Oral examinations, Emperor Jones and absolutes

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

The sky was grey and the temperature cold when I trudged to the dingy quarters above a dentist’s office for an oral examination on all the course work I had ever had, ever hoped to have had, or should have had, and turned down.

Dr. Grabow chaired the meeting, a man who smoked a pipe and was quick to remind anyone who would listen that his dissertation ran more than 750 pages. Dr. L.A. smoked a pipe, too, but I was pretty sure his had a hose attached to it; a man continually scanning his surroundings as if the narco squad was nigh. But because he was a writer, he was my first choice as an adviser. But when I barely passed his Statistics course, I thought he tried to avoid me; and when I was able to corner him to suggest a new topic, he simply said “No.”

But I had one really good idea, which I expressed to him in a hallway.

“Dr. L.A., could I study how drum beats directed the audience’s emotions in ‘The Great God Brown’ by Eugene O’Neill?”

“The Great God Brown?” he asked.


Then he sighed, and walked away.

For nearly 50 years, I did not I realize why he had turned down this idea. Just now, I see that I gave him the wrong title. The play was not titled “The Great God Brown” at all; it was actually “The Emperor Jones.” Dr. L.A. knew the difference.

Jones was a convict from the States who passed himself off as a magician to become ruler of a Caribbean nation. When they suspected a ruse, his subjects began drumming up rebellion at night. In the play, the drum beat starts at 72 beats per minute and gradually accelerates until the climax of the play.

I didn’t get to say that I really admired O’Neill’s constant use of a drum to quicken the audience’s pulses, and thought the device should be studied. After he walked away I never had the nerve to approach Dr. L.A. again.

So, back to the winter day in the upstairs room above the dentist’s office — I walked into my orals without an approved dissertation topic. Dr.Grabow was there, as well as Dr. L.A., and a published novelist, I will call “Minnesota.” Here is one item we discussed.

“You are interested in the creative process,” Dr. L.A. said. “Tell us how a writer works.”

“Well,” I answered, “an idea needs time to incubate, and when the story is ready, the writer’s work is easy. All he has to do is type.”

I looked at them to see how I was doing, but could not tell.

“Then type as fast as you can. And don’t stop until the inspiration is gone. Don’t fight your muse by asking yourself how great — or sorry — the work is; just get the words on paper. The critique — the “when in doubt throw it out” — comes later.” I paused.

“How do you critique your work?” Dr. L.A. asked.

“I keep the things that will help the reader. If something is not useful and uplifting, I throw it away.”

“How do you determine whether your work is useful and uplifting?”

“See if it has imagination, skill, and beauty, and says useful things in a way they haven’t been said before. I make sure that every idea is my own. And I never collaborate.”

“Then you would not like my latest script, Leon,” Dr. L.A. said, emphasizing the “you.”

After that, I don’t remember exactly how he developed his point; the lines that follow are my best guess.

“I just finished an experimental script,” Dr. L.A. continued, “two men and one woman on a stage for 58 minutes. I have it here somewhere. ”

He reached in his backpack and pulled out a sandwich and a pair of socks. Then he smiled, “Oh yes, here it is,” and retrieved a single sheet of rumpled notebook paper from the bottom of the stack.

“’Happening,’ by L.A. Cook, Ph.D.” he read. “The curtain rises; Dr. Cook does the casting with the audience watching. I need an Ann, a Bill and a Bob. I tell the Anns they don’t like either Bill or Bob … or maybe they do. I tell the Bobs they like Ann, but maybe Bill likes her, too. I tell the Bills they like Ann, but maybe Bob likes her, too. Then I choose three of the actors to play these parts. The other actors move off stage, while the chosen ones talk. As time goes on, should the play bog down, Dr. Cook will come on stage and change out the actors as it seems appropriate.” Dr. L.A. then stuffed his rumpled script back into the canvas.

“What does your theory of creativity say about my script … Leon?” he said, emphasizing the “my.”

I was too stunned to answer.


I paused before continuing, “I am sorry. I just don’t know how to respond, sir.”

“Very well, then,” he said, patting his backpack. “That’s all I need to know.”

I sat gazing at the floor, until Dr. Grabow said, “I think we all have heard enough.”

He turned to me. “Leon, please wait outside while we confer. We will probably call you back,” he smiled, as he issued me to the door.

“Probably?” I wondered, waiting in Sarge the secretary’s office.

It was perhaps 15 minutes before Dr. Grabow opened the door and beckoned me to come back in.

“We have discussed your responses, Leon, and have decided you merit a provisional pass.”

A provisional pass, sir?”

“Yes. Not a regular pass … a provisional one. “

“May I ask why, sir?

“We have determined that your ideas on creativity are, shall we say, outmoded. What do you say, Dr. Cook?”

“Indeed,” L.A. said to me, eyes on full dart. “You think in terms of black and white; you think in absolutes; you probably believe there is a God.”

I shook my head in denial.

“But you do believe so strongly in right and wrong, “Minnesota said, softly.

“In absolute right and wrong, even,” Grabow added.

Each inquisitor nodded his agreement.

“So,” Grabow said, “we have decided to re-educate you.” He smiled again,“Some work in artistic criticism should do the trick.” He paused. “Dr. Cook teaches such a course from time to time. What will be the next topic?”

“Directed studies on Kitsch … next quarter.”

“Add it to your schedule, Leon,” Grabow smiled . “You,” he emphasized, “should find it illuminating.”

I never thought to ask them what they meant by “absolutes,” perhaps because I had gotten myself in enough trouble already. Once I overheard a doctor’s wife pronounce one, “There is no God,” and then I heard a fiction writer say “There are no absolutes, including this one.” And back in the South, I had a teacher who professed atheism to me Monday Wednesday and Friday. But he perjured himself on Sunday when he walked into the Presbyterian Church. I — a budding atheist under his tutelage — saw him go in as I drove by to wait for Piggly Wiggly to open.

Thinking about these things now, I don’t believe any of my teachers were atheists, for atheists believe in the absolute “there is no God.” So, they had to be agnostics, for they believed you cannot know whether there is a God or not, then went on behaving as if there is not one anyway. They were Emperor Joneses; I was an atheist banging a drum.

In the Kitsch class, I saw that Dr. L.A.’s play was futility and irresponsibility masquerading as art. So, I wrote a paper on false and deceptive advertising for Dr.Grabow, using my old-fashioned ideas that lying to sell stuff is wrong, and that the Federal Trade Commission’s penalizing such malefactors is right. After Grabow signed his grudging approval of my scant 365 pages, I decided that the words on them had worth just as scant, so I hid them away in a typing paper box, where they remain to this day.

As I pulled the U-Haul out of town behind me, each mile I drove carried me farther and farther away from the ethics my committee pressured me to accept. It was only later that I realized that I had fooled myself too: although I was no agnostic, I was no atheist, either, for I never doubted that the Ten Commandments were true, that Jesus was who He claimed to be, and concluded that my life was so hard because I had been disobedient .

But that’s another story.


Leon Smith

Contributing columnist