Things You Could Find On A Professor’s Office Door: Cavafy’s City

Professors put the darndest things on their office doors: I’ll-be-back-in-five-minutes notices, announcements of conferences, descriptions of new classes, suitably anonymized student grades, political posters, stickers. And then it gets wierd: vacation photos, children’s drawings, cartoons (a perennial faculty favorite in New York appears to be New Yorker cartoons), and of course, jokes culled from the ‘Net.

I’ve been looking at faculty doors for too long now: first as graduate student, then as post-doc, and now, as faculty member myself. My door in my new office in the Philosophy department is relatively pristine compared to the messy, overworked shambles of my last office door, which included everything detailed on the list above other than vacation photos. My new office door showcases two pieces of self-promotion: a flyer for my 2007 book Decoding Liberation, and a flyer for a book-release event for A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents. (Note how mention of self-promotion works as a piece of self-promotion itself; it is only the rare talent that can artfully exploit modesty for aggrandizement).

The occasional gem that turns up on an office door can make this sort of stand-outside-someone’s-office voyeurism worthwhile. For me, that moment came some fifteen years ago, when I was embroiled in coursework for my doctorate, and found myself taking classes at New York University (through the New York City Consortium; my doctorate was based at the CUNY Graduate Center). I spent most of my time at the Bobst and Courant Institute Libraries, cut off from my cohort at CUNY, and afflicted by those most common of graduate student afflictions: loneliness, boredom, disenchantment, and anxiety. Being stuck in a rut seemed like a rather mild description of my waking hours.

One rather aimless, if typical, night, I wandered through the corridors of the Courant Institute, seeking distraction and relief. By reading the billboards of office doors, of course; in the days before a full-blown ‘Net provide instantaneous escape, reading was quite a common method of procastination. On one door, I spotted the following:

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted.”

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.
Always you will arrive in this city. To another land — do not hope —
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have ruined your life here
in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1910)

I don’t think anything I’ve ever put up on my office door (yet) has been as instructive as that poem was for that graduate student that night (it was the first I had heard of Cavafy). But it is something to aspire to when I find myself standing in front of the blank canvas of my office door, seeking something that will simultaneously entertain and edify. (And occasionally self-aggrandize.)

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