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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Dr. Coanda, the sound of his name a primordial drumbeat in memory: co..an..da.

This professor sought to know his students' thoughts during our three-hour class each Monday night during my final semester at USC. The course was the modern British novel, and the first writer we read was the Irishman James Joyce! His country, however, had gained independence from Britain in 1922, with Joyce's major literary works published after that. I see the irony now, which missed me then!

For the second class we were assigned to read, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Enchanted with this novel, I read it twice and carefully. Or so I thought. That night in class, I felt the silent bleat of despair during Dr. Coanda's lecture: Jungian archetypes, Celtic mythology, Irish history, the country's Catholicism, Joyce's post-modern literary structure, and much more. Ignorant me, about to graduate, a bloody know-nothing; and like Portrait's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, I felt sick at heart.

Those were the days of academic formality. One addressed a professor as Doctor, adding his name. (No female professor for me at USC except Health, a PE requirement of freshman year). And back then, no "Hey, Gail, how's it goin' today?" such as I heard from students at American University over two decades ago. Yet that winter night in 1965, I remembered a passage in Portrait, one I had underlined, when Stephen Dedalus says: "The tragic emotion is a face looking two ways, toward terror and towards pity." That evening self-pity overrode terror. I stayed after class and walked to Dr. Coanda's desk, where he was gathering his papers and books. He was the youngest English professor I had taken a class from at USC. Looking at me with kind eyes, he listened to my dolorous, plaintive, woebegone words. By then I had learned to cover insecure moments with verbiage.

What Dr. Coanda told me that night I took to heart. He had completed his doctorate and begun teaching before anything began to make much sense. Before then his mind had been a jumble of fragments and abstractions. So yes, he knew exactly how I felt. And he could only encourage me to make learning my quest. Read the best literature, along with history, philosophy, mythology, religion. Do not overlook art and music. Your quest, he told me, will be one of continual revelation, a process less analytical than mystical. He used this word, and he often said it in class, along with… "Connect, only connect." That semester I would read this phrase in E.M. Forster's Passage to India, long before it became a New Age cliché.

Fragments of knowledge forming patterns, and patterns drawing parallels. Maybe this is obvious, but it had not been obvious to me after four years of college. That semester I read writers I continue to love: D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, George Orwell. In our final paper the assignment was to select four novels from the course and to explore the archetype of head and heart. Dr. Coanda wanted to know what connections we found, as that would be of keen interest to him. It did not occur to me until the 1970s when I read Virginia Woolf, that no female writer had been included in the course. Once again it is that story of time and place, on which I seem to be harping lately.

For decades I schlepped that long paper on Portrait, Sons and Lovers, Passage to India, and Lord of the Flies with me while living in foreign lands. Last year I finally tossed more than a hundred files from the years of teaching, including my typed notes from the modern British novel and my final essay. Those pieces of paper were not needed to remember Dr. Coanda, whose name resounds forever in my head and heart.

Next week: I will begin a month of postings on Edna O'Brien for my October RILL class.

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