A nec­es­sary evil: Shahidha Bari on dreaded dead­lines

The ne­ces­sity of reg­u­lar pub­li­ca­tion curbs the free­dom that can make schol­arly work orig­i­nal and im­por­tant, says Shahidha Bari

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Shahidha Bari is lec­turer in Ro­man­ti­cism at Queen Mary Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don.

Afew weeks ago, you might have heard that some­body took a steam­roller to nov­el­ist Terry Pratch­ett’s hard drive. At the Great Dorset Steam Fair, an in­dus­trial beast named Lord Jeri­cho was tasked with ex­e­cut­ing the last wish of the Dis­c­world cre­ator, who died in 2015 after a long strug­gle with Alzheimer’s dis­ease: the ut­ter oblit­er­a­tion of his un­fin­ished works.

There are rea­sons you might not wish your last work to see the light of day. Some­times, it is death, un­pre­dictable and in­eluctable, that wrenches a writer away from their work too soon. At other times, it is life it­self that pre­vents us from pol­ish­ing off what we seem to have been work­ing on for­ever. But there can also be some­thing al­lur­ing in the par­tial, the im­per­fect, the great un­re­solved. This is what com­forts slow­poke aca­demics like me when de­fer­ring their dead­lines to an­other day.

In lit­er­a­ture, Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge’s 1816 poem Kubla Khan is the ar­che­typal un­fin­ished work. Seem­ingly com­posed in a dream, Co­leridge awoke from his reverie in the fullest throes of po­etic in­spi­ra­tion, de­ter­mined to record for pos­ter­ity his ex­otic

(if opium-in­voked) vi­sion of a Mon­go­lian palace. Then the dread­ful “per­son on busi­ness from Por­lock” knocked on his cot­tage door, cat­a­stroph­i­cally in­ter­rupt­ing him mid-flow. The vi­sion van­ished, leav­ing him only the dy­ing em­bers of in­spi­ra­tion and 50-odd scat­tered lines.

Co­leridge cursed those with a propen­sity to turn up at the door at an in­op­por­tune mo­ment, but most of us see through the ruse. The per­son from Por­lock is only a more so­phis­ti­cated “dog-ate-my-home­work” sort of ex­cuse for not fin­ish­ing some­thing. We can all make em­bar­rassed apolo­gies or blame the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of Co­leridge’s in­ter­loper, the su­per­mar­ket de­liv­ery per­son. But so many dif­fer­ent things can gen­uinely ob­struct and im­pede our progress.

There is, though, some­thing in­fu­ri­at­ing in Co­leridge’s in­sis­tence that a poem could come to him so fully formed, as though writ­ing were only ever the obe­di­ent in­scrip­tion of mirac­u­lous ge­nius. This is a fan­tasy that, I sus­pect, not many of us have ever seen re­alised. Re­search and writ­ing can be a painful slog, ag­o­nis­ingly eked out over weeks, months and years. But the Ro­man­tics were mis­chievous that way, hap­pily dab­bling in un­fin­ished frag­men­tary forms, pass­ing them off as cre­ative ex­er­cises in the style of the ru­ins of an­tiq­uity.

In 1813, Fran­cis Jef­frey, the se­vere ed­i­tor of the Ed­in­burgh Re­view, sar­don­ically ob­served of such an of­fer­ing by By­ron that “The Taste for Frag­ments, we sus­pect, has be­come very gen­eral, and the greater part of po­lite read­ers would no more think of sit­ting down to a whole epic than to a whole Ox”. But while it would cer­tainly be rude to send a mod­ern jour­nal ed­i­tor an en­tire ox, al­low­ing your ar­gu­ment to trail off mid-sen­tence is not an op­tion for most of us.

In some ways, that is a pity. In their in­choate, vi­sion­ary stage, our in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­tions are bril­liant and un­tar­nished by our limited time and im­per­fect ex­pres­sions. Un­formed things never fail us, but real re­search of­ten falls short of the ex­pec­ta­tions we had when we set out to de­lin­eate some scin­til­lat­ing new thought. This is what dis­cour­ages me when I con­front the blank screen.

Schol­ar­ship is an act of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. We make peace with the dis­ap­point­ment of not hav­ing quite ac­com­plished what we in­tended. Some­times, that ir­ri­ta­ble, per­fec­tion­ist im­pulse makes us hold on to things for too long, as though we could not read enough 18th-cen­tury his­tory or stud­ies of the mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy of ants to thor­oughly sat­isfy our sense of schol­arly con­text. If we’re lucky, some kindly ed­i­tor or grumpy head of depart­ment will even­tu­ally wrench the re­search from our hands and point us in the next di­rec­tion.

This is a ne­ces­sity when you are locked into the fixed time­frames of na­tional re­search as­sess­ment mech­a­nisms, but it can be rather un­palat­able not to be able to write to our own rhythms. That isn’t be­cause we are pre­cious about our work, or in­do­lent in our pro­duc­tiv­ity, as some sug­gest. It is be­cause we know the cul­ture sanc­tioned by this timetabled pro­duc­tiv­ity curbs the free­doms and in­de­pen­dence that can make schol­arly work orig­i­nal, il­lu­mi­nat­ing and im­por­tant.

In­deed, the dead­line is per­haps the thing an aca­demic fears most. It is the school­room spec­tre that pur­sues us ev­ery day, howl­ing in our ears, catch­ing at our tails, threat­en­ing to drag us into de­spair. I ad­mire you if you are the sort to dis­pense with a dead­line smartly, box­ing its ears and neatly kick­ing it into space. In these mat­ters, I err to­wards Tru­man Capote. In 1968, he failed to meet his sub­mis­sion dead­line for his posthu­mously pub­lished novel, An­swered Prayers. “Posthu­mous” is how he de­scribed it while he was still alive. “Ei­ther I’m go­ing to kill it,” he said la­con­i­cally, “or it’s go­ing to kill me.”

He won a re­prieve un­til 1973, but missed that dead­line, too. And the one in 1976. And the one in 1981. The recorded cause of his death in 1984 was liver dis­ease rather than lit­er­ary com­po­si­tion, but, ei­ther way, the book still wasn’t fin­ished.

Two years later, it was pub­lished any­way, the pub­lic’s ap­petite for frag­ments still ap­par­ently not quenched en­tirely. It’s a lively and sala­cious read. I’d tell you what hap­pens, but there’s some­one knock­ing at the door. Prob­a­bly on some busi­ness from Por­lock.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.