Thursday, December 4, 2014

Taking Failure for a Walk: An Essay Never Sent


                    Walking the streets of a new city is sadly instructive. Especially when there is no aim, no destination, and when we carry ideas, particular bits of cumbersome baggage in tow. Boston was such a city with its dim gray light, tangled streets, biting cold air, and filtered sense of things at uneasy rest. Boston was an ideal place to realize that something was profoundly wrong.
                 It was on one of these walks in Boston’s laden winter air that I discovered that there was a gap between my expectations and this reality. Here was a bellwether moment, a pivot point, a place where life was turning around a central argument. But I was too involved in the technical details to see. The broader picture was all but concealed in a miasma of now. What now? I would ask this ever-present-question. What happens next? I would insist on an answer.
I find it instructive that in four years as an undergraduate in a liberal arts college only two professors ever spoke about getting a job.
There was one professor, particularly disdainful of practical life, who once told us that not one of us would have to live in our parent’s garage. But really, what assurances could he give that this would not come to pass? Americans have slept in far worse places. No doubt in downy youth they never expected to sleep on a park bench or a cardboard box. This professor spoke from the position of certainty where tenured faculty make unequivocal pronouncements. He was not the subject to the pressures of people who must gain a job or could lose a job. He suffered from want of imagination. In this life, no one of us knows exactly where we will sleep. We do not know what the future will bring.
Again, at a reception after my graduation, the subject of a job was broached when I told a professor I had entered a PhD program in philosophy. He said he admired me and quickly added he hoped I would find a job. It is very difficult, he said, and the pay is not that great. Here was a warning, the first of precious few. I ignored it. The myth of my election, my special status, was just growing its wings, and I did not need clumsy things like facts to tangle its projected flight.
Walking was a remedy for imperfect information, the kind of postponement of questions I would rather not answer. I would forget the PhD program, the books by Kant and Heidegger and Locke, and walk the length of Commonwealth Avenue, beyond the empty lots (no filled with glass, high rise dorms) and down the tree lined streets of Brookline.
I would walk among spacious homes, imagining myself sitting in grand picture windows, or behind the tinted glass of attached greenhouses. If it was cold or snowing then the contrasts were all the more acute: I was on the outside, cold; they, on the inside, warm. I could savor the feeling of oncoming failure and give it lavish proportions. Making it larger somehow made it sting less. The failure was so gigantic that it was tectonic in scale. So, I could distance myself from it: Like two stars colliding, how could such a colossal failure be mine?

I would walk along Beacon Street, where the Green line trolley waffles along the divider of the road, to a small nature preserve. There was a tiny patch of woods and pond. I would follow the trail which skirted along the pond, then dip into the woods. The woods were hemmed in by backyards; views of windows, swing sets, slumbering flower beds. There was the feeling of being a violator, of not belonging, of being afraid of everything, everyone. A sense of detachment was growing. Here I was in a city; here a student in that city; and yet, it left me untouched. I was making myself lonely, and grooming myself for far greater acts of isolation to come. In terms of tending an emerging state, there was no better way to do so; the feeling was like betraying a lover, providing the driving, dual force of forbidden excitement and self-righteous guilt.
There was yet one more bell to chime in my ear. In a class by a professor near retirement, a man who had long ago shed the party line of the department for a counter-narrative stewed in burning resentments --- he explained that there were really no jobs in philosophy. He said that many of us would have to find something else to do.
It was odd to hear a voice speak of practical matters like employment, and stranger still to hear it stated in so shockingly negative terms. Once again, someone was telling me that failure was all but certain. A very important fact was being whispered to me in asides. One in the course of a conversation at an undergraduate farewell party, and another during a discussion in graduate school of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An important topic sandwiched between small talk and the sociology of science.

But what did it matter? There was not much to be gained by telling someone set upon a path that that path was wrong. What should I do? Walk out of the room and just start fresh elsewhere? More work needed to be done to convince someone who had not yet failed that they would certainly fail.
Disentangling me from my dream was hard work. Simple facts are not sufficient. A tide of resentment had to thaw and flow before action could be taken. Only when a person on the other end of the failure of the dream, an agent personifying disappointment, doggedly determined to prove my unworthiness appears, does the stirrings of failure’s recognition mobilize.
The Chair was such a figure. He walked the fine line between broad condescension and narrow charm. For a man so fixated by defining terms and conditions of thought, he was deceptively vague in drawing the parameters of the future. Should he say that more than fifty percent of us who would not get jobs in academia? Why should he? He had nothing to gain by contracting the PhD program, especially when so many intelligent, willing young people like me arrived on time for their intellectual extinction. But I could see in his face the lie. You see, he was a consummate liar. And his lie granted me a great boon: I woke up.

So I was moving through a city, I was studying at a university, I was sitting in class rooms, but by walking down the street, by escaping to some road I had never walked down, I was shunting it off. I was, when walking through Boston, creating memories with a magical immediacy. I was instantaneously taking experience and transforming it to an already hazy past. And I couldn’t stop this motion. I did realized how my life was a fantasy, a ploy at escape, and that all escapees are eventually caught. But I wanted to go on for as long as possible.
And the only way to reach that point, to get caught in the act of fleeing, was devastating self-admissions, such as:
You are not special at all.
There is no reason to suppose you will ever succeed.
You are very much destined to fail.
You must admit this all.
There would be times on these wintry Boston walks when I would imagine that I was immune from the consequences of actions considered inevitable. Sometimes I examined the merely formal requirements of my program. For instance:
How to pass the translation exam in Ancient Greek, when I only took one-fourth of a class in that language? How will I pass the formal logic qualifying exam, when I have never taken a class in the subject, and then parlay all of this to prepare for a massive, free floating exam which covers the entire three-thousand year history of philosophy and guarantees my movement up in the program?
I took appropriate steps. I arranged my books, from Plato’s dialogues to Heidegger’s Being and Time, taking copious notes. I wrote in a meticulously neat hand on lined loose leaf paper. I outlined the different ways love was portrayed in the Symposium. I searched for the illusive meaning of angst. This notebook ran to hundreds of pages, and that I still have it is a testimony to an effort to reach a legitimate conclusion. I keep this black binder to show how hard I courted failure.
Most people think of failure as something that happens to those who do not try, or do not try hard enough. We fail from lack of effort, or some fundamental flaw in character, actions, or follow through. But really, it is the exact opposite: failure is the reserve of those who continuously strive; and the bigger the failure, the larger the tower of our treasured efforts to collapse. Looking at the monumental effort of this notebook, and the stacks of books with dog eared pages, I suspected it was over. This book was my death spasm.
There was a short time when I pushed back. I came in from the cold of the street for one last, fruitless offensive in a lost cause. I would sit in academic offices, listening to my shortcomings.
In all likelihood, all those professors in all those academic offices were correct. After all, I had come here to be critiqued, judged, to have my intellect weighed on some scale of overall worth. I should have allowed myself to suffer their words. But there was something skewed about their judgments. Some part of the equation was missing. They would add up my abilities, arrive at a sum, and then act according to that formula. But I resisted their outcomes, feeling that I was more than the product of their narrow conclusions. I held out hope that they were wrong about something as profound as my abilities, my skills, the thing I loved which made me ineradicably me.

On the large front, the professors erred in their less then forthright attitude toward any future at all in teaching the humanities. If more than half of all PhD students were not getting jobs following their conferral, then half as many students should be admitted to programs. Even then the market would be tight, but it would not be like cleaning the Augean stables. The fantasy outcome, the delusion of wrong thinking, an organization stacked suspiciously like a Ponzi scheme --- this was there for all to see, but most ignored these exposed facts. But my eyes were now open. I was just one more student who arrived, tried, and failed in a fixed system.
Finally, a clause for the verb walking with a great deal of explanatory value:
— walk away from
1: to outrun or get the better of without difficulty
2: to survive (an accident) with little or no injury
3: to give up or leave behind willingly: abandon
To outrun, or get the better of without difficulty. This is off the mark, since in my case nothing was outrun without a great deal of difficulty. I earned every failure by jumping through hoops of great difficulty and missing.
To survive an accident with little or no injury has resonances, yet I can say that graduate school hurt me. There was great deal of short term damage that was difficult to eliminate. Failure lingered around me like an aura for years. Even now I can sometimes catch sight of its misty glow, trailing me like vapor.
            To give up or leave behind willingly. Abandon. This is what I did! After getting a Master’s degree I got up and left everything behind. I abandoned academia in the concrete sense of the word. From my vantage, the scandal of the humanities, its bloated PhD programs and few jobs, the disconnection from what could happen and what was going to happen, invited no sense of loyalty.
But in a final moment of irony, the professor who administered the required formal logic exam, and who told me I had passed, but just, invited me to stay when he learned I had taught myself formal logic. The man had no idea who I was or what I had gone through. Why heed the advice of a man cloaked in ignorance?

So I was leaving. And I walked away from formal academics to pursue work that I could undertake alone, without the cumbersome drag of the professional class of scholars. And this provided a good lesson in movement. When something is bad, when it has passed the border of possible redemption and entered a zone of certain ruin, it is best to just leave. In this, there is no disgrace.
Walking on the streets of a new city is sadly instructive. Boston was such a city, and the long hours of wandering, the moping on Beacon Hill, the meandering down Newbury Street, not doing much at all, became a high water mark in my life for what I would take in terms of situational anxiety. Never again would I place myself in the hands of others with such abandon, with such a bevy of trust. From now on my walks would be more guarded, my stance more closed, and the hand I held out to the world would be a little less open and far more closed.
A time of life was simply over. And of course it would never return again.

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