Sunday, April 15, 2007


My friend S, who is an expert on Freud and Kant and has undergone more analysis than it is possible for the human body to sustain, often comments that one of the occupational hazards of philosophy is that the conclusions you draw in your thesis have a weird way of bleeding into the ontology of your life. I work on vagueness and indeterminacy, cut with a history of scientific mistakes. I ought not to be shocked that things seem rather fuzzy-edged and error-prone, n'est-ce pas?

The blogosphere teems with confessionals of dissertation writing. If I am tired and discouraged by my thesis, I am infinitely more tired and discouraged by the thought that I might add one, like being thrown to the Sarlacc and being digested for ten thousand years. And worse for the poor sods who might want to read about it.

One of The Books of my childhood was Paul, the Hero of the Fire, penned by and with the fabulous, evocative illustrations of Edward Ardizzone. It has a wonderful 40s book plate in the front awarding it to my uncle from his nursery school. He must have been five or maybe six. Anyway, the book is the story of a boy named Paul who runs away from home to get a job after finding out that his parents are planning to sell his home. He finds out thusly:

... he heard his father say to his mother in the next room, 'Darling, it is no use. The market has gone all to pieces. We have hardly any money left. I'm afraid we must sell the house.'

Ah, they don't write 'em like that any more. So Paul gets a job at the circus, and ultimately saves a crowd of children from a fire, becoming a boy hero. One might wonder how this helps with the problem of the house, but you will be glad to know that at the end of the book, Ardizzone kindly informs us that the market was better, and so there was no need to sell it. I'm not kidding.

My favourite illustration in the book, the kind that becomes a part of the way the inside of your mind looks, was an inventory of the little suitcase Paul packs before he leaves home.

"... a shirt, two vests, one pair of pyjamas, two pairs of socks, a spare pair of shoes, flannel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste."

This has become an icon of escape for me. Whenever I can't stand it any more, and I am caged by my brain and by the creeping, strangling sense of worthlessness, and the dark, monster-in-the-wardrobe, lurking malevolence of the threat of mediocrity, and the nauseating, prickly, raw fear of being Unmasked and finding oneself in Outer Darkness, I see the contents of Paul's suitcase. A little suitcase, and I will be on my way. To anywhere. In my mind's eye I always see the back of myself, walking away from here, away from this, becoming smaller and smaller.

There's something completely predictable about the fact that my vision of freedom is the back of myself.

1 comment:

Acre said...

Ok, well, the last line is so brilliant I can barely stand it.

One of my favorite song lyrics includes the phrase "freedom's just a metaphor; you've got nowhere to go..." That often repeats in my brain on an endless loop. Still, as you know, I keep a bus schedule in my study carrel and foreign coin in my backpack. Somehow, I need to know that this life I've made is a choice, it's my choice, and I can make a different one any day. I might not make it, but like your well-packed suitcase, I know I have the tools to do so if I want.