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Prof. Ralph Williams: A modern day Prospero

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published January 21, 2013

Ralph Williams looked pensively at a point in space behind where I was sitting. The venerable English professor was struggling with the question in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

The question, I erroneously thought, was a simple one: “Do you consider yourself religious?”

“The question itself — I’m not reading your intent, I’m reading the status of the language — it comes to me (as) ‘Tell me this about yourself,’” he said. “You can say ‘yes,’ but then, by saying yes, I’m dividing myself from other people who are not that …”

He pauses briefly. The pensive look begins to fade, and a wily grin creeps onto his weathered, kind face.

“If I can accept the question, accept the term, and (that) it’s about love and consciousness about one another in which we realize that and our relations with one another, if you mean that and are willing to mean that, then the answer is ‘yes.’”

An interview with Ralph Williams is a daunting task — one I wasn’t wholly prepared for. In the Daily’s online archives, which go back just over a decade, there are more than 90 articles that either mention or are directly about him. This is impressive amount for a time period that barely scratches the surface of the half-century Williams has spent at the University, first as a student, then an English professor.

In those articles, there are overviews of his involvement with the Royal Shakespeare Company, highlights from his more famous lectures, an analysis of his handwriting and profiles more or less like this one.

The collection, however, doesn’t seem to capture much beyond the surface of his achievements. He remains, for the most part, a splendid enigma. No mention of his early life, few mentions of a personal philosophy, nothing about his struggles — but plenty of triumphs — and little about the soul of the man himself.

Williams’s return to the lecture hall was a surprise to many — though, perhaps, not to those who know him well. He retired in 2009 with a grand send-off and a final lecture entitled “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” given to a packed house at Rackham Auditorium. In 2012, he made a much-heralded return to teaching, though he had continued to be deeply involved with the University during his absence from the classroom.

Nearly four years after that “final” lecture, Ralph Williams is still enraged.

“There is in me a deep — shall I call it anger? — at social injustice more widely,” he said. “Life has in many ways been gracious to me, but the level of profligate waste of the world’s resources, the profligate destruction of the world’s peoples, is justifiably a cause for anger. There is a question about where to put that anger, how to deal with it in ways that aren’t sentimental, saying, ‘Oh, I forgive so it’s alright.’”

Of the many characters he’s studied throughout his storied career, he sees himself now as Prospero, the betrayed and exiled duke from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Among all of Shakespeare’s characters, Prospero is perhaps the most wronged by the world, but he remains conciliatory and forgiving. Against great odds, and with a bit of magic, Prospero regains his holdings and leaves something better for the next generation.

“That play shows a Prospero who doesn’t give over his ground, if you will,” Williams said. “He has been deeply wronged — there is wrong in the world, and one appropriately responds to that with something that can be called anger. The issue of how one redirects that with all that one can do into not only an action and appropriate action, but beneficent action, while retaining or re-achieving, as in Prospero’s case, a goodwill.”

“I suppose from where I am, that must be so … in such a way as to open the way for the next generation, even as realizing one’s own limitations in time.”

Any student who has learned from Williams will know that he is unabashedly Canadian. Growing up in St. Marys, Ontario, his family later moved further to the countryside. His mother raised him and his four siblings while their father worked as a machinist in Niagara Falls and was frequently away.

“Milton, Shakespeare, were part of the daily vocabulary of the house,” he said. “Their phrases were part of the language of self-expression. There was nothing pretentious about it … it was just how you talked!”

His primary education occurred in two one-room schoolhouses. Each day’s task was written on the blackboard as the lone teacher roamed the room helping students with their work. Instead of simply completing what was assigned to him, Williams completed all the other grades’ assignments too.

“Knowledge didn’t come in neat little packets,” Williams grinned.

He also faced tragedy in his childhood — one of the darkest moments of his life. As he recalls those bleak days, his voice weakens and his eyes look, as they often do, into the distance as though he is narrating his own memory. In 1948, Bill, his brother suddenly died from what was thought at the time to be encephalitis.

“His last words were, ‘Give me a kiss goodbye, mother,’” Williams recalled, his expression pained.

The aftermath of his brother’s death was “real terror” for his mother. The family wasn’t sure of how communicable the disease was and whether or not any of the other children were afflicted. In the wake of the loss, she turned to the Bible for comfort, making each child memorize the Psalm 91:5-6.

“Thou shalt not be afraid of the terrors by night, or the arrow that flyeth by day, and of the pestilence that walketh in darkness …” he repeated from memory.

“(My early experiences) both made me acquainted with the resonance (of) those rolling phrases (and) of the comfort presented there, and started a lifelong dialogue in many ways with those texts because (they) made a promise that didn’t get fulfilled,” he said. “It said if you were a good guy, then God would keep a pestilence from you, and God didn’t keep pestilence from Bill. And so it started a long dialogue about the status of those promises and the relationship between their eloquent majesty and the root facts of life.”

His undergraduate years weren’t easy, either. He attended Andrews University in Berrien Springs, a 7th Day Adventist institution, where he found himself stifled by a conservative Christian worldview.

“It was an interesting experience. By the time I finished there, I decided I wasn’t ‘that,’” he said. “I actually may be one of the last to get myself called up in front of a university president on charges of atheism. It wasn’t true at the time, anyway, but there it is …”

He arrived at the University of Michigan as a doctoral student in the mid-1960’s, and apart from a brief teaching stint at Cornell — been here ever since.

Still, his many years of learning and growing at the University have not brought him unrequited happiness. Aside from his brother’s death, Williams said grappling with the implications of the Shoah — more commonly known as the Holocaust — challenged his most basic human assumptions.

“In a life that has known a number of challenges, it is the case that the answer needs to be related to what’s indicated in what I call an old ‘Williams-ism:’ that happiness is not a state into which you fall. It’s a choice of the will, and it’s always against odds.”

He looks down at his large hands and pauses as he ruminates over the implications of what he said.

“This means that I don’t know whether we’re going, as a species, to make it,” he said. “I can’t rely, you see, on notions that we are basically good ... The Shoah took care of that. I have no moral alternative but to try — do you know? That trying itself, as an individual and in relation to others, can be a source of enduring happiness.”

That famous grin reappeared, more hesitantly this time. For Williams, his drive to “try” comes from both the campus and his students.

“There are three trees (outside of Natural Science auditorium) that, as you go toward them, they have the most marvelous mottled bark,” he said. “The mottled-ness of the bark reminded me of the mottled-ness of our human nature. We are creatures of the motley. Shakespeare was intimately aware of this… And (the trees) became, if you will, my friends over the years. Sometimes I feel I want to do more for my students, I want to be worthy of my students, and some days I’d worry, ‘Am I worthy of them today? Can I be with and for them, as I want to be? Do I know enough?’ And I’d walk by (the trees), and I’d look at them, and I’d smile, and I’d go into the lecture hall strengthened by their very beauty and the reminder of the mottled-ness of us all.’”

His learning process isn’t over. I didn’t ask him if he ever intended to retire again. I didn’t feel I needed to.

“When I was a man of 20, I thought to be a man of unchanging principle was the best thing I could possibly be. I no longer think that. Over the years I’ve changed principles, I’ve jettisoned some, I hope in favor of larger, more capacious ones. What gives me the most joy right now is the experience in the astonishing variety of ways the human good can work itself out. That’s the texture of my life — it’s ongoing.”