Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Proving Grounds


         Most people agree that the invention of printing in fifteenth-century Europe marked an astonishing advance in the history of culture and the advancement of learning.  Rabelais, who was born about thirty years after the death of Gutenberg includes in his marvelous novels an imaginary letter from Gargantua to his son Pantagruel praising the cultural miracle effected by the printing press.  “I see the robbers, hangmen, freebooters and stable-boys of today more learned than the theologians and preachers of my time.”*

            A bit of poetic license, perhaps, but is hardly necessary to point out the advantages of the machine-made as opposed to the hand-made book.  They included quantity and price, both of which favored the wide distribution of texts.  But the printers themselves particularly boasted of another feature: that the books they produced claimed a new accuracy, since before being sent into the world the text could be read and corrected in proof.  The reader could be confident that the correct reading was Lead us not into temptation, as printed, and that when their manuscript read Lead us not into Penn Station, that was probably a mistake born of human error.

            My most recent essay had been exposed to the eyes of the world for the better part of a week when I received an email from a reader named Ian Jackson.  Its brief subject line immediately caught my attention: “Pubic”.  Mr. Jackson pointed out that in a passage in which I spoke of the American system of public education, my text quite clearly read pubic education.  This would have been a cause for embarrassment even had the context not been, as it unfortunately was, a high-and-mighty excoriation of our national educational inadequacies.

            There really was no way of redeeming this blooper, though my mind did its best.  I recalled a masterpiece of toilet stall graffiti that I encountered in England fifty years ago.  Among the sad, crude monuments to unsatisfied longing scrawled upon the wall was the following masterpiece of postmodern dialogue, written out in vertical form, as though in a Shakespeare text:
            [Hand A]: God bless little grils.
            [Hand B]: Don’t you mean GIRLS???
            [Hand C]: What about us grils?
Good question, that!  And surely a similar point could be made about American pubic education.  Was it fair to neglect it entirely?

            But the real lesson of my experience, and the reason I am so sincerely grateful to Mr. Jackson, is that it is surprisingly rare even for friends to try to save you from self-incurred embarrassment.  They seem to think that it is better for you not to know that your beard is clotted with drool and the spume of your Starbucks latte.  This leads me to invoke a second English anecdote of the same era as the last—the period of my undergraduate years at Oxford.

            I was a member of Jesus College, an institution at which in those days the athletic culture somewhat outpaced the plumbing capacity.  There were some showers, but there wasn’t much hot water in them at the best of times.  When you needed them most—when you were returning with large numbers of your fellow footballers, oarsmen, or runners after some exhausting, sweaty ordeal—there was usually no hot water at all.  Remember this, as in the story I must now relate it is what literary critics call a relevant detail.

            One day I was scheduled to go to an elegant sherry party sponsored by the English Speaking Union.  I believe the venue was the upscale Randolph hotel or perhaps somewhere else in the block opposite the Ashmolean Museum.  Bear in mind that the English Speaking Union is an organization that celebrates the glories of international communication made possible by our shared world language.  The schedule was tight.  If I moved at a brisk pace from our boathouse to college—a fair distance—I would have about fifteen minutes to shower, shave, put on my brand new Harris Tweed jacket, and hustle over to the ESU sherry party.  The hot water was already exhausted, but I faced it like a man.  I took a chilly shower, and shaved quickly—too quickly--in cold water.   Then off I went.  The sherry-swigging had already begun when I got there, but I was not the last to arrive, and I joined right in.

            The ESU has both male and female members, though on this occasion there were several hostesses and no visible hosts.  I moved about among the English Speaking ladies, speaking English the whole while, and pretty competently too, if I do say so myself.  Some of them seemed to be regarding me in a somewhat alarmed fashion, but years of experience had inured me to that sort of thing.  I have never shared Byron’s experience of having women faint from excitement when I walk into a room.  About twenty minutes into the circular chatter, when I had engaged a least a dozen English Speakers, I felt a slight tickle or itch roughly below my left ear.  Adroitly passing my sherry glass to my left hand, I reached around with my right hand to give a surreptitious scratch to the itch.

            I detected something wet and sticky, and when my hand reappeared in sight it was pretty well covered in blood.  Hasty shaving, especially hasty shaving in cold water, is not to be recommended.  All unknowing I had given myself a fairly good nick below the left ear.  The flow, which had been surprisingly copious, had found its course, invisible to me but certainly not to anybody with whom I was conversing, down the back of my neck, over the shirt collar and onto the upper shoulder of my new Harris Tweed.  The adjective “blood-soaked” is almost always hyperbolic, but a patch of the jacket was actually soggy.  For all I know I was in need of a blood transfusion.  However, not a single one of the good ladies of the ESU had thought it proper to mention to me that I was hemorrhaging: an instance of “death before dishonor,” perhaps?  Hence my gratitude to Ian Jackson.  Just like it says in the subway cars: if you see something, say something!

*Book 2, chapter 8.