University of North Florida: Boathouse, Blueberry Trail, Library of Babel, and Her Whole Life in Front of Her

by Tim Gilmore, 7/6/2012

The geese at the pond between the College of Business and the campus bar were mellowing. Earlier in the day, they had waddled quickly at straying students, honking, their strong beaks set to snap at backpacks or legs. In the Honors building, a girl on roller skates soared between empty classrooms in empty hallways.

The campus bar was The Boathouse, which at that time wasn’t dissimilar from a boathouse. There was a bar, indoor seating in semi-rugged wooden decor, and an expansive deck leaning out on the pond. After Shakespeare on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Rebecca would wander over to the Boathouse and order some fries. She sat at a table on the deck and felt the sun warm through her whole body. The fries were big potato wedges. She dipped them in ketchup and opened her copy of Of Mice and Men for her class called “Reading the American Dream” with Dr. Levine or Gwendolyn Brooks’s Blacks for Dr. Smethurst’s African-American Literature class, or an Aphra Behn play for Dr. Gabbard’s Restoration Era British Literature.

But Rebecca’s favorite times at the Boathouse were when she and half a dozen classmates met there at night after Dr. Mauro’s Puritan Lit class. The idea of the Puritans being literary at all struck everyone as funny from the first night. Mauro, deeply interested in the ways Puritan thinking would found and continue to permeate American thinking, joked at that first meeting that he didn’t know why anyone would sign up for such a class. At the Boathouse they drank beer, she was barely old enough to do so legally, and laughed at the Puritans. Calvin and Luther had been so deadly serious that they lacked any kind of self-reflexivity. After two and a half beers, the fact that Calvin wrote letters to friends and peers in which he told them in lengthy detail about how he had “discharged a calculus” became so funny that Rebecca could hardly stay in their seats they laughed so hard. And the way Cotton Mather and those early American Puritans would sermonize on and on and on, from point to dreary point, “firstly,” then “secondly,” and on in dreadful seriousness to “sixteenthly” and “seventeenthly.” They were so long-winded and serious and bleak that they hardly seemed human beings. And at the third beer, nothing was funnier than the word “sixteenthly.” It turned out that nothing was funnier than a man with no sense of humor. Thus Puritan Lit became a three-hour session in which Rebecca listened attentively and stored up all the fodder for after-class Boathouse laughs. The Puritans were a hilarious bunch.

The Boathouse after class on Wednesday night was the best time in the best place in all the world. She was getting a college education, a thing no one in her family had done before her. She was interested in anything and everything, and nothing bored her. She soaked up everything she could from Calvin and Mather and Sacvan Berkovitch and she came here and met with other very smart people who were also funny and kind. She had three beers. The wind at night was cool. There was a peace across the campus. Rebecca was the happiest she had ever been in her life.

But she couldn’t study the Puritans without comprehending that whole depressing cyclicality they had going. You couldn’t know if you were one of God’s chosen, only God could know for sure, but his chosen were the faithful, so if you wondered (since you couldn’t know) that you were one of God’s chosen, then you were less than faithful and perhaps thus not chosen. You could not think about the flesh or you were not of the spirit, but thinking about not thinking about the flesh was thinking about the flesh. Not to mention that sexuality or sickness would tend to make you focus on your body. So being sick would make you more sick and being sexual would make you more sexual. Thinking about the spirit made you think about not thinking about the flesh, which tended to make you obsessed with the flesh. So you thought about the sin of thinking about the flesh, which itself was a form of thinking about the flesh. Thinking about how you should not be thinking about the flesh made you suspicious of anyone (everyone) else thinking about the flesh, which made you think about and rail against the thinking of others about their flesh, and that was a way of thinking about the flesh too, but also of thinking about their flesh. All of which meant no one was as obsessed with the flesh as those who were most obsessed with the spirit as being other than the flesh, which created hypersexual Puritans, in fact sexually sadistic and punitive Puritans. All of which made you think you might be going to Hell and thinking you might be going to Hell meant you were not faithful, so you had to ramp up your being faithful by thinking about everyone else going to Hell and condemning sinners to Hell.

All of which, walking home from the Boathouse, seemed very sad. Sometimes also a little funny. Sometimes both funny and sad. And the small campus spread out beneath ruminations of Puritan thinking and luminous clouds passing slowly before the moon.

Rebecca wasn’t taking a class from Bill Slaughter this term, but she had already taken Contemporary American Poetry, World Literature, and a seminar called Virtual Worlds from him. Dr. Slaughter, or Bill as a very few students called him, was to her something he could never know, a kind of surrogate father. He was tall, with a beautiful head of white hair and a white beard. He radiated literary, poetic, and philosophical passion. He was kind, but carried a kind of authority of gentle intelligence, brilliance. Slaughter wrote poems and memorized poems. He seemed to have memorized most everything he had ever read and quoted at length in class. He had an eye like none she had ever seen—wide, caring, intense, smart. He seemed to read everything, to see and understand things about you you didn’t understand. He knew every student’s name before the first class of each term was halfway through. In class discussion, where it fit, he asked students about points they had made in previous papers and frequently quoted the pertinent points in those papers to the class. He rewarded you for thinking, for reading deeply, and that meant something, because he was probably the most intelligent person she and most of her classmates had ever met. Rebecca could listen to Dr. Slaughter talk, and he could talk forever, the way she could read her favorite writers for hours. She could listen to him talk about living in China and living in Egypt and about his wandering around Prague with his daughter. Rebecca would like to be Bill one day, but she knew she had to move past wanting to be anyone else.

And late at night in the library, Rebecca had wandered up aisles and down aisles and found books about mummery and archetypal symbols, and she had written a paper about the ouroboros and democratization in Hamlet for Dr. Miriam Chirico’s European Drama course. She focused on that great line about how a king can go through the guts of a beggar, since a beggar could eat of a fish that had eaten the worm that had eaten the king. The serpent or worm swallowing its tail was a leveling force that reduced both kings and beggars to the elements and made them answer to the same laws. And late at night, Rebecca sat in the library among aisles and aisles of books and seemingly nothing beyond them. She felt like the whole world was a text to read. She felt like a library was a fair representation of the world itself if she could just learn to read every aspect of things. Understanding life was reading. People could be read, and their politics and their psychology. Even “nature” was a human rendering of wilderness, so the active reader could read the trees and the ferns and the raptors, and even “wilderness” was a human rendering of ________. The whole world was there for the reading, and if she could learn to read everything, the world would present itself to her as a library to wander through in the mysterious peace of the middle of the night. She would meander at will or at random down its aisles and pull this book or that from its shelves.

And then she would wander the campus hiking trails, radiating out in different angles from the little lagoon. The Red Maple Boardwalk connected two sides of the Blueberry Trail, and the Goldenrod Trail extended the radius. She stood on the island half the size of a city block, in the middle of Lake Oneida and watched the turtles shoot languidly beneath the lily pads. An alligator floated in the water like a fallen tree that understood things she did not understand and might like to eat her. She lay down in the sand and the pine needle of the gentle slope of the island and read James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” She read about “the bronze butterfly” and “the empty house” and “the distances of the afternoon” and how “The droppings of last year’s horses / Blaze up into golden stones” and the “chicken hawk” “looking for home” and came crashing into the soft bludgeon of that last line: “I have wasted my life.” She looked then again at the alligator floating motionless and thought that an alligator could not waste its life, because the alligator was synonymous with life. And the same for the turtle and the lily pad and the James Wright poem. But still those five words made her cry.

Dr. Alex Menocal’s Literary Interpretation class met in a small crescent theatre. They read Zadie Smith and Pat Barker and Peter Ackroyd. When she read Chatterton, she could feel the goose bumps march across her arm. She could feel London and its ghosts and its echoes of ghosts surround her, could sense Thomas Chatterton, the poet who killed himself at 17 in his attic room in London, standing in the corner of her dorm and watching her. Dr. Menocal was young, arthritic, lightning-sharp, one of the kindest and gentlest and most gracious men Rebecca had ever met. Later when she went to London with Dr. Chirico’s theatre group, she saw him in a restaurant and word was that he had just proposed to his fiancée there. That term when Rebecca first met Dr. Menocal, he was organizing an independent study in something called Psychogeography. She wasn’t sure what that meant. She read Guy DeBord and Peter Ackroyd, but couldn’t see what they had in common. Still, the idea of the psychology of place entered her awareness and she would never lose it.

Middle-of-the-night dorm conversations. Do you think a place can influence a person in ways the person can’t know? Of course, I mean, I grew up around all these fakey super-rich, like, Mediterranean villas with the red clay roof tiles and all, and that place told the people who lived there to even, like, walk different. And a big city, that can maybe tell people you’re small and insignificant compared to the city, like maybe New York does, or it can say you’re a part of this organic thing, this urban octopus, that lived long before you and is gonna live long after you, like maybe London. I wonder what growing up in Jacksonville tells you. I wouldn’t know, but you grew up here and all. You should know. I don’t know Jacksonville at all. I know the campus and, like, the mall across the street from campus, and the beach, you know? So what did growing up in Jacksonville tell you?

What if we got several of us together to go out into the city and index the whole place? We issue a report on the personality of the city. Whatever places we individually fancy. Any report on the personality of any piece of the city constitutes a piece of the larger puzzle of the city’s personality. We break it up into chapters and parts. It will be truer than history. We will shadow the city as it goes about its business. We’ll take pictures of whomever it meets when it thinks no one’s watching.

Then that night an adjunct professor was supposed to do a poetry reading in the lobby of the dorm, but nobody showed up, she went back up to her dorm room with the adjunct professor and they looked at the pictures of her and her friends on their recent college trip to Ghana.

She talked to Dr. Betsy Nies about the Indian-ness of being a contemporary American Indian. And she recited part of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales in Dr. Brian Striar’s class. And she read Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in Dr. Mike Wiley’s class. And she recognized half of Jacksonville in the landscapes of Flannery O’Connor stories in Dr. Kathy Hassall’s course on Southern Gothic. And she read an 800+ page novel every couple of weeks in Dr. Marnie Jones’s class on Charles Dickens.

And one night she wandered across the sports fields when no one was there and looked up into the lights and barely made out the twiggy contours of the small hawk nest atop an obsolete scoreboard. As though they knew the university had one of their own as a mascot, the ospreys glided over the quads and halls and build their nests on the sports field. Rebecca had just read Daniel Dennet’s argument that the idea that carrion must taste good to a vulture is a fallacy of anthropocentric projection, that the idea that carrion tastes like anything at all to a vulture might as well be an assumption that a vulture is partly human. And she understood the very otherness of an_other species and respected a hawk all the more for being its own thing and not a lesser human that happened to be covered with feathers. But she hoped that soaring across the campus landscape was a wonderful feeling. She hoped it felt as free to the osprey as it seemed emblematically so to her. It made her think of the movie Easy Rider, which she had just watched in her 1970s film course with Dr. Jilian Smith. She wanted to think the osprey was Captain America, but she thought the bird even more free for not being constrained to nationalisms.

In an earlier American literature course, Dr. Mauro had said that if you could understand what reading really was, there was nothing that couldn’t be your text, that you could read your world. Then he had asked them to follow him and he’d walked out of the classroom. They walked by Honors Hall and the Robinson Library and walked into what was then a central commons between Admissions, the bookstore, and the English Department. The line of students came together and soon coalesced into a rough circle. He asked them to notice how much concrete the place was built with. He asked them to look up and pointed to the concrete barriers in front of the walkways on the second floors of surrounding buildings. All the students had walked those walkways, but none of them had thought about the design of the buildings. He asked them if they knew when the University of North Florida had come into existence. Classes had begun here in 1972. He asked what college students were like and what they cared about in 1972. Somebody said something about the Vietnam War and student protesting. Someone said something about the Kent State Massacre. Mauro had a way of pointing emphatically at someone and nodding with half his being in affirmation of that student. The Kent State shootings had happened two years before classes started at UNF. National Guardsmen had fired 67 rounds on student protesters at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine. Rebecca kept seeing that Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a 14 year-old runaway kneeling and crying out over the dead body of a 20 year-old student the Ohio National Guard had just murdered. Dr. Mauro pointed to the massive concrete pillars, the concrete barriers, the layout of the barricaded balcony around the central courtyard. The space around them was perfectly designed to be retaken instantly by authorities if protesting or rabble-rousing students got out of hand. The central courtyard was designed to be locked down quickly. It was designed to be controlled.

She read what Michel Foucault had written in Discipline and Punish about the implementation of authority into architectural design. Of primary principle was the Panopticon, the prison design created by Utilitarianist philosopher Jeremy Bentham between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The radial design consisted of prison cells arrayed around a central observational point. More powerful than the potential for the central observer to see any or all prisoners at any one time was the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.” If everyone believed they were being watched, that was as powerful in controlling behavior as everyone truly being watched. As Foucault argued, the basic principle of the Panopticon could be, and was, incorporated into any number of architectural designs of hierarchical and power-based institutions—prisons, hospitals, governmental buildings, and yes—schools. And how many old European urban squares were dominated by the tall steeple of a cathedral—religion’s panoptic watch over and control of the town? Authority was built directly into the architecture and urban layout of your environment. And didn’t Frederick Douglass write about one master—the “nigger-breaker”—who crept through the grass and snuck up on slaves when they didn’t know he was there, the result being that they always knew he might be among them? As soon as they suspected he wasn’t around, he sprang up from the tall grass and showed them the power of his “invisible omniscience,” as they were to perceive it, and the power of his cowhide whip.

Rebecca says this psychogeography thing just keeps growing on her. It seems more evident all the time. How can place not have personality? Place must have some personality of the personalities who designed it and what they wished of themselves to put into it. It must also have, though, something no architect or urban designer could ever have expected. Always, a place comes into its own in unanticipated ways. What if we got several of us together to go out into the city and index the whole place? We issue a report on the personality of the city.

Take, for example, the university itself. A university is a place where more is going on than you can ever imagine or quantify. More ideas, more research, more imagination, more innovation. So if someone really did have an idea to create this center of campus with both a built-in authority and the possibility of authority being instantly reinstated in the student activism of the 1970s, look what else comes out of it. Something else comes out of that no designer could inculcate or anticipate. The place becomes its own place. The place becomes its own personality. That’s what haunting is, but that’s also what home is.

So this particular university, in the radial lines out from its panoptic center, breeds among all its other innovations this Jacksonville Psychogeographic Project. And that’s the opposite of any original panoptic authority. The psychogeography is an index of all the city’s unseen corners, which inevitably, in its sweep, misses tens of thousands of corners and captures some already overrepresented, but still in its massive detective circumambulence catches unawares a larger sampling of the real-live spiderweb than any official history or Boosterist public profile could ever do, because what you see at that street corner and that street corner and that street corner is a consummate depiction of the citywide theatre of the real living of the city. Thus the university, without knowing it and without funding it, launches this full-fledged investigation of the soul of the city that claims it.

There was a certain peace when everybody went home for Christmas and Rebecca stayed around. There was a certain peace when the dorms and the eateries and the bookstore and the classroom emptied out. She filled a bathtub full of water. She didn’t check email. She didn’t check Facebook. She didn’t Skype. She turned off her cell phone. She ran hot water in the tub and ran hot water. She didn’t think about her assignments. She didn’t think about her friends or family. Later she would walk across the empty campus and feel she owned the entire place. For now she was warm and clean inside a protective place within a protective place that was at once a place outside place outside place. Some of her life was behind her, but her whole life was ahead of her.