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    Sobriquet 54.9

    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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    Monday, April 27, 2009
    Well, I have about two more pages to read before bed and then I will feel fairly comfortable saying I have finally finished the ridiculous amount of preparatory work I decided I needed to complete before finishing up the section of the dissertation I am currently writing. At the root of this whole week-long jaunt is my sense of obligation. Among the people I know writing their dissertations at various institutions around the world, quite a few have alluded to the fact that, a my dissertation is not a book, the writer really need not do as much research as I have been doing, which I find rather difficult to accept. I mean, isn't a dissertation supposed to demonstrate one's expertise, supposed to distinguish a scholar as an expert in his or her field? Perhaps this is just another instance of an idealist working in a cynically pragmatic environment but, hell, I want to at least be able to look at myself when this thing is done and say, "Nice job, Erik. You really couldn't have done a better job." I mean, really, if you're gonna spend years on something, it's going to be a massive part of your individual history, right? Might as well make it as satisfying a memory as possible, I reckon.

    For tomorrow: Plan or write.

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    Friday, June 27, 2008
    One of the more difficult aspects of the dissertation-writing process, for me, has been ensuring that I have read virtually everything on Coetzee. Every time I finish photocopying and ordering articles, it seems, I come across a reference to another, even-harder-to-find essay that I must then attempt to locate. More often than not, the source of the article I cannot find is a South African publication ('cuz, you know, I'm writing about one of that nation's most famous authors), which makes it considerably more difficult to obtain in the States than, say, a Canadian magazine. If anything, the process has taught me that supporting freely-assessable web-based e-journals should figure high on the list of the Academy's priorities. There's so much information out there and we have the means to distribute it efficiently and cost-effectively. . .let's do it!

    Anyway, I read Carrol Clarkson's "'Done because we are too menny': Ethics and Identity in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" this evening. Focusing largely on the ethical implications of Darwinian theory, Clarkson uses Coetzee's allusions to Hardy's Jude the Obscure to enter into a discussion of human ephemerality in Disgrace. Ultimately, Clarkson argues, Coetzee presents his reader with a document that emphasizes "the transtemporality of the individual life as a carrier of something larger than" one's own existence (87). Also, in a completely unrelated note, Clarkson pens what may be the single greatest bit of prose I have ever seen in a piece of literary criticism, especially when taken out of context:
    Humankind shares 40% of its genes with the banana. This may surprise you, but I would hazard a guess that the staggering ontological fact in itself does little to appease your general sense of miserable alienation, let alone your more profound European Angst... (84)
    Overall, Clarkson's essay is a solid study of the role of animals in Coetzee's novel as agents of humility, their very existence forcing humanity to reconsider its assumptions about the value of individual existence.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Clarkson, Carrol. "'Done because we are too menny': Ethics and Identity in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" Current Writing 15.2 (2003): 77-90.

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    Wednesday, April 16, 2008
    In addition to reading a bit of Life & Times of Michael K. today, I read Charles Sarvan's "Disgrace: A Path to Grace?" Although I vaguely remember reading the essay a few years ago while researching the novel for my last-ever paper for my last-ever graduate seminar, I'd forgotten virtually everything about the article.

    To be honest, I did not find Sarvan's essay particularly helpful. In fact, the essay reads like a rather uninspired book report, albeit with good grammar. The bulk of the article is plot summary, though the occasional critical insights do make the piece a bit more substantial than, say, your average scholarly book review. To Sarvan's credit, he does pick up on and discuss some of the novel's more overlooked content (the incestuous overtones of David Lurie's relationship with Melanie Isaacs, for instance). Otherwise, the essay retreads fairly common critical territory such as the various meanings of (dis)grace and the novel's commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa. The essay's big fault, however, is its over-reliance on a strangely eclectic group of classic literary and philosophical texts to "support" what often amounts to merely pedestrian observation. Citing everyone from novelists as varied as Thomas More and Nadine Gordimer to poets like W. H. Auden and William Butler Yeats to philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Boethius as well as canonical works of Eastern religious thought (The Upanishads and The Dhammapada, in particular), it often seems like Sarvan is more eager to display the breadth of his learning than he is in probing Coetzee's novel -- and, in doing so, often derails what has the potential to be a thoughtful and provocative discussion. Indeed, "A Path to Grace?" does little more than scratch the surface of an intricate novel, leaving readers with the level of insight one might expect from a casual reading.

    For tomorrow: Write. If I find the energy, read a bit as well.

    Work Cited
    Sarvan, Charles. "Disgrace: A Path to Grace?" World Literature Today 78.1 (2004): 26-29.

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    Tuesday, April 15, 2008
    Having spent far too much time photocopying essays last night, I did not get home until close to five this morning. Still, though it did take me some time to fall asleep, I did not sleep in too late this afternoon and I did manage to get some writing done, which was nice.

    At any rate, I really wanted to get some writing done yesterday, though I'd only assigned myself the simple task of finishing Disgrace. At any rate, having finished rereading the novel relatively early yesterday, I'd hoped to get some writing done before bed, mostly to combat the sense of not making progress that tends to nag me when I skip more than a day of writing when I'm in "writing mode." Feeling that I'd wasted a golden opportunity to make some headway, I decided to try to be productive in another way. Hence the hour's drive to the library. Furthermore, I figured, such a trip meant I could listen to an audiobook and visit with a friend that will be moving to China in a few months, two extra-curricular activities I knew I would enjoy, and which I rarely have the time for while working on the dissertation.

    So it was a good day.

    Of course, a significant chunk of the afternoon's procrastination stemmed from the renewed sense that Jeezus, man, this thing takes so freaking long to get done! Finding out that there are more than eighty articles dealing with Disgrace -- only about a third of which I was able to get my not-so-greedy hands on -- did not cheer me up, either. Nor did spending more than twenty dollars photocopying that one-third of the criticism on the novel. The only tiny bit of relief came when I realized that if I did not count my own publications on the novel, I could cut the number of essays I need to read down to just under eighty. I was, like, thank you me. That helps!

    So, I got some writing done today. The process remains a slow one, the work remains a less-than-satisfying experience for someone restless to just finish it already, but progress is progress, right?

    For tomorrow: Read an article on Disgrace or fifteen pages in Life & Times of Michael K. Keep it light.

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    Friday, December 14, 2007
    First of all, I want to thank all my friends who have been stopping by and reading Sobriquet Magazine, sending encouraging emails, and otherwise supporting me. I am pleased to report that, despite a poor night's rest and an awfully strong temptation to hit snooze until the alarm simply stopped buzzing, I managed to pull myself out of bed and make the hour-long drive to the library, as planned. I even read the one essay--albeit a brief one--I had assigned myself for the day. In all honesty, I think it was knowing that I would have to report on my progress here that really helped me resist succumbing to the lure of closing my leaden eyelids. So, again, thank you for reading!

    One of the best parts of library research is the photocopying. Seriously. Since it takes so long to locate, copy, collate, and staple journal articles, one has the delightful sense of having worked without exerting any significant amount of effort in the process.

    On the other hand, I find myself frustrated by the fact that the library I use does not subscribe to every single serial ever published. Thus, of the forty articles listed in the MLA database pertaining to Age of Iron, only a dozen or so were to be found in the library, forcing me to resort to the library's cleverly-dubbed "Iliad" inter-library loan service to request help from afar (because, you know, requesting books and articles from distant libraries is an awful lot like the Trojan War).

    So, after I collected the articles, I decided to read Georg M. Gugelberger's "'Heralding' the New 'Age of Iron': J. M. Coetzee's Homelessness, Migrancy, and Nomadology," an essay both interesting and frustrating. I say "frustrating" because the article is riddled with the sort of errors one hates to find in a peer-reviewed academic journal. First of all, Gugelberger erroneously refers to Coetzee's novel as "The Age of Iron" throughout the paper, adding the definite article to the title for no apparent reason. In a similar vein, Mrs. Curren, the novel's protagonist, becomes "Mrs. Cullen" by the essay's end (134). Furthermore, the author calls Curren "an old spinster," a designation that might mislead readers unfamiliar with Coetzee's novel into believing that the woman has never been married (although it is not explicitly stated that Curren was, in fact, married, the novel is in the form of an epistolary novel to her daughter in which she makes several comments suggesting she had lost a husband to illness some time prior to the opening of the book). Strangely, while Gugelberger does use the elderly woman's correct surname at this stage in his essay, he dubs her "Ellen," when her name is actually Elizabeth (130). I realize I am playing semantic games here, but little errors like these make me doubt the author's grasp of the novel and, as a result, cast a shadow of doubt over the interpretations and claims in the article.

    Additionally, for an essay appearing in a journal called "Christianity and Literature," there is no mention of Christianity and--oddly--hardly any discussion of Coetzee's literature. Instead, Gugelberger speaks in broad terms of a paradigm shift he imagines will take place in the humanities. Drawing on Edward Said's discussions of exile, the author posits that a concern with metaphysical homelessness will take the place of the Other as the locus of postcolonial discourse, and suggests that Coetzee, constantly at the vanguard of the literary imagination, serves as the harbinger for this new movement. Despite his careless errors, however, Gugelberger is right to identify a somewhat broader conception of homelessness as a major--not necessarily the major--concern of writers caught under the umbrella of postcolonialism. One need look no further than Slow Man for evidence of this concern: Elizabeth Costello is "homeless" when separated from Paul Rayment, who has spent his life living in homes, but never feeling "at home" (159). Still, the article adds little to the body of criticism surrounding Coetzee and, despite its overtures towards redefining a literary-cultural epoch, merely repeats, to greater or lesser degrees, the same conceptions of homelessness one encounters in Said's discussions of exile, Steinbeck's depiction of Okies, Rushdie's notion of an "imaginary homeland," or Camus's vision of l'etranger.

    For tomorrow: Read a minimum of two more essays and see if any of the articles I could not find in my library are available at Cornell's library.

    How nerdy am I? This nerdy:

    Works Cited
    Coetzee, J. M. Slow Man. New York: Viking, 2005.

    Gugelberger, Georg M. "'Heralding' the New 'Age of Iron': J. M. Coetzee, Homelessness, Migrancy, and Nomadology." Christianity and Literature. 45.1 (1995): 129-36.

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