I haven’t been posting a lot on this year’s election, mostly because I’m willfully ignoring it, mostly because the whole spectacle makes me queasy. I feel like ever since 2000, I’ve plunged myself in these roller-coaster elections and tried to influence the course of events with my willpower alone. Now the whole thing seems kind of a waste of time. I know who I’m voting for. No one and nothing will change my mind. And so, watching people I detest say detestable things in debate after debate seems masochistic in the extreme. I know a lot of people like the reality-show absurdity of the whole process, but I for one don’t enjoy watching horribly unqualified people bloviate and then having nightmarish imaginings of said people in the Oval Office. I don’t need the extra stress.
And yet sometimes, even when trying to avoid politics, I find a lovely moment in my fickle reading that manages to put everything in perspective. This passage comes from May Sarton’s journal At Seventy, written in 1982, and therefore does indeed bring with it that security that comes from knowing that everything that’s happening and is going to happen will do so from the safety of the past. You can be the judge as to how much things have changed since then:
There is never any depth in Reagan’s perceptions of the world. He behaves like an animated cartoon, wound up to perform futile gestures and careless witticisms. It made me feel sick when his reaction to the despair of blacks about this administration was to engineer the other day a visit to a middle-class black family who had been threatened five years ago by a burning cross. So the TV cameras were marshaled, and Reagan and Nancy were shown kissing the family one by one. He made a few remarks about “this sort of thing” not tolerable in a democracy. But what is not tolerable is such a cheap ploy. Meanwhile, forty-eight percent of young blacks are jobless, and the administration offers no help. The black family behaved with perfect dignity, but the whole false “scene” was shown up clearly for what it was, a public-relations media event, an insult to the black community, neglected and shoved under the rug.
So two years ago, there was a concert called GeorgeFest in Hollywood. Well crap, why didn’t anyone tell me???
I just discovered the live album of the concert, which is amazing and surprising. (Conan O’Brien singing “Old Brown Shoe has to be one of the most surreal yet thoroughly fun musical post-Beatle experiences out there.) And there’s this breathtaking cover of Norah Jones singing “Something.” I’m speechless. And, of course, my initial reaction was, “Wow! How great is it that they managed to dig up Norah Jones to do this concert! Haven’t heard from her in a while.” Then, in the next millisecond of brain function, “Oh right. She’s Ravi Shankar’s daughter.”
Don’t ask me what Joyce was thinking when he wrote this. I have no idea.
A side eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit? I am not. Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps, trains, drags, trascines her load. A tide westering, moondrawn, in her wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine, oinopa ponton, a winedark sea. Behold the handmaid of the moon. In sleep the wet sign calls her hour, bids her rise. Bridebed, childbed, bed of death, ghostcandled. Omnis caro ad te veniet. He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
–James Joyce, Ulysses
Today my friend–let’s call him Wikipedia Brown–and I sorted all of my old books into a pile to get rid of. And oh, what a tremendous pile it is. About 90% of the volumes I scrounged and scurried to get for my dissertation, both for my comprehensive exams (two reading lists that were required to contain about 100 titles apiece) and for my ill-fated dissertation. My exams I passed (although not without controversy). My dissertation I never finished.
These were books I desperately wanted to obtain, books that made me feel like a queen when I found them. I luxuriated in their bulk of pages, material unread and undiscovered, soon to go straight into my brain and make me–what? I have no idea now. I think when I went into the PhD program, I mistook being an information hoarder for being a scholar. Or maybe being a narcissist for being a researcher. Because now that those books no longer serve a purpose (most of my primary sources long ago passed into the public domain, and nowadays that means I can get them for free, chock-full of typos and bad formatting but instantly accessible nonetheless), I couldn’t be happier to throw them in a giant pile and cart them out of my house. One time I thought I might do something creative with them, like write found poetry from each book that was meaningful to me in my program. Then as I looked at each title, I realized how nonessential most of these volumes were to my life.
I have no idea how I could have thought I wanted that PhD. I have no idea how I worked on it for twelve years.