Amherst Magazine

Talking with Dave

By C. McLagan '85

Of all my experience, among what I prize most was the time I spent in a small dormitory room in Tyler House talking with Dave Wallace (in retrospect, it sometimes seems, almost endlessly). The sitting space was tight, the ceiling low (a loft bed above), the lights dimmed and the antiseptic white walls masked by madras prints purchased at Faces on Main Street. Certain music, which we shared a fondness for, was carefully handpicked: often to set a mood, or for the purpose of specific discussion, or simply to mark the passage of time. But the core of the experience was how we used language—we shared a fascination and facility with words.

Dave was, and probably remains, the smartest person I have ever known, and at age twenty-one he was also surprisingly wise. Wiser than I, certainly. But I had more of something then that he didn’t have: time. Where he worked diligently, I dawdled (and eventually, in my final semester at Amherst, gave up completely on my studies before being unceremoniously ejected with a slate of Fs). So when we’d sit together in Tyler he would be full of language and focused on the outside world (if one can call, for example, deep philosophical thinking “outside”), whereas I might have spent the last week contemplating my navel while tripping hard on LSD.

Our most interesting conversations (dialogues?) were (for me at least) about ourselves. But they weren’t the sort of conversations that go

I’m worried about midterms.

You’ll be okay, keep studying—you’ll do fine.

but rather

I’m worried about midterms.


“Why?” was my refrain, followed closely by “What do you mean?” Dave quickly came to understand that my whys didn’t suggest, “You shouldn’t worry,” but instead, “I don’t understand and I’d like to. Please tell me.” Dave picked up my refrain and would turn it on me as well (to my delight).

Both of us were dictionary hounds and both of us had good memories for words and shades of definition (presumably because one remembers best what one values most [and therefore pays closest attention to]). We explained our thoughts and strove toward concurrence by hashing and rehashing what we meant; we reviewed which connotation(s) of which words we were using (or invented our own connotations and agreed to them). Our objective was not to persuade, not to prevail with an opinion, but instead to comprehend—to know, intimately, what the other was really saying, what the other actually meant. This kind of conversation took spans of time (hours at a sitting, spread over weeks and months) and was enhanced by extensive recollection. We would explicitly (or implicitly) choose words or turns of phrase as reference points (so that a prior discussion or sub-discussion could be encapsulated in a lexicon of shorthand [which would sometimes have to be reopened later for further refinement or redefinition]).

Our discursive approach and our accretion of prior understanding led to conversations that grew to be particular to the two of us and cryptic to others; this real-time meta-observation would be subsequently confirmed by Tyler pals who would occasionally participate briefly before excusing themselves in bafflement. We used a variety of subjects as departure points. For example: If a piano note sent chills down one of our spines, how come? Did that mean it meant something? The note or the chills? Did a particular song resonate with us? What did we mean when we said “resonate with”? Did it evoke thoughts? What was happening in us at the moment of “evocation”? How were we using evoke—what exactly did it mean?

We talked about what preceded (underlay) the thoughts we talked about. At the end of Section 25’s “Desert” comes a series of guitar picks followed by a series of sustained piano notes—one, then seven, then seven, then three. At volume, the first piano strike, the eighth, and the fifteenth insufflated the solar plexus. But whose? Both of ours? Or did the one pointing it out lead the other to discover (manufacture?) the same materialization of feeling? If the latter, was it somehow because we knew (believed?) the other was experiencing the feeling we now felt? Were they really the same sensations? Or were they different ones with the same set of words now adhered to them?

Perhaps college students are prone to these kinds of conversations—especially students who don’t spend much (or any) time on athletic fields or in activity clubs or chasing the opposite (or same) sex. Dave and I were, it seems to me, very much caught up in ourselves—in what was “inside,” what was “outside” and, most interestingly, what happened at the interface of the two—something I think they call intersubjectivity.

Since the day I was introduced to him at Amherst—some twenty-six years ago—I haven’t yet known anyone with as much willingness and skill at maneuvering in this realm as Dave Wallace. We met and orbited near each other briefly in our way and then drifted apart. I know now, but didn’t then, what a gift and an honor it was to have made his acquaintance and earned his trust, if only for a while.