I don’t know how the wisdom accumulated in that man, the short, wiry Irishman with the minor lisp and the fingertips always snapping gently at the points we dared to make out loud in his classroom. He would hear them and look up into a firmament pierced with hanging lights, and his face would shine in fresh revelation as he carefully repeated our meager thoughts to the unseen panel of muses that always assembled for freshman English up there near the ceiling. This was the period in my life when new and startling ideas pelted me daily with the insistence of a bully chucking snow balls, and I couldn’t shed my ignorance fast enough to move into position to retaliate.
But here in Arthur Brinton’s corner classroom at Bancroft Hall a truce prevailed. We could be stupid without penalty. Muddy clumps of thought that we hauled out of our verbal pits were regularly appraised by this velvet-toned yet fiercely articulate instructor like they were the finest diamonds. Our lack of preparation and our willingness to sidle away from intellectual challenge—the garden variety idiocy that we brought with us from junior high—were to him a divine task, a calling that left him most days standing before the gates of enlightenment, waving an arm wrapped in a corduroy Norfolk jacket like a conductor seeking the softest tone available from his strings. He primed the pumps of our brains cheerfully and tirelessly, searching for any trickle of original thought. Evidently he could hear music in the clanking.
When the class embarked on its long voyage through Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” he took on the characteristics of an admiral at war. The author’s intent and usage so many years ago assumed, in the present, the attributes of a weather front, needing to be heard, smelled, and felt, so that it might be reckoned with most decisively. Whirling around the room Mr. Brinton would do just that, finger painting waterspouts and adjectival clauses in the air, conjuring the secrets of Stephen Dedalus’s soul from the deep sea and vast horizon. Pointing with an ear at some reluctant classmate (who may only have been stifling a yawn but now found himself tethered to the wheel with a spyglass aimed at his head), Mr. B would coax any intelligence or opinion to be found on the kid and run it up the halyard like a spinnaker in front of the class discussion.
The bright pop of this mental sailcloth never failed to stir the student to a flicker of pride at what he had just managed to blurt, or the class to a temporary state of increased attention. Then he would turn, squint, take a sharp sniff, and move on to the next sailor to repeat the exercise and add to the following wind of a conclusion that grew with each new contribution. When we had finally come broadside to A New Way of Seeing he would exhale a lengthy, soft “Ahhh” and come to a stop in the middle of the room. Head cocked slightly, standing pigeon-toed in his cordovan chukkas, Mr. B would then raise his arms, palms up, as if to make an offering to the floating muses now filling in as war goddesses.
Away from the class, we all carried the low hum of continuing thought with us. Or at least I did. A turn of phrase that seemed so fine and simple that I knew I could never have come up with it myself would harass and fascinate me, repeating itself over and over, surviving my unconscious and primitive attempts at deconstructive analysis. One measure of his influence on us was the number and quality of impressions of the man performed by members of the class. It was a way of being ironic, to keep at a safe distance a thought or an opinion we were afraid might come off as too snotty or intellectual if we uttered it in our natural voices. Another was to walk into a classmate’s room and see him—or her, on the rare occasions when dorms were opened up to visits from the opposite sex—sprawled on the bed and reading the most recently assigned book in the middle of a beautiful spring afternoon in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when there were so many other available distractions: wars to protest, games to play, altered states to seek. When we would encounter him hiking serenely around the wooded campus with his trusty staff in hand, he would greet us warmly and nod with approval at our zest for the outdoors, if not the crispness of our attire, the aromas we exuded, or the crude language he had probably overheard.
How could he be so well formed, so full of tested ideas, and words that dropped so decisively into his hand-carved slots of meaning? I had the feeling he had skipped this knuckleheaded and ignorant part of life, the one I was living, and gotten right to the business of being on the money whenever he gave serious thought to something. At the tender but brutal age of 15 I considered this one of the deeper mysteries of existence. It seemed there was some storehouse of wisdom and experience somewhere, that filled up a person of quality almost instantly once they got there, a “skip ten spaces” roll in the game of life for those so chosen. He was odd and full of quirks, was Mr. B, but I was awed by the completeness of his intellect, the expertise within his own skin he seemed to possess.
I was sure it was a long way off for me, if I was ever going to get there. So in those formative years I made defiance and opposition my stock and trade, along with a few dozen million other kids. Arthur Brinton understood all that; the late 60s came rushing at him like a runaway train that he knew would pull into the station right on time. The wilder we got on campus, the more he demanded intellectual integrity. It was one of his basic rules of engagement, and I believe it saved me from being swallowed up by my own rebellious hype. As I followed his deliberate footsteps across the plain of my ignorance, he helped me realize that wisdom was not some place you ended up, but the route you took getting there. I still tip a figurative baseball cap to the charming man for that, and I can just see his houndstooth Sherlock hat being raised with a thumb under the brim, his moustache on the prowl.