From a provocative essay by Daniel Traister:

One example…may be apocryphal….It is a story about the famous art historian Millard Meiss, long before he had become “the famous art historian Millard Meiss.” Just after he had completed his doctorate and was returning to the United States from graduate school in Germany, he stopped off in Paris and the Bibliotheque nationale to see a particular illuminated manuscript. It would be in part for his studies of illuminated manuscripts that Meiss ultimately became “‘the famous art historian Millard Meiss.” But when he called for it, he was refused. This manuscript, it was explained to him, is too precious to be used; therefore, no one sees it. What, the silly, brash, and youthful American asked, are you keeping it for? Posterity, was the reply. Tell the Keeper that Posterity has just arrived, the undeterred Meiss is said to have responded; and mirabile dictu, whether because he or she thought Americans were posterity or simply because he or she had grown tired of arguing, the French keeper agreed. Both the manuscript and Meiss were placed together in the reading room.

There, while examining it, Meiss felt a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me,” came a timorous query from a graybeard behind him, “but are you, by any chance, looking at manuscript number so and so?” “Why, yes,” said Meiss. “Would you be very discommoded,” the man went on, “were I to look at it with you, over your shoulder?” “Not at all,” said Meiss. They examined it together. When they had done, the older man covered the fresh, newly-be-Ph.D.-ed Meiss with thanks, telling him what an honor it was at long last to have seen that manuscript for which he had been asking for many years, and also to have seen it in such distinguished company. “But what,” said Meiss, still after all this a naif, “can possibly have prevented you from doing so?” “Alas,” responded the stranger, “they never show this manuscript to just anyone. You,” he continued, “must be very distinguished; I am embarrassed to say that I do not recognize you.” “Who, me?” replied Meiss. “I am Millard Meiss, and who are you?” “I, alas,” came the reply, “am a mere nobody, just the professor of art history here at the Sorbonne.”

And the moral of those stories, too, of course.

Advertisements