Holy Week fifty years ago came at the end of a wet and harsh winter in New York’s Greenwich Village. It came near the end of my first year in graduate school year, a shock to the system of someone who had glided through college spending more time in student politics, varsity athletics, and fraternity beer bashing than doing anything else during this era of “Mad Men.”
That was until my last year when the the advisor to the student government gathered us in his office to deliver some very harsh news. We were, he said to those of us now on our way to law school and thence to the beckoning glassed-in suites of the white-shoe firms of Wall Street, instead headed to a place we had only heard about on the evening news, Vietnam. No 1L status for us, only 1A, and our local draft boards were waiting to suck us into their huge maws, process us, and spit us out onto troop carriers for distant jungles where pajama-clad insurgents would pop their heads out of the foliage or where land mines on the edges of rice paddies would do us in for sure.
But there was a way out, our advisor told us, his very soft midwestern demeanor now smoothing out the harshness of his dire prediction. A way through the morass that would envelop those of us who unpresciently had not already put our names on the waiting list for the National Guard. Uncle Sam can pay for your law school, med school, or whatever, our advisor explained, and then he looked at me.
There was a rumor swirling around campus about the background of this particular student advisor. Most of the advisors were quasi-academic. This guy was not. Nobody knew where he came from or how he got his job. But he was good at it – as if he had the ability to read tea leaves to ascertain what the future had in store. For those of us who would gather in his office for Friday morning coffee and bagels, he would lay out the state of the world, the politics that would shape our lives, and the directions those of us wise enough to understand should take. And one day, when we were all dispatched to our morning classes, still chewing the last of a bagel, he asked me to hold up for a minute because he had a question.
Did I ever consider graduate school? Of course, he knew that I was in a four-year law school/grad school journalism program. He made it clear that I would be drafted out of law school in seconds. But there was a way out, if I accepted a job he offered.
“Call it information gathering,” he said with a very wry smile.
“I can get you a very nice job in the housing department here, free room, all the food you can eat, maybe knock off some tuition and recommend you for a fellowship, if you do a little wok for us.”
“Who was the us?” I asked him.
“You don’t need to know that precisely,” he said. “Just believe that we’re the good guys. We’re the good guys in a sea of bad guys.”
Maybe it was my expression that prompted him to say, “tres lettres.”
We left it at that. And in short order, after the nods and handshakes, I got a letter posting me to a graduate fellowship and a job in our newest dormitory at the northern edge of Washington Square in a venerable hotel that was being refitted into a dormitory. There were only a few of us who would shepherd incoming upperclass transfers from schools in Iowa, Kansas, and Montana to their new lives in the heart of Greenwich Village at the very dawn of the age of the Counter Culture within its East Coast beating heart as British rock groups brought their music and their drugs to the well-scrubbed wide-eyed faces of new students.
Winter seemed to come early that year, and graduate school was especially brutal, particularly for one for whom actually going to class had been a four-year distraction from life. Here’s a tip. When a course-listing in your school catalog says “Advanced,” for heaven’s sake, don’t take that course. I know that now, and for almost twenty years that’s exactly what I would tell my own students. But, thinking more about fitting courses into neat little schedules rather than the content of them, I wound up in courses so difficult I could see myself stacking jars on pharmacy shelves, sweeping sawdust off a butcher-shop floor, or burying my head in soft dirt as bullets whizzed over it. Law school, and my visions of becoming the real-life Atticus Finch swaying juries to the side of my client faded into the haze of heavy wisteria floating through the halls of the dormitory, supposedly camouflaging the odor of marijuana.
And from down the street at another old hotel, this one favored by the British rock group flavor of the month, came the sounds of electric guitars, sitars, and the screams of those locked into their visions during bad LSD trips. Then my instructions came in an invitation to morning coffee and bagels.
“Timothy Leary,” my former student advisor with three letters after his name said, and not at all cryptically. “Timothy Leary is coming to New York. And he’s coming to St. Mark’s place.”
“And this involves me how?” I asked as innocently as I could, though by now completely jaded by the incessant aroma of marijuana vapors floating through the dorm halls, into the elevators, and down the fire stairs.
“He used to work for us,” my old advisor said. “And he went rogue. That’s where you come in.”
Now I was getting worried.
“We need you to attend his talks, find out what he’s saying, preaching, encouraging people to follow him. Get it? And report what you learn to me. That’s all.”
I was a spy. I had sold my soul to the man. Maybe not my soul.
Leary’s first meeting was my first and last report. He had assembled a group, mostly of students and East Village habitués down at a church on St. Mark’s Place, back then in the pre-gentrificatoin days a bazaar of gyro shops, head shops, and after-hours bars. With somebody playing a very bad sitar in the background, Leary began his spiel. LSD would be the savior of our generation. We tune in to the message unlocked by the hallucinogen, tune out the corporate advertising overlay that was driving our lives, and drop out of a society that chewed us up like so much fodder. We would follow the white rabbit down the rabbit hole into a land of wonder where down was up and left was right.
I dutifully reported on Leary’s visions of a brave new world week after week to my old advisor as winter closed in around the city with an especially brutal cold. Loneliness, the solitary demands of studying Old English, Middle English, and an obscure Scots dialect that I’m sure no one ever spoke, not even in the fifteenth century, and the routine of dealing with undergraduates so tripped out that we would sometimes have to restrain them from jumping off the parapet on the roof because they saw Jesus beckoning them. Marines, just returned from Vietnam, would suffer their own particular horrors and their screams would fill the hallways. And we even had a murder of two twins from Thailand whose entrails were scattered over the walls and ceiling like an exploding pot of spaghetti. And then there was the fuel-oil truck driver strike for weeks on end. No heat, no hot water, and I simply grew a beard, not in protest, but out of necessity.
There was this one course I was taking about an otherwise obscure period in Medieval English literature during the reign of Richard II called the Alliterative Revival, a amalgamation of social protest poetry and bitter satire. The late fourteenth century was a lousy period in which to live. You know, the bubonic plague and the peasants’ revolt and all. Among the poems was a particularly troubling one that actually had no name. Modern – and by modern I mean nineteenth century scholarship – gave it the name Piers Ploughman.
I wrestled with this for most of the semester, but I couldn’t figure it out. You see, who ever wrote this – he was anonymous – wrote it three times. He stopped at one point the first time he wrote it, then picked it up a few years later and finished it. Then, presumably unhappy with what he’d written twice, rewrote it. All of this before the age of Microsoft Word.
Why did he do this? And where was Timothy Leary, by the way? Leary had disappeared, presumably back to Massachusetts where some other graduate student picked up his surveillance while I was left to struggle with a bitter poet who had lived six hundred years before I was born, but whose struggles with life and literature were now eating through my psyche like an acid. Burning.
Why did he write the same poem three times? Why did he stop in mid-creation the first time he composed only to pick it up later? But there was a clue to the analysis that didn’t come from any literary scholar, didn’t come from my professor, nor from inspiration on the wings of a dream. It came from Lieutenant Commander Spock during the first season of “Star Trek.”
Spock, as I would write forty-five years later, was the science-fiction equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, a logician who would argue that when you find a clue, follow it down the path it leads until you either reject it or find another clue along that path. My first step, upon finally hitting upon a methodology, was to figure out where this poet stopped writing the first time he set his poem down on paper. What was his stumbling block? That would be an important clue. Start at where he stopped and work backwards from there.
The poet, let’s call him William Langland, as nineteenth century scholars have done, because he identifies his narrator in the poem as Long Will who has lived long in the land, abruptly cut his narrative off at the point when Jesus, having been resurrected, must venture into Hell to confront Satan. Perhaps the poet couldn’t figure out what happens next. Why? Go back earlier in the narrative and the poet is wrestling with what strikes him as a conundrum. What is the way to salvation? Under the old law of justice, pure justice, or under the law of grace, which can be looked at as inherently unjust. If someone has lived a life of evil, why should that person be granted salvation just because he or she asks for it? Where’s the justice in that? Isn’t it unfair, in the Parable of the Vineyard, when Jesus says that the first shall be the last and the last shall be the first? That’s socialism.
That was my premise for analyzing the next go-round of the poet, what scholars call the “B-text.” This incarnation picks up from Jesus’ entry into Hell where he is confronted by Satan, who challenges him on the basis of the Old Law, demanding “By what right do you remove these souls from Hell? By the Old Law, they’re mine by contract. I won them in the Garden before you even showed up. First in time is first in right.”
Then Jesus begins to argue. “You used trickery in the Garden. And the law says when you use trickery – in modern legal tort law intentional misrepresentation – the contract is null and void.”
But Satan is wily and says that if Jesus is filing a claim for repossession of these souls, there is no writ (claim) under law He can file, again, in modern civil procedure, He has failed to state a claim. No claim, no suit, no suit, no repossession.
This would seem to be a conundrum and it would cross the eyes of any poet trying to formulate a legal argument absent a writ on which he could hang a claim. Then, on a hunch because I was taken by the alliterative legal formulas, such as the phrase for the conveyance of property “to have and to hold,” that populate the language of the poem, I researched what was happening in law during the fourteenth century. And lo and behold, I found something astounding.
While the king, whose royal signet ring was the seal by which he effectuated statutes of the realm, was traveling through the country, his other seal, called a Privy Seal, was held by the Royal Chancellor. And landowners seeking justice under arcane statutes of land-holding who could not find a writ upon which to base their claims, begged the Chancellor to use his Privy Seal to allow them into court on the basis of “grace,” “caritas,” and “equitas.” That rung a bell.
Equity, a legal principle today under which one can argue, states that a plaintiff has no right to state his or her claim before the court because plaintiff has waited too long. Plaintiff has, in modern terms knowingly “slept on his or her rights.” Was this the very beginning of the equitable jurisdiction, the filing of a claim on the basis of what’s right and not just on the basis of an existing writ or claim under which a case can be filed? It’s the foundational basis for such things as adverse possession in real estate law or the redemption of a mortgage that the lender claims has gone into default.
“Redeem.” That word resonates. I went back to the specifics of Jesus’ argument to Satan and saw that it hit all the right points as if it were an argument in court. First, intentional misrepresentation to rescind a contract, second equitable jurisdiction on the basis of grace and charity, and third, if a king should look upon the condemned, the condemned is granted an immediate pardon. Remember how Queen Elizabeth refused to look upon Mary Queen of Scots after she was condemned? Why? Because looking at her would have granted her a pardon. Thus, in His argument with Satan, Jesus says that because He has looked upon the condemned, under law, under the very justice of the Old Law, He has pardoned all.
That was it. That was the key. Langland had gone back to his A-text at the very point where Jesus was confronted with an apparent conflict between the Old Law of pure justice and the new jurisdiction of Equity, already gaining prevalence in England, so as to resolve the conflict over by what means one can receive salvation. Thus, Langland completed his poem. Then, maybe fifteen years later he rewrote it again because during the Peasants’ Revolt, the rioters were quoting lines from his poem, which was probably appalling to him.
Maybe Langland was a lawyer. Maybe he had been bailed out of jail by a lawyer. I did not know, but the resolution of the mystery of why this poet rewrote that poem would carry me through the rest of graduate school, would become the subject of my dissertation, and, years later, would fill me with happiness during my 2L course in Real Property.
And all of this happened fifty years ago in a burst of inspiration on this very night, the night before Easter morning. 📯