Monday, December 01, 2008

Plausible Personality

"It would be selfish of me to be too modest,
just so you would not think of me as being too arrogant."

Jonathan Mayhew

Walking him over to the kindergarten this morning, my son, 5, said something profound. "I've decided not to be a thief when I grow up." Really, I said, why on earth not? "Because that way I won't get caught." Well put, no?

I tried to capitalize on the opportunity. When deciding on a vocation, I told him, there are three important things to keep in mind. First, find something you enjoy doing. Second, get very good at it. Third, make sure it's something someone will pay you to do. The order is probably important. But he wasn't really listening anymore.

We walked past the furniture upholstering workshop and waved to Harry through the great big showroom windows. One of the professors (we live essentially on campus) drove by and noticed my boy's interest in real workmanship. "That's right," he shouted. "Much better than academia!" But academic research is also a craft, right?

Tonight I read Jonathan Mayhew's reflections on the virtues of his recent book. It reminded me of why his blog is so important. Jonathan enjoys what he does, does it well, and gets paid for it. There is no melancholy in that. No Palinurian death drive (the urge to jump ship because your captain is a decadent fool).

I don't know if he is just pretending, of course, and is, deep down, as much of a resentful academic as the next guy. At Bemsha Swing he doesn't let on. It reminds me of something Nabokov said in a 1969 Vogue interview:

I do not believe that speaking about myself can encourage the sales of my books. What I really like about the better kind of public colloquy is the opportunity it affords me to construct in the presence of my audience the semblance of what I hope is a plausible and not altogether displeasing personality. (Strong Opinions, p. 158)

You should read Bemsha Swing exactly for that: a plausible academic personality. Of course, you never really know what Nabokov thinks, deep down, either. But it doesn't matter. We know enough now not to get caught.


Jonathan said...

I resent plenty of things about my job, but not teaching and research, the core of what we are supposed to be doing. What I resent is simply anything that gets in the way of, or distracts from, those two core missions.

Jonathan said...

and thanks for the kind words, I meant to say too...

Thomas Basbøll said...

That is a very good way of putting the problem. Research, teaching ... and the distractions. They key is to insist on enjoying the first two, and doing them well.

I suppose the key is to insist on getting paid mainly for those core missions. Otherwise one's resentments begin to sneak in there as well.

(I'm the grateful one. We all are.)