In Pursuit of Ancient Misery

“In Pursuit of Ancient Misery” by Ron K. Unz
Unpublished, May 1984

The office of the Great Man is set close to the catacombs, in the Great Library, and has an enormous door of solid oak. It is this door which gives the first hint of the Great Man’s character. There is no name, no title, and no sign of the many awards and honorary degrees collected by the One who dwells within; instead, the door bears the simple and elegant message “You Are Not Wanted Here,” and beneath, in larger script letters “PLEASE GO AWAY.”

The student approaches the door, and after a fearful swallow, gently raps on it twice with a single knuckle. The knocks echo within, and they seem to grow in strength, finally resolving themselves into footsteps, footsteps approaching the door. The handle shudders and the door is opened…by a little man, four feet tall, with a white goatee beard and a pair of pince-nez glasses with thick lenses. He wears a bright orange suit cut to Nineteenth Century style and bears a striking resemblance to his natural father, the famous Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

“Hello. Who are you and why are you bothering me?”

“But Herr Professor, don’t you remember me? I’m your graduate student; I’ve studied under you for ten years now.”

“Ah yes, Mr. Smithstein…but where is the thousand page summary of Roman civilization which I gave you twenty-four hours to produce? As I told you, if your assignment is late I will not read it.”

“I’m not Smithstein, Professor; he hanged himself three years ago, don’t you remember?”

“Hmm…I always wondered what childish excuse Smithstein would use to avoid completing his dissertation on time. Well, it is a small loss; he had little talent or dedication. Thank you for conveying Smithstein’s apology to me. Now please go away.”

“But esteemed Herr Professor, I’m not here to see you on behalf of poor Smithstein. I’m here to give you the suitably complete one page abridgment of my doctoral dissertation which you told me to produce.”

“Oh very well, come in whoever you are.”

The student enters the dimly lit cavern cautiously, trying without success to avoid stepping on the open books which are piled three deep on the floor. The Great Man tells the student not to sit down—he won’t be staying that long—and walks toward his throne, which is occupied by a huge stack of unopened letters and submissions. He throws these into the trashbin and seats himself. The student approaches and rests his nose on the books nearest the Great Man’s feet, supplicating himself to soften the Great Man’s terrible wrath.

“O Mighty One, as a token of my utter submission to your will and my deep dedication to the pursuit of Ancient Misery—err, History—I present you with this humble gift, forged of earth and water and much human blood, namely a suitably complete one page summary of my 865 page study Plutarchan Perspectives on the Political Policies of Peloponnesian Polises.”

The Great Man snatches the sheet away and examines it closely. He squints and frowns angrily. “What’s this?”—drawing his scepter-club, he begins to strike the head of the kneeling student repeatedly—“You idiot, you’ve wasted my time on a sheet of gibberish!”

“But Exalted One—ouch!—Esteemed Herr Professor—ouch!—you’re holding the page upside down!”

“Hmm…”—he gives the student’s head one last, satisfying blow—“…so I am. Well, let that be a lesson to you for trying to play your childish schoolboy tricks on me by typing your paper upside down.”

He lays down his scepter-club within easy reach, and begins to read: “Hmm…interesting…very good…very sensible…interesting…interesting…I’d never thought of that before…interesting…”—he finishes and looks down at the cowering student—“Just as I expected, worthless, absolutely worthless as a piece of scholarship.” He rips the sheet into four pieces, crumples them into wads, and throws them into the trashbin.

The student’s face turns white: “But…but, my Lord and Master, Exalted Herr Professor—”

“Please Go Away.”

“But…Mighty One, He whose awesome wisdom encircles the globe in an aura of radiant glory—tell me, which portion of my paper was wrong?!”

“Only one word was flawed; go away and change it.”

“O Sacred One, Ruler of the Universe, please tell me…which word?”

“No, I won’t tell you. You must find it yourself and change it. Your case is hopeless until you do. Go away and come back in…”—he consults his watch–“eighteen months and seven seconds. Unless you have found the incorrect word and changed it, do not bother to return.”

“Please O God that I worship, I implore You by Your-Name-Which-May-Not-Be-Spoken-Aloud…B*d**n (Praised Be Its Syllables)…is the incorrect word a noun or a verb, is it near the beginning or near the end, it is—”

“I have spoken. Please Go Away.”

The student prepares to continue his pleading, but the Great Man reaches for his scepter-club; this is an indication that the audience is at an end. The student slowly backs away, and at a safe distance turns and runs for the door and the safety of the world outside it. Once on the other side, protected by four inches of thick oak, he leans back against the door and uses his handkerchief to wipe away the sweat covering his face. Finally, he turns and slowly walks down the corridor, and as he does so, he begins to mouth a silent prayer: “Thank God that He was in a good mood today.”

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