Have Overheads: Will Travel


Kieran Egan

As jobs go, professoring is a bit odd. One spends most of one's time trying to make sense of something, and then some of one's time trying to tell others about it. The ways to tell others include writing books or articles. Once professors have published enough to choke your average donkey, or fellow professor, they commonly find themselves invited to indulge in the other main way of telling others about their work, by giving talks. These invitations may come from almost anywhere in the galaxy. So the studious professor, who hasn't got out much because he, in this case, has been writing intensively in his study, may suddenly find himself, bemused and jet-lagged, staggering out of airplanes into the waiting arms of foreign hosts.

This book is an account of some of the travels I have undertaken, enjoyed and endured, after having achieved small academic fame in a minor branch of a not reputable field. The view of the world available to the itinerant lecturer is a bit odd, I think, and it's this odd view of places and the characters one meets in the process of talking one's ideas at people that I want to describe.

I can't avoid exposing something of the academic mind as I describe these adventures, and as it isn't altogether like that of other professions, it's perhaps as well to mention the main feature of the kind of mind that goes in for professoring here, and have done with it. You can think of an academic's mind as like a large glass booth, where the professor sits working. He, in this case still, wants you to see his calm and gently smiling figure filling the front of the booth; he is working intensively at his desk, creating knowledge that, you are to assume, is being selflessly undertaken for the general good of the world. The professor will tell you, if you are foolhardy enough to ask, that he is one of a dedicated group of scholars trying to expand the borders of knowledge. His own work is just a modest contribution to this great rational enterprise. Almost hidden behind this forefront figure, there is a dark metal-barred door. The calmly smiling professor, you notice if attentive, has a small strain about the mouth, and you might see that he has one leg stretched back, foot wedged against the door. At irregular intervals, something throws itself against the inside of the door, with muffled shouts, like a wild animal in pain. The professor's straining foot occasionally gives way, and the door is driven partially open. A spike-haired, red-eyed simulacrum of the professor tries to squeeze through the narrow space, head and shoulders appearing for moments in the glass booth. You can hardly make out his incoherent shouting, made even less clear as the other tries to drive him back, throwing himself against the door to close it. But you can make out the frenzied screaming that he alone is right! All the others are fools and knaves! He is surrounded by boundless ignorance and stupidity! The fact that he is not universally famous, he intimates in increasingly strangled tones as the door squeezes against his face, is due to plots against him by inferior minds protecting their pathetic territory of half-truths and confusion, and to the general jealousy of pathetic rivals. The door slams and the presentable part of the professor, taking his seat again at the front of the booth, smiles comfortingly out at you. Muffled banging and shouts continue behind the door however.

While I will be studiously attempting to let you see only the smiling, modest part of my mind, I regret that you may occasionally get glimpses of the spike-haired, red-eyed monster in there screaming about the world's stupidity and my unique wisdom. Put it down to an occupational hazard, and try to ignore it.

Much of what follows will be about those foreign hosts into whose arms I fall after emerging from the airplane. Their motives for inviting me are very varied, and one needs to develop some cunning in working out just what one's role as guest really is. Early on I used to naively assume that invitations to talk were due to my hosts' wish to hear what I had to say. How could I have actually believed that, I now shake my head in wonder? If that was their purpose, they could simply have read my books. They would have learned much more than I could tell them in a couple of lectures, and the books cost much less.

Perhaps forgivably, though, on those first travels with my overheads tucked into my briefcase, I did assume that my hosts actually wanted to hear what I had to say. So you would see the poor professor struggling to be entertaining and interesting, often performing heroically against the effects of jet-lag and culture shock, and the exotic local and lethal drinks hosts insist on pouring down the inside of one's neck. But quite soon I realized that something was clearly wrong with this approach. The hosts seem to become restless and a bit irritated, which drove me to try to be more entertaining, giving, I imagined, profound insights into my work and into the nature of things in general, tossing in my best jokes and most telling anecdotes. But the irritation and restlessness seemed to grow.

If I had been more alert, and had remembered that spike-haired monster in my own head, I would have realized sooner that I had been invited primarily not to talk, but to listen. It is one of those liberating insights, which carries no little relief. The visitor discovers that his job is not to strain himself entertaining and enlightening all the time, but simply to say "how very interesting" at decent intervals as they strain to entertain and enlighten him. The world's incomprehensible oversight in not ensuring invitations for the hosts to describe their research in distant places is partly compensated for by their being able to tell the small-famed visitor about it in considerable detail. The fact that you become glassy-eyed with tiredness, drink, and general disorientation in no way releases you from this more placid duty.

The small problem is that one's hosts are so eager to tell about their work that they will trudge the increasingly unraveling professor miles in the rain rather than take a taxi so they have more time to describe their research methodology. They may have to ensure he misses occasional meals, keep him from bed even though patently exhausted, while they describe their recent articles or, worse, their recently completed thesis, paragraph by paragraph. The experienced visitor develops techniques to cope with this enthusiasm without offending his hosts, some of which I will describe.

Another use for the visiting professor is as an excuse for the host to take a mini-holiday. The host takes time off to show the distinguished visitor the local places of beauty and interest. Or, at least, the places of interest to the host. At its best this can produce for the visitor a delightfully relaxed, responsibility-free, and financially almost free, tour. At its worst, one can find oneself caught up in the strange and painful enthusiasms of the host&emdash;expected to join in the karaoke in a bar of grotesquely drunken Japanese salarymen, or to swim in a northern Swedish lake because it will, undeniably, if it doesn't seize up the stunned heart, get the circulation humming, or to try the local form of warm mud wrestling with the obviously sadistic and vastly overweight lecturer whose pompous comments you had foolishly sliced up earlier, or to consume that exotic still-wriggling thing in the bowl, or, inadequately clad, to keep struggling up the slope in sub-zero temperatures for a possible view of a rare species of warbler, which doesn't usually appear this time of the year, but just in case . . .

The visitor can also be uncomfortable realizing that one's main host has promised his or her colleagues something amazing on one's behalf. It is the visitor's job to deliver the goods, even as he has a hard time working out what particular goods are expected. Occasionally one's finds that one's usual schtick seems not to be it; the vaguely disappointed faces of the audience testify. The host may take some pride in delivering the small-famed visitor, but one can also catch quick flashes of alarm cross the host's face as one clearly says the wrong thing to the wrong person. Sometimes it becomes gradually clear as the time of a visit advances that one has profoundly failed to measure up to the host's expectations&emdash;but not knowing how can be quite frustrating. Should one have inserted some Zen obscurities, French postmodernism, more seriousness, more jokes? One departs with friendly handshakes, knowing that whatever one was supposed to have delivered remains in some limbo, and one will forever be remembered in this Norwegian town, or Hong Kong institute, or Portuguese college as having been inadequate in some way that everyone was too embarrassed to tell you about.

The alternative, that is sometimes even more difficult to deal with, can result from giving much the same talks to different audiences, sometimes within days of the above distressing catastrophes. For unaccountable reasons, one's regular schtick is received as akin to the Sermon on the Mount, and one is treated with a deference and delight that might seem overdone in an order of enclosed nuns receiving a visit from the pope.

Which simile for some reason reminds me that near the end of Decline and Fall, the English novelist, Evelyn Waugh, includes a conversation between the central character, Paul Pennyfeather, and Professor Silenus. It was a conversation, I read somewhere, that Waugh had actually had with the astonishing philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. One of the problems with the world, said Silenus/Wittgenstein, was that:

'"People get ideas about a thing they call life. It sets them all wrong. I think it's poets that are responsible chiefly. Shall I tell you about life?"

"Yes, do," said Paul politely.

Wittgenstein told Waugh, at a dinner party, that he should imagine life as like a large room with tiered seats around the walls and the floor mostly taken up by a great disk of polished wood that is spinning fast. When you enter the room, you begin by watching the others who are trying to sit on the wheel and are constantly being flung off. They laugh, and you laugh, and it seems like great fun.

The closer people get to the center of the wheel, the less pressure they feel throwing them off. The only point of rest and calm is at the very center, at which one may turn serenely observing the general spectacle.

There are two kinds of people, Professor Silenus said. There are the statics, who remain in the bleachers, and the dynamics, who enjoy flinging themselves onto the disk, clinging tight to the edge, and being flung off by its centrifugal force. Some struggle towards the still center of the turning world. "People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they've got to join in the game, even if they don't enjoy it. It doesn't suit every one."

The scrambling and excitements and bumps and the effort to get to the middle attracts the players. Most of them enjoy just jumping on and clinging to the spinning edge, feeling they are there engaged in life to its fullest.

Professor Silenus concluded this lengthy image by Wittgensteinly saying that, of course, he knew no more utterly boring and futile occupation than generalizing about life. But his generalization might serve here and there to help describe some of the performers in the academic game, and particularly the dynamics in the lecture touring business.

One bumps into certain people time and again. I met one woman at a convention of teachers where we were both to give talks, and I had seen her at a larger conference a year before. I asked how many talks like this she gave in a year. She said a minimum of 50. How was that possible? She wrote books and had a husband somewhere. She spent much of her time in airplanes, she told me, and carried a neat portable office. As soon as she was settled in her seat and the plane had taken off, she pulled out her case and unfolded her office, mini-computer to the center, and began work on the current project&emdash;book or article or talk. I thought a life on the bleachers was hardly her cup of tea. She was, like many of the academic tourers, very much a dynamic, but one to whom the serene center seemed no part of her idea of fun.

I will try to represent myself, with as much insouciance as I can manage, as a calm watcher of all I survey from the bleachers. But there's no use pretending, even to myself, that the following account of academic travels doesn't involve me in trying to leap onto the spinning circle, become a player in the game, crawling a bit bemusedly towards the center of the spinning circle. I was, after all, scribbling book after heavy book, article after febrile article, during those years, and I did accept nearly every invitation to lecture that I was given. The more exotic the place, the more eagerly I accepted.

In the beginning I accepted almost entirely for the money. We had the usual mortgage, and three small children, and we had chosen that my wife would stay home with them during their school years (and is now a professor herself, travelling and talk-giving with the best.) Academic salaries during my time have slid perceptibly against most other professions and groups, except for the poor. So this mercenary interest may be at least understandable. But as time has gone by, in its usual deceptive way, I have increasingly accepted invitations to give talks just for the fun of the travel and meeting others in interesting places.

Also there is undeniable gratification in the idea that people in foreign places have read one's work and want to discuss it, and even hear more about it. Especially this is the case, if one has spent years at one's desk scribbling the stuff, and years in too-familiar classrooms urging it on reluctant and resistant students. That people are actually willing to pay one's airfare, pay for a hotel, and even give one a wad of cash as well, induces in me, at least, welling gratitude at the generosity, good judgement, and general splendidness of those who issue the invitations.

Another thing I need to clear up before we begin hitting the foreign towns and cities is something about my own work&emdash;now that I am your host as you visit my book. Not that my work will figure much in what follows, but it will have to make some brief appearances, if only to explain why I get to some particular places. My field of study is Education. In the purely rational world of the university, in which unthinking snobberies play a vast part, Education is somewhat disrespected. Sometimes, for example, I might be at a dinner party, and discuss details of medieval Persian pottery with the person to the left, and then engage with the specialist in Roman engineering across the table, and the expert on Henry Vaughan's early poetry to my right. Charmed, enlightened, and engaged, no doubt, they then ask am I "in" History/English/Medieval Persian pottery? No, Education. A shutter comes down, and the others seem affronted, as though I have deceived them. Somehow I had pretended to be knowledgeable and intelligent, but this must be some ruse, because such characteristics are incompatible with being in Education. I am in education; education is not in me. They then turn to talk with honest academics on the other side. This isn't too much of an exaggeration.

But there is a compensation. Specialists in medieval Persian pottery or Roman engineering or Henry Vaughan, even if they become hugely famous in their fields, tend to be invited to give talks only to small groups and receive the derisory fees that university departments can afford. The Educator, however, can be expected to attract large audiences of teachers, who themselves are subsidized to listen to him, and so we receive large cheques for small talks. This makes the medieval pottery expert grind her teeth in envy.

Those who work in this odd business tend to become slowly haunted by Plato's observation that anyone who puts something into words and assumes that others will understand the meaning intended is a fool. Plato's own writings are a very peculiar mix of stories, jokes, ironies, and obviously deliberate self-contradictions. The contradictions are obviously deliberate because they are obvious, and Plato was no fool. So the sensible modern professor, who wants to be invited to travel and be shown around foreign places, does not stand earnestly at the microphone and drone his little store of ideas and knowledge, but instead must delight the audience, tell jokes, be something of a performer. This is a strain on the poor academic whose training has been almost to do the opposite. And while one might become increasingly successful as a speaker, and increasingly frequently offered vast sums to talk at people, there grows the increasingly disquieting sense that Plato got it right again: No-one understands a bloody word.

Well, a bit overwrought perhaps; late night wide-awake jet-lagged thoughts induced by a question and answer session in an American college to whose students one has poured out the fruits of years of toil and study and gathered in return images of vast smooth wastes of ignorance on which no particle of one's talk could find anything to cling. But, of course, such discouraged thoughts are balanced by the insightful challenges some other students deliver the next day. Hard to get balance, as one jets around the galaxy, talking and listening, and too conscious of Plato whispering in one's ear that dialogs are usually between the deaf.

In general giving talks in exotic places is a relatively unanxious way to travel. Someone meets you at the other end, delivers you to a hotel, picks you up the next day, and all you have to do it go through the motions of talking. Not like in earlier times, which tended to be much less hospitable to the traveler. Matsuo Basho, the greatest of the Japanese haiku poets, set off across Japan on a number of travels in the 17th. Century, to meet his disciples, to give talks, no doubt, and to see new places. His expectation was to become, like the title of the account of his first great journey, "a weather-exposed skeleton." Not too much danger of that today. One is more likely to become overweight from extravagant meals pressed upon one, the lack of exercise routines, airline food.

I am far from an ideal traveler; suffering endless small anxieties. But, sitting in the airport with the briefcase carrying my overheads, ready to set out on another journey, I do feel some secret delight, like a child playing hooky from school. The journey ahead is a personal indulgence, largely carefree, not a little absurd, yet in the serious grown-up world's view I seem to be about entirely legitimate work. No one will appear to tell me that I shouldn't be going; none of those warning announcements will be for me; the officials of the airport and the customs officers all wave me through as unproblematic. What a lark. Basho set off on a journey with a companion, whom he described as "stepping into the road, ahead of all the others, as if he had a free pass to the World beyond the Gateless Gate." Having flown so frequently, I have endless travel points and gold card status, and am invited to board the plane at my leisure, so I walk along the ramp ahead of all the others, as if I had free pass to the World beyond the Gateless Gate. Won't you join me?

Return to Home Page

Return to Other Writing Page