear him speak French, if you didn’t try to understand what he was saying, was as good as attending Phèdre: he seemed a cloud that had divorced a textbook of geometry to marry Guillaume Apollinaire—when you replied, weakly, Yes, it was in the accents of Matthew Arnold appreciating Rachel. Without realizing it, Dr. Rosenbaum imitated the characteristic tune of whatever person he had last been talking to—you could tell immediately whether he had been having a conversation with one of the professors educated at C.C.N.Y. or with one of those begun at Indiana and finished at the Harvard Graduate School.
But even his Unconscious knew enough to refuse to imitate Mrs. Robbins. Her every sentence sang itself to a melody so thin-lipped, so emptily affected, so bloodless, so heartless, so senselessly and conclusively complacent, that it was not merely inhuman but inanimate, not merely lifeless but the negation of life—as you listened plants withered, the landscape grew lunar, the existence of Paramecium, of molds and spores, of the tobacco mosaic virus, came to seem the fantasy of some Utopian planner; her voice said that there is nothing.
To understand what Pamela Robbins was one didn’t need to listen to what she said, to understand English, to understand human speech; the Afghans, who had never learned to make the slightest sense out of, discrimination between, Here and Get down and Bad dog!—they knew what Mrs. Robbins was, and as she fed them wagged their tails distrustingly. They ate like horses—no, that isn’t fair, they ate horses; anything but horsemeat, in those quantities, would have been beyond the Robbins’ means.
If I tell you that Mrs. Robbins had had teeth and looked like a horse, you will laugh at me as a cliché-monger; yet it is the truth. I can do nothing with the teeth; but let me tell you that she looked like a French horse, a dark, Mediterranean, market-type horse that has all its life begrudged to the poor the adhesive-tape on a torn five-franc note—that has tiptoed (to save its shoes) for centuries along that razor-edge where Greed and Caution meet. This dark French look was, I suppose, Mrs. Robbins’ “Norman blood” coming out; for surely the Normans must have taken along with them on the Conquest some ordinary Frenchmen.
A friend of mine told me that, yeas and years ago, he had seen Dwight Robbins being introduced to Anthony Eden at a dinner of the League for the Promotion of Anglo-American Amity—or Unity, perhaps; he was not sure of the name, but the dinner had been at the Waldorf. My friend said, “As they shook hands Mr. Eden looked at President Robbins, and his face sagged; I realized for the first time that he is a man of comparatively advanced years.”
This happened to everyone who met President Robbins: the freshmen of Benton thought the President younger than they. (Though they themselves were as old as Time, and wondered when the grown-ups—the other grown-ups—would see that they were.) President Robbins had begun his real career several years later than those who are called boy wonders ordinarily do, so he made a point of looking, and looked, several years younger than they. He had been made President of Benton at the age of thirty-four, instead of at the age of twenty-nine. There was nothing he could do about this, he knew.
But how foolish it was for him even to want to try: he possessed, and would possess until he died, youth’s one elixir, Ignorance; he drank each day long draughts from the only magic horn, Belief. If you had said to people, “Dwight Robbins was thirty-four when he was appointed President of Benton,” they would have said to you, “You mean he’s thirty-four!”
He said to the World, I believe—Lord, help thou mine unbelief; but the World knew that it did not need to help, that he could not disbelieve in one button of it if he tried. He was a labyrinth in which no one could manage to remain for even a minute, because there were in it no wrong turnings. He fitted into things, things fitted into him. If, a soldier in the army, he had been given what is called a Good Conduct medal, he would have felt that he had received it for his own good conduct, and he would have felt, without wanting to, that his medal made him a little superior to the friend beside him who had received none. He believed.
Sometimes waking at morning, walking under the trees of Benton, climbing to the diving-board of its swimming-pool, he would say to himself with a flush of pure, of almost unbelieving joy: “I’m President of Benton!”—and at these moments his eyes were not boyish but a boy’s.
When he had first read The Great Gatsbyhe had felt a queer thrill of identification with Jay Gatsby; now and then he would mention the book in a detached way. For he too had begun very “low” indeed, among the very poor, and he would still once or twice a year do or say, or not do or not say, little things that made your face, before you could control it, go rigid with astonishment; and he was taught by that astonishment, and forever after kept a finger in that hole of the dyke. (In the end the dyke would have no holes left, and President Robbins would be in Holland for good.)
Once, making a money-raising tour among Southern alumnae, he had said one of these little things while being served breakfast on a tray in his room. It made the houseboy go back and tell the cook that President Robbins was not—and here he sounded embarrassingly like Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima—was not quality folks. The cook replied, forgivingly, that he was only a Northerner, and beat her biscuit-dough with steady strokes.
But in a certain sense President Robbins was right: in a certain sense he was like Gatsby. There was a part of Gatsby which his banks, his lawyers, the company that insured him, and other institutions knew—a part that was not in love with Daisy but with the bank; and this part of Gatsby President Robbins shared with Gatsby. The World and President Robbins were in love with each other.
This earth carries aboard it many ordinary passengers and it carries, also, a few very important ones. It is hard to know which people are, or were, or will be which. Great men may come to the door in carpet-slippers, their faces like those of kindly or fretful old dogs, and not even know that they are better than you; a friend meets you after fifteen years and the Nobel Prize, and he is sadder and fatter and all the flesh in his face has slumped an inch nearer the grave, but otherwise he is as of old. They are not very important people. On the other hand, the president of your bank, the Vice-Chancellor of the—no, not of the Reich, but of the School of Agriculture at the University of Wyoming—these, and many Princes and Powers and Dominions, are very important people; the quality of their voices has changed, and they speak more distinctly from the mounds upon which they stand, making sure that their voices come down to you.
The very important are different from us. Yes, they have more—everything. They are spirits whom that medium, the world, has summoned up just as she has the rest of us, but there is in them more soul-stuff, more ego; the spirit of Gog or Magog has been summoned. There is too much ectoplasm: it covers the table, moves toward the laps of the rest of us, already here sitting around the table on straight chairs, holding one another’s hands in uneasy trust; we push back our chairs, our kinship breaks up like a dream—it is as if there were no longer Mankind, but only men.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 3–18 of Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy by Randall Jarrell, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1954 by Randall Jarrell. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)