Servetus colligens

Plus points for you if you know the multiple meanings of colligo, colligere (also conligo, conligere), many of which apply in this situation.

By this time of the summer I am usually in Germany, ensconced in my favorite library. By usually I mean every summer for the last thirteen years — a little less than the last third of my life. Oddly, I don’t miss it so much as I thought I might, as I think of the current dollar to euro exchange rate, and then the hassle of getting there and the travails of flying economy. My friend and colleague the former Cambridge professor tried to fly to London last week and got stymied for three days not by the volcano in Iceland, but by the domestic weather and its consequences. That may happen to me, too, of course: I drive right straight through OK City and Joplin to get home, though I’ll be staying with friends along the way and hope to be worried more about the price of gas than the threat of severe weather. Joplin: every time I hear about you on the radio, I say a little prayer for you all.

My major activity now: packing and getting ready to move. Movers came May 30; apartment lease up today, though I’ll be in there for a few more days, sleeping on the floor; cleaners come next week. I can have my office a little while longer (and will probably need it) but it’s to my huge financial advantage to get out of here soon, as I can live much more cheaply with my parents. I’ve got a grad student to superintend the last pieces, so if I am not completely done I don’t have to hang around. And my mother really needs me to get home soon, if I understand her hints, as she needs someone to spend more time with my father and someone assertive to speak to the doctors. He seems to be fishing rather intensively. In idle moments I wonder if he and I could actually learn to talk to each other, but then I remember that fishing is a mostly silent activity and that’s often one reason men like it so much. He’ll teach me how to put his boat in, and I’ll learn how to be silent. Seems preposterous, actually, that I could learn to be such a different person.

“Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” from Paul Simon’s new album, So Beautiful or So What, which is getting great reviews. Despite the unseasonality of the song, I like its practicality. We’re getting ready for something big, but daily life is what it is. We’ll all get there, somehow, in the end.

That’s the current Servetus plan: June in Wisconsin with the intention of a relocation there for the foreseeable future. There are a few complicating factors — the need for a job and health insurance, for instance, and my lack of training for a lot of the things that would get me that kind of job — I’ve never taken a single university course on pedagogy or child development, for instance, so can’t teach school — and the ongoing question of what I should do next — if I am going to retrain, I probably should do it in Texas, the state of which I am resident, because of the huge tuition break I would get — and then there’s the “can I really accept an identity as a non-academic?” problem and the “what does G-d want for me?” problem and and and and and … but in any case, I’m moving to Wisconsin. Now. Yesterday, really. So I gotta pack.

John Porter (Richard Armitage) packs for his mission to Harare in Strike Back 1.3. My cap. Porter knows how to pack and live light, but still there are some things that are precious to him, like the picture on the wall.

I pack a lot. I’m particularly adept at the different modalities of the transcontinental move. Pursuing my career has demanded constant moves, to cheaper apartments, for education, for research, for a new job, for a better job, for a research leave, and so on. And while other people sometimes said, “no, I can’t leave my family, no, I’m not prepared to do that,” I always made them. I have not lived at a single physical address for more than eighteen months since May, 1991. It’s a long time to spend, moving every year. You’d think this kind of thing would make me into a better mover, but it hasn’t really done that. Instead, it’s sort of burnt me out on commitment to any one place. Why settle in if you know you’ll just have to pack up your stuff in nine months? Why bother to have anything that’s wrong altered, if you’ll be gone soon anyway? One reason I’ve spent so much time in my office, I fear, is that it was a refuge that felt more constant than my own “home,” a place where I could have things the way I liked them.

That should have told me something. Over almost two decades, I have systematically destroyed my capacity to make a comfortable home for myself. In my latest apartment I never cooked, never invited anyone over, unpacked very little. Things accumulated — books, papers, clothes — where they fell. Every now and then I collected an armful of books and sold or gave them away, or picked up clutter or trash that had accumulated and threw it away. The movers set up my bed in the living room and I left it there. I scheduled a moveout clean, but told the cleaner she doesn’t have to do the oven. I’ve never put a thing in it, or on the stove. The microwave sat for the entire period of the lease on the counter, untouched since I cleaned it out for a move to Germany in 2006.

John Standring (Richard Armitage) moves into Sparkhouse Farm after marrying Carol (Sarah Smart), in Sparkhouse, episode 3. This is the kind of move I’d like to do some time, i.e., without packing too carefully.

Now, the one aspect of moving to look forward to is “the great purge,” as a friend calls it — the scads of things that you look at and discard, the feeling of knowing that at the end of a move you will have fewer things than before. I didn’t quite manage that with my apartment this time, but I estimate that I have something like two-thirds less stuff by volume than I had when I finished grad school. I had a lot of rickety stuff accumulated from relatives or friends, and as it fell apart, I just didn’t replace it. But the real challenge stems from my office, and there, more specifically, from the books. In ways I can’t describe exactly, books are important constituting factors of my identity, much more so than clothes or any other object I interact with regularly. If that hadn’t been entirely clear to me, it would have become so in the fall of 2008. When things started getting really bad here, I started to have regular dreams — every three weeks or so — about burning down my office, interspersed with dreams about hurling the books at my favorite library down flights of stairs in order to ruin their historic bindings. I read these as “I want to trash my professor self and start over” messages from my subconscious. And yet, I hang onto books especially in defiance of logic, even though I know I have to get rid of them.

With this move I’m really trying to get rid of a lot of stuff and I’ve been learning about minimalism. It’s so attractive — the idea, for instance, that one could have only one key. Anyone who owns a lot of books can’t really be a minimalist — not least because of the bookshelf problem — but I’m trying. The key is apparently not to think about what you can afford to throw away, but rather to conceptualize the space that you’re moving to. You think about what you want to have in that space and eliminate the remainder. The problem there, of course, is that I’m not sure what space I’m moving into. My parents’ household won’t accommodate most of this stuff. Some books are going there, but the majority will stay here, stored with my household until the final destination of my relocation is certain.

The real question, though, is what intellectual space I’m going to inhabit and which books belong in that space. I really believed myself to be a scholar. I’ve got the kind of books that even many university libraries consider too obscure for their collections: a complete seven-volume run of the political correspondence of a territorial sovereign who figures prominently in my work, for example, of which there are fewer than a dozen copies in the entire United States. I also own a two-volume, thousand-page-plus study, written in German, of the social and political significance of every imprint and manuscript that survives from the city of Tallinn from 1505 to 1657. Or obscure references: a famous German reference that helps you compute or convert an old-style date into a modern one, and a long compendium of conversion rates for different currencies common in western Europe from 1300 to 1800. (Yes, scholars have spent entire lifetimes studying these issues.) If I continue to pursue my research, I should keep these. If not, I should donate them to the campus library here before I leave and not ship them to yet one more location. Some pieces of this distinction are clearer than the others. I’m selling books on topics that I had to know, but didn’t love studying (early Christianity, early modern apocalypticism, the Holocaust) and anything that I only kept because I thought I might have to read it with a graduate student (Judith Butler, the general crisis, Rawlsian liberalism). When I find books I’m neutral about but I know someone who would love them, I set them aside to give away. I’m keeping any book I remember being fascinated by, no matter the relevance of the topic, and I’m keeping the core items from my research field: those things will be shipped to my parents and hopefully I’ll find space for a few bookshelves there. I’d actually leave the research stuff in storage, but a wrinkle emerged a few weeks ago: a major journal in my field commissioned an essay from me. I’m thinking of it as my swan song, the proof that I left the profession on an upbeat and not in defeat. But I’ll need those books during the summer.

Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) hangs on for his life as the Sheriff threatens to push him off the roof of the castle in Robin Hood 3.6. Source:

The book sales have been liberating. I just sold my copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction, an item that the average mortal’s never heard of but which is almost certainly on the shelf of every other professor in this building. We all suffered through it in graduate school. Getting rid of it is a real sign of shedding an identity that doesn’t really fit anymore. But there are so many gray areas. I’m keeping all the books about the historical Servetus, about whom relatively little is known, but what about the studies of other anti-Trinitarian heretics? Or what about the books on topics that I knew little about, but would love to know more about, and didn’t read, but are still sitting there? Where do I hang on to what I was? Where do I let go and let myself fall back into whatever comes? It feels scary. Most of all, how do I accept what comes? Or alternatively, where do I do a bare-knuckle act to hold on to what I have, to the pieces that really are part of me?

Keep or sell or toss or cling? I’m abandoning “professor,” but I haven’t replaced it with anything except maybe “daughter.” The problem is that if you don’t know exactly who you are, you don’t know exactly what you love, and what you should keep. Or is it that if you don’t know what you love, you don’t really know who you are? I think my problems in the last few years have been rooted in the first question, deciding what to love based on who I thought I was. I need at least for awhile to ask first what I love, and then, given what I love, who I might be. But the relentlessness of this job and of the personal events that crushed me in the last five years made me forget how to love, even on a simple level, or how to feel certain kinds of elevating pleasure, and then, gradually, how to feel anything at all.

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) tells Sarah Caulfield that he hasn’t been able to feel anything at all, in Spooks 8.4. My cap.

That’s something that the experience of watching Mr. Armitage called forth in me again: the capacity to feel unreserved love. Sexual attraction is a piece of that, but it’s not the whole story: it includes appreciation of things like beauty, but also of ugliness and pain, and perhaps, most importantly for me, because it’s the piece of my personality that unites intellect and emotion, the capacity he provokes to consider, analyze, absorb the amazing detail that Armitage is so much the master of. It’s the thought that there could still be something in the world worth looking at with care that made me feel my gaze wasn’t gone, that made me think, “I can still love.” I’m still frightened of the fantasy and someone rather perceptively said to me today that no matter its charms, I’m probably not ever going to be capable of ignoring reality for very long. But my renewed perception of my own capacity to love — attentively, abstractly, physically, emotionally, aesthetically — is the reason why that for me, in the struggle between mind and heart, between reason and desire, in the fight for an identity that won’t kill me, piece by piece, for a sense of self that I can live with, the fantasy of Armitage remains so central.

~ by Servetus on June 2, 2011.

30 Responses to “Servetus colligens”

  1. Servetus,

    It’s a big thing you are undertaking–leaving a profession you’ve spent years in, leaving that familiar office and even giving up some of those books you feel you can’t part with (while I do not have such scholarly tomes, I fully understand the need to hold on to books. When Benny was in the AF, I think the movers hated us. Books are heavy.) Dealing with aging parents and the role reversal that inevitably takes place.

    It’s a lot on your plate. But I hope you find work that is satisfying and fulfilling and not soul-sucking and that physical place where you feel you can truly be at home. And that someone with whom it feels like home. That is a very, very good feeling. I know. Best wishes, my friend. You deserve it.

    There is something positively magical to me about Richard and the effect he has on so many lives. If he only knew . . . he has helped many of us through some painful and confusing and dark times. Bless his lovely, modest, wonderful soul.


    • I probably should not have neglected to mention that the region-free DVD player and the DVDs are already packed. And that I’m hoping to make some vids this summer. His creativity is just so — creative. Generative.


  2. I totally sympathise with you on the book issue. As I am in temporary accommodation at present, I haven’t bothered to unpack my books, bar those relevant to my research which now reside in my office. I am a total minimalist, except when it comes to books and music, so it is possible, with a couple of exceptions 🙂

    My sincere best wishes for your next chapter.


  3. Grotefend, what memories you awake with that book alone ;o)
    I am very glad, that you will have the possibility to take the most urgently needed books with you. And I think the article is a good sign to keep you in your loved topics.
    Do you think about making students tutorials, e.g. as eBook-instructions, small booklets or video- / audio-book references, for historical studies? You would have the voice, the ability, the knowledge, the patience and the commitment to want to help students reach their goals with more ease. So in my opinion, that would be an ideal topic for you. But please do not let me push you into something you would not want to consider.


    • I may keep Grotefend anyway because it’s such a good example of how you can do scholarship for a whole lifetime and provide something really useful that doesn’t make any headlines but is absolutely essential.

      I’ve thought a bit about textbook writing, but the real problem is the nature of the U.S. market. The topics that I specialize in are really controlled by professors. And U.S. history textbooks are highly politicized.


      • Sorry to hear that in the U.S. it is no better than here in Germany. Professors’ control is very heavy on certain subjects and also in the publishing industry and if you do not have the ‘right kind of left wing’ approach, they hide you alive. Not very pleasant. But could potentially a more main stream and light hearted approach to the subject evade the professors and target a broader readership? Just a suggestion without any basis, as I do not know anything about your subject. I just love to read your blog and see you have to tell and give so much to your readers with a deepness of thought which would deserve a broad audience.


  4. This post made me think of this quote:
    “Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.” — Eckhart Tolle

    Altho, that “change” is a bitch, isn’t it? I recommend reading “The New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle. I am not sure what is in store for you, but I do sense that it has something to do with writing and not academic either.

    BTW this was a gem…
    “but then I remember that fishing is a mostly silent activity and that’s often one reason men like it so much”


    • I think the only thing I really know at the moment is that I want to write. Badly. I pine for it every moment I have to be doing something else. I’m trying to hang on to that at the moment.

      Thanks for the kind words. It really is a puzzle to me why men would go through all that work to be together and then say nothing. Then again, I hate being talked to in museums, so maybe there are female versions of this …


  5. Wow, book have always been my big downfall too. I can’t seem to get rid of any. Family gets so frustrated when they ask what I want for my birthday, or mother’s, Christmas, ect. and I hand them a list and send them to Barnes&Nobles or some other book store. Last time we moved it took 3 boxes to pack my entire kitchen and twelve to pack my books. That was 7 years ago I would a lot more than that now. Borrow the casserole and never give it back doesn’t phase me- borrow a book and I’m on you like a bee on honey until I get it back. 🙂


    • There’s really something about books as objects — you don’t just want any copy of the book you lent back, you want YOUR copy. I totally get that.


  6. I love books too. I love giving books. I love the way a new book smells different from an old book. I love how orderly they are on the inside. They have clear beginnings, middles, and endings. You might not understand or agree with it, but a book inevitably resolves the questions and problems laid out at its starts.
    Not knowing what the future holds is scary: plain and simple. It doesn’t come wrapped up in a concise package. You can’t peek at the last page to see if everything turns out all right. You have to live it and I truly hope everything in this next chapter turns out well for you.
    I also hope you continue to write this blog. It is both entertaining and analytical. I think of it as applied fantasy. Humans have the capacity to dream and imagine for a reason. It seems hard-wired within us. I don’t think reality excludes fantasy, but that fantasy should teach us about reality. It should apply in our everyday lives and this blog does that well. (You should find a way to make applied fantasy a teachable course. I would definitely take it.)


    • Wow, Lights, what a nice metaphor — very thought-provoking — and also a great idea. A course in applied fantasy. I’m going to have to think about that a lot more.

      I do plan to continue writing, unless circumstances intervene, and I appreciate the support.


    • Very well-said. “Humans have the capacity to dream and imagine for a reason.” I agree that fantasy is always teaching us something. Some periods of life, especially the unhappy ones, seem to call for more fantasy than others. My subconscious is trying to get something though my thick, stubborn skull, and sometimes fantasy is only way to get my attention. I assume that all the characters in my fantasies, as in my dreams, are actually me. So I try to engage pretty intensely with those characters, replaying scenes over and over. Things change and develop in an interesting way sometimes. I admire Servetus for revealing her fantasies. I would be mortified to reveal mine–my fantasy self is absurdly attractive and athletic (I am neither) as well as being accomplished in areas I know nothing about.


      • I knew the thing about the people you meet in dreams being yourself, but I don’t have many dreams (that I remember), and it didn’t really occur to me about a year ago (a few months after starting to write this blog) that it must applies to fantasies as well. I do the “replaying scenes” in fantasy, too, and I have the same experience that unexpected things happen. Thinking about the fantasy characters of Armitage also being me on some level has been really productive, but also a bit frightening. If what I understand about these fantasies is true, I’ve been rather abusive in suppressing certain aspects of myself for at least the last decade. The fantasies are not always pleasurable, in short.

        It’s interesting that your fantasy self is more accomplished than you see yourself being. My fantasy self is *weird*. For one thing, she’s a lot more feminine than I am, and I also think she’s more generous, almost self-martyring. I don’t always like her.


  7. I moved too today, from my university dorm to home and tomorrow I’m moving to Tallinn, my capital for a month because of a small job there. Couldn’t help not to comment, after having the moving situation (although mine is so much smaller) in common and reading you mentioned my capital 🙂
    Take care!



    • Welcome salakonn, and thanks for the comment. Tallinn had a really lively literary life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in several languages! Good luck with your job!


  8. Did I miss the plot? You are talking about purging books and I am recommending a book?


    • I told myself that if I sold at least $1,000 of books from my office I could buy myself a Kindle — and I’m getting close. I read Tolle in German several years ago — will have to try him again.


  9. The problem is that if you don’t know exactly who you are, you don’t know exactly what you love, and what you should keep. Or is it that if you don’t know what you love, you don’t really know who you are?
    R: I can love something intensely for a long time, and that’s part of who I am. And I can stop loving at next minute for no apparent reason, and this is part of who I am too. I’m resulting from weathering, changing slowly over time under the action of rain, wind, internal pressures, and external interactions. But I am eternal, unchangeable.
    I can hide me in dark and protected a hole as a fox in the winter. But I also walk in castles lit from a fantasy world. And this’s part of who I am. I live the reality every day, sometimes gray reality, and I haven’t hopes. And this hopelessness is part of who I am. Living reality and it gives me strength. Like sunny day after a long winter. Nothing really is as difficult as I imagined, and I can move forward. And forward is part of who I am, regardless of reality. Like a nomad, one step after another. Like a drunken wobbly step after another. As a warrior, I have strong steps to an uncertain fate. And along the way, I can dance. I’m not a dancer. But dance is part of who I am. Thus as the music. All I have, people I meet, the things I love, those who hate, are part of who I am, but not what I am. My books, my house, my friends, they reflect part of who I am. But they are not what I am. Simply I am.
    Sorry, I don’t speak English, but I can speak with my heart.
    Ana Cris


    • This is really beautiful, Ana Cris. You really get the feeling of simultaneously hopeful and despairing, and the concrete level of the necessity to keep on living in spite of the challenges of doing it. Thanks for the comment.


  10. I love, love, love this post. It’s so ridiculously cathartic for me, having gone through a similar process of packing, thinking about the future. They often say that moving is one of the most stressful things — but I think it’s a stand-in for other stresses that have to do with life changes, the future, the weight of our belongings.

    I’m only a few days ahead of you re: the packing/driving situation and as I sit here, mostly unpacked, I wonder: when will I feel settled?


    • I think for me a lot of this is having to accept that I am going to feel even more unsettled even as I long for some kind of illusory settled quality.


  11. I am an academic manque. Got the PhD, then declined to go onto the job market. This was back in 1996. I had a job I liked in academic administration and am still at the same university, having returned last fall after a four-year hiatus.

    When we moved to our current home in 2006, I took stock of the stack of file folders I had that held all the notes from my doctoral dissertation and the notes from my teaching (as a graduate student). It was almost 2′ high and I recycled almost all of it. I got rid of a lot of my books, too.

    Unloading that stuff, I was saying to myself out loud, as it were, that the door was closed on an academic career. I was happy in my work and was (and still am) living in the part of the country where I’d grown up, where my parents still live, and where I wanted to be. I did not want to have the publishing monkey ever on my back and did not want to throw myself on the job market only to end up in a part of the country in which I did not want to live–and then have to worry about tenure.

    I’m happy in my work now and have few regrets, though I do occasionally feel a pang when I hear that someone I knew in grad school has just published a book, become a dean, or (fill in the blank). I love literature and I loved teaching, but I learned in graduate school that an academic career involves so many other things, many extremely unpleasant. It seemed incompatible with the life I wanted to have.

    I hope very much that you find work that makes you happy and a life that is fulfilling and satisfying. I’ve been checking in here for a few weeks and have gone back and read almost every post. It’s a pleasure to read about RA, related topics and those unrelated from a voice that is so wise and witty.



    • Thanks for the long comment, Sydney — I love the picture of tossing out two feet of files. I’m almost done with my books and moving on to files next. Which I am not anticipating with pleasure.

      I think you were right to see ahead of time that there were so many things associated with the academic life that can drown out its joys. I’m trying to figure out how to hang on to the things I like — but I think I can’t do it in an academic job. Although perhaps as an administrator? What do you like about your job in academic administration?

      Thanks for the positive words about the blog.


  12. […] Some of us know hoarders, some admit tendencies toward collecting that trouble us a little. I say, mindful of the hundreds of books I sold or purged because of the move, and how much it hurt: I could be that person. I know: moving a lot means […]


  13. […] reread quickly and then lost. Then I bought a copy of The Annotated Hobbit. Which I put into a box when I moved my books in June 2011 that doesn’t seem to have come with me here. Then I bought an e-copy while writing this post. […]


  14. […] woman left her job. With difficulty. She stored her books. She cut her hair. She applied for a few jobs, to keep up appearances, but she didn’t take […]


  15. […] I went through this before, of course, when I left Texas, and unsurprisingly, some of the themes are the same. For instance, the sale of books that have to do with historical theory. I sold a lot of them four years ago, the ones I read only because they were required, and I’m selling the remainder now, including most of those that made a big impact on me, just because I can’t imagine I will ever use them again, I don’t want to move them around anymore, and they are still worth something. Books in general are worth less now than they were four years and some things I’d have been able to sell then are now superfluous now, replaced by electronic books. I made about $2000.00 from the “great purge” last time and I might get to $1000.00 this time, if I really sell everything. Whatever won’t bring $5 in resale goes in a box outside my office for students who are interested to take away with them. But it’s astounding to me that The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and We Have Never Been Modern sell for almost the same price that I paid for them in 1991 and 2004. And so those books went on to people who live in large university communities in the Midwest, as I assume, grad students who will read them for the same reasons that I did. I sell low, even in comparison to prices for other books, merely in the interest of getting rid of things I don’t want, and it’s also comforting to think that the books will end up in the hands of impoverished graduate students who didn’t need to pay full price for once. Which reminds me that I feel a certain amount of nostalgia and sentiment just around the fact that I was always so well supplied with books. My parents always made sure that if I didn’t have book money for college or grad school from my summer jobs, that I could buy my books. Always. […]


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