Monday, March 24, 2014

Masquerade and Civilization

Over the course of a very busy weekend conference meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, that scholarly society had a ball.  Literally.  The Masquerade ball was the first of its kind, hosted by a small group of women from the Women's Caucus as a fundraiser for our scholarships and prizes for independent scholars and lecturers, graduate students, and those working on translations or editions. All these groups tend to be long on talent and short on cash. The event was an overwhelming financial success, thanks to the generosity of many donors, big and small, and the scrappy efforts of the organizing committee and volunteers who sold lottery tickets, masks, eye-patches, wigs, costumes, photo booth privileges, and admission tickets that evening. We should be able to fund our scholarship prizes for the next seven years. These are small amounts of money, but they make the difference between being able to go to a research library to look at documents, or to afford illustrations for your book, or not. It is an accomplishment that will have lasting, material effects in the lives of gifted scholars among us.

Financial success is, as ever, nice. But having my heart warmed, indeed, deeply moved by the energy and joy of so many brilliant minds gathered to celebrate each other and our shared interests took that evening outside the circuits of exchange, irreducible to values and equivalencies. Priceless. It was, for me, one of those rare moments of pure flow, presence, and communion with others. The collective I.Q. and knowledge in that room threatened to blow off the roof at any moment. That may sound like a mystical description of a dance party, but it's true. Ask anyone who was there. I saw (and all parties shall remain nameless) Mary Wollstonecraft, a Methodist minister from the cover of my last book, Belinda from Pope's The Rape of the Lock, and a full head-to-toe domino out on the dance floor.  I saw King Charles II with his spaniel shaking it to Rihanna and the Jackson 5 (this alone qualifies as a Christmas miracle). I saw handsome men in crushed velvet suits, in bright silk topcoats with lace, masked and unmasked.  I saw gorgeous women with powdered wigs rising 2 feet into the air, graceful in their watered silks, tiny-waisted, big-skirted, bolsters brushing on the dance floor as these visions, brilliant inside and out, laughed together. I saw graduate students, senior scholars, junior scholars, with their eyes all aglow because we took this leap together, bringing fantastic period clothes and other costumes along with our usual staid professional duds, packing lace and furbelows beneath the copies of our lectures and flattened by our laptops, and setting aside one night to enjoy the fact that we love the things we study and the privilege of studying them together.

Usually, BeyoncĂ© isn't a part of that conversation, but that night, she was. The music, provided by a team of fantastic volunteer DJs (hey, this was a fundraiser on a shoestring budget--we even strong-armed the hotel into giving us the dance floor for free), moved from Telemann, Mozart, and Handel at the very beginning to Annie Lennox, Devo, Cyndi Lauper, then Pitbull, Scissor Sisters, and beyond. When those of us who organized the event were first making our plans, we wondered if anyone would come, and then, if they would dance, dress up, or participate at all. Let's just say that after a point, if you wanted space on that dance floor, you had to be pretty determined.  Hands went up in the air both because DJ Lauren was spinning Macklemore and Lewis and because, well, we could squeeze in more people that way. When we tried to make Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" a last song, it turned into a gigantic, throat-ripping sing-along performed by the best minds of my generation. But unlike Ginsburg's, they were refusing to be destroyed by the madness of our times: the attacks on higher education that describe the humanities as elitist or partisan and undercut our ability to educate the rising generations; the shrinking budgets that outsource the professoriate, tenure's quiet vanishing act; the difficulty of teaching our students to read the great novels, poems, plays, and essays of the past that will make them better critical thinkers, especially when they write about them with clarity and grace.

You could look at this night and say "sounds like a bunch of geeky academics having the prom they missed in high school." Go ahead; we made the same joke ourselves. But hear this as well: we were (and are) gorgeous, graceful, and fierce in the cause of a joy that comes from the life of the mind lived for the love of teaching and learning. And our feet hurt. But we'd do it all again in a heartbeat.


  1. What, no Prussian Hussars from the Napoleonic period?

  2. Beautifully described Misty. What a fantastic night!

  3. Tearfully writing to thank you for such a perfect-ly eloquent description of the most amazing night...and sights! Academia at its most collegial!!!