Harold, a professor of religious studies, called me last Thursday to ask me about funding for one of his pet initiatives. He studies representations of cats in the pottery of the Udong Dynasty, a forgotten chapter of Ancient Chinese History. Each year, the Provost threatens to de-fund Harold’s research. But each year, someone from The New Yorker or Boston Review or something writes some kind of review of Harold’s work, bringing a measure of coverage to the humanities at our college.
Why do the humanities matter? They ask. Harold answers them in a tone that somehow relieves them. They studied literature in college, and they had serious doubts about it. These un-convinced magazine people and their online features.
Don’t worry, Harold always tells them. As long as there is art, and as long as that art has cats in it, there will be the humanities.
They are salved.
Harold lives in a small place on the southwestern edge of town. He collects ultra-high-definition digital recordings of Mahler and listens to them with mammoth noise-cancelling headphones. He has amassed a trove of gins in his bar. Except he doesn’t drink. He keeps it because he likes the bottles and the history of the distilleries. He talks about juniper and the monks that discovered some additives that produce different kinds of floral profiles. He talks about how they discovered these additives while on drug-fueled expeditions out into the vast plains that surround our city – so beautiful and peaceful, yet alive with a latent energy in the summer.
When I go to his house, I listen to his ramblings about the plains and the humanities and about gin. I think, my god, who is this man? What enables him to burrow so deeply into corners of life that matter so little to anyone? But there’s undoubtedly a pleasantness to being in his presence – a sense of calm when he says, very straightforwardly, that things you worried didn’t matter, quite simply, do.
Anyway, Harold called me and told me that the Provost was threatening to take away funding for the latest chapter in his study of felines. I knew that I would be in for a long dissertation on the enduring importance of cats. Cat videos. Listicles featuring the internet’s best cats. The truth is that the Provost will never de-fund Harold’s research, and Harold knows it. It’s not because he regards the cat nonsense with any degree of seriousness, but rather because the Provost too much enjoys keeping Harold around to talk about in whispered bemusement.
But Harold, worried as ever, whispered into the phone, “Joel this could be it. He could really take the money away this time. And the thing is, I know where the bodies are buried in this place. You know that as well as I do. They litter this campus, and I can tie all of them to him. You bet I can. All of them, if you ask me, belong right on his front porch for everyone to see.”