Doldrums of August


in Books and literature, Daily updates, Psychology, Writing

Life has suddenly become exceptionally lonely. August is always a trying time in a PhD program. The lack of any real income since spring is naturally biting, and I have always had trouble dealing with the heat. There’s a breakdown of social structure and support, with no classes to teach or take, and friends and colleagues absent or unavailable. Early in the summer, the absence of termtime obligations can feel like an empowering opportunity to make progress on research but, by these late summer days, enthusiasm and intellectual focus have faded.

It’s especially exacerbated for me right now, with close friends on the far side of the country, or newly and permanently outside the city, or otherwise distant. I have no way to use my Hive tiles. On the climate activism front, not only has there been a major personal setback, but the precise nature of it remains unresolved and unknown. This has been a very bad week.

I spent most of today reading. First, Oliver Sacks’ excellent memoir On the Move, which was given to me by a generous friend. I haven’t previously read any of his work, but having devoured half the longish book today I feel like it’s one of the most accessible and interesting autobiographies I have read. Sacks is a great narrator, and has a thoroughly colourful and conceptually provocative life to relate, from thoughts about medicine and drug addiction to motorcycle adventures; the complexities of sex, psychology, and family; sudden death; and the science of the thinking brain. Sacks has an impressive vocabulary, and I have marked down 50+ words to look up in the OED. Charmingly, the hardcover set of the same was how Sacks chose to spend most of the money from a prestigious exam contest which he won at Oxford, half-drunk and only choosing to answer one of the seven questions posed.

In a pile of unwanted goods on the sidewalk of Markham Street, I found Peter Singer’s The President of Good & Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush, which I also half-read. I enjoy the argumentative style of philosophers discussing matters of ethics and much of the book is convincing. At the same time, it seems a bit of a strange undertaking. For one thing, it probably attributes more policy-making power to Bush than he really possessed as president, ignoring forces that were pressuring him to make one decision or another. In the broadest sense, there are broad ideological boundaries which all politically sensitive people perceive; accepting the political program of your supporters and colleagues is driven more by social pressure than logic. Singer’s discussion about whether Bush’s statements were honest also doesn’t account for how U.S. presidents can generally only get things done in cooperation with other American politicians. In the main area where they can act alone – military conflict – Singer is convincingly excoriating.

Reading Sacks has given me a strong desire to write a book (much less plausibly, also to tour North America by motorcycle). Conveniently, that is the purpose and major task remaining in my PhD. The spiritless and solitary days of final August should permit continuing incremental progress, and I am hopeful about a burst of discussion and decision in September. I’m also looking forward hugely to meeting the incoming crop of Massey junior fellows.

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