Saturday, October 09, 2004

On Forever Putting One's Tool Kit in Order

I had friends in graduate school who belonged to the class of those we jokingly referred to as graduate student emeriti. They were the perpetual students who were "not hung up on completion," to borrow a memorable line from William Hurt's character Nick in The Big Chill (1983). Free of the discipline of undergraduate school, they took incompletes in their courses and then spent years completing them. Some never completed them. Others finished their course work and actually wrote dissertations and won the degree -- some fifteen years after they started. They supported themselves with adjunct teaching and odd jobs, loans and parental hand-outs.

One fellow in particular sticks in my mind. I’ll call him Mel. Mel never finished and dropped out of sight. With Mel, the problem was three-fold: unrealistically high standards, performance anxiety, and an obsession with the board game, Go. The main way his performance anxiety manifested itself was an obsessive fixation on getting his tool box in order. What I mean is that he felt he could not get down to the business of writing any good philosophy until all his tools were in place. So he had to have a complete library stocked with all the classics, in the original languages. He once unloaded a copy of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony on me on the ground that it was in English, and he wanted to read everything in its original language. Many any hour did he spend on foreign languages. But to do philosophy, one has to be able to think, so logic was also on his agenda. Time was spent acquiring an impressive logic library, and somewhat less time on actually reading his acquisitions.

The physical act of writing required, he thought, the very best of tools. Since these were the days before word processing, he had to have the very latest IBM Selectric electric typewriter, the model with an erase key! That was a big deal in those days. Luckily, Mel’s father worked for IBM which fact translated into a substantial discount. Mel once showed me his typewriter’s different ‘balls’: different ones for different character sets. Of course, he had one for Greek since he planned to write on Aristotle.

But no office is complete without all the peripherals: wastebasket, organizers stocked with various sizes of paper clips, etc., staplers of different sizes, staple extractors, paper, pencils, pencil sharpeners, electric and manual, pens ballpoint and fountain, in different colors, magic markers, erasers, all accomplices of his evasion of beginning the dissertation.

Somewhere Schopenhauer quips, "Forever reading, never read." Apropos of Mel, I would say: Forever preparing to write, never read.