Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Unfamiliarity and Perspective

This year, I'm taking a crack at doing #reverb10. Care to join me? Details here.

December 1: One Word:

Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?

I think the best word for the previous 11 months is unfamiliarity. For the first time, I've lived with a major food allergy, one that has meant being the person with special needs, the one whose health requirements have a potentially major effect on others. I finished a dissertation chapter (and hope to finish 1 or 2 more before this year ends). I undertook my first major unsupervised archival research project. I lived with someone with whom I'm romantically involved. I lived in London, which, even for only 2.5 months, is much different than being there for 2.5 weeks (my longest stay previously). I let someone make dinner for me each night, which is certainly unfamiliar in the context of my adult life.

Some of the associated unfamiliarity I've dealt with well; and it has unquestionably been good for me to learn what it feels like to be the one who has to ask others to adjust their choices. I don't enjoy doing that; and sometimes I've felt downright angry when my gluten allergy makes me into an inconvenience -- but I have an inkling of what other people with more challenging disabilities feel in similar situations. I hope this allows me to be more empathetic with them.

Other aspects of it, not so much. Being taken care of at all made me acutely aware of my own self-negativity: I thought, at various times, that someone ought to shove me off a tube platform, or simply take me out and shoot me. Yes, I know that this is disturbing. I've internalized the view that George Bernard Shaw presents in this video extraordinarily intensely. This is partly the product of my upbringing in a conservative Christian family, and perhaps also more broadly an aspect of American socialization: I think of dependence as fatal, and fear it.

The unfamiliarity of dissertating is also a challenge. Writing arguments? That I've done. But blending literary, historical, and economic perspectives presents a greater challenge than I've faced in the past. Or maybe that's not quite it: what's unfamiliar is the sense of the potential importance of the work, combined with the sense that it's simply a hurdle I have to climb over to finish.

I need to finish this up if I'm to have it done on schedule.

For next year, I hope the word that resonates throughout it perspective. I need it desperately, as I did this summer. I found it this summer, but I found it in desperation, as I struggled to learn to read documents written in Chancery hand, realizing that my research grant would be the start of something that might last years, rather than being completable in three months. What I need is to allow myself to have perspective from the beginning, as I make decisions about balancing work and leisure; as I evaluate the way I spend each day, determining what I have accomplished. I need to remember that not every day will be characterized by breakthroughs, and that the lack of constant breakthroughs does not mean that I am a failure.

And I am seeking perspective, too, as I think about the worth of the work that I'm doing, the reasons that I'm pursuing a series of arguments about the imagination in economics, and in literature that's more than a century old. It doesn't always feel like digging through old poetry is the best way to develop insights that will serve a purpose in today's chaotic economic situation, though I very much want to produce something that will be of interest to more than just members of the literary academy. And yet my primary responsibility is to those texts -- not to creating something that's immediately and remarkably relevant today. Perhaps in being faithful to them, rather than trying to be both a lit scholar and an observer of contemporary economics at the same time, I can find the way forward.

“Perspective,” he would mutter, going to bed.

“Oh che dolce cosa e questa

Prospettiva.” Uccello. Bird.

And I am as greedy of her, that the black

Horse of the literal world might come

Directly on me. Perspective. A place

To stand. To receive. A place to go

Into from. The earth by language.

Who can imagine antelope silent

Under the night rain, the Gulf

At Biloxi at night else? I remember

In Mexico a man and a boy painting

An adobe house magenta and crimson

Who thought they were painting it red. Or pretty.

So neither saw the brown mountains

Move to manage that great house.

The horse wades in the city of grammar.

--Jack Gilbert

1 comment:

  1. Letting other people "do" for us, well for me, is my least favorite thing, but perhaps part of my new normal. Thank you for pointing me to reverb10. I look forward to following the prompts with you.