Monday, April 10, 2006

memento mori

A bittersweet meditation on moving into a deceased predecessor's office at Inside Higher Ed.

Because I am a medievalist and because death is such a vital (yes I mean to pun here; I think it is appropriate) part of medieval culture, there are times when -- as I sit in my office pondering some passage or other about worldly vanities and the transitoriness of life -- I contemplate my own end. What if I were to die suddenly and some faculty member who hadn't known me was charged with emptying out my desk, bookcases and files? Sadly, I believe that person would conclude (1) that I was inordinately fond of the world's ephemera (sitting on my windowsill right now are a plastic Shriner, a troll with orange hair, and a ceramic model of Fenway Park, among many other tchokes); and (2) that I have an unhealthy Post-It note fixation (I possess more than I could ever use, in various shapes and astounding colors). This new faculty member would then toss my back issues of Speculum into the trash, empty out my fire hazard collection of polyglot xeroxes ... and I would be gone.


Anonymous said...

I doubt you'd go so gently into the night, jjc!

besides the astounding influence of your work, here are some things to consider:

it would take a long time for the admin folks to update the technology of the office. you undoubtedly formed some type of man/machine hybridity with your phone, which serves as a tool to identify you to the broader university, and as the new faculty member moved into your office, they'd undoubtedly hear "hey JJC" everytime they tried to order post-it notes! the same goes for your mac, i suspect. The new person would have to confront their own alien pc status as they attempt to inhabit the space.

library: academics hate to get rid of books. the new person would undoubetdly keep a few of the "getting shmedieval" speculum copies, which eventually would be folded into the bric-a-brac that is an academic library. and you know they'd keep the troll and fenway park tchokes. do you have any plants?

finally, the afterlives of acknowledgements. you'd exist in discursive social networks for a long while.

Can you tell I've thought about this before? My glimpse of the abyss involved obsessing over the following question last year as i was finishing my dissertation (and thus reveals a host of embarrassing neuroses): would my dissertation advisor send her own flowers to the funeral or merely sign the generic card from the department?

Anonymous said...

Men and women--and office supplies and spare copies of Exemplaria--come and go. Only the earth--university administration--abideth forever.

Given that I live alone in a shoebox apartment I often have simliar thoughts--if I were to pop off during my sleep, how long would it take for my passing to be noticed? Just long enough for my composition students to complain that they haven't received grades, probably. Then the department would stop paying me my stipend, a new graduate student would be admitted in my place, and my landlords would probably sell all of my possessions (Pottery Barn furniture, Neil Diamond CDs, and an autographed photo of Margaret Thatcher) to cover back rent. I only hope that my friends downstairs at the Abbey Pub would name a barstool after me...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

HD: as a grad student I KNEW that my advisor would not send flowers to my untimely funeral. He would be vaguely aware that a person who used to ask him to sign things had been replaced by another person who asks him to sign things, but I don't think he'd know I'd departed for the Great Beyond.

As to my office ... sadly I think it would take only a few hours to obliterate my presence, technology and all. I hereby bequeath to you any tchoke you want from the place. Take good care of my troll. As to plants, I have one that has been attempting suicide for seven years. So far no luck. And as to acknowledgements, no one likes me all that much so I don't think I am in anyone's.

JKW: name me the executor of your will and I will ensure that your goods find suitable homes. The Margaret Thatcher picture would look good next to the troll in my office, since if she had orange hair they would uncannily resemble each other.

Anonymous said...

OK, JJ, I'll make you my executor. You can also have my beer paraphernalia and back issues of The Daily Sport.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that I wonder about when I contemplate my own mortality is just how awful my 400-square foot apartment would smell if my corpse were to rot in it for more than a few days. (If I were to die over summer vacation, for example.) I'm pleased, in a very macabre way, that I'd probably make the place smell so bad that my landlords would have to slash the rent after scouring the place with potpourri and industrial-strength disinfectant. JKW: annoying and smelly even from the grave.

Anonymous said...

Here's my favorite line:

"I want to live less on paper and more on life."

Not "in" life, "on" life.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That is a great line .. would would all do well to live more on life, I think.