Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mourier, Petrarch, and Me

In a post today over at Inside Higher Ed (which you folks in higher ed should be reading anyway), Scott McLemee comments in an introduction about the Mourier Hoax. He offers a slight revision, however, to my version of events:

But if you go to the archives of the departmental listserv in question, a slightly different picture emerges. Searching “Mourier,” you find no messages by unwary poseurs dropping Mourier’s name. One or two puzzled souls do confess that they’ve never heard of the author of Murmurs in the Cabaret: Finding Language through Noise (1951). Everybody else, however, is plainly goofing.

I stand by my account, but McLemee is right that some of the e-mails appear to be missing. I have paper copies of a few (bound into a humorous volume by a friend) that I can't find on the archives, and I clearly remember a few others (though they may be either phantoms of memory or simply direct e-mails). Perhaps the data is corrupt and lost, perhaps the thread heading changed ... who knows? McLemee was right about the point of the post, that it's "a cautionary tale about the danger of craving the au courant, even at the cost of making yourself ridiculous."

Just in case someone digs up some of the more embarrassing e-mails, though, let me offer a defense of the victims of the Mourier Hoax. I have been careful to excise names of people who were the worst offenders, having only mentioned the name of the guy who admitted he didn't know who Mourier was, since that frank admission demonstrates his intellectual virtue. I think it is important, however, to remember that the dupes were nearly all MA students, still finding their footing in theory. My guess is that many of them would not have made the same mistake if they were just a little more experienced.

So, in defense of them, let me offer up a story in which I play the fool -- the story of my first paper in graduate school.

That first semester, I took a class on Shakespeare from Arthur Marotti, a man who (as I was about to learn) doesn't suffer fools gladly, though he appears glad to make fools suffer. We had to write a short response paper on Shakespeare's sonnets. I worked very hard on the paper, wanting to make a good first impression in grad school. I don't remember much about the content of the paper, but I will take to my grave the memory of a single adjective buried in the paper: "Petrarchan."

In the first couple of classes, Marotti had referred to "Petrarchan imagery" and "Petrarch" several times, so I decided to throw in a reference to something being "Petrarchan" in the middle of the paper. It was not important to the paper, or even (really) to the sentence; it was just some filler that I thought sounded smart.

So, in the next class, Marotti went around the seminar table critiquing these papers. Some he praised, others he derided. When he got to mine, I swelled with pride, confident that he would recognize my genius, demand immediate publication of my paper in PLMA, and beg to be on my dissertation committee (hyperbole, but you get the idea of what a fool I was). Instead, he asked only one question: "Here on page two, you refer to this image as 'Petrarchan." What do you mean?"

The problem was that I had never read Petrarch. Not one word. Nothing. Nada.

So I decided to compound posturing with posturing. I tried to bluff my way out. Stupid move.

"Well, what I meant to say was that the image is reminiscent of Petrarch."
"How do you mean?"
"Er, well, if you look at the elements of Petrarch's poetry, and that of Shakespeare's poetry, you'll find they use similar imagery."
"What kind of imagery are you talking about here?"
"Um, well, I mean, see this image? It looks like something Petrarch would do!"

... and on and on. Soon, it became clear to everyone that I had no idea what I was talking about. Even the stupidest student in class that day could take comfort in knowing that he had made an honest mistake, and looked pretty good next to my transparent attempt at faking it. Finally, after about five full minutes of this, Marotti looked at my paper, looked at me, shook his head in disgust, and slammed it down on the table, moving on to the next student.

Two things came out of that incident. The first is that when I returned to the next class meeting, I knew a whole lot about Petrarch. The second is that I stopped trying to fake knowledge I didn't have. Of course, I made plenty more mistakes (and still do), but these are now honest mistakes. The lesson Arthur Marotti taught me was probably the single most important of my academic career, and I thank him for that.

So, if you go rooting through the listserv archives and find some less-than-brilliant emails by hoax victims, try to be charitable. Remember that they were still early in their education, and were just trying very hard to make a good impression. I know that I had a tendency to fake it early in my education, a tendency that I grew out of. I'm sure many of them did too.

[One more thing regarding McLemee's piece: I forgot to mention that "Henri Mensonge" was an occasional poster during the Mourier Hoax. And no, I was not Mensonge.]

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