Thursday, May 24, 2007


The pastiche and commentary below opens one of the funniest novels about life in the academy that you’ll ever read. It is a must-read for anyone living their life on campus. For those who are giving thought to leaping from the ivory tower to the safety of less rarified air below, I would recommend a different comic novel, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. But for those entrenched, especially in the Liberal Arts, this is the one. David Lodge’s Small World.

OK, I’ll get to the quotation in a moment, but not before I tell you about the scene that made me love this novel. It had already given my enough belly laughs and quiet smirks that I was in love with it, but what changed the crush into a lasting affair is a subversive scene set at an annual conference of the MLA. At this conference, the big names in competing schools of literary criticism all participate in a panel discussion. Our hero stands up during the Q&A and asks them to suppose that everyone agreed with them. Then what? If everyone stopped fighting about how to interpret a text, the question implies, would we discover that no one actually reads anymore? Would we discover that the study of literature is no longer about the literature itself? In a room full of academics whose lives and livelihoods depend on talking about how you talk about literature, Persse asks what they would all do if everyone agreed with them (Part V, Chapter I, p. 319 in my old Penguin mass-market edition). And then the denouement is like a scene out of Plautus. I was and am smitten.

But that’s not what I wanted to quote here. Instead, I give you my favorite description of conferences: David Lodge, Small World, beginning of the Prologue. Enjoy.
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose powers the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, ... then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.

1 comment:

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

Now you remember why I like the PH conference so much -- my chance to "indulge [myself] in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement."

That, and the turtle races.

Plus, being 6 hours and nearly 300 miles away from our anual cabin vacation makes it that much more fun to be sitting in the last Friday AM session, waiting to collect my CE certificate.