On Civility: A Parable

O dear God, I’ve become an anecdote!

Once upon a time, I became ill enough that I had to leave my post as the administrator of a little 501(c)3 organization. My illness was of such a nature that I was unable even to clear my possessions from my office, which had ceased being my office seconds after I fell ill (considering the nasty nature of little 501(c)3 organizations), so I called out in my hour of need, to which one fellow and his wife responded, scraping shelves clean, scouring drawers into boxes, and piling the contents of my desk into the trunk of their 1998 Lumina. I watched from the couch while they toted the detritus of my academic life into the attic, one hastily packed box at a time. After they were finished, I offered Grunwald and his wife beers and thanks. While drinking, Grunwald gathered up all the temerity he could, glancing at his wife, then at me, before he lowered his eyes, asking, “Did you really read all those books?”

I sighed a sad sigh. With the help of some accommodating pharmaceuticals (all prescribed, mind you), I easily slipped into happier days. Did I really read all those books? It was an enviable library, all of it on paper, my degrees having been earned just before these heady days of massive electronic storage and edit-sharing. What’s more, it was only a third of my library: what he had witnessed with his own eyes were the representatives of my PhD work in linguistics; the remainder of my library was stored on shelves in my home office, representatives of my undergraduate degrees in languages and English Literature. Even more than that, I had managed to fail my first PhD comprehensive exam, so, yes–yes, I had indeed read all those books, and a third of those books I had read twice, the second time with the fervor of a panicking warrior.

My mind wandered to my grammars, arranged in reverse order of appearance in this mortal coil: Spanish, French, German, Latin, Koine Greek, Classical Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Italian (Italian? I hadn’t finished learning it yet). That was the bottom shelf. Top-shelf stuff included such intoxicants as my Heidegger, Kant, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard readers–you know, the greats–alongside all my technical readers, post-modern this, deconstructionism that, and information something or other. In the midst of these flashbacks, trying to catch Grunwald’s eye, I muttered, “Levi-Strauss,” and I passed out. An image of Ludwig Wittgenstein passed before me, and reaching for him, I fell into the abyss, riding upon his back even as Gandalf rode Gwaihir. There was no smiting of the ancient Balrog, only the demons of this age, and the straying out of the realms of thought and time.

 


When I emerged from my illness, years later, I did not know where my Wittgenstein reader had gone, neither all the attendant vocabulary.


 

All my colleagues, with whom I had enjoyed many-a hearty repartee, had passed on to greater things, such as tenured positions, while the kids had caught me. Loathe to admit they had surpassed me, I engaged, declaring my utterances with great authority, to which they replied, “Have you read [unrecognized author]?” I lied, saying, “Of course.” But I felt the bleeding: it was a mortal wound. How quickly did my massive library shrink to insignificance! “Of course,” quickly became “I think perhaps a long time ago,” which yielded to “I’m not sure,” and, then, the coup de grâce of my two years of residency, three language exams, three competency exams, a defense of my PhD topic, and the outline of the chapters of the dissertation, “No, no I have not. I am not worthy to participate in your conversation.”

I had been hoisted on my own petard. This was the same cruel game we had exacted upon those around us, even bringing one of our most beloved professors to his knees, saying to us in his agony, “I thought everyone still read Bultmann!” We laughed merrily at him, tightening the bows in the cuffs of our breeches while prancing away in delight. This wise and learned man had even shared his finest port wine with us.

Who was it of us who hauled the books from my lie-berry? I had become an anecdote, swallowed up in the processes of human society, a fleck on the froth of humanity. I was disappointed in Heidegger when he walked away; in Nietzsche I was not: he’s a loon. Kierkegaard hurt me when he pulled his hoodie over his eyes and made a wide berth around my carcass.

An unread Gentile delighted in me, squeezing out the sperm and milk of kindness with me, one man keeping company with one other man. The two of us together developed a vocabulary, weaving together the innumerable volumes of his library of books not written, but extracted from the observances of nature, with my mildewed volumes, extracted from vast ivory towers erected on the horizons of thought and time. whale

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