Sunday, March 20, 2005

MLA 2004

This isn’t really news — it’s from December — nor does it shed new light on the MLA; on the contrary, it’s the conference living up to one’s lowest expectations, to a comical extreme. John and I went just for a day trip. We missed the early train, and met J at the conference center. “I loved your paper!” J called out to someone in a crowded lobby; the woman acknowledged her praise, and John, J and I were swept on by the throng. “Did you really like it?” I asked, genuinely pleased and looking forward to hearing about it. “M-hm.” Half an hour later, at a restaurant far from the convention center, I asked J about the paper she loved. She glanced around to make sure there were no other conference-goers around, then said grimly, “It was awful.” She took out her “notes” on the paper, which were a list of all the speaker’s preposterous po-mo neo-logisms. We had a good laugh, and then I had to ask, “Why did you say you loved it if you thought it was so awful? Why encourage such people? You don’t have to be rude, but —” “Oh, I don’t know, it just seemed to be the thing to say...”
We had a long & leisurely lunch, so that I missed most of the panel I’d meant to go to. One paper, however, was enough. I couldn’t pay attention to it, it was so awful, but every once in a while I was jerked out of my reverie by some remarkable turn of phrase. I’ll never forget “the Lacanian transformation of the penis into the phallus.” “What’s that?!” I wanted to ask. “Whatever it is, it sounds awful” — and went back to studying the carpet.
The one satisfaction of the day — apart from seeing J — came when I read Ann Durrell’s heart-felt introduction to Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game: “Our friendship really began in the smoking car of a Pennsylvania railroad train en route from New York to Philadelphia” — and there I was, on a train en route from New York to Philadelphia! (Children’s books, American railroads in their heyday — it reminds me of Edward Eager, whose characters are constantly stepping into the past, or into other fictions.) I love this kind of literary serendipity. And it’s amazing how often it happens. In Go Tell It on the Mountain “I sauntered down Lennox Avenue and entered the Park” — and there I happened to be, on the M4 bus, where Lennox Avenue meets Central Park. When Tristram Shandy fled to Rome (a light-hearted version of Laurence Sterne’s flight from death — the jokes seem so desperate when you think about it) I was sitting on a train to Rome. And when the main characters of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun are reconciled in the main square of Perugia under the statue of a pope who seemed to be blessing them, I had just arrived (for the first time) in Perugia. Italian cities are set up for this sort of thing: if Dante mentions a place, there’s a plaque to remind the passer-by. There ought to be more such plaques.

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