Themes and Meanings
Irony dominates “Of This Time, of That Place.” That the generous and brilliant Tertan should be mad is inexplicable, especially in a world in which the Blackburns get the first jobs. Although Tertan’s paranoia entails an offensive arrogance directed at those he judges less sensitive and perceptive than he and Howe, his intelligence and idealism shine through his oddly inspired but undisciplined rhetoric. His letter to the dean is virtually a declaration of love for Howe, who has become his model of the intellectual and poet. He sees himself and Howe allied in a devotion to art that sets them apart from nonworshiping social critics such as Woolley. Ironically, however, it is Howe who in a sense betrays Tertan by taking the case of his behavior to the dean.
Howe’s charge, “Blackburn, you’re mad,” underscores Howe’s grasp of the unfairness of this world. The point is made again at the end when Howe aches with a “general and indiscriminate” pity prompted by the appearance of Tertan. “Of This Time, of That Place” dramatizes no theodicy, no explanation of why the world is the way it is. The unfortunate Tertan, if he could get enough perspective on his plight, would be the first to appreciate the irony of it. Howe and the dean are helpless. They can only watch events take their course. Although Howe is castigated as an ivory-tower poet by Woolley, his compassion for Tertan reveals that he is intimately aware of the sufferings of real people.
The scenes in which Howe conducts discussions in class are convincing and often amusing as the students interact. The discussion of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts (1881) brings out the differences among the students. De Witt is relentlessly rational as he analyzes the behavior of Captain and Mrs. Alving. His references to contraception elicit from the sturdy football player Stettenhover groans of contempt for his perception that “intellect was always ending up by talking dirty.” When Tertan embarks on a florid monologue on free will, Stettenhover can only slump resignedly in his seat, “exasperated not only with Tertan but with Howe, with the class, with the whole system designed to encourage this sort of thing.” These scenes of classroom discussions add weight to the narrative by developing the academic setting realistically.