Reflections

Beyond “Productivity”

I am at the age when self-help books and motivational videos are the most appealing. Although I am content with where I am now, I know that someday I will need a “real” job. I will need to have employable skills. Knowing the minute details of late medieval French history is not exactly employable outside of academia. And I am perfectly aware that I probably will not get a tenure track position once I finish my dissertation. Self-help is currently teaching me how to accept failure and to better resolve conflicts in my personal and work life.

There is, however, a negative side to the self-help industry. First, the obvious. The time spent consuming motivational content could be better spent learning a new skill or developing a side-hustle. For self-help authors, “motivation” and “productivity” are products to sell. They make a living from presenting their ideal selves to the world. A full-time motivational YouTuber is literally doing her job when she shares her morning routine whereas your morning routine will not earn you a single penny.

But the aspect of self-help that I find the least helpful is the obsession with “productivity”. When I think of productivity, I think of a factory churning out as much product as possible at the lowest price possible. I am turned off by its capitalist connotation. A productive writer, publishes a book a year regardless of quality because nothing matters more than the bottom line for the author and short-term gratification for the reader. I recoil at the term “productivity” because I don’t want to be a cog in a machine.

Furthermore, focusing on productivity alone is…well…unproductive. Why should I be concerned about churning out a lot of product? What is in it for me? A person can only obsess over productivity for a limited amount of time before he experiences burnout and a lack of motivation. This is especially true for academics and those in the creative industry. There are so many financial and personal sacrifices that we make to remain in these sectors. If I wanted to make a lot money I wouldn’t be in a French PhD program. Instead of focusing on how to do more, maybe self-help gurus should focus on why someone might want to do more. What motivates an academic, an actor, or an artist to do all of the extra work necessary to get ahead?

Academics know that it is important to publish a lot to be in the running for a tenure-track post, but telling graduate students that they need to be productive is not enough. We need to have passion for our subject material, otherwise we will throw in the towel. Graduate students and early career researchers with low productivity might be behind on their deadlines because they no longer care about what they do.

I would like self-help and motivational speakers to teach others how to maintain passion for something after the buzz has died down. Passion matters the most because it drives everything else. When you are passionate about something – when you feel called to do something – you will necessarily be productive.

If we are deeply convinced that we are in the right sector, productivity will follow.

Reflections

Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.

Reflections

How Roald Dahl and St. Francis of Assisi Got Me Into Humanities Research

I am doing a PhD largely because I love research.

It all started in middle school. I suddenly fell in love with Roald Dahl’s writings in seventh grade. By my last year of middle school I had read not only every children’s book he wrote but I had also sought out every autobiography he wrote and every anecdote written about him. I even knew that his favorite color was yellow.

Unfortunately, this passion for researching Roald Dahl and his works (including some of his adult short stories) led me to some unpleasant discoveries. I learned that my childhood idol was antisemitic and a champion of British imperialism. Thus, I discovered from a fairly young age that research can be a lot like eating the forbidden food.

My eyes were opened to the complexities of history and the human person.

During my freshman year of college, my new obsession was Franciscan history. It all started with reading the vitae (lives) of Saint Francis of Assisi and a few well-known modern biographies about him. Soon, I discovered the important role friars played in the shaping of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. I was at one shocked and fascinated by the scandals in the Franciscan order. I began paying attention to the rhetoric of the stories, aware of the historical contexts in which they were written.

At around the same time, I discovered Paul Sabatier. Sabatier spearheaded the movement of studying the “historical” Francis – that is, the vitae stripped of their alleged mythos. Sabatier, a Protestant historian, attempted to reconstruct the life of the saint through the consultation of various documents in the Vatican archives. His Life of Saint Francis of Assisi contextualized the Order of the Friars Minor in the radical Christian movements of the 13th century. Thus, Francis was not alone in his decision to abandon material comfort and live in community. The Waldensians were doing it well before Francis started preaching. The Humiliati and the Albigensians also adopted radical poverty.

The merchant Peter Waldo abandoned all of his wealth in the late 12th century to start an evangelical ministry. Unfortunately, his request to preach was denied by the Pope for unknown reasons. When he and his followers persisted, they found themselves excommunicated from the medieval church.

The 13th-century reform coincided with the beginning of a long period of violent conflict between the papacy and religious nonconformists, such as the Waldensians, Albigensians, and Spiritual Franciscans known as the Fraticelli. In 1211, two years after Francis got official approval to preach in poverty and established the Order of the Friars Minor, 80 Waldensians were burned at the stake in Strasbourg for heresy. The Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominican Order) was founded in 1216 to combat heresy – initially with words alone, but later with force, through the Dominican-run Roman Inquisition.

Needless to say, Paul Sabatier’s association of Saint Francis with 13th-century heretics earned him a papal condemnation. His book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1894. But his condemned book only grew in popularity. Although some of his assertions (especially his more provocative ones) have now been discredited by historians, Sabatier inspired a movement of scholars interested in historicizing the lives of saints.

I, too, was inspired by Sabatier to study saints’ lives. If the field of hagriography was concerned in the 20th century with demythologization, scholars today are less interested in knowing the “true” Saint Francis than in considering the literary and historical contexts that gave rise to his cult. I prefer the latter approach because it is more culturally-sensitive. Sabatier assumed that saint veneration was superstitious and thus allowed his personal religious views to influence how he read the life of Francis, but the modern historian is trained to refrain from making judgments about a particular religious or cultural practice.

From obsessing about Roald Dahl to studying the vitae of Saint Francis of Assisi, literary research has taught me to appreciate the many valences of a historical event or person.

And most importantly, it has taught me much about humanity.

Courtly Love, Poetry, Satire/Comedy

Aucassin and Nicolette

Today is the first day of my “Post Everyday in November” challenge. Click here for more information about the challenge.

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I recently finished reading the 12th-century work Aucassin et Nicolette, a parody of the courtly romance genre written in mixed form (in alternating prose and verse). At the start of the work, Aucassin’s father forbids his son from marrying Nicolette because Nicolette was born a pagan; she was kidnapped from Cartagena (a Sarassin kingdom) by her future godfather and baptized shortly thereafter into the Christian faith. Aucassin is so in love with Nicolette that he neglects his knightly duties. When his father chides Aucassin for failing to live up to the standards of a knight, Aucassin promises to fight his father’s enemies in return for Nicolette’s hand in marriage. The father initially agrees to Aucassin’s request, but later (after Aucassin keeps his side of the bargain), the duke goes back on his word and pretends that he had never made the promise. To prevent further temptation, the duke and the viscount imprison both Aucassin and Nicolette in towers. But Nicolette cannot be restrained. She finds a way out of prison and escapes into a nearby forest.

Despite this surface resemblance to a courtly romance, the anonymous author of Aucassin et Nicolette turns the genre on its head. The damsel Nicolette is described as brave and chivalrous, while Aucassin is sentimental and neglects his knightly duties. Nicolette is valorous despite her lack of experience in warfare. The poem, thus, interrogates traditional standards of courtliness. Furthermore, Aucassin is a Christian with an Arabic-sounding name, while Nicolette is a Sarasin with a Christian-sounding name. This discrepancy between name and identity calls attention to the work’s other subversive elements.

Having finished the book only an hour ago, I do not have any profound observations to share with you. It is, however, clear that a straightforward reading of Aucassin et Nicolette is impossible. Not even the narrative style is consistent. Chapters alternate between prose and verse. Repetition – a common literary device in medieval writing- is present, but with a twist. A prose scene in one chapter is immediately followed by a repetition of the same scene but in verse. Why the change in literary language? Why say the same thing in two different ways?

I keep having to stop myself from calling Aucassin et Nicolette a poem. It is true that some parts are in verse, but prose takes up at least 50% of the work. Maybe I want to call it a poem because I associate the courtly romance genre with poetry. Chrétien de Troyes wrote his Arthurian romances in octosyllabic rhyming couplets.

I love coming across medieval works that play with literary genre and narrative form. I wrote about the Roman de la Rose last year, which also defies a straightforward reading. Like the Rose, Aucassin et Nicolette can be interpreted in many (and even contradictory) ways. Rather than ask, “What is the message?”, it might be more appropriate to consider why the work inspires so many different readings.

Aucassin et Nicolette is a very short work with a relatively simple plot, but it is certainly not a simple work.

Poetry, Religious Texts

“Sabbath, My Love” by Yehudah Halevi (1075-1141)

ריהל ראלי.jpg

“Sholom Loch Yom ha-Shevi-i” (Sabbath, My Love) is a celebration of the Sabbath Day by the 12th-century Spanish Jew Yehudah (Judah) Halevi.

Halevi was a philosopher, a poet, and a physician. The Kuzari, Halevi’s dialogue in defense of Judaism, is considered to be one the greatest philosophical works of the Middle Ages. Halevi’s meditations on Jewish religious and national identity are set against the backdrops of Reconquista Spain and a Jerusalem recently captured by Crusaders.

Sabbath, My Love (Trans. Solomon Solis-Cohen)

I greet my love with wine and gladsome lay;
Welcome, thrice welcome, joyous Seventh Day!

Six slaves the weekdays are; I share
With them a round of toil and care,
Yet light the burdens seem, I bear
For your sweet sake, Sabbath, my love!

On the First-day to the accustomed task
I go content, nor reward ask,
Save in your smile, at length, to bask —
Day blessed of God, Sabbath, my love!

Is the Second-day dull, the Third-day unbright?
Hide sun and stars from the Fourth-day’s sight?
What need I care, who have your light,
Orb of my life, Sabbath, my love!

The Fifth-day, joyful tidings ring:
“The morrow shall your freedom bring!”
At dawn a slave, at eve a king —
God’s table waits, Sabbath, my love!

On the Sixth-day does my cup overflow,
What blissful rest the night shall know,
When, in your arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgotten, Sabbath, my love!

Now it’s dusk. With sudden light distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled —
For you have arrived, Sabbath, my love!

Bring fruits and wine, and sing a cheerful lay,
Chant: “Come in peace, O blissful Seventh Day!”

Writing Daily in November

Writing Daily in November | Year 2

Pen on Notepad PaperAt the start of 2018, I said that I would not be blogging everyday in November, as I did last year. Daily blogging is more challenging than daily writing because posts are public. However, after much consideration, I’ve decided to take up this challenge again. As I’ve written before, I am a huge believer in the importance of developing a writing habit while in graduate school.

Unlike NaNoWriMo participants who will be writing over 1,667 words a day, I will be writing only 500 words a day. No one wants to read thirty 1,667-word posts! I certainly don’t have the time to write that much on the side while also working on end-of-term papers (due in early December).

Let me know if there are particular topics related to books and/or Academia that you would like me to write about in November. Coming up with ideas is the hardest part of this challenge. But this year, I plan to outline my posts days in advance so that I am not wracking my brain for ideas at 11:40 pm.

I received quite a lot of positive feedback for my daily posts last November, so I am hopeful that you will once again enjoy my content.

Adventure, Goldman, William

Review of The Princess Bride

Image result for the princess bride bookThe film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a cult classic. But not many fans of the movie have read the book. Although this review will be spoiler-free, my intended audience is people familiar with the movie.

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I am always the last person to see a film. Less than a year ago, one of my best friends encouraged me to give The Princess Bride a try. Despite my dislike for fictional romance, I finally gave in and rented the movie from Amazon. I am the most movie-ignorant person I know.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the film. I enjoyed the outlandish characters and the parody on courtly romance, but nothing stood out to me as particularly noteworthy. Whenever I am disappointed by a hyped work, I convince myself that I’m missing something: Fans are seeing something that I’m just not seeing. But before re-watching the film, I thought to read William Goldman’s book. I have been inspired in the past to re-watch a movie because of the book (ex. The Lord of the Rings movies).

The first thing that struck me about the book was the frame narrative. The preface establishes the story as an abridgment of a larger European satire of the same name. A fictional William Goldman recounts his childhood love for S. Morgenstern’s book. His father read it to him for the first time while he was recovering from Pneumonia. But William was concerned that his son Billy would find the many asides and descriptions boring. William, himself, had always felt that those sections of Morgenstern’s book were unnecessary to the plot. Hence, the frame narrator’s decision to produce an abridgment of The Princess Bride. Multiple times in the story, our fictional William Goldman intervenes to tell the reader how he has edited the original work and the reasons for his edits. The frame narrative is much more prominent in the book than in the movie. I prefer the book’s metatextual elements for the questions they raise about the purpose of storytelling.

I was also surprised by William Goldman’s fictional persona. He is not a very likable character. William is the quintessential racist,misogynistic white male author. He is self-absorbed, dislikes his wife, and is absent from his son’s life. At first, the casual racism and misogyny were quite off-putting, but I am now convinced that the real William Goldman very consciously included those elements in order to parody aspects of the literary industry. The real author does not have a son, and his wife is not a psychiatrist.

The Princess Bride is the perfect book to read when sick. It is fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. Westley’s bad-ass persona is even more apparent in the book than the movie. He leaves Buttercup as a lowly farm boy, but develops some insane fighting skills in no time. Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo have the most interesting backstories. I recall not being able to keep the characters straight in the movie. Thankfully, they are more distinct in the book. Not once did I feel that the narrator’s interjections or character backstories undermined the general action of the story.

And yes, Inigo does give his famous line – about a dozen times.

There’s something quite Rabelaisian about the novel. I was surprised and entertained by the outrageous violence and occasional vulgarity in the novel. The narrator presents The Princess Bride as a story for children, but it is clearly written for adults. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading about torture!

I will certainly be rewatching the film adaptation in the near future. I will be paying close attention to how the film follows or modifies the book because William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The next time I’m sick or unable to sleep, I will pick up A Princess Bride. It’s the perfect escapist read.