Reading Time: 6 minutes
Authors Note: This section introduces Professor Murphy. It gives his career aspirations and the motivation behind them. Alex Murphy is the narrator giving the story to a former student. When the professor narrates, he talks in the second person and in the present tense.
You are a tenured history associate professor at NYU. You have a love and hate relationship with your subject matter. You love telling the stories of history’s heroes but it makes your own life feel hollow. You’ve seen a statue of Columbus. The inscription says, “…testimonial of the values and virtues which the figure and enterprise of the great explorer has bestowed upon our people.” Why can’t you be a hero and have a nice statue of yourself in a public square somewhere? You could go for your own statue and you would be a deserving hero not a brutal conqueror like so many you’ve written about. You would make the phrase “values and virtues bestowed upon our people” to stand for something positive.
The problem with being a hero is typically you either have to kill or get killed. The only person you ever wanted to kill was your ex, so ruthless and calculating. You loved her once but she is the only person you genuinely hate. It burns you to the core that she is out there wearing your golden earrings given to her under her false pretenses. You can’t count the number of times you have fantasized about ripping them off her ears with one hand while the other hand chokes her neck beneath her gasping, redding face. Not that you care about the earrings themselves so much, it’s just the idea of it. She is out there flaunting her conquest at your expense. You want those earrings back more than anything, even the full professorship you have been fighting your whole career for.
The one silver lining out of all of this is that she has inspired an idea for a paper. You came across a line in an excerpt from an article in the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” about how trusting and open the Taino people were, the ultimate victims who swam out to greet Columbus with offers of cemi statues. In return, they were rewarded with torture and genocide. The imagery resonates with you. You feel a certain empathy towards the long-lost people. Your own cemi is the golden earrings given to your ex-wife. In return, you were rewarded with torture and humiliation. You wonder who had it worse.
The Tainos didn’t have it all bad, at least not before the Spaniards arrived. You wouldn’t mind moving to a tropical island and living near a beach with the natives. You like to camp on those rare weekends you can get away. You like DIY even though you never really have the time for it. You could live a simpler life with people who would admire you for your modern wisdom and skills. You would treat them right. You would be a god to them.
But life isn’t so simple. Their simplicity came with an awful price. If they hadn’t been so open and giving, maybe they wouldn’t have been so easy to kill. Maybe they would have given thought to defense and security. Perhaps there is a lesson for you to learn there.
They remind you of birds on remote islands nesting in the open leaving their eggs and chicks, that is to say, their gold, completely exposed on the ground for all to see, never developing any defenses other than their isolation, leaving themselves vulnerable to even small opportunistic predators like rats. A life without predators leaves one weak and defenseless. A life with unearned trust leaves one vulnerable and exposed.
A naive trust opened up the Tainos to conquest. As Columbus said in his journal, “…wishing them to look on us with friendship, I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads, which they hung around their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it.” Perhaps a little dose of reality on the motivations of men could have saved them. Perhaps a lesson on the value of things might have tipped them off. Perhaps there is a lesson for all to learn. That is your working hypothesis, anyway, for an article you have tentatively titled, “Case Study of the Tainos: What isolation in primitive societies teaches modern man about evaluating risk in modern times.” You submit an abstract and outline of the idea to the prestigious journal, “The Journal of Modern Antiquities”.
You wait. You wait some more. You figure it would be nice if they could at least let you know if they received the damn abstract. Well, maybe they didn’t receive it.
Long after you give up on the submission, you walk out to the mailbox and find a letter from the journal. Nothing good comes in the mail. You don’t have to open it. You know what it is. You bring it inside unopened and place it on the coffee table in your living room and stare at it for a while not wanting to open it. You fight the urge to know but you have to confirm the obvious. You tear the letter open and read it. No surprise. Another rejection.
A rejection letter. A formal rejection letter. It says your idea isn’t sufficiently developed for publication. It says more research needed. It says your hypothesis is not a hypothesis but at best a conjecture with no discernible null hypothesis to measure against and at worst an unprovable supposition on your part.
You feel like you are a victim again. Who judged it? What was the basis of their assertion? What are you supposed to do, go back in time to teach the Tainos how to combat failure of imagination? History is extracting meaning from the experiences of those that lived before us. History isn’t an experiment to be re-run. What do they want?
You don’t know. Fuck them. Some wizard of oz behind a curtain screwing with your career. Lately, you are feeling more Tainos than Columbus, more victim than hero. You’ve studied the heroes of the past, the men who made a difference. It’s killing you that you don’t.
You throw out the letter and walk into the bathroom. You wash the frustration from your face. You look into the mirror. You see an old person you barely recognize. You see a person whose life is passing him by.
If the old man in front of you died of a heart attack at this moment, no one would be any the wiser. If you died right now, it would be months before anyone even missed you. You have to die for something, not for nothing. Is death what it takes for your life to have meaning? Would it kill someone to give you some real recognition in the here and now? To acknowledge your hard work? Your insights?
The face in the mirror turns from yours to your father’s. What’s the point he asks? You are irrelevant. Life has no meaning. Death has no meaning. It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to leave the rat race. Let it go.
Getting beaten down is one thing but you are not giving in. You are not giving up. You will not go out that way. You are not your father. He is an embarrassment to you. You tell the old man to fuck off. You leave the miserable old man behind.
Another late night at the office buried in a stack of books and the lonely night glow of a computer monitor. You have to work harder. Tenure is the only secure thing you have. They can’t take it away from you without you completely fucking up but you want to be a full professor, not just an associate professor.
You want the challenge. You want the feeling that you are still a vibrant and creative man. You want to prove that your mind is fertile with ideas worthy of great minds. You want to prove that you are more than just a claven sitting at a bar throwing out random and irrelevant history facts.
You want the security. You want the extra money. Associate professor provides more than enough for you to get by but it still feels like you are living hand to mouth. Someday you would actually like to retire well enough off to enjoy it. You work for a living to pay the mortgage on your home and the endless stream of bills. After your divorce and the last stock market crash, you figure you are going to be stuck working until you are ninety years old.
You want the status. Your academic clock is ticking. Your life clock is ticking. You are over 50 years old. It’s not so late in the typical career to become a full professor. But there are a couple of hot-shot, younger associates breathing down your back with more publications than you. Publish or perish, that is always the mantra. With all the shit that has been going on in your life with your family, you haven’t been able to keep pace.
You could submit to the other journals, the ones desperate enough for the material to publish your work. The ones aspiring to the status of the journal. Perhaps an abstract to the “Journal of Caribbean Culture.” It would keep the NYU administration at bay. But the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” would put you in line for a full professorship and better standing in the community.
If the journal wants hard evidence, you need hard data. You plan to visit the museum in San Juan and a few archaeological sites in Puerto Rico to baseline the gulf between Spanish and pre-Columbian societies in values and technology.
Normally, you would look forward to spending time on a placid tropical island, soaking up the sunlight, finding a nice isolated beach, and observing the culture, where the culture to you mostly means rum tasting (and you have the t-shirt to prove it). You would love to take the time to snorkel with a manatee, kayak the coast, or hop on a fishing boat. You’ve worked hard for NYU for over two decades, and wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the few perks the job has to offer. But if you nail this paper, you can resubmit to the “The Journal of Modern Antiquities,” and finally lift yourself out of obscurity. You don’t have time for play. You don’t have the time for the pleasures of modern life. You book your flight on the day after the last day of finals in December for San Juan.