by Israel A. Bonilla
Although long distanced from the academic clique, Faustino and Dayana were widely known within our university. It struck me as odd at first – here were two very distinct persons, whose lives were not parallel or easily recounted as dedicated to one great endeavour. They were not the sort of figures who found a comfortable place in memory. Dayana had been a hectic activist for most of her life: few were the causes she didn’t have the heart and energy to support; she was an impressive counter-example to the majority of our professors, who once espoused hopes of social betterment and later “came to their senses.” Her name was met either with a condescending smile or a moderate scoff. Faustino, on the other hand, had given his life to writing books and “publishing” them by independent means; he was also a counter-example, for his prose was incandescent and his thoughts foreign to the self-important, minute, jargon-laden articles we were assigned to read. His name elicited a somewhat more sympathetic response, since he led as sedentary an existence as any tenured professor – no tip of the hat, however.
Understandably, then, Emily and I were intrigued by the prospect of an interview. Faustino had just written The Imaginative Leap, and Dayana was rumoured to have started her memoirs. Moreover, the first issue of our magazine had not been stillborn; we managed to sell a bit more than half of the printings. It seemed things were in place. So we asked Krumrie, our Logic professor, to help with the arrangements. He was an old friend of theirs, one of the few left in the university. Given his discreet nature, you had to ask about the friendship to get any details, and even then he was quite laconic.
“I first made the acquaintance of Dayana. She wasn’t as certain of things back then as she is now. She appreciated discussion. I remember how after every single class she did not seem convinced of the arguments. ‘Ad hoc, is what that was.’”
“When did she begin worrying about social matters?”
“I’m not sure. She was sceptical of Marx and the Frankfurt School, curiously. The normal gateways, no?”
“What about Faustino?”
“I got to know him about a year later. Impatient, fickle. He hasn’t changed much. He berated the need for formalisations in some classes. ‘I’ve had it with these onanistic intellectual games.’”
If pressed further, he doubled-down on his uncertainty; trying with the present had similar results. The two phrases he quoted were his lone contribution, always repeated when recalling the couple’s youth. He may have thought they summed them up.
Emily and I didn’t speculate about his possible reaction to our asking for help contacting his old friends, so it took us aback.
“An interview? The university is teeming with rigorous thinkers and activists who are already dealing with obscurity. I’m not sure Dayana and Faustino would be of much help.”
“We understand, but they could offer an outside perspective. Life here can be too insular at times.”
“It is precisely that insularity which sharpens focus. Students are fuzzy reasoners as things stand. Dayana and Faustino tempt them into an idiosyncratic lifestyle. I fear it is difficult for the average student to ponder this properly.”
While I searched for a diplomatic answer, Emily went forth.
“You’re talking as a stuffy teacher, Krumrie. And that’s fine. But we would like to give him a choice.”
“I will talk to them. Do not be readily swayed. Maintain your independence.”
It was puzzling to know Krumrie was a close friend. We were familiar with his orthodox ways and impeccable academic record, but there had been elbow room for rationalisations – he opened up with them, he lived vicariously through their insurgency, he held in high regard the old days, etc. Not anymore. His manner was brusque, as if an esoteric principle had been forced to fracture. Yet Emily and I were pleased enough.
The interview was set for a Saturday afternoon. Friday night, Emily complained about the questions we’d written down.
“This is so lifeless. They’re the type of questions we’d throw at Krumrie, you know.”
“I admit they’re not original or whatever, but we can’t just chat for a while. The activism and the writing belong to the foreground. Besides, we don’t have any idea about the kind of people they are. They might be curmudgeons.”
“Yeah, we’re not a gossip magazine – not yet, at least. But we can come up with something more natural.”
“As long as we plan ahead, you won’t be seeing anything natural.”
“You’re right. Here’s my idea: let’s make an outline, let’s leave behind the specific words. It’ll be something of an improvisation.”
“Just don’t die on me.”
Their house was on the outskirts of the city. Though modest, it stood as a heavy contrast to those in the surroundings. To begin with, it wasn’t mired in dirt, it didn’t amass a blend of bricks and mortar that sullied hanging laundry in the front yard, it didn’t have a fence made of alternating pieces of cardboard and wood – all in all, it was an actual home. And this sight strained our already shaky morale. As we waited outside, their neighbours stared and whispered.
Faustino was the first to greet us. He waved at the neighbours and cracked some local joke. Predictably unkempt, he nonetheless seemed in high spirits.
“Was it a bother getting here?”
“Not at all.”
“He’s being nice. You live . . . very, very far away from uni. Deliberate?”
“Somewhat. Matters of money that ended up acquiring nifty symbolic value.”
I could notice the tension between Emily’s blunt words and the hesitant tone, but Faustino didn’t flinch. I was moderately relieved.
The interior was something of a mismatch: a long bookcase that seemed to spill miscellaneous objects over the floor (magazines, newspapers, notebooks, pencils, markers) covered most of the living room wall; in the remaining space, impeccable, a tall, elongated pot bore the weight of two hyacinths. Dayana, who sat on a worn-out couch nearby, accentuated the disparity. She wore a black dress that served as canvas to her ashen hair.
“Oh, are you Krumrie’s students? I wasn’t expecting such youth!”
Her transition from seriousness to levity was sudden yet natural. Soon we felt comfortable enough to begin recording. Emily would have the lead for a while before handing over the notebook.
“For a long time both of you have had an increasingly sterling reputation among young students. Do you find this understandable or rather strange?”
“It’s not too surprising. Day and I have done our best to maintain the energy and hopes of bygone years. Some of that must come through.”
“It’s always heartwarming to know sincere work can inspire others. However, I do find it strange. Take a look at history’s regal pile of books and events – hardly anyone feels its pulse. Few things seize the minds of twenty-year-olds.”
“We have the supreme advantage of being alive, Day.”
“Most of our friends appreciate your status as pariahs. Most of them secretly, too.”
“Faust wore it at some point as a badge of honour. To him, the margins were inevitable if he was to work in any meaningful sense. For my part, I would’ve stayed had bureaucrats ceased their passive harassment.”
“I became suspect of the idea of academic freedom. All the tools of the trade, all the conventions are there to help you. So it goes. But the professors are not as involved in their role of mentors as in their role of enforcers of the status quo. It’s the same dreadful tribalism that you find elsewhere. Anyway, my rebellion intoxicated me, and only later was I able to go beyond mere vitriol.”
“I want to remain a bit in your beginnings. Faustino seems to have been a typical nonconformist. How would you describe yourself, Dayana?”
“I fit loosely in the bitter type. While Faust here swelled his chest and made the ivory tower aware of his newfound freedom, I let my blood boil daily with the injustices of our country – and if I was up to it, the world. I hated seeing all the political commentators who warmed their chairs call for unity, civility and concessions, as if the lower classes had their time and their means. I hated seeing a fractured left that had to resolve theoretical minutiae before reaching out its hand. More than anything else, I was insulted by the snail’s pace of reform.”
“Would both of you say the more intense feelings have been outgrown?”
“Maybe refined is a better word.”
“I agree, I agree. It’s not as if we were now reasonable, complying citizens who know better than to disrupt platitudes. Our initial impulse is still there. Years have only worked to understand when to vary the speed.”
“Vary the speed? It’s interesting that you say this, Dayana, because students have the impression that you’re one of the last uncompromising intellectuals standing.”
“I’m an activist, not an intellectual. This isn’t pedantry. The word intellectual is inevitably tied to detachment, distance, impartiality – the very qualities I act against. By varying the speed I mean acquiring a sense of spiritual tempo. There are moments when certain efforts will land your foot in jail and moments when they’ll land your foot in the door. I am uncompromising insofar as a major setback won’t leave me in despair. But, again, you have to learn to read the atmosphere.”
“Wouldn’t you say detachment, distance and impartiality help with this reading? A strong involvement with a cause can lead you astray, no? At least that seems to be one lesson of history.”
“Those qualities lead to the pulpit. And rarely are you in a worse position than there. When you suddenly find yourself in a platform, the situation is clear – you’ve been made safe. People get the message. It’s okay to listen now; if she’s here, she must’ve been approved in some way. They’ll cease to receive your words with all their edge and they’ll have more reasons to readjust them.”
“Do you agree with this, Faustino?”
“What Day describes is true, but maybe there’s an opportune time to do it, as she might concede. Rarely will you reach through marginal outlets the number of people you’d reach through a consolidated platform. Then again, I understand it may be a detrimental way of doing it. This issue touches on that great problem of compromise.”
“I think you avoided part of my question, Dayana. The intellectual qualities we spoke of can help avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism, wouldn’t you say? I mean, they don’t have to necessarily disorient you or make you a sell-out.”
“They can. But I get the impression you may be thinking about their cultivation. And that’s where I draw the line.”
“He’s an instance, sure. And we’ve seen how emphatic he can be. He talks as if a misstep might ruin these little card-castles he builds in the air. He’s cautious to the point of barrenness. But he calls this intellectual integrity.”
“So you’d say their use must be intuitive.”
“Not that left to chance. You learn the basics of being reasonable in childhood. Life throws lessons again and again. Philosophy, in a moderate dose, clears the outline and you’re good to go.”
“Cultivation really has no place?”
“As long as it is a weakening of will, no. Let’s not pretend intellectual subtleties are causally inert.”
“They have their place. Just not in political change.”
“They have their place in a more just society, rather. Look at that! You caught a disagreement.”
“We have yet to talk about your work. But I want to delve into this. There’s consensus inside academia that ‘useless’ knowledge deserves promotion. The justifications are diverse, but most of them can be summed up by saying that it yields an edifying pleasure.”
“As I said. Perhaps under other circumstances. Why would you dedicate years of your life to a dissertation suitable for ten lone scholars? These are commonly difficult subjects. I admit one can be floored by the abstruseness. Yet that brio could be used to work toward social
“Are those ten lone scholars to be shunned, then?”
“Yes. They’ll be shunned in a manner that will never compare to that of marginalised people.”
“Day is being severe. We can’t let die the playful part of our tempers. Our neighbours, even in their precarious state, allow time for wondrous speculation.”
“And that’s exemplary! They ask for no institutionalisation of their free play. Come on, Faust.”
“I’m not talking about academy. I’m talking about giving a life over to that free play. Perhaps we haven’t done so, but it should continue. I find it a respectable current. Or rather an undercurrent. Not many people want that.”
“It has remained and will remain an activity that’s supported on the shoulders of workers. You can’t really dedicate your life to intellectual subtleties without the sheltering walls of an institution. It might be confined to afterhours – that much I’ll concede.”
“Now on to your work. Neil’s been waiting for it.”
“It feels a bit abrupt, I know, but many students have also been paying attention to this aspect of your lives. Dayana, you’ve limited yourself to publishing pamphlets, and it was barely last year that a book compilation materialised. Is this a political, aesthetic or economical choice?”
“Definitely not aesthetic. I don’t consider myself an artist. Neither would I go for economical. As you might know, Faust and I haven’t ever published through a major house or a university press. Decades ago we went the haphazard route. A pamphlet of mine would be a couple of stapled pages and a book of Faust’s would be spiral-bound ones. In recent years, we’ve got in touch with independent presses and also managed to publish online. The costs have never been forbidding. A political choice, then. I’ve always seen my pamphlets as field reports. I normally describe what worked and what didn’t. I’ve never been interested in establishing a framework to move forward or in making predictions. Every political matter has the bad habit of filtering through the cracks of theory.”
“In the prologue to your compilation you list a series of actions that have consistently worked throughout the years. Isn’t that a framework?”
“Would you call your parents’ life advice a framework? Someone could pin down the conceptual presuppositions and whatnot. I, however, am not interested in offering a theoretical outlook. It’s a simple this has worked, you should try it.”
“What about the memoirs? Is there a framework there? Or anything like it?”
“That has been a strange undertaking. At first, I just wanted to wax lyrical, to indulge a little. Many stretches of my life have been meaningful in a way difficult to convey other than through the poetic. But I eventually couldn’t continue. Exposing my life in its utterly private aspect simply wouldn’t do. Why throw glitter now to the stand against injustice?”
“That’s harsh. I’d call the rage in your pamphlets lyrical.”
“Maybe. But I wouldn’t call that poetic.”
“There’s a pamphlet Emily and I admire very much: Unheard. It’s been seen as an eloquent apology of certain forms of violence. You call for decentralised, symbolic acts of destruction as a means to obtain an equal political footing with authority and also as a means to disrupt the complacent bickering of the average citizen. Though counterintuitive in its time, it has increased in relevance. Yet it’s been used as an example by many professors and ‘mainstream figures’ of how to set back actual change. It may obtain a concession, but only in the short-term, at the cost of sullying the cause. Is this a reasonable concern?”
“It is a reasonable concern. Comfy mandarins specialise in reasonable concerns. I would say those concerns are the real setbacks. Imagine where workers would be had they waited for authority to lend them an ear and act on what was heard. Imagine where minorities would be had they waited for a place on the table. Disruption in its iconoclastic forms was, is and will be the equaliser.”
“Faustino, you, on the other hand, have mainly abandoned yourself to writing. It seems that Dayana and you converge on the vindication of experience. The Imaginative Leap does rely on something of a framework. You intend to plunge into literature setting aside its mystic garbs.”
“Yes, yes. I belong to that curious tradition that extends from Protagoras to William James. It has yet to flourish.”
“Why? Is this not proof of its maladjustment?”
“No. We have been slow to realise that the world surrounding us is rich enough not to require an aseptic duplicate. But once awakened, there is no going back to sterile illusions.”
“Plato’s tradition is sterile?”
“Taken as a succession of refinements of that other world, it isn’t. Taken as a refinement of ours, it is.”
“Where are we to leave the free play you championed, then?”
“Where it is. We can’t have a blank slate. As one tradition gains momentum, the other will wane. It can’t be expected to disappear: a passive flight from this world will endure so long as there are insistent difficulties.”
“You called it respectable. And here you seem to call it spineless.”
“All endeavours that seek to soothe our pains have a trace of probity, sterile as they may be. Let me contrast the traditions. Great as Plato’s topos hyperuranios appears throughout the ages, it is wilfully exclusionist. Its consoling heights are there for the few. It is fundamentally at odds with a sense of communion. And the few have delighted in further elevations and intricacies. Religion served as counterbalance. Yet its consolations have been dimming. Opposite, Protagoras faced not the awe-inspiring constellations, but the marble tides of Athens. He lent his hand to the common citizen and transmitted a feeling of comradery. His world is our world, and it boasts no heights.”
“Why do you end with William James? Are there not many others who have continued?”
“None seem to strike the chord that he does. He was relentless against the heirs of Plato. He was relentless in what you called ‘the vindication of experience.’ He advanced for the remainder of his life an insight: if our concepts were insufficient before the world, it was only because of their overworked delicacy. They had been refined to suit the ethereal, not the jagged. They had been coddled in the static, not the fluid. Exhilarating. Yet James’s successors were considerably more measured, more sophisticated. High-minded, if you will. That is why I believe the tradition has not flourished.”
“Is it common for the next generation to yield?”
“It’s rarely that simple. James himself owed much to Stuart Mill and Bain. There are epochs in which it is all on the brink of overflowing. The nineteenth century was exemplary in this respect.”
“There is a pattern. But I figure historical recurrence is not your cup of tea.”
“Now, why confront literature? Is it not a breath of fresh air to see in it unbridled superstition?”
“As you know, there is a constant interplay between philosophy and literature. Novelists, dramatists, poets and the like have focused intensely on the heavenly architecture. And owing to literature’s somewhat freer tendencies, there you see an open scorn for earthbound communion, a more entrenched need for divinely ordained hierarchies.”
“I would argue that our greatest poets were imbued with aristocratic beliefs. Dante defended divine rights, Shakespeare stood in awe of nobility, Goethe extolled innate gifts.”
“I’m familiar with the procession. But it would be self-defeating to imagine that all greatness is past. Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe dazzle me, but when I recover there is a lingering coldness. Cervantes, Johnson and Chekhov, by planting their feet on the soil, communicate directly and deepen my sympathy.”
“I sense a powerful moralistic vein.”
“No, no. Beauty here resembles those moments in life in which you feel that at last you have reached another person, that at last there is an understanding other than the vague one attained from introspection.”
“Has it been a life worth living? Has it not felt as if substantive change eluded both, as it has eluded many others?”
“I don’t ask myself those questions. It’s not for me to say.”
“‘Cast forth thy Act, thy Word, into the ever-living, ever-working Universe: it is a seed-grain that cannot die.’”
Drunk, upbeat, uninhibited, Emily and I approached Krumrie, who sat in a corner of the bar. He was alone. On the table, next to his collection of beers, the magazine shone.
“Why are you all mopey over here?”
Krumrie let out a faint laugh.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. The . . . noise, yes, the noise is too much.”
“How else would you celebrate, huh? Please tell me.”
“I would not invite the whole, the faculty to a cramped bar.”
“The whole faculty? Bah! Barely twenty persons, really.”
Emily was in no hurry to ask about the interview. I couldn’t wait.
“Did you read it?”
“Sure. There’s some work in there. Interesting work. Points for Glenn’s essay on Ramsey. I would’ve sworn he didn’t pay it attention.”
“What about your friends?”
“Same old. Day openly proudful, Faust openly reckless.”
“Day is so sincere. I might’ve developed a crush. Faustino’s all right.”
“They also seem to be liked by their neighbours. May be even more impressive.”
“So much for independence.”
“Ugh. I just don’t get it. What’s your problem?”
Krumrie let out another faint laugh.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. I’m leaving now. It’s late.”
He stood, headed over to the counter and returned for his coat.
“The magazine, Krumrie.”
“They both asked about you. They even shared a couple of memories you wouldn’t. Affectionate memories. I thought you should know.”
“They care. Just the other day they said to me, ‘We’d respect you, cherish your company, even if you’d let time pass you by.’”
He imitated their mannerisms and left. I was about to discuss the tone, but Emily stared absently at the table. The remnants of a beer had spilled over the magazine.
About the Author
Israel A. Bonilla lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco. He has published in Able Muse, Firmament, Exacting Clam, New World Writing, BULL, King Ludd’s Rag, Tilted House Review, and elsewhere. His debut micro-chapbook, Landscapes, is part of Ghost City Press’s 2021 Summer Series.
Alan Levine: Academic Building, Cuvalles Campus, University of Guadalajara, 2015 (CC)