Archive for June, 2012

Notes From the Academic Trenches

According to legend, Charles Bukowski wrote his first novel in mere weeks, as he said, “out of fear.” My experiences with my doctoral dissertation have proven him right as far as I’m concerned. It is indeed fear that spurs you on, but he never mentioned the despair. Writing has alternatively driven me to despair and brief spells of hope. I’m used to the ups and downs by now and the fear that gnaws me at the moment is that I’m numb to them and can’t adjust to the numbness. After a night of punching in 600+ footnotes, the whole operation seems irrational and futile. The finished product is a mediocre effort at best and as I get ready to write the concluding chapter I can’t help thinking that I’ve said very little in far too many words.

Academic stuff has always been most exciting for me to read and write when the argument shakes and rattles and is about to crumble. Now, everything seems too solid and the problems are of a different nature. People tell you you have to write and argue clearly, but what they mean is that you have to write just clearly enough, otherwise you spell out truisms that put them to sleep. On the bright side, I’ve solved the problem I set out to solve.

It has not helped that my materials involve debates between critics and satirists. This has been a project where I have had to read stuff that insults me as well as the work I’m trying to do every day. But it has been fun. Too much fun, even. I can’t believe people have actually given me grants to do this. Now that unemployment looms again, I have to figure out what I can do with the degree. Probably not much, and it’s not yet even sure if the dissertation qualifies for one. But I did complete what I set out to do. The secrets that drove me to do this are now inked on the pages of the dissertation for all to see.

All in all, the university system has been a way of squeezing out the last drops of naive optimism from my system, not that there was a lot to begin with. And not that it is an entirely bad thing. I know now why H. P. Lovecraft thought everything since the eighteenth century seemed to him unreal and illusory. I know why Coleridge thought the metaphysical poets with their outrageous conceits and figurative language seemed to him much more transparent in their meaning than Alexander Pope and the Augustans. I know why we can’t mean what we say anymore. I know why the moderns love Beckett and Wittgenstein. Now the problem is to find someone who cares and the frightening thing is that I have to count myself out.