Why scholars are melancholy: Robert Burton explains it all for you 

Continuing a train of thought about the academic lifestyle, I remembered the section on "Miseries of Scholars" in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and, flipping through it almost at random, came across the following:

Now because they are commonly subject to such hazards and inconveniences as dotage, madness, simplicity, etc. Jo. Voschius would have good scholars to be highly rewarded, and had in some extraordinary respect above other men ... But our patrons of learning are so far nowadays from respecting the Muses, and giving that honour to scholars, or reward, which they deserve and are allowed by those indulgent privileges of many noble princes, that after all their pains taken in the universities, cost and charge, expenses, irksome hours, laborious tasks, wearisome days, dangers, hazards (barred interim from all pleasures which other men have, mewed up like hawks all their lives), if they chance to wade through them, they shall in the end be rejected, contemned, and, which is their greatest misery, driven to their shifts, exposed to want, poverty, and beggary.

(Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, pt. 1, sect. 2, memb. 3, subs. 15)

Burton himself would probably say today's scholars have it easy compared to the wretched company of clerks, tutors, secretaries, lecturers, and parsons (and even lawyers and doctors) who people this section of the Anatomy. (At least 20th-century medicine can do something for the assorted "gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic" that Burton attributes to a life of sedentary study.) But quite a few of the same complaints can still be heard; someone once posted copies of a few pages from this same chapter in the graduate lounge in my department, to everyone's mingled glee and chagrin.

At the same time, there's something bracing about reading all this. Burton, who presents himself as a type of the melancholy scholar, says he writes about melancholy to cure himself of it -- as the author of this article from Globalvillageidiot.co.uk puts it, "His book is the antidote to its own poison." And I find something of the same homeopathic effect when I read this catalogue of academic woes. It's like the way I can sometimes get out of a bad mood via repeated listenings to the most depressing songs on Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years. (Or maybe I'm just weird that way.)

By the way, there's an online version of the Anatomy at Making of America Books, but the navigation is rather clunky. I'm quoting from the NYRB classics paperback edition, which is quite handy for scholars who want to read Burton despite want and beggary.


The article I posted about yesterday has started up a discussion at the Invisible Adjunct's site, to which I may have more to add when I'm not in a post-dinner stupor. In the meantime, I'm highly amused by this poem, "Inertia" by Judith Cordary, courtesy of Poetry Daily. And now I'm going to spend an unproductive rest of the evening laying burnt offerings on Inertia's altar.


"The piped-in voice of the profession" 

Has anyone out there seen this article by Lisa Ruddick of the University of Chicago? (There's also a shorter version in the Chronicle of Higher Education.) It's mostly about the difficulty of carrying on academic debates in the wake of 9/11, but several of Ruddick's reflections on the consequences of the tenure system jumped out at me. For instance:

"When I was writing my first book I was so concerned about getting tenure that I adhered to the theoretical norms of the moment. It was alienating at times, but I did it. After that, though, I became paralyzed, because I couldn't make myself observe certain omnipresent intellectual taboos that came under the heading of poststructuralism--taboos that I thought were oppressive but that I couldn't challenge without courting disgrace. . . . If you are in another field, you may or may not find the fear and defensiveness I'm describing odd. Maybe you too have experienced an exhausting internal debate between the ordinary self that has something it cares about and the piped-in voice of the profession that can only coldly approve or blame."

Ruddick is careful not to ally herself with the "humanist right" even as she questions some of the assumptions of the "antihumanist left." She's more concerned with the sometimes debilitating effects of an academic environment where young scholars must internalize professional norms to the point of hearing "the piped-in voice of the profession" in their heads, even after tenure, when they're nominally free to publish whatever they choose.

I've heard that voice myself, and the thought of continuing to hear it throughout one's professional life is discouraging in the extreme. In the comments to this Invisible Adjunct post on tenured faculty who don't retire, Kevin Walzer argues that the "timidity" in recent scholarship in English is "driven largely by professional insecurity--a reluctance to offend the gatekeepers who still hold the keys to their professional future." With the amount of time most academics now spend petitioning the gatekeepers, even the few who get tenure will probably arrive inside the gates with habits of insecurity too firmly in place to dislodge. And this is one of the reasons why I'm getting out while the getting is good. Who knows, maybe in 30 years I'll be writing eccentric poetry criticism from somewhere far away from the gatekeepers...


Fragmentary conversations and found objects 

Found Magazine specializes in what they call "cartography meets urban anthropology" -- they collect and exhibit found writings and similar objects. On their site and in the print magazine, you can find abandoned math tests, photographs, shopping lists, love notes gone astray, even miscellaneous audio files. I never seem to find such things myself, but I've been keeping an eye out ever since I heard a feature on Found on This American Life. One of the editors, Davy Rothbart, was reading out loud from prize finds, of which this note was perhaps the funniest.

The found notes also reminded me of the work of the artist Joseph Grigely, who, because he is deaf and prefers not to lip-read, often converses with people in writing. He uses these conversational scraps in his art; you can see an example here and read an interview here. I saw an installation of his in New York some years ago, and stood fascinated in front of it for an hour, reading the phrases and sentences and trying to imagine what the other side of these ephemeral (but not entirely ephemeral) dialogues must have been.

It's hard to describe the appeal of reading fragments of other people's lives and other people's talk, but someday I want to write about it -- that, and other people's marginalia in books, especially the marginalia of people who otherwise leave no record. As Grigely says in the interview: "Most people would think that it's the profound stuff or the poetic that is so interesting -- but to me it's the banal that's really engaging -- the sort of stuff that normally just doesn't get written down, and as a consequence looks really unusual when inscribed."
I just got linked for the first time, thanks to Rana. (voice of Hugh Laurie in Blackadder: ) HurRAH!
As for the title of this blog: "household opera" is a phrase from a sonnet by James Merrill, from "Matinees," a sonnet sequence about operagoing. This particular sonnet, the fifth in the sequence, imagines everyday life as a sort of grand opera on a small scale:

The fallen cake, the risen price of meat,
Staircase run ten times up and down like scales,
(Greek proverb: He who has no brain has feet)--
One's household opera never palls or fails.

The pipes' aubade. Recitatives. -- Come back!
-- I'm out of pills! -- We'd love to! -- What? -- Nothing,
Let me be! -- No, no, I'll drink it black...
The neighbors' chorus. The quick darkening

In which a prostrate figure must inquire
With every earmark of its being meant
Why God in heaven harries him/her so.

The love scene (often cut). The potion. The tableau:
Sleepers folded in a magic fire,
Tongues flickering up from humdrum incident.

(from: James Merrill, The Fire Screen: Poems [New York: Atheneum, 1969])

"Household Opera" is so named because 1) I'm fascinated by this poem and have had the phrase floating around in my head for some time; 2) I'm a nascent opera fan, as this blog will probably reflect from time to time; and 3) the juxtaposition of high drama and "humdrum incident" appeals to me as a format -- although there will probably be more of the latter than the former.


So. Here it is, yet another postacademic weblog. Or not exactly, since I'm not quite postacademic yet. Pre-postacademic? Preposterous?

I usually draw a blank when asked to introduce myself in detail, but here goes: I'm an almost-finished Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Large Midwestern University (not its real name), planning on leaving academia, or at least the professor track, by a year from now at the latest. I hope someday to have a job that allows me to play with words and fiddle with graphics, but that also leaves some of my time and energy free for creative writing. Maybe even independent scholarship, but of that I'm not so sure. I wish I lived in a big city, although Collegeville (not its real name either), where I live, has its charms.

Why this blog? Well, a few months ago, I was angsting about my future as a professor, which was looking a lot less appealing than it had when I'd started graduate school. An inconvenient epiphany -- namely "I'm not happy doing this anymore, and I'm getting actively depressed at the thought of actually getting an academic job" -- had hit me over the head as my first year on the market was drawing to a close. So, while contemplating exit strategies, I was Googling to see if anyone had had written about postacademic angst. And I ran across this post by Ambivalent Imbroglio, who left an English literature Ph.D. program for many of the same reasons why I want to change careers. And that led me to start reading scholar blogs in general and postacademic blogs in particular; the Invisible Adjunct's blog provides a particularly worthy example. (Can you tell I'm writing up the acknowledgements section of my dissertation?) And, though I am ordinarily a shy person, I can't resist joining the conversation. I also have the commonplace-book urge, in spades. Other things I'm likely to write about: poetry, both contemporary and Renaissance (the latter is my official academic field); classical music; design; food; favorite movie directors; miscellaneous things on the web that catch my eye; literary trivia of all sorts; pop-cultural oddities.

More on all of this later. Next up: an explanation of this site's name.