I loved Don for his steadfast quirkiness, of course, which both mystified and drove our deans crazy, and for his gentleness and Blakean sort of innocence. Jane and I had a bichon named Toby for fourteen years who always reminded me of Don. He had no aggression in him, didn’t understand aggression. When he was attacked by other dogs, he just stood there staring at them, wagging his tail. Don was just happy doing what he loved doing, never worrying about the vulgar competitive aspects of our profession. I think I learned from him about that. If you are sui generis, as he was, and also brilliant, as he certainly was, our profession will also eventually find a refuge for you, whether you know or not what or when that will be. I’m sorry now that I didn’t know about his illness. I could have written him and said all the things I wanted to say, and thanked him.
My first memories of Don are a little murky as to exact details, going back to 1970 as they do. But I’ll start out with the setting. When my choice of William Blake for the subject of my senior seminar was rejected, and I was to be shunted off to Wordsworth instead, I very uncharacteristically refused and went to the classroom in Wheeler Hall where Don was going to be teaching Blake. I wasn’t the only one doing this, and to my surprise, instead of sending us away with, at best, an apology, Don said he’d try to fit us all in.
I knew nothing about Blake at the time other than the beatniks had considered him cool, but that was enough for me. I has the idea that The Tyger was a sort of nursery rhyme written by a child-like being with an ancient soul (to riff on a television commercial by the California Cheese Council from the 80s, I believe). But that day we began with The Book of Urizen, which was new to me. Don said that Urizen could be pronounced various ways—sounding like “your reason” or “you-rizen,” suggesting horizon—but he was going to pronounce it “yurizen” (with a short “i”), a term that meant nothing and thus was semantically and associatively neutral, in contrast to the two other pronunciations, each of which would unavoidably give rise to assumptions about the poem and its eponymous “character” as well.
So that was my introduction to Aultian thought process. I thought it was great, sort of trippy, and all this in the first few minutes about the first few words of the subject under study. Completely unlike any other class I had ever taken.
This was a strange time. Tear gas sprayed on the Berkeley campus hospital from a National Guard helicopter, the whole Berkeley student ghetto occupied by armed troops, neighborhoods (and a few people) shot up by rampaging Alameda County Sheriffs Deputies, and finally, the killings at Kent State (which Don had attended as an undergraduate—I’d never even heard of it) by the National Guard. After that, the Berkeley faculty went on strike, refusing to continue with business as usual. Looking back, it seems, could this really have happened? But it did.
As far as the Blake seminar was going, we had progressed by then to The Four Zoas, the poem that was now the main subject of Don’s academic interest. In my memory, I see us all not in one of the standard classrooms, but in the large anteroom of Don’s office at the time, with three doors leading to three separate offices, and the walls otherwise covered with blackboards—but this may not be entirely accurate. In any case, Don covered the blackboards with diagrams of what was happening in various parts of The Four Zoas, and the diagrams seemed to impart the barely intelligible phrases with significance, and beyond that, power and activity. In the midst of the political chaos that was sweeping the campus and country, the interactions and connections, the way beings/objects/ideas interconnected in Blake’s poem seems unbelievably relevant and meaningful. It felt, again, unlike any other class I had ever taken, that we were discovering something, and that Don was discovering it as well, exploring unknown country even as he talked and drew his crazily interconnected diagrams on the blackboards that, obscure as they were (and, boy, were they), somehow spoke to how relationships among people worked, how power worked, how what was stated overtly was only a shadow of what existed, but a shadow that could be made understandable and expanded to explain, it felt like, everything. It was intellectually extraordinarily exciting.
As events continued going downhill and the university itself shut down, classes continued, with strictly voluntary attendance and everyone guaranteed a pass. These classes were sometimes in a professor’s office or, in the case of Don, at his and Lynda’s house. From my point of view it was great; no one had to attend class if they didn’t want to, and the degree of formality between teacher and students just dropped. It seems like a fantasy of a medieval university, students surrounding a scholar they had chosen. It was great fun hanging out a Don and Lynda’s house. It was totally informal, Lynda played at being an ideal hippie hostess, and Lara, then maybe two years old, was completely adorable and completely well-behaved. Lynda had a poster that said “Fuck Housework,” and another that said “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty (messy?) enough to be happy.” I immediately liked these people.
More to come…
Don Ault told me that to write the dissertation I had proposed I would need to use a computer. What an extravagant suggestion! And, of course, he was right. But what he hadn’t considered (this was 1984) is that when I convinced the English Department to invest in a monitor that would connect to the university’s mainframe, I would actually spend most of my time playing Star Wars. It was thus that Don brought one of the most conservative English departments into the digital age. That was an advance that he had already brought to the world of Blake scholarship, as he pushed his Kaypro 4 to its limit to expand his reading of The Four Zoas into a complexity that rivaled the poem itself.
During the years I was writing my dissertation, I would walk over to Don and Lynda’s house almost every day, since they lived just one block over, and all I had to do was cross the alley and sneak through some unsuspecting citizen’s driveway. The Ault house was one of those enormous Nashville structures that had room for Don’s study (filled with Barks’ paintings), Lynda’s photography studio, the famous movie theater downstairs, and piles of electronic equipment connected with wires that seemed to run in all directions, through all the rooms, and in and out of the ceiling. Whenever Don would talk about his work on The Four Zoas, I would think of those wires connecting numerous pieces of stereo equipment, TV monitors, video recorders (always Betamax, never VHS) to various control panels that only baffled me, and then I would have a concrete image of the Aultean mind at work. I would hear Don stress the materiality of Blake’s poem, and I would recall that I had seen the materiality of Don’s critical thinking.
What else can I tell that would present Don as he was – at least to me – in those years? Should I describe that ancient Pontiac he filled with stereo equipment and always spoke of with undisguised affection as his old friend? Or perhaps I could reveal his character by detailing his obsession with aerobics, and how many times in his office he would point out the advantages of his newest sneakers and then show off the latest moves he had learned in his pump class. Maybe I would do best to keep to the academic realm and mention the inaugural conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism where I heard people talking over and over about his paper on Blake’s use of the ampersand as an emblem of non-Newtonian infinity. That was also the trip he had been so anxious about, since he had mostly stayed away from the conference circuit, that he called me the night before leaving to ask if he could wear jeans or if he should dress up. Once there, he looked happier than I had ever seen him, taken utterly by surprise that so many people knew his work and wanted to meet him and hear about his latest project, and didn’t care what he wore.
All that was a long time ago. Don left Vanderbilt right around the same time I did. And the inaugural conference was the last time we saw each other. Anyone who has written a dissertation knows that the person who directed that dissertation can’t be forgotten. And anyone who worked with Don will know what I mean when I say that my memories of him are as complex as that network of wires running throughout the Nashville house.
I don’t remember the message this refers to, but it was an email sent to myself (Roger Whitson) and James Fleming — among others. I’m assuming it refers to an undergraduate class that I was helping Don with in 2005. Don has one of his many Person from Porlock moments:
Dear folks —
I had just finished writing a long and complicated note to all of you about what we’re doing tomorrow, and suddenly my entire email program crashed, so I’m just going to send you this note saying that I assume I wasn’t supposed to send you such a note.
I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, when I hope I’ll be able to tell you basically what I was trying to say in the note that disappeared, as if by magic or demonic possession, or something.
My first memory of Don was when his wife Lynda hired me to do their taxes. Don called me one day when he was late for a meeting with me and asked if I had moved my house because he couldn’t find it. I laughed so hard with him. He made a tense situation funny. I carried that with me throughout my career and often would think of him when people were late for a meeting and laugh.
Thanks, Don, for giving me that memory. I still tell people about it today.
I am so honored to have known him. Love to the family, and thank you guys for allowing me to read about his wonderful life.
Rather than trying to introduce himself to a class at the beginning of a semester, Don often let prior students do the honors. Here are a few comments culled from student evaluations that he liked to share with newcomers.
“I found Ault’s ‘chaotic method’ to be entirely conducive to learning. His enthusiasm and respect for students/learning/synthesis-of-ideas made this course challenging and beneficial.”
“There was one day in particular when I had a breakthrough in here (usually things would ‘click’ about one hour into class—right about when I was about to cry from trying to hold onto all those abstract theorems, etc.). You were lecturing on Eco and I felt as though the puzzle had come together—if for no other reason, it was all worth it for that moment.”
“It gets a little frenzied, but Dr. Ault takes his technical glitches in his stride.”
“To say that Ault is a ‘good’ teacher would be to fall into the binary trap that Derrida warns us of. Instead, I would like to say that Ault just is.”
“Ault’s stream of consciousness teaches less about comics and forms of narrative, and more about the inner workings of an eccentric genius.”
“The ideas flow into the classroom like a hurricane but rest lightly at the end.”
“He sways when he speaks, I noticed, which makes me nauseous. I cannot look at him.”
“He is so scatterbrained that he can’t always convey his thoughts clearly. Every time he gets in front of the class he becomes so breathless and shaky I fear he will have an aneurysm. Poor guy needs a vacation and should not be consuming any caffeine.”
“This class is great. You, Donald Ault, are great. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If they do, call me. I’ll beat them up.”
“Total inability to stay on track.”
“Ault’s frightening energy sometimes verges on catastrophe but always emerges finally in happy chaos.”
“Donald Ault is a writhing ball of insanity. I love it!”
“Somehow you can see the intelligence behind the cloud.”
“He’s unintentionally funny, but I think he realizes it.”
“He’s the kind of person you have a lot of questions to ask, but you don’t want to because you know he’ll give you an hour long answer.”
“One seldom knows if Ault is conveying vital information or off on a tangent.”
“Tending to be scatterbrained actually enhanced the environment of learning.”
Dear Professor Ault — Thank you very much for your
highly informative paper on Blake. The ‘other’
Newton has always fascinated me and it
was interesting to see what can be made of
him. As regards incommensurability – I think
it is a barrier only for logicians. Imaginative
people, scientists among them, can truly move
from dreamland to reality and back again.
It is amazing how afraid ‘normal’ scientists
are when approaching the barrier and how
aggressive they get when they see people who
can move around more freely. Thanx
for the invitation but after two decades of
hopping around like mad I have had it
traveling. Best wishes! Paul Feyerabend
Don was the best friend I ever had. It would be hard to overstate how important he was to me, certainly as a teacher whose intellect amazed me right up through our last conversation, a few days before he died, but mostly as a friend.
We met at Vanderbilt. Both of us arrived there in the fall of 1976. I was an incoming freshman from a town in the mountains of Western North Carolina with a population less than that of Vanderbilt’s undergraduate student body. Don was a professor coming from UC Berkeley.
At that time, when you accepted an offer of admission from Vanderbilt, they asked if you’d thought about a major, and, if you had, they would assign you to a freshman advisor in that department. I said I’d probably major in English, and they assigned me to John Plummer. When I met with Plummer to go over the courses I wanted to take, he suggested that I take English 106, “Critical Approaches to Literature.” He said that if I majored in English, I’d have to take that class, and it would be a good one to start with, because it would let me know right away whether I really wanted to be an English major. There were two sections of the class: one from 8:00 to 9:00 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and one from 1:00 to 2:30 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
I was 18 years old, away from home for the first time, in the big city, the drinking age was 18, and I was surrounded by college girls. I wasn’t a genius, but I knew that I wouldn’t even be awake, much less functioning, at 8:00 in the morning. So I signed up for the Tuesday-Thursday class. That was the class Don taught. That’s how we met.
At first, I struggled in the class, but I was immediately smitten with Don, because he was exactly what I’d envisioned a college professor to be – a little disheveled, a little absent-minded, but talking about stuff that, when I was able to follow along, was mind-blowing. How is it possible that anyone could be that smart to think of those things? That never diminished – I was thinking the same thing the last time we talked, almost 43 years later.
After that first course was over, I took whatever other undergraduate classes Don taught. He was the deciding factor in my officially becoming an English major. I asked him to be my advisor. When I was in the honors program, I asked him to direct my independent study. He changed the way I read and, consequently, the way I see the world.
At some point in my senior year (1979-1980), I started hanging out more in Don’s office and helping with some of the stuff he was working on. I don’t remember if Narrative Unbound had started to take shape by then or not. When I say that I “helped,” I mean I listened, gave feedback when I could, and proofread. I couldn’t have come up with the ideas Don explored in his work in a million years. But I’m a good listener and proofreader, and I think Don appreciated having someone like that around. I was just glad that I got to hang out with the smartest guy I’d ever known.
Eventually, Don and Lynda (whom I don’t think I’d met yet) invited me over to their house one Friday night for Obie’s pizza. Friday was “Obie’s night” at the Aults. I went over, and that was pretty much that. My dorm and later my apartment were within walking distance of their house, so I became more or less a non-sleepover member of the Ault household until I moved to California in 1987. I’d help Don work on the old DeVry film projector in his basement movie theater or on his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville. Occasionally, we’d talk about what he was working on. Mostly, we just shot the shit.
When I was in law school (1980-1983), Don was focused on Narrative Unbound. We’d talk about it on the phone for hours, or I’d go over and to his house and talk about it. Both of us were going through a dark time, which further cemented our friendship. He was struggling with his book, and I was struggling with law school and, later, career decisions. But we were in similar boats and helped each other deal with our respective miseries. During one of our pitch-black conversations, Don said, “What do you think we’ll say about all this 20 years from now?”, and without missing a beat I said, “We’ll probably say these were the best years of our lives.” And we both cracked up, because the idea was so outlandish. Yet for me, it turned out to be true. Despite our mutual depressive states, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
I moved to Santa Barbara in the summer of 1987. I “ugly cried” when I said goodbye to Don. We stayed in touch over the years, but not as much as I wish we had. He and Lynda visited me in Santa Barbara once and I visited them in Gainesville once. Otherwise, we’d talk on the phone occasionally, then, when e-mail came along, we’d e-mail each other. Usually nothing very important. One e-mail, though, from the late 2000s, stands out. He was working on a paper or article about The Four Zoas, and he asked me to look at a couple of paragraphs to see if they made sense. I read them and e-mailed him back, “When I read stuff like this, I realize I’ve wasted my life.” Even 30-plus years after my first class with Don, he knocked me over with how smart he was.
I made it a point to e-mail Don every year on his birthday. When I did in 2018, Lynda e-mailed me back to tell me about the pulmonary fibrosis. I called him that day and we talked awhile about his illness and how it was affecting him, about the old days, about what he was working on, etc. Soon enough, we got into a regular Sunday afternoon routine. I’d call, we’d talk for an hour or so, and we’d say how good it was to talk to each other and make plans for the next Sunday. The last time we talked, Sunday, April 7, Lynda told me he’d had a rough week and once had even stopped breathing, until she and the hospice nurse brought him back. On the phone, he seemed a little slower, but was still sharp and still talking about new stuff he was working on. He knew he wouldn’t be around to see it published, but thought he had time to get it in shape to be published.
The next Saturday, Lynda called and left a voicemail, telling me that Don had died the previous Wednesday night, April 10. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: it was like a punch in the stomach that left me gasping for air. I called her back, and we talked about how Don died, about the family get-together the day after, and about how much our Sunday afternoon talks meant to both Don and me. It was a short, heartbreaking conversation.
Don was the smartest, funniest person I’ve ever known. I’m almost 61 years old, so there may come a day that, simply because of aging, I don’t think about him. I hope that’s a long way off. It’s still sinking in that he’s gone. I miss him so much.
– Will Tomlinson