Friday, April 08, 2005

Say It Ain't So!

As mentioned in another post, I've been playing the role of a diligent PhD student lately. During the month of April, When I'm not earning my keep at one of the best libraries in the country, or boozing it up at conferences or Glasgow, I'm pouring through old notes and manuscripts, cobbling together the remaining one-third of a thesis. A couple of interesting discoveries this week, in the course of said cobbling:

(1) One of the first books I read about Early German Romanticism was The Romantic Theory of the Novel: Genre and Reflection in Cervantes, Melville, Flaubert, Joyce and Kafka, by a Polish scholar named Piotr Parlej. Back in 2001, I had no clue what the hell he was talking about. Ignorance of course, did not stop me from writing a conference paper about it all, which incited the following conversation that became emblematic of my short academic career:



After a long day of papers at a postgraduate conference, the Divinity faculty building of the University of Edinburgh is nearly emptied, with its exhausted participants fleeing for the earliest train or bus home, so that they might eagerly add their twenty-minutes of bewilderment to their CVs, which are are of course already bulging with seminars and conferences attended by the two people scheduled to speak. A few linger inside, mostly looking for sundry 'Church of Scotland' apparel to steal, but two wait outside. One, a doe-eyed girl, in a beret smoking a noxious cigarette; the other, a guy with a curious constipatedly confused expression. It is obvious from body expressions and their seeming inability to look in the other's direction, that the two do not know one another, have no desire to know one another, and/or want to rut like animals but think better of it.

(politely, recognizing that the guy is a putz and will not speak first)

So ... your paper ... the one on Romanticism, right? ... where you cursed a lot, lots of fucks in that paper, and the odd bit about Tristram Shandy, not sure where you were going with that ... your paper, it went pretty well, don't you think?

(obviously completely unaware of the social protocol this conversation requires)

Yeah, I guess, so. I don't know. I never know how these things go, you know. There's a pub around here, right?


I thought it was interesting.


Yeah, the silence afterward was probably just people processing it, you know. And that guy who had the inexplicable coughing fit, and, um, wandered out five minutes into the paper and never returned, he probably had to catch the train or something.


Oh, Tim? No, he lives just around the corner. Huh. Yeah ... well, you know, twenty minutes, that's a hard time to work with, especially doing what you were trying to do and all, so, it's a tough call. Do you find that your advisors like your work, that's all that matters, right.



(with all the enthusiasm that her confusion-surprise can muster)


I read a similar paper, maybe even just an edited version, a year later. The ensuing silence was similar, and expected; but, oddly enough, was broken by the chair of the section, who asked: 'So, what was going through your head when you wrote that paper?'

Anyway. I did not begin this post with any of that in mind. The focus is, or should be, on the plight of Piotr! Upon re-reading his book this week, and I'm happy to announce that I think I understand what the hell it's all about now, I'm convinced all the more that it is a really good book, in spite of its flaccid title, and will prove invaluable as I construct some reflections on, as we say in the field, Frühromantik. Ah ... but, it seems that poor Piotr, or at least someone who shares his name and credentials with the U.S. State Dept., has come on some very hard times since working as an adjunct English professor at Russell Sage College in 1997 (so says the book jacket), because he was recently arrested for illegally peddling U.S. visas while working at the Embassy in Armenia. I really hope this is a different Piotr Parlej, because the whole story -- esp. the one about a bright guy who can only apparently land an adjunct post and ends up resorting to federal crimes -- seems a little too (potentially) close to home. Say it ain't so, Piotr!

(2) Also this week, I've been getting back into my old writings and notes about Herman Melville. Every time I do this, i.e. about once a year, I am reminded why I chose the topic that I did. There is just some flat-out good shit in Melville. To wit:

'There is a singular infatuation in most men, which leands them in odd moments, intermitting between their regular occupations, and when they find themselves all alone in some quiet corner or nook, to fasten with unaccountable fondness upon the merest rag of old printed paper -- some shred of a long-exploded advertisement perhaps -- and read it, and study it, and reread it, and pore over it, and fairly agonize themselves over this miserable, sleazy paper-rag.' (206-07)

'That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitve elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre's own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is write down in his soul. . . . Thus Pierre is fastned on by two leeches. . . . he is learning how to live, by rehearsing the part of death.' (304-05)

Passages like these speak to me in ways more profound than even I realize most of the time, and have the tendency to make me talk to no one in particular -- i.e., myself -- without realizing it. Such was the case last night when I exclaimed, while reading the cheap copy I'd found earlier of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree: 'Dammit, Man, you just were not meant to teach theology.' Apropos of the anguish of the passages, though, and (cue the violin) my own fear remains, looming, that it is all I appear qualified to teach. Sadder still, with two degrees from an evangelical bible college / seminary under my belt, the only places that might let me teach anything at all are other such evangelical bible colleges / seminaries. Those of you who know me, or who have used to read Silentio when it was a fairly interesting blog, will know why this is a bit problematic.