During my undergraduate days I saw my professor and lecturers as remote and unapproachable figures, life within the university walls as a quest for truth and beauty. When it came to the final exams, I passed, and passed in another way too, from undergraduate to assistant lecturer, standing up on the rostrum instead of sitting below it.
At that stage, I was full of ambitions. I wanted to teach, inspire students, and publish research. Life does not always turn out as you imagine it. Along with my promotion began as a process of gradual disillusionment, compensated by various intriguing new insights.
First there were the students. During lecures they set slouched over their lecture notes, yawning and coughing, consumed by private miseries. They kept coming up to the staff room to consult me about essays on Thomas Mann and Kafka, but their consultations ended invariably with an outpouring of personal problems -- landladies who had put them out of their lodgings, parents who didn't understand them. How in the daily drama of their lives were they ever going to find time for the glories of literature?
The university janitors, seen formerly as cheerful and uncomplicated beings, were now revealed, to my postgraduate eyes, as even more miserable than the students. When they opened the lecture room for me they always had time to tell me of their misfortunes. My colleagues, once revered from a distance, were found to be victims of frustrated promotion and thwarted ambition, tormented by complaining wives, problem children, and botched careers.
The chief problem, however, became my professor, supervisor of the research I hoped to carry out. He grew daily vaguer, the names of students and colleagues eluding him until only mine remained. He took to asking each morning, "What day is it?" At first I looked on it as a joke between us, then with a cold shiver realized that it was no joke.
Several times a week I went to have tea with him and to discuss research. He lived in an old terrace house, overlooking a leafy square. In his book-lined study I had to climb over a mountain of music sheets, books of literary criticism, students' essays and exam papers, and finally over the grand piano to get to my chair. "We'll settle down to some hard work," the professor would say. Then his face would suddenly light, "But first we must have some music."
When he sat down at the piano, I knew my research on Rilke would have to wait a little longer. Beethoven was the professor's greatest passion in life. For the moment Beethoven was the only thing that mattered, and in the next hours, the light began to fail outside in the tree-flanked terrace, leaves rustled and drifted down past the window a blackbird, the Beethoven of birds, sang from a sycamore.
The professor played the Waldstein, the Pathetique, the Andante Favori, the Appassionata, and his favourite, Opus 90.* When he played Beethoven, God was in His heaven, all was right with the world. There was nothing wrong with his memory for music. All frailty fell away.
This was good, but the question remained: What about mym dreams of success? For the rest of the time, I was adrift, and day after day the professor continued to wander slowly down between the shelves, lost, looking for something or somebody, asking, "What day is it?"
The suddenly it came to me. What day indeed! The day to inspire my students to love of literature, the day to close my ears to tales of misery and misadventure, the day to take the professor in hand before he became any more absent-minded, to hold onto Rainer Maria Rilke even if it meant forsaking beautiful but irrelevant Beethoven.
Then a deeper truth about all this broke on me -- not with a blinding intuitive flash but little by little. What could I add to the sum of words already written on Rilke? Instead I was finding out about hardship among students, the underprivileged existence of janitors, the problem children of colleagues and the fact that a university was not an ivory tower but a place where literature and life were inextricably interwoven. Life deepened the interpretation of literature, literature enriched life. One was impossible without the other. An understanding of Beethoven, a love of music, could be the greatest of gains. Perhaps my best research would be a growth of compassion in dealing with all aspects of the human predicament.
I had set out to do one thing and found myselvf involved in a very different set of circumstances, learning far more than I could ever teach. Failure to complete my research on Rilke led to a reappraisal of the meaning of success. After all, what are they, success and failure? Ambition can turn out to be quite irrelevant to the great business of living.