A Writer’s narrow escape.
BY the time I got to Sydney University to start my arts degree I was so sick and tired of essays, studying, research, and examinations, that I pretty-much floated my way through the whole year.
I was thrust into large, anonymous lecture halls, where everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes, was cooler, better connected, more studious, more artful and more alive than I was.
So I spent a lot of my time skulking around, mainly in the Fisher Library, reading titles that were not on my reading lists (actors’ biographies, mainly) and going to the movies in the city during the afternoon.
My results reflected this malaise, but even then I didn’t care. Years of academic competition at school had rendered any desire for tertiary achievement completely impotent.
I lived on campus in an all-male college, which was a total shock to the system. Escaping the ritual humiliation inflicted on new students was not actually very difficult – the older students doing the shaming really only wanted willing participants in their ridiculous ceremonies anyway. I would hide out in the cafeteria of the neighbouring hospital.
In terms of essay writing, I learnt very quickly how emotion and opinion were to be stripped-away. This made academic sense but put my enjoyment levels into the negative. I recall using the term ‘pure art’ in a Fine Arts paper, only to have it red-penned with great question marks. I couldn’t see why, if all the professors and tutors were having so much fun, that the words on the page had to be so damned boring.
In Ancient History I excelled, but only by default. Our chaplain had been the Ancient History teacher at school, so we had studied minimal Greece and even less Rome, but instead we’d gone through the history of ancient Israel in enormous detail.
The Old Testament of The Bible had come alive in those classes, not in an overtly religious sense, but as documentary evidence of societies long gone. This working knowledge of texts that have become so influential to modern thinking would prove invaluable in years to come, particularly as I joined one of the groups sidelined by the Levitical laws.
So it was a case of laziness when I selected an essay topic right in my field of knowledge – to examine another scholar’s views on the prophet Elijah. I can recall neither the scholar nor his views, but I brought the prophet himself as alive as I could, using neither emotion nor opinion. The trick was quoting far and wide, from dialogues full of religious fervour and belief, to soundly trounce my academic colleague for his lack of imagination.
In hindsight, the effectiveness of my argument was undoubtedly the way I suggested that in ancient Israel, blind faith conquered rational thought each and every time. I probably also felt that in three thousand years, not much had changed.
Prophets were always more three-dimensional than other biblical figures. They were cantankerous, usually because they worked hard at day jobs and resented the holy spirit taking them away from the basics of regular life. And they were funny – some of the only classic humour in the old testament appears in Elijah’s challenge to the high priests of Ba’al, when he heckles them into throwing more sacrifices onto their altars, shouting ‘Where is your God? Where is your God?’
Juxtaposition is everything, even in academic writing it seemed. For my word tricks, I got a high distinction, and an invitation to my Professor’s office one afternoon.
The thought that I’d been caught-out as a complete fraud did occur to me, but as I sat down in this man’s office, after he’d cleared a chair for me from underneath the layers of dusty papers and books, and looked at me through his thick glasses, blinking in the half-light, he said: “And what are you going to do with this high distinction?”, before blinking again and expecting me to speak.
Nothing crossed my mind, except what a strange question it was. “Do better next time…?” I muttered.
“No!” the Professor boomed, banging his hand Elijah-like onto the desk.
“You’re going to do honours, and I shall help you. First, we are going to publish this paper of yours.”
Being published sounded like fun, and in due course, my fervour-filled evocation of the prophet took its place in the front of that year’s edition of Edubba, the Ancient History and Classics Department’s undergraduate journal.
Becoming an acolyte of this professor did not sound like any fun at all. Any chance of his fervent prophecy about me coming to pass was all the fuel I needed to get out of university by applying to drama school.
I completed my final exams, including one in which I answered questions about Roman writers whom I had read not one word of. I passed, miraculously, and waited for my escape plan to come to fruition.
That one essay is all I have left of my sole university year – I don’t have a copy, but it will be there in the Fisher Library somewhere, testament to my ability in writing to a prescribed, academic formula, but with a fine flame of life burning within.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.