On Boasting

Are you aware of the trope in which people say they went to their exclusive graduate program because they did not know what else to do?

It is true of many to some degree, especially if they started at a young age; saying “I did not know what else to do” often means something more like “it was the best idea I had at the time.”

It can also be an unassuming way of saying, “It was the only thing I ever wanted to do as seriously as I wanted to do this; I always knew I wanted it or something like it; I did it as soon as I could; I am so interested in it that I cannot imagine being nearly so interested in anything else.”

However, when some people say it and insist upon saying it, I think they are really saying “I am so talented that I became massively successful without any effort.” Then effort and interest on the part of others can become evidence not of any kind of passion or genius, but of the striving, middle class mentality from which you have just Olympically distanced yourself.

It is also a way of indicating that one moves only in privileged worlds — you can just hear the son of some aristocratic family say that, the one who was not required to manage the estate.

What do you think?


25 thoughts on “On Boasting

  1. Australia doesn’t even have that kind of secret handshake/class hierarchy. It’s very flat. I suppose this means that those who attain power have to be exceptionally boorish.

    Here’s what I mean:

  2. Huh. Well, maybe I really just AM that talented and massively successful. Why the hell not? I worked hard to get where I am and hard to get where I was at age 22 even though I really didn’t have better ideas about what to do with myself. Why should I feel guilty for being awesome?

    Why should you?

    Not everybody has the same opportunities, but that just means we should work to open opportunities for all, not that we should feel guilty for taking the opportunities available.

    1. The guilt I feel is toward my mother. It was so hurtful for her to see me do things she had not. I don’t feel guilty otherwise about having taken opportunities.

      The other issue is my parents. I had an aunt who died in 1972. They expected to inherit her estate but she deferred that to 1987, so that was 15 years.

      In the meantime it was there for interest to help pay for college for me and my brother, which we took (at state schools, in state, but away from home) and to help fill in the cracks in graduate school, which we also took although I at least was funded (I am not sure about him).

      This meant our parents couldn’t use the idea of money to tell us where to study, which hurt them.

      And all through graduate school they were sitting and waiting to get their inheritance, and I think they saw us as the obstacle to this. They seemed to become angrier the stronger I got.

      And my father retired almost as soon as he did in fact get the cash transferred to him; perhaps he could have done so sooner, or they could have done a lot of things, had they just gotten the cash right when my aunt died.

      I am eternally grateful to my aunt because I got to go to a large public school away from home, which my parents were against and said at the time that they “couldn’t afford” — if I went to public school, they wanted me to live at home, and if I went away, they wanted me to go to a SLAC. These things would have been really destructive for me.

      So despite my gratitude to my aunt, I wish I’d known sooner how my parents felt. The answer was for me to refuse the will so they could have the cash, and for them to emancipate me so I could become eligible for financial aid and still go to college away.

      They often said during graduate school that they hated me and never wanted to see me again; I never took them up on that but perhaps I should have; this might have cured them.

      Anyway, that’s where the shame / guilt come from. BUT I think my solution as just laid out would not have worked, because I think it wasn’t really about the inheritance but about the desire to cause me to feel shame / guilt, or some other irrational desire.

      1. Note: accuracy. It was my mother who believed in the live at home or go to a SLAC theory. My father recommended against snowy places and desolate places, places like Oberlin College, and he was right about the desolation. He didn’t give other opinions. But given my mother’s views and her power over my father, I am quite sure she’d have won out had they been the ones to send me to college; so it would have been SLAC (I cannot stand those places) or live at home (impossible to study there due to all the tension and shouting there was); and this would have been “because it is all we can afford” (although the SLAC would have been much more expensive, even with full financial aid which we were not eligible for, than the school I actually went to).

  3. Right, but I’m talking about the trope, “I didn’t know / didn’t try / just bumbled my way here.”

    It’s something I’ve finally realized that some people say to one-up those who actually tried. I have relatives who do this in a way of pooh-poohing those of us who did actually make efforts.

    I’ve finally understood this meaning of that sentence and realized it contributes to my shame about working, caring, being ambitious, and so on: the ethic is, you should be so super talented that fortune is thrust upon you regardless of your attempts to ward it off.

    It’s also something I and some of my other relatives say, because we didn’t realize HOW fancy the school was at was or HOW good the programs were, just that they were good enough and we liked them. And I didn’t go to graduate school as a career move, I just went because I was interested and I got funded, so it seemed like a good next option. So I say gosh, I went through and finished this really fancy training program without fully realizing that was what it was!

    I’ve realized I shouldn’t say it in an offhand way to people who don’t come from such an opulent state or such an opulent economy — I think it sort of rubs my good luck in their faces and that it’s not the most discreet of things to say.

  4. I ended up in a PhD programme because I was hounded out of absolutely everything else I tried, and forced back to the drawing board to rethink my orientation to the world. I eventually became very good at thinking.

  5. I think a lot of the “I just bumbled here” is also a response to the idea that if one has a fancy professional career and it is based on having advanced degrees from elite schools, then one must have planned on this and must have had a really stable background to support it.

  6. And note re way above: consider how, all these years later, I am still trying to atone for what was no sin.

    And notice how it is I who am trying to atone for it, when really it’s my parents heaping on of abuse about it, and their envy, and avarice that is the problem. And I don’t like to think of them as having these characteristics, but it’s hard to see what else it is. What THEY feel, they say, is that my aunt emasculated them as parents (because she made it impossible for them to manipulate our college choices with allegations about money).

    I don’t understand this at all: I wouldn’t feel that way, if someone else paid for the education of my child I wouldn’t feel I couldn’t still talk with them about their choices of schools and so on, and would feel supported/helped not emasculated, but this is apparently how they felt.

    1. Bataille might be helpful. We all suffer to the degree that we break with the past. But our breaking of the rules and expectations of our parents is in fact the way that we honour the fact that there WERE rules and expectations for us. Because, it is only by breaking these rules that we really know what they were. If we were to merely conform to these rules for us, we would not understand them, but would be human zombies under their impression. But, we acknowledge them, and we suffer because of them, and so we show our respect for the sacred. At the same time, we respect our parents best by disobeying them; by transcending them. That way, we respect all of their good intentions for us.

  7. Sure, and your comment isn’t inapplicable. Mostly here I’m reacting to Nicole and Maggie, though. They say, take the opportunities you’re offered; I agree completely but that isn’t my point. Thence the excurses on the family; I’m saying to Nicole and Maggie, that’s not what I mean!

    I’d say my issue about the family isn’t the rules and expectations; it’s the emotional and verbal abuse; these visceral struggles my mother has about money and control and attention as symbols of love. One can reject the high value she places on suffering, dependency, and so on. Her own suffering is so obvious that none wish to emulate it, and she doesn’t recommend it, herself. But I am marked by the emotional abuse that went on in my 20s, when I was successfully thawing from what had gone on earlier, and I am marked by what happened in my first academic job and in this one, and by Reeducation in between, and by my parents’ utter lack of faith / trust in me as a person (e.g. “Don’t you just want us to die so you can get the money?”) which didn’t really end until about five years ago, from what I can tell.

    Bataille is nice but it always seemed to me he was talking about a rebellion of the privileged — white guys in central countries, and so on — like the surrealists and Leiris; I was more interested in reading other people; when I get to him again I’ll be interested to see how I react now. One thing I’ve always noticed about me is that I don’t have these issues about change so many people seem to do. It isn’t breaking with the past that’s difficult; it’s being pushed toward it; this is perhaps best termed “Break with the Past, Episode II.”

  8. …the other points on this would be:

    – it’s not as much about parental authority here as it is capitalism/patriarchy, which oppress them, too

    – in the case of our family, these parents seem to be more like rival siblings, angry about the division of the inheritance

    – I still say my issues aren’t about individuation but abuse; I’d like to stop inadvertently atoning for this inheritance, but I’ve already transgressed the parents to the degree I was interested in doing very long ago, and all of those things very long ago; I have dealt with everything but the abuse and the road to dealing with that is not self examination, strategic and experimental rebellion, reconciliation to good intentions, or anything of the sort

    – a LOT more fruitful in terms of learning to be a self, understanding oneself, and also empathy with THEM and their struggles is the question of self-fashioning to fit capitalism and patriarchy, and horizons of expectation for self and life and so on in these. My novel’s about this (and I will have to do some research to get it figured out; it will be interesting); thinking about that is really the only compassionate way to think about the family, the only way anyone will make headway; otherwise it’s all vagueness and these issues about money and authority and conformity are in everything they say, it is what they struggle with

  9. Oh, I was only addressing your post in isolation and not as a response to Nicole and Maggie.

    Yes, I can see how the Bataille framework can be interpreted as one arguing for individuation. I hadn’t thought of that before. It is the opposite meaning to what I intended, in some respects. Individuation doesn’t seem so difficult to me. The back-tow of guilt that derives from the past seems to be much more of a central issue in relation to what humans have to overcome in life. To be “capitalist”, if that is what everyone else is doing, might seem like “individuation”, but may be more related to guilt, which drives one towards conformity along with a certain kind of competitiveness. I don’t think capitalists are really individuated, but if they are, their individuation does not break from the past and is therefore not very interesting to me.

  10. What I’d be more interested in in Bataille now is the nonconformity to rules and so on. I used to think of it as superficial macho posturing but I see its usefulness more now.

    Back-tow of guilt, yes, and I don’t know why it has to be so common. I do think of actual individuation as including getting rid of that.


    My mother has all these ideas about love, money, and abandonment that she tried to teach me. Only if I could feel as poor, unloved, and abandoned as she did, or so it seemed, could I be recognized as being as good and virtuous as she (she is very competitive, but one competes for pain levels) and thus perhaps gain her forgiveness for existing as someone separate for her, and also gain any level of respect or trust of anything I might do (she did have admiration and pride to offer, but those are different).

    The result is that in an effort to emulate her alleged (although not real) financial suffering, I do actually suffer financially, and this is why I am a wage slave — literally can’t quit my job. If I were freer financially, I’d be a lot freer psychically, as the current situation replicates childhood far too much (only with the university as the parents).

    But this really is the way I’ve atoned for accepting the inheritance. And it wasn’t the money they wanted, it was for us not to be independent; the guilt is over independence (but also over its insufficience). It’s really something to just dump, not negotiate about or reconcile about, think about; just dump.


    But definitely, it’s a wounded person who becomes competitive / conformist / abusive; I think my mother’s issues have to do with being pressed to certain kinds of femininity and I think it really harmed her; I also think the Depression, with all the adults feeling nervous, coming when my parents were preschoolers was scary for them (and especially my mother) in a way they were never able to process, so they’re stuck there.

    All of this is of course in my novel in veiled ways, and I’ll have to read theory to make the novel interesting on this, and other novels, and I think these things are the things to do about it, really…

  11. Ah: and also, my rejection of Bataille was decades ago and so probably immature but I remember my reaction then — that he, from a position of having access to form, idealized formlessness, one he’d never have to experience except as a vacation.

    Me, I can’t stand formlessness except in its correct venues, like on mountains and seas and in yoga studios and the like. But I’ve had it shoved at me all my life: one should be a girl, and one not have a right to a form, one should not have access to grammar, one should be a bohemian, hippie, or bum, not have access to any kind of independence or thought without drugs, one should be Buddhist and resist no oppression, one should suffer, especially if it can be from hammering by others; one should not think, it is too transgressive, one should be vague and not know what one wanted, and on and on.

    Then in school one was supposed to believe in decentering the wicked Cartesian “I,” which was the source of all evil, and on and on, the world had been good before Descartes came along; and meanwhile in real life I knew people who would actually like the chance to speak for themselves with certainty for once; and people were being decentered, all right, on torture tables in Chile and Argentina and elsewhere. I thought all this decentering and formlessness and love of sadism and everything else was silly and dilettantish, and that it was time to pull ourselves together and stop idealizing passivity in these ways.

    So this is how I felt about Bataille: suspicious of the white European male dabbling in sadism and formlessness and calling that transgressive.

  12. And so this is why I should read B., now more sophisticated and well rounded and less visceral in reactions than I was then. But then there’s that Taiwan torture victim whose face he was fascinated with, he thought the expression was of sexual pleasure, I just don’t have the patience…

  13. Yeah, yeah, but I read Bataille through Marechera, which makes it a different reading to begin with. I think he is complex. He has a shamanistic side, although I’m not sure how far that goes, since it is always limited when you are dealing with those whose lives are contextualised by industrial modernism. Really, you need access to a more “primitive” style of culture to access this mode genuinely. So there is a kind of uninteresting masculinity praising in Bataille, that takes after Nietzsche.

    But I embrace “formlessness” as a liberation from the type of “form” which is almost only loss, to begin with.


  14. Well, with the Chinese torture victim as I remember, B.’s point is that this was a death not redeemed or justified in the way that, say, the martyrdom of Christ was. You can’t escape the death/pain. I of course think those Lingxi photos are more like the Abu Ghraib style torture porn, and I see Bataille as a sort of tourist, ultimately. It’s too commonsensical to say this but I’m soon to have to watch an execution in person (so the guy can have friend to look at, as opposed to just the people who are “into” it), so I don’t need photos to know certain things.


    I realize that with your book you’re trying to go for a certain immediacy and I do think you achieve it; I definitely appreciate the point about your father.
    I also think it achieves the formlessness you’re talking about.

    I don’t know that you can expect this book to have the same “shamanistic” effect on others that writing it did on you, although this may happen for some. I’m curious to see what it’s like with the new imagery.

    You say you aren’t interested in wide appeal, but you still seem eager to get a very specific response, involving not just understanding the project but participating in it, feeling it in a specific way. I think that as the text is or was, you have to be someone for whom the landscapes evoke what they do for you. Maybe the new imagery will do it.

    But at this point you need non Western, non irritating persons to respond to your stuff, and you’ve called me both of those things, so this is the end of what I have to say. My comments have been meant in a collegial way and I would remind you that it is you who asked for them, not the other way around.

  15. Sorry, I was just irritated with everyone yesterday. Maybe I was looking for some kind of communicative immediacy, as per the comment regarding the book above? Anyway, it seemed that people were very remote, and somehow I was full of nervous energy.

    I think language itself was irritating me very much yesterday. Sometimes I get tired of it. On some days it strikes me like this more than others, that we have created points of reference that are too rigid, too constrictive. Language hems us in, and I don’t want to be responsible in any way for tightening that noose of language around our necks. There is a substantial part of my being that recoils at the idea of narrowing and constraining meanings; forming “structures”. Academia has bound me up too tightly, and now I am breaking free.

    I really do want to hear whatever you have to say, your Western, neoliberal perspective notwithstanding. Please afford me this mode of speech. I know that I am quite unpleasant, in speaking in such a manner. You are one of the best “Westerners” I know, but I am in some ways blunt, due to my Africanisation. I find blunt speakers the easiest to be around. This very fact alone unsuits me for academia.

    I think the moment I felt I was most in my element, socially, was in army bootcamp, when guys were roaring up and down the corridors, yelling f*** this and f*** that. I like The Raw. But also randomness, and nonsense, and more than that, and especially, unpredictability.

    Which is all to say that my mind seems to have finally normalised again, after writing the PhD, and I’m not feeling particularly precious about anything I may say, do, or think.

    Above all, though, I don’t think you should feel that way, either.

    I’m glad you will be supporting that guy during the execution. That is the stuff my nightmares are made of, and it shows real strength of character.

    I agree with you that Bataille might have been too glib in some ways. The overall message of Erotism Death and Sexuality doesn’t do much for me, although I expect it may have been somehow new to people when he wrote it.

    Yes, I think people cannot break out of their existing frameworks too easily, and that is why the book cannot have a shamanistic effect on them. This realisation, itself, is why I have let go some of my interest in critical responses. I think that to do the degree the any response is rooted by conventions, it will be unsatisfying to me.

    5 of the new version copies arrived yesterday. I will send one on to you.

  16. J – it’s actually fine. I’ve just had it with a few things and am now wondering whether I should write a magazine article to explain a few things to Europeans and white people worldwide.

    I mean what I say about presses, website, agent, African writers and critics, and contacting the man in Milwaukee. This will strengthen you much more than it will do to shadow box with people you call “Western.”

  17. Jennifer –

    Foreign literature is not easy to understand because it is foreign. For example, there’s this Cuban modernist, Alejo Carpentier, who is difficult but who “flies” here with audiences, because Louisiana is in the Caribbean too and there is a lot in Carpentier’s work that is familiar on an intuitive level (heat, slavery, sugar cane, French and Spanish culture, historical connections to Haiti and migration from there, African cultures). So people are able to deal with the difficulty of the dense prose. But when I tried to teach him in the Northwest, everything in him was so unfamiliar that he had to be graduate level only.

    The converse is true with Arguedas, who is Peruvian and white but Native identified and spoke Quechua first, was basically rejected by his stepmother and raised by the Native cook until he was old enough to go to school and undergo deculturation / acculturation, which was hugely traumatic (he basically never recovered, became a really successful writer and academic with a nice family and all but was permanently freaked out because there had been, first, his mother’s death, then, his stepmother’s rejection, then, seeing all these abuses happening on the farm and perpetrated upon the only people who were taking nice care of him, and then, the worst part, school).

    Well, you would think this could interest anyone but nobody in Louisiana can get these texts because of the landscapes, which are high cold mountains. And it’s a mestizo cultural atmosphere, so you have to realize what all these mountains and rivers mean (they are gods and things, and they’re all being used in an Andean semiotic system which, if you don’t learn or intuit, is pretty opaque); the Spanish, in addition to being very poetic, is full of Quechua words that aren’t just decoration; and then there is the role of music and song (Quechua songs are quoted extensively) which again, is a lot easier to grock intuitively if you’ve ever experienced the place in IRL or have ever identified emotionally with a place that at least looked related, than it is if you haven’t.

    And people absolutely can’t get into this writer here; they’ve typically not seen mountains ever, and certainly not mountains that high, or that cold, or thought of sacred space in that way, or been in this kind of Native American atmosphere, so while they can technically understand the issues, they rarely really grasp. On the other hand, similar populations in Oregon catch on right away, just because they relate emotionally to that kind of mountain and river. That gives them enough so that the rest can also hit them at something more than an intellectual level.

    And then, last example, there’s the Popol Vuh which isn’t modern, so it’s alien in that way, and is pretty much totally non Western, since the original version (lost) is pre 1492. So nobody can get it at all without very heavy contextualization, except in my experience two groups: a) people from China, who say oh yes, this resembles in some ways some other texts we know, and b) Protestants who have undertaken serious Bible study, and who are therefore really comfortable with the idea of a text that is really based on a corpus, and comes from a foreign place/time and has many manuscript traditions, and so on; they’re totally fearless, saying oh yes, we’ve got skills for working on texts like this, let’s get some context and start on in.

    One could go on, and talk about the Xican@ bilingual texts which are not translations – either you understand both languages, or you understand only part of the book, in which case you have a different experience in the book since the parts you do not understand are still there; these texts are working actively at the borders of comprehensibility and that is part of the point. But then most interesting books are hard, just because they’re really working with the language; with contextualization anyone can understand anything if they want to; but in terms of having it hit them in the gut or not, I find it really depends on emotional points of reference of the reader.

  18. And anyway, Jennifer, I appreciate the comment above. I sense the violence and pain that is in you, and I fear those things from people for reasons of my own, and I try to walk around them, as I do not wish to engage them and tend not to realize immediately that it is also possible to look at them in the eye and say stop.

    What you call blunt is in my view borderline abusive and it is a big part of why I sometimes experience you as just another belligerent British person. That kind of “bluntness” is not welcome here. “Western and neoliberal point of view,” that is ridiculous, although if by neoliberal you mean I think you should sell your book, then yes, I know I’m in a market economy and one should make money. As far as Western, when I speak to you I feel I am speaking to a “Westerner.” You just don’t have enough experience outside Brit-world, and although it’s not privileged Brit-world it still is; you’ve got these African memories and contacts but it’s all in English, for Heaven’s sake; your perspectives are limited. I don’t really know how you came to feel so guilty for having been born where you were, in the situation you were; there is nothing wrong with it per se and “colonials” come from all sorts of different classes and situations and they aren’t all the same. These things are elementary and I am sorry your education did not recognize this. If the readings you did in your graduate program did not, then it was not a very good program, and I am sorry about that.

    I think where you and I are fascinated with each other is on sharing a similar trauma, that not everyone has: you lose something you love and that is nurturing to you, and are also told it was a bad thing and you were bad for having liked it and you are insane, probably, for not having realized it was actually bad in the first place, and so on. Talking with you about that has been immeasurably helpful to me; I am very grateful for it and I will never forget it.

  19. But, to be blunt, I also think this:

    To be legal to work and have access to education and health systems in a country as opulent as Australia, a country with a somewhat hard and somewhat stable currency, and to be a person with a finished PhD in such a place, already puts you in the more privileged part of the world, not the less. It means, no matter how you may feel subjectively, that you do have access to some kinds of power.

    This situation you have is painful but not really that uncommon. There are reams of examples. I realize the sentence, “You are from X place, therefore you must be wicked” is common and is very, very wearing. However you must start to realize at a deeper level how truly ridiculous that is, so that you don’t have to be so defensive/ belligerent about it. You also really need to start hanging out with more people who don’t think that way — and many don’t — and with more people who have had the same experience (and there are).

    I think you go a little too far with this “People do not understand” thing — it reflects a lot on who you are hanging out with, and it indicates you’ve had a VERY provincial education — . Also, the insistence on how you’ve suffered how you’ve suffered DOES come across as whiny and entitled at a certain point, although I do not want to minimize it. But it DOES seem at times that you want to be the Queen of Suffering as well as the Queen of Zimbabwe; this may be why people say look, realize other people suffered in that situation, too, as they apparently have.

    I realize you’ve been a victim, and I am not one of those who says that identifying oneself as a victim is a bad thing; I think it’s utterly appropriate when true. But basing life on that, freezing into that position somehow, isn’t a good idea and isn’t necessary.

    My mother has not yet recovered from her father’s death in 1940. She therefore keeps reminiscing about the time in which he was alive — ages 0-15 for her. Traumas took place then — there was the Depression while he was ill, and then the War. When all this was over and it was the post-war boom, she was only in a position to try to recover that pre-1940 moment, and ideally the moments before she was old enough to realize how upset the adults were about the Depression and old enough to start being trained as an Edwardian-type Girl.

    You do not want to get frozen in time like that. Neither do I; having my own reasons to have frozen at a certain point.

  20. P.S. Jennifer — I haven’t said these things because I have no interest in analyzing / criticizing someone else on this blog, because someone who actually knows you is the one to say these things which I do not think are welcome, and so on.

    But the reason I see you as a Person Sitting in Whiteness is that you seem to require special status, and to ignore privileges you have, and give yourself license to abuse people. You say the manner of speaking is African, but I am not convinced and I am not entirely sure you know more Africans than I do. One trip 25 years later is only the beginning, and your entire manner is decidedly Commonwealth (by which I mean identifiably post-British). You say you’re an oh so discriminated against colonial whom nobody recognizes as such, but that’s something you’re going to have to assimilate at some point — not use as a stick to beat people with randomly.

    Re my overreacting, well, it’s a delayed reaction, as I didn’t want to engage on these things at this level. I’ve been a lot more interested in some other conversations we’ve had than in getting on your case about these things.

    (I also find it ironic that you call me, in particular, so “Western,” and conflate me with your English department people.)

    But all of these things, although I think them, I don’t really consider it appropriate to say since you haven’t asked and I don’t know you and I don’t think it’s actually proper to engage at that level; I also have the distinct impression that others have told you these things already, and that it was not only non helpful but felt abusive; I haven’t wanted to replicate that experience.

    Also, I have wanted this blog to be something more than a conversation between you and me, so I didn’t want to respond to every single thing at every level (and also, I don’t have time for that, with anyone).

    But, since you’re so much into bluntness and since you have said quite a few quite inappropriately invasive things lately, I’m typing it all out. I really do sympathize with you and your struggles, though, and I really do realize the difficulties you’ve had, fundamentalist parents, Army, and so on.

    But I’m not your English department person; in Mexico or somewhere like that they’d call you gring@ and if you told them you were a non western subject they’d probably laugh. And I find it odd to have been put in a position of justifying myself to you. I am a skull on a Mayan stela; remember this and remember why.

  21. And: “You are Western and I am not, and as Westerner you are going to mistreat me in certain ways and cannot understand me.”

    = I have the right to label you, and to accuse you of mistreatment, but anything you say of me, including that I am categorizing based on poor theorizing and information and slinging accusations, is a further misunderstanding and mistreatment of me.

    This is just all too much of a morass and also, I recognize the techniques which are abusive techniques. That’s the important thing and I want to remember it.

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