Update from the Field

What can I say? The demons are winning. I've spent the whole week fighting Doubt and Impatience, trying to convince myself to allow myself the time for my project to develop; so what if it takes me ten years to bring this book to completion? I need--or so I have been telling myself--to find a way to follow Master Han's advice (as reported by Joe Hymans) and give myself time to work towards my goal without setting a limit on how long I will work. But now I'm not sure there is ever going to be any book because, or so I learned yesterday when I went to check my email for notice about a UPS delivery I was expecting, a colleague of mine, inspired by an article I published a few years ago, is going to write it before I do.

Blind Panic has now taken the field. No, of course, she is not going to write exactly the book I've been planning, but the argument is very much the one that I had wanted to make, and the methodology--reading the psalms through the lens of Marian devotion--is spot on. Why did she write me to let me know of her plans? Because she wants me to write her a letter of reference in support of the project so that she can get a fellowship to write her book next year. Which she will because she writes beautifully and easily and has published six books and edited another three in the same time it has taken me to publish one and edit another. Envy, Rage and Despair now make their assault: this has happened before with this same colleague, entirely by accident. Her first book was on the same topic as mine, but whereas it took her only three years to have her dissertation on the Song of Songs commentaries published, it took me eight. In the meantime she has written books on all sorts of other topics (Job, Chaucer, political allegory, Joan of Arc, the Eucharist), all the while I've been laboring over one.*

Am I an idiot or what? I feel like the character in Speaker for the Dead, I don't remember her name, it's been twenty years since I read about the piggies, who has been genetically afflicted with OCD such that every time she has an idea, she is suddenly induced to begin tracing the lines of the wood grain in her floor from one side of the room to the other. If I want to say something, I have to spend months reading around in the problem, beginning, as these past two weeks, with the broad background in the field, then moving to lists of all the manuscripts containing the works that I am studying, then looking at all possible related texts, then reading the whole body of works of the type I am writing about, then checking the bibliographies in the field to make sure that I know what everyone else who has written about these works has said, then maybe, just maybe having the courage to try to say something of my own. If I don't do all this, I am convinced, I will be told I have said nothing new/don't know the literature in the field/haven't looked at all the sources. Meanwhile, my colleague seems afflicted by none of these doubts. For her project, she proposes taking a single text found in two manuscripts and writing a commentary on it.

So what is the problem, you say? Clearly, your book will be a wholly different examination of the materials. Yes, but the one thing I was confident--until yesterday, that is--that no one would have done is exactly the kind of reading of the materials that my colleague now proposes: a careful, text-by-text exegesis of the psalms as they were read in honor of Mary. I should be honored, you say, that she is so taken by the argument I made in my article as to adopt the very methodology that I suggest we should use in thinking about the medieval experience of prayer. But (and here I am being less than charitable) I feel like Uriah with David (not coincidentally here, the traditional author of the Psalms): my one little lamb is being taken away when she has so many. Her book will come out before I've even finished the research for mine (particularly if, just to add insult to injury, I have to spend my leave writing letters of reference for everybody else, as, I am sorry to say, it feels right now as if I am going to do). What was originally my insight is going to look like hers. Plus, I am convinced she will do a much better job at it than I ever could because she is that skilled a writer.

I feel so sick I don't even know what to do. It's as if all the anxiety I have been feeling the past two weeks as I work myself through the great books on late medieval Christianity (Oakley, Bossy, Oberman, Huizinga, Ozment for next week, plus Jeff Smith on the art of the Northern Renaissance so that I understand better what I saw in Belgium last month) was simply a premonition that this revelation was coming. I am going to be gesumped. My experience at Nationals watching someone who had been fencing less time than I have is nothing on this. Here my career, my academic self-esteem, my intellectual self is at stake; then it was just a sport; this is my life. Okay, so it's 5:30 in the morning and I haven't slept very well, but what would you do if you were me? No, I'm not going to be reading my email for probably the next month, so you can't write to me there. I'm sure, as always, that this is all in my head and there really isn't a problem here. As Julia Cameron always says, "God has lots of ideas." Just because my colleague is writing her book doesn't mean there isn't room in the world for mine. But how do I keep myself from feeling jealous that she will get all the attention for her beautiful reading of the psalms first, while I am still laboring, nose to the wood grain, for another decade with mine?

[Update to the update, 11:00AM the same morning: You all know very well that this is a fairy story and that it all turns out well in the end. But the celebration on the Field of Cormallen is only as poignant and beautiful as it is because you've struggled with Sam and Frodo all the way up Mt. Doom. As Frodo put it when Sam asked what kind of tale they'd fallen into, "I wonder... But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. Take any one that you're fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to" (LotR, bk. 4, ch. 8). This blog is a real tale, which reality is actually important to me. I don't want to give you only my rational, after-the-fact reflections. How then will you know what I experienced to come to them?]

*Yes, I know that I've now given you enough information to figure out who she is. This post isn't about saying she shouldn't write her book. It's about whether I should bother writing mine. Her book is going to be brilliant, I know. All of her other ones are.

Demons courtesy of Pieter Bruegel I, "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" (1562), and Hieronymus Bosch, "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (c. 1500), Brussels, Museum of Ancient Art.


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