A PhD? We always knew you would end up doing something like that. Everyone must be so proud!
Did you, now? Did you indeed? How very perspicacious of you. Because I certainly didn’t. As with everything else I have ‘achieved’, I stumbled upon it in search of the praise, the recognition, the tangible achievement upon which my self-worth has largely been predicated since childhood. I have, in a sense, jumped through a series of social, academic and financial hoops in order to be able to counter ‘And what is it that you’re doing now?’ with something that allows me to project competence, intelligence and success. That ‘something’ just happens to be ‘a doctorate’. Sounds fancy? Perhaps. But still, just hoops.
Granted, those hoops have been higher and smaller than your average Life’s Obstacle. The route through them clearly demarcated, the end goal – those three letters, P-H-D, that mean so much! – shimmering at the end of the course. I have taken a pathetic pride in chasing the 16th, 8th and 4th letters of the alphabet, with the intention of kidnapping them and holding them prisoner behind my name, where they may join their fellow-sufferers B and A. How I have depended upon letters (and numbers, and symbols) to bolster my sense of self… my poor, nearly-transparent self, which in the past has only really become opaque when painted over with a heavy coating of ‘100%’ or ‘A+’. These days, my ego’s linguistic competence has progressed beyond these crude icons of achievement, and can now cope with whole sentences of praise: ‘What interesting research!’, ‘I enjoyed your lecture!’, ‘You really sound like you know what you’re talking about!’
I suppose I do. The key phrase, though, is ‘sound like’. I could, if asked, engage you in a discussion about the methodological implications of Barthes’ The Rhetoric of the Image, or lead a class on ‘The History of Whigs in Wigs, 1710-95’. In my mind, however, this counts for very little in terms of achievement. As Joan Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.*
The ‘winning smiles’ that I am capable of displaying count for very little in measuring my own estimation, other than that they are proof of my capacity to deceive and dissemble. I was not, until recently, sure as to why this would be the case. Was it merely a feeling of imposture? Of fearing that I possessed just enough intelligence to defraud my supervisor, students, parents, sister, boyfriend and friends into thinking that I was worthwhile, without actually having enough to withstand serious interrogation? Or perhaps a feeling that, if the large vocabulary and quick memory were stripped from me, I would be left exposed as a Nothing? Nothing without my mind?
To a certain extent, yes and yes. But now I realise that the true problem is something far more fundamental. I am a parasite. Oh, not to look at. My wee-dolly face (still prompting cashiers to request ID, at the age of 26) doesn’t hint at the possibility of grotesque leeching suckers beneath the skin. You wouldn’t think me a nematode, I’m sure. But intellectually, I am a parasite. I live off the work of others, and produce nothing of intrinsic value myself. I read Other People’s Books, listen to Other People’s Music. Even my doctoral thesis – a carefully nursed baby, being brought up according to my own exacting standards – is nothing more than the bastardised agglomeration of Other People’s Art And Maybe Their Theories Too.
Wherein lies the problem? In a quotidian sense, there isn’t one. I am lucky – lucky to be perceived as talented, lucky to be paid for exercising that supposed talent, lucky to be doing something that requires no more exertion than a tapping of the keyboard and an occasional stretch to the plate of cookies, with plenty of time left for sybaritism and gin. And yet, as someone who piques themself on the possession of some kind of mythical intellectual capacity, I feel that I have failed. I cannot conjure up fictions, literary or philosophical. I cannot produce sounds, images and words that move people to any emotion other than a desire for lunch after the lecture has finished. Can I rectify this? Possibly. Does it matter if I cannot? Not to you, nor should it. But to me, yes, it does matter.
*Joan Didion, ‘On Self-Respect’, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem