Friday, May 29, 2015

Post-Academic: You Must Change Your LIfe

In the spring of 2009, I was teaching a course on Fantasy and Science Fiction at West Virginia University, where I’d accepted a position as a “Teaching Assistant Professor” in 2007. I came to Morgantown in order to accompany my wife to WVU, where she’d taken a tenure-track position to teach folklore and serve as the liaison between the Department of English and the College of Education. Perhaps we should have refused to come, unless they offered me tenure (I had been a full professor at our previous school), but we were young (in our early forties) and I had just finished writing my third academic book, and we were sure it would all work out, even if we weren’t sure how.

First edition copy of Robinson's
Icehenge, a paperback original (1984)
In that particular term, I’d assigned Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant early novel, Icehenge (1984), one of the best novels I’ve ever read on the topic of history and memory. Across a span of several centuries, we follow the stories of three very different narrators: first, a reluctant Martian revolutionary who witnesses the clandestine (and apparently doomed) departure of humanity’s first starship; second, a frustrated academic Martian archeologist who literally mines the past to further his own anti-establishment political agenda, even while savoring and relying upon the benefits his position and connections within that establishment give him; and third, a young historian who argues—successfully—that the Plutonian Icehenge of the novel’s title is a hoax, and that the narrative of the first part of the novel may be as well. In thematizing the conflict between history as events-that-happened and history as stories-about-the-past, as it is complicated by the conscious and unconscious ways in which we tell (or are drawn to) stories that suit our personalities, beliefs, and opinions, the novel would suit a course in historiography as well as it suited my science fiction class.

For some reason, during that particular semester, I reacted especially strongly to the story of Hjalmar Nederland, the novel’s second narrator. Nederland, for those who have not read the book, is a train-wreck of a character, and he seems virtually incapable of having a successful human encounter: he is abrasive, self-absorbed, certain, and lost, all at the same time. He is also, of course, a professional success, coming off a recent term as chair of his department, just as his narrative begins, and about to engage upon the most important dig of his centuries-long career. I thank my lucky stars now, looking back on that semester, that I’ve never been a reader who primarily reads by identifying with characters: Nederland is no one anyone would wish to identify with. And yet….
For Nederland, the search for the truth of the past gets unavoidably caught up in his search for a sense of self, for self-knowledge. And even as abrasive as he is, Nederland’s thirst for self-understanding renders him attractive and sympathetic. Perhaps this response is even strengthened, for a reader like me, since at various moments in the story, he quotes snippets of poetry, often completely unattributed in Robinson’s novel. To read this section of the novel, therefore, is to engage in a kind of literary archeology, though the tracing of Nederland’s influences has become far easier since the novel’s publication by the searchability of the internet. But in the sense that the narrative demands that we recognize or search out Nederland’s quotations, the book encourages a kind of identification, as we too, become textual researchers and archeologists, sifting through various textual strata.
Having wondered myself whether my own scholarship as a medievalist might be built upon a similar quest for self-knowledge, I was struck, as I reread Icehenge back in 2009, when I came across Nederland’s blunt statement towards the end of his story that “You must change your life,” Given Nederland’s penchant for quotation, I typed the phrase into Google, and sure enough, I found that it was from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s stunning sonnet, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos”: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”
A different archaic torso: this one is Pan,
from the Brooks art museum, in Memphis.
Now, my German is only just good enough for a brief phrase like that, so—as with Hjalmar Nederland—the phrase resonated far more powerfully for me in English. You must change your life. Difficult as it is, Rilke’s poem comes to this conclusion from a consideration of an isolated fragment from the past—an ancient sculpted torso of Apollo. But the link between the description of the sculpture and the perception that one must change one’s life is left to the reader to determine. What’s more, in German, Rilke’s speaking voice addresses us in the second person singular, the intimate mode. But does the poem say that changing one’s life is a necessity, or that no one else can change your life for you? You must do the work, if you wish your life to change.
Both messages hit me with a kind of irresistible force back during those days of 2009: you must change your life; you must change your life. Teaching four classes a term was—for me at least—growing increasingly intolerable, though I certainly know many teachers for whom such a workload is an ongoing part of their lives: they have my sincerest and deepest admiration. But for myself, I knew that I would need to change my life, somehow. But I knew, too, that no one would do it for me: in only two years at WVU, it had become clear that there was no will in the department or college to change my lot. I felt as if once I had accepted a non-tenure track position, I was forever defined at WVU by that position, and could not expect to rise above it. As Marlow puts it in Heart of Darkness, “I had become unsound,” and I felt essentially invisible within the university’s institutional structure. Unlike Hjalmar Nederland, I couldn’t pull strings at the very highest level, and I was never one for making waves.
In 2010, I started my business in earnest, and in 2012 I left WVU to pursue it full time. I am pleased to be able to say, that, at the age of 48, I was still able to change my life.

I tell this story here because this space, this blog, I hope will become a place where I can explore the past—my past, the past twenty or so years in academia, and also (in my own small way) in the rare book world—both in a conscious effort to continue to find ways to change my life and (like Hjalmar Nederland once again) because the life I’ve led has been shaped in so many ways, and on so many different levels—personally, academically, and even financially—by books and by poems. Return again, Dear Reader, if you wish.

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