Thursday, June 16, 2011


Beyond all doubt, the finest and most exhaustive critical explication of my story "Alethia" is by Dr. Linda Furgerson Selzer, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, in her recent book Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). With advanced degrees in both philosophy and literature, and with a scholar's background in black American history and culture, Dr. Selzer delivers a reading of that particular work that explores every note and nuance, and almost every philosophical level and allusion in the text. There are times when I read her critical examination of this story, and my other stories and novels, that I get the uncanny feeling she sometimes understands my thought processes and creative decisions better than I do. Her analytic powers at play on the page are a wonder to behold. They set a very high standard for what literary scholarship should be. So there is very little that I can add to her superb examination of "Alethia."

 However, I can provide some background---previously unknown information--- for the origin of one of the story's two principal characters, student Wendy Barnes, and for some of its literary antecedents.

 During my first two years at the University of Washington, I taught an introductory course on black American literature as well as creative writing. That was the original agreement in my contract when I was hired in 1976. (I used a textbook and syllabus kindly provided by my colleague, writer Clarence Major who, I think, had earlier taught the same course at Howard University.) In one of my black American literature classes I had a student, a young, single mother whose name I will not mention. She was bubbly, outgoing, aggressive, and loved to engage her peers in very spirited conversations about black American issues in the Student Union. She was majoring in Communications and her hobby was photography. One afternoon she came to my office to show me a portfolio of her work. As I sat looking at it, she circled around my desk, came up behind me, and gently rested her arms on my shoulders, her mouth close to my ear, talking about each photo as I turned the page. This was---um---a rather awkward situation, but it fast became even more dicey.

I suggested to her that we chat over coffee, maybe the next day, a Thursday. "No," she said, "that's an ugly day," meaning, I guess, that she didn't bother with fixing herself up on Thursdays. And she immediately interpreted my suggestion of a chat over coffee to mean that I was inviting her out to dinner. She told me she would be ready within an hour or two. So there I was, suddenly committed to dinner (a date, as one of my colleagues said when she heard about this) with a student when I was a married, 29-year-old, nontenured professor trying mightily every day to keep my head above water. I arrived at her place, which was in off-campus student housing, and she introduced me to her son, a cute kid. Then she showed me other photos she'd taken---one was of a naked, young black man she'd dated, and her remark about him was, "He couldn't wait to get out of his clothes." 

At any rate, I took her to dinner. The academic quarter ended. During final exam week I ran into her again on campus. She was, as usual, effervescent, and told me she'd just received her first job in journalism, somewhere back east. Then, there on the street, she threw her arms around me, and gave me a bone-snapping hug that (again) totally obliterated the proper distance cautious professors try to maintain from their students. I never saw her again.
Some time after that encounter when I began work on "Alethia," this former student was lingering in my thoughts, and so I made her the basis for the character Wendy Barnes. But her fictitious avatar is a much brasher, more calculating and manipulative student who roughly guides a shy, self-loathing, 50-year-old, sexually repressed, highly rationalistic black philosophy professor on a journey of self-discovery into a world where "Meaning was in masquerade": a world with forms so fluid they defy his rigid categorizations and, in some cases, even defy identification. He allows himself to be seduced by Wendy, but even more importantly he is seduced by the world's inherent ambiguity---an ambiguity based not so much on things being vague but rather, in Merleau-Ponty's sense, on things having a surplus of meaning. On things being so phenomenologically abundant that they mean too much, and for that reason they forever outstrip our perception. 

One of Wendy's startling, apocalyptic monologues is a speech that critics have commented on often. She dissects the Professor and the state of contemporary black American life circa 1978 like a frog. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that monologue was inspired, in part, by one of Hermann Hesse's brief descriptions of the decay and collapse of European man in one of his essays, but don't ask me which essay, because I've forgotten and would have to dig through 30 years of writer's notebooks to find it. The drug-drenched South Side Chicago party Wendy takes the unnamed professor (with his slight resemblance to Harry Haller) to should have, or so I hoped, a bit of the feel of "The Magic Theater" in Hesse's novel Steppenwolf.

    As Dr. Selzer's analysis makes clear, "Alethia" is a short story very much informed by the phenomenological tradition. I strongly recommend her analysis for readers.

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