It is no surprise that I am my greatest enemy. I’m impulsive, I am not very organized, and I am self-defeating. Yet, beneath it all, I believe, is a great potential. It is perhaps this potential, this possibility for greatness, that fuels the seasickness of my ego; a constant vacillation between a tremendous ambition and an ever-present feeling of dread.
It’s a week into the semester and I’m feeling a bit drained. I have not done a good job of anticipating the tidal wave which is the school year. This summer, as I have already said, was mild and calm. I spent time collecting myself, getting things in order, and taking stock of a tumultuous year. Yet, the semester has begun and I feel already partially undone. Whatever tidying and sealing I did this summer has already started to fray at the edges and untie itself. This much is to be expected, but not at so rapid a pace. A summer spent reading and trying to inhabit the spirit of the “specialist,” to feel knowledgeable about a certain topic or corpus; one week has thrown an entire three months into question. Yet, I refuse to let graduate school rob me of my charisma and of my sense of power.
It begins with a willingness to say “I don’t know.” This has always been hard for me, primarily because knowledge is one of the only things I do not constantly question about myself. There is a powerlessness, a lack of authority, in not knowing something. At times, it feels almost like an admission of a kind of intellectual failing, of an inferiority. The only thing which is perhaps worse than “I don’t know,” at least for the literary critic, is “I don’t understand.” Both of these questions I have hashed out a year ago, in my post why read? And I won’t reprise them, although I still find that the performance of knowing (which does not undercut one’s own self-interrogation, one’s own self-positing of the question “do you know?”) makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like any kind of performance, because I see them as admissible kinds of lying, but I also don’t like the idea of pretending to understand or know something to either impress a professor (brown-noserie) or to create the illusion of one’s own grandeur (pomposity). I am not at all immune to these things, but I try to stay aware of the undercurrent of feelings which compels me to speak on a reading I didn’t understand, to respond to a point raised by another student on a book I have never read. It is not so much a question of intellectual contribution, of participating in the round-table analysis of the seminar discussion so much as it is a question of one’s own intellectual composition, of the possibility to understand what presents itself as impenetrable material. I have moved on from the question of why read? because I’m beyond this mirror phase of my development, of trying to make the world yield to my own reading. Now I am preoccupied mainly with a question which is quite fecund, producing a litany of follow-ups which seems to have no end – what to read?
I am slowly building my intellectual corpus and I am feeling more and more confident about the ideas I have been incubating for years. I can point out essays and books with confidence and highlight how and why a person should or should not read them. I can situate my own thoughts within the writings of other scholars in my fields, the Brent Hayes Edwardses and the Paul Gilroys, and I can say with confidence what my project is, what fascinates me. I am proud of my intellectual growth, and the scholar I am becoming, the rigor to which I am subjecting my research and my writing. Yet, there remains always this question of insufficiency. The mutating self-question of “what to read?” highlights my underlying feeling of inadequacy, for I am beginning to see that the projects I have in mind require a tremendous amount of scholarship and reading, and I have only really scratched the surface. Yes, graduate school is a time of scholarship and intense reading, but I don’t feel confident that, with teaching and jobs and conferences and writing, that I’ll have the time to really reach my goals, to feel intellectually secure in my own ideas to throw myself into the ring of scholars that I both admire and loathe.
My reading lists are expanding at a dizzying pace, and I am loving what I am reading, but I am disturbed by just how massive a corpus I have in front of me. I cannot read it all, of course, but I am compelled to try, mostly because I want to feel as if I am doing my absolute best. I have great, tremendous expectations of myself and I am just as proud of my lofty ambitions as I am petrified by them. I don’t have anyone I want to impress but myself, and we are all our biggest critics, our most vocal detractors.
I’m feeling a little overwhelmed this semester because of these unspoken expectations I had for myself. I had to take a day to just sit down and think critically about what I want, and how I want it, before taking concrete action (I dropped the audited course). I’m still feeling a bit moody, which has gotten in the way of my productivity, but I’m realizing that I put a lot on my shoulders without giving myself the space and the time to really accomplish these great expectations of mine. I’m still learning how to make my emotions signify, and it’s a long road in front of me, but I had an epiphany last week that I needed to share with you all. I know I am not the only one who puts the entire world on their shoulders, whose grandiose ambition is only halted by their disarming fear of failure. Perhaps this will help someone else to take inventory of their life and not be so hard on themselves, as I am so prone to do.
Image: Christopher Myers, Funnyhouse for a Negro