Academia: between Solipsism and Activism

An existential crisis in A6.
‘The world as I know it is ending, and yet I must retreat into my bunker and perfect my swans…’ An existential crisis in A6. What you can see in the background, is Itsu, where I still found time to go.

I spent this January cloistered away from the world, finishing a PhD on a very niche aspect of Russian ballet. The day of the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march, I sent Parisian friends a message of encouragement, and then holed up in my London kitchen, refining my views on the relationship between humans and swans. It wasn’t entirely unenjoyable.

The Greek elections similarly passed me in a blur: the night of, I went to a Turner show; and the next day, I saw the result pasted on the front of a fellow tube passenger’s Daily Telegraph, while I was somewhere between a daydream and an anxious contemplation of my bibliography. I then had to stifle a whole bestiary of feelings, while I focused on the final 48 hours before hand-in.

January in my kitchen. A refuge from political turmoil?
January in my kitchen. A refuge from political turmoil?

Throughout the month, I kept feeling that I was marooned in some strange backwater, cut off from what was vital and important. One Thursday afternoon, as I was relaxing in my local ‘convict Vegan cafe,’* eating a cake that was made from pressed flowers and vegetables, I wondered how this small, intricate life had come to be mine, or rather, how had I chosen it?

In another life, I might have been an activist, championing democracy, the environment, or gender equality.  But instead, as an aesthetically-minded historian, I’d directed my curiosity to a specific aspect of the past. A PhD isn’t so much a document, as a lifestyle. For exactly 3.3333333 years, the thesis was a vague North point on my compass. Grateful for the focus, the supervision and the funding, I planned my life around research visits, conferences, interesting meetings and chapter deadlines.

I had a marvellous time, both in and out of the archives, but I sometimes wondered about the larger point of the whole thing. How would it ever matter in a world of terrorist attacks, FGM, and climate change? The promise that I was furthering an academic discipline for an interested few, just wasn’t enough. While many of my colleagues were espoused to the noble pursuit of knowledge, some shared my restlessness. A close friend’s knee-jerk reaction to studying the lives of ‘dead people,’ was to join a national campaign, and fight for the rights of the living. I could see her point.

'I see dead people,': a common complaint with historians
‘I see dead people,’: a common complaint with historians

Now, almost a month later, I’m still questioning everything, but have a little more clarity. I’m a writer and researcher, not an activist, because I deeply care about the particulars’  of individual lives, and how they interconnect, sometimes in art-making. I want to tell, and be part of their stories. Some of these people are dead Russian dancers, but their experiences of art, exile, selfhood and community, have the capacity to move and inspire people alive today. I’m interested in showing how these dancers, who faced great odds, and were marginalised by their ethnicity and gender, became spectacular artists.  These past three years, I’ve found most satisfaction in my work when some aspect of my practice has made someone happier, or simply more inquiring, dragging them out of a deluge of self-pity or workaholism.

The enrichment of people’s experiences, inspiring them, making them curious about the world, and each other,  is my activist goal. Turner achieved  this with his elemental paintings, my great grandmother, with her wit and piano. My dancers’ stories are simply my medium.

'how absolutely, how inordinately these slimnesses insist on mattering.' Henry James, Preface to 'Portrait of a Lady'
‘how absolutely, how inordinately these slimnesses insist on mattering.’ Henry James, Preface to ‘Portrait of a Lady’

* In case you’re wondering, according to one local newspaper, the owner of this cafe spent some time in gaol. His animal-sacrifice-free cafe represents a wonderful new direction.

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