Archive for the 'Vignette' Category

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.

After a Fall

“Could you take me home, mate?” I asked a curious stranger who pulled up to the bus stop. I had waved at him and he was kind enough to stop and roll down his window. I was looking for a taxi, but there was none around. The phone was dead and I couldn’t simply call one over. He said: “Sure. Where do you live?” I told him and he opened the door. He was foreigner, I could tell from his accent, and we quickly changed language — the initial question had been posed in Finnish, but we spoke English after that. He pulled out of the bus stop and asked if I was alright. I said I had fallen and hurt my foot. Was I alright?

I remembered my Cioran: “To be lyrical from suffering means to achieve that inner purification in which wounds cease to be mere outer manifestations without deep complications and begin to participate in the essence of your being.” Had I began to participate in the essence of my being? Not really, it just hurt like hell. Later, two fractures would be found. The ankle took a hit and one my bones was now in three pieces. Where was the lyricism in this painful stupor if not close to a complete mental breakdown? Not wanting to alarm my new driver, I didn’t say anything, but tried to maintain smalltalk and uphold the private notion that I was now pure. Secretive saints have it easier.

Equine Utopias

The word “utopia” entered the lexicon a long time ago and today it of course denotes an ideal frictionless social system where all are able to live in the greatest possible happiness in perfect harmony. Most people know that it is the title of Thomas More’s 1516 book and that it literally means no-place — there are many Greek puns in the text which itself, and surprisingly few people seem to know this, was written in Latin. The name usually conjures up images of a place so perfect it cannot exist in real life and yet is something we all should strive for. From this it is obvious that most people have not read More’s faux travel-narrative which, in short, is a story narrated by someone called Raphael who explains the habits and customs of the Utopians in the manner of a proto-Gulliver.

It is a horrible place to live in if you are a woman and it’s not much better if you are a man. More was a religious nut at a time when this was a particularly difficult thing to accomplish and he eventually died for his beliefs. He refused to recognize Henry VIII’s nookie-hunt-inspired innovations and lost his head for it, probably quite happily too. His ideal society reflected his rigid beliefs resulting in the book which has been called the first work of fiction in the English Renaissance. It’s also often said that More’s Utopia is some sort of proto-Communist tract, but I would think it unfair towards Marxist materialism to go along with that. The modern reader will perhaps see More’s Utopia as a place closer to an Orwellian society reinforced with Foucauldian self-disciplining mechanisms. Which is to say it’s not much fun at all. My point is, it’s very difficult to find anything nice to say about the world More created, but seek and ye shall find.

Swift was a fan of More, and More’s influence can be seen in Gulliver’s Travels. Much like with Utopia, people seem to pick and choose what parts to read and which to chop off and usually the discarded bits are the ones that do not conform to an easy reading of the work. In Gulliver the bit that is most often left out is the last voyage where Gulliver meets the Houyhnhnms, those noble horse-creatures who seem to have figured out this business with society and perfected it. They’re so fantastically noble that Gulliver is in tears when he has to leave and physically repulsed by humans when he returns to human society. Now, with that in mind, check out this bit in Utopia from the new Penguin translation:

People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, or money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury. But labourers, coachmen, carpenters, and farmhands, who never stop working like cart-horses, at jobs so essential that, if they did stop working, they’d bring any country to a standstill within twelve months — what happens to them? They get so little to eat and have such a wretched time, that they’d be almost better off if they were cart-horses. (110)

At least as horses, More writes, they’d lead much happier lives where they wouldn’t have to worry so much. It is a typical social inequality rant some bushy-bearded pinko could belt out even today for the simple fact that it is still true today. Horses are fairly dumb animals, but there is a tinge of nobility in them anyway. If only they had the good sense to act according to their potential and be the creatures Swift made of them. This line of reasoning has many avenues to explore, but I have to stop here for now because it is quite late. I will not pun about leading horses to water and letting them go about their business, but I would like to say that using the word “utopia” in its common sense becomes much more interesting after one has actually read More’s book.

Lewis Carroll

There’s something very frightening about Lewis Carroll. It is as if he had noticed the horrible misuse of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s book and wanted to write a story which would somehow smuggle in the relentless misanthropy of the last chapter of that fantastic work — the one where it’s not a matter of being delightfully big or small or among delightfully strange people but noticing the barbarity of one’s own culture and self. The censors who enjoyed chopping off that little bit had to be fooled somehow, so Carroll used wit (or some semblance of wit) and his pitch black sense of humor to do just that in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Take, for instance, his famous parody of Isaac Watts’s moralistic poem which in the original goes:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

By a little tweak of the subject and Watts’s moral perspective Carroll turns this poem on its head and creates something quite subtle, but it’s devastating nonetheless.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly he spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

The little tale of the busy bee has been turned into a description of a predator doing what predators do best. It is not the case that the moral tale of being good and industrious has been soiled by parody and made into a story of evil. The question of morality is there, but in a very different form. Crocodiles do what they do because they are crocodiles, and bees sure as hell do not get moral satisfaction from their work. Someone stuck on a factory assembly line works hard, too, but it would be strange if they sustained their faith in the meaningfulness of their work every day until the day they die. We find satisfaction in the mundane repetitiveness of work not because it is rewarding in itself but because if we didn’t we would see it devoid of its moral qualities. We make up things such as “I’m happy that the toys my company makes bring happiness to children” or that “My input on the production line contributes to the economic growth of my country and hence the welfare of its citizens, my countrymen.”  Carroll scorns our lot in unspeakable ways. It is this terrifying wit (not the Disneyfied versions of his books) we should celebrate nonetheless, because it at least tells us that we make up excuses for our happiness, our own little morality tales, because we have to. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Spending too much time with books will make you do that, which is something Watts also forgot to mention.