it occurs to me that i play the handshake game so earnestly because nearly everyone i admire madly is dead, or at the age they will not be alive much longer. this bothers me because i want to, like hugh kenner, visit the great men of my time, (visit only, not befriend, because i am not worthy!) and time is running out for either reckless pilgrimages or happy accidents of being in the right place, at the right time, and with the right introducers, and i must settle for my chain of proxy handshakes. it bothers me also because the handshakes i seek are so far in the past, i wonder if perhaps i am doing an injustice to the men of the times i live in (for those dead or dying heroes cannot be said, truly, to be of my time, even though in our lifetimes we'd occupied the great globe concurrently, if only for a few years.) i feel tremendously sad that i was not there, not alive in the time where my own natural inclinations and interests and values would have been aligned with the prominent thinkers and writers of that time. which is not a sentimental longing for a more traditional form of art, on the contrary, i am looking back to the early kinds of anglo-american modernism, what was the literary avant-garde which now seems old to us (old indeed!) but which in their own time was genuinely striking in its values, and which was driven by people with such erudition and vigour and such conviction, that wrongheaded some may have been one still wants to have been alive in that epoch, to have been present to have eavesdropped, as macneice says, on the great presences (even if, he continues to say, it is rarely that by a stroke of chance that we can appropriate even a phrase entirely.)
i have never thought this some kind of virtual and amateur autograph collecting, although of course i see there are elements of that, but if i keep trying to add people to my academic family tree, it is because through each of these branches i see clearly the lines of influence, the contesting modes of thinking, the contexts and histories, personal and literary, of the people and movements whose ideas have converged in me and the people who taught me and the people who taught those people. if i delight in the academic connections in playing the handshake game, it is because i can see that inheritance taking different shapes in each generation and taking off in different directions in each person and when i find eleanor cooke is the only prominent critic in north america who is interested in riddles, it is hardly surprising when you consider we have both, despite of our decades apart and completely different backgrounds and life paths, found need to draw on frye and the other torontonian academics, and i find great joy in participating in that chain of thought.
the apprenticeship model of higher education had much to recommend it and fortunately modern day graduate school is still designed on more or less the same principles. we can still say that we've studied with someone, and by that we don't mean that we have attended lectures given by someone and had little ticks and crosses and V.G.s written on our exam scripts, but having had conversations with someone, and having had one's work taken apart and put back together by them, to have been a neophyte at the feet of the masters, hearing their takes on this or that, to have first hand access to , and seeing how their work and your own take shape out of conversations, and to develop a kind of uncanny intuition for thinking with and like them, an understanding of the mind and person behind the text. (i should say before anyone pounces that you get that from your peers too, especially the ones in different but adjacent disciplines. think faraday and whewell and the names of particles - now that is what the company of scholars and critics ought to do for each other, do to us.)
and at the same time i don't understand people who have gone to school at very prestigious places and were never once star-struck in the company of the scholars they were in, and not being star-struck seems to me to be a travesty, implicative of deficit in attention or intellect or both. now i'm sure i feel this way in part because of the way that the american academy manages, more often and more willingly than perhaps in other parts of the world, to create celebrities and superstars of its academics (when i think of the chinese academics i have met, who live simply and quietly, not honoured and not moneyed, yet no less accomplished, it almost makes me embarrassed for ours.) but when you come down to it, it is simply a question of piety, in its roman sense of pietas. in short, one has to honour the gods, it is our duty to do so. i know of at least one person who was at a top school, who kept to himself, studied hard, wrote very sound and excellent dissertations, got a degree, and has a professorship in a university, and yet he in all this time had no interest in the people and history of his department, formed no relationship that was not purely professional, and never had a social life that involved his peers. and that irritates me, that people like ourselves who ought to be invested in the life of our disciplines should remain so untouched by the giants of our time. we lived amongst the giants! they were not mere names, or texts, but living breathing people! when the gods came amongst us should we remain untouched? no wonder they haven't dined with us since the marriage of cadmus and harmonia.