The Small World of Piggy*

by Stan Fondle


The Conference should have gone well. After all, it was our third, the first two having been what passes for successful in the academic world: big names giving papers everyone had heard before; graduate students slavering after those big names and slaving over ponderous papers with zippy titles they’d be grateful for us putting into print; fluorescent badges that glowed on and off the campus. One conferee evidently hasn’t taken his off for two years, thereby going into the forthcoming Guinness Book of Records for adhesion. He supplants the Wichita State University professor who wore a badge for three consecutive school terms. The W.S.U. professor had, you see, been given, by mistake, a Yale University address and designation at one MLA conference. Seeing the glances not get as high as his jowly face and receding hairline until the gazers were already lusting after him because of his alluring signifier, he knew he’d gotten hold of an identity he’d yearned for. (He gave his tag up only after his tenure was revoked for publishing hate literature, plagiarized from Paul de Man’s Belgian journalist days; on the mean streets he realized people did not discriminate between Yale University and Yale locks.)
     We had also gained a certain amount of prestige and notoriety I must immodestly confess at Decentre for Regressive Studies in the Avant-Garde, the Institute I was named to head at its inception. Waterversity of Uniloo has a “techie” reputation that, it is fair, I think, to say, Decentre is in some small way decentering. The Conference and its proceedings are our flagship statement. This was boldly advertised as a monadal conference in honour of Baron van Leibniz, the only philosopher left when our university decided to remake itself as a group of centers, centres, institutes and sympos(eur)iums.
     I had thought, at first, we might give ourselves a really unique signature, housing our delegates in individual cells and surrounding their auditorium chairs with plexiglass to make them feel properly monadal. What with budget cuts, though, the possibility of that was eliminated. (Being a monad precludes hyphenated yoking to any interest group and I couldn’t think of any isolato who might fork over big bucks to forge an alliance with long dead von Leibniz.) So each year we’ve gone with the presentation of papers in a more or less “trad” format. I’ve been the one who chooses the work; in fact, I keep a sharp eye out for art that advertises itself as a unit and had already noted Book: A Novel as our kind of lit before we got cooking on our Piggy promo.
     Bech: A Book was the monad-designate that was the subject of our first conference, in 1990. The program went smoothly, if a little dully, the only feistiness occurring in a graduate student’s rewriting of Updike with a “y,” an attempt to rout John from the hetero routines that are the staples of his books. (I mean, c’mon, how stirring is academe these days, anyway? Am I showing my age by remembering Louis Kampf fondly? Those good ol’ Sixties days in which he attempted to shanghai the MLA convention by quoting, in his presidential address, chambermaids—“I don’t understand these professors, all that drinking and no fucking”—instead of The Maids?)
     I thought Batman: The Movie might draw a more diverse crowd, give the event a little pizzazz, so it was the focus of our conference in 1991. Although there were all kinds of snappy visuals and the Dean was properly discombobulated when just about everyone showed up at the reception anonymously and homogeneously in the batmasks we provided in each delegate’s welcome kit, the papers proved to be a tad repetitive. By my count there were one hundred and twelve references to Jack Nicholson’s metonymically loony mouth; as a consequence, well, quite frankly, I’m—it’s difficult for me to say, but, godammit, I’m impotent! Wherever pleasure portals were (and I used to find them housed diversely), Jack’s mouth now lurks. I’m even scared at the dentist, thinking the drillmeister thinks metonymically, too, and only vaguely understands where he’s working.
     “Piggy: A Poem” (even if that isn’t its title, Piggy stands so imposingly in its Canardian Poetry Press edition that it deserves such generic singling out) had everything going for it as our feature attraction for 1992. It had Decentre’s momentum as well as its imprimatur; even more important, of course, was “Piggy’s” Canadian-ness and, even more specifically, its Southern Ontario setting. SSHRC immediately committed itself to going the whole hog with us. No big news, there. Also, the local community, governmental as well as private, went gaga. Oktoberfest organizers urged us to put a Piggy float in their parade and promised to print the poem on its posters. Schneider’s, the meat people, offered us a catered banquet (which we accepted) as well as a small grant to augment our budget. (Evidently, according to one source, we would have had a really substantial sum if we had adulterated Piggy to include the word “schmecks,” but the scrupulous nature of the editors prohibited them from succumbing to a little arm twisting from me. You mustn’t think me callous, though: our Decentre is gung-ho on intertextuality, so, of course, pristine “trad” critical notions about the text don’t tend to hold much sway with me.)
     With that little bit of extra funding available, we lined up five of the hottest literary theorists around. Surprisingly, all showed, even . . . , but I shouldn’t gossip scurrilously. Suffice it to say that one of our pantheon was known to double and triple book conferences. Perhaps my tearing cheques, sending half with the amount clearly visible and a cover letter with Donald Barthelme’s maxim, “Fragments are the only form I trust,” preceding my cheery “Looking forward to seeing you,” was a contributing factor in the appearance of all five.
     Our first heavy I hadn’t seen in years and so was taken aback when I saw him shuffle up to the podium to greet me at the first plenary session. The anxiety of influence had decidedly ravaged the face and mien of the one on whom the mantle of articulating contemporary critical consequences of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence had fallen. I’d known “Bud” wasn’t his real first name; it was at once too precious, too influenced, as well as, ironically enough, too macho. He now wore in his demeanour something the equivalent of “the bloom is off the rose,” though an acronym of that phrase hardly seems appropriate as a calling card. Nor does “Rose” though it feminizes putative authorship.
     “Iffy: The Anxiety of Influence in Piggy,” nonetheless, was smart stuff. Touché for “Bud” for having found that “This little piggy went to market” was included by E.D. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy as one of the 5,000 essential things a literate person needs to know. If it’s true that he went too far with his contention that Mary Buchanan was forced to confront “This little piggy’s” impact, he did have his audience on its toes! We agreed that Buchanan’s anxiety translated into contingencies and iffiness (lots of “ifs”) in Piggy. When he moved, however, into his peroration by emphasizing the importance of the Kabbalah to Piggy, of the Kabbalistic significance of “thirty-two,” the number of lines contained in Piggy, and the Old Testament-ish refusal of “thirty-three,” some of the audience balked. Churlishly, “Bud” told the unconvinced questioners, afterwards, that their resistance was a veritable map of misreading.
     I had never met, nor would I normally have thought to call our next featured speaker. It’s as if he’d constructed his image out of an Oxbridge fire sale: elbow patches on tweed, a pipe, a Brit accent (though his c.v. said he came from Kirkland Lake, Ont.) If Snorton hadn’t a demotic “Honeymooners” ring, I’m sure he’d have renamed himself to coincide with the school book version of the canon. He, in fact, had contacted me, hearing, in the phone booth of a milieu that is academe, about, as he tried wittily to call it, our Pigfest-schrift. It turns out that the man, beset by large scale evacuations from his course on prosody, wanted to make a tentative move into new historicism.
     He had a paper, he told me excitedly, that linked the trochees and spondees of his near-emeritus trade to the rhythms of the hog callers in turn-of-the-century southern Ontario. Having collected tapes of contemporary callers and listened to scratchy recordings of their ancestors, he, then, produced a computer program (see how far he’s moved onto the leading edge?) of their spacing and pacing; this he grafted onto Piggy. Not only did this unsettle Piggy’s somewhat too regular rhythms, but it also reduced the oral delivery of the poem to half a minute—a (and again here he tried to—metaphorically speaking—drop his [wool] pants) “pomo” attention span. Alas, his presentation of “Piggymetrics,” his paper, was a disaster. Graduate students, unused to the accoutrements of formality that he carried and suspicious of his curmudgeonly reputation (why hadn’t I suggested that he get a tattoo or pierce his ear?), did not let him get very far into his delivery. As soon as he cited the ABAB rhyme scheme (preparing, I knew from having read his abstract, to compare it to a hog caller’s device), a couple of our more obstreperous ABDs launched into “Dancing Queen” by the singing group ABBA. Bewildered, flustered and unaware of the allusion—no Snorton edition, laden with footnotes, gets published coterminously with “life”—he abruptly ceased his reading and stormed out of the hall.
     “Piggyback” was probably the most eagerly awaited paper. A Lacanian, whose fame, nonetheless, resulted from her having given the finger to Lacan at the infamous session in which he averred that he’d proleptically made St. Teresa come, the imposing woman presenter this time, curiously, had her trademark ponytail corkscrewed into a pigtail. In conjunction with the Schneider’s logo on her shoulder (which might have been a “pomo” quotation of Martina Navratilova’s billboard of a tennis outfit) and the largesse which prompted her to buy rounds of drinks at the conference’s cash bar, her altered image led me to believe that some under-the-table financing had been worked out. Regardless, her brand of deaconstruction [sic] was very well received. That, as well as being a noun, deacon is a verb which has the dictionary meaning, “to castrate a pig or other animal,” suited her incisive paper’s cutting purposes perfectly. Using the gender-inclusive “we” as, we were told, Mary Buchanan did is a clue to the “authoress’s” strength, her refusal to submit orthodoxly to Walter. Moreover, the paper went on to maintain, her insistence on Walter piggybacking her as a form of sexual gratification rendered him impotent.
     Such a “bare bones” synopsis of “Piggyback” does not do justice to its recondite character, to the density of argument that had swerving clinamens, petits objets, genotexts, phenotexts and more than enough “Others” to launch a Lacanian dating service. The “hunh?” uttered in the question and answer session at the paper’s conclusion was taken as a compliment by the speaker.
      “[B]oinking” was what might be called the “always already” heard paper. Piggy, after all, is about a “corker” of a “porker” and who better to explore its swine-ifications than the professor from the small school on the Prairies who, about to be fired for finding “sex” everywhere, even in World War II novels about “trenches” and “tanks,” got a doctor’s certificate claiming he had “copralalia.” He’s now legendary and his papers provoke debates about what is script and what is uncontrollable expletive. Certainly, his epigraphs were apt and poised, to wit, Grace Paley’s “Every man is his own rotisserie” and Jim Bouton’s “Shitfuck.” (Those, however, who hadn’t read Ball Four assumed—until enlightened—that the latter quotation was a gratuitous expletive.) There were lots of appropriate titters at the linkage of Piggy to the turn-of-the-century Pig Breeder’s Manual. All of it, though, seemed a little passé to me, especially since academe’s gone “pomo glam” and I’d just heard papers at another conference in which speakers rhapsodized about the “hard bard” and constructed a “hermeneutics of butt-fucking.”
     My favourite presentation was by the woman who single-handedly created The Brillat-Savarin School of Home Cooking, Noshing and Nouvelle Cuisine (formerly the Home Economics Department at the University of Toronto). Not only do she and her colleagues produce some exemplary semiotical readings of food, they run “Text-Mex,” the best cafeteria-cum-intelligentsia hangout in all of Toronto. Her paper, called “Trayf,” (or “non-kosher” for the uninitiated) offered an incisive look at anti-semitism in Grey County (and southern Ontario) at the time of the writing of Piggy.
     Speaking of food, it was left to me to deliver the final paper, this at the Banquet. With a donated Brillat-Savarin-ish suckling pig at every table, good cheer and bonhomie prevailed and promised me an audience sympathetic and supportive. Thoughtfully, I’d assembled Buchanans aplenty who’d had any contact with Breezy Brae, Walter’s and Mary’s home. Governmental and university leaders, as well as movers and shakers from the business community, were there. (P)Iggy Pop was played while dinner was served.
     My presentation, I was sure, was witty and insightful. Called “The Ost-pay Odernmay Ondition-cay in Iggy-pay,” it was delivered entirely in pig latin which I’d learned as a second language many years ago in order to fulfill a stringent Ph.D. requirement. Caught up, perhaps, in the lilting cadences of my address, I didn’t notice the audience’s strange behaviour until I was a fair way into my remarks. Only when chairs were scraped along the floor, propelled by people holding their (linen) napkins against their mouths, and when I heard the sounds that could only be emitted in a vomitorium did I realize that something was very wrong.
     For a moment I thought it was something I might have said. (I was at that moment linking Mary Buchanan’s assessment, “he’s no beauty,” with Gaston Bachelard’s—I render it in ig-pay atin-lay to give it full force— “Ood-gay aste-tay is ired-acquay ensorship-cay.”) Then someone spit out “Trichinosis” and I realized everyone at the banquet except for myself was heaving . (A vegetarian I was spared the poisonous ingestion.)
     The fever that trichinosis causes produced another upset: a dapper, trim fellow leapt up and interrupted me. He yelled in a Scottish accent that he had been Mary Buchanan’s lover and that the putrefaction then occurring was a curse on those who had appropriated her voice. He bellowed, “no one will resolve this mystery.” (Some later swore that he said “mysterium.”)
     The fiasco of a Piggy conference had repercussions. Our Dean, after being released from hospital, immediately requested my resignation from Decentre. So eager was he to force me out that he acceded to my demand for the newly created Chair in Artificial Intelligence, which I currently occupy.

* A report on the Uniloo Conference on Piggy, June, 15-16, 1992, Journal of Canardian Studs 27.4 (Winter 1992): 218-19. [back]