Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Pleasure of the Palpable

Mary Beard is a super-swot. (As a nerd, I mean this as praise.)

She's Professor of Classics at Cambridge, and Classics editor for the Times Literary Supplement. Much of her job is undoubtedly the stuff of academia: lines after line of scholarly writing; line after line of scholarly reading. Read, encircle, tick, cross, type. Coda.

It is not a cliche, it is a truism: even for someone working in archaeology, academic life is chiefly one of words on paper.

In this context it's refreshing to be reminded of the power of things; of objects, to offer something reading and debate cannot. In her recent blog, Professor Beard talks about putting on Roman jewellery while filming a series in Pompeii.
This morning we went to the Naples Archaeological Museum, to look at various things, especially some jewelry kept there. Television certainly lets you do things that you don't get away with usually in academic life, like trying on the rings and the bracelets. I'm not sure I wholly approve - but it was certainly a buzz. Who could be so cynical that they did not feel a buzz slipping on an armlet once worn by a dead Pompeian? Not me.
It's this line that gets me: 'things that you don't get away with usually in academic life'. It's not that scholars aren't allowed to play dress-up with antiquities (although this might be true). It's that many in the profession frown on this longing for tangible reminders; for the palpable presence of the past.

I'm not suggesting academia is cynical or anaesthetised. But there is an impatience with sentimentality (of this sort) - an unwillingness to recognise that some urges, including the need to touch, should not be domesticated by professional rigor. (Perhaps this occurs in all areas of expertise - one becomes hardened to the romance.)

Touch does not resurrect the past; there is no magical time machine in our touch receptors. But it brings us back to the very reality we're studying: solid, situated, embodied human beings, inhabiting a definite time and place. The Romans who wore Beard's armlet were not simple facts - they were palpable events, as we are - and with all our aches, leaks, twinges and palpitations.

This does not replace academic study - on the contrary, it complements it. For someone like Professor Beard, I suspect it is a gateway of sorts: physical presence brings with it all that one has learned on digs, and in books. It offers an experience, in which academic expertise is one rich dimension.

This, I believe, is the 'buzz': the momentary shiver of encountering one's precarious, heavy humanity in another age.


genevieve said...

This post, too, is precious. Thanks!

Gondal-girl said...

Can't take the girl out of the academic? One of my favourite things at the British museum is where you can touch all matter of items - makes history physical. Great post Damon, you always nail a feeling on the head with accuracy.

Damon Young said...

G: My pleasure. And thanks for stopping by, Genevieve.

GG: Yes, the Aquarium has this, too: picking up crabs, shark eggs, and the like - tangible interaction with stuff that doesn't have touchscreens and buttons.