Saturday, May 17, 2008

VERSATILE VESTIBULE VISTAS

Being accused of hyper-intellectualizing everything is not the worst that can happen to you. Being accused of hyper-intellectualizing at the expense of forgetting about the human touch is bad. My sister, who is also a psychologist, often makes sure to remind me of exercising the ‘soft’ quality on other people – she offers her advice both as a professional and as a family member who has my best interests at her heart.

A week ago, at the final banquet in connection with the EAAS conference in Oslo, a Swede told me that there was no need for me to be so loud. I dared to suggest that the organizers of the conference who have promised us a cruise were obviously erroneous in thinking that they could fit 300 people in a boat that only had room for about 30. I dared to criticize the food: the most boring salmon one can imagine, potato salad full of mayonnaise, and some really bad wine and weak beer to go with the rest. And lastly, I dared to assume that the organizers must have assumed that the participants couldn't tell the difference. Why else go for the cheapest solution possible? As I thought I was justified in voicing my perfectly legitimate objections, given that the conference fee was large enough, I continued being loud, thus ignoring the comment.

When things like that happen, it’s interesting to see how there’s always someone in the witnessing crowd who supports your views, even without saying anything. My good friend Jopi Nyman, president of the NAAS, and a first rate scholar who writes about exquisite food and animal ethics, understood exactly what the whole thing was all about. We had just attended a workshop together and we had just had the best of fun. As we’re both very good at multitasking we had no problem following the papers AND playing third grade kids: we constantly sent small messages to each other with the silliest content one can imagine: we saw ourselves as professors of fromage ancien at the Fois Gras De Gosset University, we embodied one missing person in the workshop, and we laughed at Federman’s Statues of Kings. When we parted he said to me: ‘you know, not everybody gets it.’ ‘No, indeed,’ I said, ‘one has to be part of the club of the initiated ones in matters that transcend boring banality in order to get it.’ As far as I was concerned, I was fine in the company of the Finn and a couple of others who were prompt at observing acts that have a certain understated purpose in spite of their being flamboyantly manifested.

Back at home, however, I was thinking about the meaning and implications of belonging to ‘clubs’. Groucho Marx famously said that he wouldn’t want to be in any club that would want to have him as a member. Indeed, there’s a lot to consider in terms of the implicit question of inclusion vs. exclusion. Suggesting that others may not be very good at their jobs can have a dangerous potential; one simply tends to exclude others on account of their incompetence, only, incompetence sometimes has its reasons. Or one tends to include others into one’s own world for the wrong reasons. Or for the right ones, seen from a different vista.

I’m reminded of myself as a 10 year old. I used to make friends with kids that were somewhat off beat in classroom, which seemed odd to others given that I myself was what one calls popular. I was a prize student, ambitious, and I couldn’t stand it if others got better grades than me. In other words, I was well integrated in the system. I grew out if it, but not before I got a chance to exercise my sense of justice. I liked the idea that my being so far ahead of everybody afforded me the luxury of being generous: I used to let less gifted kids copy my homework, and I would share with them whatever knowledge I possessed at the time. This made some kids eternally grateful and as a consequence they would do anything for me. There was a big gypsy girl who kept failing everything – she was in fact older than the rest of us, as she went through the same grade over and over again – and who beat up small boys without an apparent motive. Or that’s what the boys in question thought. They never learned that the reason why they got beaten up was because I decided. I would send the gypsy to give them a good thrashing whenever they would mob other kids or display unbearable signs of stupidity that resulted in their hurting other kids. Some would call my childhood’s sense of justice a good beginning in terms of exercising the human touch. Others would cross themselves. And others would simply think it ingenious that a tiny girl would use a huge girl to do a dirty job for her. While I stopped behaving like a mamma mafiosa, sometimes I feel close to that 10 year old self. Verbally, now, I cut through things like through cheese. Verbally professionally, now, I’ve been told that I have a special talent for editing. Indeed, my favorite line is: cut the crap. I just sometimes forget to apply that to myself.

I think of all this while standing in line to buy myself lunch at the university’s cafeteria. It occurs to me that I know the names of four people working there. I know that one of the women loves to go on charter vacations, her teenage daughter has really large feet, her husband just turned 40 and they had a garden party, but she would exchange the garden with an additional bathroom any time. I also know that she thinks I’m fascinating. I loved it when one day she turned to a customer behind me and told him, ‘you know, this woman is great.’ Another of the women in the cafeteria loves my silk jersey dresses and my Alessandro de Benedetti trousers. She wants to make sure that I eat a lot so that I might get bigger and then think of giving her some of my clothes, which she would then fit. She also makes fun of my paying rituals: credit card in the morning and cash in the afternoon. The third woman is firm with customers who fiddle too much with their wallets. She shows her discontent only to me when I happen to stand behind such ‘helpless’ people. The man working there doesn’t say much to me, but often personally gets me the first croissant in the morning, which he goes to the kitchen to fetch straight from the oven.

I’m tempted to say that I’ve no idea as to why they do this. We don’t know each other. We must be good at acknowledging that from the vestibule of our existences there are always vistas from whose vantage point our human touch makes our intellectualizing more versatile. In virtute sunt multi ascensus.

1 comment:

Bent said...

If the idea was that we should get all up-close-and-personal with our fellow Americanists, the cruise sure worked. It's never pretty when academics wait in line for 'free' food, but this was ridiculous. As one of the notorious Danish NAAS-wits commented, the banquet promised to us turned out to be a mere 'quet'...