Nathan Reflects

(Note: This was written some time in May. I stand behind my statements, though I have seen more people in the restaurant since.)

Before I begin, let me say that Ostiglia is wonderful, the food is glorious, and Professor Ossi and my colleagues have been tremendous in the work they have done and the company they have provided. I have never been good at writing beautifully about food and scenery, so the following passages will be spent asking the question “Why am I doing this?” If you back out now, I don’t blame you.

When I signed on to participate in the Greggiati project, it was not without a bit of exploratory curiosity. Since I intend on dissertating on popular music at some point in the future, I approached a month-long course on codicology and collectorship as a way of learning about another facet of my discipline. Indeed, it was sold this way to me; Professor Zanovello told me he liked to corrupt the students whose work lead them away from the archive (or something like that).

Further, it was not without a bit of apprehension. Without getting too far into unnecessary details, choosing to do one thing often comes at the expense of choosing another thing which should be done. Graduate school has made me painfully aware how little time I have to do those essential things that must be accomplished; to participate in a course which I will not be getting credit for on subject matter which is not directly related to my sub-field could be simply dismissed as “extra.” However, simple dismissals are rarely good, and I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to be in Ostiglia, where I have learned many valuable lessons.

So, with a few books I’d been meaning to read and four seasons of a TV show about heavy metal I intend to write a paper about (Metalocalypse, for those who know), I set off to Italy for the first time since 2008 in order to get some first-hand experience with something I may never do again. With Professor Burkholder’s advice that you never know where you will get good ideas for your own research in the back of my mind, I entered the project with an optimistic outlook on what I might gain from doing such work, regardless of where the gains came from.

Now into the third week, with enough experience to know that I know nothing (and that I need a great deal more experience to learn the extent of the nothing I know), I have realized that for me the Greggiati project is not really about books, nor collectorship, nor better understanding the music of the past. For me it is about the people from Ostiglia I work with on a daily basis, who on some level own these books, and how this experience in Ostiglia can teach me something about them. One of the books I have been reading this summer, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, allowed me to reflect on this. On a train ride to Mantua, I became especially interested in the following introductory passage, explaining Foucault’s desire to write a history of French penal reform:

“I would like to write the history of this prison, with all the political investments of the body that it gathers together in its closed architecture. Why? Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present.”

Though I am not writing a history, and am not suggesting the project is in any way like a prison, this passage for me shed light on why I would want to do something like this.

For me, history is ultimately a reflection of a present concern. The manuscripts we catalogue for hours every day, though they tell us about the past, also tell us about the present. What they have told me, something Professor Ossi remarked upon in a press conference held for the people of the town earlier in the month, is how the people of Ostiglia have a truly remarkable resource in their midst. There are few places in Europe where a largely-unchanged personal manuscript collection exists. It is a thing worthy of study, and the job of cataloguing it properly will take more time than can be managed by five students for one month every year.

But this problem is a fantastic one! More people need to come to Ostiglia; it cannot remain a secret. As I sit for every meal in the restaurant attached to the hotel we stay at, the emptiness of the restaurant belies the quality of the food, and the people who serve it. The hotel owner Carlo and his family have treated me like family, despite my inability to properly express my gratitude in Italian. Elisa Superbi, the librarian who runs the Greggiati archive, is not only brilliant, but caring; she sat with us through a three hour meal after the aforementioned press conference, speaking to us in a mixture of English and Italian in order to find out about our lives and our interests. Ostiglia for me has been about far more than books. It has been about people. People who have wonderful books, and wonderful food, and wonderful humanity which should be known by as many people as possible.

So, what am I doing here? I would say I am here to see how wonderful Ostiglia, its books, and its people are, and then to tell people I know about what I have seen. Each catalogue entry we make will hopefully be accompanied by a story (or three) told to friends and family about something wonderful that has happened during the project, so that the town’s reputation might benefit the town and its people. More than facts, or methods, I have learned from Ostiglia the importance of advocacy in my work. These people, these books, and this place deserve to be known. It is my sincere hope that more scholars can come here, for I believe that their work, no matter what it may turn out to be, will benefit greatly from the experiences provided by a small town with big treasures.

Me being pensive

(Taken by Christine Wisch, who thought I looked reflective in this picture. She’s not wrong.)