Two experiences of the scholarly life
In a foreign country, where the language is not my own, I am working in an old building undergoing renovation, metal shelving and exposed wiring all around me.
The room in which I sit is the reading room of an archive, and I am going through scads of correspondence and notes left by various writers from a hundred years ago to try to find useful things for a doctoral thesis. The boxes of old pages and folders and notebooks are delivered to me from some vast reserve somewhere in the bowels of the place, outside the gaze of mortals such as myself. Once they are placed on the desk, the emissary who fetched them speedily retreats to the unseen realm, and I am alone except for a secretary sitting on the other side of the room who occasionally glances in my direction but mostly ignores me.
I sit puzzled for hours, trying to decipher arcane cursive in a language that I have only known for a few years. Every stroke looks the same. It might as well be the random marks left by a cat in its litter box that I am studying.
I am cold, because the room is frigid, though the secretary, the sentinel of this temple, seems completely impervious to the room’s chilly temperature. I shiver and curse myself for having stupidly abandoned my coat to the rack at the entrance to the building.
I am hungry, because I have not broken the night’s fast, wanting to avoid wasting time in the morning so as to get to the shrine at the moment its doors creaked open, as it is locked to the public for all but three hours each day and I need to maximize my time.
I am tired, because I was up late working, every fifteen minutes or so thinking in horror of the price I would pay in the morning for my failure to get to sleep instead of sitting still longer in front of the computer screen.
As my suffering body slumps on the hard, inconceivably and impossibly hard, inhumanly, monstrously, satanically hard chair, I cannot imagine how I will accomplish anything at all. But I sit here anyway, and I chastise myself to continue, and I try to force the fear to back down first.
The clock ticks.
Time hates me and it does not care about my work. At all. It wants only to pass, and to push me out the door, and to hasten the end of days and weeks and months until my time to do this work is gone and I must return with nothing to show for all these cold, hungry, desperately tired mornings sitting in a room with hostile, mockingly and illegibly scribbled sheets of paper and a haughtily indifferent observer.
Finally, with utter predictability, the icy premonition of my failure arrives and speaks to me. “You will not accomplish what you are here to do,” it announces in a sneering tone. “You will sit here for hours over many days, and you will be unable to decipher the codes that parade before you and you will struggle futilely against sleep, and you will wish yourself dead a hundred thousand times and eventually you will have to go home, and you will not have done what you set out to do. You will fail.”
Another day, another building.
The sun streams in through high arched windows on the roof of the converted chapel that holds me in its bosom. I am far from the city, in a pristine village that everywhere reminds of its link to history. Saints have been removed from the walls, but their essence has bled into the building itself, and I feel their presence, hear their voices, am guided by their will.
I am a monk, an ascetic withdrawn from the mundane world, listening to the wind in the recesses of the cavernous abbey.
The files arrive, and they are in good order. I scan the pages. The hand is crisp and clear. I fall to the reading with the gusto of a hungry man served a heaping, steaming plate. My mind is untroubled, limpid, my consciousness fully focused on the task. Nothing interferes, nothing distracts. Fatigue does not exist, hunger does not exist, bodily functions altogether have gone on hiatus while I am in the presence of the blessed, mystical documents.
As I devour these holy texts and scribble my notes, a warmth comes over me, despite the chilled air outside and the expanse of the old abbey in which I sit.
It will all fall into place.
I will make it through all the things I have decided to see here, and they will serve me in the way intended. My planning is vindicated.
The world is dictated by predictability and beauty.
Stepping outside after purchasing an espresso from the vending machine that is fortifying and delicious, far better than should be possible under such circumstances, I walk in the courtyard, and I look to the cloudless sky, my eye reflecting the glint from a crystalline pond.