The Blackboard Mystery
"Malamud 1979 Virginia Woolf Class" from Crossett Library's digital archive. Photographer unknown.
Since its very invention, photography has questioned the boundaries between reality, perception and myth. Although photographs were initially believed to present a sense of accuracy and objectivity, it was quickly proven how deceiving they can be. Whether images are misleading due to manipulation, composition, framing or context, it is essential to maintain a critical eye when investigating an image.
The photograph “Malamud 1979 Virginia Woolf Class” from the College’s digital archive shows precisely what the title describes. The image focuses on novelist and longtime faculty member Bernard Malamud as he speaks to a classroom full of students, eight of them featured in the image. The students sit around a table, most of them looking towards their notes or directly at their professor. Two Styrofoam cups, unlike any of the more sustainable ones we see these days on Bennington classroom tables, sit in front of students. Three phrases in Latin are written on the black board: Cur Deus Homo, Credo ut intelligam, and Fides quaerens intellectum. All three belong to Christian philosopher Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), a rigorous theologian with little overt connection, it would seem, to either Virginia Wolf or Bernard Malamud. Cur deus Homo (“why god becomes a man”) is a title of one of Amselm’s most influential treatises, while Credo ut intelligam (“I believe so that I may understand”) and Fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) are both maxims that are central to Anselm’s thought.
The first step in understanding their presence on the board would seem to be checking the curriculum books to search for the description of Malamud’s course--is there a possible connection between the Woolf and Anselm that Malamud might have been interested in? According to the library’s bound copy of the 1979 course curriculum, Malamud only taught one course that year: “Prose Composition.” There is no record of Malamud having taught a class specifically on Virginia Woolf. However, Crossett Library’s Research Services Librarian, Joe Tucker, confirmed to me that often the archived curriculum is incomplete, as many courses could have been added to the curriculum and gone unregistered.
Of course, it is possible that the phrases on the board were not written by Malamud himself, but rather, left on the board from a previous class. The bound curriculum offered no clues here either.
The photograph’s historical importance can be interpreted in two ways. Using a local lens, this image opens a window for contemporary students onto Bennington’s past. It brings new life to the ghosts that haunt the campus. From a more universal standpoint, it reinstates the mystery of photography. We shall never know (at least from the photograph alone) if Malamud connected the writings of Woolf with the thoughts of St. Anslem, or if, perhaps, the class merely took a tangent on that day.
We know that during this time at Bennington, Malamud was seen as somewhat of a distant eminence. In a clipping from this October 1977 issue of the now defunct school newspaper The New Paper, Malamud’s impact on the Bennington community resounds. “Students Meet with Malamud,” the headline reads. “Mr. Malamud said he invited students to dinner,” the article informs us, “in order to keep in touch with Bennington College and with the young aspiring writers here.”
The seemingly uneventful gathering detailed in this article and the importance it gains through documentation help illustrate Malamud’s iconic status on the campus. As the article mentions, Malamud’s writing consumed much of his time. His classes were scarce. However, it is possible that a fraction of one of his lessons may be revealed in the photograph “Malamud 1979 Virginia Woolf Class.”