Thursday, April 10, 2008

Comfortably Numb


I finished. Actually, I handed in my PhD thesis almost a week ago, at five minutes to five on the afternoon of Friday, the fourth of April, 2008 Anno Domini, more than five and a half years after beginning the thing. It took me longer to write 110,000 words about EP Thompson than it took the United States of America to win World War Two, and almost as long as it took The Stone Roses to record their second album. I don't think my thesis cost as much as the war, let alone the Roses' Second Coming, but to be sure you'd have to ask my parents, and the University of Auckland's Sociology Department, which saw its PhD bonuses dry up as the years crept on.

Over the past week I've been experiencing what the wily Olivia Macassey has called 'post-doctoral numbness symdrome'. This numbness induces a curious sort of paralysis. In its final stages, especially, a PhD thesis concentrates the mind wonderfully, eliminating the need to make all sorts of decisions. Friends learn not to drop around with beer and DVDs, and workmates stop calling and asking for shifts. Even small, formerly useful chores, like the washing of clothes, the paying of bills, the putting out of rubbish, and the writing of polemics against obscure left-wing groups are sacrificed, as time is allocated ever more ruthlessly to essential tasks like the alphabetising of a bibliography or the hunt for split infinitives.

Once the thesis is prised from one's hands by the understanding but firm secretary at the Graduate Centre, then all sorts of awkward demands pose themselves with a new urgency. Neighbours complain about the smell from the overflowing bin; friends demand proof of a social life; and power companies send letters with numbers higher than any Bradman score printed in big black letters after a dollars sign. There are too many things to do, and doing nothing seems like the only sensible option.

It's not as though I was expecting to finish my thesis. I remember reading a JG Ballard story about a boy who makes a kite, then tries to catch a train out of the city where he lives so that he can fly it in the country sky. The super-efficient subway of the twenty-third century takes him right around the world, until he recognises the apartments and offices of the suburb where he lives, and realises that there is no way out of the city. Sensible grown-ups try with increasing success to convince him that the city has always existed, and that the place with hedges and fields is a fantasy promulgated by backward-looking troublemakers. Over the last year, especially, my thesis had begun to seem like Ballard's endless city, or like the endless novel that the narrator of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys seems doomed to write:

Motivation, inspiration was not the problem...I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming...

It was my long-suffering supervisor who led me, blinking and complaining, out of the labyrinth of footnotes and supporting paragraphs by insisting that the thesis be submitted before he retired. And, luckily, the submission process seems designed to thwart the sort of destructive perfectionism to which I was falling victim. It demands that the thesis be delivered in soft cover format and weeded carefully by the supervisor and his co-markers, before it is bound with leather and deemed unalterable. Somebody else gets to find the last of those typos.

As post-doctoral numbness syndrome begins to abate I'm getting back into work at the Auckland museum, which has been hit by a 'restructuring' programme over the past month and badly needs a stronger union branch. I'm hoping to throw some energy in that direction, and also to get back into the literary scene, which seems to have managed quite nicely without me, if the thriving business at Alien and the book launches being scheduled by Titus are anything to go by. See you in the real world.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Beggs said...

Scott, biggest congratulations! It must be a great feeling, once the numbness fades anyway.

11:27 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Scott - great! I was glad I saw your seminar.

What's a split infinitive? Who remembers it?

I thought post modernism had dealt that evil grammatical term a savage death blow - Dr (note the doctor) Ross - great critic of Harold Blookmski - has accused me of infinite splitting!

All weak jokes aside - great!

What next?? A book on Thompson, Orwell, Marxy baby, Auden et al; more poems - a critical book on NZ poetry and e.g Smithyman, Brunton (myself etc (coughs)) and Dr Jack Ross etc - you have to include Ross as he has driven poor old Loney from these shores - weeping and anguishing for his lost "outsiderness" not being properly construed... [and Dr (note the Dr) Ross is indisputably the New Ruler of NZ Literature]

You too to become a bitter (albeit brilliant) "oppositionalist" !??!? -

and there is The Revolution to attend to of course...

3:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well done scooter

7:03 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

Congratulations Scott.

Note to my Supervisors: Scott is clearly thinking of someone else.

I promise that I did not coin the term "post doctoral numbness symdrome" (or even syndrome for that matter) and I do not claim to suffer from it! Don't worry, I am still very alert.

That said, I do wish I was at the point where I could do something like that. This is great news, Scott!!! Good on you!!

3:36 pm  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

Wondeful news, Scott -- I'll add my congratulations to all the others. The numbness does wear off eventually, you'll be glad to hear, but I can't help feeling the words "E. P. Thompson" may not be quite such music in your ears as they used to be ...

9:30 am  

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