Friday, January 07, 2005

Academia: Part III

The closest I came to Harriet’s intellectual utopia was during my third year of undergrad, when I took a seminar course in cultural sociology with the late Ioan Davies. On the first day of class, he meandered into the seminar room, and, without so much as a glance at the students that had assembled there, began reading a poem by the Irish writer Seamus Heaney. As it turned out, Heaney had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for poetry and Professor Davies had been a member of the selection committee, but this was not explained until considerably later in the term. On that first day of class, he simply read the poem aloud to his puzzled students, paused, then commenced his introductory lecture -- which, on the surface, had absolutely nothing to do with poetry.

Of course I loved him instantly, not only because of this peculiar introduction but because he smoked cigarettes and drank pints with his students and told mesmerizing stories about his exploits with Joseph Brodsky and Vaclav Havel, and, most of all, because he was a writer as well as a scholar and was completely untroubled by the distinction. These traits did not necessarily make him popular with his colleagues, who called his cultural politics into question and grumbled about the smoke that seeped out from under the door of his office and occasionally whispered about his presumed alcoholism. Prof. Davies, for his part, seemed perfectly oblivious to the hissing that followed his movements through the halls, or at least it appeared that way to me, a lowly undergraduate student who had finally found a mentor.

It was, on balance, a very good year.

As April loomed, I nearly gave myself an ulcer agonizing over my final paper, so desperate was I to impress my instructor. In so doing, I missed the due date by several weeks, and full of shame I fell away from the course, determined that I would not show my face again until the paper was finished. When the essay had finally reached what I thought was a presentable state, I went by the department strategically late in the day and slipped it into Prof. Davies’ mailbox with a note of sincere apology. I imagined that he would hand it back to me at the next class with a few scrawled words of encouragement: “Good work,” or “Well done!” or something in that vein.

The following day, I received a phone call from Prof. Davies requesting my immediate presence at his office. My ulcer perforating, I was certain that I was going to be sternly rebuked for my tardiness, and worse, that the paper was actually no good at all and with late marks fully deducted, I would in fact have failed the class. I hardly slept at all that night; the next morning, I made my way to the university as a sailor walks a gangplank.

When I approached his office, I saw that the door was open and that he was sitting at his desk with his back turned toward it, and therefore toward me. I gingerly stepped inside, unsure whether to close the door or if I should sit down, so I just stood there, halfway between in and out, for what seemed like the rest of the semester. As I waited for Prof. Davies to acknowledge my presence, I noticed that he was flipping through the pages of what looked suspiciously like my essay.

In the midst of that ocean of silence, and without looking at me or uttering any form of greeting at all, he began reading my paper aloud. I stood there, flummoxed, and listened to him read my words back to me in his strange Welsh accent, feeling the whole time like I was going to crawl out of my own skin. Why was he doing this? Was he a sadist, and I a humiliated O? I wanted to plead with him to stop, but I had no voice in me. Finally, after reading several paragraphs he paused, and still half-turned away from me he said, quietly, “You’re a very good writer.” He then politely asked my permission to submit the paper for the faculty’s annual essay prize.

His words didn’t sink in until I left his office and hurtled outside, whereupon I laughed, danced, and may possibly have hugged a complete stranger with joy. To this day, no honour has ever meant as much to me as those five words, and I suspect that none ever will.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

He was right: You're a fantastic writer. Have been following your blog for several weeks now. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

Can you remember any of the Conrad stories?

Vila H. said...

Wow, someone's actually listening. Thanks...

Vila H. said...

Something about getting drunk with him in Communist-era Budapest and wandering around the city trying to find late-night eats.

My recollection of the Havel story is clearer. They hung out soon after Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and got drunk together in the presidential palace. On Havel's desk were three framed pictures: the first was of John Lennon, the second was of Lou Reed, and the third of Frank Zappa. Apparently, they talked about theatre for quite some time -- Havel having been a playwright -- then rounded out the evening by singing "Imagine".

Oblivia said...

This series is great, Vila. Are you interested in becoming a member of yulblog?

Lemme know...

Anonymous said...

i stumbled upon your blog and when i read the above little nugget, i did wonder how old your professor was when he taught you. joseph conrad died in 1924.

Vila H. said...

Aack! The author in question was actually Joseph Brodsky, not the long-departed Conrad. Thanks for catching this entirely obvious error.