I am back home after spending a few days in Toronto, where frequent flyer miles facilitated my attendance at the 33rd annual Byzantine Studies Conference. I attended 31 lectures in all--on such weighty subjects as "Barking at the Cross: A Curious Incident from the So-Called Chronicle of Zachariah of Mytilene," "Theopaschism in the Aftermath of of Chalcedon: An Early Prefiguration of Neo-Chalcedonianism," and "The Multiple-Domed Basilicas of Cyprus: Date and Significance." You get the picture, but I just love this sort of thing.
The fact that the booksellers were out in force was icing on the cake for me. At these events, the normally obscenely over-priced scholarly tomes are marked down to merely over-priced. I was excited to obtain a couple of hard to find works on St. Ephrem.
Most everyone there--besides myself--was either a professor or graduate student. I was designated as "Independent Scholar." I enjoyed myself immensely, and I briefly wondered what course my life would have taken had I pursued this career option. There's little regret, though. Academia is a fascinating place to visit, but I'm not sure I would want to live there.
A few observations, following:
- Toronto is a nice, pleasant city, just teeming with nice, pleasant people. The area around the University of Toronto, as well as some of the closer-in neighborhoods, are attractive and still retain something of an English feel to them. But much of the city--and particularly in the outlying metropolitan areas, with its horrendous traffic, box stores, malls and warehouses--could just as easily be...Houston. I found the sameness of our adjoining modern cultures to be striking. When you travel, passport in hand, to a foreign country, you expect things to be different. There's no real sense of this in Toronto. I spent a day before the conference driving through some of Ontario--or at least the part between Toronto and Buffalo. At the risk of making sweeping generalizations based on a brief exposure, I still have to say that Ontario is very much of a piece with New England, New York, etc. I'm not saying this is good or bad, just striking. In fact, the only Canadian "ey" I heard was from my new pal, Shaun the panhandler.
- On the northwest corner of the university campus, sits the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), a large, stolid 1920's structure housing treasures of Ontario's history. While the building was not exactly awe-inspiring, it fit in well with the surrounding university community. Or at least it did. In June of this year, the new addition to the museum was opened. The powers that be decided to jazz it up a bit, the result being the picture at the top of the post. It is as though a giant steel and glass meteor had crashed into the side of the museum, leaving a vicious, ugly scar on the cityscape. Museums, by their very nature, are meant to impart to future generations something of the collective consciousness of a culture. Perhaps this monstrosity will indeed speak to the chaos and confusion of our own age. Alarmingly, the architect is one of two awarded the design for the new World Trade Center. In one of the presentations, the New York Times was quoted regarding 19th-century Byzantinist painter, Benjamin Constant, who paintings were described as "an aching void where taste should be." The same can now be said for the ROM.
- One of the great highlights of the trip was meeting and visiting with Daniel Larison, a young man whose work I have admired for some time. A Ph.D. student in Byzantine history at the University of Chicago, he presented an excellent paper on monothelitism at the conference. Daniel is a brilliant thinker, whose interests are wide-ranging. I find his blog, Eunomia, a must read, as are his articles in The American Conservative and other journals. He is an astute observer of foreign policy and political philosophy. On top of all that, he is a heck of a nice guy.
- To say that academic groups can be a bit insular would be putting it mildly. But that said, I had enjoyable visits with several others at the conference, as well. I met a professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Boston and discovered we had mutual friends from Holy Trinity in Dallas. I also had an enjoyable visit with a professor who presented a paper examining a phenomenon in the year 518 when, at the festival of the dedication of the Cross in Jerusalem, some Monophysites "became possessed by demons and bark at the Cross." I asked her whether she was aware of a similar occurrence on the American frontier, at the Cane Ridge Revival, in Kentucky, 1801. (This event played a pivotal role in the birth of the American Restoration Movement churches. Although well documented, church historians have always been a bit sheepish about the "barking" associated with the revival.) She was fascinated to hear of this and eager to know more. This led into a discussion of her research into Byzantine medical issues, which led, in turn to her reference to "Pontic honey." To which, I replied, "Oh, you mean crazy honey?" This led to the retelling on my anecdote about crazy honey in the Kackar Mountains, discussed previously, here. I can't imagine having such a conversation in any other setting!
- I went to Toronto a day early, specifically so I could rent a car and drive back into the States to do a bit of genealogical investigation. One branch of my paternal line stayed settled on Cape Cod for 5 generations, before decamping to western Massachusetts in the mid 1770s. Stopping there for a generation, they pushed on to far western New York, northeastern Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. One branch moved on to Missouri, from which two families stumbled into Texas just in time for the Civil War. Anyway, I tagged a couple of cemeteries that contained the graves of my g-g-g-g-grandmother, as well as 2 of my g-g-g-grandfather's siblings, among others. I do this for the same reason some people work crosswords or do puzzles--the hunt is the thing. But I was struck by just how attractive this part of the country was: the gently rolling hills, the forests, the neat, tended farmsteads with their massive barns. I wondered just what it was in the American psyche that made our forebears leave such homes--for the lands they found were often baser, less attractive and less productive. Obviously, everyone couldn't stay, but I wonder if any of these pioneers who later found themselves on a thin hillside in Missouri, Arkansas or Texas ever had buyer's remorse.
- And finally, a Canada joke: One our way to a concert presented at St. Anne's Church, one of the Canadian professors commented on the innate indecisiveness of Canadians (and how we Americans could stand to be a tad less decisive in all things). He told of a nationwide contest held to arrive at a slogan for Canadians that would parallel the saying "as American as apple pie." The winning slogan: "As Canadian as it is possible to be, under the circumstances."