Issue 136, Fall 1995
... As I was saying, ladies and gentlemen, before that little unpleasantness: I have just been assured, by those in position to know, that this evening’s eminent “mystery guest” has arrived, and should be with us any time now.
Did I say “arrived”? In the literary sense and on the literary scene, our distinguished visitor “arrived,” of course, with her first collection of poems, or at latest with her prizewinning second. On the international political scene, as the whole world knows, she arrived with a vengeance — excuse the poor joke, not intended — upon the publication of that more recent, truly epical poetic satire of hers whose very title it is dangerous to mention favorably in some quarters, though thank heaven not here. At least I hope not here; that unbecoming ruckus just now makes me wonder. And as of just a short time ago, I’m delighted to announce, she has arrived in our city. Even as I stretch out these introductory remarks — introducing my introduction, I suppose we might say, while we await together the main event—the most controversial poet of our dying century (politically controversial, it’s important to remember, not artistically controversial, for better or worse) is in mid-whisk from the airport to our campus, to honor us by inaugurating this new lecture series. In that final sense, she should arrive here in the flesh —the all too mortal, all too vulnerable flesh —within the quarter hour.
In that meantime, I thank again the overwhelming majority of you for your patience with this unavoidable delay. It is owing, let me repeat, neither to any dilatoriness whatever on our visitor’s part nor to transoceanic air-traffic problems, but solely to the extraordinary security measures that, alas, necessarily attend and not infrequently impede the woman’s every movement. Who could have imagined that, at this hour of the world, a mere book, a mere poem, could provoke so dreadful a stir?
Well. As some of you may know, I myself am a writer, not of verse but of fiction: one whose “controversiality," such as it is, is fortunately of the aesthetic rather than the political variety. And I must acknowledge that although it is my professional line of work to imagine myself into other people’s situations, I cannot for the life of me imagine what it must be like for such a free, proud, articulate, sensitive, gregarious, impassioned, and altogether high-spirited spirit as our impending visitor’s to endure and even to go on making art under her constricted circumstances—not to mention courageously putting herself in harm’s way by accepting from time to time such invitations as ours (whose absence of advance publicity I’m sure you appreciate, although your numbers suggest that word somehow got out despite our precautions). I shake my head; I am awed, truly humbled. It was my good fortune to first meet and enjoy the company of our eminent/imminent guest some years ago, before the present storm of political controversy broke upon her, back when she and I were happily just representative scribblers from two different countries sharing a lecture platform in a third — and I heartily do not envy her present celebrity! At the same time, for her sake if not for my own, I much wish that some Arabian-Nights genie could put me and every one of us who treasure artistic freedom and deplore murderous zealotry into our guest’s skin, each of us for just a single day, and she in ours, to give us the chastening, attention-focusing taste of terrorism and to give her, who must surely crave it, a bit of respite therefrom: a souvenir of the artist’s more usual condition of being blissfully ignored by the world at large.
But I was speaking of meantimes, was I not —indeed, both of meantimes and of mean times, and of introductions to introductions. For some decades, as it happens, I have belonged to that peculiarly American species, the writer in the university. Indeed, it has been my pleasure and privilege for many years now to be a full-time teacher at this institution as well as a full-time writer of fiction. As, again, some few of you may have heard, at the end of the current semester I’ll be retiring from that agreeable association (my replacement has yet to be named, but I don’t mind confiding to you that we’re taking advantage of this new lecture series to look over a roster of likely candidates—not including tonight’s visitor, alas—to any one of whom I would confidently entrust the baton of my professorship). There is an appropriate irony, therefore, in its having devolved upon me, as perhaps my final public action as a member of our faculty, to introduce not only tonight’s extraordinary guest speaker but also this newly endowed “Last Lecture” series that her visit will so auspiciously inaugurate.
Valediction, benediction: I see therein no contradiction — and while I’m in the nervously-improvised-doggerel-verse mode, let me pray that to my valedictory introduction there may be no further interruption. . . .
So. Well. Until our guest materializes, kindly indulge me now an impromptu brief digression on the subject of . . .
The purpose of introductions, I have somewhere read, is normally threefold: first, to give late-arriving members of the audience time to be seated, as I notice a few in process of doing even now; second, to test and if necessary adjust the public-address system for the principal speaker; and at the same time (third) to give her or him a few moments to size up the house and perhaps make appropriate program modifications. Introductions, therefore, should go on for longer than one sentence — but not much longer. And may Apollo spare us the introducer who either in the length of his/her introduction presumes upon the speaker’s allotted time, or in its manner attempts to upstage the introduced But tonight, it goes without saying, is another story. We need not ask of it the traditional Passover question—“How is this night different from all other nights?” —although that is the question that I urge apprentice storytellers in my “workshop” to put to the main action of their stories. Why is it that Irma decides to terminate Fred today, rather than two weeks ago or next semester? What was it about this satirical verse-epic of our visitor’s that provoked so astonishing and lamentable a reaction, which her scarcely less provocative earlier works did not? You get the idea. I trust you’ll appreciate, however, that in all my years of introducing our visiting writers to their audiences, this is my maiden experience of being not so much an introducer as a warm-up act for “him who shall come after me,” as John the Baptist put it (in this instance, her who shall etc.). The bona fide introduction that I had prepared —short, short, I assure you, and not badly turned, if I do say so myself— I am thus obliged to expand ad libitum like one of those talking heads on public television fund-raisers, either until there’s mutiny in the ranks (but let it be more orderly, in that event, than that uncivilized earlier disruption) or else until our eagerly awaited guest . . .
One moment, please.
She is? Allah be praised for that! (No disrespect to that deity intended.)
My friends: I’m perfectly delighted to announce that the limousine of our so patiently awaited leadoff lecturer-du-soir, together with its attendant security convoy, has reached the campus, and that therefore it should be a matter of mere minutes—another ten or fifteen tops, I estimate and profoundly hope—before I happily yield this podium to the Godot for whom we’ve all been waiting. May that news update appease you while I now go straight to the matter of this series: