It was in the mid 1980s that I tossed my battered edition of the Canterbury Tales into my briefcase, gave a brief smile to my students, and walked out the door. I walked down a dim hallway and then out into the thin Connecticut sunlight and headed for the train station. I was done with academia forever, though I didn't know it at the time: I would never wear a tweed jacket again.
You don't leave academia just like that. It stays with you for a long time. It's a self-contained world, and its tumults can seem very important. One professor's scandal, another's missed tenure, are huge events. The cliques are as formidable as in high school; the rivalries as bitter; the betrayals are felt deeply.
And there is beautiful, difficult work being done. People make fun of academics -- they're easy targets -- because universities are mature institutions and the low-hanging fruit in most fields was gone centuries ago. The work still to be done is harder to explain. It takes some expertise to understand why it matters. But it does matter. Not all of it, of course. But at Yale I learned tremendous admiration for the careful, painstaking work that added up to, say, really knowing what the Beowulf-Poet meant by a particular image or turn of phrase. I will not laugh at the work these people do. I realized I was not up to it -- I was too slapdash and quicksilver. My work, when I finally found it, would be different: but not better. Just different.
There's a lasting regret in not being part of that secret ministry. But I hope I learned from them a rugged skepticism, a devotion to the verified fact, a respect for the second (third, fourth) opinion. I never heft an edition of some old poet -- an edition full of glosses and footnotes and erudite introductions -- without a surge of gratitude. I have been rescued from so many mistakes and misinterpretations: I have been handed the clean, beating hearts of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson. I'm grateful.
Nevertheless, I'm grateful too to have walked away from it. There's a culture of despair and depression that cobwebs academia -- especially now, when the promises of tenure and respect have proven mirages, and the remuneration dwindles while the work mounts. It's not, generally, a happy place. Much of the conversation, as I remember it, was savoring the hopelessness of the world, and counting over the number of ways in which we have decayed and the number of things we stand to lose.
I am myself in deep social and political despair, but I don't want to dwell on it or share it. Such solutions as come will come by addressing what can be addressed, and trusting in the mutability of things. I was on a retreat one time with my favorite Buddhist teacher: he had come down with a nasty flu. He sat on a bench, pale, miserable, panting slightly. I asked if he was feeling any better, and that drawn face was suddenly transformed by his characteristic impish grin. "Well, sometimes," he said, "impermanence is on our side."
So it is. And, at the same time, the beauty keeps coming, the sweetnesses of summer and skin, of cold water and blue sky, and my own incongruous, inexplicable good fortune.
So. I find myself gravitating to people who love to solve problems and fix things, and who plan for things no larger than their own households and their children's lifetimes. Cheery straightforward optimists. I simply want to work on things that I understand pretty well, and help people I know can be helped, and solve problems within my scope.
And it helps to remember that I've been a singularly crappy prophet. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I knew -- knew for a certainty -- that in twenty years we would have had a least one nuclear war, and that even without one, overpopulation would have made the world an uninhabitable hell-hole. Maybe I was right then, and just had the timing off by a couple decades. But maybe I was totally wrong. And maybe I'm totally wrong now in my gloomy expectations.
In any case, I have not noticed anyone anxious to make me emperor of the world: so spending a lot of time figuring out what I will do after my coronation is probably not a good use of my time. There are many other things to do. My neighborhood is full of joys to be made and sufferings to relieve.