I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and over again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: put your cards on the table.
~Amy Hempel, “Tumble Home”
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
~Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
Part I. Fear of Flying
For several years now, I have been engaging in various processes of what I am now calling de-materializing. Some of these were painful and not exactly self-willed. For example, in 2006, I separated from a partner with whom I had lived for about 14 years, and in fact, we continued on, in fits and starts until 2009, and somehow managed to part as friends, even while much that transpired between us from about 2005 to 2009 was incredibly sad, occasionally terrifying, and heartbreaking. But in May 2006, while on a mini-research trip at Cambridge University, I remember standing in the narrow hallway of a B&B on a communal wall-phone talking to my partner and realizing, this is it, we’re separating (and not because I wanted to; I did not want that, not then), my life is now officially over, and I have nothing to live for. Thanks to a beautiful best friend of 27+ years, I would have a place to live in the hills of eastern Tennessee for the rest of the summer, and indeed, she and her husband tended to me so carefully for the next 3 months, I will likely never be able to repay the gift of their kindness. They gave me an enchanted respite; they made me laugh; they “entertained” me; they surrounded me with good company, elegant dinners, and several tuns of wine.
I’ve always connected my love relationships to my work; when they are good, I can think and write and extend my affections to pretty much everything, and I only see the light in everything, but when my primary relationships are breaking down, I can’t think straight and I pretty much shut down. Everything goes black. It did not help that, at the same time that my partner was effectively breaking up with me, that my stint at Cambridge was not going so well. I had chosen Old English as my primary research specialty (having finished my PhD in Nov. 2001), and at the time, whether just imagined in my own head or not, I felt like this: “Wow, everyone in Old English studies, with 1 or 2 exceptions, really hates me.” A less self-absorbed (but still personal) version of this might have been, “Old English studies is never going to accept the kind of work I want to do, and maybe I should stop striving so hard to be a part of a field that isn’t welcoming the approaches I am trying to devise. Maybe I should just go away. Maybe medieval studies, and even academia, isn’t for me at all.” BABEL was partly founded, in 2004, out of the collective depression of 5 women -- myself, Betsy McCormick, Mary Ramsey, Myra Seaman, and Kimberly Bell -- who just weren't sure anyone would ever pay any attention to us because we had no (or not much) institutional privilege, and maybe we should just do whatever the hell we wanted, anyway. Plus, we wanted to have some fun at conferences that struck us as stultifyingly boring. In addition, I had resigned my job at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in May 2005 in order to accept a job at my partner’s university in South Carolina [with the hope of repairing our broken relationship], and now, in May 2006, after a brutal bid to re-apply and ultimately win back my job at SIUE [which only happened because a courageous department Chair, Charles Berger, overruled the hiring and department's executive committees to re-hire me, and let it be said, now, finally, and in public, what a debt I owe to him and others at SIUE who wanted me back, despite the “weirdness” of my having left to begin with], I was facing a scary and uncertain future.
In the midst of all this, while spending many days in Caffè Nero in Cambridge, when I should have been in the stacks at the Cambridge University Library, or in the manuscripts room at Corpus Christi Library, avoiding the work I was supposed to be doing on Anglo-Saxon law codes, I started reading and commenting at this “new” blog called In The Middle, which a friend (Betsy McCormick, who, like my friend in Tennessee, helped me so tremendously through this difficult time) had recommended I read (she also was one of the first promoters/early adopters of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, at a time when many people thought blogs in general were a waste of time and the Chaucer blog a pleasing trifle, but nothing “serious”). In short, during what was probably one of the most harrowing times of my personal life (exacerbated as well by the fact that my partner and I had adopted a daughter in 2000, 9 years old at the time, who was going through horrendous emotional problems and also engaging in illegal and self-harming activities that threatened to literally send all three of us into mental hospitals and also prisons: indeed, our family therapist actually recommended our separation and wanted the 3 of us far away from each other for that summer in 2006), I found, through Jeffrey and the commentariat he was building at ITM, a community, perhaps even a new family. I changed my mind about leaving academia, and something else extraordinary happened that same month: I wasn’t afraid to fly anymore.
You see, I grew up in a family that was always flying somewhere and I had always loved being in airplanes [having taken my first trip at 15 months of age to go to Ireland, which is where my mother grew up and where her family still lives]; my father, who worked for the government in DC [making a modest salary], never bought us a second car, never bought us a color TV, and really never bought us gadgets or shiny things of any kind, because he sank whatever capital he had into travel. He told us that travel would bring us riches we could never imagine and he was banking everything he had on that [plus his immense library of first-editions of poetry and his immense collection of ancient coins, which basically bankrupted the family as well]. But for some odd reason, after traveling to Denver in 1988 [or 1989?] to visit my younger brother, who was distraught at the time and having a sort of life-crisis and had asked me to visit him, and because of some experiences he and I had together in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and also in an isolated place that I can only recall as having been 80 miles outside of Moab, Utah, I flew back home [Richmond, Virginia at the time] a suddenly fearful person when it came to flying. I was petrified, scared, and so jumpy on the plane ride home that one flight attendant threatened to sedate me forcibly. From that day, until my trip back home from Cambridge in May 2006 (so, for 18 years!), I was so afraid to fly that I would take every measure imaginable to avoid being on a plane. I would even get off of planes before the cabin door was shut, forfeiting my seat and the non-refundable money I paid for it, thereby driving some of my traveling companions crazy with frustration at me. I would purposefully miss connecting flights and rent cars to drive hundreds of miles instead of flying to my so-called final destinations. When I did get on a plane, it was only with the help of valium and Jack Daniels. 3-5 days before every flight [some to amazing places, like Corfu, where my parents generously hosted me in 1992 in a peach-colored villa in Barbati overlooking the Ionian Sea, as a gift for completing my MFA degree], I would not be able to sleep, seized by nightmares of crashing planes and internal physical stress that was so severe that I would throw up for days prior to getting on planes. I had so many talismans for flying [from special wrist-bands to lucky coins to lucky watches to lucky scarves . . . you see how this goes?], I was a walking gypsy caravan [no offense to real gypsies, to whom I might even be related on my mother’s side].
But in June 2006, leaving Cambridge by way of Heathrow Airport, knowing my relationship was over [well, it would go on for 3 more years, but still . . .], everyone in the airport looked different to me. I can’t explain it; there is actually NO rational explanation. I just looked at everyone coming and going and thought to myself: what a marvelous place an airport is. What an opportunity for losing oneself, for fleeting contact with Otherness, what a portal for . . . going somewhere, everyone here seems genuinely happy [with some exceptions] to be going somewhere, but also to be arriving somewhere. An airport, I realized, is a special site of open horizons, of open possibilities, of hopeful expectations, of starting over, of the world being scrubbed clean as you soar above the clouds. I suddenly realized: I want to go places. I want to feel more free than I have in a long time. I want to stop being so scared all the time. For the first time in my life, all of the anxieties, jealousies, stresses, self-loathings, fears, and other negative emotions often attendant upon thinking I can’t live without one other particular person in my life, without whom I am nothing, just fell away from me, like so many pieces of discarded clothing. Yes, I am still insecure about so many things [aren’t we all? isn’t that human?], and no one’s love life isn’t messy and occasionally striated by selfish anxieties and the need for this thing called “control,” but it was like, well . . . it was like being born again. I had this thought: we think so much, especially in Western-inflected intellectual contexts, about death. Everything is so post-mortem. Why don’t we think more about being born, about natality? I realized, too, on some perhaps deeper [and unconscious level] that I no longer had to confine my love to only one object, to only one person. The entire world could be my theater of love, my art gallery, and that filled me with joy. I could be what is called “happy-go-lucky” now. I wouldn’t read this until much later, but Sara Ahmed summed up for me in The Promise of Happiness something of what I was feeling that day, that
The happy-go-lucky character might seem unweighed by duty and responsibility; she might seem light as a feather. She might seem careless and carefree. But freedom from care is also freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up. . . . To be full of hap is to make happen. A politics of the hap is about opening up possibilities for being in other ways, of being perhaps. . . . A politics of the hap might embrace what happens, but it also works toward a world in which things can happen in alternative ways. To make hap is to make a world. [p. 222]
What comes up. What happens. This is what I live for now, I told myself, sitting in the terminal at Heathrow. If anything can happen, then I have something to live for. I was filled with excitement. I love to fly now, to rise above the clouds, to lean with the sudden turn of the plane to the right, or the left, to “get high,” to marvel at the beauty of the miniature earth and all of it inhabitants, its geographies, its different cities, its different moods. Hello, world. You look beautiful to me. Can I buy you a drink?
II. And Now Here We Are
As they say in the movies, or in novels: and then several years went by. Or, six years later. . . . So much has happened [insert here: BABEL Working Group]. I also came into contact, thanks primarily to Jeffrey’s [and now our] blog, with friends and thinkers whose reading recommendations literally changed my life. Here, I must especially personally thank Jeffrey himself, Michael O’Rourke, Noreen Giffney, Mary Kate Hurley, Karl Steel, Betsy McCormick, and Nicola Masciandaro. There are others, of course [many others, too many to number]: it’s just that, from 2006 through 2009, these persons especially helped me to re-shape so much of my thinking about what I wanted to do with my life simply by saying, “hey, read THIS” or "look at THIS." But it must be said: anyone and everyone who has ever commented at In The Middle from 2006 until now has, no lie, helped me to profoundly rewire and transform my life. If it is possible to crowd-source one’s life, and I think it is, especially one’s professional life, then I can only say, it happened to me. And here it also must be said, as Arthur Bahr said of Jeffrey when he introduced his and Lindy Elkins-Tanton's plenary session at BABEL's meeting in Boston 2 weeks ago, that Jeffrey Cohen has helped to model a new sort of scholarly life, one in which more open, processural, and even silly modes of "contact" and "dissemination" have helped so many of us to rewire our lives and work, and which have also created new opportunities even for association, affiliation, and dare I say it, employment [not in terms of positions, but for work: writing, publishing, discourse, etc.]. I also must say here that my growing friendship with Myra Seaman [begun at a chance meeting at a reception at a Southeastern Medieval Association meeting in Asheville, NC many years ago and re-ignited at a restaurant in New Orleans at yet another SEMA meeting], who never hesitated to say “okay, what do you need me to do?” to any hare-brained scheme I devised, allowed me to let folly -- quite literally -- dictate the course of my so-called “career,” whatever the hell that means. I also met Anna Klosowska, now my partner, who should likely receive some sort of lifetime achievement award for “best girlfriend ever in the history of humankind.” Her girlfriend methodology seems to be something like this, “let my beloveds be who they are, whether children, husbands, girlfriends, family, friends, or other creatures, and I will simply set my glow-lamp in that direction.” We are not often blessed with such friends, or such lovers.
But I mentioned at the outset of this letter -- for this is really a letter -- that I have been engaging for several years now in various processes of de-materialization, and while the first act of this play was quite a painful [and not entirely welcome] “letting go” of the idea that I would define my life in direct relation to whether or not one “special” other person loved me, or did not love me, the ensuing acts of de-materialization have been happily pursued by me. I paid off and/or negotiated downward, from 2006 to 2011, $58,000 worth of consumer debt. I sold my house in Saint Louis at a terrific loss, losing all of my original cash investment (substantial) and said “hahahahahaha!” to that loss. I will be moving everything in that house, which I actually have not lived in since my sabbatical 2 years ago, into some sort of storage facility this winter.
When I occasionally reflect on what is there -- for example, an urn containing the ashes of 2 cats, Tom and Huck, discovered by my daughter and I cowering behind a tombstone in a cemetery in South Carolina, and who both died suddenly and tragically at 3 years of age while I was compiling my dossier for tenure and promotion at SIUE; a framed photograph of my beloved sister from when she lived in the Central African Republic in the early 1990s; first editions of Beowulf spanning 100 years bequeathed to me by my father; a photo album recording my first trip to Paris with my previous partner and her parents in 1999; an original Maxfield Parrish print of Griselda; an old desk that I stole from a 19th-century schoolhouse in Virginia and at which I conducted my entire PhD degree; my library of gardening books from when I worked as a landscape designer (1996-1999); a full collection of Waterford crystal glasses from my mother; a napkin dispenser I stole from Café du Monde in New Orleans [can you tell I’m a bit of a thief, yet?]; I could go on, but . . . . -- my heart actually feels sick at the thought of leaving these things behind, of not having them arranged all around me as a comforting backdrop to my work and personal life. As if someone died. And this is not to mention the gardens I designed and planted and had to leave behind, the rare plants I snagged from plant explorers like J.C. Raulston and planted around telephone poles and in various beds in different cities, etc. But I also know that letting them go lightens my baggage. Things matter, of course, but they are also . . . just things. If we have to let everything go when we die, then, can we not let them go now? What might happen as a result? Can we enlarge the ambit of our affections, beyond our narrow houses and the persons and things enclosed therein? It’s awfully hard, but I want to try. It might have something to do with being “alive,” in the fullest sense of the term. It might also have something to do with practicing generosity in ways we have not yet imagined: what are we capable of giving away? What new relationships might result? What thicknesses of experience might come rushing into our lives, whether painful or more joyful?
Speaking of which, over the past 3 years I have found myself more and more comfortable with a lifestyle in which I don’t really have a permanent home [although, of course, Anna’s house in Cincinnati is my primary residence, but I am often away traveling elsewhere, and she “leaves the light, and the glow, on,” so to speak], and in which I sleep on a lot of couches and the beds of friends’ houses and apartments, even when I am teaching at SIUE. I am embracing the practice of hotel theory, and over the past 2 years, especially, I have learned to go anywhere, whether for 2 days or 2 months, with the smallest possible suitcase and one backpack. More and more, and little by little, I am embracing this itinerant and vagabond life, one in which I never forget these lines from one of my favorite meditations by John Donne,
no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a part of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if the manor of thy friend’s or thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
By which he meant, when you hear the church bells ringing for someone’s, maybe a stranger’s, funeral, remember: that is you. That is all of us. Or as Sean Penn’s character says in voiceover in Terence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, after Pvt. Witt’s (played by Jim Caveziel) tragic death, “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack of it.”
Let me feel the lack of it. Lack, I really believe, defines so much of our lives. As in, all the times we believe we haven’t received what we feel we have deserved, whether in love or work. Isn’t the university rife with such feelings of lack, such piercing envy of what others have, of what we don’t have? Such dissatisfaction -- much of it, I have to say, justly felt. Not just envy, but actual and sincere disappointment over all of the ways in which the so-called life of the university (or, mind) has devolved to filling out self-assessment protocols for administrators who don’t value all of our disciplines equally, working without merit pay, not having one’s research agenda supported, facing a contraction of opportunities for publishing one’s work as well as state legislatures who have perversely decided many of us are actually goofing off “in here,” dealing with new online teaching initiatives that might actually be aimed at our eventual elimination (or, at the least, the contraction of faculty), facing students who, increasingly and understandably, come to class weighed down with severe economic burdens and higher and higher levels of anomie that make it difficult for them to embrace what might be called the wayward paths of knowledge as well as this thing called a “learning community.” Not to mention the increasing numbers of people cut off from access to higher education altogether (because of its untenably escalating costs), the numbers of college graduates who can’t find jobs, and the post-graduate students who likely will find no regular foothold in the university to which they have dedicated all of their studies. How did it come to this?
It’s not this way everywhere, of course, and different colleges and even departments and programs in some places might be modeling much more successful learning communities and administrative structures, and there are many moments where we are enjoying our work and our scholarly communities (at home, away, etc.), but we might say that the larger picture of the university (here and abroad) has gotten bleaker: funding is decreasing at the exact same moment that intellectual life itself seems to be under attack. All of a sudden, especially in America, being stupid (or willfully ignorant), and also being stupendously selfish and anti-“Great Society,” is not only okay; it might even decide the fate of elections. All across America I feel as if I can actually hear the hardening of hearts, the locks being closed on the vaults of money moldering away in private accounts, and minds refusing to be open to the surprise of learning, or encountering, something “new.” The private, and privation, is winning out over the public and the open. Horizons are shrinking, and with them, our potential to be something other than what we are, to become-Other, to care better for this world and all of it inhabitants, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, and to embrace Auden’s dictum, from his poem “September 1, 1939,” “we must love one another or die” [and sure, we need to theorize love in really smart ways that recognize simply “loving” each other is not enough, and may even be harmful and deforming, and furthermore, love itself might have to be re-envisioned as non-selfish and non-self-serving acts of making room for alterity, and please, we can discuss this at length, and have, and will].
In the university as well, under pressures from the so-called outside [economic, ideological, cultural, etc.], we have somewhat turned against each other, or have been forced to make aggressive decisions: which disciplines are more useful, more practical, more valuable, than others? Which programs might we cut? How shall we make various humanities programs more application- and skills-based or more in conversation with other disciplines, and so on? We don’t want to be Luddites ducking every time a new technology or idea comes along that might help us to improve and re-envision in powerful ways our curricula, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel any more as if everyone within the university is working within a framework of solidarity. We need productive dissensus, but we also need a framework of solidarity, and that has been seriously eroded. We do not have solidarity.
Coming home last week after BABEL’s biennial meeting in Boston, or rather, parking myself in Saint Louis at my dear friend Valerie Vogrin’s apartment [which is also home] for a couple of days before departing again for Milwaukee and then Buffalo, I shed another skin. Similar to that moment in Heathrow airport in June 2006 when I felt as if parts of me were falling away and the world cracking open before my eyes, I knew what I would do, possessed of what Jonathan Hsy, under the sway of BABEL’s meeting in Boston but also of a recent talk by Jack Halberstam at GWU, has said must be our willingness “to think more creatively across languages, cultures, times, [to] engage in high theory and low theory, and go gaga on the university itself.” Further, Jonathan wrote, and it is worth repeating here, that we might engage new forms of
“co-disciplinarity” -- a being-together and becoming-together in, through, and among varied modes of knowledge and different cultural/social orientations towards the world. While it's easy to view this image as naively utopian, the light and dark portions of this panoramic vision . . . could suggest a range of unanticipated effects that result from radical modes of becoming-together: yes, there are the positive resonances of “co-disciplinarity” (collaboration, progress, pleasure, belonging), but we might also think about its unintended negative effects too (a broad sense of threat, vulnerability and “co-dependency,” jealously, failure, or persisting exclusions).
What I find so nice about coming-together-across-disciplines via the “co” (rather than “inter-“ or “multi-“ or even “trans-“) is the idea of simultaneity and concurrence as well the term's unintended resonances and connotations. If co-disciplinarity suggests “co-dependency,” so be it: we might be well served to think about striving among disciplines as a form of collective caregiving, attention to many modes of experience, and enabling forms of collective change. Co-disciplinarity -- to gesture towards disability studies -- might be a mode of articulation for disciplinary orientations with nonstandard bodies; as Eileen states in a Facebook status relating a dream she had post-BABEL, we might “create a new university as a work of art.. . . . developing new embodied social practices . . . and the citizenship model would be global and nomadic.”
. . . .
. . . we can also thrive and strive through the pleasures of an open confraternity: reinventing medieval models, we can reconfigure ourselves into a fully inclusive community that encourages acts of scholarly mercy, fosters earnest engagement in the world, and enacts mutual care. Whether or not a newly configured (in)corporation can ever be achieved, let us at least try, even if things don't work out. Let us boldly fail where no one has failed before.
Yes, Jonathan, yes yes yes. Let’s try that.
For me, that means resigning my “regular” job, which I did last Wednesday, with NO OTHER specific job in the offing, no specific place I might, or could land. For now. I am not saying we all have to leave the university now to start a new university, but what I am saying is that, for me, the pace of change within the university is too slow for me, I am getting older, and there is much to do, and much to see. You see, I would like to dream a new university into being [I don’t know how . . . yet], and for now, I just know that I need to spend all of my energies on running the BABEL Working Group and punctum books full-time, with or without an institutional salary. And I want to hang out more with folk like those with the Urmadic University, to see what wisdom I might soak up from others also pursuing radically new educational initiatives. You see, this actually has something to do with the confraternity Jonathan mentions in his post. Starting today, I work on behalf of this confraternity, with all of its attendant positive and negative effects, in order to foster a more collective “earnest engagement with the world” and “mutual care” and to also enlarge the chances of more persons having the their voices and thoughts heard and felt in a more radically open and global intellectual commons. We, or I, might fail. But it will be a beautiful failure, a grand love affair. And this has something to do with happiness as well: not happiness as things we get, or goals we accomplish, but happiness as activity, as that thing that never arrives that, nevertheless, we labor on behalf of. Happiness as work, the work we undertake together to leave knowledge permanently unsettled -- the work of Derrida’s university without condition, and Bill Readings’ university in ruins. To take our theories seriously. To live them. With some hap, and like the misfits in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, we'll make a world together.
To be continued . . . .