More Master and Man in Masterpiece

Today’s post is going to revisit two posts from several months ago (here and here). In them, I opined that the characters in the PBS series Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis (detective series, set in Oxford, England) were contemporary re-imaginings of the three orders of the medieval period: 1) those who fought (knights, of whom Inspector Morse was the contemporary incarnation); 2) those who worked (squires, peasants, of whom Inspector Lewis is a modern-day version); and 3) those who prayed (Inspector Lewis’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, who has religious leanings and a background as a seminary scholar).Masterpiece-Mystery-Inspector-Lewis and Hathaway

Well, I’m quite excited to report that a new season finished recently on PBS and gives further evidence that I was right to notice the echoes of the medieval period in the characters! Because Hathaway has taken, for his vacation, a “walk” which we learn half-way through the first episode is a trip to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The reference is somewhat elided: Lewis says that his neighbor has gone to that cathedral, but its significance is not fully fleshed out for the viewers.

Well, let me do that here. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain was a major pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. People throughout Europe walked to the cathedral from their homes as an act of religious faith. It was the third most popular site, after Jerusalem and Rome. (The Way of St James, mapCathedral is traditionally thought to be the resting place of St. James, one of the 12 apostles.) To give you a sense of how many routes there are, I’m posting this handy map from the Wikipedia entry.

So in making this walk, James Hathaway is acting as a contemporary religious pilgrim, even if he disavows the action by saying that he “wasn’t on pilgrimage” and “didn’t go in.” He is a religious seeker, if a conflicted one. The action and destination is enough to mark him as a kind of contemporary monk.

This makes me very happy not only because my initial musings on Inspector Lewis have been proved right, but because the pilgrimage phenomenon is very interesting, whether you have religious leanings or not. Because the pilgrims exist not only in days of yore (as Hathaway’s trip indicates): the pilgrimage site is incredibly popular now.

Indeed, the church office keeps statistics on how many people make the trek as pilgrims, and in 2013, nearly 216,000 did. That’s a steep rise from 5 years earlier, when the number was 125,000. It’s a whole cultural event, with special passports, clearly marked routes, dedicated hostels, and (I am not making this up) vacation packages.

I find this incredibly touching. It’s as if Europe, rather than losing the traditions of the Age of Faith, simply…brought (at least some of) them back. Many people, according to the church’s site, go for religious reasons, but many more go as a nonreligious retreat, as a break from contemporary life (the walking can take months; you have to walk the last 100 kilometers to be certified as a pilgrim). It is also a cultural locus where one can see how pan-European—indeed, how worldwide—some of these customs are, as evidenced by the map and the fact that the cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The pilgrimage has figured not only in Inspector Lewis, but in a number of books and films. I plan to talk about some of the latter here shortly.


Independent Day

In my pursuit of alt-ac-hood, I am a great fan of Versatile PhD, a web site devoted to forums and information for those transitioning out of the tenure track as a goal. The other day, someone posted a comment on one of its open forums to the effect that they were dissed when registering for a conference as an independent scholar.

The person querying had published a book, and had been invited to talk at the conference because of it. (She also works at a nonprofit, but that position apparently isn’t related to the research done for the book.) In other words, you would think she had a position inviting respect. Instead, she was told that her specific affiliation for the conference—independent scholar—was a euphemism. She wanted suggestions, from the Versatile PhD’ers, about how she could respond graciously.

Euphemism for what, it didn’t say. (Party-crasher? Suppliant? Poseur? Mystery Guest?) First of all, it isn’t a euphemism if you’ve actually published your research, it seems to me.

Second, as it happens, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently gave one of their awards to an independent scholar, Pamela O. Long. (The MacArthur awards are frequently referred to in the media as “genius” grants; awardees this year include a generous helping of academics and artists.) Ms. Long is 71 and has worked as a successful independent historian most of her life. Read more of her story here.

The whole issue of independent scholarship is a very vexed one for alt-ac’s and post-ac’s just because of this prejudice. It’s part of a larger set of practices that devalue any work that is not specifically linked to an institution of higher education and even within that, to work as a tenure track appointee within a department. That this is happening even as more and more people flee the tenure track or abandon it prior to obtaining it due to either the paucity of positions or the almost complete lack of free time for a fledgling academic (and as entire conferences are devoted to the alt-ac world, such as the recent one at Penn State) is increasingly frustrating. There are a scant number of openings in the current job lists, measured against multiple hundreds of applicants.

It seems to me that one solution is simply to be more inclusive about what constitutes thought and research. Some of this takes place in institutions; some of it takes place in conjunction with both institutions and private studies (past recipients of the MacArthur have included people like Anna Deavere Smith and Junot Diaz, who have university appointments but are better known for their artistic activities), and some takes place in private studies. The pudding—Pamela Long has a number of books to her credit—should be the proof.

Part of my own transition out of academia has included believing that perhaps there are a number of good models, not just one.

I’m happy to report that Pamela Long has written an informative and generous article on being an independent scholar that foregrounds the idea of the work being central and also provides an intriguing parallel with the lives of artists. To quote: “there are plenty of us out here, so it seems reasonable that we should claim some cultural space….it would be good for our profession to move a bit closer to this [by artists] focus on the work as opposed to the position.” I’ve only known about this essay for a couple weeks (since the MacArthur announcements were made), but I really think this should be required reading for alt-ac and post-ac folk. The whole thing can be found here.

Texts Then and Now

It is the Halloween season, readers, and what better time to think about why some texts from the past resonate with contemporary audiences? As readers of this blog know, I am particularly interested in how the nineteenth century lives on in the twentieth and twenty-first.  Well, we have at hand one of the most specific examples I can think of, the perennial Halloween favorite Dracula. The novel was first published in the late 1890s, yet its descendants and remakes live on in movie after movie, costume after costume (including a notable recent one at my local CVS, which provided the genesis for this post), and vampires and vampire slayers in almost every reiteration one could name (think TV shows, mashups, fan fiction…and on and on).  bram-stokers-dracula-movie-poster-1992-1020190922

Sure, Dracula shares the stage with Friday the 13th and its more contemporary ilk now. But the fact is, while many wildly popular English novelists of the same century have been eclipsed from public view, Dracula lives on. (Take, as a contrasting case, the mid nineteenth-century novels of Elizabeth Gaskell. They were well known and widely read at the time, yet if one were to tap random people on the street and say her name, it is likely that very few would recognize it. The recognition factor of Dracula would be near 100%.) Similarly, almost everyone would know Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865. She lives on in the story, in multiple movies, in a ballet, and most recently, in a fantastic iPad app.Alice in Wonderland

 Why do both Dracula and Alice have, to use the colloquialism, legs? Well, Dracula deals with fear of contagion by visitors from an Other land (Transylvania, but it’s a handy stand-in for any exotic and unknown) who can look completely normal, and with predatory social relations between lovers and friends, to name just two issues still with us. And Alice in Wonderland trades on images of childhood as wonderful and magical, a belief still holding major sway. Its metaphors of growing and shrinking in dizzying succession still represent childhood well.

 In US writing, a similar dyad exists between the once well-known and now eclipsed and the once well-known and still with us. One might think of the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth; interesting, but few outside academe know them now. The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, takes a contemporary form when adapted into movies like 2010’s Easy A. Hawthorne’s tale of adultery among the Puritans segues into a multilayered comic take: Hester Prynne’s contemporary descendent is ostracized by the religious group in her school, but, unlike The Scarlet Letter’s Hester, Easy A’s heroine is not actually having sex. (The plot doesn’t track exactly, of course; the references are the protagonist’s own references to her scarlet A. And too, the film’s makers are having fun with the fact that Hawthorne’s novel is one of the most read in US high schools.)

The resonant issue here easy-a-movie-posteris scrutiny of a woman’s sexuality and its attendant social shaming: still with us, still the subject of the gaze and gossip, with part of the joke being that her actual celibacy is as hidden as Hester’s affair once was.

I plan to talk about more puzzling adaptation phenomena soon, so stay tuned!

Me ‘n’ Mysteries

Here’s the thing about being in transition from graduate school, for me: I just can’t get enough of mystery novels.

I’ve always liked mystery novels. But in the past, they formed a minor part of any reading pie I was in the middle of. I’ve always read pretty voraciously, but pre-graduate school I was a great aficionado of what bookstores call literary fiction and nonfiction. I was never a huge fan of genre fiction—not, at that point, mysteries or, then or now, any other genre form—fantasy, science fiction (and certainly not horror). From the early 2000s until about a year or so ago, once I began re-entry and then fully being in graduate school, I was seldom outside the realm of required-and-if-not-officially-required-then-you-need-to-know-about-this academic reading.

Then, a halcyon moment arrived: while still paying attention to the field and academic writing, I could once more make an opening for plain old reading. (I find both academic reading and plain old reading pleasurable, mind you. But few things are as wonderful as realizing that I could once again wander through the library stacks unimpeded and pick whatever I wanted to read.  For a similar moment in the postac blog Walking Ledges, see here.)  For me, it was a gigantic moment of feeling knit together: the old pleasures with the enlargement of the new.Book Review Ghost Hero

But what I want to read are mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. In the past year, I have finished catching up with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (both old favorites) and gone on to find S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin-Bill Smith dually narrated series, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan (and Lippman’s really good realist non-mystery novels as well), Laurie R. King in Britain and San Francisco, Susan Dunlap’s series in Berkeley, and Harry Dolan’s in Ann Arbor. (I’m fond of university towns and regionalism, and both if I can get them.) Plus I’ve recently discovered Tana French in Dublin and Rachel Howzell Hall in Los Angeles. (Some of these I’ve found through word of mouth, but others are discoveries made in National Public Radio’s cool “Crime in the City” series.) In fact, I’m feeling very sad that I’ve finished most of these, although the discoveries of French and Hall make me believe that great series in the genre come on a-comin’.  the likeness

Moreover, while I keep trying to pursue my old habits, they basically refuse to be captured. An example? My bedside table is occupied by Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits. In the old days, that would have represented an incredibly nice cup of tea: a fascinating person, an intriguing social world, and a wonderfully written biography. Yet when I picked it up recently, I literally thought “…but I know what happens and how this ends.” !!

So why is the burning desire to read at least an hour of mystery a day upon me now when it was pretty dormant before? Well, I think because the transition out of graduate school is a mystery. It’s an arc when what happens and how it ends isn’t fully known. I’m working part-time jobs until I arrive at the ultimate place I will be post-PhD (and still completing a PhD). So whatever the ultimate dénouement of the graduate school scene is for me…I don’t know it yet.

As a genre, mystery novels start with one of the journalistic w’s (what…happened), and the plot is the unfolding of every other journalistic w (why, when, where, and who. And we also usually get the journalistic h, how). Now, I have been holding off on this blog because…hey, mystery novels are kicked off by a bad thing (murder, theft, kidnapping, rape…something not good). So I was a bit hesitant to make the analogy: while yes, the job market post grad experience kind of sucks, for me, the experience of learning more in an environment dedicated to it was the opposite of murder, theft, and kidnapping. It felt like being restored to treasures I considered the most valuable. My inner self made also outer. It was a setting right, not a going wrong.

And then I realized two simple facts. First, the plot device that kicks off mysteries is a change in the given order. For them, the change is the wrong thing. But there is no law against the change being a right thing. (Hmmm…quite an idea for a novel itself!) It can be just a change, which graduate school certainly represented for me.

The second is…in strongly written series like these, one identifies with the investigator(s), not the person to whom X has happened. Indeed, writers on mysteries posit an ethical role for the PI: s/he is the one who sets right the rending of the social fabric. In some sense, being involved in the midst of the completion of PhD and what comes after is the investigator role of your own life.

So, all those mystery series out there…bring ‘em on!