The meta-professorby Theo / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
No single chair can hold him. Extraordinarily distinguished, peripatetic, pluralistic and polyvalent, the modern professor-at-large is at once seminarist, syncretist and symposiast. Hermeneutic here, interdisciplinary there, he wags a variety of tongues. Historian, sociologist, theosebast, aesthetician, eco-no-mist, philosophe, what funded continent dares call him foreigner? Never Hilaire Belloc’s remote and ineffectual don, the modern professor has a global reach; he would prefer to be monastically abstruse, but the intellectual Camillus simply cannot not leave his private plough or fail to do his share of pro bono publico (the Treasury may have embargoed Latin tags, but the Herr Doktor’s luggage bristles with them; he also knows what Confucius said, and what T’sai Lun did, which was arguably, today, more significant). There is no dark corner whither he is not urgently convoked to shed fresh dust. He would hate to tell you how many charitable foundations are actively impugning him with pedestals. He also has to break off with rare frequency to fill the only too popular prints with scourgingly unpopular opinions. In principle, the professor hates journalism (he remembers, as you must, what Eliot said about Macaulay); to write comprehensible prose is an irksome confinement. Though he hesitates, for a moment, to reveal at what obscenely irrelevant price even his summary services are rewarded, he must ask what we are to read into the sum certain ranking American journals force into his hand for a single conspicuous review. It exceeds what not a few junior lecturers receive quarterly. Is this insistent mercantilisation of the intellectual a sign of the times? And of what order precisely is it a sign, and what, precisely, are the times? Surely today is, in some sense, still yesterday and simultaneously tomorrow. Pheidias, he reminds us, was paid a day labourer’s wage when working on the Parthenon. Is money—perhaps (the professor’s hyperbolic stride is sometimes hobbled with an anklet of caution)—an expression less of respect than of disdain? Then again, why did flawed Freud—was Vienna not, in some sense, the emblematic, crescential wound in Europe’s side?—insist on cash for his conciliar services? Does this encapsulate the peristaltic installments deposited by those deficient in higher coin, the one form of attentive time a hard-pressed world can afford? In this erotico-excremental context, the trebly-tenured, widely published professor would ask us, as a matter of possible urgency, to reconsider the nature of prostitution (etymologically, no more than a way of being outstanding): have we adequately introjected a recent article in a ranking philosophical journal in which it is pro-posed that there need be nothing immoral in pro-stitution? This re-quires thinking about. But then what does not? Does the professor digress? Digression is his method of concision (cutting together), perhaps the only one which responds to the exigent demands of a millennium which is fast closing upon (and is, in a sense, behind) us. Echoing Eco—whose sales risk imploding his already frangible reputation—the professore must remind us that we live in a dopo-Cultura, a meta-civilisation. He must; someone must; he must. Cosmogonically speaking, in the coming black hole, Ultima Thule may well be the girl next door. The professor would sooner be doing what really matters to him, but his whole life is—hélas, hélas!—more and more a series (a constellated convergence?) of quotidian interruptions and quasi-infibulations. He can hardly remember what pressing work his log-jam of endowed lectures, caustic reviews, and imminent interviews contumaciously curtails. He is so pressed for oracular opinions that every word he says warrants, and receives, emphasis: he even speaks (and not softly) in italics. His pauses too are polysyllabic, polyglot. He dare not yield to every whistling siren. He has been offered fortunes to preside over Major TV Series on Whither Europe, and Whence. What would you do—en toute franchise—if taken up to the pinnacle of the pro-fane temple and offered millions in residuals alone? There is very little in the vulgar domain these days which the professor does not do under protest ; and less that he does anywhere else. As the professeur grows more and more synthetically concerned about Our Culture, Our Arts (increasingly fugitive as Amnesia becomes the Auntie of the Muses), Our Science and, yes, Meta-Science (is Hawking coercively right or symptomatically solipsistic?), he must, must speak out at increasingly terse length. Acid anchor-persons bite back mortification when the slumming polymath smiles at their simplistic sallies; it would be less petrifying to go eyeball-to-eyeball with Medusa. The modern professor is an Aristotelian genius: he can spot at once what chalk and cheese have in common, and on what network or curriculum, or both, they can be spread. He multiplies apples by oranges before breakfast and has no time to regret that his mental muesli excites the envy of lesser men. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the due disappointment of Nobels who once expected emulous (or transcendent) things of him. In print in 40 languages, in not all of which he is fluent (Milanese street argots can, sometimes, baffle him), he fears unvexedly that at least some of those who speak ill of him are colleagues who have missed the bus and, to their cloistered chagrin, cannot afford the taxi. His is at the door.