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    Sobriquet 54.18

    Sunday, May 31, 2009
    Well, I finally finished the big chunk of reading at which I have been chipping away for the past few weeks.  Although I am going to continue working with the material on Elizabeth Costello tomorrow, I am also preparing to return to the Disgrace chapter. I can't wait to finish that behemoth.

    For tomorrow: Review material on Disgrace in anticipation of returning to work on the chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, May 30, 2009
    Well, I am about a day of so from finishing the work I have been doing for the past couple of weeks and will finally return to the Disgrace chapter. I'm hoping the break from writing the chapter will prove to be good thing for me. At any rate, I have finished a huge chunk of the Elizabeth Costello readings so, by the time I finish with Disgrace, I can at least say that I am well on my way to finishing my prep work for the next chapter.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, May 26, 2009
    I slept long and hard last night, woke up realizing that most retail outlets would be closed in observance of Memorial Day, further realized that roads and parks would be teeming for the same reason, went back to sleep, woke up again, and, frustrated by the inaccessible nature of my more reliable methods of procrastination, did everything in my power to put off reading a text that has been boring me for over a week. I walked for a few miles, I watched Simpsons episodes and sensationalist MSNBC pseudo-documentaries, surfed the internet, chatted on the phone, and sighed a good deal. Then I finally sat down -- reclined, really -- and, moaning and groaning all the while, set about reading the offending text. I read about half of what I wanted to get through today and will continue reading in bed.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, May 24, 2009
    Having spent the past fourteen hours on the road, exploring some of the remoter spans of roadway in the Adirondacks, I am about as close to asleep as one can possibly claim to be while still awake, so I won't write much more than this: I will read a bit more about Elizabeth Costello before calling it a day.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    One of the things that frustrates me most about some academic writing is a tendency to present near-elementary concepts in bewilderingly complex prose. It often seems as if the post-Heideggerian argot embraced by a certain variety of post-structuralist has become, for better or worse, the standard idiom of several branches of the humanities. And, while I have read enough Derrida and company to recognize, however grudgingly, the value of such language in certain situations, I resist the notion that torturously labyrinthine pleonasm and abstruse jargon is intrinsic to the discussion of even the most profound thought. (And, yes, I did use pleonasm to be funny, if only in an ironic word-nerd way. It basically means "wordiness").

    At any rate, I did not post entries the past few evenings because I had tired myself out by reading such texts late into the night.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, May 20, 2009
    I had some pretty hefty ambitions for myself today. I wanted to read twice as much as I normally do, hoping to inaugurate an especially productive period of dissertationism (yes, that's a deliberate neologism). Instead, I struggled to read all afternoon, finally finishing at 2:30 in the morning. But I am getting there. Slowly.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, May 19, 2009
    Although I got through a fairly substantial amount of reading today, I'm still feeling a bit dissatisfied with myself. The dissatisfaction stems primarily from the length of time I have been working on the dissertation, from knowing that had I just skipped Disgrace (which, of course, I could not do), I'd have probably finished the entire thing by now. And, really, I just want to be done with graduate school. I mean, I've learned a lot, I've grown as a person, and all sorts of equally good stuff, but I am ready to move on. In other words, it's time for me to really push myself to finish, to strap on the crampons and work my way across the glacier.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, May 17, 2009
    I spent a few hours reading this afternoon, chipping away at the pile of Elizabeth Costello readings I will need to get through before starting that chapter. Depending on several factors beyond my control, I may finally have the time to return to writing the Disgrace chapter sometime later this week, which will be nice. I really, really would like to finish that sooner rather than later. If things go well with that chapter, then, I will be within spitting distance of finishing the dissertation by the time summer is officially underway.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Up until a few minutes ago, I had been planning on writing a fairly substantial entry for the evening. Then, fatigue swept in and I find myself yawning and looking longingly in the direction of my bed. Taking this development as a sign that I should turn in for the evening, I'll just say that I read a bit more philosophy/criticism for the Elizabeth Costello chapter and will hopefully return to the Disgrace chapter in a matter of days.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, May 16, 2009
    It would seem that I am well on my way to becoming a caricature of the minutia-obsessed scholar.

    As I was researching background information for the most recent section of my chapter on Disgrace, I encountered a quotation attributed to Desmond Tutu and, finding the sentiment the archbishop expressed to be particularly insightful, I incorporated it into my writing. Wanting to avoid the scholastically gauche tactic of citing the secondary source in lieu of the primary, I set out to find the original text from which the quotation was plucked. Since the author of the text I had in front of me neglected to include the relevant details of the original publication in her essay, I set about searching for the original with only the bare minimum of information. After an hour of fruitless internet investigation in which I succeeded in locating the same quote cited as having been located in the same secondary text I already had, I realized that I had exhausted virtually every investigative avenue available to me. Gathering what information I had -- journal title, date, location of publication (Braamfontein, South Africa) -- I placed an interlibrary loan request.

    A few days ago, I received a message in my inbox informing me that my requested item had arrived in the loan office. So, I drove the hour to campus this afternoon, presented my university ID card to the woman at the front desk, and received a copy of the New York-published Anti-Defamation League newsletter from 1982. Puzzled because I had specified that I required a journal from South Africa, I sat down to look at what I had just been handed. Though the content was primarily devoted to discussions of anti-semitism and related issues, I reasoned that perhaps my citation was erroneous and Tutu's words were part of a forum on bigotry in which apartheid-era politics were discussed alongside the more traditional foci of the publication I had in front of me.

    No such luck.

    I went to speak with the reference librarian and, within a few moments, realized that A) the computer program the library insists we use to request material had truncated my request and, accordingly, cropped off some crucial details; and B) the reference librarian had googled my request and, having found a similarly-named publication, decided that it must have been the journal I wanted. It wasn't.

    I wasn't too upset about the misunderstanding, of course. I realize that many inexperienced researchers probably send in vague requests for material and she must have to sort out quite a bit of stuff. I simply pointed out the both the New York Public Library and Yale (among a few dozen other places) own the journal and asked wouldn't she please place another request on my behalf? What made me smirk, though, was the fact that the mistaken material I drove an hour to look at originated in the collection of the library no more than a ten-minute walk from my home. I'll let you do the math on that one but, suffice to say, the endeavor wasn't especially good for the environment.

    But, yeah. I'm going to drive there again soon to get a look at that journal and ensure my citation is as accurate as possible. Like I said, I'm becoming a caricature.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, May 14, 2009
    As much as I'd like to get back to writing the Disgrace chapter, I'm going to put it off for another few days in order to ensure that I can give my full mental and emotional energy to the effort. I'm hoping that that will be possible sooner rather than later. For the moment, I'll be reading some of the criticism on Elizabeth Costello, trying to make a dent in the work for the next chapter. This way, I hope, I'll be able to start writing that chapter sometime in the earlier part of the summer.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, May 12, 2009
    This week has been uncommonly stressful for me and, as a result, I haven't been able to muster up the energy I'd need to write anything worth reading. I did, however, continue working on my dissertation each day. In fact, I have made what I believe to be a major breakthrough in my thinking about the Elizabeth Costello chapter I hope to begin relatively soon. Oddly, just when things seemed to make working on the dissertation next to impossible, I ended up having some of the most productive brainstorming of the entire project. I imagine the sort of person for whom such serendipitous coincidence articulates the existence of some benevolent force in the Great Unknown would chalk my good fortune up to that obscure entity. It was that significant a development. Of course, being the good secularist that I am, I am inclined to attribute this happy circumstance of mine to the materialism of neurotransmission. The sacred language, however, does more justice to the emotional impact of it all than does a more sterile statement about the torsions of my mind.

    At any rate, I will write about some of my reading another day when I am not so sleepy. I decided to play Escape From New York last night and drove to Vermont, where I promptly got lost in Bennington, ending up in front of the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bennington at a quarter to three in the morning. Let me tell you: that's some creepy shit in the dead of night, too. Thanks to a sparsely clouded sky, the moonlight reached the monument and succeeded in casting one of those eerie nighttime shadows over the park grounds as I drove past, adding a dash of horror movie ambience to the whole scene. The air traffic warning lights, glowing menacingly from the recesses of the monolith, only intensified what was then, and in retrospect remains, a truly beautiful moment of otherworldly sublimity. And, as far as I can tell, it was -- and is -- purely, wholly mine.

    Thus fortified by the strange beauty of the unexpected, I sat down and read another article on Elizabeth Costello.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009
    Last night, in my effort to traverse a metaphoric glacier, I decided to get some reading done for the Elizabeth Costello chapter I hope to begin fairly soon. I am, of course, still writing the Disgrace chapter, too, but given a confluence of situations beyond my control, it may be a week or so before I can sit down and really write anything in earnest. At any rate, I read three reviews of Elizabeth Costello and one on the pre-Elizabeth Costello volume, The Lives of Animals:

    1. Of the four, Diana Nelson Jones's assessment of the novel is easily the most disparaging, regarding the book as a "highly dissatisfying work" with unknowable characters and an off-putting protagonist. Predictably, Jones does not seem especially fond of the format of the book, echoing the common refrain that the book is not a novel.

    2. Caroline Moore, too, wonders if Coetzee "has come to the end of writing fiction," though in a considerably less negative tone. Moore's review is concerned with the book's commentary on the relationship between art and artist, fiction and reality and suggests that Coetzee, in speaking through Costello, may actually be inviting people to speculate about his place in the creation of the book and the exchange of ideas rather than attempting to hide behind Costello.

    3. Contrary to the viewpoint espoused by readers such as Jones, Janet Maslin finds the "string of metaphysical pit stops" Coetzee has fashioned into a novel "improbably inviting at the simple narrative level."

    4. David Fraser, in his reading of The Lives of Animals, praises Coetzee for his unique contribution to the debates on animal ethics:
    Rather than raising new issues or proposing new solutions, he uses narrative, allusions, and conversation to capture the moral confusion that our use of animals creates. He helps us see this confusion not as an abstract debate, but as real people in conflict, with a host of differences in personality and worldview, making resolution (even dialogue) difficult and sometimes painful.
    Today, I read Louise Bethlehem's "Materiality and the Madness of Reading," a highly poststructural discussion of corporeality in Elizabeth Costello. Although her ostensible aim is to establish, in Derridean terms, how Coetzee's novel contains traces "of South African literary culture" despite being written by an Australian and set primarily away from Africa, Bethlehem's study spends far more time entering into the rarefied discourses of body, language, and representation. Those of a more theoretical bent will likely find this essay thought-provoking.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

    Works Cited

    Bethlehem, Louise. "Materiality and the Madness of Reading: J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello as Post-Apartheid Text." Journal of Literary Studies. 21.3-4 (2005): 235-54.

    Fraser, David. Rev. of The Lives of Animals, by J. M. Coetzee, et. al. The Quarterly Review of Biology 76.2 (2001): 215-216.

    Jones, Diana Nelson. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 9 Nov. 2003. Available online.

    Maslin, Janet. "The Mockery Can Still Sting With a Target in the Mirror." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Times 21 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Moore, Caroline. "Lessons Drawn From Fiction." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. 8 Sept. 2003. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, May 5, 2009
    I'm guessing I read it in one of those Writer's Market tomes I have lying around my office, but I cannot say so with any certainty. The "it" to which I refer was an author's comment about how, when she decided she wanted to be a writer, she had to force herself to stay up later than normal in order to tap out a few words on her computer. Her point, essentially, was that many would-be authors tend to blame life for getting in the way of his or her work, that child-rearing and jobs and stress and traffic and fatigue and parties and cooking and cleaning and lawn-mowing are too often cited as the reasons a given project never came to fruition. In other words, the writer, like any artist, must create time, must steal an hour here and an hour there, must poke around life looking for whatever hidden space he or she can crawl into and, when there is no crawl space to be found, he or she must scrape, scrape, scrape into the fabric of existence and make a crawl space.

    I am reminded, too, of a famous passage in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five:
    Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

    I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, "Is it an anti-war book?"

    "Yes," I said. "I guess."

    "You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti war books?"

    "No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?"

    "I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?'"

    What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

    And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
    The shit that life tends to throw in one's path, the caltrops we keep stepping on? Our path will never be clear. True, it might clear up for vast stretches, but like wars and glaciers and plain old death, the obstacles will return: the broken pipes, the teething babies, the cancer, the bad weather, the depressed lovers, the thieves in the night, the corrupt officials, the loud neighbors, the solicitors, the aches and pains, the chores, the stresses of work and family, the uncalled for insults, the car accidents, the power outages, the heat waves, the poorly-timed phone calls -- unceasing, uncaring, unbearable.

    The writer, though, cannot blame these obstacles for his or her lack of progress. He or she must write through the pain, in the pain, with the pain of it all.

    I'm not saying that the artist should not take a break, only that we mustn't allow ourselves to sit, waiting for the glacier to pass us by. To succeed in creating, then, we need to strap on our crampons and set out across the glacier, refusing to allow ourselves to blame an unfeeling, inhuman mass for our inability to work. We do well to look at Captain Ahab, destroying the lives of his crew in pursuit of the "inscrutable thing" embodied by the white whale.

    The reason I mention these things this evening is because I may have learned something today. My approach to writing my dissertation has always been to take it in tiny steps, adding to the project day by day. And that approach has been a good one for me. For a while now, though, I have been pressing my shoulder against the cold, inhuman wall of metaphoric glacial ice (I say metaphoric because, actually, in real life, I totally love glaciers) and, predictably, the effort has taken its toll on me, sapping me of some of the energy I might otherwise devote to my dissertation. But that's what has only just struck me: if I want to write my dissertation, I have to follow the advice of that unidentified voice rattling around my sleepy brain like a shrunken pea. I need to make time despite life. Today's crying baby may very well be tomorrow's inconsiderate neighbor.

    So, yeah, it might have to take a bit more legwork to traverse the same distance with the glacier in the way and, yes, it has been slower going than I would have liked but the only way to say fuck you to a dumb, senseless chunk of inhumanity is to admit that it will never hear that insult, will never process it and, instead, trudge over it, work on the dissertation in spite of the difficulty, and always, always remember that I, in walking over the glacier, am above it.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, May 4, 2009
    I spent some time this evening reviewing the passages I'd previously underlined in Disgrace, jotting down notes and trying to plot out the next section of the chapter. Although I thought it would be more tedious than it turned out to be, the procedure was relatively painless and, pleasantly, I made a significant amount of progress in a relatively brief time span.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, May 3, 2009
    When I read James Wood's review of Disgrace last August, his contemptuous tone left a bad taste in my mouth, and I said so in the post I wrote that day. Today, with some curiosity, I picked up Mr. Wood's write-up of Elizabeth Costello and was somewhat surprised by the near-reverent language with which the critic assesses the novel.

    Wood, of course, is one of the world's better English-language literary critics and, when a novel piques his interest or evokes his passion for literature, he tends to pen some of the most insightful and assessable reviews you'll ever come across. Happily, his review of Elizabeth Costello falls into this category. After dismissing the understandable aversion some readers have to the author's curious framing of the novel and positing that Coetzee is not simply "protecting himself by pre-empting criticism" or shying away from taking ownership of often unreasonable ideas, Wood insists, rather lyrically, that the then newly-minted Nobel Laureate has crafted a supreme defense of literature and emotion against the unfeeling onslaughts of some of the modern world's more disarmingly rational approaches to existence. Ultimately, Wood argues, Elizabeth Costello "inclines towards death" while celebrating the beauty of the sympathetic possibilities of the human imagination.

    Recently, I also read Rebecca Ascher-Walsh's dismissal of the novel as a "near miss," Adrienne Miller's generous assessment of the book as a highly effective novel of ideas, and  D. J. Taylor's seemingly reluctant embrace of Coetzee's difficult text. Wood's review, though, is by far the most insightful of the lot.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan.

    Works Cited:

    Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. EW.com. 17 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Miller, Adrienne. "Great Writing About Not Writing." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. Esquire 22 Oct. 2003. Available online.

    Taylor, D. J. Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. The Independent 30 Aug. 2003. Available online.

    Wood, James. "A Frog's Life." Rev. of Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. London Review of Books 23 Oct. 2003. Available online.

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    ____________________________________________
    I woke up this morning with a burning desire to run as far away as I could from my dissertation. Instead of running away, though, I walked up to it, sat down, looked it in the metaphoric eye, and said I don't want to do you today! Then, promptly, I began writing.

    As I have mentioned ad nauseam, every single step of the Disgrace chapter has taken me considerably longer to complete that I would have liked. The process of writing, naturally, has not been an exception to this frustrating rule and each section of the chapter seems to require more thought, more planning, more writing, and more time than I would have imagined. Now, this tendency to prolongate things might be more tolerable for me if it weren't for the fact that, the deeper I get into the chapter (and, indeed, each section of it), the more difficult it becomes for me to recall the larger picture and, so, I repeatedly feel the need to review notes and, even, Coetzee's novel. You know, just to refresh my memory and reassure myself that I haven't deviated from the course I have set.

    Today, I finally finished the section I have been toiling on for the last month, the section that I carried with me from New York to Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota. I'd thought it was maybe a week's worth of work. It took roughly five times that. But I finished, which is the important thing. The only problem, of course, is that I have again come to the point where I feel I need to review my original outline, re-read articles and notes, and other equally frustrating tasks . . . all while feeling tremendously burnt out by the process.

    Still, if I have learned anything at all from this process it is -- you will have to pardon me for borrowing the terminology of psychoanalysis -- that a dissertation's best friend is often the superego of its author, that wearisome part of the mind that strives always to achieve perfection, even as the ego begins to echo the id's cries of I want to do something else! This is ridiculous! No one's gonna read this anyway! Let's go have fun! In other words, as I have said elsewhere, writing a dissertation has taught me to appreciate the value of perversity: I must do that which I do not wish to do. And I have to do it consistently over a long period of time. For me, the dissertation is, in a sense, a contemporary, secular means of achieving the sort of self-discipline and self-knowledge as that brought about by the willful self-deprivation practiced by mystics and anchorites of a certain type.

    When an individual looks back over his or her life, he or she sees the behavior that shapes his or her identity. If he or she has cheated on a test, he or she may say I am a cheater. If he or she bumps into someone's car in a parking lot and chooses not to say anything to the affected party, he or she may say Apparently I am the sort of person who would rather hide from responsibility than face an unpleasant reality. For me, working on the dissertation despite not wanting to do so allows me to say I can work hard, with integrity, with no guarantee of reward or even simply I am the sort of person who can write a dissertation. And that, I suppose, is a good thing.

    For tomorrow: Read or plan for the next section of the Disgrace chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, May 2, 2009
    It took me until 11:00 PM to get myself into gear and now, as it nears four in the morning, I can finally say that I finished another paragraph. I just could not seem to connect my thoughts or, rather, collect them. So I sat, curser blinking menacingly, and stared at the screen for far too long. Every line I typed, it seemed, I deleted.

    And this went on for some time.

    Painfully, slowly, the writing finally came, but only after an awful lot of fretting. And, to be honest, I really do not feel comfortable with the quality of what I have just finished writing despite the amount of time I devoted to it.

    But, I suppose, days like today are part of the process and, if anything, I can at least say that I have pushed my way through one of the more miserable parts of the dissertation,

    Now, though, I want to get some sleep.

    For tomorrow: Read, write, or plan.

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