Archive Diving

The Mary Baker Eddy Library and Christian Science Publishing Society building with the Mother Church in the foreground.

This is the last week of my research fellowship at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which will mean that I have spent eight weeks total here in three years and still won’t have seen everything I want to see. 

When I started my dissertation project, I wasn’t particularly interested in doing primary research. My strengths, I thought, were interpretive. Furthermore, since I was doing work on a famously reclusive religious movement with which I had no “in,” I figured it wouldn’t be an option anyway. So, I structured my project so that I wouldn’t need to rely on primary documents in order to make it work.

Then, I found out that said religious organization had put their church archives in a pretty new library, and THEN I found out that they were handing out money to researchers who wanted to come to Boston for a few weeks in the summer, and I figured it beat a few weeks roasting away in Austin. I didn’t make my first trip until I had most of my dissertation already written, but the staggering collection I had no idea was awaiting me wound up transforming my project in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted. Using files that no outside researcher had seen in thirty years, I debunked a century-old rumor about Willa Cather that has served as the basis for a segment of scholarship on her work (the article will finally be coming out this fall). And it presented new avenues of inquiry that made it clear that what I thought was only going to be a single dissertation chapter could become a career’s worth of work if I want to keep pursuing it. So I came back and even though the weather is uncomfortably Houston-like right now, I’m certainly not regretting it.

This is my way of saying to grad students out there that even if you don’t do textual studies or historicism or anything else that typically requires an archive, you should consider making a trip. Other perks:

1. They will totes pay you.

The big libraries (Huntington, Oxford, etc.) will, of course, pay you a lot and let you stay for a long time, but I think everyone owes it to themselves to see what small archives might have holdings relevant to their interests. Archives are meant to be used, and archivists are interested in attracting researchers who will make good use of and publicize their holdings. 

2. Travel

One of the pleasures of making these research trips has been the opportunity to spend extended time in a new place (and one of my favorite cities). It’s like getting paid to take vacation. 

3. Uninterrupted time to work

My first stint in Boston allowed me to finish my dissertation in a 30 day fugue state in which I worked six hours in the archives and then went back to my garret to write some more. This time around hasn’t been quite so manic, but productivity increases fairly sharply when you no longer have the distractions of home. Plus, you have a quiet space where you are required to go for a set amount of time to work on your stuff, not grading, not revising your syllabus. In seven years of graduate school, I found pretty much no other way to achieve this kind of focus, and it helped me develop good habits that have served me fairly well when it comes to turning out articles. 

My advice to graduate students writing proposals:

1. Make your proposal specific. If they have their finding aids online, go through them and figure out which items you think you want to look at. You can change your mind when you get there. Barring that, get in touch with an archivist and ask them if they have anything relevant to a particular aspect of your project. Specificity lets them know that you at least have a plan and won’t just flounder around and waste time when you get there.

2. Show them you understand your field. Most graduate students writing fellowship proposals are used to pitching their projects very broad, and that is perfectly appropriate if you are applying to a big general library like the Huntington. But if their holdings are fairly specific (as they were in this case), it’s helpful to be able to drop the most important names in that sub-field. For me, it meant showing that I had at least read the central texts and major academic historical treatments of this movement.

3. Tell them how you will publicize their work. Most archives are looking to get the word out or at least show that to their donors what their collections are generating. Whether it’s a chapter or a conference paper, suggest how you might present the research you do there to an audience of your peers. 



Mountain Climbing for the High Functioning Depressive, or What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle
From left to right: North Apostle, Ice Mountain, West Apostle

This is the penultimate week of my research fellowship here in Boston, which means that my summer of nomadic living will soon be drawing to an end as I head back to my parents’ house in Dallas for a few weeks to pack up for Moscow. Since the sale of our house was completed in early May, I have not stayed in any one place for more than two weeks, having visited five states and covered thousands of miles by airplane in a little over two months.

Included in this farewell tour of the US was a visit to Deer Valley Ranch near Buena Vista, CO, an establishment owned by long-time family friends and site of annual visits for my family for over twenty years. It’s one of those family vacations that makes you happy to be amongst a crowd of introverts, as our family of nine adults (and one toddler) can easily pass an entire afternoon reading and only occasionally talking for an entire afternoon (or for as long as the toddler is napping). In the evening, me, my sisters, and our spouses play Settlers of Catan, a ritual that very often sends us to bed hating each other but doesn’t stop us from starting another game (or two) the next night. (Josh, my sweet, infinitely patient missionary-kid brother-in-law is the most quietly ruthless player and regularly makes us feel like complete assholes for telling him where he can shove his Monopoly card. Anyway).

That level of competitiveness tends to bleed into more athletic pursuits as well. Five of the nine of us play tennis, and I suspect that if I were one of those, no one in my family would speak to me again. Ever. I don’t really excel at sports but do like intense physical activity, particularly hiking. This means that at the end of our week, I typically join my dad and now the aforementioned brother-in-law on an all-day mountain climb with Actual Mountain Goat Bob Marken. If you have never attempted climbing a Colorado peak, let’s just say that they are called the Rockies for a reason and with altitudes over 14,000 feet present a significant challenge for anyone who spends 51 weeks out of the year at sea level.  For that reason, the rest of the family, my spouse included, tends to opt for spending the day sitting on a deck looking at the mountains rather than scrambling over them. My other BIL, a Colorado native, swears that the next time he’ll climb one of the state’s famous “fourteeners” is when the Goths invade. And as my dad says, the two things required for this sort of adventure are a high threshold for pain and a bad memory.

The first major ridge we had to climb.
This was one of the easier parts

I’ve been up a half dozen or so fourteeners and other local peaks, and this year, our intrepid guide proposed what he called a “more interesting” thirteener. At 13,860 feet, the North Apostle is just 140 feet shy of the prestigious 14,000 but sits on the same ridge as two other thirteeners that present one of the greatest challenges in Colorado mountaineering. The mountain doesn’t have to be high to completely kick your ass. The North Apostle is the easier of the three in the sense that the climbing is non-technical and no special equipment is required. However, unlike the many Colorado mountains (including the most trafficked fourteeners), there is no trail for the last half of the four mile hike up, at which point the elevation gain becomes so precipitous that you are basically climbing a ladder for about 2000 vertical feet.


This is my way of explaining why, even though I made it to the summit, this mountain basically broke me over its knee Bane-style and has left me to painfully recover at the bottom of a sunken prison while it destroyed everything I loved. Not that I didn’t help it or anything. The day before, I neglected to get on top of my hydration and, not wanting to get stomach cramps, I didn’t eat anything on the trail until we’d already gone almost three miles. What this meant is that by that point I was dehydrated, hypoglycemic, and hyponatremic (salt-deficient), and throughout the day, my body would never really be able to catch up. 1400 vertical feet from the top, I got a calf cramp that made me see white. This is honestly probably where I should have stopped and waited for the rest of the group to pick me up on the way back. But no. I pressed forward even though my body was screaming at me not to. I was able to stretch it out, but in order to keep it from happening again, I had to take an unscheduled food and water break, and slow down and ease up my pace each time I felt my muscles start to seize up.

Summit Ridge
Summit Ridge

This meant that I fell considerably behind the rest of my group and therefore never got to rest with them, even at the top of the mountain. Getting to the summit was exhausting enough, but after I snapped a couple of pictures and wolfing down half a sandwich, the sleet started, which meant we needed to face what I had been trying not to think about all the way up: climbing back down the steep rocks, which were now wet.

F*** this
F*** this

Anyone who has done a significant amount of hiking can tell you that the descent is often worse than the ascent. For one thing, you have no choice about it. While summits are optional, getting off the exposed peak before the lightning shows up—not to mention getting home—is not. For another thing, if you have terrible knees—which I do thanks to heredity, dance, and high school track—walking down a flight of stairs is way worse than walking up. And these stairs were slippery, uneven, and constantly moving around under me. About 500 feet from the top, on the way down, with 3.5 miles still to go, in addition to dealing with knees and sleet and burning quads, I hit what runners call the “wall.” I had completely burned through my glycogen stores. And I was still dehydrated. So, around 1000 feet from the top, I was not only physically running on fumes but had lost the ability to make good decisions about where to put my feet. Mountain climbing is a mental challenge as well as a physical one, and if your brain is basically just buzzing inside your head, then the physical side of things starts getting much harder as you slip all over the rocks, struggle to right yourself, and thereby make yourself more and more tired than you would be otherwise. At one point, my father had to start hiking right in front of me so that I could just step in all the places he was stepping.

Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.
Ice Mountain from the NA Summit.

Along the way, I ate the rest of my sandwich, a bunch of chips and other snacks (yay salt), and drank three bottles of water, but as a testament to the fact that my body was using every available resource for cell maintenance, I didn’t have to relieve myself once the entire day. By the time we got back, I was clearly in ketosis (which some extreme dieters and athletes try to induce but really doesn’t feel good). It took me an hour longer to get down than it had to go up, and in the car, I was too tired to talk and couldn’t eat anything without choking because I was so dried out. When we arrived at a gas station, I did what I never do and bought a 16 oz. full sugar soda and almost instantly felt better (protip: have these waiting for you in the car next time). But I was so physically defeated that getting to the top of that mountain feel like a pyrrhic victory. It’s been five days, and my legs are still a little bit sore. I also immediately came down with a cold, and there were a few other physical after effects of extreme exertion that are a tad too personal to mention here.

You could argue that the views are worth it. I'm not going to right now.
You could argue that the views are worth it. I’m not going to right now.

Mountain climbing is the source of a number of self-help clichés that I could no doubt spend another thousand words listing here. There’s the one about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And the one about taking everything one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles. Humility while standing before nature’s grandeur. None of those are the epiphanies I had while I was barking my shins repeatedly on boulders. No, the persistent thought I keep returning to—that I’ve actually been turning over in my head all year—is that there may be something really wrong with me. Because this flogging myself up a mountain even though I know that it’s probably going to wreck me, that I am probably going to embarrass myself while climbing with three men over six feet tall in top physical condition (there are plenty of female athletes who could have breezed right past them, but I am decidedly not one of them), is pretty characteristic. I am ambitious, competitive, challenge-seeking, and I see stuff through to the end no matter what. Those all sound like strong qualities. They are without question the reason I got a PhD, why I am moving to Russia, why I double-majored and graduated with enough credit hours for two degrees, why when I was thirteen, I went to Honduras for a month to lay concrete with a crazy fundamentalist mission group. While basically a home-body and not much of a risk-taker, I have a tendency to push myself in ways that get me things I want but that also know can become maladaptive.

For example, panicked about money and my job search, over the course of my last year in Austin, I was working no less than three part-time jobs at any given time. For a few months, I was working four. Granted, one of those jobs got me the job I have now, but piling on that many commitments is inadvisable if you are also supposed to be writing a book.

On that note, there seems to be no project so difficult that I can’t find a way to make it even harder. My dissertation project should be strong enough for publication with some straightforward revisions and the addition of a new chapter to replace one that no longer fits the book’s scope and methodology. Having spent almost three weeks in an archive this summer, I’ve come up with ideas for another two chapters and two articles with little clarity about how to prioritize what I want to do.

Again, all of this sort of sounds like good stuff. Having more ideas than time to write them is a high class problem. So is having more paying gigs than you can possibly juggle. And it sounds like all of this could be waved away with “work smarter not harder,” and “give yourself a break,” but this is as useless to a high-functioning depressive (which is what I am) as the advice to not worry so much is to someone with an anxiety disorder (which I have). But the truth is that this past year (the past few years, really) has taken me to absolutely terrifying physical, emotional, and spiritual lows that I might blog about one day if I’m drunk enough. And because I do not behave in stereotypically depressed ways, because I get out of bed in the morning and generally get shit done—whether or not I have to go cry for an hour in my office after teaching class—my particular form of depression is very difficult both to acknowledge and to treat. What it costs you to get to the top of the mountain and back again isn’t as significant to most people as the fact that you got there.

So, rather than write for another 2000 words on what should by now be the obvious similarities between mountain climbing and academic high-achieving (both are endurance games, both require mental toughness and very high tolerance for discomfort, etc.), so instead of that, I’d like to take a paragraph or two to recognize the wisdom of doing to reverse of making it to the top. Sometimes it’s ok to bail out. Sometimes it’s ok to not make the climb in the first place.

Critical to making those choices are enough self-awareness to know why you are doing what you’re doing. I am at the point where I can recognize what itch I’m trying to scratch but don’t quite have the will-power to stop myself. I attempted a hike I knew would be very difficult under circumstances that were less than ideal because I enjoy challenges, yes, but also because I was mad at my body. Moving around a lot has meant falling out of a regimented workout routine, usually only getting to it 2-3 times a week, and between that and new medication, my weight has creeped up bit. As someone whose all for body positivity and HAES and all of that, I’m a bit ashamed that that sort of thing throw off my equilibrium so much, but I live in the world, and sometimes it gets to me.

Likewise, I think some of us tend to pursue our academic careers, pursue a PhD or a particular job or tenure because of the feeling that it will fix something that we think is deeply wrong with us or because it will prove something about you. I defended a year and a half ago and spent the following two weeks in a post-partum fog expecting to change color or something, expecting some external sign that I had arrived. As anyone who reaches that milestone can tell you, it never really comes. You don’t suddenly become a different person (just as you don’t when your body changes, much as the diet industrial complex would like to tell you otherwise). And of course in a career like this, the goalposts just keep moving, so there’s always something new on the horizon to be neurotic about.

And finally, what it costs you to get something really does matter. I’m not just talking about the consequences of putting off family or neglecting friendships or whatever. There is a personal cost to everything that—especially if you are a very sensitive person—can be very, very real and long-lasting. And that is a thing that is worth weighing any time you are facing a difficult endeavor. Deciding that the terrible, never-ending scrutiny of grad school is just not worth it is not cowardice. It’s wisdom. And deciding that a job that is less prestigious or *gasp* not even academic is more amenable to your lifestyle preferences is knowing yourself, not selling out. I’m lucky in that I really do enjoy what I do and can’t imagine really being happy in other line of work (one of the things I learned from the multi-job clusterfrack of the past year is that I hate, hate, hate working in a normal office and love the fact that my schedule completely changes every few months). It’s also true that when the challenge is well-matched to my level of conditioning and acclimation, mountaineering is really fun. But with the work ethic of a Puritan and a masochistic streak, you can sure find a way to make it torture.

Jane Austen and Women’s Shared Strategic Culture


This episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast seemed worth sharing for a couple of reasons. The first is Jane Austen, who is just obvious clickbait all by herself, and who political scientist Michael Chwe is studying through the lens of game theory. Austen, he argues, with her precise studies of how women navigate complex social networks and work them to their advantage. Furthermore, given the author’s engagement with eighteenth century intellectual culture, including Adam Smith, looking at Austen as a kind of proto-economist interested in very specific kinds of markets is provocative and somehow not completely anachronistic.

But it’s an even more interesting idea because of the way, midway through, Stephen Dubner probes the relationship between gender and the kind of strategic thinking that game theory entails. Women, argues Chwe, tend to be better at strategic maneuvering than men in the way that all disempowered groups tend to be relative to the majority. If the status quo is working in your favor, then there is no need to manipulate in order to get some kind of advantage. But in making that connection, the episode also puts a new spin on two types of behavior that are stereotypically and stigmatically coded as female: empathy and manipulation.

Game theory requires one to be able to intuit the response of another person to one’s actions. In other words, it requires a deep knowledge of people as people and as individuals, the kind of sensitivity to the nuances of human behavior and relationships that we so often think of as feminine. Likewise, the successful player must be able to use that knowledge in some kind of strategic way in order to get what they want. Therefore what’s often labeled as passive aggression or manipulation are re-contextualized as rational, adaptive behaviors that have to be honed and deployed in intelligent ways in order to yield positive results. The economist argues that we see this kind of adaptation permeating the largely homosocial, female-centered culture of Austen’s novels, where the exchange of information (which we usually call gossip) is part of women’s “shared strategic culture,” honed and perfected over time.

A Response to Conservatives Re: Abortion

Yesterday’s post on the Wendy Davis filibuster has generated some interesting discussion on Facebook (on my sister’s wall, actually, not mine). Some conservative friends have passionately voiced their opinion that abortion is right up there with slavery in terms of historical evils, and I just thought I’d put my answer out there for those who can’t see it.

X (and others like X), I do hope that you actually read my post, which was intended to lay out for my primarily left-leaning readership precisely the concerns that inform your passionate stance. It is not a stance that I share because like many pro-choice folks, I believe that keeping abortion safe, legal, and accessible is as much a matter of life and death as you believe restricting it is. If you would like more detail as to why, consult the testimony that was read before the Texas Senate the other day. Restricting access to abortion does in some cases cause women to lose their lives. Getting an abortion is quite often a choice between two appalling options. 

There are many on the pro-choice left, however, who regard the pro-life position as primarily motivated by misogyny, which is a generalization that also vexes me. They are as unwilling to compromise on this as your are and in some cases believe you are evil. Given that some conservative legislatures wish to head in a direction where I could be prosecuted for having a simple miscarriage, it’s not hard to see how the rhetoric gets there.

But if those are the terms upon which this debate is going to move forward, that seems like a problem. I’m interested instead in having this discussion on the basis of sound medical science and with a full understanding of the circumstances that make abortions necessary, not on sweeping moral pronouncements that leave no room for the messy, often heartbreaking complexities of real life.

On the Wendy Davis Filibuster

I have a very vivid memory of the morning after Ann Richards was elected Governor of Texas. I heard the announcement on the radio and immediately burst into tears. I was seven years old, and at the time, my mother was pregnant with my third and youngest sister, Emily. I had been told at church and at my Christian school that Ann Richards was pro-choice, and having heard scary stories about the one-child policy in China, I had arrived at the weird conclusion that Ann Richards was going to force my mother to abort my sister.  A couple of years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton about the evils of abortion and the urgent necessity of making it illegal under any and all circumstances. I enclosed a macabre poem about a graveyard of unborn babies and all of the amazing things they could have done with their lives.

As someone who promptly succumbed to the liberalizing influence of college, this is a part of my history that I’m frankly a little embarrassed about and that makes me uncomfortably ambivalent whenever the topic of abortion comes up in SJ circles. On the one hand, I ardently believe that abortion should be legal, safe, and accessible, and I am appalled by the intellectually dishonest rhetoric that comes out of the pro-life camp. And a big part of me would like to simply disavow my seven year old self as a product of a very conservative upbringing in a conservative community in which there was little room for nuance on this issue (among others). On the other hand, I have trouble with the lack of nuance that runs the other way. Certainly, in many ways, misogyny at the bottom of it all, but of course that’s not how most pro-lifers see it. For me and for many people I grew up with, it wasn’t about controlling women, it was about protecting babies.

Discussions of abortion in my conservative community didn’t always revolve around immorality and the destruction of the traditional home. It was also wrapped up in rather well-intentioned (though sometimes hypocritical) concerns about the specter of eugenics, about disability rights, about the ethical horrors of ridding society of the “unwanted.” Frank Schaeffer, in his memoir about growing up as a conservative evangelical crusader, describes his turn toward militant pro-life activism as inspired by the birth of his child and what he saw as a growing callousness and alarming violence of Western culture in the twentieth century.

In other words, if there is an empathy gap between pro-life and pro-choice, it’s an empathy gap produced by the fact that pro-choice people empathize with the woman and pro-life people empathize with the unborn child. And both believe that in doing so, they are righteous. At bottom, I think we tend to direct our empathy in the easiest direction, and it’s hard not to empathize with babies. In a misogynistic culture, it’s easy to find reasons not to empathize with women who don’t want to have babies. During my teenage years, I was anti-abortion because I simply could not imagine a set of circumstances that would lead me to get one, and therefore it was fairly easy to imagine that anyone who would was somehow monstrous. I could not think outside the boundaries of my own experience and the fairly simple moral boundaries that my privilege enabled.

In order to have my mind changed, I had to encounter the stories of women who had, for various reasons, not just wanted but urgently required abortions to understand that the decision to get one is one of massive emotional and medical complexity in which something, inevitably, is going to be lost. I don’t believe that women who get abortions walk away with irreparable physical and emotional scars, but I do think that it’s an enormously delicate decision and that the best possible conditions for making that decision exist when there is minimal interference from outside, when we trust women to make it without subjecting them to further (sometimes literally physical) trauma or throwing up paternalistic roadblocks.   

And it’s for this reason that I am profoundly inspired by what Wendy Davis did last night, because the complicated stories of women who need abortions have so little visibility in a debate that takes place in depressingly abstract terms. I believe that stories can help change minds, but in this case, there just simply aren’t enough of them out there. And given the polarization of this issue, it’s easy to understand why. The right wants to minimize cognitive dissonance by labeling women who seek abortions as selfish and evil, so who wants to lay out the agonizing emotional calculus of their decision for that kind of demonization? Likewise, I think it’s difficult to acknowledge that abortion is a nuanced issue because the right has done a fairly successful job of using that to argue that therefore women need to be protected from themselves.

Visibility is power, and women who feel passionately about this issue have to fight to be visible in a media culture that remains problematically uncomfortable about discussing it on more than a surface level. Wendy Davis—not a perfect politician by any means—did a pretty remarkable thing with the help of other by demanding that kind of visibility. I just hope the finer points of argument are appreciated along with the sweeping drama of the filibuster’s final moments.

So yeah. More of this, please.

(Note: I have disappeared into an archive in Boston and therefore have been out of touch with the news. When I went to bed, the filibuster drama hadn’t yet peaked, so when I saw this morning that Facebook and Tumblr had gone all Red Wedding overnight, it took me a while to catch up. This is also my excuse for why blogging will remain somewhat light over the next couple of weeks.) 

If you’re going to be pedantic about grammar, please at least be right.

Students need to learn the principles of grammar in order to communicate effectively. This is an argument that even the grooviest of descriptive linguists has a hard time disagreeing with. In order to be able to break the rules in ways that are aesthetically or rhetorically effective, you first have to master them. But the same, I humbly argue, applies if you are going to be ultra-picky about grammar.

I am speaking especially to instructors who shave points off papers for perceived grammatical mistakes, particularly in classes where you are not actually teaching writing. In order for that sort of system to be fair, it needs to be pretty nigh close to infallible, but unfortunately, in my years working in writing centers and as an independent writing coach, I’ve seen plenty of papers on which mistakes are marked that aren’t actual mistakes. There’s the egregious stuff, like the business communication instructor who confuses passive voice with intransitive verbs (no, really). And there’s the subtle, but arguably more insidious stuff, like the marking of things as wrong that are not in fact grammatically wrong could, perhaps, benefit from editing to deal with wordiness, vagueness, or syntactical awkwardness. I’ve seen sentences like this receive nothing but an “X” with “GRAMMAR”  in the margin without any guidance as to what rule the student has broken or how they should correct it. It’s notations like these that indicate to me that the instructor in question hasn’t the foggiest idea what they’re actually talking about when they talk about grammar.

The truth is that effective editing is often a subjective process that involves not the upholding or breaking of set-in-stone rules but selection among multiple legitimate choices depending upon what it is the writer wishes to communicate. But acknowledging that questions of what makes effective writing are at bottom so subjective is threatening both to instructors and to students who are looking for something concrete upon which to base a grade. Sure, you can point to really specific things like comma splices and sentence fragments, but when it gets down to more complex writing issues, students will invariably find that their grade depends upon the hobby horses of their specific teachers. This one says the passive voice is always wrong. This one says never begin a sentence with a conjunction. In this context, such attempts to present grammar as a set of absolute, inarguable statutes, students receive the message that they are going to be punished for doing things they didn’t even know were wrong. That they may, in fact, be punished for doing something in X’s class that was considered correct in Y’s class. Last year, I had a graduate student bring me her marked paper, distraught by the points she lost for grammar, and I looked through the marks and had to tell her that honestly, in some places she lost points for things that weren’t wrong. And in fact, in at least one case, her instructor had changed a verb tense that was correct originally but now no longer agreed with the subject.

This is unacceptable. If you are going to make an issue out of grammar in your class, you need to be prepared to teach grammar in some form or another, even if that only means  making resources readily available for students who exhibit patterns of error. But the bottom line remains that you, yourself need to know what you are talking about.

The same thing goes if you are flitting about the internet correcting people’s tweets or interrupting casual conversation to comment on adverb usage. This is already socially marginal behavior, so don’t take the risk of both being a dick and a fool.

Don Draper: Sexual Assault Victim?

Mad Men-The Crash(SPOILER WARNING: the events of Mad Men up to the present will be discussed)

A few weeks ago, when the Mad Men episode “The Crash” aired, commentators reacted with varying degrees of bewilderment and exhaustion. The exhaustion stemmed primarily from the episode’s focus on what Tom and Lorenzo aptly call “Don Draper and his Big Bag of Fucking Bullshit”:

Show of hands: who found it shocking and revelatory that Don got his cherry popped by a blonde prostitute? Or that his stepmother abused him? There is nothing new to be found here and we found ourselves getting quite annoyed by the heavy-handedness of it all.

No, nothing about Don’s arc over the course of this season has been particularly new or subtle, but I’m a little curious as to why I haven’t heard or read anyone talking about that scene in which young Dick Whitman loses his virginity as sexual assault or abuse. After all, this was a young (14 year old?) kid having sex with a much older woman, a woman who had promised to take care of him. If you rewatch that scene, note how he pulls the covers over himself, says “stop it” and “no” before shutting his eyes with a pained look on his face as she ignores his refusals. The scene is shot with tight close-ups on his face, similar to the way in which Joan’s rape scene was shot. It’s really hard not to view this scene as a sexual trauma.

Perhaps people have simply overlooked that fact to talk about the other ways in which that plot-line was problematic, but it’s hard not to jump to the obvious conclusion that we as a culture still don’t see males–even young boys–as likely victims of sexual assault or abuse. The scene in which the prostitute reveals what happened and Dick is subsequently beaten by his step-mother contains some interesting gender connotations. “I popped that kid’s cherry,” she tells Uncle Mack. On the one hand, the use of that colloquialism–based on the penetration of the hymen–feminizes Dick while also suggesting that it was something that needed to happen. A boy’s virginity is less sacred than a girl’s, something that demands to be lost even as a girl’s demands to be preserved. Males are supposed to be sexually assertive. Note that the prostitute takes his obvious arousal as an overt invitation to sex while also reveling in the power she has to arouse him.

Likewise, Dick’s punishment at the hands of his stepmother can be read in two ways. On the one hand, she’s beating him for becoming precisely what his father was and at the same time, she is punishing him as so many female sexual assault victims are punished: for failing to prevent a horrible thing from happening to him.

All of this would seem like heavy-handed manipulation on Matt Weiner’s part, a ploy to get us to feel sorry for a character who has become progressively less likable over the years, if I didn’t think he had a broader point. On one level, there is the much-discussed implications of this scene for Don’s relationships with women. I think it’s no accident that this revelation comes in the context of his and Sylvia’s breakup after their weird little sex game in the hotel. Don desperately tries to assert his control–in a very creepy way–but ultimately, it’s Sylvia who has the power to end it when she chooses. And truthfully, that’s been the case in every relationship Don has had with a woman over the years. From Rachel Menken to Betty to Peggy to (through her decision to go back to acting) Megan, every woman he has screwed over and tried to keep under his sway has ultimately walked out the door, has revealed his illusion of control to be as ephemeral as it actually is. I find it significant that almost immediately on the heels of “The Crash,” we got an episode in which a radiant Betty comes back into Don’s life to prove that she can have him whenever she wants him and cast him aside without so much as a thought.

And while a lot of this stuff is specific to Don’s brokenness, I think it’s representative of the way many white men paradoxically felt and continue to feel in a world where women and minorities are gradually asserting their rights: institutionally and as a class, they have all the power, but on a personal level, as individuals, they feel powerless.

Now again, that misogynists are driven by deep insecurity is hardly news. Don Draper: child rape victim doesn’t make Don Draper: adult asshole any less responsible for what he does to the people around him. So if Matthew Weiner is adding anything to this Psych 101 conversation, it’s perhaps the extremity to which this sense of impotence goes. Back in Season 3, we had another similarly eye-roll inducing moment when it was revealed that Dick was named for the promise his mother never lived to see fulfilled (that she would cut Daddy Whitman’s dick off if he got her into trouble). On one level of reading, Don/Dick was named for the male member and its power to create (a child) and destroy (the life of its mother). But he is also named for it’s absence, for the very act of castration.

So, what Weiner seems to be inviting us to see in Don’s ever recursive journey back to these primal moments of rejection and trauma is that male power is both a presence and an absence, a thing that is present and can effect the world around it but is also somehow absent or under threat of being violently taken away. To borrow a line from everyone’s favorite eunuch, “Power is an illusion,” and white male middle class heterosexual power at mid-century is based on the illusion that it is inevitable, historically and biologically, and therefore invulnerable, while the events of 1968 proclaim in every possible way just how much it is not.

David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” and the Torture of Writing

One of my most intelligent students last semester told me that he’s always had a hard time getting into David Foster Wallace because he feels like if he fails to “get it,” he’ll feel stupid. Having sat through graduate courses on Postmodernism and Critical Theory, I know the feeling–really–and yet I find Wallace to be one of the more approachable, humanistic purveyors of post-post-whatever meta-fictional experimentation. His stuff is dense, sure, and often deliberately opaque, but in additional to probing and satirizing aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century life in apt and often prescient ways, he in the top 1% of writers who are capable of combining humor with a soul-rending sense of pathos.

“Octet,” which appears in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, is a story I’ve started assigning both because it’s a great example of meta-fictionality and because it dramatizes right before your eyes the crippling self-consciousness that afflicts anyone who has ever sat down to write something, from a novel to a term paper. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it’s a terrifyingly funny and relatable depiction of just how torturous writing typically is–particularly in the era of detached, adultish, post-ironic snark.

Beginning as a set of experimental fictional pieces called “pop quizzes,” Wallace presents a series of stories that conclude with some kind of question that asks the reader to make some kind of judgment about the predicament of the characters in it, questions that are designed to probe something meaningful about the reader herself. We get 4 such quizzes, numbered 4-7 (two are labelled 6 and 6A). Number 8 is skipped. And 9 begins with a direct address to the reader:

You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as ‘short stories’ (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years–even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don’t work like Flash Fictions are supposed to). How exactly the cycle’s short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they’re supposed to compose a sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them, somehow–i.e. palpations, feelers into the interstices of her sense of something, etc. . . . though what that ‘something’ is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you’re working on the pieces (pieces that are taking a truly grotesque amount of time, by the way, far more time than they ought to vis a vis their length and aesthetic ‘weight,’ etc.

What follows for the next 15 pages is a foot-noted diatribe on the difficulties of writing what the author declares to be “a total fiasco,” a series of pieces that the author insists, for some reason, on calling an “octet,” when it really isn’t, of a series of “pop quizzes,” most of which don’t really function all that well as such. The author asks the reader to consider all of the devices by which one might salvage the whole endeavor, perhaps by “some terse unapologetic acknowledgement” that this isn’t working, which might save face and deflate the pretentiousness of the whole thing but “also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference . . . which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off as lame and tired and facile.” The whole thing crawls further up its own ass when the author offers the reader

[A] chance to salvage the potential fiasco of you feeling that the 2+(2(1)) pieces add up to something urgent and humand and the reader not feeling that way at all. Because now it occurs to you that you could simply ask her. The reader. That you could poke your nose out of the mural hole that ‘6 isn’t working as a Pop Quiz’ and ‘Here’s another shot at it’ etc. have already made adnd address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she’s feeling anything like what you feel.

The hazard of this additional, ultra-meta pop quiz, he warns is that

You’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked–more like unarmed. Defenseless. ‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?–this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to

The whole thing is riddled with footnotes that dramatize the author/reader’s growing insecurity about his/her choices, obsessing over whether the use of the term “relationship” is too touchy-feely or whether the word “palpate” to describe what the quizzes are meant to do is too pretentious. This reaches its climax when he tries to figure out if the verb “to be” as in “to be with someone” carries too much cultural baggage to be taken seriously.

All of this, of course, offers plenty of opportunities to talk about form and authorial choices and to what degree Wallace is just fucking with us. Many of my students think he’s doing quite a lot of the latter and find the whole thing more than a little pretentious and exhausting. This, of course, is what the authorial voice of the “Octet” anticipates, that the reader will be alienated by this excruciating sincerity in the same way that someone “who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be like or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not” is going to terrify and alienate his neighbors. When I teach this piece, I show the Community episode, “Critical Film Studies” and talk about the fact that the terrifying sincerity of the final Pop Quiz shares features with Jeff’s speech to Abed when he confesses to calling up phone sex lines and saying he weighs 300 pounds because he needs to believe that he’ll be loved regardless of what he looks like. It’s something you’re not supposed to say, and because of that, it needs to be folded into layers of mediation and self-reference in order to defuse the horrifying nakedness of it all.

There is one sentence in “Octet” that runs on for three pages, footnoted no less than six times, requiring you, the reader, to decide whether to read the entire thing and go back to the footnotes, break up the sentence by reading the footnotes as they appear, or ignoring the footnotes altogether. If you go with Option #2, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that this sentence is essentially the thesis statement of the piece, which amounts to, more or less, the fact that we all desperately want to be loved and understood on our own terms but are desperately afraid (and rightly so) that we won’t. If you choose Option #3, you miss dramatization of the authorial voice’s excruciating indecision over specific word choices, and if you choose #1, you sort of get that but not with the same immediacy. In other works, both you’re going to kind of miss the urgency of it any way, and the author has designed it as such so that you can be impressed by the pyrotecnics in case you don’t “get” the essential terrifying point that he’s driving at.

The thing is that you don’t have to be a writer of belletristic fiction in order to get this. Every time you post something to a blog or to Facebook or Twitter or even go up to someone and say, “I was just thinking…” you are inviting a kind of rejection and misunderstanding and weighing against that terror the possibility that you might be warmly received, that your interlocutor or reader will say, “Hey, I totally get you.” In an age of endless self-disclosure that was only beginning to spring up when this piece was written, it’s a set of demons we do battle with not only when we sit down to do formal writing but with almost every online interaction.

And then you have to reflect on the fact that the more successful you get at this dance, the more people who are willing to buy what you’re selling, you run the risk of becoming further alienated from the people who provided you with that sense of connection to humanity. One of the demons Wallace seems to be battling in “Octet” is, in fact, “David Foster Wallace,” a literary persona weighted down with a host of expectations:

At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of pre-arranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.

And of course, there is a degree to which this all just feels too clever, like the whole thing has crawled so far up its own ass that it ceases to be as human or urgent or relateable as it wants to be. The piece acknowledges its own manipulativeness, which in and of itself manipulative. But then you remember that David Foster Wallace killed himself and realize that this crippling self-consciousness and inability to escape the recursive loops of self-doubt might have had something to do with that. Because earlier in this same collection there is a story called “The Depressed Person” that lays out with excruciating accuracy the self-defeating, often fatal cycles of self-loathing that accompany mental illness. Such that the whole thing just spills open for you and becomes either a yawning pit of sadness or a sign that you, writing your blog post or thinking about your term paper, aren’t as alone as you think.

Sherman Alexie Starts a Twitstorm over Grammar

Sherman Alexie started quite the fuss on Twitter this week. I don’t have a ton to add to the conversation except that there’s a reason why this remains the most viewed post on this blog by a few orders of magnitude after three friggin years.

The Pleasures of Narrative

As usual, I’m late to the party and just came across this excellent piece by everyone’s favorite green, be-shortsed film critic on the spoiler conversation following this season’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones (be not afraid, there are no spoilers here). He weaves his discussion of that fallout into a broader argument about the ways in which we consume art, though he is specifically talking about the filmic arts here. To whit, he argues that there are four:





Spoilerphobia, he argues, comes out of the desire to experience narrative in that “childlike” state of wonder and surprise, and in its most extreme forms–someone for whom spoilers utterly destroy their ability to derive pleasure or enjoyment out of something–suggests that the individual is incapable of or unwilling to experience media in any other way.

I liked this piece very much, but one thought occurred to me by the time I came to the end: I only WISH I could get more of the students in my literature classes to care as much about the fate of Isabel Archer or Ellison’s Invisible Man as they do about the Starks (don’t get me wrong: I love the Starks too). Let’s just say that no one is talking about spoilers in a class discussion of My Antonia. A big reason for this, of course, is that “literary” fiction tends to be character rather than plot-driven. But the bigger reasons, I think, have to do with context and the ways in which works–filmic or literary–that students or other readers deem “difficult” reverses the trajectory that Film Crit Hulk lays out, one in which purely libidinal enjoyment passes over the course of maturation and exposure to a mix of the cerebral and the emotional.

What I find in my class is that students who are very apt at picking apart what they think is going on in a text–identifying symbols and figures of speech, even taking apart the gender, class, and race dynamics underlying the text’s surface meanings–tend to treat these things as if they were pure thought exercises devoid of any kind of human meaning. Ok, I know a lot of people with tenure who fall into this category as well.

The truth is that I find Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to be a perfect novel in almost every possible detail, a work of stunning complexity and nuance both as character study and as a book with a cracking good plot. But I also find it emotionally affecting, shot through with an excruciating sense of the loneliness one feels even in human company written by a woman who saw and experienced the most alienating parts of 19th century upper-class New York society. And it’s a work that speaks powerfully to a present moment in which we both worship and abhor those who are famous purely for being rich and conventionally beautiful.

But to appreciate the pathos of the heroine’s fate, you do have to get past a lot of big words. You have to understand a little bit about Wharton’s historical moment, and you have to know enough to get the jokes (it’s a book that’s as funny as it is sad). I have students who can perform a gorgeous close reading of the opening chapter and explain the clear signs of Henry James’s influence on Wharton’s prose and use of realism, but they seem to experience the text with as much emotional investment as a coroner performing an autopsy.  My goal is to get students to be able to pick apart the techniques of Song of Myself and recognize its contributions to American poetry while also just reveling in it.

When it comes to certain very complex works of art–whether it’s a Terence Malick film or a belletristic novel–the achievement of that third level of consumption, that balance of catharsis and intellectual appreciation, often does mean moving past pure analysis in order recapture the ability to experience a narrative in a state of wonder and curiosity.

This is an attitude that contemporary academic culture doesn’t often encourage, and the staleness of the literary survey may be as much to blame as the recalcitrance of students. But the polarization of emotional and intellectual enjoyment is also, I think, something that has penetrated popular culture and criticism where it is often difficult to carve out a middle ground between adultishly detached snark and, well, 95% of Tumblr. It’s a paradigm that so often pathologizes libidinal enjoyment and transference while at the same time enabling it.