That gray rag covering the morning sky stays in my mind. The traffic from the airport was backed up to China by way of Timbuktu. In the taxi, I called my aunt in Atlanta for some last-minute reassurance. But I was fooling myself. There was nothing that she could say--there was nothing that anyone could say--to quell the absurdity, the unlikelihood, actually the sheer impossibility of this interview.
Did I want to wait until noon everyday for the smog to burn off? Did I want to relocate to the City of Angels and fight my way along freeways that were far from free (more like an endless series of manacled parking lots), so that I could teach at the Barnacle School? Would Barnacle prove different from Brandywine, which I delightedly departed years ago? These questions stalled in my mind like the cars in front of us.
Hours later, at a noon interrogation, I fielded questions from twelve teachers, members of the Barnacle history department. Before they dug in, they insisted that I eat. They always insist that you eat first. When the blade falls, they congratulate themselves for having fed you first. But they never let you eat in peace. After your first bite, their questions clog your esophagus.
My baguette sandwich and turgid slaw stayed untouched. Full instead with obligation, I explained my pedigree, my great-grandmother's DNA, my philosophy of teaching, and my last three bowel movements.
To my delight, their phizzes scrunched, when I recited two years of professing at the university and my sabbatical spent as an unloosed kite east of the Rockies.
"What single book would you recommend for our seniors returning from summer vacation?" asked the petite schoolmarm with a pie-round face, dressed in a taupe riding jacket over a silk turtleneck.
Scratching my chin, I had to think about this one. Were they looking for an easy or hard answer? If I recommended a book considered to be below their seniors' intellect, then I would be marked as an easy teacher, as someone who set the bar too low. On the other hand, if I suggested a difficult text, then . . . "Then what?" I reassured myself. The Web site boasted that Barnacle was the premier independent, secondary school in southern California--at least, the most exclusive one west of downtown Los Angeles.
I let loose. "Against the Grain by J. K. Huysmans, published in 1884. It tells the story of Des Esseintes, an effete and world-weary noble who has sequestered himself in his cottage replete with rare and exotic flowers, liquors, colors, music, art, books, and artifacts," I said.
"And why would you choose this book?" the graying woman asked. Her younger colleagues began to grin.
"Because of the ingenious structure of the book. Each chapter recapitulates a part of the compendium of the decadent treasure of knowledge."
The equestrian doyenne cleared her throat and her voice became shrill. "Can you give us three examples?" she asked.
"Certainly," I chimed and then cleared my throat. "Des Esseintes despised what he called vulgar or hovel flowers like the rose, preferring the Cephalothus, with deep receptacles capable of digesting pieces of meat. He also deemed Virgil a barren pedant and plagiarist, while extolling Petronius for his perspicacity and true-to-life exposition of the trivial incidents and sensualities of Roman life, all told in vernacular Latin fermented with the argot of a string of barbarian idioms. Finally, Des Esseintes consoled himself with the Caprices of Goya and regretted the gross popularization of Rembrandt."
Ma’am Equestrian twisted her neck as if a tarantula crawled inside her turtleneck. Straightening up, she resumed, "And why is any of this important to the study of history?"
I rubbed my hands, which knew no sweat, and began, "We must remember that Huysmans was an acute chronicler of the fin-de-siecle or decadent experience. Though Huysmans was a novelist--not a historian per se, definitely not an academic historian--his aesthetic attitude was decadent. By decadent, we should understand the subordination of the whole (work) to the parts (of the work). Conversely, the subordination of the parts (of a work) to the whole (work) represents the classic or classical style. Works, here, can be literary, artistic, or historical.
“But surely, History transcends styles and genres,” interjected the teacher sporting a sandy pageboy, who clanked her multiple rings against the crude, ceramic mug.
"The decadence described by Huysmans in Against the Grain," I continued, "provides a remarkable insight into the ebb and flow of classicism and decadence not only in terms of art, but also of history itself. The classical approach to history privileges wars, treaties, royalty, and the overarching politics and economics of an epoch, whereas a decadent approach stresses the individual and heterogeneous parts of history, "history from below" or "micro-history." The latter concerns itself with the minutiae of history as well as the experiences of the marginalized, the under-privileged, the forgotten ones."
None of the twelve Barnacles said anything--even the clanking had stopped. So, I straightened up in my seat and searched the ever-growing blush of the room for clues.
"Against the Grain, when approached intelligently," I intoned, "yields both a metaphor and a lens through which to investigate the parts and whole(s) of history--the holes too. Perhaps such an investigation will afford us a fuller and richer view of the past."
The doyenne flinched, while her accomplices fidgeted. The bespectacled gentleman, who had kept his eyes on the clock behind me the entire interview, finally broke the table’s silence by proudly stating, "We're out of time."