07 February 2010

Et à l'aurore...

I'm a graduate student training to be a university professor. After a few years in the trenches, my writing now conforms to academic style. Instead of being light and playful, it has become ponderous and self-serious even when I'm not writing for other scholars. I need to get over this.

In academia the cards are stacked against clever writing because academic prose is almost always trying to do something bureaucratic (get you accepted to a conference, get you tenure), and any deviation from the strictures could mean a busted flush: your work might fail to do what it's supposed to do and then it doesn't matter how elegantly written it was. Besides that vicious cycle, our suffering is often self-inflicted: Academics complain about how no one cares what we're doing, and then we trot out the sesquipedalian (literally, "foot-and-a-half long") words and wrap ourselves in a cocoon of jargon. Of course there is plenty of good academic writing but producing it takes a level of self-control and bureaucratic leeway that few of us actually have.

I used to blog at the South Asian Journalists Association site, SAJAforum, where I tried to show how the academic study of South Asia was relevant for current events. That gig ended and my dissertation looms. My fear is that putting it together will be more like programming code than writing. To avoid that fate, I am trying my hand at blogging since the only truly successful writing on the Internet is all about the light and the playful.

I'll admit that if I'm trying to escape academia through this blog, maybe it wasn't right to name it after a poem--in French!--but old habits die hard. "Splendid Cities" comes from a line by Arthur Rimbaud, in the last part of Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). He writes: 
"Et à l'aurore, armés d'une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides villes."
[And at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.]
You don't need to know French to see how sublime the line is. It starts with dawn, the eternal promise of a new tomorrow that appears in virtually all literature and religion, continues with the deepest hesitation (why do we need to arm ourselves with burning patience if this is just a walk through a city gate?), and ends up in a place of pure imagination: What could the "splendid cities" be?

Perhaps ironically for some with a blog, I don't like blogs: the tone is too often bitchy and posts are sometimes screeds written to a formula (see this brilliant parody). Most troubling, there are false boundaries between anonymity and community, because anyone can comment on anything but almost no one is obligated to reveal his/her true identity. (I'm thinking of the great New Yorker cartoon from 1993 with two dogs at a computer and the caption "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.") The problem with that formula of community and anonymity together is that there is no longer any shame in incivility, and I have never had the patience for that.

Blogs can also run too fast for good writing. Words used to be so chewed over (an author writes something on paper, corrects it, sends it to an editor, it gets typeset, goes to proofs, is printed and only then gets into a reader's hands). I'm trying to come to terms with my "slow food" approach to writing. That said, though I grew up in the Internet Age, I still appreciate the whiz-bang quality of pressing the publish button and having something I've just created appear perfectly typeset on a virtual page. But many of us--myself probably included--do not have the self-control to keep from pressing the publish button before we've said what we really mean and said it well.

I should admit that another reason for choosing the line from Une Saison en Enfer is a respect for activism based on getting the truth out, the activism of the pen and printing press. One embodiment this was L'Aurore, a left-leaning newspaper in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. The most famous article in its short run was the open-letter by Émile Zola to the President of France entitled "J'accuse...!" Zola felt compelled to call the treason trial of Alfred Dreyfuss what it was, an anti-Semitic travesty, and was forced into exile himself. I don't have Zola's courage but that doesn't mean that I won't say what I believe and what--several years into a PhD--I know. Of course, I need certain countries to give me visas and hiring committees in the future to like me, but that still gives me plenty of scope to speak truth to power. As C.P. Scott, who was editor of the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) when L'Aurore was being published, wrote, "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." (A man after my own heart, he also apparently said, "Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.")

It's nice to see that blogging has just been declared one of the uncoolest things you can on the Internet. That means it's just the right time for me to start.

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