Navel Gazing*

This post would be much more lively if that's what I'd actually been doing. Navel gazing, that is. As it is, rather than sitting with my beard* pressed hard against my chest, my body curled in upon itself and my lips saying over and over again, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me"--the prescription for navel-gazing as championed by the fourteenth-century Orthodox hesychasts--I've been reading Gaudy Night (1935) and wondering what the point of it all is. Not the story, everyone knows that: will Harriet finally say yes to Lord Peter's proposal of marriage? But the setting: the life of the mind as practiced in Oxford and the lure of scholarship as one's "proper job".

It's clear to anybody who knows anything about Dorothy Sayers' career that in this novel she was asking herself some hard questions about her own career, thus far given to writing mystery novels, like her character Harriet, but soon to be given over to the work of writing Christian apologetics and translating Dante. At one point in the story, wondering whether she might return to Oxford for a postgraduate degree, Harriet comments: "I should enjoy a little dullness. One would have to go on writing novels for bread and butter, but I'd like an academic and meaty egg to my tea for a change."

It's the breeziness with which Harriet claims that she would still continue to write novels "for bread and butter" that takes my breath away. Much as I love reading mysteries--I have a whole bookcase filled with them--I cannot think of anything more difficult than actually writing one. To be sure, I've toyed with the idea, idly, in feverish moments, but I know that I have no capacity for story-telling and would only embarrass myself if I tried. How observant an author has to be of so many details of character and setting, not to mention pacing and plot! I don't even really write narrative history much; my only real skill--my "proper job," to put it in Sayers' terms--seems to be asking questions of what an author intended to say and trying to get inside his or her thinking to find out. I am a voyeur, as it seems novelists must be, but of writing, not of life. The problem is, I want to be the one crafting the delicate situations and the impeccable dialogue, not simply the one appreciating them.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet is much taken with the work of the dons with whom she is staying at Shrewsbury College, particularly Miss Lydgate, with her interminable proofs; and Miss de Vine, with her passion for historical precision. The life of the dons as Harriet (alias Sayers) imagines it is one of patient concentration and rigorous devotion to truth, wholly removed from the dizzy commercial whirl of literary publishing. As Harriet muses as she walks across the lawn with Miss Lydgate on her first night back in college:

"If only one could come back to this quiet place, where only intellectual achievement counted; if one could work here steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, interviewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and competitors; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal jealousies; getting one's teeth into something dull and durable; maturing into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches--then, one might be able to forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer proportion."

If only. Sayers, of course, never held an academic position, although she was one of the first women to receive an actual degree from Oxford. Her mature experience of college was therefore very much Harriet's: that of an outsider, looking in and back, nostalgically, to her time as an undergraduate. How little she knew of the distractions of academic life: the endless committee meetings to attend and letters of reference to write; the constant appeals for reviews from journal editors, tenure committees, publishers and fellowship foundations; the dissertation chapters, essays and exams to mark; the conferences and papers to attend. Only an outsider could imagine, romantically, that scholars do not become involved in "personal spites, personal jealousies." As critic Q. D. Leavis commented, Harriet's vision of what it would be like to live the life of a scholar, far from being dully and durably realistic, is itself "popular and romantic", bearing little if any relationship to actual circumstances: "only best-seller novelists could have such illusions about human nature."

Perhaps. The problem is that even scholars love reading romances, especially romances like Gaudy Night that make our lives out to be more significant and appealing than, in our worst moods, we suspect they actually are. Harriet imagines a world in which "the fact that one had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal establishing the priority of a manuscript or restoring a lost iota subscript," but what scholar is actually satisfied with such minutiae, when all is said and done? My father liked to talk about how one of his professors used to insist that the most one could hope for in a lifetime of scholarship was to change one sentence in the standard textbooks. Sometimes, to be sure, this seems a noble cause: to change, forever, our sense of the way the world works or, if we are historians, has worked. But no one, particularly in history, has any confidence that his or her interpretation of events will stand for longer than a generation, say 20 or 30 years, at best. All those footnotes carefully establishing manuscript priorities and iota subscripts will be either forgotten or overturned within a decade or so. There is nothing so evanescent as scholarship, even in fields like mine where we actually still read the scholarly literature from before 1985.

Earlier this week I was fretting over how it was possible for certain authors to write so much when my words seem to be so hard won and laboriously chosen. The grim reality is, of course, that no matter how much one writes, there is no guarantee that anybody will read it--less, I sometimes think, if one publishes more, since readers will simply not know where to start. Huizinga would say it doesn't matter: publishing at all, even on the (apparently) most insignificant details of the past, is to participate in the general cultural impulse for knowledge, "the living contact of the mind with the old that was genuine and full of significance." But it is a difficult thing, making oneself so small, being content with the thought--as one must be--that if few will read one's work, fewer will understand it, and even fewer will care about the question as passionately as oneself did.

In part, this is as it should be, otherwise there is no scholarship: we raise the questions that we do because no one else has, at least not from the perspective that we take. If everyone already agrees about a topic, there is very little to say. Nor, being the introvert that I am, am I necessarily sure that I want everyone arguing with me, particularly when I am convinced that I am right. The problem is that I don't agree myself with what others have said, thus my own desire to write and put them straight. Scholarship thrives on--it cannot live without--argument; Harriet's romanticism is, of course, in imagining that this argument can go on without personalities entering therein.

Likewise ambitions. It's a terrible thing, being wholly inside the life that Sayers describes and yet feeling none of the certainty of purpose with which she imbues her fictional dons. Far from being convinced, day after day, that like Miss de Vine I have answered a "powerful spiritual call" in becoming an historian, I worry that I simply stumbled into it because I was good in school. What does it mean to be A Scholar? In my experience: being afflicted by a passion for truth so overriding that other imagined lives must fall by the wayside, however much they may appeal. Never escaping from the institutions of education into the "real world" (whatever that is), but rather spending one's life as a perpetual student; never yet as expert as one would like to be and yet so much more expert in one's own particular field as to have no one to talk to about the very thing on which one's life and thinking depends. Like Harriet, looking in from the outside, this is the only life I can imagine wanting; and yet, from the inside, I cannot see the dream anymore.

The hesychasts would doubtless say that ambition for earthly understanding is itself an illusion, a temptation of the demons who are always on the look-out to distract our attention from God. But the hesychasts themselves were accused by their contemporaries of giving into delusion, believing that the light they experienced as a result of their constant prayer (as their opponents put it, "navel-gazing") was itself the same as the divine light which which Christ shone on Mt. Tabor at the moment of the Transfiguration. I'm really not sure what to do with this dilemma anymore: am I pursuing a will o' the wisp or the light of God? Sayers would have it, via Harriet, that the main thing is to be doing one's own, real work, but how if in constructing that work--as scholars do when they conceive research projects--I have followed not truth, but ambition? Perhaps more accurately, would I care about truth so much if not for the ambition that I have to be a scholar, to live the life so romantically portrayed in Gaudy Night? It's strange, feeling that in becoming one's own true self--for what could I be other than a scholar?--one has somehow fallen away from one's proper path.**

If only I could be certain that I had chosen the proper materials on which to concentrate, the proper perspective from which to analyze them; instead, I fear that their light is simply a physical light, an effect of sitting too long at my desk and making arguments to fit, rather than the divine light I so long to see--and can't.

*It's not clear from the hesychast fathers whether they thought women should actually practice this form of prayer, it being so dangerous to attempt even with a spiritual director. As the only spiritual directors were on Mt. Athos and no women were allowed there, it's hard to see how they might learn.
**There is an irony here of which I am all too aware: when Sayers was writing, the question was whether women should have academic careers like mine at all; thus the tensions in the novel over the attacks that the college suffers from the vengeful widow of the professor whose academic fraud Miss de Vine exposed. Having achieved such a career, it seems ungracious of me even to question whether it was the right one, but our anxieties do not always attend our more rational appreciation of our lives.


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