Geoffrey Heptonstall

Fact and Value

 

1.

The first of spring had arrived early, with trees leafing and birds singing. It was mild enough to open windows so that nature could be heard. Professor Ulleskelf was a keen lover of nature. He noted the changes of season, and the changes within each season. Similarly, he noted how each of his students developed in so brief a time as their education allowed. They came as children to him, he would say. They left as adults with mature minds. 
     ‘Is life an illusion? Or is the illusion life?’ Ulleskelf looked about the room to a gathering of faces that masked their puzzled indecision beneath a bland expression that gave nothing away. He took this to be assent. He had engaged with his audience. The process of inspiring young minds had begun.
     ‘Dr Ulleskelf…’ someone began hesitantly.
     ‘Soren, please. I abhor needless formality especially when it hinders the warmth of human interchange. We are all equal in our shared experience of knowledge and understanding.’
     ‘S-Soren,’ the student began again, her hand clutching the hem of her skirt. ‘May I ask if you think the illusion is real?’ There were smiles and a few snickering sighs at this question that drew the inevitable retort from Ulleskelf.
     ‘If it were real then it would not be an illusion.’ He became more serious as he continued in what may have been a more respectful attitude. ‘But you are quite right to draw the class’s attention to the absurdity in believing reality and illusion are unconnected polar opposites. Whereas, of course, they are symbiotic, that is to say, working not in opposition but as complementary qualities.’
     ‘But how can something be real if it is illusory?’ a young man, Barton, in gold-framed spectacles asked. ‘If reality is not real, then the illusion is real,’ Ulleskelf replied with a cold smile that was intended to intimidate his opponent.
     ‘Reality is real,’ said Barton, ‘or it would not be reality.’
     ‘I am questioning the nature of this reality. I am not prepared to accept a verbal convention as valid unless it can be tested in the laboratory of experience’, Ulleskelf said. There was already a suggestion of triumph in his tone. He was going to win this argument.
     ‘Are you saying, professor, our notion of reality is mere convention? Is it just a word?’
     ‘You presume in your question we have a common acceptance, you and I, of what is meant by reality. I am challenging that. There are as many realities as there are people, are there not? Unless, of course, you deny the validity of the human.’
     ‘I think your argument’s an illusion, Dr Ulleskelf,’ Barton said, rising from his seat, and gathering his belongings.
     ‘If you walk away you admit my argument is correct because it cannot be countermanded.’ Of course Barton stopped as he was intended to do, an act that signalled doubt. He had conceded to his opponent at the wrong moment. ‘But,’ Ulleskelf continued, ’if you remain here you admit I am talking sense and am worth your attention. Is that not so?’ Ulleskelf’s light, confident manner encouraged the class to laugh at the young man now blushing with frustration. ‘You are here,’ Ulleskelf added, ‘yet you are not with us. So I ask again if reality and illusion are what some in their naivety believe them to be.’  
     There was no way of gaining the upper hand against one so accustomed to playing the game of appearing to win an argument. Ulleskelf was the professor. He had authority that enabled his sarcasm and sophistry to roam freely about the room. He knew how to persuade and how to humiliate.
     ‘But, of course, you will say I am playing the clever professor. And you will be right. Therefore I expect anyone who disagrees with me to be the clever student. It’s not much to ask, is it?’ There were murmurs of approval at this. Ulleskelf had played the clever professor well. That was why he was adored and hated and, with some, feared. He smiled a great deal. He was going to win the argument every time.
     He was the clever professor.

2.

The afternoon sun was warm, unexpectedly so for it had been a harsh winter. The blossom was appearing, showering passers-by when winds from the south shook the trees. People were strolling, talking seriously to others, or thinking carefully if they were alone. 
     Vella found Barton in the shade of an oak tree that looked to be as old as the Mayflower. Once it had been a sapling in the wilderness that was another kind of paradise when no books were read beneath its boughs. Perhaps there was some tribal chanting, but all that was heard at this moment were harsh words.
     ‘He’s a jerk.’
     ‘He’s eminent.’
     ‘He’s an eminent jerk.’
     ‘You’re, like, so resentful of his position. That’s all. I’m right, I think. You’d like to be admired as he is.’
     ‘I don’t admire him,’ Barton insisted
     ‘Well, an awful lot of people do. He, like, stimulates our thinking. Sure he’s needling, but those needles are there to shake us out of our fixed positions. He wants us to think.’
     ‘He wants us to think like him.’
     ‘That’s not true. That’s, like, so mean and untrue.’ Vella felt a sense of personal hurt.
     There was no point in discussing this further. It had been futile even to begin. The truth was that he had not initiated the conversation. He hardly knew her, and had never spoken to her seriously before, when she approached him as he walked along the pathway. He was alone, and she was alone when she said, ‘Hi,’ as if she knew him well.
     He hardly knew her, and yet he felt he knew her well from her contributions to seminars. She had spoken so little to him, yet she had said so much. He thought he could see through her as if she were made of glass. In other words, he did not appreciate what he could see of her.
     For her part Vella had been intrigued by him. There was an intensity that she read as an indication of depth. He was not all surface. He was not going to go along with others’ thought because that was how you were supposed to think. In her philosophy classes she had learned to think, that is to look behind what was said and done. She had learned, or was learning, not to accept everything as it appeared to be. Appearances were performances. She wanted the essence of things. She wanted to reach down to the source from where the water flowed.
     It wasn’t flowing here for her. There was no belief in him that she could discern. He doubted too much. He doubted Professor Ulleskelf. She was not an uncritical admirer of Ulleskelf, but generally she found him interesting and amusing and inspiring. He was inspiring because he questioned assumptions she previously accepted as fundamental and unquestionable. He provoked, irritated and demanded. All these things she liked. He had taught her to use her mind. 
     ‘Without Professor Ulleskelf I might never have really learned how to look at things from various angles. There isn’t, like, just one perspective.’
     ‘You have to develop a point of view.’
     ‘Oh yeah and, like, be narrow-minded. With the light at the end of the tunnel being the mirror in which you see yourself for the little guy you really are.’ The eloquence of her retort pleased her, although she tried not to show it. She had to maintain a sophisticated front.
     ‘The world doesn’t revolve around Ulleskelf.’
     ‘His world does, and I’m part of it. That’s, like, an enviable position to be in, one that only a few months ago I dreamed about. And, like, now I’m here being taught by someone who is for most people only a name on a book. Someone they’ll never know.’
     It mattered to Vella that he did not share her admiration. If only there were a way of helping him to see the way it really was. He was rejecting an opportunity to develop his awareness. Why close your mind to one of the world’s most renowned (and bestselling) thinkers? It was crazy, perverse. It made no sense. 
     ‘You have to open yourself. There’s no reason to be here otherwise.’
     ‘My mind is my own. It doesn’t belong to anyone else.’
     ‘That just sucks,’ she concluded. ‘Like, really sucks.’ She walked away never wishing to speak to him again. Ever.
     Barton watched her brisk retreat with some regret that soon evaporated into the contempt he felt for someone who conflicted so radically with his way of seeing the world. They were not going to find common ground. Between them was a vast, turbulent ocean neither was foolhardy enough to navigate when the crossing was to no purpose. Neither agreed with the other. Neither cared about the other. They were not friends. There was not even enough connection between them to become enemies. Barely knowing each other, they were going to maintain an indifference from this time on.
     It was irrevocable. She had her way of thinking. He had his. Each considered the other obstinate if not just plain obtuse. In future when they caught sight of the other they were going to look away. In time they were going to forget there had been a conversation of any kind. They were strangers passing in the mist on a moonless night.
     That, however, was not going to be the end of the matter for him. He was irritated by the hold Ulleskelf had over his students. Did Ulleskelf invite the adoration? It seemed that he did. He certainly delighted in it. The sense of superiority was manifest in every gesture, every glance not only in class but when he walked about the campus. He did not appear to mind at all when someone waylaid him to ask a question. No, he did not mind that at all. His smile broadened into a benign and tolerant expression of understanding. Presented with an intellectual dilemma he would do his best to resolve the problem as quickly and clearly as he was able. It was the least he could do.


3.

Barton hoped to do something that was going to make a difference. The least he could was nothing. The best he could do was to highlight his disagreements with Ulleskelf in a way that was going to penetrate the carapace of certainty around which Ulleskelf had constructed his life on campus. Barton needed to be sure of victory without fear of recrimination. He knew his opponent’s strengths. He also had come to know his weaknesses. It was these he needed to hit. It was not going to be easy. It was not going to be nice. It was, however, a necessity that could not be avoided
     So it happened that one day Professor Ulleskelf opened his internal mail box to take out an envelope with his name typed and not handwritten. In his office he cut the envelope open without the least prescience of its content. He received many communications, notes from colleagues or students that he would glance at before reading thoroughly if they looked at all interesting. This letter he read thoroughly.


Professor Ulleskelf

I do not think you are either a valid thinker nor a capable teacher, nor a well-meaning person. It is not just that I don’t like you. I really don’t think you are fit to hold the position and title bestowed on you.

Behind your benevolent expression resides the cold heart of a clever mediocrity who knows his limitations. He has risen to eminence beautified by the feathers of countless students whose thoughts he has made his own. Rarely, if ever, is genuine acknowledgement made, although his debt is incalculable.  Observations that we have made in class he has made his own in print. I believe I am one such victim of this habit of theft.

That cold heart is yours, professor. You are a charlatan, sir. You show off your knowledge by indulging in a sardonic, superior style that impresses young minds in awe of your unearned reputation.

Questioning is the lifeblood of intellectual growth. But you hate to be challenged. What you pretend to welcome you actually loathe. The fear is that your shallowness of mind will be exposed and held to public ridicule. You fear a light will be shone on you, a light that reveals there is so little to reveal.

 

Let me be more specific. In the current issue of the Metropolitan Review you write: ‘If you don’t know the answer it may be you don’t know the question.’ We both know, you and I, that you are quoting [without attribution] Dan Levine, a rather too eager freshman given to such statements.

 

Because the eminent Professor Ulleskelf has written it an aura of profundity now encompasses this bite of campus cant. It’s the stuff of drugstore simplicities by writers with PhDs from obscure places. What is it doing in the Metropolitan Review? Well, the Great Thinker has written it so it must contain a truth within its ironic use of the jejune. All that ‘Is reality real?’ horseshit gets us nowhere.

 

Well, it may fool many, but it doesn’t fool me. I need you to know that. Of course I am not being polite. I feel sure that honesty at such a time overrides the question of good manners. There is a greater value than mere etiquette when faced with the problem of your fraudulence. 

 

Professor Ulleskelf, you may feel it is low of me to write this. You may feel it is cowardly. If I were to face you openly you would destroy me without even needing to defend your reputation. By this act of anonymity my words may eat into your soul and shame you. That is not the behavior of a coward. It is an act of honesty and courage that I am proud to make. 


4.

Professor Ulleskelf, secure in his position and reputation, was not known to be dismayed by adverse criticism. He received very little, but he always shouldered it well. 
     When lampooned in a revue sketch he laughed delightedly, applauding vigorously. He even sent a note of congratulations. It was undeniably funny, although the fun was at his expense. The caricatured impersonation had much wilder hair and an enormous bow tie. The faint European accent was exaggerated for comic effect. 
     The sketch was a great success. Ulleskelf’s response to it enhanced his standing among all who knew him or knew of him. Not all who had been lampooned over the years had reacted so well. 
     To Barton it was no more than a clever tactic. Of course Ulleskelf did not enjoy being made a figure of fun. Nobody ever does, but some are canny enough not to let their hurt show. Ulleskelf not only congratulated his imitator, he invited him to supper. There he questioned the young man about many things. They were innocent questions, it seemed, to satisfy a casual curiosity.
     There was no reason for anybody to connect that line of questioning (in earshot of all the dinner guests that evening) with the still unexplained disappearance of the promising and talented young man. He simply left. Nobody knew where he had gone. He was seen to pack everything before making his way to the bus stop. That was all anybody knew about the matter. People went crazy on campus sometimes, especially if they were among the gifted ones.
     Barton was not thought greatly gifted. He was, by all accounts, on course to do tolerably well. That was how his life was expected to progress. He was the sort who might fade into the background of people’s memories. ‘What was his name? You remember him.’ He did not lack intellect or application. He was dedicated and eager to learn, but he did not excel. 
     Excellence was Ulleskelf’s expectation of all those he taught. His standard was high. Therefore it was not too surprising when he announced, ‘I feel betrayed.’ It was the sort of arresting remark he made to gain attention. Because his classes were used to this kind of thing the impact was quite low until the class in question observed the prolonged severity of the professor’s silent gaze.
     ‘I feel betrayed by someone in this room. I am going to name that person who has betrayed me. I have no doubt about the validity of so doing.’ His eyes roamed over the entire room, watching every face before him. Many, in fact most, felt uncomfortable. Each individual was being judged. One by one Ulleskelf was seeking out the culprit, the traitor within the ranks of those he taught, those whose minds he had sought to nourish, whose imagination he had sought to stimulate, those whose knowledge he had encouraged, those whose lives he was transforming.
     ‘Barton, do you know who that traitor is?’
     ‘No, sir.’
     ‘Vella? Aspen? Bob? Surely you know?’ It was evident that nobody knew except, of course, the traitor himself. ‘Then I shall tell you who that traitor is, shall I? I have evidence as well as judgement, so I know who the culprit is. I am surprised that none of you have guessed. It seems obvious because that traitor is...myself. Yes, I am the one who has betrayed you all. There can be no question of my guilt. I am, I freely admit, guilty of not explaining myself, guilty of presuming I am right, guilty of not listening to others, guilty of not understanding others. I am guilty of being human. My hope is that I am speaking to fellow human beings. Am I speaking to human beings?’
     There were a few murmurs of assent. Everyone was uncertain and a little embarrassed at the professor’s line of argument. It was not going well. What had begun as an eccentric remark was hardening into something deeper and darker. Nobody was quite sure where it was going. 
     Only Barton knew what lay behind the bitter tone. It seemed for certain that Ulleskelf did not suspect him. Or perhaps Barton was one of a number of suspects. The letter would have been read many times in shades of alarm and anger before the determination on revenge came through. The words were searched for clues as to the anonymous writer’s identity.  There were several possibilities without any firm evidence. Nothing much was given away. Unless of course….
     ‘Barton, a word with you, if I may, ’Ulleskelf said as the class was filing out at the end of the session. 
     ‘Of course, professor.’
     ‘Barton,’ Ulleskelf continued when the door finally closed and they were alone.  Words echoed in the empty room. Devoid of young minds it seemed a sad place, like a gallery without pictures or a theatre without an audience. ‘I was intrigued by a mention you made of Leibnitz on truth. You know I think it may be profitable to explore the thesis that Leibnitz’s distinction between the two sorts of truth is false. See what you think. Hmm?’
     ‘I’m not sure,’ Barton said, taken back by the attention his enemy was giving him. It seemed his enemy did not know there was enmity between them. It was one thing to understand ideas, and entirely another to understand people. Ulleskelf really did not appear to suspect Barton. Perhaps he thought Barton was too forthright for subterfuge, too decent for a poisonous missive. If Barton had misgivings he spoke about them openly. He was not afraid to declare his intentions or his loyalties. It could not be Barton.
     ‘I think you can make something of this, Barton. I have faith in you. I know you won’t let me down. You think. You challenge. You articulate. This is what philosophy is about.’
     You fool, Barton thought behind his appreciative smile. You really don’t understand what I think about you. You don’t understand anything, do you, Professor Ulleskelf?
     ‘Thank you, sir. I appreciate what you say.’
     ‘I appreciate what you write, young man.’

5.


The dean looked very grave as he heard what Ulleskelf had to say. Soon it would be summer. The sun was higher and hotter. The days were longer, the evenings warmer. This was the time of year when the campus seemed so alive. The grass was growing. The young people were falling in love. The sports were so lively. The concerts so charming. There was always something happening in this season. It felt so good to be here. And yet…
     I don’t know this young man,’ the dean said. ‘But I see what you mean about his work. It really isn’t good.’
     ‘I wonder what’s happened,’ Ulleskelf said with a sigh of deep regret. ‘He began quite well. But now…’
     ‘Well, this is unacceptable, sure,’ the dean agreed.
     There were two assignments under consideration. The first was a piece of outrageous nonsense about Leibnitz’s concept of truth. Ulleskelf had no choice but to fail him on this. Barton, he said, had misjudged completely Leibnitz, suggesting that he had either misread him or not read him at all. It was a lazy, cranky piece that nobody could think acceptable. If Barton was trying to be original he had succeeded only in being wrong. ‘If only he had come to me and spoken about Leibnitz I could have put him right. I just don’t know what motivated him to be so wayward.’
     The second piece, also a failure, was more serious. This attempt to critique one of Ulleskelf’s own books was sneering, angry and abusive. The offensive tone was not simply an academic failing, but potentially a disciplinary matter.
     The dean had studied both assignments carefully. ‘Of course I don’t have your knowledge of philosophy, Soren, but I can follow a line of logic sufficiently to see that this first one is below expectations. The second, I think, constitutes a disciplinary matter.’ The dean paused for a moment’s reflection. Ulleskelf made no comment. ‘So I think we need to proceed with this, perhaps informally.’
     ‘We don’t wish to be too harsh.’
     ‘Quite.’
     ‘I have no desire to destroy a student’s future, possibly with lasting consequences, because of one or two silly mistakes,’ Ulleskelf said in a measured tone that suggested there was more to be said. ‘But there is more.’ Ulleskelf took an intake of air before he spoke. ‘Personally I thought there was nothing in those rumors.’
     ‘Rumors?’ the dean asked, alert to this new line of potential enquiry. 
     ‘They were just rumors.’
     ‘I’ve heard nothing.’
     ‘No, nobody complained, not to me. It was just whispering. You know, I really don’t like gossip. Damn it, if there’s anything to report then report it. And I can’t believe it of this student. Erratic, yes. Objectionable, sometimes. But a sex pest? No, surely not. I would need hard evidence of this before I were able to accept it.’
     ‘Then our task is to investigate to see if there is indeed any evidence against this…’ the dean looked at his notes, ‘this Barton McGill.’
     ‘No, I cannot believe it,’ Ulleskelf insisted.
     ‘Soren, I’ve known you over twenty years now. You’ve been a great asset to this university. You have added immensely to our prestige. And you have been an inspiration to generations of students. Your good humour and tolerance, as well, as your academic skills, do you great credit. However, I ask of you not to hide away from what may be an ugly truth. We have seen signs of smoke. Now let’s see if there is a fire.’
     ‘Well, if you think so,’ Ulleskelf said by way of regretful conclusion. ‘Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned the existence of those rumors.’
     ‘I’m glad you did, Soren. I truly am glad.’

6.


The correct procedures were followed. Investigations were made. Reports were filed. Barton was given every chance to defend himself. Ulleskelf put in a plea for clemency. ‘Surely we can give him another chance?’ Even as he spoke he knew that the judgement was going to be harsh.
     Barton was soon forgotten. The scandal of the dismissal faded quickly into indifference as the summer gave the landscape encompassing the campus an idyllic look, a backdrop to open air theatre. (That year’s production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) At such a time nothing else mattered but being young and doing all the great things that the young in this place were encouraged to do.
     Walking with Ulleskelf in the grounds, the dean said, ‘I never tire of walking here. Of course next year is going to be my last. I want to write and, well, teach a little. So I won’t be gone entirely. I want to hand over to someone I can trust to steer this university to greater heights. It has to be someone who loves it as much as I do.’ The dean said no more at this time, but moved the conversation on to other matters.
     Barton did linger in both of their minds. Others could forget him. They could not. It was going to take a while before the shadow was entirely removed from the summer lawns.
     ‘If only he had not written that offensive assignment,’ Ulleskelf said regretfully.
     ‘There were other offences,’ the dean replied more sharply, although he knew the investigations did not turn doubts and hints into specific allegations. 
     When questioned, some students spoke of their unease about Barton McGill without making any substantive claims. There are ways of asking questions that elicit required answers, especially when senior members of a university are gravely talking to a somewhat intimidated student. In the end, however, suspicions remained no more than suspicions.
     What condemned Barton was his seriously ill-judged reactions in the dean’s office. Apologetic humility very possibly could have saved him, whereas his strategy was an immediate attack that was insubordinate and unacceptable. 
     The dean especially was irritated by Barton’s outrageous claim that his essay on Leibnitz was actually Ulleskelf’s own idea. ‘You talked after class, professor. You suggested yourself that Leibnitz thought truth was essentially of one kind.’
     ‘I said no such thing. My next book – I have the manuscript here – demonstrates that Leibnitz proposed two discrete kinds of truth: truth as fact and truth as value. I am merely affirming what is well known. It is perverse to go against this evident reality of Leibnitz’s position. I think you have misunderstood my position.’ 
     That was Barton’s moment to concede defeat. Unfair though it was, Ulleskelf had gained the upper hand. He knew his enemy as well as his enemy knew him. The difference was that Ulleskelf had the power Barton did not. It was telling that Ulleskelf never told anyone about the anonymous letter. He had yet to decide whether to keep it or destroy it. There was no way of determining the author’s identity. Its continuing existence gave it the power of a threat.
     The barbed comments outlined Ulleskelf’s secret fear that he was indeed something of a fraud. He feared that a future Barton would write not a rash, emotional diatribe but a carefully-argued and reasoned analysis in a journal of repute. The only course open to Ulleskelf was to render his enemy powerless. His perception of Barton was that in his anger he was going to destroy himself. All it required was a little goading.
     ‘If only you had listened more closely to what I said. I urged you to read Leibnitz, not circumvent the required reading by uttering your own muddled thoughts on the matter.’ Ulleskelf spoke softly even sympathetically in a manner that the dean found most acceptable.
     Barton rose to the bait, as Ulleskelf knew he would do. Barton spoke the few words that condemned him beyond any hope of reconciliation. ‘You bastard, you lousy bastard,’ he snarled. ‘The two of you,’ he added, ‘so pleased with your positions, collaborators in the self-satisfied fraudulence of academic mediocrity.’
     There followed a long, cold silence. Then the dean spoke. ‘We gave you every chance, every chance.’
     ‘If only,’ Ulleskelf said, ‘If only….’

7.

There the story begins to end because the narrative has almost reached a conclusion. Something has to be said about Barton McGill’s future. A story in fiction ends with the reader surmising what happens next. Life, by contrast, is not a narrative with a sunset and fade out. The sun rises in the morning, and the future becomes not a surmise but a certainty.
     There was summer still in the air when the fall semester began. The leaves had yet to turn when the fresh intake excitedly scurried about the campus, and old hands looked on with the slightly weary style of veterans for whom everything was so familiar.
     Barton was seen from time to time in the library or the coffee shop. Some were surprised to see him. Others did not know of his dismissal. Scandals are like stones thrown in water. It was an age ago. A vague awareness evaporated. So what if he was there sometimes?
     There was a letter of apology sent to Ulleskelf. It was never acknowledged. 
     Had Barton sent a copy to the dean then possibly some reconciliation might have come about. Barton did not think to do this. Ulleskelf destroyed the letter at once. It never happened. There had never been a letter of apology. There was nothing. What actually happened was Barton’s removal by security guards. He was warned not to approach the campus again. He knew the order had to be obeyed.
     His weakness in apologizing shamed him. The heavy drinking inevitably followed. So, too, did the quarrels in public places with strangers over trivial matters. The public library banned him. Other places also. He took menial jobs. He spent his free time in cafes, reading and writing. He made no new friends. Old ones were distant now.  There were places Barton dared not go again. The pattern of decline was predictable. 
     And there the story ends, although there is another story and then another. After the end the possibilities begin with the chill of fall winds.  Soon the winter snows will come. This year they will arrive early. There will be a renewal in the spring of course, and who knows what will grow to maturity in the fecund soil of this quiet place? At this moment there is no way of knowing.
     You may see Barton still. At least, you think it may be Barton, but he looks older, so much older than the few years that have passed. You may feel it is not Barton you see but a kind of ghost. Then, looking again, you see it is he. The Barton you knew died inside. One day soon they will find him slumped in the park or by the river. ‘If only….’ you sigh. ‘If only….’

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