Saturday, April 08, 2006

On being in love

Quite regularly, I wish I was a cultural historian or a literary theorist, because then I would know something about the ways that very clever people have parsed aspects of, well, culture or literature. I tend to be just well-read enough to know that such thought exists, but not well-read enough to know what it says. Even in some received-wisdom, tradition-waiting-to-be-deconstructed kind of way.

On the one hand, perhaps that makes my thoughts about those things refreshingly personal, especially since I'm not usually given to expounding on them, so no-one else has to suffer. On the other hand, perhaps I'd be a human sophisticate beyond my wildest imaginings if I knew a couple of things about Lacan and Freud. I try not to think about it.

Today's chestnut is the strange, leaky boundaries of love. The object of my adoration (and I use the term advisedly) is my dissertation supervisor, Professor Agent Smith. Now, although I might have meant that I am desperately tearing out my heart over him and direct Jedi death-rays at his wife whenever possible, that (thank the small gods) is not it. And, naturally, it is at this point that I am convinced that some English Literature undergraduate could immediately furnish me with five hundred tasty years' worth of brilliant musings on the nature of the beast, taxonomies from monks and madmen.

It is not that I think of Agent Smith as flawless, although I once did. There was a period when my adoration was worship. The Agent manages his worshipability with a practised hand -- not, I should emphasise, so that people will worship him. The Agent is a fantastically charismatic teacher and philosophical conversationalist, but outside the lecture hall and seminar room maintains that particular species of aloof distance that successful academics achieve to preserve their sanity and personal lives. Which, naturally, just makes them all the more alluring because we never really interact with them, we watch their performances -- they are the popstar whose poster is on our wall, into whom we can read whatever personality we like. The Agent maintains his aloofness with a peculiar kind of glad-handing bonhomousness, greeting everyone who has reason to believe he knows them with an almost animatronically cheery "Hi!" Sometimes, you might get asked how things are. If you watch closely, you will see that while this is going on, he is thinking about something else. Of course, this is not an uncommon phenomenon with academics. Most academics (especially those for whom you count as a student) are very evidently thinking about something else while they talk to you. But with the Agent, you have to watch closely.

The Agent can extinguish anything he doesn't like in ten seconds or less by ignoring it so perfectly, so completely and seamlessly, that it disappears from existence. It took me two years to detect that this was happening, and then another six months to realise that it was happening to me. Sometimes it will take me several days to remember that I suggested some development or angle or objection to some aspect or other of my work, and then I wonder why I forgot about that. After careful reflection I'll finally uncover the fact that The Agent behaved as though it had never been said.

The silent deadliness of this in seminars and group discussions of any sort, much less meetings about one's PhD, makes The Agent like a thought-guiding ninja. These are not the droids you're looking for.

The Agent's particular intellectual talent (because we're taking it as read that he's scathingly brilliant) is his ability to reduce any argument at all, anything, no matter how crazy or continental, to a couple of perspicacious sentences from first philosophical principles. Then he mounts a single-strike blitzkrieg objection to what he calls his "cartoon version". It's taken me four years to see that on occasion, this strategy is unfair. Because when he does it, he makes it look like an ice-skater doing a triple-axle over the heads of chimps on rollerskates. Your eyes go wider and wider and your little intellectual heart sighs like a bobby-soxer.

So much for the worshipability. This is not why I'm in love with The Agent. I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with him because in spite of my best efforts, and I mean my best, most passive-aggressive and manipulative strivings, he has never for an instant given in to the giant, seething monster of my philosophical neediness and insecurity. I have sat opposite his monolithic desk and angled like the angst-professional that I am for something to shore up my academic doubts, for a word of guidance about what next; I have dallied and pussy-footed in the face of a question about direction in the hopes that he'll tell me the answer; I have cravenly set up opening after opening for him to tell me that I am clever and that he believes I can do it. Not a single bite. Nothing but oceanic blue eyes containing perfect and uninvolved benevolence.

I have hated him for this. You sadistic, unfeeling bastard! Do you know nothing about encouragement, about praise? Do you enjoy watching me twist in the wind?

The truth is that when I pull my shit together and actually do something, write something, think for myself, make my own decisions, have someballs, for Christ's sake, he pats my wodges of paper in a satisfied manner and says "Excellent".

I'm in love with The Agent because he's the first person ever in my life to expect me to be an adult.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It's only natural

Not only is nature terribly pretty, but it is also an inexhaustible supply of nifty metaphors. Bears! Bulls! Stags locking horns! Mad hares, early-awakening birds, rabbits with ... certain enthusiasms.

Perhaps the best aspect of nature metaphors is that Nature is big. There is a (literal) smorgasbord of animals, trees, bugs and butterflies, flowers and fish to choose from. No matter what your metaphorical needs, you can pick one with attractive spin. Even pejoratives like shark still get to carry along all of the Cool Deadly Predator connotations that come with them.

Lately, I've been sleeping a lot. I've been eating oatmeal for three days straight because I can't be bothered to go to the store. I've been watching repeats of Star Trek: Voyager and a whole bunch of other daytime television not nearly as illustrious as my hero Capt Janeway and her ragtag crew. I've spent hours watching sparrows and dunnocks flirting in the garden and flitting around like they can't contain their excitement over the coming of spring. I creep out of my bed at supermodel hours, and later creep back in into the same hollow in the bedclothes I made earlier. I've had many strange technicolor dreams. I've curled on the sofa and let my mind wander over the inside of my brain until I can't remember how to spell. I've ignored snippy emails collecting in my inbox. I've unplugged the phone. I've taken hot baths and inspected my toenails.

I've eaten a lot of chocolate. I'd have eaten more, but fortunately getting out of the house to where they sell it often didn't seem worth the trouble.

It's been wonderful.

Naturally, the thing to say is that I am a chrysalis. Mental exhaustion set in as soon as I landed the job, and now I am sleeping inside my gorgeous, jewel-like cocoon, decorating the twig of a tree until I emerge to display my brilliant new colours to the world. These quiet moments inside my cocoon are natural ... indeed, essential! Without them, no metamorphosis.

Wouldn't it be lovely? It's a wonderful thought. Not only am I about to turn into a butterfly, but I am decorative as well. And moreover, this strange sofa-bound period is an indispensible component of My Future Growth™. But I confess. I don't buy it for a second. I think actually, I'm more like a big, white grub. Sitting in the cabbage patch, mindlessly chomping through someone's prize brassica. Chomp chomp chomp. There is nothing in the mind of the grub except The One True Cabbage. And best of all, the more Cabbage the grub eats, the less there is in the mind of the grub, until eventually, a massive surfeit of Cabbage rids the grub's mind utterly of any thoughts at all.

I can't wait. I'm not too sure how conducive this is to dissertation writing. But on the other hand, it seems to me that PhD theses have more than a few things in common with boring, single-minded fat white grubs. Pass the cabbage.