Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.

Taming The Beast: Writing By Deleting Text

Some six or so years ago, I began work on a book. I’m still not done and the end isn’t in sight either. I’ve alluded to this state of affairs on this blog before: on my About page where I make note of the extremely impressive and portentous title the book bears, and once, in a post on the anxieties of the ‘creative process’ when I confessed I seemed to be permanently adrift in that terrifying stage where you feel like a dog’s dinner is considerably more promising in its appearance than your dearly beloved project. In the intervening years, I’ve finished other books, so all is not lost, but this unfinished work is now an albatross and a millstone and several other metaphorical burdens to boot. Almost three years ago, as I returned to teaching after my academic and parenting sabbatical, I realized my ‘book’ did not deserve such a dignified title; it was merely a file containing some ninety-five thousand words of notes culled from various sources and some assorted ramblings scattered throughout, posing as commentary and annotation and critique.

This morning, during my hopefully daily editing session that I’ve set aside to work on my book, the word count approached sixty-nine thousand. I’ve finally begun to tame the beast, in the best possible way, by cutting it down to size. Twenty-six thousand words have bit the dust. The file might grow again but for now, matters appear considerably more tractable than they did three years ago.

There is some deeply satisfying about deleting troublesome text, words and sentences that refuse to behave, to make sense, to conform, to fit in. Negotiations have failed; expulsion is the only way out. And so it happens; I highlight the block of text, and Ctrl-X the sucker. If it’s lucky, it goes into a separate file called ‘bitbucket,’ possibly to be salvaged for future use and reintroduced into another version of the manuscript; if I’m feeling particularly ruthless, I do not bother with such niceties. History informs me that I’ve never, ever, reused anything from a bit bucket file; it’s merely there to provide a kind of security blanket, a fallback measure of sorts; but once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on, and that’s that. There’s no looking back. (There are, of course, many deletions that occur because I’ve carried out an efficient rewrite of the same material; that’s satisfying too in its own special way; the succinct, sharp, expression of a thought in a sentence remains an aspirational ideal and much brush needs to be cleared to bring that about.)

Deleting text is an old writing technique; it’s one of writing’s great pleasures. Sure, there are times it’s agonizing–thus leading to the sober gnomic advice to not be afraid to kill your darlings–but truth be told, very little regret ever evinces itself. The text to be deleted stands in the way, obscuring the promised view; shoving it aside gets rid of the dross, letting the gold shine through.

I really should have been working on my book instead of writing this post. Tomorrow morning, and more deletions beckon.


An Anxiety-Provoking Description Of The Creative Process

There are many, many, descriptions of the stages of the creative process. Some have been memorialized into pithy, quasi-inspirational, meme-worthy statements that can be shared on the net, all the better to encourage anxious, insecure, doubt-ridden procrastinators, distracting themselves from their creative ‘tasks’ by incessantly checking their social media feeds.  Roughly, they amount to this: you have an idea; you think it is great; you get to work on it; you ‘find out’ it is actually a very bad, very unoriginal, very vacuous, superficial idea, one which no one in their right mind would ever have had; then you ‘find out’ your idea is not so bad; you continue working on it; finally, you discover that your original idea, having been modified through these creative interactions with you, is now actually a great idea after all. Hurrah. Or something like that.

These descriptions, which are intended to reassure ‘creators’ that their moments of self-doubt and anxiety are going to find a terminus of validation, include, as can be seen, a crucial, seemingly indispensable stage in which you are convinced your idea is no good. This turns out to be a little disquieting for two reasons: a) we do not know how long this stage lasts; b) we know all too many ‘artistic’ projects end up in the trash heap (those novels whose manuscripts remain filed away in drawers; those poems we burned, literally or electronically, before someone else could read our doggerel verse; those drawings we crumpled up and threw away; those sculptures pushed off the pedestal.)

And so we find ourselves anxious again: Are we in the middle of an especially long ‘this-is-shit’ stage, or are we experiencing the death throes of an abortive, hopelessly misconceived folly that should never have seen the light of day? To give up prematurely is to invite a fearsome cognitive dissonance whose dimensions can only be imagined; we risk subjecting ourselves to the worst condemnation of all, our own, the one in which we castigate ourselves for lacking backbone and ‘moral fiber,’ for giving up all too easily.  No facile solutions present themselves; no matter how familiar you might find your own ‘process,’ the uncertainty of the ‘this-is-shit’ stage is always novel, always as forbidding as before.

So there is no good news here, I’m afraid.

As might be surmised, I’m writing this post because I’m in the middle of a ‘this-is-shit’ stage, one that has lasted a long while.  My verbal descriptions of the writing I’m trying to pull off always generates encouraging responses from my listeners–‘that sounds really interesting; I look forward to reading a draft when it is ready’–but matters worsen considerably when I return to my ‘writing desk.’ There,  masses of notes and observations and ‘insights’ refuse to resolve themselves into a coherent structure; no argument emerges; the threads and braids I seek to weave do not hang together. There is no magical insight to be had; I can only keep returning to this scene of the crime, hoping a clue or two will emerge from the murk. Cold cases suck.

A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life

In the past few weeks I have had several conversations–electronic and face-to-face–with folks–friends and acquaintances–that have walked away from academic careers. Though I do not have numbers to back this up, it seems such departures have become increasingly common in the modern academy. The reasons have been varied: bad job markets (some things never change; in my first two years of job hunting, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, received precisely zero interview calls, and almost quit right then and there), a reluctance to live in particular locales or more generally, pursue an endlessly nomadic existence, income, and sometimes, frustration with work environments (i.e., the whole package: troubles with publishing, professional recognition and acceptance etc.)

In each case, my interlocutors have expressed considerable angst about their decision: sometimes they miss the teaching and their extended personal contact with their students, sometimes they wonder about their intellectual self-worth (Does this prove that I really was a poser all long, and if so, should I have gotten out earlier?), and sometimes they worry about their supposed lack of ‘backbone’ (Should have I stayed and ‘toughed it out’?). But in each case too, I sensed a contentment at a difficult decision finally made. This contentment has come about for different reasons: a better salary, a more rewarding work environment, and lowered levels of stress being among the most prominent.

Still, their cognitive dissonance about their decision is not insignificant. Change is difficult; deviation from a life path that required so much investment of energy, time and emotion even more so. Perhaps, for the budding academic, this dissonance is even more intense, because of the intense identification with the identity of the academic.  And worries about intellectual self-worth are endemic among academics; rare is the academic who is able to fully overcome insecurities in this domain (and indeed, it contributes to some of the worst aspects of posturing at fora such as conferences, seminars, meetings, job interviews etc).

But perhaps the most insidious component of the dissonance generated by the decision to leave academia is the worry that this decision shows a lack of resilience. How is one to console oneself that the decision made was the right one, that it did not mean a walking away from a long-held dream, one perhaps too hastily made, that in doing so, one did not betray oneself? Slogans like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ seem to militate against such a decision: the right thing to do is to hang in there, grimly determined. Because if you do ‘cop out,’ then not only do you find out that you didn’t have the bottle, you find out in fact, you didn’t really want it enough, and might as well not have wasted your time in taking so long to find out. So goes the gruesome indictment.

It isn’t a coincidence these worries are almost identical to those entertained by participants in an extended  burial of a long-standing romantic relationship. That shouldn’t be surprising; making the painful decision to leave the academic life, for some, might not just mean changing professions, it can mean a fundamental recasting of one’s self-conceptions. Nothing quite does that like the old-fashioned break-up.