Tuesday, June 11, 2013
A few weeks ago I wrote to say that this blog was officially on hiatus while I waited to hear whether or not I had been readmitted to my old doctoral program in history. As readers may recall, I have been on "hiatus" from that program for approximately thirteen years. Needless to say, I was too undisciplined to stay away from Soviet Roulette altogether. How can I not write something about revolution when I'm visited places like Tunisia and Hungary and France this summer? Really, I'm addicted to the subject of revolution. I see it everywhere.
I'm reminded of one of the great authorities on addiction, Charles Bukowski. I always liked the way the plots of his novels always revolved around alcohol. Why does the protagonist get up? He needs a drink. Why does he befriend somebody? He hopes they will have some money for a drink. Why does he cross the street? There's a bar there. In fact, Bukowski's protagonists move through life as if they are being shot from a slingshot from one alcoholic beverage to another. This is how I feel when it comes to the subject of revolution. Flying to Tunisia, I'm thinking about the Arab Spring; boarding a plane for Hungary, I'm wondering about the Hungarian Revolutions of 1956 and 1989; landing in France, I'm contemplating 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, and 1968.
Another genius of addiction, Burroughs, also demonstrated how characters are pushed from one plot point to another by cravings. In Queer, he sits across the table from his love object, and the force of his addiction for intimacy is so strong that, although physically timid, the protagonist's spectral arms are rising up to grasp and fondle the handsome young man in front of him. Yes, it's neither reason nor chance, but craven addiction, that really explains how and why we move through our lives as we do.
At any rate, I haven't heard anything at all from my old doctoral program, not even a peep. I don't blame the faculty who are charged with deciding my fate. How often are they asked to consider whether or not to readmit somebody who disappeared from their college for well over a decade? They don't owe me a thing.
On the other hand, there is a strange correspondence between my slow and subtle exit from the program and my current limbo. When I left UIUC, I did so gradually, in stages, and without really informing anybody other than my advisor. As I've said before, it took a year or so before people in the department decided that I no longer had any need for a departmental mailbox. While I took up teaching jobs at Columbia College and Roosevelt University, I continued to earn my health care by serving as a teaching assistant, which meant driving back to Urbana once a week to teach four discussion sections of an American history class. Long, horrid commutes have been my lot ever since.
At any rate, this confused post is meant to update my readers with this simple statement: I've not learned anything at all, not even after several months. It's funny: as a dean at a community college, I ask my faculty to check in with students if they miss even one or two classes. My wife says the same: as a professor of engineering, she's told that she should be concerned if any student fails to turn in an assignment. The Obama Administration has a similar mantra: make sure people graduate from college. If you're an undergraduate, educators need to do everything possible to ensure that you'll graduate. But a doctoral student is different. When I was at Urbana, they told me that people took, on average, about eight years to graduate. If this statistic is correct, and anecdotal evidence from friends suggests that it was, then many others took even longer to graduate.
To be honest, I bare almost all of the responsibility for not finishing my doctorate. I was a well-educated adult who ought to have known better than leave something half-finished, especially in light of my interest in and, yes, talent for, history. Even so, it's remarkable to think back at my retreat from graduate school. After earning good grades, passing my preliminary exams, and successfully defending my dissertation proposal, I slid away from graduate school without so much as a conversation with anybody other than my own advisor. Perhaps another professor or an advisor would have seen things differently? I suppose my advisor and others had noticed that I had all the signs of burn-out and didn't want to stand in my way.
I don't say that I made the wrong decision, or that any attempts to dissuade me from leaving would have been helpful to me. I needed to go. I needed to find something I couldn't find in the history department. I'm not sure I can define that thing even now, but it was related to maturity and sexuality and sanity and, somehow, Heidegger, but don't ask me to explain the tie in.
I sound as if I'm complaining about a school which didn't bother to say goodbye to me, and doesn't bother to welcome me back. But I think I'm enjoying the silence this time around. I think I like savoring this period of uncertainty. You learn a lot from ambiguity. I'm able to think about the past and future in new ways and I suspect that a "yes" or a "no" will ultimately be good for me if I'm brave enough this time around to embrace either answer.
But back to Russian history, and revolution in general. Here in Budapest, I'm reading Kirill Medvedev's It's No Good. Medvedev--no relation to the Russian political leader-is a poet and literary critic and activist. Without going into the peculiarities of the book's production process, Medvedev argues that the only cure to Russia's present crisis is more Marxism. It's an ironic prescription to be sure, but one probably worth looking at this far out from 1991. What Medvedev is saying is that Russia missed out on the evolution of Western Marxism as a result of the Soviet experience. In fact, one of the worst things about the Soviet Union is that it killed the intelligentsia's ability to counteract some of the worst trends of modernity, including neoliberalism, postmodern cynicism, unrestrained capitalism, and neofascism.
It's strange to see that we learn so much about the past by following the present. Although Medvedev's critique of Russia's intelligentsia is oversimplified, he has a point. Didn't the Russian intelligentsia fail to oppose the worst abuses of the Yeltsin and Putin regimes precisely because they were still fighting the Soviet Union? Weren't they unable to evolve in their opposition to tyranny because Soviet communism had immured the country from all other forms of theoretical opposition to capitalism? It's a complex question but it's no doubt the right time to attempt to answer it.