Plan Frog

It's huge.  It's ugly.  It's sitting there on my dining room table (where I'm writing), just waiting for me.

I've done laundry (that was yesterday).  I've looked into upgrading my MacBook (still running OS X 10.5.8; I didn't even know there was an App Store for Macs until I tried to find iA Writer this morning for my MacBook, thinking, you know, that maybe having a different word processing program would help me get over this block).  I've upgraded my blog template and rearranged all the gadgets.  I've read various articles about the late medieval devotio moderna that my research assistant scanned for me.  I've tried taking the dog for a walk (tried, but failed--she is terrified of all the branches that came down in Monday's storm).  And I'm terrified.  Still.

It's been almost two years since I wrote anything remotely resembling a research paper.  Sure, I did a plenary address last autumn for a conference on the Virgin Mary, but that involved more thinking about the big picture and why I study Mary, less actual concrete research.  And, okay, okay, I read half a shelf of books in order to get myself started, but I stayed away from making any claims about anything that I might actually know about the history of the devotion.  Because that might mean, I don't know, actually pretending to know something.  Which I don't.  Not really.  'Cause, you know, how could I?

Why, oh why, am I so scared?

I know so much about all of this material.  I've been studying it, after all, for the better part of twenty five years.  And yet, and yet...nothing.  I don't know why it is important any more.  I don't know why anybody should want to study it.  I don't know why my colleagues keep going when it is abundantly clear that a) nobody is listening to us, and b) we don't know why we are writing any more either.  A big claim, I know, but I am more and more convinced that it is true. 

What, exactly, is it that we want to change about the world by studying the past "for its own sake", "in its own terms" (particularly the past's religious traditions)?  Do we really believe that this is what we are doing?  If so, it's odd, because that is certainly not what the founders of our discipline thought they were doing back 150 or 200 years ago.   They thought they were inventing nations, reviving traditions, making the world safe for modernity, dispelling illusions, discerning systems.  We, in contrast, are being Polite About Others.

While, of course, insisting emphatically that they are Others.  Not Us.  Not secular humanist agnostics congenitally wary of anything smacking of faith.  Or, if we have faith, which a few of us do, we are Spiritual Not Religious; Seekers of Wisdom but never Daughters of the Church.  We are, inevitably, children of the Sixties, convinced that truth comes through experience, not intellect; through our senses, not reason.  And so we study the Body, the Senses, the Marginal, the Grotesque.  We like boundaries and indeterminacy, cross-cultural contact and shifting identities.  We obsess over questions of method to the near exclusion of content, study memory rather than what people memorized, the experience of prayer rather than what or to whom people prayed; the sensory, social, political and economic trappings of faith rather than having faith ourselves.

There, I've said it.  I'm utterly disillusioned with my field.  I never want to go to a conference again and have to pretend to be breathlessly excited about whatever is the current fad.  Because, of course, the perennially current fads are now older than I am.  Sure, we've been through the Cultural Turn, the Gender Turn, the Linguistic Turn, the Postmodern Turn.  But what we haven't gone through is the Ironic Turn such that we are allowed (by whom? ourselves?) actually to believe in what we study as Truth.  This, to my mind, is the real reason that the Humanities are struggling so in their battle (for funding, prestige, students) with the Sciences: the scientists actually believe in the content of what they are studying.  They are not studying methods of thinking for their own sake, they're thinking.  They are, oddly enough, more faithful than we are because they actually believe that they are seeking Truth.

Which is, in itself, ironic, because one of the reasons that is often invoked for the failure of the Humanities to capture the hearts and minds of its students (or the pocketbooks of the donors and taxpayers) is that they aren't scientific enough.  If only what we studied in the Humanities (literature, history, religion, art, languages) were actually true, then, well, then we would get the big bucks that we need in order to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.  But, of course, we know that this in itself an illusion.  There is no such thing as Truth, only things that certain human cultures have held as true; no such thing as Wisdom, only reputations that occasional individuals have had for wisdom; no such thing a Right Way to Worship God, only varieties of religious experience, all equally valid, all equally wrong (because all, inevitably, claiming to be Right).

I'm rambling here, I know it.  I've had this thought knocking around in my head for weeks, ever since I had my students in "Tolkien" read C.S. Lewis's "Meditation in a Toolshed" for our final discussion.  It's one of my favorite essays; I've mentioned it before.  It's about the difference in perception between looking at the world from within a particular perspective (say, faith or sociology or chemistry or being an American) and looking at the exercise of perception from without.  In Lewis's metaphor, about the difference between looking at the beam of light shining through the crack over the doorway to the toolshed and looking along the beam to what it can reveal about reality (the trees outside, the sun).

Typically, in the humanities, we privilege looking at the beam of other people's experience while looking along the beam of social scientific or critical thinking.  If, for a moment, we step inside of the beam of other people's experience (e.g. faith) and suddenly see what they've been telling us is there all along (e.g. God's love for humanity), we panic and step back out, terrified of "going native" or (gasp!) converting.  Meanwhile, the scientists tend to stay firmly within the beam of experimental truth, looking along the beam of physical reality and insisting that it is the only beam there is.  They get very anxious when we, particularly as historians, start showing them all of the ways in which the methods that they use and the paradigms of reality they think along are--like nations and languages and religions--artifacts of history, too.

I said we were children of the Sixties.  Maybe this is why: dancing as we do into and out of the beams, we don't know which one to privilege anymore.  We can't privilege our own culture or tradition because we know it is contingent even in its propensity to recognize contingency; we can't simply chose a beam to stand within (other than that of scholarly objectivity) because that would be to exclude other possibilities of truth.  We want desperately to belong to something, so we spend our lives studying other people's identities (arguably, the only thing we study anymore, ultimately), but we ourselves feel permanently excluded from the play.  And yet, we do everything that we can never to be caught up in the beam, terrified (or so it would seem) of what we might see.

"Do NOT go into the light. Stop where you are. Turn away from it. Don't even look at it."  I remember that line from Poltergeist, don't you?*  It's probably the last horror movie I ever saw, and it's stuck with me.  Clearly.  For here I am, standing in the doorway, desperate to take that first step and I can't.  I want to step into the light and see what there is to see.  But if I do, will I ever be able to come back?

Meanwhile, look how successfully I've avoided eating that frog.  Now it's time for my post-tournament massage.

*Okay, I cheated.  I double checked on IMDB.


  1. The best thing about conferences is hanging out with friends. Many of them are actually able to discuss medieval history or religion from a very educated perspective.

    If history isn't a search for Truth than it's useless. Surely, we'll always see through a glass darkly but it is a search for Truth. I agree with your thoughts about the humanities.

  2. Thanks, Matt! I agree, conferences are great for good conversations. I was thinking more about the way we plan them around themes and how all the themes seem the same anymore. But I'm very glad to hear that you are the same quest as I am, for Truth!


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