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Or a Dissertation is Like a Baby…

Announcing the safe delivery of Dissertation-Baby, weighing in at 225 pages, black and white, Times New Roman 12, double-spaced.  I truly feel as proud as if I’d given birth to another human being (which, God-willing, I will do in the middle of September).  There are so many parallels in the process and product of both the writing and birthing process:

1)       A loooong gestation period in which things start to come together in an as-yet-invisible form, but with lots of hope and excitement and sitting around.

2)      An extended labor process in which said baby enters the world in recognizable, though as-yet-unfinished, not-able-to-stand-on-its-own form.

3)      Lots of tears, pain, wondering if or when it’ll ever be over, when it’ll be able to stand on its own, to give you some space to live a normal life again

4)      An experience of testing yourself over and over again—your strength, self-confidence, stamina, faith, patience, energy, commitment, your sense of identity

5)      Learning through the process that you had more in you than you ever knew

6)      An immense feeling of pride at watching your baby go out into the world, and a strange feeling of nostalgia for all those days of stress, pain, tears, and temper tantrums after all!

So I have until May 5 to prepare for the two-hour oral defense in front of my three committee members and two outside readers.  But for now, I’m just going to relax in the feeling that there’s nothing I have to do today!  Yippee!!  Thanks to all of you (you know who you are) who supported me throughout this whole process.

*The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland

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In my opinion, the value of various schools of theory and philosophy, especially those of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Marxism and psychoanalysis) is their aim to demystify the workings of daily life, of desire, of government and money, and ways of thinking.  Whether or not one agrees with them, at their best, works of theory and philosophy make one stop and think, to step outside and to observe, how people live.  This is the effect of good poetry and literature, too:  to jar one’s thoughts or command one’s attention, revealing or portraying things in a different light, with unfamiliar words, so that one leaves that reading with a new appreciation of or attention to something that one formerly took for granted.

In the class I’m auditing this semester, we’re reading some work by a Marxist critic named Henri LeFebvre, particularly his work on “the production of space.”  While I am not a Marxist,  I do see the value of excavating our systems of value, of finding the often-unnoticed assumptions or faults in such major systems as our modern economy in order to, it is hoped, rectify those.  LeFebvre’s point was that “space” (the spaces in which we live and move and work) are not just empty, innocent milieus or environments but, rather, that they are constructed (usually by an unseen power or corporation) to have certain effects on the people who move about or inhabit them.   One of LeFebvre’s big issues was, as he argued, the ways that space is divided up into parcels by the Powers That Be in order that they might be sold and arranged for profit.  One example is a suburban development, the worst being those that destroy natural habitats (of course) but also those that provide various “model homes” which give consumers a (false) sense of freedom of choice, when really they’re being corralled like cattle into certain (unsociable) living conditions, gleefully trading their money for a plot of land and a preconstructed, conventional home and making Big Development all the richer.

What I like about LeFebvre’s work (though I disagree with much of his method and focus) is the way in which it does make me stop and think about the way my life is structured and organized and directed in ways that I never notice and in ways that sometimes are the opposite of life-giving.  His work reminded me of an exercise I’ve had my students perform before, in which they select a human-made space (a public park, a building or room) and step back a bit, in order to observe and describe both its components and arrangement AND the way they feel IN that space:  for example, how does one feel (or how is one supposed to feel) walking into a giant cathedral? a library?  a doctor’s office?  a coffee shop?  the Lincoln Memorial?  a classroom?  Why does it matter how people are encouraged to position themselves in a space, where their attention is directed, how they are meant to behave or speak or feel?  (It’s a lot like generic conventions in writing– one wouldn’t use the same diction, tone, and vocabulary in a thank-you not to one’s grandmother that one would in, say, an email to a friend about a wild Saturday night or in a formal academic essay.)  It’s interesting to think about what the makers of a space wanted to do with that space, how they influence the feelings and perspective of their visitors.

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a really cool scholar of Renaissance literature who also blogs, with her twin sister, about contemporary design.  She and her sister co-wrote a book called Design Your Life:  The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things which is described thus:

Design Your Life is a series of irreverent and realistic snapshots about objects and how we interact with them. By leading design thinker Ellen Lupton and her twin sister Julia Lupton, it shows how design is about much more than what’s bought at high-end stores or the modern look at IKEA. Design is critical thinking: a way to look at the world and wonder why things work, and why they don’t.

The authors train their critical focus on various household objects, spaces, and items of clothing in a lighthearted attempt to demystify the ways that objects and spaces influence and even control us.  One chapter looks at a blender, discussing the ways that the various buttons, with their descriptors (puree, chop, liquefy) both help us to understand how something works and serve to confuse us, to be less than intuitive.

Both of these studies, on space and on things, really fascinate me and have really made me step back and think about what I otherwise take for granted.  It also helps me to laugh at our human institutions, at the ways spaces and things make us feel accomplished, safe, smart as well as confused, dumb, and needy.

Here’s what I am working with in the chapter I’m writing right now.  First, Richard Crashaw’s (17th-century English metaphysical poet, contemporary of John Donne’s) weird poem to St Teresa of Avila (16th-century Spanish mystic); second, the famous sculpture of her by Bernini in Rome; third, an excerpt from St Teresa’s writings on which Bernini’s sculpture and Crashaw’s poem are based.  All very weird stuff– the long tradition of mystics describing their experiences of divine rapture in erotic terms, and the metaphysicals playing off this tradition.  I’m of course looking at the veil in Crashaw’s poem, but it’s just so bizarre!  Imagine if someone wrote this kind of thing today…

The Flaming Heart

Vpon the book and Picture of the seraphicall saint Teresa, (as she is vsvally expressed with a Seraphim biside her)

WELL meaning readers! you that come as freinds

 
And catch the pretious name this peice pretends;  
Make not too much hast to’ admire  
That fair-cheek’t fallacy of fire.  
That is a Seraphim, they say         5
And this the great Teresia.  
Readers, be rul’d by me; and make  
Here a well-plac’t and wise mistake.  
You must transpose the picture quite,  
And spell it wrong to read it right;        10
Read Him for her, and her for him;  
And call the Saint the Seraphim.  
  Painter, what didst thou understand  
To put her dart into his hand!  
See, even the yeares and size of him        15
Showes this the mother Seraphim.  
This is the mistresse flame; and duteous he  
Her happy fire-works, here, comes down to see.  
O most poor-spirited of men!  
Had thy cold Pencil kist her Pen        20
Thou couldst not so unkindly err  
To show us This faint shade for Her.  
Why man, this speakes pure mortall frame;  
And mockes with female Frost love’s manly flame.  
One would suspect thou meant’st to print        25
Some weak, inferiour, woman saint.  
But had thy pale-fac’t purple took  
Fire from the burning cheeks of that bright Booke  
Thou wouldst on her have heap’t up all  
That could be found Seraphicall;        30
What e’re this youth of fire weares fair,  
Rosy fingers, radiant hair,  
Glowing cheek, and glistering wings,  
All those fair and flagrant things,  
But before all, that fiery Dart        35
Had fill’d the Hand of this great Heart.  
  Doe then as equall right requires,  
Since His the blushes be, and her’s the fires,  
Resume and rectify thy rude design;  
Undresse thy Seraphim into Mine.        40
Redeem this injury of thy art;  
Give Him the vail, give her the dart.  
  Give Him the vail; that he may cover  
The Red cheeks of a rivall’d lover.  
Asham’d that our world, now, can show        45
Nests of new Seraphims here below.  
  Give her the Dart for it is she  
(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft and Thee  
Say, all ye wise and well-peirc’t hearts  
That live and dy amidst her darts,        50
What is’t your tastfull spirits doe prove  
In that rare life of Her, and love?  
Say and bear wittnes. Sends she not  
A Seraphim at every shott?  
What magazins of immortall Armes there shine!        55
Heavn’s great artillery in each love-spun line.  
Give then the dart to her who gives the flame;  
Give him the veil, who gives the shame.  
  But if it be the frequent fate  
Of worst faults to be fortunate;        60
If all’s præscription; and proud wrong  
Hearkens not to an humble song;  
For all the gallantry of him,  
Give me the suffring Seraphim.  
His be the bravery of all those Bright things.        65
The glowing cheekes, the glistering wings;  
The Rosy hand, the radiant Dart;  
Leave Her alone The Flaming Heart.  
  Leave her that; and thou shalt leave her  
Not one loose shaft but love’s whole quiver.        70
For in love’s feild was never found  
A nobler weapon then a Wound.  
Love’s passives are his activ’st part.  
The wounded is the wounding heart.  
O Heart! the æquall poise of love’s both parts        75
Bigge alike with wound and darts.  
Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same;  
And walk through all tongues one triumphant Flame.  
Live here, great Heart; and love and dy and kill;  
And bleed and wound; and yeild and conquer still.        80
Let this immortall life wherere it comes  
Walk in a crowd of loves and Martyrdomes  
Let mystick Deaths wait on’t; and wise soules be  
The love-slain wittnesses of this life of thee.  
O sweet incendiary! shew here thy art,        85
Upon this carcasse of a hard, cold, hart,  
Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play  
Among the leaves of thy larg Books of day,  
Combin’d against this Brest at once break in  
And take away from me my self and sin,        90
This gratious Robbery shall thy bounty be;  
And my best fortunes such fair spoiles of me.  
O thou undanted daughter of desires!  
By all thy dowr of Lights and Fires;  
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;        95
By all thy lives and deaths of love;  
By thy larg draughts of intellectuall day,  
And by thy thirsts of love more large then they;  
By all thy brim-fill’d Bowles of feirce desire  
By thy last Morning’s draught of liquid fire;       100
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse  
That seiz’d thy parting Soul, and seal’d thee his;  
By all the heav’ns thou hast in him  
(Fair sister of the Seraphim!)  
By all of Him we have in Thee;       105
Leave nothing of my Self in me.  
Let me so read thy life, that I  
Unto all life of mine may dy.  

 

 

St Teresa:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. . . He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire:  they must be those whom we call Cherubim. . .  I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire.  He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.  The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.  The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.  The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.  It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest He returning chide;

“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need

Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best

Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state

Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

~ John Milton, 1608-1674

I wrote my Masters thesis on John Milton, particularly on his epic poem of the fall of Satan and of Adam and Eve, Paradise Lost. I was fascinated, as many have been, by the character of Satan, who is by far the most intriguing and compelling figure in the poem, above God, the angels, and Adam and Eve (Eve is probably second, though; isn’t she always?). I argued, in a nutshell, that Milton’s Satan was the Christian poet’s alter ego, the one who wishes to “set himself in glory above his peers” (as Satan did) while somehow remaining cognizant of the fact that any heights he is able to achieve are gifts from God, as is his poetic talent itself.

One of Milton’s sonnets, the one quoted above, is another fascinating attempt to wrestle with God-given talent and what one is meant to do with that talent. In fact, the poem plays with the word “talent” as both gift or faculty and piece of money, as in that biblical parable about investing (Matthew 25:14-30). Milton wrote this particular sonnet as he was going blind, which he did at a fairly young age. (He was completely blind by the time he was 43. In fact, he composed Paradise Lost by dictating it to his daughter and others.)

Note how this poem starts out with a sweeping vista of the entire world; the first six lines worry about what the Master will say upon returning if his servant merely buries his one talent and thus refuses to allow it to grow, mature, or produce. He begins line 7 with a question posed to that great dark world, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” In other words, does God expect me to spread light if I have very little or none at all? He then realizes that his question is foolish (fondly = foolishly), when Patience responds—actually, prevents (that is, comes before) — “God doth not need/ Either man’s work or His own gifts.” The lesson the poet is taught is that what one must do is “bear the yoke” that one is given; the poem ascends from the individual back to the worldly level again, realizing God’s power and reach and might.

Part of me is itching to get my final dissertation chapter written; it’s what awaits me when I return from the holidays. I feel so good about having completed 3 of my 4 chapters now (though two need still to be revised). Once I complete the fourth chapter (which actually might end up being Chapter 1 of the finished dissertation), I have only to write my introduction and complete my revisions, and then – I think! – I can submit the dissertation to the committee in mid-March and defend it at the beginning of May. It feels so exciting to be so close (and yet so far!) to completing this PhD. This week I was planning on visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library to do a little archival research for my introduction. The Folger is just the coolest place. Once you are granted a Reader’s Card (the minimum requirement is that you must have completed all the coursework for your PhD), you have access to all of the Folger’s materials. It’s like a Shakespeare nerd’s wet dream. I remember the first time I was able to request a manuscript from the vault, the librarian brought it out and handed it over to me as if it were today’s newspaper: no white gloves, no face mask, no special tools, no one standing over me to make sure I didn’t breathe on it. The only rules for the library are that no liquids and no ink pens are allowed. You just lay that 400 year-old hand-written manuscript out on a reading table and have at it. By far one of the coolest things I’ve experienced—holding a piece of history in my bare hands.

[The other challenge is learning Renaissance paleography—Renaissance hand-writing and letters—in order to make out what is actually written. Can be a very painstaking, slow process. Did you know that when you see what looks like a lowercase, cursive “y” in old manuscripts, it’s actually a “th”?  That character is called a “thorn.” So the whole “Ye Olde” tradition (“Ye Olde Bookshop” or “Ye Olde Taverne”) is actually incorrect. What looks like “Ye” would actually just be the early modern way of spelling “The” (though of course “ye” was also a popular pronoun, too).]

But with the 20 inches of snow we experienced this weekend, schools are closed, which means my sweet AE is home with me. So while in one sense I am itching to continue working on my dissertation, to ride the wave of this unusual productivity I’ve been enjoying (it’s amazing what a looming deadline will do!), I’ve also enjoyed “standing and waiting”—just being with my sweet girl, writing Christmas cards, listening to music, puttering around our house, playing in the snow. It’s true: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

This poem reminds me that there is nothing in this world that is unimportant, no creative endeavor that is wasted.  It also reminds me of the prayer I have for my daughter: “I wish her a lucky passage.”

 

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

~Richard Wilbur
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/202