Free Refills

February 1, 2005

Any day now, I should get some business cards from the Inside Higher Ed headquarters, announcing to the world -- or at least to anyone who asks for one -- my new position, which is "Essayist at Large."

It is a title with a certain pleasing vagueness of mandate. I feel a bit like Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, the (imaginary) German philosopher portrayed in Thomas Carlyle's satirical book Sartor Resartus, who held the rank of Professor of Things in General.

The plan is for this column to push intellectual generalism as hard as it will go. Intellectual Affairs will be a forum for discussing academic books (old and new) and scholarly journals (ditto). I'll track down dissertations and conference papers that deserve a larger audience, and report on what's happening in the world of think tanks, humanities centers, literary quarterlies, and online e-zines. Nor, of course, will we neglect the terrain known as the blogosphere -- that agonistic realm routinely combining the best qualities of the academic seminar with the worst traits of talk radio.

The sudden shift from "I" to "we" in that last sentence was no accident. I am counting on eagle-eyed readers to point out things meriting attention. The essay form is at its most interesting when it becomes "polyphonic," as the Soviet-era cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin put it -- a space in which a number of voices coincide and enter dialogue.

To be sure, this column will provide its share of what people at newspapers sometimes call "thumbsucking." (Journalism, like scholarship, has its own jargon.) As the novelist and critic Wilfred Sheed once defined it, a thumbsucker is an essay "presenting no new information, but merely revealing the beauty of the writer's mind."

Well, ouch. But fair enough. A little of that sort of thing goes a long way, though. So this space will remain as open as possible to the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of contemporary intellectual life. For one thing, there will be interviews with scholars, professors, and/or thoughtful writers. (Those categories overlaps, but are not quite identical.) And your thoughts on what is afoot in your field are also welcome. I promise to read e-mail between trips to the Library of Congress and occasional bouts of navel-gazing.

As Carlyle recounts it, the city fathers of Weissnichtwo invited Teufelsdrockh to join the faculty of their newly opened university because they felt that "in times like ours -- the topsy-turvey early 19th century -- all things are, rapidly or slowly, resolving themselves into Chaos." The interdisciplinary field of Allery-Wissenchaft (the Science of Things in General) might help set the world straight.

Unfortunately, "they had only established the Professorship, [not] endowed it." And so students didn't see much of him -- except at the coffeehouse, where "he sat reading Journals; sometimes contemplatively looking into the clouds of his tobacco-pipe, without other visible employment."

When, at long last, Teufelsdrockh published his great philosophical treatise, it was "a mixture of insight [and] inspiration, with dullness, double-vision, and even utter blindness."

The previous owner of my copy of Sartor Resartus underlined this passage, and scribbled a note in the margin wondering if it might have been a source for the title of Paul de Man's seminal volume of essays on literary theory from 1971, Blindness and Insight, published 140 years after Carlyle's satire appeared.

An interesting conjecture, hereby commended to the attention of experts.

Rereading that passage just now, however, I faced a more pressing question. Will this column provide the right ratio of insight and inspiration to "dullness, double-vision, and even utter blindness?"

Well, ouch again. But then, such are the risks one takes in practicing Allery-Wissenchaft. See you again on Thursday. In the meantime, I'll be at the coffeehouse, either thinking deep thoughts or just staring off into space. Fortunately the refills are free.

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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