The academics who came to dinner

Two professors plan a dinner party, aiming for the highest level of ennui.


Lee Siegel
June 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I had a simple but effective strategy for victory: I would invite only academics; my colleagues, I was confident, would be magnificently, stupendously, and exquisitely boring. I had the dream team. First were Dr. Paul Planter, chairman of my department, and his boring wife Pimika -- he'd be sure to recount every lurid detail of the most recent chairmen's meeting, and since Pimiko doesn't speak English and always just sits there smiling admiringly at her illustrious husband, I reckoned that, even without a Ph.D., she'd be pretty dull. Second was my esteemed colleague, Dr. Christopher Cross, gastropodologist extraordinaire, who would, undoubtedly, have lots to tell us about the anatomy, psychology, and social life of snails, about his fellowships and grants to do research on the habits, if not the wit and wisdom, of Helix hermaphrodites. And finally, I had just heard from Saighal that his former teacher, Professor Lee Siegel, was visiting from Hawaii to give some sort of lecture on "Jews of India' for the Hollywood Hadassah chapter.

Unfortunately Siegel explained that he couldn't make it, giving the lame excuse that he had to attend the Deepak Chopra lecture at the university that night. So I invited his protigi, my teaching assistant, Anang Saighal, a good pinch hitter, I figured, in that he'd probably talk about his dissertation, his comps, his committee -- all those excruciatingly wearisome things that graduate students think fit for conversation. And even if I didn't win, even if, against all odds, Saighal, Cross, or the Planters let me down by being mildly interesting, I was happy because that night I'd have Her in my home.

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One of my team members was first to ring the doorbell.

"Sophia," I called out with pleasure, "Anang is here. And guess what! He's brought a chapter of his dissertation on medieval Sanskrit commentators. Fascinating, don't you think so, Soph? I'm anxious for our guests to hear all about it." 8

The Guptas were next. She stood behind Her mother, who stood, bearing an offering of karanji for us, behind Her father, who stood in front of me, his hands joined in the traditional Indian greeting as he beamed and boomed, "Dr. Ruth, illustrious professor of Indology! What a pleasure to have this sight of you!"

When I corrected him ("Roth, not Ruth!"), he smiled.

"May I call you Dr. Lee?"

"Leo, not Lee. My name is Leopold Roth. Leo like the Holy Roman Emperor, like Delibes, Buscaglia, and the astrological sign. Leopold like the king of Belgium, like Loeb and Leopold ..." I was stopped short by the realization that he wasn't listening to me. He was wearing a black dress suit and a Loma Linda Medical School tie. His women were clad in saris; Lalita's was purple silk embroidered with gold. 9

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As they entered, I looked straight into Lalita's lovely eyes, as I did not dare to do in class, and offered to take Her shawl that I might lightly, tenderly touch Her shoulders. She insisted on keeping it.

"But you may take my wooly," Mrs. Gupta announced with a wobble of the head.

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Dr. Gupta, who wanted to know if I had received his daughter's application for the study tour of India, kept winking at me as if we had made some sort of deal.

"Are You eager to go to India, Lalita?" I asked with a cordiality that was well tempered by professorial civility.

"No, not really, but my parents want me to," She answered frostily. "Do you have a phone I could use?"

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After directing Lalita to the telephone in the bedroom, Sophia opened the door for the Planters, who had given Cross a ride. Mrs. Planter bowed obsequiously as her husband slapped me on the back, fulsomely expressing his pleasure to see me -- rather odd, I felt, since he sees me every day at the department and usually doesn't even say hello.

Cross entered the house like a champion racehorse lunging out of the gate.
"Snails, Leo. I just heard today -- I got the NSF grant for the research. Let's celebrate! I can't wait to tell you." Those were his first words, uttered before he had even taken off his coat. Luckily for me, he was clearly raring to talk Gastropodae tonight.

"Great, Chris," I said. "You'll have to tell all of us. Everybody likes
to hear about snails."

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Lalita returned from the bedroom as I was beginning to offer drinks to go with the spicy Indian snacks set out in Indian brass bowls for the guests. I was disappointed that She wanted a 7Up. I'm not sure I can really love someone who doesn't drink; I imagined Her imbibing cool reflections of a full moon from a cup of heady wine, getting drunk with me, letting drink dissolve all boundaries and erode all sense of time and place.

Aphra, last to arrive, announced that Isaac couldn't make it and joined Saighal on the couch. This woman, old enough to be Isaac's mother, in her dark glasses, torn jeans, and a sweat shirt with a portrait of Dostoevsky on it, was as underdressed as Gupta was overdressed.

Lafita, now on Her second 7Up once again wanted to use the phone. I liked it that She was in our bedroom and hoped that She'd sit on the bed while talking on the phone so that after Her return to the living room, I could approach my bed as a shrine, like those in India that have the footprints of Vishnu on them, and rub my hands over the indentation She had made unknowingly for my sake. "Om sriye lalitayai nitambinyai namah.10

After She emerged, duly accepted yet another 7Up from Sophia, and sat down with the same weary expression on Her face that She frequently had in class, I went into the bedroom to worship Her impression on my side of the bed next to the table and phone. The bed, however, was desolately flat, unimpressed by her buttocks, and I felt cheated by that, as if a secret assignation had been missed. I sniffed the smooth, clean bedspread for some possible lingering scent of Her. Nothing. She must have stood impatiently during the call. Upset,
ruffled, and driven by pangs of infatuation, I picked up the phone, pressed the redial button, and after one ring heard a man's hello.

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"Lovelace?" I made a good guess.

"Yeah, who's this?"

"Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls."

"No shit?"

"Listen son, I don't want to hear that kind of language from you. Pay close attention. I've seen some of the tapes of your games, and I like what I've seen. I want you to fly out here to Chicago as soon as you can, on the very next plane. I believe you've got what it takes. Grab a cab at O'Hare and come over to my place, 5801 South Ellis Avenue. I'll pay you back for the plane and the cab, of course, but be sure to bring the receipts. And, of course I expect you to fly first class. I gotta go now, kid. Get here right away. See you soon. And remember kid -- "Go Bulls!'"

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The moment I hung up I was terrified that he might have recognized my voice; he was, after all, taking my class. I was consoled by the thought that he was frequently absent and that, when he did come, he often slept. But what if he actually did go to Chicago and then figured out that it had been me on the phone? And what if he doesn't have a sense of humor (he never laughed at my jokes in class)? He might beat me up, come into my office and roll my bones and flesh into an unrecognizable bag of gore. But terror, because of love, gave way to thrill: oh, oh, oh, to suffer for the beloved, the glorious martyrdom of love, the ultimate fulfillment of exquisite passion; and Lalita would then find his youth, strength, and agility crudely brutish and would be moved with sympathy for me, the older, gentler, and wittier man-about-town who suffered for Her sake. His virility is in his limbs, mine in my heart and soul. I wanted him to try to kill me. And if I were badly injured, Sophia wouldn't have the heart to be angry with me.

I returned to the living room to find the boring party in full swing -- the monotony had reached an electrifying pitch, the humdrumness of the banter was sensational. Chris Cross, having announced that he was sorry to be missing the Deepak Chopra lecture at the university that night, was telling the Guptas about the chemical makeup of the slime that constitutes the snail's tracks. Aphra was on the couch next to Saighal telling him about her latest book. Planter was ponderously translating all the boring things that the others were saying into Japanese for his expressionless wife. The game was rousing. Alone in the bleachers with Sophia, I was silently cheering for my team of champions: "Come on Saighal, tell them about the commentary you found listed in the Catalogus Catalogorum -- you know, the Hindi commentary on a Prakrit commentary on a Sanskrit commentary on a nonexistent text. Come on Cross, that's it, way to go! Interrupt Saighal to tell him what you wrote your dissertation on when you were a graduate student! Come on Planter, speak some more in Japanese! Way to go team! Push'em back, push'em back, waaay back!"

At half time, the players left the field to fine up for their choice of take-out Indian food. Mrs. Gupta announced that she was a vegetarian, "for the sake of kindness to other dumb animals." I was grateful that I had a vegetarian and teetotaler, Mr. Anang Saighal, on my team as well -- they're always boring.

When Lalita emerged from the bedroom smiling for the first time that evening, displaying a genuine happiness about something, Sophia's team was going strong. Dr. Gupta was claiming an Indian origin of scotch.

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"It should not be called 'Scotch whisky,' but 'Indian whisky,' because it was, in fact, invented and enjoyed five thousand years ago in India and relished in that finer time and clime by royalty in luxurious palaces as well as by the lowly in humble hovels. But this is typical of the British Imperialism which has credited my great civilization with only India ink, Indian wrestling, and Indian giving. Similarly tea from Darjeeling is called 'English Breakfast Tea.'"

Aphra was blabbering about her literary accomplishments to Pimiko Planter who, despite the fact that she probably didn't understand a word of it, kept nodding and smiling politely.

"I've dedicated my life to writing about love. I have defined love in many ways: pornographically, as an experience of intense sexual arousal and release in "Confessions of a Cockeyed Coed"; romantically, in "The Fires of Love," as an experience that gives meaning to life, an access to higher and deeper levels of being; psychologically, in "The Power of Passionate Thinking," as a source of energy that can be applied for the sake of success to all aspects of life, an energy that begins with a certain positive attitude toward oneself; and philosophically, in my new book, "The Latin Lover," as the principle which binds opposites together into new, unique and dynamic, whole beings." It's all of these and none of them; these are merely perspectives valid for certain people at certain times in certain predicaments. No definition is adequate, and thus a novel is the only way to get at it. Anything you say with a straight face, sincerely, about love is a clichi and that's unforgivable, but for a character in a novel to utter a clichi is appropriate. My books are non-clichid juxtapositionings of clichis. "Confessions of a Cockeyed Coed"'s the only one that's been translated into Japanese. Have you read it?"

Pimiko smiled and bowed several times.

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My team was putting up a good fight: while Planter explained to Mrs. Gupta why Japan was so much cleaner than India, Saighal was trying to interrupt Cross, who was explaining the sex life of snails to Sophia (who smiled over at me), to whom Dr. Gupta was boasting about the extraordinary accomplishments of himself, his daughter, and India.

"Of all sentient beings," Professor Cross lectured, "snails have the richest and most fulfilling love life. First of all, their genitals are in their heads, which is a much cleaner, safer, and more reasonable place for them than between the legs, all mixed up there with the dirty parts. Each snail has both male and female organs, and their sexual union is simultaneous: the male part of one mating with the female part of the other and vice versa. Snails experience true, whole, and equal love. In the laboratory I've watched them in the throes of passion, dancing for each other, kissing, smacking, bumping, drawing themselves erect, tentacles quivering wildly, and then when the genitals make contact, each exudes a dagger that enters the flesh of the other, wounding the other, making him/her twitch, convulse with rapture, and then each produces a long whip-like penis that is wiggled into the seminal vesicle of the other. The male aspect of each snail is satisfied only when its female side is satisfied which can happen only when the male side of the partner (also dependent on its own female side) is satisfied. When the snails separate, having experienced the very essence of love, they slowly wander away from each other and resume a solitary life in their garden. They don't need to talk. If we could be as the snails, informing love with mutuality, simultaneity, a perfect and exquisite inability to distinguish our pain and our pleasure from that of the beloved, moments of love, such as the snail knows, would suffice,
fulfill, and bestow happiness upon us. The evolutionary process that has deprived the male of a vagina and the ability to bear young as it has deprived the female of a penis and an ability to inseminate, has been, in human beings, compensated for with language. We have developed language in order to replace our missing sexual organs and capacities, to attempt to overcome the biological inequalities that exist between us. Men talk and write because they don't have vaginas, because they cannot give birth; women talk and write because they don't have penises, because they cannot fructify." And so on, and so on, and so on.

Suddenly Dr. Gupta, no doubt to further ingratiate himself to me on behalf of his daughter, offered to make his wife to do the dishes.

"Oh, just leave the dishes," Sophia laughed. "Leo will do them after you re gone."

"No," Planter jumped in. "Please, let my wife do the dishes. It's part of her religion. It's her meditation. It's a Japanese thing. We got rid of our dishwasher at home because the technology had removed Pimiko from the joys inherent in a timeless and universal activity. It's a Zen Buddhist practice. She closes her eyes and listens to the sound of the tap water as it speaks of the evanescence of things; she opens her eyes and sees the steam, breathes it in and smells the life-affirming fragrance of lemon-scented Joy; she reaches through the soap suds, pondering for a moment the way in which our lives are like bubbles; and she experiences what the Japanese call mono no ware . It's an untranslatable phrase suggesting beauty, transience, the bliss inherent in sorrow, the and-yet-ness of being, and that sort of thing. Then suddenly her hands are warmed by the water and a feeling of well-being comes over her, an understanding of why we are here, a why that cannot be answered in words. The sink becomes an external metaphor for an internal world, which she orders and purifies as she rubs each dish clean, so perfectly clean, carefully drying it with infinite care before returning it to its proper place in the universe. It's a ritual, a lustration, a form of prayer and meditation, at once a path to enlightenment and an expression of it. It is an art. Please allow her."


Lee Siegel

Lee Siegel is a professor of Indian religions at the University of Hawaii. His previous works include "Net of Maic: Wonders and Deceptions in India" and "City of Dreadful Night: a Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India," both published by University of Chicago Press.

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