Dissertation Days (22): Siiiiggghhh

This third chapter, I am starting to feel, is a right pain in the ass. I feel like I’m just creeping along, making a few edits here and a few edits there, bringing in some material from an earlier draft in the hopes that it will help to make some sense. I do think, though, that it’s almost there. It really is all about pushing it over the finish line that is the hardest part.

To be quite honest, today was not the most productive day. There’s a lot going on with helping the Boyfriend move, but I’m still carving out a bit of each day to do at least some work on both chapters, even if that work doesn’t seem to have an immediate payoff. Still, it’s always helpful in these situations to keep an eye on the long game, eve though that can be tremendously difficult on days like this.

I will say, though, that I managed to write some good stuff in those close reading sections of Chapter 4. I really do think that I have something I want to say about Cleopatra, which is an epic film that has been tremendously undervalued (if not outright condemned and derided) by film critics and scholars alike. Given the film’s troubled production history–and the dubious distinction of losing money even though it was successful at the box office–there’s quite a lot to be done. If you know me, however, you know that I love rescuing derided films from their critical obscurity. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be working on the epic.

Still a little concerned about my section dealing with Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. I’m not sure how much I’m really going to be able to say that’s new about the film–there are already some really good books and essays on it–but hopefully I’ll be able to at least add a slight layer of nuance to what’s already been written.

So…no work shall be done tomorrow, since it’s basically moving day. However, I’ll be back into something of a regular schedule on Wednesday, though Thursday and Friday will be a bit touch-and-go, since I’ll be traveling again. I’m a busy little bee this summer, but I still have to make time to get some of this Dissertation done.

After all, I have a deadline to meet, and I shall do it.

Heaven help me, I will.

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Novel Weekends (3): Scattershot

As a lot of you know, I tend to be rather scattershot in my composition process. I’ll often write a scene or a chapter completely out of order, rather than writing each piece in sequential order. It’s not always the most efficient or economical way of doing things, but it does allow me to work on those parts of the narrative that I find the most interesting at a particular moment.

Such was certainly the case today, as I started on a chapter that will actually be one of the ones that has a lot of action. Most of the book so far has to do with religion and politics, and that’s true here too, but this is a pivotal scene that sets the stage for a later religious conflict that will consume the second and third books in the series.

I also found that this chapter is told from the viewpoint of both a minor character–destined to be a larger presence later–and from an incidental character, the latter a soldier in the Imperium’s army. For some reason, though, I find this character to be quite compelling, so perhaps he’ll come back to play a rather larger role. Still, though, I have a rather large set of characters to start with, so I don’t want to overdo it.

That’s not to say that I don’t have a strong idea of the entire narrative arc of the book. One advantage of starting this project during NaNoWriMo was that I was able to sketch out the entire story in very broad strokes.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this novel is turning out. I do think I can crank out a fairly coherent version of this by the end of the year. It’s ambitious, but it’s doable.

Let’s do this.

Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.

Dissertation Days (20): Inching Along

Today was a moderately productive Dissertation Day. I didn’t make a huge amount of progress in terms of new words in Chapter 3, but I have finally moved into the final section. I think that another day or two of hard work on that section should see it ready for submission. It’s quite a good feeling, actually. Since it’s not really due until I get back to Syracuse in the middle of June, that gives me plenty of time to finesse it a bit before submitting it.

The Boyfriend was actually looking over my shoulder, and he made an observation that was spot-on. I tend to use a lot of complex (some might even say convoluted) sentence constructions, and while this adds a certain je ne sais quoi to my writing, they can also make it hard to follow my reasoning. Needless to say, one of the things I’ll be focusing on from this point forward is making sure that I add a bit of variety to my sentences.

Of course, it goes without saying that I also excised a few of those damnable couplets, which make far too many appearances in the course of this chapter. I’m sure that their ubiquitous presence says something about the way I think, but at this point in the day I’m not equipped to say what that is.

In other dissertation news, I also managed to make some progress in Chapter 4. I have this particular version labeled as the one that I intend to submit to my Adviser, but I’ve been known to be a bit too optimistic when it comes to those particular aspirations. Still, I do think that the version of this chapter that has been emerging sporadically over the last few months will indeed be the one that I send, even though it requires a lot of work before it gets there.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about the progress I’ve been making. The end isn’t quite in sight yet, but it is definitely somewhere just over the horizon line. While May is almost over and I’ve got some traveling coming up, I have most of June and July to be truly productive.

Tomorrow, I plan on finishing up a big chunk of the end of Chapter 3, as well as continuing onward with Chapter 4. Any progress, now matter how small, is a reason for celebration in my book.

Good times ahead.

Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (18): Increments

Well, I finally returned to the semi-normal writing schedule. Today, I mostly worked on a read-through of Chapter 3, finessing some of the prose that has been rather clunky. Of course, I made sure to clip out a few of those pesky couplets that are such a troubling part of my prose (gods I hate those fucking couplets). There are still a couple that have resisted all efforts to get rid of them, but I’ve been successful for the most part.

I managed to make it to page 20 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way that this first section looks. I’ve had to really hard to make sure that the section has allusions to what happens later, so that it’s clear from the beginning how the context that I’m laying out relates to the parts that come later. I think, at least in a dissertation chapter, that you want to have a number of signposts so that your reader can keep the bigger picture in mind.

Tomorrow, I hope to get through another 20 pages, and then I should just about be ready to get back into that section on Nero’s queerness. I am really struggling to get that section to fit into what I’ve written before, but I’m confident that I can at last corral everything into a coherent whole.

I also managed to write 500 words of Chapter 4, almost entirely in the historical context section. Gradually filling that out allows me to clarify what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with the chapter as a whole. The conceptual framework is still a little hazy, but I’m inching closer to a coherent argument. If I can manage to eke out a draft, no matter how rudimentary, by the end of July I will be happy.

Tomorrow is definitely going to be a busy day. I’m going to try to keep up the momentum with Chapter 4, as I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s very easy to let my wheels start spinning in the midst of the revisions on Chapter 3, with the result that I can’t really accomplish anything else. Now that the end of Chapter 3 is (I think) at last in sight, I should be able to resume concerted work on the final chapter. (Can I just say how glorious it is to write that final sentence).

Tomorrow is going to be a glorious day.

Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (16): Chapter 4!

In keeping with my promise of last night, I did indeed manage to do a bit of work in Chapter 4. At this point, I’m still sketching in the broader outlines of the historical context, because I think that doing so will help me to get a stronger sense of what it is that I am trying to argue in the chapter as a whole. I’m still doing some of the primary research that I need, but I do think that I have enough basic material to make a solid start in my close analysis of the films.

I’m really trying to work out the tension I see between the spectacle of imperial zenith and the narrative patterns that inevitably connect such splendour with immanent and imminent decline. I’m looking at this phenomenon through three of the final films of the postwar cycle: Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Bible: In the Beginning. I’m not sure how well this is going to hold together in the final analysis, but I do think that are some interesting things to argue and say about the utopian longings for a more stable political world that can never really be attained.

Produced in a world that was increasingly full of political doubt and philosophical instability, these films express a form, I think, of imperial melancholy. They mourn a world that was never actually brought into being, a world that is always subjected to the relentless forces of historical change and the inexorable forward movement of time.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get as much work done on Chapter 3 as I would have liked. Family commitments intervened in those attempts, though I hope to get some bits of it done tomorrow. I would like to highlight this particular bit, though, which I think nicely sums up what I’m doing with Nero’s queerness: “He is, in other words, the embodiment of all the terrifying power of history writ large on the great stage of the cinema.”

Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be another day that’s rather tied up with obligations, so who knows how much I’m going to actually be able to get done. Hopefully, though, I can manage to get through some more portions of Chapter 3. If I keep on as I am, it should definitely be ready by the end of next week. Then I can just edit.

On we go.

Dissertation Days (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.