In Search of Absolutes (Part One)

Working my way through New York University in the late 40s, I was a clerk at the university’s library. I alternately worked the upstairs counter where students would get or return books, and the ‘stacks’ in the basement below where the books were stored. When on an upstairs shift, I’d handle frenzied students who came in waves between classes. When I worked in the stacks, I was on roller skates so that I could gather a list of books at breakneck speed and place them on a dumbwaiter leading to the counter upstairs. I enjoyed that job, especially when I worked the stacks. It was fun roller-skating on the job.

On occasion, cellar doors were opened and sunlight streamed through them, cracking the relative darkness of the stacks. At those times, I imagined myself and the other workers to be gnomes, running for cover as the daylight intruded on our nether world. Like characters out of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, some of us were especially startled when we happened to be in the aisle that contained books that were assigned the call number beginning with 101. We were embarrassed- – -guilty or not- – -by at least the appearance of being literary voyeurs.

Ordinarily, tracking down the precise call number for a book took a bit of searching. But all of us could skate a beeline to Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis without its call number. That book was red-flagged. We were instructed not to send it upstairs unless we had specific authorization to do so. On those rare occasions that I was authorized to fetch it for someone in the upper world, I noted that the 101 aisle had considerably more roller-skate scratches on the floor beneath it than any other aisle.

In the forties, the Information Age had not quite arrived. The spoken word about sex was in whispers and never in public. Books (like Psychopathia Sexualis) described specifics about sex in Latin. I wondered what words some of my fellow workers might not have understood when they surreptitiously read passages that substituted four-letter words with pentasyllabic words whose meaning was not quite as obvious as psychopathia and sexualis! In some cases, I suppose, they memorized the words and later asked clarification from a medical or Latin student. In many cases, hearts pounding, they looked through forbidden pages for the thrill of it. There was little else other than “French Postcards” to vicariously excite young people until Kinsey’s controversial but liberating Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published. Kinsey diligently offered no explanations or judgments about the sexual behavior of the men he interviewed. Despite severe criticism from a vociferous ‘moral’ minority, his strictly statistical information had an enormously positive impact on ‘respectable society.’ Ordinary folk could now feel better to know that they were not alone in their sexual practices.

Psychology and philosophy are appropriately placed in the same classification within a system that lists call numbers for its ten major subjects. Now, gnomes no longer have to read about sex in darkness. But they are faced with a new glaring light. Ironically, that light emanates from the center of the Information Age.

(to be continued) 

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