Where Have You Gone, Stanley Fish?

April 25, 2005

The short answer is "to Florida." Sometime in the next six or seven months (depending on when, or whether, we succeed in selling our apartment in Chicago) Jane Tompkins and I will pack up our worldly goods, put the cat and the dog into the station wagon, and head south to Delray Beach where waiting for us is a house and a life.

About the house I am sure; it's there and it's nice. About the life I'm not so sure; not because I don't know what to expect (although in fact I don't), but because I don't know what I want.

In some moods what I want is to rest, to wake up in the morning with nothing on my mind. In another mood I am afraid that having nothing on my mind will become first a habit and then a fate and I will be one of those old men who wanders around town looking lost even though he is only three blocks from home. For some friends my age this is not a problem because retirement means only that they have been relieved of classroom and departmental obligations and are now free, as they were not before, to finish that big project or begin the one they've been thinking about for years.

I have no big projects to finish and I'm not looking for any new ones; indeed, I wouldn't even know where to look. Oh, I have a few odds and ends to clean up: I'll want to collect my columns in The Chronicle and put them together with some other writings on higher education.

And, to my surprise, I find that there are some 50 unpublished essays of various lengths in my files and I'm thinking of collecting them in a volume with the title "Picking Up The Pieces." (I worry, though, about appearing to be posthumous before the fact.)

And, yes, I do have one long-term project that I've been talking about forever and it's time, I guess, to really do it -- a (small) book-length analysis of the televion drama The Fugitive, a '60s show with a '50s sensibility that brilliantly anatomized the glories and horrors of mid-century Liberalism. But that will take only a year or so, and after that I will be right back in the twilight land of my ambivalence.

That ambivalence now invades my sleep. This morning I woke up and told my wife about a dream I had just had. A friend was going to be euthanized later in the day, and I was wavering between telling him that I would not carry out his wishes in a financial matter and saying that I would, although with no intention of following through.

My wife said that the dream was really about my own death (she always says that). Rather than facing death, I was trying to outfox it by only pretending to accept it; holding on to the money was holding on to time.

I said it was about my retirement.

She replied, "What's the difference?"

I changed the subject by announcing that I had thought up the perfect job: attendant at a laundromat. All you have to do, I said, is hand out quarters, and in-between you can read a book or watch television. She laughed and I realized that I hadn't changed the subject at all.

Meanwhile, I occupy myself by going on a farewell tour longer than Cher's. Every time I give a lecture on another campus I am introduced in terms that are at once celebratory and funereal (at least to my ears). I respond by making jokes about my advanced age and peppering my remarks with allusions to the pop culture of 30 years ago.

I attend what will be my last MLA conference and listen gratefully but uneasily to old friends who say nice things about a career and about a person who seems slightly impertinent because he is still walking around.

I attend my last faculty meeting and I admire, but cannot share, the passion of those around the table. My successor as dean establishes the annual Stanley Fish lecture. "Memorial" is not in the title, but I hear it.

All the while, I engage in prolonged conversations with universities in Florida about a position. What position? Well that's the question.

Sometimes I think I want to run something, to have real responsibilities and a role in shaping an institution's future. At other times I think that I want just enough to keep the juices flowing -- one semester, one course, as much interaction as I need, but no great expectations hanging over my head. (I want to have my cake without being eaten by it.)

It is hardly surprising that those I'm talking to are discombobulated. After all, they are receiving mixed signals and they're not sure what to say or do. Welcome to my dream.

Every newspaper or magazine I open these days has a story promising a "Guide to Retirement." There's a list of questions I dutifully check off; and then, on the basis of the points earned by my answers, I calculate whether I am ready for retirement, ill-prepared for retirement, or hopelessly confused about retirement.

I already know the answer, but I take the test anyway, all the while knowing that the premise behind it is wrong. The premise is that the decision to retire is a rational one, and that having made it, you can think rationally about what comes next.

The truth is that the springs of the decision, if decision it is, lie deep in the psyche; and while you may marshal reasons pro and con, the real reasons, if reasons they are, emerge from emotional patterns of which the conscious mind is only dimly aware.

In my case, I know (although the knowledge doesn't help) what the relevant pattern is. All my life I have experienced my greatest satisfaction when something is over. That is, whatever the activity -- an individual class, a course, a dinner party, a lecture, a conference, a day -- I am truly happy only when I can sit back and say, well that went all right.

It has something to with having once again having avoided the humiliation of abject failure (as opposed to the small failures one can always rationalize) and coming to rest in a moment of ease when there is nothing at stake and I am safe from hazard. Will this be the way with a career? Is this desire to retire from the fray stronger than the desire to prevail in it?

I have written two poems in my life, one eight years ago, the second recently. Here it is.

I'm through The words erupt At moments that did not provoke them. Starting the car Eating an egg It would come I'm through.

Strange, the words had no commerce With the interminable conversation She and I were having about What to do Or whether to do anything. Calculating, balancing, making lists. And then, after impasse, when I was thinking about nothing, I'm through.

Who spoke? the body? the soul? I remember the dinner parties Energy flowing around the table But only wanting the last guest to leave So that it could be said, it's over I'm through. Relief or fear? Which is more mine? Death, life, death.

Stanley Fish is dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This marks his last monthly column for The Chronicle. He will, however, continue to write four to five times a year as part of his All in the Game column.