It had been almost eight years since the student had started graduate school; when he submitted his dissertation, it was as if he was doing what he had done in his mind for several years, so that completing it felt like something long overdue, an outstanding debt finally paid. There was an adequate amount of relief that accompanied the submission, although not the kind of relief of having a burden suddenly lifted. A burden had been lifted, but because it had been lifted a little too late, it still weighed on the student’s psyche. Little did he know that this was the condition of modern intellectual work: an accumulation of weight that continued to increase, with each article and presentation, with gradual deposits that would amount to a monograph, until the gravity of the intellectus started to weigh ostensibly on the shoulders of the scholar. When the student sometimes browsed the stacks of the university library, he would see these great intellects so weighed down by the accretions of thoughts, they would be bent over the book as they sat on the deep wooden chairs as if the head—and eventually the rest of the body—were about to be sucked into the materiality of the page.
Sometimes the student wondered about the old woman he often saw in the library, dried up like a prune, poring over some cryptic page in an ornately bound codex. What secrets, what revelations, was she privy to, as she (quite innocently) sat there as if she were reading a book? It was clear to the student that she was far from reading a book, she was only giving the appearance of reading a book, something else was going on, above or beneath this apparent reading. If anyone were to ask her whether she was reading, she would be taken aback at such a nonsensical question, of course she was reading—what else could she be doing?—and yet the student knew that whatever she was doing as she sat there “reading,” it must be somehow different, qualitatively different, from how he read. For whenever he sat down to read, whether it was an elliptical treatise by Aristotle or a recent work of scholarly critique, he could not sit down like this scholar. He could not sit down as she did, bent over for hours till the dead of the night, when the security guard would walk down her aisle and say that it would be lights out very soon.
It was no use either asking her what her secret was, or even what happened during those long stretches of time, during her daily rounds at the bench or the many seasons passed at the stacks. Once the student had met the scholar at a gathering, but she seemed distracted and eager to be somewhere else and wolfed down her hors d’oeuvres before leaving. She intimated that she was working on a difficult medieval manuscript and left it at that. Sure enough, the student saw her in the library later that day; she seemed completely engaged, furrowing her brow every now and then, or noting something down on an index card, oblivious to anything around her. Sometimes she would mutter something under her breath, usually inarticulate, but occasionally a peep of Latin could be heard. The student, too, was a medievalist, although he was uncomfortable with the label. He had been trained, supposedly, as a medievalist; but as every medievalist knows, to be a medievalist is to embark on a perilous journey, to scale an impossibly-shaped mountain; who, after all, could claim mastery over this period of a thousand years, a whole millennium? It was enough to master a decade or half a century—as most people did—but a century, let alone ten centuries, this was all too much to demand of our age, which preferred to live in a perpetual now, the eternity that Augustine and Boethius had described. We are all gods now, living in eternity, where all history is erased or rather compressed into the present, which has no shape or sense of the past, it is always pressing forward to remain up to date. This doesn’t make any sense, the student thought, thinking about time always does my head in, it did Augustine’s head in and it will do my head in if I continue thinking about it, it’s as if the passage of time is unsuited to the act of thinking, we become muddled as soon as we try to fix conceptually what is always in flux. We can try to fix our concepts, we can build them, refine them, distinguish among them, but what use are they when what we have tried to fix in our minds vanishes before our eyes? Perhaps we are so afraid that whatever is will vanish, that inevitably all things will vanish, that we wish to hold onto it anyway we can; we wish to bring the dream back into our consciousness, although we know that when we awake it is already lost; we latch onto the dying embers and try to preserve them, prevent what is about to die out by refusing to let it take its natural course; we would prefer a decaying branch to a branch turned to ash. That is why the scholar, paradoxically, held onto her manuscripts, to the traces of time as she passed her gaze across and down the page. That is why she sat there reading, when in fact she was being transported a thousand years back and communing with some voice, some soul, whose hand had traced these cryptic remarks. Well, that was what the student imagined was occurring, he didn’t really know, when he sat down to read the time passed slowly, he would get bored, he would muster up the effort to understand the Greek or Latin term, writing it down, subjecting it to an overbearing analysis, giving all the signs of intellectual labour without reaping any reward, only the shell or detritus of understanding. On occasion, however, he would be so immersed in reading a work that he had forgotten that he was reading; he would entered a space, a zone, when time seems to cease and he is truly an inhabitant of an entirely different world. But this occurred so infrequently that such an experience was considered a chance event; certainly one could not expect it on a daily basis, even a monthly basis; perhaps, the student thought, there are people who have a special talent for this, a propensity to inhabit multiple and, relatively speaking, incongruous worlds; they think that this is commonplace among those who read, not all readers, granted, but surely those who have devoted a substantial part of their life to scholarship. They find it therefore a little surprising that a scholar, or a student training to be a scholar, would devote so much time to idle chatter at department parties or drinks at the pub. It is not that the scholar didn’t understand, at least in theory, the attractions or benefits of such gatherings; but surely wouldn’t they be as wearisome as the summer Hollywood blockbuster? But what these older scholars did not comprehend was that most people who frequented the library, especially their students and their students’ students, had lost this ability of reading. For later generations, reading was just reading, no different from reading a letter or a notice or an advertisement in the paper; the words were corrupted by that same mechanism which turned them into readily assimilable information. For some of them, by some accident or malfunction of this mechanism, the words bypassed the usual means and travelled, as it were, down a different way; it did not go down the via dativa but something closer to the via contemplativa, a way in which, or during which, the words transported the mind to another place.
At the time, the student happened to be reading Aristotle’s De interpretatione, a short, cryptic work of which he could make little sense. About to give up understanding this book on hermeneutics, or how it is we come to a knowledge of something so fundamental as a name, the student came across an intriguing definition: “when uttered just by itself a verb is a name and signifies something—the speaker arrests his thought and the hearer pauses—” as if the act of communication required a gap of time, a space in which the speaker ceases thought and the hearer rests, as if this relay of thought required an immediate cessation of activity on both ends, lest the verb not be received. What did it mean for the speaker to arrest and the hearer to pause? He understood that the speaker must arrest her speech so the entire verb is enunciated in full; the word, to reach its completion, must also end, be arrested, be pulled back or rather not be overrun by another, overeager word. But what of the hearer who paused at the speaker’s arrest, who was supposed to rest (as it is otherwise translated)? What did this rest involve? Was it receptivity to the word, a certain passivity which, nevertheless, could have something impressed upon it, like a seal on heated wax? Or was it a resting from activity at the moment, or shortly after, when the speaker’s word had vibrated through the air? Or was the hearer continually pausing, letting in the breeze of the words bit by bit, utterance by utterance, so that each could be comprehended—truly understood—rather than simply letting them all in at once? Was it possible that he was a hearer who didn’t pause, who didn’t know how to rest after the speaker had arrested the thought, therefore shutting off access to the word or what it signified, or rather to the signifying capacity of the word? Or that whatever did signify was partial, owing to his deafness, which was caused, ultimately, by a stubborn impatience?
But how could he learn to pause, to take in what was often glossed over, partially digested at best, when the entirety of his life had been a training in impatience? Just as one had to have everything now, or yesterday, so words themselves were received in a great hurry. There was no time, he was told, to take time—to pause and rest—because who knows what might occur if one rested; perhaps the activity of the world would cease, perhaps all the world would stop running as it had, and all around us “civilisation” would collapse like a prop in a studio, a mere façade so vulnerable to the slightest change or cessation of movement. Of course, no one really thought that and yet somehow every activity seemed contrary to thought, as if thought didn’t count or thought was in fact a kind of thoughtlessness, a defence against thought rather than something positive. In this world revolving around a thoughtless thoughtfulness, he was encouraged never to rest but to keep achieving, which meant that, like Aeneas, one could never be free of toil, from the perpetual movement away from Troy, until one had earned the right to rest in the underworld, where the future had already come and all activity, therefore, was retroactive. Again, the student, thought, I am getting mixed up in these temporal paradoxes and tautologies, why do my ratiocinative processes always send me down this futile path? Why is it that I cannot hold a single thought? Is it my inability to rest? But I am just a child of a restless age, an era that has taken its restlessness to the four corners of the earth; rather than think, let alone contemplate, we prefer to outdo ourselves in uncomprehending activity; rather than pause to rest, we would prefer to forgo understanding, intelligere, and conquer the globe with our incomprehension. If we took the time to pause, gave ourselves the time for understanding, perhaps we would arrest our activity once and for all; we would come to understand the absurdity, the sheer ridiculousness, of what we are doing. But because everyone is scared to death of ceasing their activity—for this would be, in everyone’s mind, tantamount to suicide—they would prefer incomprehension to death, thoughtlessness to lack of being. Or rather they would not prefer one over the other, but live in a sort of suspended life that imitated death and lack of being; instead of accepting the absence that is included in all presence, the absence without which we could not know presence, everything was more than present, all the time; and this excess presence somehow turned into its opposite, without anyone knowing. Or maybe it was this: there was an excess presence, a presence so overwhelming, that some part of our being rebelled against it, wished for absence, although there was nowhere for it to be found. Of course, that’s a nonsensical thing to say, the student thought, one cannot by definition find absence, it can only “appear” like a shadow or a clearing in the woods, a patch of land untouched by light. Perhaps what I am getting at is that this world, which seems so full of activity, feels somehow dead, a ceaseless running on a treadmill that goes nowhere. Instead of going somewhere we just stay in the same place, we think we are going somewhere but all we see are numbers going up and going down, our activity is little more than a counting, not least an accounting, of our life in terms of these numbers, by which we measure ourselves in ever finer and finer increments, accumulating more and more rational numbers to our stock, until our greatest pleasure in life is to gaze upon these numbers and ascend or descend a number scale, seeing these numbers increase or decrease, depending on whether success depends on a greater or smaller number.
Sometimes the student would walk past a well-appointed gym on a Friday or Saturday night and be astounded to see several young bodies making gallant strides on the treadmills, they looked so in earnest, as if they were undergoing some laboratory observation or performing some secular ritual for which both a certain kind of concentration and attitude and obeisance, not to mention a steady, brisk movement, was necessary. Although he liked to revile these men and women, whom he thought were servile businessmen and businesswomen, in his more sombre moments he would ask himself: am I so different? Sure, I spend my time reading arcane books in the library stacks and the reading room, I do not go to a cubicle or a row of desks and sit there for eight or ten hours a day, I do not treat my work as if it is a job but as almost a personal project, something of personal interest. The topic I have chosen, after all, despite its seeming remoteness from contemporary life, concerns religion—yes a religion that’s familiar to us, Christianity—but one that’s also very unfamiliar too, once we go back a few centuries and try to imagine it before so-called Protestantism, before the rise of market capitalism. What was it like to be an ordinary believer then, not just an Oxford master who could pontificate and enter into extraordinarily subtle disquisitions and debates? It was really hard to tell, we have many of the writings of educated men, but the voices of those not afforded a thorough training in letters—they were relatively scarce, if not totally obscured. It’s as if someone from the future were to read an economics paper by an orthodox professor and somehow try to infer, so to speak, the everyday situation of a lone family on the outskirts of the city. And yet this is, in some sense, what I am trying to do: I am reading these highly technical papers and treatises by philosophers and theologians, who naturally use their stock in trade—namely logic—to pry apart and dissect every theological proposition known to them, whether stated baldly in the divine pages of Scripture or formulated more literally under an august name, thereby acquiring the authority of tradition within the Church. Instead of being an economist, who has his irrefutable dogma and spends his days inventing ever new epicycles to fit the incoming data, whose imperatives ultimately reduce to a handful of principles, or rather to a set of incorrigible beliefs, I study the works of dead monks whose ingenuity, though greater and far more imaginative than today’s economists and technocrats, are a sort of scholarly paean to a time long past, the traces of which, at best, are evident among the upheaval and ruin of the succeeding centuries. So I escape to the library and become monkish myself, I often joke that today’s scholars, at least my fellow graduate students, are the equivalent of yesterday’s monks, we do our rounds and retreat to the library for reading and prayer and meditation. We are contemplatives, content with our lot in life, which is to decode the manuscripts and thoughts of long ago, to read and make sense of them, and then write about them, for an elite audience, a select coterie. However, as much as I like to think myself as monastic I cannot completely obey its imperatives, its iron-strict commands; unlike my colleagues I cannot go to the library when it opens and stay there till it shuts, or at least till a late lunch or till dinner calls. How many times have I entered with my peers, securing a peaceful and secluded spot in the alcove, and been restless before the words of a great Church Father, even though, under the right circumstances, the very same words might have enraptured me and sent my thoughts to that realm the angels are supposed to inhabit. Not that I claim anything close to beatitude, if anything it is more a space when the cogs of the mind being to turn, the machinery of this unbidden or forgotten place begins to interlock and spin in unison.
But this happened rarely, and almost exclusively at night; the daylight tends to chase away such synchronicities, the thoughts that haunt our souls. Unlike a true scholar, who had seemingly limitless access to this realm, I could only pretend to it, had to ape what other philosophers and scholars had written about the problem I was working on, a theological problem for which I had no answer or no way of formulating, for maybe it was the formulation that was wrong, even if it was enough to pass an examination at a dissertation defense it would not yield an answer to the true enquirer. Maybe there was no end to formulating and seeking an answer, the milestone of a dissertation defended and passed was simply a pragmatic measure, an acknowledgement that one had gone some way to formulating the problem, or attempted to do so; even in mathematics proofs were not so much singular certainties than ranges or approximations, finer and finer delimitations of where the results could be obtained rather than the results themselves. That is why the scholar’s work is never finished, that is why the old woman at the library is there from opening hour to closing hour; as she reads and discovers new material, new missives from the distant past, even if a great deal of it is a repetition of what she knows, a rehash of more or less canonical sayings and teachings and so-called distichs, she has to reformulate her question, which is less a research question than something more urgent yet less definable, less able to be constructed in the syntax of a sentence or a question. But I do not have the time for that, the student thought. Although my professors have advised me to hold onto my student status for as long as possible, using every opportunity to read widely and deeply in my chosen field, there is a point at which one must graduate and leave behind the comfortable though precarious state of a student. One must, unlike the impractical scholar, carve out a niche in one’s field, which one can nurture, grow, and till for years to come, when, inevitably, the demands of the profession would be borne onto the student—who would no longer be, of course, a student, but a professor.
Kenneth sometimes wishes he was a monk. Please message him or comment below, and consider throwing a few bucks for this effort.
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