Thursday, December 19, 2013

Big Thirsty: Pompous Professors in Fiction

Last week's discussion of competitive colleagues included true misery, commiseration, snappy rejoinders, and insight into pride and fraudulence.

What the thread did not suggest, however, was an approach dear to the hearts of College Miserians. I refer, of course, to prolonged ridicule.

So I present to you Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology, author of that renowned and monumental work Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Flava ensues below the jump.

As a followup to Peter K's recent request for "CM-worthy quotes from world literature," here's the Thirsty:

Q: Who's your favorite pompous professor in fiction? 

[+]  [+]  [+]
PROFESSOR DR MORITZ-MARIA VON IGELFELD often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else. When one paused to think of who one might have been had the accident of birth not happened precisely as it did, then, well, one could be quite frankly appalled. . . .
Of the three professors, von Igelfeld was undoubtedly the most distinguished. He was the author of a seminal work on Romance philology, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a work of such majesty that it dwarfed all other books in the field. It was a lengthy book of almost twelve hundred pages, and was the result of years of research into the etymology and vagaries of Portuguese verbs. It had been well received--not that there had ever been the slightest doubt about that--and indeed one reviewer had simply written, 'There is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.' Von Igelfeld had taken this compliment in the spirit in which it had been intended, but there was in his view a great deal more to be said, largely by way of exposition of some of the more obscure or controversial points touched upon in the book, and for many years he continued to say it. This was mostly done at conferences, where von Igelfeld's papers on Portuguese irregular verbs were often the highlight of proceedings.


  1. That's me teaching in medical school in Young Frankenstein (1974, by Mel Brooks). The unfortunate emphasis with the scalpel did hurt.

    Runner-up is Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., in "The Paper Chase" (1973).

    After that are the academics in the flying island of Laputa in Gulliver's Travels.

    1. Nowadays, acting like Kingsfield would probably get most of us fired...or at least not tenured.

    2. I rather doubt if even tenure would allow one to act that way, nowadays. I've thought of using some of Kingsfield's lines (particularly the one about "Here's a quarter to call your Mom and tell her that you'll never be an astronomer," to a student who hadn't done the reading assignment), but the prospect of the wailing and the sniveling, both by the student and by the Dean, made me think twice. I once was yelled at by a department Chair for telling a kid to "Do your own homework," but I soon became Chair after that, so I was able to rectify THAT. (MUA-ha-HAA!!!)

  2. Casaubon from George Eliot's Middlemarch (partially because I have fears that my scholarship tends in the same direction, though I have become much better at keeping the manageability of a project in mind as I have aged/matured. One of the hidden benefits of a 4/4/2 load).

    For professors (and deans!) I actually like, see Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night.

  3. Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. and then Mustrum Ridcully in the Discworld novels. Although he's an Archchancellor and not a professor

  4. My favorite (oddly enough) is Professor Peter Kien, from Elias Canetti's novel Auto-Da-Fe' ( Die Blendung , 1935). In the best snowflake tradition I'll cut/paste from Wikipedia (entry Auto-da-Fe' ) to give you the flava:

    "The protagonist is Herr Doktor Peter Kien, a middle-aged philologist and Sinologist, uninterested in human interaction or sex, content with his monkish, highly disciplined life in his book-lined apartment in Vienna.

    ' He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock.'

    Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and shuns social and physical contacts. He is almost obsessive-compulsive in his efforts to avoid contamination, and much of the book is a comedy of his being thrown into close contact with a world that he fears, and doesn't wholly understand."

    Second favorite would be Professor Raat ("which the whole town called Unrat"), from the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat (1905). Not a professor though, but a Gymnasium (secondary school) teacher. This is the novel the Marlene Dietrich movie The Blue Angel was based on.

    Nice idea for a Thirsty!

  5. Am I allowed to add another one? Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter books.

  6. Gerald Gilley in Bernard Malamud 's A New Life.

  7. Dr. Talc in A Confederacy of Dunces.

  8. Niels Klim from The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground is quite fun (Holberg generally writes entertaining academics--he was one himself). After falling into a cave in the earth, Niels Klim finds himself orbiting a planet and has the following encounter:

    "While I was thus amused with the thoughts of being in the neighbourhood of the gods, and was congratulating myself as a new constellation . . . and hoped in a short time to be inserted in the catalogue of stars by the astronomers of the neighbouring planet, behold! an enormous winged monster hovered near me, sometimes on this side, now on that side, and by and by over my head. At first view I took it for one of the twelve heavenly signs in this new world, and accordingly hoped that, if the conjecture was right, it would be that of Virgo, since out of the whole number of the twelve signs, that alone could yield me, in my unhappy solitude, some delight and comfort. But when the figure approached nearer to me, it appeared to be a grim, huge griffin. So great was my terror that, unmindful of my starry dignity to which I was newly advanced, in that disorder of my soul I drew out my university testimonial, which I happened to have in my pocket, to signify to this terrible adversary that I had passed my academical examination, that I was a graduate student, and could plead the privilege of my university against anyone that should attack me."

  9. It's outright scandalous for me to have forgotten, but Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff in "Horsefeathers" (1932). That was back in the days in which professors still became university presidents, and said things like "You know you've got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it," and:

    Connie: Oh, Professor, you're full of whimsy.

    Professor Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I'm always that way after I eat radishes.

  10. Everyone in The Lecturer's Tale, save the narrator. A rogues gallery of perfect tropes.

  11. Also from Harry Potter, although "pompous" might not be the correct adjective, Professor Snape for just one line: "Perhaps it has escaped your attention, Mr. Potter, but life is not fair."

  12. Dean Vernon Wormer, for the phrase, "Double Secret Probation!"

  13. Not really a prof, and more incompetent than pompous, but I keep thinking of Christopher Wish, the expedition scientist in The Ascent of Rum Doodle. Averaging a large number of estimates from 30,001 to 50 thousand, allowed a conclusion that the exact height of the mountain was 40,000&1/2 feet.

  14. Not pompous, and not literature, but Sam Kinison as Professor Turguson in the movie "Back to School".

  15. Big-time soft spot for Prof. Welch from *LUCKY JIM*!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.