Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Budapest Ramblings

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.  


  1. You are like Schrödinger's cat... both alive and dead in the box.

    And here is a little something about PhD attrition rates... something you and I share:

  2. Exit from history grad school, Exit Into History
    Allow me to extrapolate shamelessly from your experience of grad school to my subjective impressions of similar topics, a strategy well-known to all grad students (subtitle: “Thoughts I Had While Reading X”, for any author X. The advantage is that the subtitle can be factually true even when the resulting reflections have nothing to do with X). You start by avowing an addiction to revolution in its various forms (The French: a mere gateway drug; for a real trip there’s nothing that beats the Bolshevik). Bukowski and other épater la bourgeoisie types promise an exit from the everyday world we all inhabit (and here with “we” I decree reference to folks like us – those who read about and are fascinated by the eruptions of history but have little direct share in them). This is the mundane and unchanging world devoid of historical interest. In my final years of graduate school I also experienced the craving for an exit, an end to the unchanging cycle of classes, lectures, half-written papers, half-known half-friends and half-colleagues. I wanted to move to a new state. Such a change would constitute my life as something that had history. An unchanging and necessary sequence of events, even if it contains a large amount of variety, is devoid of history, if the term ‘history’ signifies not so much the sum total of what has occurred in the past but the sequence of human choices and actions which enacts a life cycle by contending with unchosen circumstances and which promises something new, contingent, and unrepeatable. I can recall once looking out the window of my graduate school apartment, one among tens of exactly similar apartments in a complex of student housing, and realizing that I faced several more years of life in the same apartment, surrounded by similar students, all of us carrying out the same actions. Besides moving off-campus to a different apartment (Good idea! Nobody’s done that before!), what could I do to partake of history and shed the unhistorical? Exit from grad school, which had until then been a merely theoretical event hidden in the mists of the academic job market, I suddenly found more desirable and therefore, in accordance with Hume’s dictum that reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, more doable in my eyes.
    Exit from the unhistorical realm of graduate school brings to mind the title of Eva Hoffman’s Exit Into History: A Journey Into the New Eastern Europe. To condense greatly the themes of this book, Hoffman proposes that the new states and societies of Eastern Europe (new as of 1993, that is) were exiled from history when they fell under the influence of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Comparisons to nations in a state of suspended animation or locked in political deep freeze spring to mind almost inevitably; the basic idea is that these states and societies were deflected from their natural developmental arcs and needed to begin life again as historical actors after the fall of the Soviet Union. The author takes us on a series of journeys through her native Poland as well as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria, as she talks with the survivors of Soviet-era repression about their experiences of that system, their hopes for the future, and the difficulties they face. Such a wide range of distinct societies and cultures does not bode well for any interesting generalizations, so I will mention only Hoffman’s ability to convey the flavor of that historical moment (to further abuse a cliché) when people looked around and realized that they could act in politics and began to reflect on the widely varying degrees of success and satisfaction afforded by this chance for historical action.
    All the best,

  3. Thanks to JBC for the great article. Thanks to Andy for nice graduate school reflections. I've talked previously about revolution as a response to banality, but I hadn't thought about graduate school as the ultimate form of anti-plot/anti-event/anti-history. I'll have to expand on your theme in a post. I also like the idea of communism as a form of suspended animation. That would seem to be the Hungarian experience. And it would seem that Hungarians have an excuse for not remembering what happened prior to 1989.