(In a small classrroom, a young professor is discussing an R.P. Blackmur essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets with a group of twelve or so students.)

TEACHER: Blackmur claims “the hues attract, draw, steal men’s eyes, but penetrate, discombobolate, amaze the souls or psyches of women.” What does he mean by that?


TEACHER: Break his sentence down. What does “discombobulate” mean?

STUDENT #1: Bored?

TEACHER: So Shakespeare’s language penetrates the souls of women by boring them? (two engineering majors giggle) How do you amaze someone by boring them?

STUDENT #2: (confidently) It’s a technical term from Switzerland. Watchmakers call the tiny gears inside a watch “bobulates” (beaming) and what a watchmaker does is he brings the bobulates together, and “com” is the Latin for “together.” So the proper technical term for this watch here (points to his wrist), or any working watch, is to say it’s “combobulated.” But over the life of a watch, it gets knocked around, and the gears get unaligned, and when that happens the watch becomes “discombobulated.”

TEACHER: Not “disbobulated”?

STUDENT #2: That’s what I said, but he told me–

TEACHER: He who?

STUDENT #2: My rabbi.


STUDENT #2: He said the Swiss wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t keep the Latin in there, because “bobulate” sounds silly enough without the Latin prefix.

TEACHER: Isn’t “dis” a Latin prefix?

STUDENT #2: I didn’t know that then.

TEACHER: So what do you think Blackmur meant?

STUDENT #2: …?

I still don’t know what Blackmur meant—nor why my rabbi conspired with The Future to punk me—but as the MLA approaches, I’m increasingly convinced that the first time I ever spoke up in class foreshadowed some ominous end to my academic career.*  So while I’m not exactly sure what end this start augurs, I take comfort in the fact that Dickens didn’t know what he’d foreshadowed for Pip when he wrote the first installment of Great Expectations.**  (Or he wouldn’t have written two endings.)


*The other lesson?  Never trust the Jews.
**Not that scholars have written much about this.  The only exception I can think of is about Buffybut that might be because I only dipped my toe in Dickensian waters.  (Work on Wharton’s serialized novels focuses on how she altered the plot or how she mimicked James, so even though I should’ve encountered something about it researching my Wharton chapter, I didn’t.)