Monday, June 18, 2007

Considerations of a Ceremony

As I mentioned all too briefly last week - and apparently with poor grammar - last Monday saw me graduate from the University of Western Ontario with an Honours BA in English. Hooray!

There were several Chestertonian elements to the thing that struck me at the time, though they were more bittersweet than reassuring. Primarily, that is, they were elements that suggested much that was possible, but nothing much that was ever really realized.

Many of you will no doubt have experienced (endured, for all I know) similar ceremonies, so all of this may come as no surprise. Knowing as I do my school's tendency towards the boring and the cheap, however, I must count myself almost (almost) delighted by the proceedings, which were somewhat different than I thought they would be.

That we - that is, my extensive class and myself - should mill about in a gym offsite while the exasperated organizers attempted to herd us into some semblance of alphabetical order was about what I expected, at the outset. Our robes generally fit well, though they were all rented, and there was something in that crowd of black-clad geeks that seemed to suggest something faintly hermetic and arcane, though it was often spoiled by the high-pitched tittering of happy women and the brawny halloos of young men catching sight of one another. UWO, you see, is no wizards' school. Above that sea of black bobbed the heads of those I had known and loved so well, and I was somewhat surprised to see that almost nobody was wearing the mortarboard to which they were entitled. I say "almost" because, perhaps characteristically, the field of bare heads was interrupted by a single black square, worn at a jaunty angle by my friend of many years, which did not surprise me in the least. He alone really looked the part as he glided around serenely, hands alternating between a steady clasp behind the back and gently making points in the air as he spoke.

Once the proper lines had more or less coalesced, the organizers - who I can only assume in retrospect were the professors emeriti, for such was what their eventual placement on stage suggested - began to don their own robes for the occasion, and this marked a moment of real pleasure for me, though one largely of amusement for the others, who are moderns and heathens and have no sense of space. The robes and caps worn by the organizers appear to have been designed to their own specifications, or at least with some greater thought in mind than "make it loose and dark." Theirs were rather colourful, in fact, and their caps were extravagant and luxurious, with all sorts of fringes and tassles and so forth in evidence. I was reminded of the garden party that concludes The Man Who Was Thursday, though I regret to say that my ignorance of the individual professors' specific reputations or professional capacities prevented me from making the sort of connections that were so obvious on that other occasion, or in the dazzling uniforms of the reconsistuted boroughs in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Thereafter we all moved out, keeping careful tabs on who was where in line so that we would not eventually get up on stage at the wrong time. Many schools are small, but UWO is not; there were hundreds of us to get through, and this was the first of two ceremonies to be held that day during a week that would see two every day. Anyway, this snaking black line obstructed traffic and caused all sorts of confusion as it made its way into the auditorium proper, where we were greeted with the traditional processional music (though not, if memory serves, the traditional processional music by Elgar). We found our seats and awaited the entrance of the rest of the professors emeriti, who were to a man and woman clad in robes so bright and curious as to put ours to shame. Old-guard Canadian journalist Rod McQueen was on hand to receive an honorary degree, and he too was dressed in a highly distinctive outfit, wrought in yellow, purple and dark violet bordering on blue (if I did not misapprehend this latter colour in the dim light).

The procession of the colourful processors was attended by a number of things that seemed again to be out of place in a school so frequently and obsessively (and needlessly) mundane; first among them were the banners. A number of these were arrayed on the stage behind the professors emeriti, but several were carried in as well in a manner reminiscent of the great battle eagle of imperial Rome, or the cross of Peter the Hermit. There was little beautiful about them, though, I'm afraid. They were done in the strange modern style that seems actually to disdain skill and quality, and were by measures childish or incomprehensible. We may at least say of them charitably that their depictions approached their intended subjects, and may even have looked at them very hard and with genuine admiration before deciding to do their own thing.

Next came the Mace, which was both as plain and as portentous as the name suggests. It was an enormous silver mace, brought forward with all due reverence, and presented in a way that suggested it was being brandished in the abstract, though both the threat and the promise of the thing were dulled wholly by the fact that few present had ever heard of the school's mace or had any idea what it was for apart from the wholesome and unacademic pursuit of breaking heads. Our schools will break idols, barriers and spirits with gleeful abandon, but anything beyond that smacks too much of objective truth.

Thereafter things progressed efficiently. One person in a hundred (charitably) leapt to his feet when the opening notes of "God Save the Queen" were played, with the rest following them upwards in baffled alarm. This sorry production was followed by the colonial anthem (that is, "O Canada"), and then a return to our sitting position. The girl beside me: "What was that song we stood up for first?" Someone in the row behind: "Why did they play 'My Country 'Tis of Thee'?"

This was followed by a number of warm, sincere, and inexorably platitudinous speeches, including that of Mr. (now Dr.) McQueen. Then the PhD students got their hoods, and received their applause. Then the MA students. Then us. All present were counselled to hold their applause until the end of each section, or we'd be there all day, but this edict was not able to prevent sporadic cheers when people of note to our tribe took the stage. I was gratified to receive some myself, but maintained my grim resolve, for this was a solemn occasion. Following the example of those who had passed before me, I knelt before the subchancellor tasked with hooding me to receive my degree. He uttered the sacred words (a secret; I will not divulge them) inititating me into the mysteries of the baccalaureate - which name sounds far more ominous and lusty than what it actually describes, regretably - and the deed was done. I walked off the stage in my stately way, pausing briefly for poorly-lit photographs before descending the steps.

That's the substance of the thing. There were elements of it, as I suggested, that approached the sort of mystic reality that one would hope to find in a ceremony of this sort, but on the whole it seemed to my monstrous soul to be a sumptuous veneer on nothing very much. It fostered in me feelings much like those that must have swum about so furiously in the hearts of The Great Reformers of centuries past as they smashed statues, shredded paintings and burned chapels to the ground; tearing the useless vanity from the essential core of the thing. I was frustrated as they were, yes, but looking around at the plainly delighted faces of my colleagues, I discovered that I was wrong, too, as they were.

Getting a BA is not the same as a coronation, or a wedding, or an excommunication, though for some I'm told it feels like all three and more; but this is no reason to insist that the experience should be drab, utilitarian or unmemorable. If we can cheer the new prince with the flash of purple and a peal of brass, we can do the same for a new (if minor) lord in the court of the academy.

But enough of all this. Next week we'll return to simpler stuff, but for now I'm talking about this. It helps take the sting off of my non-presence at Chestercon, which wrapped up yesterday, no doubt to great acclaim and gentle regret. Around the same time they would have been finishing it all off, I myself finally finished Chesterton's The Flying Inn, a novel that is remarkably straightforward but for a few incidents that are never explained and a conclusion that baffles utterly. I'll have more to say about the book eventually, but for now I'm going to bed.

No comments: