On Seriousness

A nadie le importa Milton Wolff ni el Morganza Spillway, cosa que me extraña a  mí — que si fuera esto un huracán me estarían mirando todos. But if you would like, you can watch the whole town of Butte LaRose go down right here.

Meanwhile, in graduate school and beyond we were constantly having to prove “seriousness,” which seemed to me to mean willingness to sacrifice for the cause — which was of course scholarship. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (Working It Out 38-54) has some thoughts on the matter of  “seriousness” which are quite worth considering. Among her concepts, these stand out:

♦ You need an intellectual environment / an environment of collaboration to be able to do scholarly work;
♦ You need time to muse and the luxury of not always being efficient if you hope to be original;
♦ People who do not have these two things are often blamed and blame themselves for not being “serious;”
♦ Virginia Woolf’s discussion of the fate of the daughters (and we might add, educated wives) of educated men (in Three Guineas) is perennially relevant.

The lives of women who are in the entourage of academic and professional men … carry extra hazards. For while the wife of a postman … can respect the social value and understand the personal satisfactions of her husband’s work, she knows that she ccould do it too…. It is not like being married to a priest or being the nurse of a great surgeon; there is nothing sacred involved. But the women who surround scholars … are in the service of men who feel entitled to demand sacrifice from their women without embarrassment. They are not doing it in their own name, but in the name of something that is supposed to transcend them all. Which means that the women don’t even have a right to their grievances, which are presumed to prove their lack of seriousness, to be signs of faithlessness, even of frivolity…. There is nothing lower than being the servant of the servant of the sacred; in that world, even any stirring of self-definitionis guilt-ridden, shameful. (46-47)

…[I]ntellectual productivity requires a special environment. Academic men often discover, on sabbatical leaves, that the time spent in isolation, just outside Oxford in a little village, is less productive than the time when they are also carrying on their teaching duties. Very often they become miserable and despair of their own capacities. The truth isthat, for most people, the regular companionship of colleagues working in roughly the same area is not only a support but a virtual necessity…. It is [in social environments, not in solitary ones] that the work gets done. Not realizing this, a … couple may decide that the wife who can’t seem to write in solitude … was not really cut out to be a scholar after all. (48)

If the wives of intellectuals … are thus held in self-denigrating bondage, without even the right to grievances, then women who are themselves professionals or intellectuals are held in triple bondage [due to the requirement of domesticity, and also due to being excluded from the intellectual world of men]. [Some succeed, but] even then there is a terrible cost. For such women must become immensely efficient, and efficiency — cost accounting — involves a character loss. It saps originality and creativity. Women [therefore] tend do become efficient, and so become competent rather than profoundly original scholars. This … is the daily stuff of scholarship, and most men would be glad to do the sort of competent, productive, time-scheduled work that women intellectuals can do…. (49)

Efficient scholarly women do not have the free time for musing that men, even those who are merely competent, have, says Rorty. “We are very good at getting around set limits, at ordering the spaces and necessities around us, but every direction of our life closes off the possibility of our being able to refuse to see those limits. And that is where real originality must be — in really not knowing what to think next and in not caring whether there is a pattern to which the thought will conform.” (49)

And men who share domestic work do so by choice, and it is appreciated and it contributes to self-esteem, whereas women, it drains, and interrupts time for sheer contemplationand sheer companionability. (50) In toto it seems I was right, the very worst thing you can do is marry another academic (50-52).

Also, interestingly: women tend to be more interested in the perfection of their lives than of their work (that’s me, for sure)! (52) And: to work with conviction one needs support at and for work and this is what women do not have. And Rorty is “not sanguine about the prospects of improving our conditions within our lifetime.” (53)

Even if we were clear about how to reform our conceptions of self-respecting lives, to change our criteria for mutual esteem means to overcome forces of resistaqnce and inertia so powerful as to undo the lives of transitional generations. However splendid the achievements of those who commit themselves to searching out better social forms, their revolutionary stance exacts a heavy price in the impoverishment and isolation that usually characterize lives lived cross-grain to the temper of the times. The mechanisms of social vindictiveness against social explorers … are as vicious as they were in the nineteenth century; that these forces are less visible only makes them more powerful. (54)

Axé.


2 thoughts on “On Seriousness

  1. “However splendid the achievements of those who commit themselves to searching out better social forms, their revolutionary stance exacts a heavy price in the impoverishment and isolation that usually characterize lives lived cross-grain to the temper of the times. The mechanisms of social vindictiveness against social explorers … are as vicious as they were in the nineteenth century; that these forces are less visible only makes them more powerful. “

    Tell me about it. I was married to a feminist pioneer, first cleric in the history of the diocese to take maternity leave. My oldest two daughters (twins) were in utero at the time of her ordination and the joke in the diocese was when the bishop talked about the Trinity (i.e. Father, son and Holy Ghost) as the three in one he wasn’t kidding. One of the bishops said that it wasn’t necessary to baptise the twins since they’d already been ordained. I guess that he believed in the ontological nature of priesthood. Her first incumbency was in a conservative, rural parish where all of the previous clerics were men. To rub salt in the wound, we hired a male nanny named Liam from Ireland to look after our children.

    P.S. We use to get mail addressed to the Rev. and Mrs. N G so I guess I was the Mrs. X.

  2. So how did that gig go – the first incumbency – and how long did it last? What did she and you all think?

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