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Josiah S. Carberry

The beauty of tradition lies in its continuity. Although we may forget its origin, we celebrate it without even thinking because tradition is one of the few things that, when followed mindlessly, is still accepted without disdain. Unlike customs and rituals, tradition does not contain implications of regression or narrow-mindedness. Rather, it forges a bond among those who participate in it—a point of common understanding and belief. Brown certainly does not lack in its long list of traditions and Josiah S. Carberry is one of them. We get the jokes and continued references, but what is fascinating is to take a step back and realize exactly how much Mr. Carberry has infiltrated our Brown experience. Indeed, it is safe to say that Brown would not be the place it is today without him.
Or perhaps that is not accurate enough. Let me make the introductions.

Josiah S. Carberry is one of Brown’s most famous and renowned former faculty members. He taught and was a specialist in the field of psychoceramics, which, for those of you rather unrefined students, is the study of cracked pots. He also never existed. Carberry was, in essence, created by John W. Spaeth in 1929 when Spaeth posted a notice for a lecture on “Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology.” The lecture was to be given by Mr. Carberry. Needless to say, the lecture never took place. However, Carberry was firmly lodged as one of the greats in Brown’s legendary history.

As with every historical heavyweight, Mr. Carberry is commemorated in style. Every ‘Friday the 13th’ and the 29th of February, is supposed to be “Josiah Carberry Day,” where we tradition-lovers celebrate by throwing change into cracked pots (those beloved objects which cumulated his life’s work). The money collected is contributed to a special library fund with the slogan Dulce et Decorum Est Desipere in Loco, which translates into “It is pleasant and proper to be foolish once in a while.” The fund currently contains more than $10,000, which testifies to the economic power of tradition. On a less sarcastic note, however, it also reflects the magic of belief. I think it is safe to say that we have a fairly reasonable level of logic and rationality embedded within us. And yet, they appear to slip right through the cracks (obviously, pun intended) at the mere mention of “jcarberr.” It is not just us run-of-the-mill folk who get caught up in the frenzy. Joel Feinberg, the highly acclaimed legal philosopher, is also known for having a furious feud with Carberry in the acknowledgement sections of his books; obviously, legal philosophy and psychoceramics have a lot of issues they need to resolve.

The magic of tradition should not be taken lightly; with the depth it extends, and the length it runs, it is an awe-inspiring phenomenon. A tradition is not created for mere amusement. Rather, it is created to show how far the mind will go in order to accept. The logical truth or falsity of the tradition has no bearing. Rather, it is a point of relation to us: a little bit of the crazy in life. So we create, play, act, believe, hope, ridicule and criticize; we follow. We follow down the looney-path and believe in Mr. Carberry, because where’s the fun in being so darn practical all the time? Mr. Carberry is a little bit of magic, solidified with time, that we can confidently hold on to, knowing he will never change. Perhaps that is the beauty of make-believe: if we already know it is fictional, then it can never be disproved. Your belief system can never be crushed.

 Believing in Mr. Carberry is a rather smart decision. According to Brown archives, he refused the 18th presidency of Brown (and every previous presidency), was referred to as a consultant on protocol for the Nixon Administration in 1974 and received the 1991 Ig Nobel Prize in psychoceramics, that was issued, jointly, by MIT and the Journal of Irreproducible Results. The Ig Nobel Prize is intended to celebrate and honour theimaginative. Its belief system is that it first makes people laugh, and then makes them think. Given this criterion, I think Mr. Carberry was a perfect fit. We may laugh about his prominence on campus, and feel proud of his presence during our time at Brown, but I, for one, don’t generally think about the implications this has for me. Take away Mr. Carberry, and Brown’s illustrious history suddenly pales. To have an imaginary figure impact one of the most renowned colleges in the world, I think, shows a trait of childishness, that I am proud to say Brown possesses. The ability to distance oneself from the pressures and rigors of life, and to accept this fantastic creation of the imagination, is a lesson we all need to learn. It is a blessing to know that we’re never too old to laugh; we’re never too old to believe in the abnormal. If we can’t learn to find the humour in life, we are truly lost. Out of all the lessons Brown teaches us, Mr. Josiah S. Carberry is one of the most important.
As a post-script, Mr. Carberry didn’t let the fame of academia affect his involvement on campus. He appeared in a student production of “Desire Under the Elms” as a tree. There’s magic everywhere in the world.

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