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10 Oct

Crisis of purpose – This is not the entry I was originally planning to post. That entry, a book review of sorts, is only about half done (OK, it’s probably closer to a third... maybe even a fourth). But I’ve been struggling with it and I knew that it was either write a different entry today or write nothing at all. Not that writing nothing would have been all that tragic, but I’m feeling a bit depressed and need to vent a bit. Don’t take most of what follows too seriously (except for the beginning, which is kind of serious), since for the most part I’m just getting some things off my chest. Apologies in advance for this departure from my usual attempts at clarity.

“With the world falling apart around us, can we really afford the luxury of climbing up into the ivory tower and pondering the meaning of life?”

I have been under the weather the last few days with some pretty wicked allergies and the ensuing problems that come from taking too much allergy medication. Today I seem to be doing better physically, but emotionally I’m not doing too well. Some readers might remember my mother-in-law’s experience with cancer last year. Well, she went to the hospital for some tests last week, and the results came back positive today—they discovered some small cancerous growths in her lungs. She’s at the hospital now as I write this, and she will be undergoing treatment (I’m assuming chemo and radiation) tomorrow. On the positive side, they caught the cancer at an early stage. On the negative side, well, it’s cancer. This is never a good thing. Right now all I know is that she will be receiving periodic treatment and the doctors are adopting a “wait and see” attitude.

Oh, and North Korea has the bomb now, too. Or at least that’s what they say— Kevin has a link to an article that entertains the possibility that the blast wasn’t nuclear. But does it really matter? Even if they don’t have nuclear capability now, sooner or later they will, and Norks with nukes is also not a good thing. Am I particularly worried about the North Koreans having the bomb? To be perfectly honest, not really—at least, not any more worried than I normally am about North Korea. Let’s face it, Kim Jong-il is a megalomaniac who would sooner see his country (at least the civilians) starve to death than lose his iron grip on power. If he’s willing to sacrifice his people for power, what difference would a bomb on the peninsula make if he had nothing else to lose? Most likely North Korea only wants the bomb at this point as insurance against an attack by the U.S., but can a crazy man be trusted with such power? How do you reason with a crazy man anyway?

And with all this going on, do you know how I spent my day? Writing a presentation I have to give in my Comp Lit class next week. This involved summarizing in Korean a 1993 report presented to the ACLA and three papers written in response to this report. This proved far more difficult than I had imagined, not because it was so difficult to write the Korean version, but because it took all my concentration and brain power to figure out what the heck the English original was trying to say. Post-modern terminology was flying back and forth like crap in a monkey enclosure. Sentences were so convoluted that they practically formed linguistic Moebius strips. I had to read the English original, think about it for a while, digest it, and then rewrite it in Korean so that it made sense. It was not translation—thank God—but paraphrasing, and that can be even more difficult.

When I finished I had to step outside for a breath of fresh air. I wandered around our small yard for a few minutes, stopping to check up on the many spiders and their webs. I noticed that every single web was peppered with tiny gnat corpses, and when I looked closer I saw that they were all intact. This makes sense—there is probably so little in the way of nutrients in a gnat that a spider would burn more calories trying to extract the nutrients than it would gain from them. And so the spiders ignored the gnats and waited for bigger prey to become ensnared in their webs.

In my drained state of mind I saw the spiders’ webs as a metaphor for all the things the world has to offer. Most of these things are gnats—not even worth the effort required to pursue them. A few are more succulent and rewarding. And I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I had spent my day sucking out the meager insides of gnats. Is this what I want to do? Do I want to spend my time talking about “the multicultural recontextualization of Anglo-American and European perspectives?” The world is going to hell in a hand basket and I sit here splitting hairs and eating gnats.

I realize that this may sound pretty melodramatic, and if I thought that my current malaise was merely a depression brought on by current circumstances I would have kept my mouth shut (or my typing fingers still, as the case may be). But this is something I have been thinking about for a while now, and I have mentioned this concern, even if only in passing, in emails to friends. This concern can be summed up in two questions: am I really cut out for academia and, if I am, is there even any point in it?

The first question comes from my distaste for a lot of what I see in academic writings: bombastic prose full of jargon and academic buzzwords, so dense that the poor reader is hard pressed to determine whether the goal of the writing was to convey information or to enhance the prestige of the writer. I like to play with language. I won’t deny that there is a musical beauty in a well-crafted sentence. But there is a vast difference between a love of language and a love for one’s own voice—the former is a joy that can be shared, the latter is pure egoism. And it is the latter that I see time and time again in academic writings—not “mainstream” academic writings, mind you, those books written by academics or professionals for the educated public, but books written by academics for academics. They are so heavily laden that they threaten to collapse under their own weight—and make the reader collapse in despair.

I know that not all of academia is like this, but a disheartening proportion seems to follow this rule. And I have to ask myself: is this my future? Is this what I am dooming myself to? To a world where I’m not even free to end sentences with prepositions if I feel like it? Where meaning takes a back seat to empty form? I realize that this is a rather dim view of the ivory tower, and I don’t feel like this all the time, but I have these thoughts often enough to know that they are not just some passing melancholy.

So if I do not join the ranks of the academics, what will I do? Well, it might come as no surprise to some readers, but my real dream is to be a writer. This has always been my dream, at least since I was old enough to write. But I guess that’s kind of why I chose this path in the first place—the realization that being a writer would probably not be enough to sustain myself and my family in the economic sense. What else could I do that would give me such access to libraries and actually pay me to do academic research? Yet I can’t help wondering if the stuffy halls of the academy might not just as easily stifle the creative impulse.

Another, more optimistic way of looking at my situation might be to consider it my goal—my duty, even—to sweep away the cobwebs and open up the windows of the ivory tower to let the fresh air in. There is no law that says I can’t write lucidly and simply, and I know that there are academics who do just that, although they seem to be somewhat rare. Yet on days like today I wonder if I have the strength for this.

More importantly, though, I wonder if there is any point in it. If my first concern deals with form, then my second concern deals with content; what good is it to write clearly and simply if no one cares about what you have to say? With the world falling apart around us, can we really afford the luxury of climbing up into the ivory tower and pondering the meaning of life? A significant portion of the world’s population is starving—what good is it to theorize about literature? Disasters, both natural and manmade, plague people around the globe, and I sit here with a magnifying glass to the notion of the sacred trickster (one of the topics to be covered in my dissertation). Is the pen really mightier than the sword? Or, to update the phrase, is it mightier than the nuclear warhead?

I know the answer I am supposed to give. The answer is that literature reflects the very essence of human nature, and if we are to learn anything about ourselves we must study literature. But at times like this such an answer seems little more than empty rhetoric, a hollow excuse to justify what we do. I want to believe it, and on some level I do believe it, but on another level it fails to convince. I am fully aware that I am treading dangerous ground for an academic, that what I am saying almost amounts to heresy. But I cannot be dishonest with myself.

And yet... and yet.... These concerns may be real, but I realize that they are magnified by my current state of mind. I am not in a good place right now, emotionally speaking. And there is no denying that I am feeling some anxiety as my graduate coursework nears completion. Next semester will be my last semester, and the semester after that I will de submitting my dissertation. At times this thought keeps me awake at night. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I am having some second thoughts. But it would be too easy to pass off these concerns as merely cold feet. Things may not be as grim as they appear right now, but at some point I am going to have to answer these questions in a way that satisfies me. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen today. As is often the case here, today is a day of many questions but few answers.

Hopefully I will be in a better state of mind next time and I will have an interesting review for you to read.

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