Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hallway Hello from Professor Emeritus

Some professors are big hallway talkers, and others zip on by with a curt nod. I think that, although I'd like to deny it, I am a hallway person. I swear, it just clears my head to do a quick lap or two (the grad student offices smell sometimes, honest). Still, I had to laugh when, reviewing Gregory Semenza's Graduate Study for the 21st Century, I discovered that his classification of academic department 'types' lists grad students right alongside the Faculty-Hall Talkers.

(Segue into content of blog)

Yesterday I spied the most notorious "zipper" of the department, my theory professor last spring. I prepared to aim a nod in his direction and finish my lap, but then I realized he was stopped in the doorway waiting to speak to me. He wanted to talk to me about one of my answers from the final exam, and commend me on my performance. He had already done so in his email response last May, which was why I was surprised that he was handing out the real live "attaboy." If I had a tail, I woulda wagged it. Instead, I just shook my hind end awkwardly (note to self, stop shaking your hind end awkwardy in public).

I thought I'd share it. I feel kinda bad that only about 3 sentences from my essay actually dealt with the subject matter in an academic sense, and those are an awkward, crammed-in coupla sentences. The exam called for a description of the sublime in our own experience, backed by the definitions from the readings of Kant/Burke/Wordsworth. Keep in mind, when the writing is choppy and awkward, that it was a timed exam. Keep in mind, when the writing is smooth and clever, that it was a timed exam.

Enough with the disclaimers...(clears throat):

I had never really been on a ferry or a boat before, especially not for more than a quick trip across Lake Erie—and then, it was during the day, and my mother was with me the whole time. Usually, in those short little treks, we would have to park our car in the lot and then board the vessel. This time, we drove into the ferry and parked in one of the three humongous carports deep in its underbelly. It was nighttime, and so the lights from inside the ship shone outward into the dark. I couldn’t see the water, but the salty smell pricked in my nose and I could hear waves lapping against the ship. We were going to cross the Atlantic ocean between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The trip would take nine hours, overnight. It seemed as if we were in a hotel on water—what with the bad carpeting (I mean, where do people get those patterns?), lounges where people sat watching movies, a restaurant and a bar. There weren’t any luxury suites where I was headed, though. The beds were more like barracks. My poor mom and grandpa had to share a bunkbed. I lay there on the top bunk, my nose hardly a foot from the ceiling, and listened while the general clutter of people settling in died down and faded into a rumble of deep breathing, and a few occasional snorts.

I climbed out of bed and began to wander the ferry. The people at the bar were enjoying themselves and mortifying the waitstaff. The movie lounge was playing the same movie again, and there was a couple doing something there that they should have been doing back in the bunk (though it was just about as public in the barracks).

Bored and tired--but curious--I began to snoop. I found a back staircase where my footsteps echoed jarringly against the clanking metal, and eventually, somehow, found myself on the deck of the ship. When the door swung shut behind me with a loud clang, terror gripped me: I was alone on the deck of the ship, it was far past midnight. My mother didn't know where I was. Taking a few cautious steps forward, my fingers found the ship’s cold railing. I slowly exhaled as I took in my surroundings. Fifteen years later, I don’t think I’ve ever completely taken in that sight.

Black. Complete, utter blackness—surrounding me on all sides. I couldn’t tell where the ocean stopped and the sky started, or where the sky stopped and the ocean started. The stars glared fiercely as I had never seen them do on land. I suddenly understood the constellations, carrying on the lives and legends for eternity from within the stars. I suddenly--finally--understood God’s promise to Abraham, that these stars were his children, and so was I.

I didn’t dare look over the edge of the boat, I didn’t have to. I knew that the water beneath me went as deep down as they sky above me went up, and I was there, puny, balancing between the two—what was keeping me from just falling off? Which end was up? This moment altered my understanding of the universe. For the first time, I knew myself as infinitesimally small, and absolutely frail. My fear emanated from a part of me that I didn’t know existed, a deep primal instinct of sensory perception, and I perceived fear. When these big shot Romantic poets talk about the sublime, I am in their number. I had experienced the sublime long before I ever knew such a thing existed. Now, as a graduate student, I read Kant and Burke when they talk about the sublime and I understand them on a deeply intrinsic level. When I emerged on the deck of the ship and saw the gaping blackness, I experienced what Burke did. I understood the sublime as Kant determines it as well, in his enumeration of it as boundless, and of extensive quantity: never had I known the stars so well, and that there were so many. His sublime involves reason insofar as it pertains to morality, human purpose, dignity and endurance in life. Seeing the night like that for the first time was like seeing the planet naked, and my entire worldview shifted at that moment. The foundation of the sublime is in ourselves, and in our attitude. I took ahold of that moment and made it sublime by my interaction with it.


Matt said...

Few things--

re: hallway hello -- OMG I know who that is! That particular Professor Emeritus liked my stuff, too, but I'm totally not bragging because I was completely unable to carry on a conversation with him without immdediately stuttering and saying idiotic things. Completely intimidated. (You may laugh, now.) But we did have one brief but insanely erudite email exchange (about Samuel Beckett) that was no shit my finest hour as a scholar. I felt for one brief moment like I had fraudulently talked my way onto some other Planet of the Smart People. He liked it. He recommended me for my senior scholarship, which sure as hell didn't hurt.

Re: the sublime. Yeah, I remember that. Stupid sublime. I could go for some of that right now, but as you've noticed, it only happens to kids. Irritating.

...but I have gotten sorta into the stars and constellations and what-have-you since I moved to the suburbs where you can actually see them. And yeah, sure, they still pack that Transcendent Wallop if you can manage to get to that frame of mind. But down in my regular world, I just love the names. Fomalhaut. Aldebaran. Cassiopeia. And all that. A lovely linguistic muddle.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

This time of year--end of august--is always the best time for meteor showers, being close to the asteroid belt n all.

Thanks for the nod at scholarly kudos:)