Monday, October 1, 2012
A Scholar’s Debut
I have fond feelings toward my essay on Mechthild von Magdeburg. My first sustained analysis of a Middle German text, it was published in the Mystics Quarterly, a journal that had once been called the Fourteenth Century Mystics Newsletter (the original title appealed to me, for it gave me a mental picture of some bearded figure with a rope belt slipping a few mimeographed pages through the slot to Julian of Norwich, bringing news of colleagues’ birthdays and visions).
“Transformation of Convention in Mechthild von Magdeburg” is also the first paper I presented at a professional meeting. I was still taking courses in graduate school when the essay was accepted for the annual Patristic, Medieval, Renaissance Conference at Villanova University near Philadelphia. This seemed a positive sign, as, for my part, I had been deeply ambivalent about scholarship, whereas from their side, the academics doubtless saw much in what must have looked like my gypsy’s history to give them pause. We had decided to take a chance on each other, and now it seemed that perhaps it might work out.
I decided that, since it seemed I might be on the point of acceding to the bourgeoisie after years of poverty, I should buy a new suit. The fact is, though I had spent whole years wearing almost nothing but blue jeans, I never taught without a coat and tie. I had a considerable collection of ill-fitting suits from the Salvation Army and dozens of antique ties with patterns I liked but which unfortunately had been made to end about the middle of the wearer’s chest when knotted properly. These served me well enough for the unlikely teaching positions I had held, but I decided my scholar’s debut required something grander.
Taking advantage of a sale at the Iowa City Montgomery Ward, I purchased a two-vent three-piece navy pinstripe suit with alterations-to-fit. Or that was the idea at any rate. As I recall my unseemly bicyclist’s thighs stretched the fabric from the day the man was running tape measures over me. The upper elements which felt a bit snug at first, seemed to shrink rapidly. Nonetheless, I felt I could make a proper impression in this suit.
My initial visual impact was threatened, however. Part of my eternal youth has been periodic manifestations of adult acne, and, rather like some teen’s prom nightmare, a sizable lesion appeared on my left cheek, giving my countenance a spot of unsettling roseate glow. I was building toward some sort of crescendo, but it was yet uncertain if it was to be dreadful or revelatory.
With my graduate student’s income deep beneath the poverty level, I ground my teeth at conference registration fees and eschewed hotels. An acquaintance at the Friends’ Meeting gave me the number of a relative who was rehabbing a building in West Philadelphia. It may have been the presumptive virtue of the Quaker connection, but this person whom I had never met (and never did) sent a key and an invitation to sleep on the floor of a vacant apartment. I managed to buy a cheap ticket from Chicago, and my arrangements were complete.
With the bus from the airport and the Main Line train, I made my way to Villanova where the meeting was in session. I attended panels faithfully, hearing, as one always does, some critics who put one in mind of Swift’s “projectors,” and others who provided occasional flashes of wit or insight. In my new suit, I felt quite at home. Even the alarming phenomenon on my cheek was subsiding.
After returning to the city center late at night, I took the elevated train line to the West Side. Unfamiliar with the city, I overshot my destination by a stop or two and found myself, shortly after midnight, resplendent in my suit, carrying the large, old-fashioned pre-attaché style briefcase in which I kept papers, toiletries, and underwear alike, down the middle of the Friday night urban African-American business strip. I walked the twenty blocks or so to the address at which I had aimed, past the loungers outside bars and bodegas to whom I may have seemed a bit of an apparition. Doubtless they thought I had a better reason to be there than in fact I did.
Fortunately, the key I had been sent worked. I unrolled my sleeping bag on the floor of the empty apartment.
The next day I returned to the conference and reveled in the semi-medieval ambiance created by the Catholic institution. I was delighted to attend the only panel I have ever witnessed conducted entirely in Latin: papers, questions, even a good deal of the chit-chat afterwards. I heard also about the work which had been going forward for over a hundred years already, the preparation of a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Pontifical Institute in Toronto. Not only was Aquinas productive, his books were preserved and copied to such an extent that the editor must consider all-but-countless variant readings and choose the best from hundreds of manuscripts, while noting all the rest. The publishing task was Herculean in its demands. In recent years some chores had been relieved by the analytical advantages of mainframe computers, and the decision had been made that, rather than the ponderous volumes they had been issuing for generations, which possessed gravitas in the extreme. only digital editions would appear in the future. The speaker said that some of the elder monks participating in the project, who had worked their entire lives on earlier volumes as assistant editors and were only just advanced to the point of having a book bearing their own names as editor, were broken-hearted at the change in format. Surely their merciful Lord will be tolerant of such bookish vanity.
Sunday morning I made my way again to the transit line and out to Villanova. My paper was scheduled for 8:30, the first session of the day. I shared the stage with a professor speaking on an unpublished collection of Florentine lay sermons, and another dealing with the fourteenth canto of Immanuel of Rome’s Mahberoth. Scattered about the front rows of a sizable lecture hall half a dozen scholars had got their faces washed and their coffee down in time to catch my debut. Or they were faithful friends (or underlings) of one of the other speakers. Several were loath to break off their exchanges of gossip. They probably see each other every year at PMR and never at any other time and each likes it that way, or at least that is how they looked to me as I entered. I was pleased enough with my work and no one else there had even read my author (as I in turn had never seen a page of Immanuel of Rome), so there could be no difficult questions, and I had a reasonably good time delivering my ideas on Mechthild. A couple of my listeners lingered to discuss related issues with me, and I felt as though I had earned an honorable position among the mandarins, all my youthful anti-academic prejudices conveniently invisible if persistent.
A week or so later I was elated to receive a note from one of the people with whom I had chatted. He was editing a book of selected papers from the conference and wished to include mine. I immediately sent him a revision, but, sad to say, I never heard from him again in spite of an inquiry. Ah well, each of us savants had gained a line on the c.v.