19 April 2008

Bruce E. Donovan

Before Sayles Hall, May 25, 2008
Photograph by Catherine Karnow. Used with permission.

In times of sorrow, it is only natural, I think, to reflect upon the lessons we’ve been taught, and to try to draw some measure of strength and solace from them. And that is perhaps why, as I mourn the passing of Madeline Gilford, my thoughts return again and again to someone who did not in any way resemble her, a professor at Brown, Bruce E. Donovan.

And I’ll cut to the chase: the lesson that’s resonating loudest for me right now is drawn from the Antigone of Sophocles. In recalling Madeline’s life, and in being reminded that, as recently as 1999, she was arrested in a protest demonstration in New York, I wondered whether perhaps her death might spur me to a hitherto uncharacteristic political activism. But something Dean Bruce said returns to me now. “In life,” he said, “there are Antigones and there are Ismenes.”

Ismene is Antigone’s sister, a sweet kid who hasn’t the guts to bury their brothers and incur the wrath of their uncle, Creon the King. She pleads with Antigone to play it safe, and when Antigone refuses, Ismene makes her exit. Although, a few weeks after I left Dean Bruce’s classroom for the last time, I took up politics and joined John B. Anderson’s quixotic campaign for the Presidency, I must have known already that I was an Ismene. Whereas Madeline was the most Antigone of anyone I’ve ever known. Sophocles might have needed another play to describe her.

It is no doubt useful, as a professor, to be able to fall back on the wisdom of the Greeks. Your students will think you are the wise one, when all you are doing is quoting a 2,500-year-old piece of parchment. Yet I was (and remain) utterly persuaded of Dean Bruce’s wisdom, and during my freshman year of college I latched myself onto him, absorbing his every word in English and alarmingly few in Ancient Greek.

He taught a survey of Ancient Greek drama, and this subject I aced. I galloped through the plays, in the clear-cut University of Chicago translations. Another fine teacher, Zona Ray, had directed me in Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone in high school, and for many years that play would remain a touchstone for me, my most impressive reference, the Supercalifragilistic topic I raised when I knew nothing else to say. (In philosophy class, for example, I was totally at sea, but I wrote an essay applying Kantian ethics to an analysis of Antigone and Creon, and I passed the course — albeit much in the way one passes a kidney stone.) Dean Bruce introduced me to all the rest of the tragedies, as if standing atop the Acropolis and offering me all the surrounding landscape, or at least the amphitheater below.

If you know only one Greek tragedy, as I did, you will be astonished to learn that there are others, as good (in many cases) and better (in some) than the Antigone. But your happiness will be short-lived when you learn that only 32 of those plays survive.

Well, it was only a semester course, and we had time for only about 20 plays, at most. Dean Bruce is an alumnus of Brown (Class of ’54, as I recall), and the survey was one of the most popular offerings on campus. He stood before the crowded lecture hall and held forth, enraptured with his material. He could have been an actor, and I can still hear him intoning Clytemnestra’s chilling command — when she learns that her son has come home — “Go, and get me an axe to kill a man.”

He was preppier than preppy, just at the moment that another Brown alum, Lisa Birnbach, was codifying the style with her Preppy Handbook, and as he lectured, he often slipped off one penny loafer and spun it around the floor with his big toe. It wasn’t uncommon to see him in a bowtie, or wearing a blazer with leather patches at the elbows. He looked the way a professor ought to look. He gestured brilliantly, and within a week I’d adopted all but the single most distinctive of these, the elegant way he used to wipe the corners of his mouth while he spoke.

Almost as rapidly, I began to talk like him, too, and the lingering traces of my Texas accent (never strong) were gone for good. I used to have to present my drivers license in order to convince people I wasn’t from Connecticut. That was as I wanted it. I didn’t want to be Texan anymore. I wanted to be Bruce Donovan.

I first encountered him during Orientation Week, warning us against the perils of alcohol, with which he’d fought his own battles. Now he was fighting those of others: in addition to his duties in the Classics Department, he was the Dean of Alcohol and Chemical Dependency. Eager to know anything he could tell me, I joined the Brown Group on Alcohol, where my consciousness was raised over weekly brown-bag lunches in Pembroke Hall (although I was to remain blind to the warning signs when they arose among a few of my friends). Though he informed us that it is Brown tradition (and he would know) to address professors as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” to the campus at large he was simply “Dean Bruce.”

For the second semester, I followed him happily to his intensive course in Ancient Greek, designed to give the student sufficient tools to take literature courses in the original language the next fall. At first, I flourished, and Ancient Greek is to this day the only language in which I have nice handwriting.

But I was also taking Intensive Russian, and just as we were hitting declensions in both languages, I had a romantic upset. My high-school girlfriend, back home in Texas, informed me that she Just Wasn’t That Into Me. I fell into a deep depression, went to one or two or three movies every day for the month of February, but seldom any classes, and I never fulfilled my early promise in Ancient Greek. I was crashing and burning, and I knew it. Dean Bruce must have known it, too, but when it came time to drop the course, he didn’t forcibly eject me from the room, and I stayed.

I was applying the lessons of my master, after all. His reading of the Ajax of Sophocles still haunts me. The very name is a cry of pain, Dean Bruce said: “Aios!” If Ajax fell upon his sword, so would I. I took the final exam, and flunked the course.

It was an idiotic thing to do, but it was part of growing up. Quite a lot of “the Brown experience” for me was doing idiotic things, a wrenching exposure of what was not merely naïveté, but my humiliatingly inadequate preparation for the hard realities of life. This would be followed, each time, by the painful gain of adult perspective. I’d like to say that I was a grownup when I graduated, but the truth is that it took many more years than four, and the process isn’t wholly completed yet.

And that is why I believe I may have solved at last a riddle that stumped even Dean Bruce.

Years ago, one of his former students, by then a television reporter in Providence, asked to interview him. Dean Bruce agreed. Over the course of the conversation, the young woman said, “You know, you once said something in class that has stayed with me ever since.”

“Really?” replied Dean Bruce, hoping to hear some prize bit of wisdom, whether his own or a Greek philosopher’s.

“Yes,” the young woman said. She took a deep, almost reverent breath and quoted: “Life is chunky.”

Dean Bruce didn’t remember saying it. He didn’t know what it meant. He was too embarrassed to ask her. And he still didn’t know, when he told us, a few years afterward. He was trying to puzzle it out. Was it perhaps a reference to peanut butter?

I think not, these 25 years later. He meant what he said, Dean Bruce did, as he looked upon life, the tragedies of ancient heroes and the foibles of Classics professors and the woeful travails of ignorant freshmen. And although I am an Ismene, I’ve seen it myself.

Life is chunky.

(I would tell you how to say that in Greek — but you know how that turned out.)


John C. said...

FYI-Farewell to Dean Bruce Donovan


William V. Madison said...

My heart is broken.

Anne said...

'Among the most important duties one owed one's deceased loved ones was continual remembrance of them in order to assure them of eternal life in a land of bliss.

In ancient Greece the continued existence of the dead depended on their constant remembrance by the living.'

This beautiful piece of writing does you and Dean Bruce honor--and helps to perpetuate the memory (and, one hopes, the eternal bliss) of a lovely man.