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.

14 comments:

s.l. said...

I have come to believe that there's some kind of secret school for academics in which they learn how to be impassive and silently manipulative in the name of intellectual progress. It's a school you have to be invited to, and I only suspect its existence (so I won't hold my breath for an invitation). But I'm pretty sure it exists, and your post here will stand as evidence. I spent 45 minutes in my advisor's office yesterday while we talked about a single paragraph of a paper I'd written while ignoring more than ten pages. Why? Because the ten pages didn't matter. She didn't have to point out they weren't worthy of our time. She just had to ignore them in favor of something that was. Now I know. Dump those ten pages, cut and paste paragraph four into new document, start over.

By the way, I've always thought that if adolescence were more like academia, I would have been a better teenager. I couldn't get it up to put a glossy poster of a pop star on my wall, but if they made posters of historians and cultural critics, I'd be out of wall space.

Tom Bozzo said...

Wow, there were some moments along the way where my hands were wrung and one eye closed over the possible directions, but in the end you've done a wonderful job of summing up the essence of what good advisers do for us.

Heidi the Hick said...

SWOON.
My experience like this was not for an intellectual that I was in love with, but rather a cowboy I worked for. I couldn't do anything right for him; I was all thumbs. I could get the stalls picked through perfectly, scrub every bridle until shiny, and sweep up every scrap of dirt...nothing. My horse was too ill-behaved, too half-bred, too small for him. I wasn't a good enough rider and probably way too young and too married.
One day I was riding my horse at a walk up and down the lane. My boss leaned on the fence and watched. Nothing new. I ignored him, thinking I'd get short sharp criticism and instead, he grunted, "Nice. You two look good together. Good work." The most praise I'd ever gotten from him and it was for a WALK.
I was elated for a week. Which is why when I got to the the bottom of this post, I knew what you were getting at. No wonder you love him.

Heidi the Hick said...

Xtin, kinda miss ya. Hope you're happily busy and not harrassedly busy.

Scrivener said...

I normally try my best to refrain from harrassing bloggers to get up a new post, but the fact that it's this one at the top of the page is driving me crazy, because every time I look at it I am reminded that my advisor is pretty much useless and that I'm going to have to figure out a way to get him to actually read somethign I write this summer.

Scrivener said...

How come my comment doesn't show up on the post page, only on this comment page? Don'tcha like me anymore? ;)

Scrivener said...

Oh, now that I've left another comment, you're back to liking me, because now they both show up.

Scrivener said...

You know that Wilco song "I'm Always in Love"? That's what I think of every time I come by here now.

Scrivener said...

I just came by today because I was listening to my iPod on shuffle and "I'm Always in Love" came on, so it made me think of you. I hadn't known it would work the other way too.

Scrivener said...

And today I came by just to see how many comments I can leave on your blog before you come back by to see what's been happening while you're away.

I hope everything's alright over there. I'm going to start to worry about you soon.

Tom Bozzo said...

What Scrivener said. Only I haven't been leaving comments, just lurking and reading his...

pluvialis said...

Xtin is fine. She is suffering a little from hayfever, yet has been planting seeds in the garden and eating lots of toast. I shall nag her to write something soon!

Scrivener said...

Thanks, pluvialis!

Scrivener said...

Pluvialis, you're sure she's fine? Honest? You wouldn't lie to us, would you?