Life Can Be a Dream . . .
Late in Pride and Prejudice, when the ending has turned happy for the characters with whom we identify, Jane Austen puts into Elizabeth Bennet's mouth the following words, which strike me as true:
"We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing." (Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Chapter 54, Pride and Prejudice)I am, as you know, an instructor. Sometimes, even, a professor. Consider the difference in those titles, but even as one who sometimes professes, I am -- at the fundament of my existence -- one who instructs. I can therefore teach only what is not worth knowing . . . and thus not worth teaching. What is truly worth knowing, I cannot impart.
But I didn't learn this from Austen or Bennet. I learned it from experience, and so will my students . . . eventually. For instance, my international-relations students asked my advice last week on how to pursue their university studies. They are mere first-year students, and I am old enough to be their father.
"I can tell you what I did wrong. Be sure to make and keep connections. You'll need them someday when you look for a job. Aim to have a career that looks linear on your CV. Otherwise, you'll look like someone who lacks direction. This is especially important after your undergraduate degree. Try to make good grades . . . but don't let grades get in the way of your education. Adopt a personal standard of excellence that goes beyond the next test. Learn as if for eternity."I think that I said a bit more than that, but I was talking to myself. Not that my students didn't listen. They did. But to understand what I meant? Maybe the practical stuff, but the truly worthwhile? That takes a lifetime, and comes from experience, not instruction. Actually, I did follow some of my own advice in my years pursuing an education -- I always sought excellence beyond the exams . . . well, almost always. But I neglected connections and followed a winding, eccentric path, which isn't necessarily bad if you don't mind going off track.
I spent years in Europe, even a year in Switzerland, working on my Coptic and preparing for a career in Gnostic studies . . . but where did that get me? Several months in Basel chasing a lost girlfriend in the summer of 1988 while living with anarchists and getting tear-gassed by the police. I thought of this yesterday when I stumbled across Steven Erlanger's New York Times article, "For Art Lovers, Basel Doesn't End at the Fair" (June 6-7, 2009). That brought back memories, some good -- like Marc Chagall's 1912 image of The Rabbi enjoying his pinch of snuff, housed in the Basel Kunsthalle . . . the original of a print that I'd kept tacked to the wall of my boarding room while a young student in the late 1970s at Baylor, where I'd pined for passionate love and dreamed of unattainable greatness. But some memories bad -- such as cutting short a friend's defense of my ex-girlfriend with these words describing her behavior that Basel summer of 1988:
"She was selfish. She was cold. She was sometimes brutal. And she was a coward."I suppose that two of those adjectives could apply to me as well. Take your pick, for it hardly matters anymore, it was so long ago.
After that, my career at least seemed on track, the Fulbright and Naumann doctoral fellowships that I'd won seeming to presage a future so bright that I ought to wear shades. It didn't turn out quite like that. After one postdoc in Australia and another in Jerusalem, I reached a deadend. An Australian friend at the University of New England, Armidale, who had promised support in my job applications, informed me at the critical moment when I needed support and had requested from her a recommendation for a position in religious studies that included courses on women in religion:
"I am on principle opposed to males teaching courses about women in religion."What could I say to her words concerning this 'principle'? That I'd suddenly discovered the vast difference between the prepositions "on" and "in"? What could I say to myself? That I was lost on an eccentric intellectual path without proper connections in the academic world? That I'd found myself putting trust in the wrong person? That I'd finally learned: It's not your enemies who betray you, but your friends? But all that hardly matters anymore, it now seems so long ago.
Besides, in the course of these detours and deadends, a miracle occurred, and I was granted a future despite all else that didn't go quite as planned.
And life can be a dream . . .