Mythologizing the Dissertation

In the spirit of Rousseau, I must confess. I confess that I have always held what is probably a peculiar interest in a rather particular narrative genre. This genre might best be described (perhaps also in the spirit of Rousseau) as “scholarly autobiography.” It is not quite the dissertation, or thesis, itself. Many of us, I’m sure, are already all too familiar with that genre’s idiosyncrasies, conventions, and requirements. In any case, the dissertation properly belongs in the realm of scholarship. Yet, neither is it really the conception, or account, that we all have in our minds of where we see our scholarship positioning us in relation to ongoing conversations with colleagues, or within our field more broadly. Nor is it even how we imagine our work will evolve in the future. Nevertheless, this genre pertains precisely to the dissertation, itself. Moreover, it is a genre that all of us, as graduate students, are deeply invested in. I speak, in particular, of the stories surrounding our dissertations. Often these are autobiographical, but many times they also take on the aspects of history, fiction, even myth: from whence our interests came, how they shaped our decisions to become scholars, and how they continue to guide us along what may well be for many of us our own personal “Quest Romance.”

What is the dissertation for – and to – each of us, and what will it help us to achieve, or gift to the world? How do these questions structure the stories we tell ourselves about our work? In the unfolding drama of a PhD, especially, I am certain that each of us has cast the dissertation in our own way, in a role that suits our stories. Perhaps the dissertation is a foe to be conquered after a long and heroic struggle. Or maybe it is a friend to return to in soft moments, to sit down with and converse. Perhaps, for some, it is a means to speak truth to power, or for others, a chance at redemption, recognition, or validation. Perhaps it is some distant star, a destination promising answers to questions that have transfixed us since youth. And for others, perhaps it is only an origin, a point of departure on what is sure to be a life-long journey in search of newer, brighter worlds. Perhaps some of us feel as though we are merely jousting windmills, while others are toppling giants. Perhaps many of us rather feel as though we are chasing ghosts, wrestling with angels, pursuing prize game, solving crimes or mysteries with our dissertations. And finally, with respect to arriving at our current research topics, for which of us was the trajectory straight and true, a dazzling ray of singular, purposeful direction splitting the obscurity of one’s past and future? And for which of us did it adopt a more meandering path, or sauntering pace? Did it compel one to wander for a time, lost or otherwise?

Of the last question, I can say that mine is a wandering tale. At some point, after wandering west from Ohio, I managed to stumble into a Master’s program at the University of Colorado–Boulder while exploring a curiosity about Romanticism and its legacies in the wider world. And it was there, in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, where I met Juan – that legendary figure of Spanish origin, whose permutations we find in such diverse places as the writings of Kierkegaard and Camus; an opera by Mozart; innumerable stage productions, including Molière’s, Pushkin’s, and George Bernard Shaw’s; famous literary dopplegangers, like Casanova and Lothario; a nickname for the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and, of course, Lord Byron’s greatest poem. What was the significance of this figure, whose name is a byword for “seduction,” and why had his legend inspired so many disparate renditions in so many different formats?

In the spring of 2013, I was enrolled in a class entitled, “Wordsworth and Byron,” being taught by Prof. Jeffrey Cox. Don Juan was one of the last things we read during that semester. I vividly remember the day we covered that intriguing little note on mobilité appended to line 820 of Canto XVI. As the note reads,

In French, “mobilite,” I am not sure that mobility is English,

but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to

other climates though it is sometimes seen to a great

extent in our own. It may well be defined as an excessive

susceptibility of immediate impressions–at the same time

without losing the past; and is, though sometimes

apparently useful to the possessor, a most painful and

unhappy attribute.[1]

As the stanza relates of Lady Adeline, this quality is ultimately,  “a thing of temperament and not of art . . . And false – though true; for surely they’re sincerest, / Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest” (XVI. 821–24). If there was ever an epic virtue for modern times, surely this was it. If Achilles had his kleos, and Odysseus, his nostos – traits that came to define antiquity, itself – Juan had his mobilité, a feature that encompasses so well the seemingly facile (while in reality, “painful”) attributes of our anxious age: worldly, distractible, nostalgic, and hopelessly itinerant. It is this quality that drives Juan through a series of seductive misadventures across several continents over the course of his global journey. It is also what allows Byron to offer a satirical commentary on what he saw as the comitragic trajectory of the modern world. To me, there was something in this quality as well of the Orphean glance, which always looks back to the past while being propelled inexorably, reluctantly, forward in time. And there, “inexplicably mix’d” within this trait, too, was a strain of the cosmopolitan, along with a poignant anticipation of a triumphant Nietzschean laughter. Perhaps most importantly, however, was that this redeeming feature made Don Juan, at its heart, a comical work, and which permits us as contemporary readers to laugh along at the vagaries of history, the contradictions of exile, and at those sad ruminations over piles of ruins that Harold could never contend with.

Again, I confess: I teared up after that class. For I had experienced that recognizable feeling among those whose business it is to read great literature: of being made to finally understand, to have at long last achieved clarity while being spurred to dizzying heights of further questioning, further seeking, of wanting to know more. Perhaps it was in that cosmopolitan spirit of mobilité, then, that when I determined to embark on the PhD, I decided I would do it abroad in Canada.

For all of the perspective and insight Juan had given me since first reading it, though, it had hardly given me a fully fleshed out dissertation topic. When, three years ago, having completed my coursework and my comprehensive exams, I found myself sitting in my supervisor’s office at the University of Toronto, I had very little to offer up when asked what it was I finally wanted to work on. Nothing, really – a poem, with lots of ideas, but little else. I knew I wanted to work on Don Juan, but had no idea what I wanted to say about it. Nor did I have any inkling of how I would put it in conversation with the work of other Romantic authors. It was so unlike anything I had ever read: at once, Romantic and anti-Romantic. “Well,” he suggested, “you might have a look at an author I worked on in my last book.” That book, From Little London to Little Bengal: Religion, Print, and Modernity in Early British India, 1793–1835,[2] included a chapter on a young Anglophile, mixed-race author of Portuguese, Indian, and English descent, named Henry Derozio, whose importance to early Indian nationalism is well-known, but whose contributions as an author deeply influenced by British Romanticism are less remembered.

As I came to learn, it was barely two years after Byron had died in Greece, leaving Don Juan unfinished, that Derozio, profoundly moved by the work, picked up where Byron left off. Using the same ottava rima, Derozio composed “Don Juanics,” publishing it as a serial instalment in the India Gazette amidst early nineteenth-century British India’s thriving print culture. In it, he tells of Juan’s fortuitous arrival by way of the Ganges in that second city of Empire, colonial Calcutta. Amidst a flurry of questions as to what in the world Juan was doing in India, a moment of lucidity ensued, casting light on the direction of my project. “But, of course,” I mused. “I must follow Juan to India.”

“Whirlwind” might be the most appropriate characterization of my experience ever since. After several jaunts between London, Glasgow, and Kolkata over the past three years, two research stints in the British Library as well as the National Library of India, and more than one escapade with Nigel Leask in a Scottish cemetery in Kolkata, I found a project, a passion, and a purpose. And while it is a perennial source of insecurity that my direction has at times seemed wide-ranging at best, erratic at worst, it is always a reassurance to recall that the very source of Don Juan’s strength was similarly in its wandering, its mobilité – its lightning-charged “zig zag sublimity,”[3]

He knew not where he was, nor greatly cared,

For he was dizzy, busy, and his veins

Fill’d as with lightning – for his spirit shared

The hour, as is the case with lively brains;

And where the hottest fire was seen and heard,

He rushed […] (XIII. 257–64)

All of us cope with the writing process in our own ways. To incorporate the dissertation as part of a larger story, and to adopt a certain self-mythologizing about the struggles involved have proven useful exercises for me. As a result, so often is it the case that right in the midst of my garden variety bouts of graduate student doubt, exhaustion, and uncertainty, I’ll see him standing there just ahead, urging me forward. God knows whose bed he’s just rolled out of, what battle he’s emerged from, or shipwreck he’s narrowly survived, but he’s glancing back with a wry smile, motioning for me to follow. There’s Juan, with all the world before him.

[1] Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. By Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980–1993), V, 1071, n. 820. All references to Don Juan are given in parentheses, with canto and line number(s).

[2] Daniel E. White, From Little London to Little Bengal: Print, Religion, and Modernity in Early British India, 1793–1835 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[3] See White, “‘Zig zag sublimity’: John Grant, the Tank School of Poetry, and the India Gazette, 1822–1829,” A History of Indian Poetry in English, Ed. Rosinka Chaudhuri, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) 147-61.