Ruminations on the Word “Liquefaction”
2–22–2007: I’d left a longish comment on another blog a while back. Here’s most of it:
… I wanted nothing more than to become an English professor. But my vision was nothing at all like what you describe. It was me having a huge office in one of the converted early-1900s mansions on some small, Eastern liberal arts school campus (beautiful woodwork, stained glass windows, and even a non-functional fireplace). I’d teach mid-level writing classes, contemporary fiction, and maybe even an odd modern American poetry class. I’d be well paid and have a regular sabbatical every so often. I’d also have an officemate — another professor perhaps a little older than me. He’d smoke a pipe sometimes & we’d both be novelists. We’d joke around a lot, but we’d also work our asses off, producing actual literary prose. We get together with our wives and those other professor friends of ours from the physics department and the sociology department; all of us would go out occasionally for dinners with visiting writers or philosophers, all on expense accounts. Undergrad assistants would help us with various things via a work/study program. And, the kids would be consistently literate and interested. They’d pay attention and ask tough, thoughtful questions. Every three or four years, one of them would impress us so greatly that we’d be certain he or she would go on to greatness, and we’d hear back from them years later as they’d send us their published work. After many, many years, the built-in shelves next to that non-functional fireplace would hold no more of these treasures, and we’d start to think about retirement. …
I’d like to offer a bit in the way of explanation and background for that comment. To begin, we have only to look at a few of my fellow blogger, Monstro’s, class-A students. Here’s a snippet from the post of his that drew comment, above (hope he doesn’t mind):
… One of these women, a girl from the streets who has made it into college on a scholarship based on her merit (I imagine) peers out from beneath her kerchief and hooded sweater to say, “shit, me and my friends only talk about sex and drugs.” A women in the front of the room, a friend of the kerchiefed women makes a face like this is the Def Comedy Jam or Rikki Lake. I expect her to shout out, ‘oh no you din’t,’ but she doesn’t. The kerchiefed woman shouts back, “she know what I’m talking about.” Hilarity ensues.
Anyway (and, I’ll get back to that stuff), it’s funny how a single word can transport you back in time. And, a single word can help me explain where I was coming from in my reaction to Monstro’s story. See, there’s a story in today’s science news… Engineers have developed a way to turn sand into sandstone. (And we think alchemy is a thing of the past… ) The process is designed to stop a phenomenon known as liquefaction, which apparently turns sandy soil into a gelatinous mess whenever an earthquake strikes the area. Supposedly, buildings sink down into the Earth under such circumstances, no doubt invoking all sorts of wild-ass insurance litigation.
It’s an odd word, isn’t it? Liquefaction.
The English department at the college I attended had a good-sized faculty. There were the worker bees, of course — meaning, the front line ranks, mostly M.A.s or ABD-types teaching the core English classes to the masses. (Although there weren’t more than 3,000 or so students in the whole place back then, everyone had to have at least a couple years worth of grammar and comp under their belts. Somehow, I’m not sure if “core” classes make much sense, in retrospect, as I never met a football-head business major who could write much better as a sophomore than he did as a freshman. But, I digress…)
If you actually majored in English, you got to meet some of the tenured professors in the department. Besides a decent sized group of mid-40s/early-50s Ph.D.s, there was a particular triptych of older men, each in at least his early- to mid-60s, devoted to advanced literature classes. Fixtures there for ages.
One was a rough approximation of Sean Connery — or, if not quite a physical look-alike, definitely a charismatic equivalent (a dapper man with a beard, always wore a woolen suit, smoked a pipe, and could quote more literature from memory than anyone I’ve ever known). My wife had a bit of a thing for him, as did many of the undergrad women, I’m told.
Another of this pantheon taught literature and modern poetry. He had perhaps a less analytical approach than the others, but certainly knew his material. He eventually became my advisor, and guided me through my independent study of Dickinson. Looking back, I think he was perhaps somewhat generous in his awarding me an A for my research into “The Role of the Seasons in Dickinson’s Poetry.” E.g.,
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes. …
When you’re 21 ro 22, you still think an occasional 5- or 10-page paper is a big deal, you know? A whole “thesis” sort of blows your mind. I think I spent an entire semester thinking about Dickinson, and managed to produce only 45 pages or so of double-spaced thought. Hell, this blog entry is approaching that now.
Since we’re only taking a leisurely stroll through this yellow wood, I’ll take a path less traveled and share a sort of related story. You see, after I left school, that man retired. As I said, he must’ve been past 65, anyway, when I knew him. His son (a guy I met only once or twice) had moved down to Philadelphia and lived in the same apartment building as a good friend of mine, JB. Now, this building was angled in places such that at least one window of JB’s apartment looked down into that guy’s place. JB told me that he looked down there one evening and thought he saw the guy playing flamenco-style guitar — you know, with that rather frenetic, humming-bird-like movement. However, upon further, uh, squinting, it turned out that the guy was masturbating. To this day, I can’t help but smirk whenever anyone says “flamenco.” Just thought I’d share.
So, where were we … ahh yes, the final member of this venerable triumvirate was the Shakespeare and advanced early lit guy (e.g., “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…,” etc.). Quite impressive and passionate. He’d written his dissertation on Lear (or possibly Henry IV, it escapes me), and was fluent in Middle English and probably Anglo-Saxon as well. Shakespeare was required reading for all English majors.
Anyway, while this guy would certainly get all fired up over Shakespeare, I don’t know that anything rocked his world more than the 17th century poets. Milton, Donne, Marvell, Herbert, Dryden … all those guys. So, it was quite a pleasure to take 17th Century Prose and Poetry, as taught by this man (and, besides, I think by then I’d formed quite an affinity with the 17th century writer Robert Burton). The point in all of this: Simply a memory. I think we spent 10 entire minutes on that word — liquefaction — from the Robert Herrick (1591–1674) poem, “Upon Julia’s Clothes.” Here’s the poem:
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Till, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes!
Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free;
O how that glittering taketh me!
You may not know Herrick, but you certainly know some of his words. For example, “gather ye rose-buds while ye may.” That’s our man.
Good lord, that’s one ugly poet, don’t you think? The SOB looks like my old boss, Mr. Maraschino. Oh well, had he been a handsome man, I suppose he wouldn’t have had to put so much work into wooing women through verse — and we’d be without such memorable lines.
Back to Dr. K… I think it’s safe to say that, of the numerous credit hours spent in the company of this life-long scholar — throughout Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc. — I never saw the guy get more excited about a single word. He’d hold his fist in the air and smile the smile of pure joy, looking around the room, our desks arranged in small circle. “Li-qui-FACTION!,” he’d say. “Isn’t that just marvelous?!”
All three of the professors I described were like that, more or less. So, when I’d made that comment about my early career aspirations, that’s more or less what I’d had in mind.