By Paul Jarvis |
I often find myself day-dreaming as I tap away dolefully on my thesis, composing artful footnotes to bolster gimcrack arguments. I’m sure drifting away mentally is a common experience amongst PhD students, or anyone who has to open Word or Excel in the course of their day (or, hey, maybe they use Google docs? It’s 2016).
What I day-dream about – apart from coffee, obviously – is being able to leave some of my carefully crafted arguments behind, slipping the footnoted fetters of convention, and writing my way straight from history into historical fiction. I’m not suggesting I want to go what I’ll call ‘full Outlander’ (he traced the inscription gently with a calloused finger, feeling the rounded curves of the letters), but it’s nice sometimes to consider how my thesis would look as an historical novel.
I’d love to be able to get away from some of the careful conditionals and academic hedging. Just write and see where I end up, dealing with the internal psychology of some of the individuals who, criss-crossing the Roman Empire, left us with monuments detailing their achievements but not always many indications of how they thought, or felt.
As a PhD student, I tend to think this desire to get away from the restrictions and indulge your imagination is a natural consequence of having a passion for your subject, and spending so much time thinking about certain people or issues. You have to love what you write, and what you do (if you google ‘love what you do’ I’m sure you’ll be directed to some adequately literate, neo-capitalist, obliviously classist blogs that explain why this is the summit of human achievement, and anyone who doesn’t love what they do needs to ‘follow their dream’; these posts often say something nice about the ‘sharing economy’, too). And I do love my topic, which means that occasionally I hate it, and yet… I wish there were a way to use imagination in academic writing.
It turns out there is, just about. Many academics are also extraordinarily skilled writers, although this skill is usually bent towards the need for clarity and structure, as opposed to purely aesthetic concerns. But not always. The most inspiring article I’ve read in this context is by Maud Gleason, ‘Identity Theft: Doubles and Masquerades in Cassius Dio’s Contemporary History’ (that title!), written with such beautiful zest and fire, and sacrificing nothing of academic rigour:
While pondering [the presence of numerous anecdotes concerning identity theft in Dio], I encountered a catalogue of vandalized imperial images from Dio’s lifetime. Commodus, Lucilla, Plautilla, Geta, and Macrinus stared back at me from the pages. Their semi-obliterated faces were hauntingly incomplete: eyes battered and vacant, noses bashed away. Here was Marcus Aurelius in his chariot, a blankness beside him where Commodus should have been. Blankness again on a sacrificial relief where once stood Plautianus in sacerdotal regalia. The Severan family tondo, with twin boy figures: Caracalla intact, Geta’s face gouged out. Geta’s face erased from bas-reliefs, counter-struck from coins. Looking over these evocative images of the imperial “disappeared,” I felt had my first clue. Might these mutilated faces provide a context for the unstable identity stories in Dio’s fragmentary text? A generally semiotic approach to culture encouraged this hunch by suggesting that any two slices of the same cultural pie (however defined) can be placed in mutually illuminating relationship.
Somehow, she has managed to show clearly her passion for the subject matter, and write with feeling and imagination. All in the midst of a brilliant piece of academic writing. It sounds perhaps like a small thing in the scheme of things (or even in the sub-scheme of PhD things), but it made me smile when I first read it, and still does. I do wonder how it’s possible (my inner voice whispers, ‘tenure’), but it inspired me to try and bring some imagination and passion into my own writing, without compromising the tone, style, or argument.
I think that’s one of the many small ways I cope with what often seems like drudgery. I try to be fully aware of the privilege of living and working in a city as beautiful as Edinburgh, and that my actual job is studying what I love… but still, ‘drudgery’ is sometimes the right word, and not just when I’m marking the maundering prose of undergraduate essays. Anything that helps ward off the lurking existential dread is welcome, and it is, in the end, a nice thing to take pleasure in the skill and passion of someone else’s work. If that work happens to be on Roman historiography, well, so much the better.
Paul Jarvis is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the political and cultural history of the Roman Empire, particularly in the second century CE. You can find him on academia.edu and twitter, and read an article with markedly less zest, fire, and beauty here.
(Cover image (c) https://www.flickr.com/photos/96043955@N05; Image 1 (cc) www.wikipedia.org)