Fred Dortort: “My Memories of Don”

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…