By the time I transferred to Brooklyn College, most of my courses were in my major, English Literature. I took a course in American Literature with the department chairman, Professor Louis Solomon. He was a very proper person with gray suits, a dignified mustache and a deep voice with careful diction. One day he asked the class for our impressions of Walt Whitman. I raised my hand and said, “He’s more than a poet, he’s like a prophet.” This was the side of Whitman that I was attracted to. I was posing as someone who had something interesting to say about poets and prophets. I always had mixed motives when I spoke in class.
Professor Solomon’s class was interesting, but I got the impression that he had done this year after year, the same syllabus, the same authors, in the same way. Although he had an interest in the literature, he wasn’t blazing away. Dr. Alexander and Dr. Pessen had more spontaneity. Solomon seemed as if he was listening to the sound of his own voice because it was such a deep perfectly modulated voice. But it was good and new to me; it wasn’t the hundredth time I was hearing. I wanted to get a scholarly understanding of these American writers, so I was interested.
I once went to see Professor Solomon in his office. He had been discussing two schools of literature — Naturalism and Realism. I couldn’t quite understand the difference. I decided to go to him and ask him this question. He gave me an appointment. It must have been a botheration because he was such a busy person as the Chairman of the English Department. He explained to me that in Realism the writers tried to describe daily life exactly as it is as far as they can do. Naturalism, however, is a school in which they don’t just take life as it is, but focus on the sores and the gutter and the suffering. It is more of a turning of the camera to focus on the “human condition” up close. After he explained it I said thank you. It was such a small exchange and filled with so much ambivalence — perhaps my question was not intelligent, maybe I was bothering him, or maybe he thought I was just posing as a dedicated student. It was hardly like going to see a guru and walking away with your life changed; it was just a small scholarly point that had to be clarified.
It could be said without much exaggeration that most authors are ruined for students when read within the college course. It is a terrible setting for actual learning. For myself, whatever juice I got from books was mostly done in extracurricular reading, without the pressure of exams and grades and without having to memorize and submit to an “authorized” version of the poet’s worth and meaning.
Coming from Staten Island, I wanted to prove myself worthy in the academic big leagues, and so I became a dancing dog. I strived to get all A’s. “Walt Whitman, are you going to stand in the way of my getting an A, or will I be able to claim you for my purposes? Emily Dickinson, please don’t hide your inner life from me, because I have to make clear sense out of you for my final exam.” I don’t have much live remembrance of these authors probably because I’ve studied them within the syllabus of American Literature 101. I know that Emily Dickinson is supposed to be brilliant, transcendental, one of the greatest poets of all time — and I know Whitman has been a direct inspiration for generations of American poets. But for me they remain mangled as school subjects.
Professor Grebanier was completely different from Louis Solomon, whose name describes him. Solomon was a solemn man, whereas Dr. Grebanier was obese and gushing. He reminded me of pictures you see of Dr. Samuel Johnson from the 18th century. Grebanier was always saying “brilliant,” witty things or being insulting. He presented himself as thoroughly realized in all literature, and he pontificated on everything. When I told my Staten Island friend Tommy Oakland about Grebanier, Tommy wanted to come and sit in on one of the classes. Tommy was so outgoing that you could hear him laughing and appreciating in the back seat where he was auditing the class. He was practically jumping up in his seat. Grebanier gave quite an electric session. I took two courses from him, one on poetry and one on Shakespeare. The Shakespeare was very popular and was held in a large hall that slanted downwards. There were over a hundred students in that class. We used Grebanier’s own book, The Heart of Hamlet. In this book he blasted all critics of Hamlet. Every scholar had some interpretation of Hamlet, but he said that they had all completely confused the play. Grebanier’s interpretation was Hamlet as it is. The trouble with everyone else is that they put their own speculation and try to teach their philosophies. They thought that Shakespeare did not even know what he was doing. But actually the play is very clear. All you have to do is study the texts, and you can understand the motivations of Hamlet, why he hesitated to kill his father’s murderer, and what he really meant when he said “To be or not to be.” On each and every point there is no need for speculation.
Grebanier’s book was like he him self, filled with witty footnotes and digressions. He caricatured and made fun of all the other scholars. He was convinced of all his own eccentricities and excesses. He was right. What he was saying made the play understandable, so he taught from that book and it took a long time going carefully over each line. One day we came to class, the morning after the presidential election of 1960, President Kennedy had won over Nixon in a very close vote. Almost everyone at Brooklyn College was happy about the result. The day after the election Eleanor Roosevelt spoke in our Walt Whitman auditorium and received wild applause, but in Grebanier’s class he was unhappy. He mumbled and muttered, “If that’s what the American people want, they are going to be be sorry. The y think he’s good, but he’s not.” What I didn’t know about Grebanier at that time was that during the McCarthy era, he was a witness who turned in professors as having some alleged connection with the Communist party. This was known to faculty members, and there were professors who would not talk to him or who would leave the room when he entered. I only found out about that later.
As far as being able to teach literature, he was expert. He told us that he also taught poetry in his home for a fee. I never went, but I imagined he had a formal large apartment with nice furniture. His students would come and sit in chairs, and he would be witty, more relaxed. Maybe wearing different clothes, but still as big as a house, and making that funny sound when he laughed. A Brooklyn friend of mine wrote a poem about Grebanier calling him “a ridiculous goose stuffed with opinions.” People hearing him had the impression that he was very much impressed with his own sparkling remarks, as if he thought they should be remembered for all time, like the aphorisms or witticisms of Samuel Johnson. Grebanier was also the editor of a line of student notes, like CliffsNotes or Student Aids, which gave a rundown of books so that students didn’t have to read them. I showed one of these books to my former professor, Dr. Alexander, and she said, “He’s just an entrepreneur.”
As I look back, Professor Grebanier’s portly form stands in the way of Shakespeare and Hamlet. I remember my professor and not the Bard. How little we remember and how strangely it gets filtered down to us! And what does it matter now? As I begin to speak of Grebanier, I am enlivened and amused, but then … I have also heard that he has since died. The whole corpulent show is over. No more snickering by him as he puts down the other scholars, and I doubt that his book is used any more. New “Grebaniers” have come forward, no doubt to put down his Heart of Hamlet.
I do not want to tackle with a sacred cultural monument like Hamlet or its creator. But neither do I want to be sentimental about all this, nor should I simply avoid it. As the saying goes, “If a girl has decided to dance, why is she covering her face with a veil?” Ok, I will tell you what I now think about Hamlet.
When I studied it with Grebanier the big question — which he said puzzled all the inferior scholars is why did Hamlet hesitate to kill his father’s murderer? Everyone had their own opinion about it. Some said that Hamlet was wishy-washy, some said that he did not have sufficient criminal evidence, or that he was too philosophical, and so on. Well it no longer seems to me to be a deep issue. Even if we get the right answers, whose life will be improved? The questions in the bona fide scriptures, by comparison, are crucial and relevant for everyone’s welfare. In the Vedic literature Maharaj Pariksit’s dilemma was, “What is the duty of one who is about to die?” And the question asked by Maharaj Yudisthira (and at another time by Maharaj Prithu) was, “How can we, who are householders and involved in worldly duties, come out of the entanglement of birth and death and achieve spiritual perfection?”
Hamlet asks the question, “To be or not to be?” But he never asked, “Who am I?” He saw the ghost of his father, but he never consulted with a bona fide saintly person who could have raised the issues to the transcendental platform for everyone’s benefit, including those who watched the play. Hamlet is tragic, as is all material life. And certainly Shakespeare spoke like an empowered demigod with abilities for poetic philosophical expression that have rarely been equaled. When all is said and done, in Act V we get a heavy bed load of the dead, but what wisdom? Where is that Hamlet where the hero — like Arjuna of the Bhagavad-gita is told that he is considering everything on the bodily platform and that there is a higher truth? Where is that Shakespeare masterpiece where the spirit soul inquires from the guru, “What is my duty?” We want to see that play. That is our demand. Hamlet is not transcendental.
When we look at Hamlet from the spiritual perspective (just as when we look at Holden Caulfield), he appears to be a very likely candidate for spiritual knowledge. Consider his famous speech in which he agonized about the temporality of human life.
“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestic roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2).
Brooklyn College had nice lawns and handsome brick architecture. Prestigious guests visited and spoke in the Walt Whitman auditorium. Eleanor Roosevelt received a standing ovation for her victory speech the day after John F. Kennedy was elected President. Allen Ginsburg came and read his poetry. It was well received, despite his homosexual cheerleading. The Zen scholar and meditator Allen Watts came and spoke about the ease of meditation and liberation. From the audience I asked him if the same stage he was describing as liberation could be reached by drugs or alcohol. It was a silly question because I knew alcohol couldn’t produce any state of transcendental high. And he told me so. But he said psychedelic drugs could produce a state like satori, and I was surprised that he said it. It seemed too easy that something the monks could achieve only by years of austere practices could be achieved by taking a pill.