No one says what they’re really thinking: there is no escape. || Michael Davis
Source: The Debate Did Not Take Place
No one says what they’re really thinking: there is no escape. || Michael Davis
Source: The Debate Did Not Take Place
As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow
students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.
If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.
A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.
With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.
The ivory tower covered in camouflage.
It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, a conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.
As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.
Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.
When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.
Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.
It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.
Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.
But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.
I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.
The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.
A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.
Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.
Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.
Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.
Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:
The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.
A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.
Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.
We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.
This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.
Listen. And seek the mysteries.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when a tactical regression is in order. Not the screaming hand-waving hysterics of those soon-to-be dinner for someone with sharper fangs, but a gentleman’s dignified reverse into the security of the kind and the known. Still, you can do nothing without electricity, especially if you live with me in the Imperial Sukhumvit Panopticon, where even breathing requires steady wattage.
I stepped out of the colonial bubble today at the On Nut sky train BTS station thinking about this and about the power disconnection notice I received three days ago. In truth, I thought I paid the bill. But apparently—between working 12 hour days, grinding out comments for 100+ research papers, and worrying about a panoply of things that stretch my angst around the globe such that I’m a true international stress case—I forgot.
So: screaming disconnection dismemberment and summary vivisection unless I pay 3,000 Thai Baht plus a 40 Baht service fee. And I’m like: Fine! What is that, $90 USD? Christ. I’ll pay the motherfucker. Just don’t turn off my juice, okay? Or something like that in a more polite, guest-in-this-country tone. But the Metropolitan Electricity Authority is not amused.
The Metropolitan Electricity Authority does not appreciate my lax attitude toward paying my farang electricity bills. In fact, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority thinks I’ve been running my a/c a bit much, even for a westerner. And so I must pay a fat chunk of Baht. Now. Through one orifice or another. Or they turn it all off and the party stops. See how I like the 90% humidity at 45º C then, eh? So, of course, I capitulate. I capitulate all the way down to On Nut with a gangster roll of 1,000 Baht notes in my pocket and -10 lbs. of water weight from involuntary dripping.
I look for the MEA office for 3 hours in the badly made Bata loafers that are slowly making my feet disintegrate. I receive 4 conflicting sets of directions. I spend 30 minutes feeling vomitous from polluted humidity in the food court of Tesco Lotus, where I am laughed at by 3 highly amused schoolgirls. My handkerchief is soaked.
By the time I find what might be the offices, the secretaries are streaming out of the building and the lights are off. I want to cry because this is how it is to be illiterate. (Aside: you know, I have a PhD. A real one. One that required a dissertation and a lot of high-level academic work. Someone I generally like asked me today if I’m actually qualified to teach research. What should I have said? No? This is where being a creative writer leads you, kids. Caveat scriptor.)
But, yes, illiterate.
I went home. The power was still on. My attempt to pay it as usual at 7/11 seemed successful yesterday. So maybe the MEA is willing to take my payment and look the other way for a change. I do love this country. I just don’t love being a stupid farang. Stay in school. Otherwise, your feet are going to hurt a lot more. Trust me on this.
“In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.” – Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Standing outside the White House, one feels a strange energy, a sense of outward composure over ruthless analysis and scheming. It’s not the dead weight on the air when you enter an old cathedral in Prague or the sinking medieval depth of a back street in Oxford. Neither does the White House radiate the architectural pretensions of our older universities trying to be more significant and stately than they actually are. Instead, it gives the impression of a violent river that, through some trick of light and gravity, has acquired a façade of perfect serenity. The White House is more of a movement than a structure; it’s dynamic; it’s a verb. It’s the soul of the United States evolving in some obscure, perhaps fated, direction. There is a powerful mystery here.
Simply walking around downtown D.C. is a history lesson—but maybe not the sort of history we’d like to believe, rather an emotional experience, a certain dissonance, a national identity crisis in full bloom. It’s easy to feel a brutal undercurrent to the capitol, echoes of neoclassical idealism tempered by an absolute faith in institutional power. In every edifice, one feels the constant tension between accepted history and the hard reality of a 300-year-old political experiment still trying not to fail. 300 years seems like a long time to an American, but it’s nothing to Europe. Yet Washington D. C. seems to have distilled the same civic narcissism of any European capitol city.
The irony of standing in front of the Department of the Treasury with a Swiss tour group was not lost on me. “Look, Albert Gallatin.” the 12-year-old boy in electric blue Nike sweats tugged on his father’s camera bag, but dad was frowning, texting with both thumbs. It was indeed Albert Gallatin, fourth Secretary of the Treasury, US financial bodhisattva immured forever in bronze by the north entrance, a detached expression on his face. A few minutes later, the worn-out mother took a picture of the boy holding up a $10 bill with Albert in the background.
Walking from the Executive Office Building to the Washington Monument, the message is clear: people built all this—but such people no longer exist and possibly never will again. Still, you are very small and they, even dead, are enormous. One thinks of the Valley of the Kings when standing at the foot of the Capitol Building. One thinks of the Tower of Babel and the Twin Towers and how the same gravity that rules the field mouse in a farm outside Hays, Kansas rules all this stone. And then one thinks of Ozymandias and goes home.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’