Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

What was I saying about mortality in that last post? Eileen's comments made me think hard about academic generations, too, and today I'm marking the passing of two former colleagues, who have died within three weeks of each other, Mary Dove and Terry Collits. Writing their names together suddenly takes me back to the days when they were my colleagues and friends, in all the quotidian messiness of teaching, meetings and memos.

Mary came to the department as I entered my honours year. For her class I would spend hours in the department library looking up the etymology of every third word in Piers Plowman and learning how much I didn't know about medieval literature. She also took an extra class in Old French: I used to translate lines and lines, pages and pages of text.

Terry was already a lecturer at Melbourne when I was a student, and eventually became a compassionate and sensitive head of department, publishing Post-colonial Conrad to great acclaim in 2005.

Friends and colleagues have helped me compile an obituary for Mary, which will appear in the next issue of Parergon. I thought about posting it here, but won't, since I haven't sought permission to quote them on the blog. If anyone would like to contact me for a copy, please do so. Writing this obituary was one of the hardest things I've ever written, and I'm so grateful I had the help from people willing to share their memories and impressions.

These two colleagues — the medieval exegete and the nineteenth-century Marxist scholar — in many ways had little in common. But in my mind, and in my memory, they are held together in the same moment of my own career, when I was looking for a way of becoming an academic.

Years ago, when I visited Yale for the first time, for some reason we toured the cemetery there, and I was a little shocked and amused to see how many of the tombstones of professors were inscribed with the titles of their books. But it is an odd question, the issue of one's academic legacy. It's true, as they say, that I won't want to be remembered for the meetings I attended, or the grant applications I compiled. But I might well want to be remembered for the books I write, for they aren't just projects and exercises; they are labours of love and anxiety, ongoing dreams of the perfect synthesis of ideas, examples and structures. They are never such, of course, even though they take me so long.

I won't want to be remembered just for the books, of course, or just by people who recognise their titles. But I'll stop here, lest I seem to be writing my own epitaph.

2 comments:

elsewhere said...

Goodness! That's sad news. I remember Terry Collits with a wine cask pressed between his knees.

Anthony said...

I just noticed Terry's death notice in the Age today, before checking your blog. Sad news, I remember him as a warm and generous tutor and seminar leader, who introduced me to Raymond Williams amongst other things. Yes, the wine cask rings a bell! Many, many years later he greeted me warmly and bailed me up for conversation when we ran into each other at La Trobe, where he ended up.

I hadn't heard about Mary. I knew her as a friend of an acquaintance of mine, never a teacher, and she was always great company in the little time I spent with her.