Lithograph by Thaddeus M. Fowler, 1902
by Justin E. H. Smith
An academic career has a peculiar arc to it. When one is young, and first begins travelling around to various cities for conferences, it is as if one is Axl Rose or something, on tour, in hotels, where ordinary morality does not apply. One feels larger than life, and worthy of a biography or two.
After some years of repetition, though, one comes to feel rather more like Willy Loman, on the road, hawking some cheap unnecessary wares. One notices that it was only a Days Inn all along, and not the Ritz-Carlton, and by now the greatest transgression one can muster is to leave the towels on the floor after the first day, signaling that they are ready to be washed yet again, and that one has more important things to think about than the environment.
And the cities start to repeat themselves: Cincinnati, Bloomington, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh. I never understood what Nietzsche meant by ‘eternal return’, but when I find myself waiting in exactly the same Super Shuttle queue I must have been in a year ago, and two years ago, and three years ago, standing behind the same overweight, be-Dockered dolt with a Bluetooth stuck in his damn ear, chattering away about the Steelers, or about how it’s time to sell, or about how he’s ready to take it to the next level with the company he’s partnering with in Grand Rapids, I could swear I am stuck in something very much like the metaphysical loop our German soothsayer envisioned.
And yet… There is something about coming to a new city, even an old new city, that makes me feel like saying: if only I lived here, I would not grow old; I would not be prone to fatal illness; the memories I hold dear, the memories that constitute me and give me my orientation in the world, would not constantly slip further into the irrelevant past. This is where I need to be, not that other place I just happened to end up. Pittsburgh. Not Montreal, not Paris, but Pittsburgh. I love its hills; its solid, steely monuments, the ruins of the golden age of Carnegian optimism; its Native American toponyms, especially ‘Allegheny’ and ‘Monongahela’, which themselves seem to be the very causes of the topographical features they pick out; I love that I can see my breath here, this November 1st, when I walk around and breathe. Why didn’t I figure this out before? Why didn’t I remember this from last time? And why can I already tell, in advance, just a few hours after arriving here, that in another week or so I will be having the same thoughts, mutatis mutandis, in San Diego?
I suppose I’m at least glad I’m not a traveling salesman. As Arthur Miller understood, such a life warps all too imperceptibly into death. But the world of moving sidewalks, duty free, Super Shuttle, and complimentary toiletries is a world built for traveling salesmen, and it is hard, once the youthful delusion of a larger-than-life life has faded, not to feel oneself sucked into their orbit when one is obliged to travel on their circuit: sucked into their orbit and, one might say, into the same cosmic fate.
But again, beyond the Lomanesque circuit of check-in desks and conference nametags, there are the cities themselves, the cities that always seem shining and eternal to me: the cities where everyone already was, before me, and without me, just living their lives, as I could have been. In Pittsburgh, for example.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website