White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Robert Wexelblatt
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses. His short story "Crazy About Her" appeared in Issue 1.3 of White Whale Review, while four other Fein essays have appeared in issues 2.1, 2.3, and 3.1 4.1

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FEIN ON ZEICHER’S ESSAY IN ETHICS

Robert Wexelblatt

EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION

On Wednesday, April 23, 1980, T. H. Humphrey, a twenty-four-year-old graduate student whose dissertation on the 1833 Frankfurter Wachensturm had been rejected ten days earlier, walked into a classroom in the Raab Graduate Center at Brandeis University and began firing a Beretta pistol he had purchased four days earlier in Mason, New Hampshire. His fiancée had broken off their engagement on April 12. Humphrey’s intention was to kill his dissertation advisor; however, in his disordered condition, he burst into the philosophy class of Assistant Professor Paul Zeicher whom he had never met.

Two students were struck, one in the stomach, the other, fatally, in the head. Zeicher leapt toward Humphrey. He took a bullet in the chest but still managed to fall forward, tackling the gunman and slamming his arm to the floor, so that he dropped the pistol. Two male students then subdued Humphrey; a young woman, screaming all the way,

rushed to the first-floor office to call the police and summon medical help. Paul Zeicher died of his wound in an ambulance less than an hour later. He was twenty-nine years old.

During the academic year 1979-80, Sidney Fein, then thirty-seven years old, served as Visiting Professor at Brandeis. I found the following text in Fein’s file for 1980, leading me to suppose it was written either immediately after the tragic event of April 23 or over the summer. Fein typed out what he wrote, with corrections, paper-clipped it together, leaving it untitled and undated. The title below is mine.

Fein’s relationship with the younger man seems ambiguous, close and distant at the same time. That may account for why Fein sometimes refers to him by his first name, at others as Zeicher. It is as if Fein himself is unsure about how close they were.

This little memoir may be the sole record of Zeicher’s work. I can find no record of a book by Paul Zeicher titled Essay in Ethics. Evidently, the manuscript was never published, and it may well have been lost.


______________________

ON PAUL ZEICHER’S ESSAY IN ETHICS

Notes by Sidney Fein

My first encounter with Paul Zeicher was a matter of inadvertent eavesdropping. This was in early September, on the first day of classes. My ten o’clock Philosophy 420 class was scheduled to meet in the same room as his nine o’clock 100-level introductory class. As always on these occasions, I felt a slight nausea and wondered if this was to be the year when I would be found out. I was also feeling a little ridiculous too, because the role of professor has something comic about it, at least when I’m filling it. So I was anxious and eager and wanted to avoid that chilling grand entrance when the waiting students turn en-masse, like a shoal of piranha, to fix their stares on the grade-giver at the door. Some tender unearned respect, some look cowed and others resentful, but most are just skeptical. The consequence of my impatience was that I was standing in the corridor as Zeicher, who never closed his door, wound up his first class with his two dozen freshmen.

As everyone knows, first classes are rituals: “I am Professor... My office is in Room... My office hours are...” Then there is the calling of the roll with awkward mispronunciations of names, followed by the handing out of syllabi, showing of books, some inane generalities about the discipline and the goals of the course, a first reading assignment, and at last a welcome dismissal. I suppose Zeicher had been through all this, but all I heard was the way he ended the class, how he spoke and what he said. From that alone I could tell that this was an engaging because engaged man, one for whom teaching was a calling rather than distraction (Block that student! I imagined some of my research-oriented colleagues shouting at their pep rallies in the faculty lunchroom). For this one, I thought, teaching is a humble and personal undertaking. This can be admirable but it is also risky and suspect—too much dedication being as bad as too little. Zeicher concluded whatever had preceded with a version of a Hasidic parable, fitting for Brandeis:

Once upon a time a man lost his way in a

dense forest. An hour later a second person

wandered into the forest and likewise

 


became lost. By sheer chance they bumped

into each other. The second person,

assuming that he was not also lost and must

know the true path, asked the first the way

out of the woods. “I don’t know the way

out,” replied the man. “I can only point out

the ways that lead further into the thicket.

So, it looks as if we’ll have to try to find the

way out together.”

 

These days I’m often asked about Zeicher. People suppose that he and I were closer than we were. Well, perhaps they aren’t entirely wrong. While we had only a few conversations, they were not dissipated with small talk; in fact, all of them are memorable. The first was when he came to my office with a copy of Want, Desire, and Need under his arm. He said some gratifying things about the book without stooping to flattery. He also told me candidly with what ideas he disagreed and why. He asked me to sign it, always an embarrassing moment for me and probably related to my distaste for dedications, those vestiges of the old fulsome expressions of feudal dependence.

Zeicher also had a point and he got to it pretty quickly.

“I’m in my fourth year,” he said. “Tenure review’s just a couple of years off and I need a book even to have a chance.”

“Have you got one?”

He blushed. “It’s pretty much finished.”

“Your dissertation?”

“No,” he said, paused, and gave a dry little laugh. “The truth is I can’t stand my thesis. I dredged two articles from it but I’d be content never to lay eyes on the thing again.”

I asked what the thesis was about.

He rolled his eyes. “Hegel.”

“Ah, I see. And the book you’d like to publish?”

“It’s about ethics. So much better than the dissertation. It wasn’t written as a means to an end or as slave labor under a Hegelian with an enormous brain; it’s been liberating. But I really need to find a publisher.”


“You’ve sent inquiries, I suppose?”

He nodded his head then hung it.

I hesitated. “And you wonder if maybe I can help?”

Paul was more than shy; outside of the classroom he was downright bashful. And, when he was embarrassed, as I think he often was, he avoided words. He nodded again.

“Would you like to read... some of it? I mean, just an excerpt. I wouldn’t want to take up your time. Of course... I understand if you’re busy. You must be terribly busy.”

This speech was almost too much for him; he barely got the words out and did so in a voice that was little above a whisper.

He’s supposing I know the way out of the forest, I thought.

“Sure, let me take a look.”

After several abject expressions of thanks, the conversation reverted to my own book—and, to my surprise, the one before that as well. For a moment,

I wondered if Zeicher might have boned up for our conversation but dismissed the idea. Paul was a thoughtful man but hardly a calculating one. Where tenure was concerned, though, he was desperate. This wasn’t because he craved a raise and a title; he was terrified of being banished from the classroom, from his students. Academic jobs were scarce and those who failed at the only hurdle that mattered seldom got a second chance.

On another occasion, he offered me a confession: “Teaching,” he said, “is the sole form of social life I can tolerate.” This was quite an admission, one not altogether in his favor. But it was made by a thinker who wrote in his book of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud that:

They have bequeathed us powerful

flashlights with which to search the

basement of our motives—class interest,

power, sex. Still, a flashlight is not a skeleton

key to reality; it is properly a thing we look

with, not at. Such urges may seem to

invalidate ethical reflection and undermine

our freedom of choice; but subconscious

motives can be dragged out into the light. In

 


fact, that is precisely the accomplishment of

all these great modern excavators.

Imagine a young teacher who believes in all simplicity that he is involved solely in the educational transaction described on his course syllabus. Then he reads Nietzsche and is stunned to realize that it isn’t teaching he loves, nor his students, but the power to preach at and overawe the young. What a crisis! But how much worse if he is persuaded by Freud’s analysis of the erotic transference that can taint pedagogical no less than psychoanalytic relations. “You say you love your students, Professor, but have you examined carefully in what sense?” Paul Zeicher had conducted that examination, of course, with the conscientiousness of a Talmudist working out a tangled midrash or a Jesuit performing his spiritual exercises. For Paul, young as he was, such self-examination would indeed have been a kind of spiritual exercise, except that, to judge by his book, he did not foolishly aim at purifying his motives, only at making himself cognizant of their complexity and reminding himself that they might not be entirely knowable.

 

I suspect Zeicher was more frank with me than his departmental colleagues because I was just passing through. After all, the junior faculty were all competitors and the senior ones all judges, while I had one foot inside and the other outside the door. I was there, yet I was also an outsider. Also, of course, he had enough respect for my work to dispute it.

 

When Paul gave me a typescript of the entire book, per my request, I asked why he chose to call it An Essay in Ethics. “Were you being modest or thinking of Locke and Hume?”

“As I like to tell my students,” he said, sitting up even straighter than usual, “essay only means attempt and the best of these attempts always seem like a journey where you’re not sure exactly where you’re going to end up.”

I liked this and agreed. “Students confuse essays, which ought to be alive, with reports, which are always dead. I think the infection might be contracted somewhere around the eighth grade.”

Zeicher’s smile was suddenly displaced by a


serious face: “Do your students have trouble getting down into things—I mean, developing a paragraph? Mine sure do.”

I nodded. “And how do you fix that?”

“Well, I don’t, of course, not always. What I tell them is to try behaving like annoying three-year-olds.”

“How’s that?”

“Write a sentence, then ask why. Answer with the next sentence, then ask why again. And keep it up until asking why is either meaningless or too exasperating. Then start the next paragraph. It works, sometimes.”

Paul made me remember Maya ten years ago. Why? Why? Why? At last, I told my curious daughter a joke she loved—and now I told it to Zeicher.

“A father’s walking his little girl down to the beach. ‘Daddy,’ she asks, ‘why’s the grass green?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he says with a shrug and they walk on. ‘Daddy, why’s the sky blue?’ ‘No idea, Sweetheart,’ he says and leads her on to the sand. ‘Daddy?’ ‘Yes,

dear?’ ‘Why’s the ocean blue?’ ‘Haven’t the foggiest,’ he admits, spreading out the beach towel. They sit down and after a moment the little girl looks up at her father. ‘Daddy,’ she says, ‘I hope you don’t mind my asking you all these questions.’ ‘Oh, not at all, darling,’ he says. ‘How are you going to learn if you don’t ask questions?’”

Zeicher didn’t actually laugh, but he said it was a good joke. Then he asked why I thought Maya had liked it so much.

“Because the father’s such an ignoramus.”

“And because hers isn’t?”

“But he is. I can’t explain why the sky’s blue to a three-year-old. Can you?” “Yes,” he said, ironic and earnest at once. “And even why sometimes it’s gray.”

“And why it’s black at night?”

“Yep, that as well.”

 

We never spoke of Zeicher’s private life, his childhood, or his family. So far as I knew, he could have been the product of parthenogenesis and a


polygamist. It just wasn’t the sort of relationship that extended beyond itself; it was the sort two pool balls might have, self-contained, bouncing off one another. I never invited Paul for dinner and, of course, was never invited to his home. After his death, though, I drove by the place. He had lived on a short street in Waltham called Woerd Avenue, the name an odd conflation of weird and word. He rented the second floor of a little house set among alders, and willows, and heavy brush. There was a small pool to its left, a large frog pond really, a little finger of the Charles River over which the place looked. I presumed Paul would have chosen the room with the river prospect as his study. If so, as he worked he had a good view of Mount Feake Cemetery spread out along the opposite, northern bank. It would be bucolic and restful—if you happened to be near-sighed and couldn’t make out the tombs.

 

An Essay in Ethics is short, only 178 pages, and that is just one of its virtues. When he handed it over, in a black spring binder, Paul warned me not to expect anything grand or original.

“I sometimes find that originality’s a kind of

perversion, or rather the cause of it. Know what I mean?”

“When it becomes a motive, yes.”

He nodded. “Exactly. It’s the same with popularity and teaching, as I tell my students.”

As I tell my students. Zeicher was always quoting things he had said to his students. He couldn’t help it, I think, because he was never so mentally alert and eloquent as he was in front of a bunch of undergraduates. I’ve experienced it myself, the way one’s thinking accelerates in front of a class, as if the brain’s conductivity were being souped-up by the terror of silence.

 

I saw at once why Paul had trouble finding a publisher. He had shared with me his failure and frustration by showing me the dismissive readers’ comments from the university presses who had turned him down. Why? To gain sympathy, to see if I’d agree, or out of an impulse to humiliate himself? The reports were certainly of the ego-crushing variety: “Derivative... uninteresting... wishy-washy... takes no account whatever of recent contributions of French post-structuralism...


unlikely to find an audience... not a real contribution... eclectic to a fault...” Zeicher lays out a moral position that is indeed eclectic and, if read superficially, could be mistaken for a nebulous mélange of more famous work. I found his position to be both eccentric and admirably honest.

Zeicher accepts that there is no abstract good, only what he calls good for. He’s against absolutism but for a peculiar reason:

Moral absolutes are dangerous because

inhumane; nevertheless, one should be

prepared to act as if there were indeed an

abstract and universal good. Human rights,

for example, though rooted historically in

the Reformation and the West’s five

centuries of slow political progress

thereafter, are good for the vast majority.

Reasoning in this fashion, Paul tries to reconcile absolutism and relativism. He’s not the first to attempt it and one could (like the reviewers) dismiss it as a mug’s game. There are in his position elements of pragmatism, utilitarianism, Epicurus and his modern avatar Hobbes, all of which he makes scrupulously explicit with copious

footnotes. But there are distinctive applications. A good example—poignant now—is the way he addresses the use of force which he sums up in a single sentence: “The resort to violence is always an ethical failure, a short-circuit—unless it isn’t.” “No system here at all,” one reviewer had scoffed, though another entered a verdict more generous and measured, if grudging: “The author describes what we mean by an ethical being, the kind of decent person we admire and would even—on our best days—strive to emulate.” What I think Zeicher really does, as much by accumulating illustrations as by discursive argument, is to compel a deep consideration of ethics while renouncing the temptation to propound any moral prescriptions. His cardinal principle is simply to be alert. This accords well with the two sentences he chose for the book’s epigraph, drawn from Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka, the authenticity of which has never been finally established, unless you love Kafka and read it carefully. Young Janouch asked Kafka about a recent book by Leonhard Frank with the optimistic title, Man is Good. Paul’s epigraph is Kafka’s reply:

Most men are not wicked. Men become bad


and guilty because they speak and act

without foreseeing the results of their words

and their deeds. They are sleepwalkers, not

evildoers.

While I was reading Zeicher’s manuscript I was, perhaps because of this epigraph, reminded of a couple of Kafka’s late aphorisms:

We are sinful not merely because we have

eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also

because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of

Life.

 

There is a goal, but no way; what we call the way is only wavering.

 

Zeicher’s book is that of a young man, though hardly as naïve as Leonhard Frank’s. Many of its weaknesses and errors are owing to his not yet having eaten of the Tree of Life. But, as for what Kafka glumly calls “wavering,” Zeicher, unwilling to prescribe a way, fairly embraces it. Paul proposes that one is an ethical being in much the way one is blond or French or Jewish—that it is a part of what he calls one’s “distinctive identity.” It’s what one is

rather than what one thinks that counts for him. He reminds me of Kierkegaard in some of his distinctions, this ontological stuff in particular.

To be an Aristotelian, a Kantian, a Utilitarian

means to adhere to an idea more than to live

it. One can extol and defend the Golden

Mean, the categorical imperative, the

greatest happiness principle without

actually living by any of them. And this will

not even be hypocrisy in so far as one’s

intellectual commitment is genuine.

 

Karl Marx must have had something of the same notion. Having lived long enough to hear his name become an adjective, he once said, “I am not a Marxist.” As Zeicher might see it, Marx wasn’t just making a joke or even criticizing his disciples; he was declaring that he was alive and so not yet that finished, dead thing we are accustomed to call “Marx.”

One passage I particularly liked must have come straight out of Paul’s classroom. I can see him making inspired use of the props at hand, like Jesus holding up a mustard seed or Eliot posing as a


Hebrew prophet showing his generation fear in a handful of dust. Yes, I can picture him with the upholstered teacher’s seat, the molded plastic of the students’ unyielding desks.

Plato the aristocrat is a moral absolutist with rigid precepts; for him, one size fits all in ethics as in political science. Our job is to wedge ourselves into a seat designed for the one ideal rear end. His middle- class student Aristotle sees the world differently. His chair is still firm but has a good deal of give in it so as to compromise with our imperfections.

I like also this one-liner on the two philosophers: “Any sensible person would choose to read Plato and live like Aristotle.”

 

T. H. Humphrey brutally ended two lives, ruined his own, and even that was a botch—the blind vengeance of a rejected Ph.D. candidate, a spurned lover, vain as the coup de main at Frankfurt on which he had wasted three years. How much of the responsibility belongs to his parents who decided to name him Troy Hector? It is no more than a passing irony that Humphrey’s thesis and Zeicher’s

book should both have been turned down. Zeicher died defending what, in the end, meant most to him, his students. Now he’s being called a hero, of course—as Hector was—but the mot doesn’t feel quite juste in Paul’s case; it seems to me a false attribution, a journalistic simplification. Certainly, he acted bravely, and effectively too. I can’t say I would have done the same and I’m aware that a small change in the University’s class schedule might have had me facing the gunman on April 23. But no, Zeicher was better than the kind of hero he is being hailed as. This was a momentary thing, nearly an accident, even if it was also the fulfillment of a devoted teacher’s fantasy that also revealed the man’s character and, most lamentably, fixed it forever. In accord with his own ideas, Paul Zeicher was not a hero but a decent and humane man, keenly aware of the imperfections of our egoistic selves and an indifferent world.

 

 

 

Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 4.2


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