Dissertation Days (29): Good Feelings (Mostly)

Today was a very good day indeed in terms of revision and writing. Though I am rapidly approaching the point in Chapter 3 where I’m not hugely fond of my work, a part of my brain still recognizes that the chapter as a whole is much stronger than its earlier iterations. However, I also know that it’s just about time to get it submitted, before I pull one thread too many and the whole piece falls apart.

That being said, I like how the close reading sections have turned out. There are a few blips here and there, with both conceptual issues and prose, but those (I think) can be safely pushed off to a further round of revision after the adviser sees it. I think that the whole thing is hanging together pretty well, but I fear I’m becoming so enmeshed in the midst of it that it’s a bit hard at this moment to see it with an unjaundiced eye.

Chapter 4 is also in a strong position, stronger in fact than at an any other point. Part of this is due to the book I’m currently reading about Cleopatra’s iconography that has really helped to add some contextual heft to my analysis. Fortunately, there isn’t a huge amount of work on the 1963 film that takes it seriously as an engagement with history, so I think that will probably be the strongest part of the chapter.

At some point soon, I am going to have to go back to Chapters 1 and 2 and undertake some of the outstanding revisions there. I don’t think that will take that long, necessarily, but I’d like to knock it out before it gets too much later in the summer. After all, while I have several months left to finish it, I know full well they are going to speed by much faster than I’d like. But, such is the nature of the world alas.

Tomorrow, it’s more work on Chapter 3. I am hoping to finish that by the end of the week, let it rest over the weekend, then submit early next week. Chapter 4 will require 1,000 words tomorrow. I’m hoping to get all of that done early in the day, but we’ll see how that turns out.

There’s much yet to be done, but I feel good about my progress. If only that damned Chapter 3 will get approved…

Wish me luck, friends!

 

Dissertation Days (28): Chipping Away

Today was a remarkably productive day, considering the fact that I just got back from traveling and that I had to take Beast for a vet visit. I managed to chip away at Chapter 3, getting rid of some extraneous sentences and other bits of fluff that were clogging up the works. I am still not as happy with the prose as I would like to be at this stage, but I’m also realistic enough to know that at some point you just have to move on. As one of my committee members always says, the best dissertation is a finished one.

Fortunately, I’ve been in an editing frame of mind lately–thanks to an editorial project I’m still interning for–so that has really helped to hone my instincts in terms of chopping out bits of Chapter 3 that aren’t necessary and finessing some of the clunkier bits of prose. Despite the challenges, it actually feels good to be at the point where taking stuff out is actually a good thing rather than an absolute pain.

Chapter 4 is also coming along much better than I had expected it would, given that I have a few key concepts that are forming the core of the chapter. The historical gaze has actually proven to be more central than I had realized, and it fits in pretty seamlessly with my dissertation’s emphasis on the unknowable and inexorable power of history. I’m still fleshing out the links between the various parts of the chapter and how they work together, but today for the first time it felt like I was really making some genuine progress.

To that end, I focused most of my writing energies today on the close reading portions. I’ll get back to the historical context soon, and I still have to figure out how exactly I’m going to work in a theoretical context, but it’ll get there.

Tomorrow, I need to make sure that I stay a little more focused than I did today. I sort of was writing all over the place, but I want to start writing enough in each section that it begins to fill out. That way, I’ll have a stronger sense of how each part will look when it’s fully developed. Now that it’s the final draft (hopefully), it’s time to get really serious about this.

Onward and upward friends. As the lady says, tomorrow is another day.

Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 2” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

Well, I finally finished the concluding volume of Tad Williams’ magisterial trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.” In this final volume, the conflicts that have so far raged come to their stunning conclusion, as the various characters all make their way to the Hayholt in time to witness the fruition of the Storm King’s desire to turn back time and return to the world of the living. Ultimately, of course, the plans are foiled, but much is sacrificed in the process.

This novel is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest works of epic fantasy. It’s not just that it engages with giant philosophical questions (though it does that), but that it also manages to dig down deep into the psychologies of its various characters. It allows you to understand what motivates them, even if you may find them a bit maddening at times. These are men and women that you have grown to love, and you feel their pain, both emotional and physical. You also feel your heart break when you witness their sacrifices, both major and minor.

It is thus tremendously resonant to see Simon and Miriamele at last consummate their love and take up their roles as the King and Queen of Osten Ard. Of course, Simon’s ascension is only possible because it is revealed that he is descended from the Fisher King, the founder of the League of the Scroll and the actual slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai (not, as had been long held, the High King Prester John). While their political fortunes are satisfying, it is the long-awaited romantic fulfillment that is the most powerful and evocative part of this novel. To Green Angel Tower shows us the rich emotional lives of these characters, allowing us to feel not just for them, but with them.

This is true for many of the “villains” of the story as well, particularly the misguided High King Elias, driven by a desire to resurrect his dead wife. Even Ineluki, the Storm King, is a figure that ultimately emerges as one of pity rather than absolute hatred. He was, after all, a young prince attempting to save his people and his home, and it was the actions of humanity that led him to call down the curse that destroyed his home and sent his spirit howling into the wilderness. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a danger that will destroy the fabric of the world itself, but it does render his actions at least understandable.

There are some characters, however, whose deaths are extraordinarily satisfying, chief among them the dark wizard Pyrates, whose actions have triggered this entire sequence of horrific events. It is truly poetic to see him brought down by the very forces that he has sought to unleash, burned to death by the Storm King after he attempts to control his erstwhile ally through magics that he can barely understand or control. His death is a reminder that sometimes cruelty and evil do indeed receive their just desserts.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other two minor characters whose arcs are truly satisfying. The first is the reprobate monk Cadrach, whose sacrifice ensures that Simon and company can escape to safety, his final brave act a redemption for his misdeeds in the earlier novels. Still, there is much about his backstory that remains a mystery, and perhaps it’s better that way. As with any great epic, there are things that you are just not fated to know. Likewise, how can you not love Rachel the Dragon, the Mistress of Chambermaids who finally emerges from her hiding place in the Hayholt to find herself rewarded for her loyalty and steadfastness. I won’t lie, I got a tear in my eye when she was at last reunited with Simon, whom she has long presumed to be dead.

Naturally, considering this is an epic, the larger questions are not ignored. Indeed, the novel has a great deal to say about history, about how the actions of a few can impact the forces of many, as well as how those individuals often feel powerless to fight back against the forces that sweep them along. Just as importantly, however, To Green Angel Tower shows just how destructive the great events of history can be, leaving behind the bodies of the dead and the injured. For most of the characters, there are wounds that simply cut too deeply to ever be healed.

For Simon, those wounds are physical and emotional, as he has plunged into the darkest realms of pain and emotional damage.  As sorry as one might feel for Simon, however, it is Miriamele who is in many ways the true hero of this book. It is her dreadful decision to end her father’s suffering that breaks your heart and while she does get a happy ending, it’s hard to shake the feeling that her decision will haunt her for the rest of her life.

There are very few novels out there that can truly make me cry, but this is one of them. At times, I found myself profoundly saddened by the terrible events that have swept so many of these characters into the darkest of suffering, but I was also swept up in the heights of triumph. But do you want to know what made me cry the most? The friendship between Binabik and Simon. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful friendships in fiction, bar none.

Like the best fantasy novels, Williams manages to paint a world that feels like a real place, one riven by the same conflicted loyalties that always characterize our lived experiences. The world is full of conflicted loyalties and deep histories, and there are not always endings that end happily for everyone. The conflict between humans and Sithi is one that may never actually be healed, despite the fact that the latter helped the former defeat one of their own. And that, ultimately, is one of the most bittersweet things about the novel and thus one of its most noteworthy features.

Now, I’m making my way through the slender volume The Heart of What Was Lost. Keep your eyes here for my forthcoming review. I’m almost finished with it at the moment, and let me tell you, this is an amazing book. I can’t wait for The Witchwood Crown!

Dissertation Days (27): Progress?

Today was a very successful day when it comes to Chapter 4. I met the goal of writing 1,000 words again! I am really excited about the historical context section. There’s something really compelling about the late 1950s and early 1960s, given that they marked the ultimate nadir of colonial and imperial ambitions, and I really think that there is a profound imperial anxiety in the films produced in this period.

I do want to avoid doing an allegorical reading of these films. While I think that’s one useful way of thinking about them, ultimately I’m more interested in how these films engage with the question of imperial history and the telescoping of temporality. It’s a rather complex and slippery set of concepts, and all the reading I’ve been doing has really helped to clarify what I’m aiming for in this chapter. There’s a long way to go, but I know I can do it.

Still, there’s no question that this is the most difficult chapter that I’ve written so far. I’ve known from the beginning that it’s the most challenging one. In larger part it’s because it’s actually a vestigial reminder of an earlier arrangement of the dissertation, one that I’ve still managed to incorporate into the revamped version. However, it’s precisely the fact that this chapter is such a strange beast that it’s taking so long to carve into some measure of intelligibility.

Despite all of that, I’m pretty proud of the progress that I’ve made over this last year. This time last year I had just submitted Chapter 2, and now I have at least some version of Chapters 3 and 4 done. It’s not as far along as I might like, but it’s still good progress.

I fear that I didn’t get as much done on Chapter 3, and I only made it through it through a few pages of actual revision. Nevertheless, as I make my way through it, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with how it ended up conceptually. It’s probably still a little rough around the edges, and I’m sure that it will need a bit more revision before it’s truly ready.

The next couple of days will probably be a little less productive. I’m headed back to Syracuse on Sunday, so I’m spending tomorrow with the BF before headed northward. Once I get back, though, I’ll be submitting Chapter 3!

I can do this.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (26): Labour Day

At long last, I’m settled down for a bit and back into something like a normal working schedule. As a result, today I managed to write 1000 (a grand!) words in Chapter 4, which is quite an accomplishment in my humble opinion.

Chapter 4 has, finally, begun to crystallize and become more focused. As those of you who have been following this account no doubt know, this is no small thing. It’s always frustrating when you feel like you know what you want to argue, but the actual articulation of those ideas in writing ends up eluding your abilities. That has happened quite a lot with this chapter, and it’s only recently, after more research on my part, that I’ve been able to wrangle my ideas. It’s not quite there yet, but I do think that I am on the path that will eventually see this chapter completed.

The hardest part, I think, will be fitting this chapter into the existing structure of the dissertation. That was also a big part of my problem in Chapter 3, but in that case I had a stronger idea of its role in the larger project. Still, I think that by holding onto the glimmers of intelligibility that I’ve managed to produce, I can manage to keep focused throughout the duration of this chapter’s composition.

Now, don’t think that I ignored Chapter 3 today. I went through 15 pages of the draft to check for consistency, coherence, and a bit of proofreading. I hope to make it all the way through that process this week, and next week I’ll make sure that the revised bibliography is compiled and ready for submission. I also managed to tidy up some of the language. Sometimes, I tend to use a very strangled sentence structure. I comfort myself with the thought that I’ve learned to recognize this and, if I can’t prevent it, at least I can fix them.

Tomorrow will be more of the same. If I keep up this 1,000 words a day pace, I should be able to churn out this fourth chapter by the end of the summer (if I’m really lucky, possibly even July). It finally feels like I’m making the progress that I need to keep the inspiration intact.

I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I’ll meet my goals, and I’ll be one step closer to finishing this chapter.

And that, my friends, is a good feeling.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (24): Chapter 4

So, today was the first day in quite a while that I didn’t work on Chapter 3 at all, but instead focused my energies on Chapter 4.

I have to say, all of that effort paid off. I managed to get 500 good words, and I think I am edging closer to a fully-fleshed argument. If you know how irritated I have been with this Chapter and how much I have struggled to put together a coherent argument that fits in with what I have been doing in the other chapters of the Dissertation, you no doubt know why this would be such a big deal.

As I mentioned yesterday, that essay from Tom Brown has proven to be extremely helpful in enabling me to make a compelling argument about these films. I have to say, the core of this chapter–the emphasis on empire–is a bit of a holdover from the very earliest concepts of this dissertation as a whole, but I do think that it has something in it that fits with how the project has taken shape.

If I’m being completely honest, this is the chapter that I’ve been dreading the most. I’ve done a lot of research, and there is still a lot to do, but I’m gradually clawing and groping my way toward a conclusive set of arguments.

While I’m still uncertain whether my set of claims about Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire really make a substantial contribution to the understanding of the film, I do think that what I have to say about Cleopatra is useful. Like The Bible: In the Beginning, the film has suffered from a really extensive study from a film studies perspective, still less from a textured historicist analysis. That’s basically what I hope to provide in this chapter, since I believe that the film deserves more critical appreciation than it has largely achieved, either in mainstream of scholarly film criticism.

I’m getting ready for another bout of travel, so my updates will be rather sporadic. Sunday will probably be the next day that I get a chance to really work on the dissertation, but even so, I’m sure the project will not be far from my mind. It never really is.

Once I’m able to settle down for a bit (in about a week and a half), it’ll be a real crunch time.

I can do this.

I can.

Dissertation Days (23): Is this the End?

At the end of Quo Vadis, the delightfully queer Nero (played by Peter Ustinov) declaims: “Is this the end of Nero?”

I’ve now been led to ask: “Is this the end of Chapter 3?” Fortunately, I think that it just might be, or at the very least that I’m closer than I have been for a long time. I’ve pretty much finished with the third section (the one that discusses Quo Vadis), and now that leaves only the conclusion to really flesh out. Fortunately, I wrote the majority of that some time ago, so that shouldn’t take too long to finish.

Needless to say, I feel really good.

While there is some material that I want to reflect on more–there’s still a little bit of something that continues to elude my attempts to capture and put it on paper–I have come to accept that this isn’t the last version of this chapter that I will ever write. Indeed, it will probably go through several further iterations before that wonderful day when it finally sees the light of day as part of a book.

In Chapter 4 news, I think I have finally found the missing theoretical piece that has so far been eluding me. I’ve been reading an excellent book about spectacle in classic Hollywood (by Tom Brown), and his articulation of the vertical axis of spectacle vs. the horizontal one of narrative that I find really helpful.

It is in his essay on Gone with the Wind for the British film journal Screen, though, that I find to be especially useful, as he shows how the “historical gaze” mobilized by Scarlett enables her command a measure of agency denied many of the other characters.

As I work through Chapter 4, I think I am going to make the argument that the later epics of the midcentury cycle allow some characters a measure of Brown’s historical gaze, even as it denies it to others. It is the power of the spectacle that allows these characters to forge their own political destinies, to allow the film to remain suspended in a moment of profound, utopian potential, even as the inexorability of narrative ultimately brings ruin to these grandiose ambitions.

That’s what I’m thinking for the chapter now, though I hope to continue nuancing it based on historical context.

Time is ticking, and I have to tick with it.

(I don’t know what that means).

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.

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.