Friday, April 29, 2005

Here's the third interview question and response:

Q3. What is it about Professor Ong's work that particularly fascinates or inspires you?

The breadth and depth of his knowledge, which was truly staggering in its scope. That and his sense of wonder. It's clear to me, from what I've seen in his files and from talking with people who knew him much better than I, that he never lost the wonder that children have. The two, I'm sure, are related to each other. It lead him to make connections between and among ideas that can seem disparate upon first glance or even third or fourth glance.

One example: As part of processing the collection, I had to flip through every single page of the 1000+ books and periodicals he had in his rooms to note any annotations, gift inscriptions, inserts, etc. Sometimes it was fascinating, but it was also quite boring. Any way, I was excited when I came across Ong's copy of J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon's edition Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I was sure he used as a textbook while at Harvard. I was looking forward to seeing what he'd written in the book. I opened it up and inserted at the title page was an old newspaper advertisement for the Green Giant brand frozen corn. The advertisement was a picture of the Green Giant holding a package of the corn and the caption read "Frozen corn-on-the-cob that tastes like fresh? Shucks, yes!" Beside the caption Ong had written "Live even though it's dead." Now as a medievalist and one who loves the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I've long known that Green Knight has his origins in the Green Man legends, and having learned about the Green Man, I'd made the connection between the Green Man and the Green Giant of Green Giant brand frozen vegetables. I'd just never thought at the same time about the Green Giant company and their "fresh frozen" vegetables and the Green Knight who doesn't die even though his head has been chopped off.

When I opened the book and saw the ad, I immediately burst out laughing, and when I read what Fr. Ong had written, I laughed even harder. Until that moment, I had never made the connection Fr. Ong had made. For me, frozen vegetables and Middle English literature just don't cross mental pathways. But they clearly did for Fr. Ong, and I think it did so because of that sense of wonder.

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