This time, I don’t mean Downton.
I mean the abbeys of The Name of the Rose and Byzantium and The Forest and Sailing To Sarantium. Maybe even of Redwall, ridiculous as that may sound, since I’m sure I took it in on some level when I heard stories at bedtime as an eight-year-old. They’ve always attracted me, ever since my parents received a gift of jam that had a picture of a monk on it, and my inquiry brought tales of habit-clad folk in farflung places, carefully turning out jams and beers and, in the past, manuscripts, for the betterment of all.
At least, that’s how I imagined it.
I was completely won over by the idea of them, or more truthfully the social and geographic contexts that bound them. I wanted the thick stone walls, held in place not only with keystones but with history. Buildings that had clung to rocky outcroppings for centuries. Dusty archives. Paving stones worn smooth by more generations than could properly be remembered. (Hence, of course, the archives.) I loved, too, the idea of abbeys being places of knowledge—often the only places for miles and miles. The people who knew how to read, were there. Those who know how to write were there. The only people, often, to know boatloads of other languages—oftentimes archaic ones, useful only for writing—were there. I had an on-again off-again obsession with the Book of Kells. I was completely smitten with illuminated manuscripts, and got all starry-eyed when in school teachers would emphasize time and time again how long each monk spent on a mere square inch of those manuscripts. The diligence and effort spanning years and years and years, with what I perceived to be the self-sure knowledge that that was what you were supposed to be doing, that it was good and useful work—I dearly longed for that.
I realize now too that the combination of esoteric and earthy work—the books and the jam and beer-making—attracted me in the structure of its production at least as much as the actual products did. The people there, one hoped, believed in what they were doing and were able to see enough of an impact from their work for their belief not to be a sham. Rare texts were preserved and propagated by their efforts. Languages held onto. People fed. Economies propped up and sometimes even invented, given the armies of laymen required to keep a full-blown abbey up and running, and the towns they then brought into existence.
I am skirting the somewhat salient topic of religion for good reason, since a number of people I know—I’m looking at you, Vince—go red-eyed with rage when someone even mentions religion, thus making any further conversation about a related topic, like abbeys, moot. So restrain yourselves. I am not saying bravo to self-flagellation and Dolcino and Athanatius. I’ve mentioned this before in passing but only in a practical way, i.e., don’t hate on the monks because they are often the only reason we know jack about Time X or Place Y. Of course we should value them and their abbeys as bastions of stability in an area of the world that by and large went to shit for a long time. But I am probably more likely to upset my usually trigger-happy atheist acquaintances by claiming that they are also to be valued…envied, I guess…for giving so many people who weren’t off fighting wars or growing food a format for continued meaningful existence. Don’t scoff. In a world where famine is as likely to wipe out your whole family as plague or feudal bickering, who has time to feed and clothed and provide the economic superstructure to support a bunch of soft-living guys writing new books and translating old ones? Nobody will do that without a good goddamn reason, and then—unlike now—“we can teach your kids to read?” didn’t quite cut it, since what could would reading do when what you needed was plowing? Without religion crowning those monks up there on that cliff or that island as noble or earnest or justified in some other way in their undertakings, who would make it possible for them to persist in their efforts? Without religion, scholarship for the sake of scholarship would not exist. It would have been snuffed out like all the other impractical crap people refused to put up with over the ages.
I imagine you see where I am going with this, and where I get the envy angle. Perception of the masses aside, monks were able to go about their work with the belief that what they were doing was good. And useful. And necessary. And unless you’re curing cancer or doing calculations to sure passing asteroids won’t obliterate us, that is a very hard position to take in the secular academy. The position that what you’re doing matters a rat’s ass, I mean. I hereby do promise not to make this another academia soapbox post, but let me quietly point out that I was told for years, by academics themselves, not to go down that path. From the embittered chain-smoking writing prof I shadowed for Dream Job Day as an eighth-grader (who taught me less about teaching or writing than she did about ex-husbands and the various ways they and “the system” can be Out To Get You) to just about every professor I became close to in my ill-fated pursuit of area studies, the message was clear: Abandon Ship. Decades in, nobody likes their work or, worse, themselves. Most were unhealthy. Many divorced. All smarting at the lack of respect outsiders had for them, but to a one they knew exactly why they felt the way they did: because their job was to talk amongst themselves. For years. And to pretend it mattered. That is why every class from pottery to Vietnam 101 to Nietzsche closes, or closed when I was a student in the mid 2000s, with a lecture on the Iraq War. It’s not that your pots or your 17th century French parlor novels or your phreneology debunking classes have anything to do with the war. It’s that, as humanities professors, you need to claim a relation to the Iraq War to claim relevance. And while the political focus of the moment changes over the years, the desperate self-aware grasping at world-stage straws by the academy does not. It’s always there, eating at you.
I went and did it anyway because I was wooed by abbeys; by the White Tower in the Wheel of Time series; by compliments. I am good at pleasing people older than me, and I will always seek their respect before that of my peers. Probably because I realized early on that I’d never be cool. But the structure of organized scholarship in fantasy novels is much the same as it is in abbeys of the past: people did what they did with the (by and large, well-placed) conviction that it was good work. I miss that, even though I never really had a chance at it, the times being what they are and the world what it is.
I mean only to ruminate on it, though, not to mourn it, for any number of reasons—not the least of which being that I probably wouldn’t have been able to cut it in any of my longed-for abbeys any more than I could have in modern-day academia, given Brother Adam’s frank “The Truth About Monks” speech:
“One is secure here, of course. We are clothed and fed. We have few care. So tell me—” he suddenly rounded on the novice—“now that you have had the chance to observe us for several months, what do you think is the most important quality for a monk to possess?”
“A desire to serve God. I think,” the boy said. “A great religious passion.”
“Really? Oh, dear. I don’t agree at all.”
“You don’t?” The boy looked confused.
“Let me tell you something,” Brother Adam cheerfully explained. “The first day you pass from your novitiate and become a monk, you will take your place as the most junior among us, next to the monk who was the last to arrive before you. After a time there will be a new monk, who will be placed below you. For every meal and every service you will always sit in the same position between those two monks—every day, every night, year in, year out; and unless one of you leaves for another monastery, or becomes abbot or prior, you will stay together, like that, for the rest of your lives.
“Think about it. One of your companions has an irritating habit of scratching himself or sings out of tune, always; the other dribbles when he eats; he also has bad breath. And there they are, one on each side of you. Forever.” He paused and beamed at the novice. “That’s monastic life,” he said amiably.
Um. No thank you. Persistent testicular forays, crowds be damned, are as maddening to me as academics who spontaneously decide that I need a detailed description of their most recent bodily malaises, and how their respective exes are likely the causes of all of them. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to see it. Be it the abbey or the ivory tower, I probably wasn’t cut out for either.
But it sure would be nice to read books all day and have people tell you you’re awesome for it.