In Search of ‘Gentle Abrasion’

tumblr_nqrp5mOhdU1torahwo1_500As I write this, I’m off to California (for a trad musician like myself, such an act cannot help but summon this song) in search of a little “gentle abrasion.”

That’s a salaciously poetic way of stating what, in plainer terms, amounts to a more humble kind of declaration. I’m headed to an academic conference — The American Literature Association conference, as it happens. The phrase “gentle abrasion,” meanwhile, is one that I picked up recently in scanning some of the annals of NDQ, and it’s an apt one where academic conferences are concerned. It captures some of the self-scrutiny and doubt that inevitably arises in connection with such professional activities, and then proceeds to assuage all that doubt by insisting upon a kind of well-meant antagonism. Which, of course, is what conferences are all about.

The phrase appears in NDQ volume 47.2 (Spring 1979), and it was crafted by editor Robert W. Lewis upon the occasion of a symposium that took place at UND that same spring. The topic of the symposium was “The State of Literary Criticism,” which was what caught my eye initially, as I wondered if 1979 had seen the dawn of post-structuralist theory’s arrival in North Dakota. But while I came for the symposium itself, I stayed for Lewis’ endearing musings on what these kinds of gatherings are even for.

Lewis leads with the observation that academic meetings provoke “mixed emotions” in him, with a significant proportion of that mix being comprised of “intellectual dread.” And as I await my connecting flight to San Francisco from the viciously air-conditioned confines of the Minneapolis airport, I cannot help but relate. But neither can I help but be charmed by Lewis’ characterization of academic conferences. He describes, for instance, the “masochistic pleasure” that he once experienced while seated next to a panel respondent at an academic conference who, in lieu of taking notes on the presenters’ papers, was engaged in carefully plotting her spring garden. Lewis comes away from this experience not with feelings of smoldering self-righteousness and futility in the face of academic charades, but with gracious understanding. “The fragmentation of understanding can be enervating,” he writes, “and a spring garden is wisdom.” He does not fault the respondent; instead, he grants her sympathy of a sort that only a colleague can.

For me, one of the strongest emotions associated with academic conference attendance is guilt. I tend to beat myself up about missed panels and missed opportunities and missed connections, or else about how much time I spent in the bar (and how much money, meanwhile). But here, too, Lewis offers a sympathetic gloss on what, in all honesty, reveals itself as a great truism of the trade. Time spent in the bar, he more or less argues, is just as important as time spent anywhere else at an academic conference.

“The pleasures of such meetings are in the fellowship … Humans meet, they touch and talk … The places where the honing of the mind gets done matter little, but the need for gentle abrasion, for holding each others’ ideas just so, at the right angle to our own, most certainly does. Perhaps this need follows the need for story and song, dance and drawing, just as they may follow food and drink, but the order is not hierarchical … it is a chronology of essence that together support life in its fullest, symbiotically.”

Such eloquently delivered advice deserves to be taken seriously. So it is with these words in mind, and with “gentle abrasion” as a guiding imperative, that I invite you to join me in the bar, either at this conference or the next.


Image credit: Reddit, The Scarecrow and Tin Man from the first stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, 1902.

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