Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Libraries and Heaven

Instead of writing these silly weekly blogs I ought to take up some large and imposing essay of the kind that makes its way into the unread anthologies in the unvisited bibliographies of oversubscribed doctoral seminars in our literature departments. I already have a title, and lack only the essay to go with it. The title would be “Liminality and the (B)other: The Role of the Literature Professor in the Age of Obama”. That’s a nearly perfect title for the kind of academic essay that makes a professor famous, and for two reasons. In the first place it is entirely meaningless, and in the second the one part of it that verges in the direction of comprehensibility, the Age of Obama part, has absolutely nothing to do with the subject.

The problem, though, is not in finding a title. The problem is in the role of the Literature Professor. I ought to know; I’ve been one for upwards of half a century. If an English professor should go to a cocktail party attended mainly by non-professors—something that occasionally does happen—there is one question he fears but can never evade: “And tell me, what is it that you do?” I sometimes try to pass myself off as a mortician or a periodontist, but if I feel brave enough I come right out and say it: “Well, actually, I’m an English professor.” I continue to believe that there is no shame in that admission, but I do dread the inevitable reply: “Oh, I’d better watch my grammar!” Naturally the only rational response to this remark is a cringe.

For the fact of the matter is that most of my fellow citizens seem to believe that the role of my profession is to invigilate the language of the nation. This belief is nearly criminally naïve. Anyone who spends half an hour with a television set listening to our political leaders, or half an hour reading our journalists, should know for a fact that nobody is invigilating the nation’s language. Under these circumstances I thought it of conceivable general interest to explain what it is that a scholar actually does do.

That’s quite simple: a scholar reads, and a scholar writes, and a scholar teaches. In retirement I have somewhat withdrawn from the teaching part, but I continue to read and to write. Given the subject matter that most interests me, the Christian cultures of pre-modern Europe, this means that I am forced to hang out in some of the most gorgeous places on earth—libraries. The project I am engaged in just at the moment—a little book about Luís de Camões, the great Portuguese poet of the sixteenth century—has brought me to a particularly exquisite one.

It is true that the various kinds of “electronic resources,” for which the “Internet” is sometimes the abbreviated code, have greatly aided the work of the scholar. For some, such as the imaginary author of my imaginary essay, they seem to have precluded the need for books altogether. But I’m still addicted not merely to the printed word, but to the sights and smells and sounds of the places where the printed word has been archived by skilled and loving professionals who join technical expertise with greatness of soul. That is why on most mornings I take off as soon as possible for the library of the Fondation Calouste Gulbekian.

The name of Calouste Gulbenkian will be a household word to almost anybody who has done serious work on the culture of Portugal or that of any of the diverse and widely scattered places, from the upper Rio Negro to East Timor, touched by the amazing dynamism of Portuguese expansion in the early modern period. If you suspect that “Gulbenkian” doesn’t sound particularly Portuguese, you’d be right. He was an Armenian by origin, an exile by fate, a diplomat by hobby, an entrepreneur extraordinare by native capacity, and by choice one of the world’s great philanthropists, a Levantine J. D. Rockefeller. He rewarded his adopted homeland of Portugal with the gift of one of world’s truly fabulous art collections; and the foundation bearing his name continues to enrich the world of learning and culture today.

The Paris operation of the Gulbenkian Foundation is housed in a sumptuous hôtel particulier or as we would probably say a mansion on the Avenue de Iéna very near the Étoile. For out-of-towners I will say that that is a good address. The vibe of the place is very much that of, say, the Frick Collection or the Morgan Library in New York, but with the Robber Baron excess constrained by a certain Ottoman mesure. There is a great deal of activity in this building, the meaning of much of which I have yet to divine. There are recital halls. There are lecture rooms. Academic conferences are constantly in progress. There is a lot of gallery space full, at the moment, of seductive botanical paintings by Lourdes Castro. There is a large theater I must pass by, and in it there seems to be flashing upon the screen a never-ending postmodern slide show.

The actual library, at the top of a fabulous marble staircase, is small and jewel-like, a single long room with a fine old table in its center. At either end of the room is a desk where sits one of the highly competent and friendly librarians. Just at the door are the two computer stations, as discreet as such things can be, that give the scholar immediate access not merely to the Gulbenkian catalogue but to the catalogues of the great libraries of the world and even (groan!) to one’s e-mail. The room is girdled in towering glazed cases, at least fifteen feet high, full of beautiful leather editions of every reference book yet devised by the Lusitanian brain. Thick, ancient walnut shelves support rank upon rank of gilded leather: the Lendas of India of Gaspar Correa, Fortunato de Almeida’s Historia de Portugal in six volumes, the fifteen gleaming volumes of the Corpo Diplomatico Portuguez.

Doubtless these volumes are from time to time visited by aging scholars like myself. They sure make impressive stage properties. Most of the small clientele, however, is young; their interests appear to be the current journals, the theater scene in Lisbon, the Brazilian economic miracle, and political developments in lusophone Africa. The large bulk of the holdings are in some repository, invisible but obviously proximate. You fill out a little fiche in the usual European manner; but most unusually you get the book within two minutes.

Luís de Camões occupies the place in Luso-Brazilian culture occupied by Dante in Italy, Shakespeare in England, and Michael Jackson in the United States. When I first wrote a letter of inquiry to the head librarian, Mme Darbord, she responded that the library housed a Camões collection très important. That is putting the matter rather modestly. I have yet to find anything about Camões that the library doesn’t have, or which the charming librarians do not supply with a smile.

Libraries have always had a special allure for me, midway between the spiritual and the erotic. I have not until recently started wondering seriously about my residence in the afterlife, but if there’s no room for me in Dante’s eagle’s eye, something like the Gulbenkian reading room will be just fine, thank you very much. This is one of those libraries in which people still speak in hushed voices. There is always something tonic about the “library whisper”; but whispering in Portuguese, full of sibilants that defy the anatomy of the human tongue, takes it to an altogether new level. There you are, reading this great stuff, bathed in light reflected off polished wood and ancient leather, as a faint, lilting swish-swash burbles in the distance. Ah, stay the passing moment--it is so fair!