Saturday, September 04, 2004

Raymond Queneau and the Paranoia of Dissertations

[This is the review section of this post. I start ranting later:] I have been reading Saint Glinglin by Raymond Queneau, perhaps one of the most unusual writers in French--or in any language for that matter. Loosely associated with surrealism, Queneau pushed experimentation in language in several directions. One of his books, Children of Clay, was based on research that he made into the unusual scientific theories and beliefs of the nineteenth century. He called his project "An Encyclopedia of Inexact Sciences":
Queneau’s research on the 19th C “literary lunatics” that Queneau incorporated into the novel: theories on squaring the circle, wild cosmogonies in which the sun is either made up of ice or, conversely, is the garbage dump of the universe; writings by people inventing new language systems, people who thought they were of royal blood, people who believed themselves divine. [From translator's intro]
A history on this subject would make a popular book today, but in the 1930s Queneau could not find a publisher. Instead, he took his research and inserted it into a fictional story. Obviously, Queneau was mining in the same areas as Borges and Calvino--and that some of the more interesting slipstream writers are still working in.

Queneau was also interested in how words are used in writing. He wanted to approximate the way people speak rather than the way they write:
For many years [Queneau] was a crusader for a demotic, spoken French as opposed to the literary, and thought he later abandoned this crusade, its influence persists in his dialogue, in the way that he fractures syntax ... Similarly, he has a penchant for phonetic spellings (he’ll often write spa for n’est-ce pas), and for the Francification of English words (ouateurproufe for waterproof, or raincoat).[From translator's intro.]
Saint Glinglin is unusual. It takes place in an imaginary Home Town in which usual conventions of meteorology don't attain, and where people act in unusual ways.
It ... tells of a town, Home Town, where it never rains, and where there are no fish, and how the town’s mayor falls into a petrifying spring and becomes a statue that’s set up on the town square but soon dissolves, of how one of the mayor’s sons brings on a year of unending rain until fish are aswim in all the taverns, of how another son marries a famous foreign-film star (who swims almost nude in that same town square) and becomes mayor himself, and of the sister hidden away in an abandoned mill where she speaks with worms and insects she has given her brothers’ names. [From translator's intro.]
The customs and rituals are bizarre. In an early scene, the townspeople collect all of hundreds of thousands of pieces of porcelain and earthenware, which they destory in a five-minute frenzy.

At the center of the story is a retelling of Oedipal fantasy: not in the sense of the son displacing the father in order to feel the mother's love fully, but the sons escaping the authority of the father, only to establish a totalitarian regime. Pierre, the mayor's son, returns home to a town that is disappointed in him. The town awarded him a grant to learn a foreign language, but he was dismissed when he failed to make progress. In truth, Pierre developed a research interest in fish--something which the people of Home Town cannot understand (they have no fish).
OK, [Pierre] thinks no one understands him now. His little trip's given him a big head. So he essplains it all again: eggsimple after eggsample. he means no harm, I'm sure, but what he says isn't all that clear. What? What Life of a Fetus? It's hard not to laugh, hearing things like that ...
In any case, he was drunk with ideas. One had to take them with loads of salt ... . So that's how he spent his time in Foreign Town. Instead of, as he was meant to, learning their language.
His father, the mayor, amplifies the derision: in public he proclaims his son, and his interests, useless. In response, Pierre kills his father and embarks on a mad quest to populate Home Town with fish. Even though the people of Home Town suspect Pierre of the father's death, they do nothing as they are relieved to be rid of the mayor.

[Here is the long rant section. Skip it if you want:] I found these fears to be poignant. No, I have no Oedipal fantasies. However, these strike at the anxieties that graduate students have about their research. It is the fear that no one will understand what I am doing, the realization that people will not see changes in the research as progress in seeing my ideas come to fruition, but will see them as delaying completion of the dissertation (hence the degree). Ultimately, I fear that my ideas won't be considered to be worthwhile--somehow I do not belong where I am. It is the fear that I have nothing.

These feelings hit home yesterday when I learned that a fellow student just dropped out. This student was writing about a subject that I considered to be more mainstream than my own, a project that had more years of work behind it, one that was being more closely supervised than mine.

Fellow Cliopatriach Hugo Schwyzer experiences similar feelings, even though he has a professorship:
I still believe that I have the best job in the whole dang world, and I can't believe they pay me to do it.

Even after all these years of full-time teaching (the last six with tenure), I still expect someone to show up, and with an apologetic and yet officious tone, tell me "We're sorry, Hugo, we made a mistake hiring you. There was this terrible mix-up, you see; we intended to get someone else." ...

I've talked about this with my parents and other colleagues who teach. My father (who taught philosophy for almost forty years at Alberta and UCSB) calls this feeling "the suspicion of one's own fraudulence". That phrase seems to sum things up nicely. Whenever I share these feelings, I note that it is often my most talented colleagues, students, and friends who say "Really? That's how I feel too!"


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