The dawn creeps over the top of the houses on Ren’s street like a burglar jumping from roof to roof, looking for a weak spot. Has he left the upstairs bathroom window open as usual? Ren always appreciates being able to see Eos’ arrival when he’s sober. It partially makes up for having to get up with only four hours sleep under his belt, thanks to a very late night working on tomorrow’s lecture.
What’s forcing him to get up early is that today is a lucky day. Not for him. For today. The day itself, Monday, is lucky, for it’s been granted the immense honour of hosting the second Philosophy Departmental General Meeting of the semester. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are all jealous as can be, although Friday, of course, doesn’t give a shit, because it’s Friday.
It’s because this meeting will take up hours and hours of valuable time that he was forced to work until the wee small hours last night. He would be crankier about this, except that as this is only his second ever departmental meeting it still has some novelty value to him. The novelty of departmental meetings will wear off soon, but for now the prospect of wasting hours of his life listening to a bunch of windbags boring on as though it’s the Olympic boredom tryouts doesn’t fill him with the gloom it will later on. He remembers sitting in his first departmental meeting earlier on in the semester thinking that he is fortunate to have made it to twenty-eight before he’s ever had to do this sort of thing, and thanking Christ he doesn’t have a job which requires him to sit in meetings every day. But then he got a PhD precisely in order to avoid having a job that requires him to sit in meetings every day, so it’s himself he has to thank, not Christ.
He also remembers feeling somewhat wistful at the first meeting because he realised that as much as he had tried to avoid it, he’s having to grow up. It was hard to deny that when you were sitting around a polished mahogany table in a fancy boardroom discussing, with people with grey hair, matters that would affect other people’s lives, overlooked by portraits of what looked like distinguished scholars (although in reality they’re probably just former University bureaucrats). His extended childhood is being left behind. Unfortunately. Perhaps there is still time to join a band.
Ren sits down across from George.
‘George, why are you here? You have the perfect excuse not to come,’
‘I’m fine,’ insists George. ‘Rumours of my demise are much exaggerated,’ he chuckles.
‘The rumours may be premature, but they won’t be exaggerated if you can’t have a rest when you need one.’
‘Pshaw. You youngsters go on the sick if someone breathes on you too close.’
‘But why come to a departmental meeting when you don’t have to? Isn’t getting old misery enough?’
‘It might be unpleasant, but if you’re not at the meeting to vote, you might regret it later. The world is ruled by those who stay awake in committee meetings.’
Ren, like George, stops himself looking at the Continentals after George has made this point. Verna has turned her head their way, and is listening in.
‘I take your point. Still, you don’t look well.’
‘He never looks well,’ says Walter.
‘You need,’ interrupts Verna, ‘some natural herbal remedies.’
‘Oh God, here we go’ says Compton.
‘You don’t have to stop whatever treatment your doctor is giving you,’ begins Verna.
‘I’m not having any treatment. There’s nothing much wrong with me.’
‘Of course there is. You just take the herbal medicine in addition.’
‘And dance around the room three times, chanting the magic words,’ says Compton.
‘Look, herbal medicine is starting to show good results in scientific trials.’
‘No, it’s not,’ says Ren. ‘Those results are feeble, and they can never replicate them anyway.’
‘I thought science was a grand narrative and a conspiracy?’ says Compton. ‘Isn’t it a bad thing to be showing some results in a scientific context?’
‘Science just needs some corrections made.’
Ren decides to change the subject. There’s not much point in starting a serious argument just before a meeting is due to start. ‘How come we’re not in the same room as last time?’
‘We only get into one of the boardrooms if we’re very lucky,’ says Walter. ‘The meetings are usually always in here.’
‘Here’ is one of the drab teaching rooms, with wobbly, veneer-covered chipboard tables.
‘Don’t expect a good a lunch as last time either,’ says Martha.
‘The downhill slide continues,’ says Ren. ‘Last week in my lecture the overhead projector broke.’
‘If you think there’s a downhill slide happening, wait until you see the agenda,’ says Tristram York. Ren takes a look and his heart sinks.
The mood is further soured when the Head of Department – Robot – comes in. Robot is a man who takes departmental business extremely seriously. Plus he has no small talk, unless it involves the latest philosophy clishmaclaver, which he discusses in the most po-faced, ungossipy way possible, thus negating the whole point of it. You have to admire Robot for taking the job as Head of Department seriously, but everything he is involved in – and that includes just sitting near him – becomes highly unpleasant, simply because of his miserable presence.
The mood becomes even more algific when Adelaide Newman comes in. She grunts at Verna, says nothing to anyone else, and sits as far away as she can, studiously ignoring everyone, even the Continentals, who are all sitting together. Her presence is something of a surprise; she rarely attends departmental meetings. Perhaps Robot had told her to start turning up. Nobody else would have had the balls to do so, but then nobody else wants her to turn up.
The atmosphere improves a bit when Derek Lucas comes in talking and laughing loudly, accompanied by Bill Porterfield. Derek never lets anyone’s disapproval, not Robot’s nor Adelaide’s, dampen his mood and stop him broadcasting his humorous opinions as vehemently as he can, and Ren has to admire him for that.
Derek isn’t the easiest person to talk over, but Bill, not the most demonstrative man, found it harder than most. It’s difficult to tell whether Bill even likes Derek. Perhaps Bill has been waiting all these years merely for a gap in the conversation so he can tell Derek that he’s a cockhead. Watching Bill tramp silently alongside Derek, Ren is reminded of an old hymn:
A mute companion at my side
Paces and plods, the whole day long,
Accepts the measure of my stride,
Yet gives no cheer by word or song.
More close than any doggish friend,
Not ranging far and wide, like him,
He goes where’er my footsteps tend,
Nor shrinks for fear of life or limb.
Bill is someone who appears not to know much about anything in Philosophy except for an obscure seventeenth century contemporary of Locke’s called Robert Langston. This is the only topic that Bill ever publishes articles on, and he’s been supposedly working on a book about Langston for at least seventy-five years. Not that he publishes many articles on Langston – the non-existence of any modern discussion of Langston’s work makes publishing on him difficult, as does the complete modern lack of interest in anything Langston had ever said on any topic at any time. Langston had not been in any way a colleague of Locke’s (or any other figure of note from that period), and had not engaged Locke in any verbal or epistolary disputes, preferring to ignore what he thought was an overrated talent, and plow his own peculiar furrow, producing bizarre theories, such as his view that everything was ultimately made of fire. (The argument apparently went something like this: Every physical thing has some amount of heat. Heat is produced by fire. Therefore objects must, in some way, contain fire. But fire would not burn and produce heat if it was confined to the space between the elements. Therefore elements, and thus objects, must themselves be fire, only temporarily transmuted into a different form. Langston also thought that some of these temporary forms, like wood, transmuted back into fire more easily than others, like water, but even water was really made of fire. This argument, Ren thought, while clearly idiotic and a piece of logical Swiss cheese, was no more idiotic than some of the others from that time.)
As a result, all Bill could manage in the way of publishing was to get the occasional article in somewhat inconsequential, historically-based journals, like 17th Century Philosophico-Historical Studies, and even then only when his friend, Frederick Millard, refereed them. Some had wondered whether Porterfield had invented Langston himself, as no-one had ever heard of him before, but then one day (so Compton says) Millard came to visit the department, and he seemed to know about Langston.
But maybe, Ren thought, he was in on the whole thing. He could write articles about Langston, and Porterfield would have to referee them, because no-one else could, just as he always gets to referee Bill’s articles, and that way they keep getting each other published for years, at least until some grad student decides to look up Langston’s work and finds it doesn’t exist.
No, of course Langston exists, he decides, there’s no great shortage of obscure seventeenth century philosophers one could choose to work on if one wants to be the world expert on somebody that nobody else has any interest in studying.