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    Sobriquet 52.25

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009
    Well, I've had a nice week of relatively low-intensity work on the dissertation. I have spent the majority of the time trying to give my mind a much-needed break from the writing process that had taken so much out of me. To this end, I made a conscious effort to take things easy, allowing myself to reread Disgrace in brief snatches each day but otherwise avoiding the dissertation's less pleasant aspects. This evening, though, I began reviewing the notes I will be using for the next section of the Disgrace chapter, so I reckon I will start that bit soon enough.

    Among other things, I have been plagued by one of the more persistent of my dissertation-woes: the feeling that I just want to be done with school, the sense that I am too old to be doing the student thing. Basically, I have been wrestling with the very feeling that opposes the slow-but-steady philosophy I have been touting the entire time I have been working on the dissertation in earnest.

    My solution to this problem has been to try incorporating some of the things I feel like I have been putting off while a student into my life, whenever possible. I try to read books I am interested in once in a while (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Saramago's Blindness, and Schlink's The Reader, currently), have taken a few day trips, gone to concerts, and am planning (possibly unrealistically) to take some longer excursions in the near future. It's really the only solution I can come up with to this lousy feeling. I mean, if I sometimes feel like being a graduate student for the length of time I have been one has gotten in the way of living my life, the only reasonable way to reap the benefits of my studies and live my life is to do both simultaneously, right?

    Still, it has been hard lately. I suppose that's the thing, though: when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you feel like you've sort of made it there and kinda resent the last leg of the journey. . .

    Oh, and I have begun second-guessing everything I have written thus far, wondering if maybe I could rework it all to ensure that every possible insight I have can be included. This is, of course, not possible, but that doesn't seem to stop me from worrying about leaving out whatever nugget of insight I recall at any given moment.

    For tomorrow: Keep planning.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, March 25, 2009
    Tonight's post'll have to be a short one because I really haven't a whole lot of energy left to write anything. So, without any unnecessary dilly-dallying:

    For tomorrow, Thursday, et cetera: Continue rereading and reviewing material and planning the next section of the Disgrace chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, March 24, 2009
    I finally finished the section I'd been struggling to get through, so I am probably going to take a short break from writing the Disgrace chapter to review the material I will be drawing upon for the next section. This chapter is already longer than the one I wrote on Age of Iron last winter and will probably be considerably bulkier than the behemoth I wrote on The Master of Petersburg last spring, so this break in writing will allow me to recuperate some of the energy I have expended in writing what is, length-wise, already a chapter-sized hunk of the dissertation. More importantly, though, taking a breather here will allow me to -- hopefully -- reacquaint myself with the material I plan to discuss. That, I imagine, will be the biggest benefit. The sheer size of this chapter means that I will be spending a long time writing and, the longer one writes, the greater the distance separating him or her from his or her source material. Recapturing that intimacy is, by far, the most important thing I can do at the moment.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of the novel and continue making notes and plans for the next section.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, March 23, 2009
    Since I spent the past six or seven or eight hours writing and because it is 2:30 in the morning, I really haven't the energy to write much tonight. All I will say is that it was next to impossible for me to start writing, I am unsatisfied with what I did write, and I got tired before I finished writing what I'd wanted to write. Somehow, though, I feel a tiny bit productive. Weird.

    For tomorrow: Either finish this section or read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, March 22, 2009
    Since I skipped posting anything last night, I'll just post a quick "assignment" for myself today.

    For today: Write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, March 21, 2009
    As I have mentioned in each of the past few posts, I am having a difficult time writing the Disgrace chapter. The longer I spend writing the chapter, it seems, the more I struggle. Part of the problem, I suppose, is the simple fact that the longer I spend writing, the farther removed I am from the planning stages and from the criticism I spent so much time reading. To remedy this issue, I have been rereading the novel and, within the next few days, will begin revisiting some of the criticism. Since I am (mercifully) nearing the conclusion of a rather lengthy section of the chapter, there's something of a clean break between what I have been writing and what I will be writing next coming up. One difficulty I have had with the particular section I have been working on lately is that, while it is not an introduction, per se, it does set up and unify the sections that will follow it. Once it is completed, however, I will be able to address each of the next few sections as I would an individual essay; that is to say, I can review the criticism and notes for each section, draft an outline, and write it without worrying about altering the structure of future segments. That will be nice.

    The real difficulty I have been having is similar to a problem I first identified while writing my chapter on The Master of Petersburg last spring. Looking back at one of my entries from last May, I seem to have identified the source(s) of some of my discomfort:
    the further I get into a given chapter, the more I worry about its quality. This seems to happen every time I write anything of a certain length. I suppose it is only natural that, the more one invests in a given project, the more he or she stands to lose if it is rejected. Still, the anxiety that accompanies the latter stages of the chapter can make writing that much more difficult.
    and, from another post:
    There have been times when I have felt some satisfaction, have sensed that the day's work was pretty solid but, as is much more often the case, I tend to feel as if I have not done a good enough job, that my work is a sprawling mess, that I have veered off topic. And the weight of those doubts tend to get heavier over time.
    Ugh.

    For tomorrow: Read or, if I can, try to write some more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, March 20, 2009
    Here's an odd thing: although I am on my sixth or seventh reading of Disgrace, I am still finding new things to think about. It's pretty crazy, really. No matter how simple the book seems, I just keep finding more stuff to ponder. And that's what I'll be doing a bit more of before bed tonight.

    For tomorrow: Plot out a bit more of the chapter and, if possible, write some of the damn thing.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, March 19, 2009
    I ended up writing another little bit of the dissertation, but only after I spent the vast majority of the day feeling stressed out over the whole thing. I am so overwhelmed by the size of this chapter. I mean, I've been working on Disgrace for the better part of a year and every single stage of the process seems to take much longer than expected and require more work than anticipated. And that's frustrating. Right now, I am struggling to connect a few dots. There are times when everything sparkles in crystal clarity while, at some other moments, everything looks muddled to me. And that's where the stress really starts to eat away at my desire to work. Plus, the deeper I get into the chapter, the more I feel like I have invested and the more I stand to lose if things don't go together as planned. So, there's a part of me that fretted today. And I fretted all day. Until some time after ten when I told Fretting Erik to get off his fretting ass and start working. Which I did.

    But, man. I always seem to hit this point. Once I cross a certain number of pages -- say, twenty or thirty -- everything changes and the dynamic of writing becomes something a bit more painful.

    Still, I knew there would be some rough patches when I started this thing and, if this is one of them, so be it. I just hope that, ultimately, days like today will be few and far between.

    For tomorrow: Reread a bit or plan some more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, March 18, 2009
    It's nearing two in the morning and I still haven't started today's work. I will, of course, get my little bit of rereading done before calling it a night, but I am a bit disappointed with myself for having put off so little for so long.

    My real concern, though, is getting myself back into the swing of writing. I'm about to begin writing a rather significant section of my chapter on Disgrace, so I am a bit anxious about it. I mean, I'm already pretty deep into the chapter page-wise, but I still have quite a way to go before I am done and this upcoming section is a fairly significant bridge between what I have written thus far and what I hope to write for the remainder of the chapter.

    So, yeah. There's some agitation...

    For tomorrow: Either write a bit or, if that proves still a day or two away, plan for the next bit of writing.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, March 17, 2009
    I spent most of the day running chores and much of the evening grading papers, so I was only able to squeeze in a bit more rereading for the Disgrace chapter. Of course, I really enjoy the book and, since I actually have been finding passages I'd overlooked in previous readings, I am pretty satisfied with myself. Still, I do not especially like being away from the actual writing of the chapter for more than a day or two, so I am a bit antsy about it all, longing to get back in the proverbial saddle.

    For tomorrow: Reread or plot out a bit of the chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, March 16, 2009
    Since I skipped posting last night, I figured I'd write a quick entry this afternoon. Yesterday was a pretty good day for me, actually. I finished the bulk of my more onerous chores and, despite being a bit tired, reread enough of Disgrace to get my mind working on what will be the next section of the chapter, which I intend to start writing in a day or two.

    For today: Just reread a bit more. It's annoying because I want to write, but I have other stuff I have to do instead. But, as Opus would say, life is life, la, la, la, la, la.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, March 15, 2009
    As I mentioned yesterday, I did not expect myself to get much dissertation work done today. In between running chores and getting some fresh air, though, I reread a bit more of Disgrace and thought a bit about the next little section I will be writing, so I made some progress. Annoyingly, I will be busy with even more chores over the next couple of days, so I mightn't get much more than reading done on the dissertation front.

    For tomorrow: Read or, if I can somehow find the time, write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, March 14, 2009
    I often operate under the perversity principle when writing my dissertation: I write when I don't feel like writing. The logic, of course, is that I rarely want to write it, so I simply have to write on the days I have no desire to do so. It's like dieting, really. You never actually want to diet -- you do it because you want the result.

    At any rate, today was one of the days when I might have been better off not writing. Admittedly, I got through a few pages and they're not awful, I don't think, but something felt odd about them. I suspect it may be because I didn't start writing until a relatively late hour, that fatigue altered the way I perceived what I typed. We'll have to see.

    For tomorrow: Read or write. Since I have a bunch of non-dissertation stuff I need to take care of, writing mightn't be the easiest thing to fit into my schedule, but, ultimately, I would rather get a bit more of the Disgrace chapter behind me than not.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, March 13, 2009
    I'm just going to make a quick post this afternoon because I decided to skip last night's entry in favor of eating pie and hanging out. 

    For today: Read or write. Preferably the latter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, March 12, 2009
    When I woke up this morning, I noticed the sun shining a bit through a miniscule break in the cloud cover. Though I was still half asleep and would, within a few minutes, tumble back into it, I was delighted. I mean, the past few days had looked like this:

    Anyway, there's this scene in Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? that came to mind immediately: Robert Syverton has been stuck inside a seaside building for nearly a month, trying to win a marathon dance competition. For ten minutes a day, he discovers, the sun manages to penetrate the otherwise dark dance floor. He lives for those moments, plans his days around those moments, stands on his tiptoes to feel the last rays of the sun as it moves beyond the window's edge, taking what little natural light was left with it. Today, I felt like Robert. As I lay in bed, I reveled in the sun, fully expecting it to vanish after ten minutes.

    When I re-awoke, however, I found that the sky was virtually cloud-free and the sun was shining full-force. At once, I decided to skip writing for today and just walk around in the fresh air.

    And it was glorious. As Robert would say, it was lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely.

    So, I read a bit more of Disgrace instead.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009
    I'll keep tonight's entry brief, just saying that I began rereading Disgrace one more time in the hopes of refreshing my memory as I continue writing the chapter of my dissertation devoted to the book. And, so far, it's been a good decision. There's a real comfort in the review process. As I read the book, I feel closer to Coetzee's text and, accordingly, write with a bit more vigor and ease.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009
    Although I spent most of my day running around doing chores and other non-dissertation stuff, I did get a few hours of writing in this evening. Today was actually one of those days when I really, really had to get some substantial work done. As is the case with any similarly large-scale project with a protracted timeline, one needs to work consistently and, in doing so, build a sense of momentum that will propel him or her through the harder parts. When one stops for whatever reason, it becomes harder to start again. I think of it this way: A person has a wheelbarrow he has to push across a certain length of space. While he's pushing the load, the physics of the situation makes it easier to keep pushing it, but when he stops, he must exert more energy to lift it and push it enough to build up the momentum he'd had earlier. Furthermore, in this little scenario, there's a provision that whenever our hero gets tired or distracted, he may rest but, for each rest day, he must add another stone to the barrowload. Thus, the longer he rests, the more difficult it is for him to start up again.

    Today was one of those days when, having been away from the pushing of the barrow, I knew that if I stayed away from writing any longer, it would be extremely difficult for me to begin again. So, that was the main reason I wrote today. I just could not add another stone to the pile.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, March 9, 2009
    I have been having a difficult time focusing on my dissertation lately. Although I have continued to make progress, it has taken me longer than I regard as normal to complete some of the tasks I have set out for myself. I had intended to use this evening to read some of the philosophy I'd begun reviewing yesterday but, as minutes stretched into hours, I found myself reading the same passages over and over, absorbing little (though, when I did absorb what I read, I felt the great wheels upstairs begin to creak) and frustrating myself pretty consistently.

    Aside from struggling with myself in terms of work, I am considering adding yet another rereading of Disgrace to my schedule. Although it has only been a couple of months since I last read the book, I would like to re-immerse myself in Coetzee's text and develop an even more intimate familiarity with the stories and ideas contained in the novel. I'll have to see, though, if I have the time to revisit the book. It'd be fun, though. I wouldn't have to scrutinize the text for underlineable quotations, having so recently done so. I could, for the first time in a while, just read the book for the experience of reading it. We'll see what I do with that option, though I am inclined to assign that sort of reading on days when I work long hours or have a substantial amount of grading or administrative work to do.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, March 8, 2009
    Rather than write anything this afternoon, I decided to review some of the philosophy I may be referencing later on in the Disgrace chapter, so I really haven't a whole lot to write this evening.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, March 6, 2009
    One of my students stopped by my office yesterday afternoon to discuss some of the reading she has been doing for an independent study and, among other things, we talked about a tendency both of us have experienced to contextualize the world in Sartrean terms after reading Being and Nothingness. Our discussion reminded me of a similar conversation I'd had while still a Master's student in 2001. One of my classmates walked out of the seminar room, somehow wincing and grinning at the same time. I can't look at the world the same way anymore, she said. I keep looking at other people and wondering "are you creating me" or "am I creating you?" Like my student yesterday, my classmate had just finished reading part of Sartre's massive text and, mind spinning, found that his phenomenological ontology had utterly changed the way in which she perceived the world.

    Few authors have had such an impact on me, though Sartre is undeniably one of the few who have. I mean, there's hardly a day that goes by without my reflecting upon mauvais foi and I often think of the vivid illustrations the philosopher uses to convey his observations.

    Lately, J. M. Coetzee has become another such figure in my intellectual life. Every discussion I have about fast food or animal rights, for instance, recalls Elizabeth Costello and each time my friend and I discuss politics over dinner, I remember the "Strong Opinions" Juan Coetzee expresses in Diary of a Bad Year. So, I wasn't especially surprised when, in the middle of Sherman Alexie's presentation of Cornell's annual Olin lecture this evening, I began to reflect on Elizabeth Costello's invocation of Kafka's Red Peter and her own difficulty in performing for an audience. Then, like the proverbial floodgate unleashing its symbolic deluge, Coetzee's comments about the writer-as-performer in Elizabeth Costello (both the titular character and Emmanuel Egudu joined Red Peter in my mind) as well as in the interview Coetzee granted Stirrings Still a few years ago prompted me to reflect on Mr. Alexie's thoroughly engrossing performance. As a fan of Coetzee (not to mention the similarly performance-shunning William Gaddis), I have often thought about what it is that makes us beg writers to speak. And, correspondingly, what prompts writers to speak.

    Now, certainly, some writers are natural performers and, to be sure, Mr. Alexie is one of the finest I have seen. Like Egudu, Alexie effortlessly draws his audience into the web of his storytelling, entertaining while he edifies. But, despite my conviction that Mr. Alexie was quite at home on stage, I could not help but wonder about the deeper implications of asking a writer to give a lecture to a crowd of folks trained to dissect the words he writes. Nor could I put from my mind the fact that, like the fictional African novelist in Coetzee's text, Alexie speaks from (and, some would argue, for) a group of people for whom storytelling has traditionally been an oral medium. And yet, despite Alexie's remarkable ability to speak publicly, I ended up in that auditorium because of the man's written words, because I enjoyed the solitary act of reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

    And, ultimately, this is one of the great joys of writing a dissertation on a writer like Coetzee. The more I immerse myself in his fiction, the more I reflect upon the questions he raises, the more deeply I experience my own existence. Like Sartre, Coetzee has changed the way I look at the world, adding a degree of reflection to many of my day-to-day activities.

    On the work front, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace and came across even more philosophy I will want to read before I write one of the later sections of the chapter.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Since it's already half past one in the morning, I'm going to have to keep tonight's post on the brief side. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busiest days this term, so I rarely have the time (and, even less frequently, the energy) to get make any substantial progress on my dissertation, so I have had to satisfy myself with reading a bit of criticism on Elizabeth Costello. The review I read this evening, David Lodge's "Disturbing the Peace," is probably one of the longer reviews of the novel that you're likely to come across and, I am guessing, one of the more comprehensive discussions of the book to appear in a popular (though, certainly, quasi-academic) publication. As one might expect from a piece in The New York Review of Books, Lodge devotes the majority of his attention to an uncommonly detailed summarization of the text's plot, though he frequently interjects with his own thoughtful reflections on the book (and its place in the author's oeuvre), raising what I imagine will turn out to be some of the most frequently discussed aspects of the novel among subsequent critics: the novel's dizzyingly complex metafictional structure, Coetzee's bold decision to place fictionalized versions of his literary contemporaries in the text, the ethics of human-animal relations, literary authority, and artistic transcendence. 

    I especially appreciate Lodge's handling of the rather difficult question of authority in Elizabeth Costello, refusing as he does both the temptation to gloss over the author's multi-faceted exploration of the theme as well as the urge to offer a definitive interpretation. Instead, Lodge poses questions about the ways in which the unidentified narrator of Elizabeth Costello, the novel's eponymous heroine, and the book's creator interact with and comment upon one another without allowing the fragile narrative labyrinth to implode.

    Of further significance is Lodge's treatment of Elizabeth's physical and pathological frailty and their bearing on her struggles to connect with others throughout the book. At once critical of her shortcomings both as a character and as a fictional construct and sympathetic to Coetzee's ambitious artistic aims, Lodge's analysis of the book questions Elizabeth's sanity, moral convictions, and ability to reason while engaging with her on an intellectual level, even going so far as to include a discussion of the Paul West novel at the center of one of the book's "Lessons," concluding that, while her logic may be lacking, her impressions are valid.

    Work Cited

    Lodge, David. "Disturbing the Peace." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Review of Books 50.18 (2003). Available Online.

    For tomorrow: Read, transcribe, or -- preferably -- write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, March 4, 2009
    I managed to get through another bit of the Disgrace chapter this afternoon, which was satisfying. Although I struggled at times to write what I did, today's chunk of writing was nowhere near as difficult to get through as what I wrote a few days ago. For that tiny miracle, I'm grateful.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of criticism, transcribe some of my notes on Elizabeth Costello or, if fatigue doesn't drag me too far down, write a little more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Since my Tuesdays are pretty packed this semester, I did not expect to get a whole lot of work on my dissertation done today. The lingering effects of whatever variety of head cold I seem to have contracted, when combined with a lack of sleep (owing, in large part, to the irregular chirruping of a weird beeping sound located somewhere outside my window. Seriously, you would have thought Sputnik had landed or something. It was weird.) and a long day of work made for a very groggy evening. So, rather than try to force a bit of writing out of my yawning self, I decided to transcribe some of the material I'd collected for the Elizabeth Costello chapter. Not the most exciting evening, to be sure, but productive nonetheless.

    For tomorrow: Preferably add a bit more to the Disgrace chapter. Alternately, read some criticism on Elizabeth Costello or continue transcribing notes.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, March 2, 2009
    Although I somehow managed to forget to post a "for tomorrow" assignment last night, I still had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do today. And, while I did wake up congested and a bit achy, I did sit down to write and I did manage to push my way through a bit more of my Disgrace chapter. And, like yesterday, it took me a very long time to write relatively little. It often strikes me that the bulk of the work is really in the blank spaces between the typed text, finding ways to pull words out of the nothingness and stringing them together. And that conjuring of words, that forging of order out of chaos is simply not seen in the end product. Books feel so smooth, so polished, that the strain of writing them is often forgotten in the act of reading them. Which, in the end, is probably a good thing. Still, that's one of the nice things about this blog: I like the fact that somewhere I can document that strain, that a reader can perceive the length of the process and the scope of the effort simply by looking at the string of posts. I like knowing that, in some way, the blank space on the pages won't be forgotten.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of criticism, transcribe notes on Elizabeth Costello or, if possible, add a bit more to the Disgrace chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, March 1, 2009
    Since I woke up feeling a bit ill this morning, I opted to skip all the fun parts of my day and spend my time sleeping off as much of the rheuminess as possible. Once I shook the lingering effects of congested sleep from my body, I managed to get up, walk over to my computer and write a few more pages of the Disgrace chapter.

    As usual, all the hallmarks of Erik-in-writing-mode have appeared. The waves of lassitude, anxiety, and self-doubt have been sloshing about, jostling me here and there, but, as always, I have tried to extend my middle finger in that timeless gesture of brazen nya-na-na-na-na-na and just keep working. But I would be lying if I said there weren't a few moments when I really, really wanted to stomp off into the woods, leaving academia far behind me.

    Seriously, once spring arrives, I'll be hiking a lot, I'm sure. Though I may bring a book with me...

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