Ronald L. Grimes

The picture shows how the day looked. Here’s how the day began: Five minutes before the procession, I rush to a basement bathroom with explosive diarrhea.

The procession is starting. A marshal comes to rescue me as I am washing spots off my robe.

I try to orient myself. It’s 2014. This is Sweden. In a drizzle that watermarks the purple sash in front of me, we begin the procession toward the cathedral . A long line of process ants strolls with dignity, smiling for spectators who line the streets. I am pale, humiliated. Some say I look white; others, green.

Lund Cathedral, consecrated in 1145, is full. Standing room only. I am seated with colleagues from around the globe, honorary doctorates from other academic fields.

For the first hour I am a ghost, sweating and dizzy, innards growling and grumbling. Plans are whispered in my ear: If bowel pressure demands a quick exit, grab your doktor honoris causa and run out a side door. Fortunately, I have attentive, well-tuned marshals, angels providing water and paper towels, holding my arm, muttering into my ear, “Walk here; sit there.”

The ceremony, all in Latin, dates from the late 1600s. An hour into the three-and-a-half hour ritual, the angel-supplied pill starts to work. Susan too has been sick. The packed cathedral is hot, no fresh air. Will we make it? Eventually I spy her, woozy, in the “madding crowd.” For the first time I understand what that phrase means.

The ceremony requires me to climb a steep set of stairs. I barely escape having to be escorted by an angel to the left, another angel to the right. 

There, between the choir loft and altar, I receive my top hat, gold ring, and diploma.

 My promoter and I stare deeply into each other’s eyes. She circle-walks me and shakes my hand mysteriously. She’s struggled mightily to learn her Latin lines, but they flow out of her mouth as if they were her native Swedish. The gestures and words assist us honorary doctors to “cross Parnassus,” that’s what they call it, making many of us double-doctors.

Now, with my medicine-man hat on and cannons firing outside to mark the auspicious event, all I have to do is not collapse as I make my way down the long set of marble stairs.

In the midst of this solemnity, levity enters the scene. The “muses,” little girls in white dresses, are escorted into the cathedral. They perch among the flowers with bags of candy to keep them entertained. When one requires a drink, all do. When one needs to pee, all need to pee. The academics wish they could.

Doctor after doctor, the sound of cannons rocks the building, punctuating the ritual scores of times. The little maidens grimace and slap pillows to their ears.

In the evening a five-and-a-half-hour banquet follows the ceremony. A thousand people in close quarters. Candles are everywhere. Course after course after course: white wine, red wine, cognac. After dinner music. Comedy. Toast after toast after toast. Speech after speech in Swedish.

Then a speech in English. Mine. In my tux, I am a penguin, honored to have been chosen to deliver, on behalf of all the honorary docs, the formal thank-you to the university.

When I reach the podium, my bowels are more or less stable, but I am still weak as a kitten. 

On the flight to Sweden, Susan asked me what I planned to say. I said I asked the university to send me an address from a previous year, but when I read it, I knew I could not, would not, emulate it.

“My speech?” I said to Susan, “it’s humorous, sort of.”

“Sort of?” she quizzed. “Do you know anything about the Swedish sense of humor?”

“No,” I said. “As a student, I watched Ingmar Bergman movies. If there was humor in them, I missed it.”

She rolled her eyes.

Now, I steel myself, ascend the platform, and discharge my duty:

The World University Rankings site announces to all the world that Lund University considers “humor, innovation and a humanist perspective joined with critical thinking and a concern for the environment as core values.”

“I am hoping against hope that your campus was the scene of a vigorous debate about these values, and that humor won first place by popular vote. One could only take delight in being top-hatted by a university that aspires to institutional humor.

“In Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries Prof. Isak Borg is the stand-in for all us doctors. Humorless, grumpy, 78, and nearing death, he is a bacteriologist who, 50 years ago, earned his nonfictional doctor’s degree from Lund.

“He is driving cross-country to be recognized as a jubilee doctor by his alma mater. Maybe you watched the film clip that the university posts on its web site. And maybe you too begin to worry, “What if receiving such a degree means that I am a curmudgeon?” And maybe you also joke with your spouse, “I am going to be awarded a grumpy old man’s fictive degree.”

“Clearly, Prof. Isak Borg’s mother never said to him, as my mother said to me decades ago, “Son, if you don’t get a sense of humor, you will not make it in this world.”

“I am curious, dear doctors, did you try to protect yourself from grumpiness and sure death by joking about the top hat, ring, and cannon-firing? Maybe you too became a little obsessed and re-watched Wild Strawberries.

“Bergman wrote the script while ill in the very hospital where Isak Borg is supposed to have conducted research and practiced medicine.

“Victor Sjostrom, the actor who played our on-screen jubilee doctor, died not long after the film’s release, so perhaps you are now worrying a bit about your post-degree fate. But you should remember that his character, Prof. Borg, dies well, in the radiant light of grace. The ending is as comic as Bergman ever got.

“A question worth an academic debate is whether undergoing the conferment ceremony kills Doctor Borg or helps save him.

“Honorary doctorates are often contrasted with earned doctorates. When my friends asked why I am going to Lund, I quipped, “to receive an unearned doctorate.” Think about it: Getting an honorary degree is like accumulating interest in your savings account. “The honorary” is that part of your wealth that you did not produce by your own hard labor.

“Since you are empathetic doctors, you will have no trouble understanding why graduate students sometimes refer to honorary degrees as “fictional” doctorates. Don’t get me wrong. Since I deposit my paycheck in order to collect interest, and since I wrote a book called Fictive Ritual, this way of speaking may be playful but it is not a put-down.

“I am delighted, in fact, a little giddy with gratitude, like a beggar who’s just been handed a shiny coin. Since I stand here, hoping the other recipients actually consent to my speaking on their behalf, let me declare in no uncertain terms: We are deeply grateful to Lund University for ritually treating us as more worthy than we are.

“And there is more than this honor to be thankful for. There are the things displayed and seen: top hats, rings, the degrees themselves. And there are the things unseen, or at least backstage: airline tickets, rooms at the Grand Hotel, and a hundred other jots and tittles looked after by deans, secretaries, promoters, marshals, and nameless others who have labored on our behalf. Many of you have invested real, not fictional, labor to make us feel welcomed and more: esteemed. We recipients are bowled over by the generous outlay of thought, money, time, space, and labor. As far as I can tell, most other European or North American universities lavish no such attentiveness on their honorary-degree recipients.

“Standing here in a country that, from 1544 to 2000, was officially Lutheran, it occurs to me that conferring an honorary doctorate is indeed a graceful act. To put it in more or less Lutheran terms, although some of us may have accumulated long lists of publications or other accomplishments, they are the occasion but not the cause, of our becoming Unearned Doctors.

“The cause is the graciousness of a great university, staffed by hospitable people, located in a gorgeous setting, in an exemplary country.

“Our tall hats and leafy laurels make us look larger than life, but like Dr. Borg, we know that is only half the truth. Maybe we have done some good, but the end is always near. Therefore, our hats and laurels are off to you who are washing dishes, serving food, cleaning bathrooms, signing documents, decorating spaces, cleaning the floors, mowing grass, firing canons, measuring our waists, paying our bills, and with fear and trepidation, learning Latin for the ceremony.

“To all members, great and small, of the Lund University community, we lift a toast to thank you for adopting us.”

After the speech, doctors and deans come across the room to say it was the best thank-you speech they had ever heard. When I return home, administrators ask permission to use the speech as an example for future speakers.

After the speeches finish, a fellow honorary doctor strides toward me, announcing a bet with a loud whisper. He points backward. I crane around toward a table of laughing medical doctors, now also honorary doctors. The bet: Does he still have on his cowboy boots, or has he changed to proper black shoes? The doctor-bookie tells me they had entertained themselves during the conferment ceremony by admiring or joking about my boots.

Even though I work on ritual all the time, such a ceremony is unimaginable from the North American side of the Atlantic. After a day of cannon-firing, Latin, flag-carrying, bowing, table-talk, lofty speech-making, and giggling muses, all I can say is that I have never known such ceremonial depth and height in a single day.

I am happy to have played the court fool.