Tuesday, June 02, 2015

A life of rebellion ...against quiet desperation?

When I was young, we never seemed to have enough money for me to buy books.  Throughout my life in the old country, my parents, like most ones of their generation, had budgetary worries and with the household budget and accounting done in the presence of us kids, well, I knew well it was a luxury for me to buy books.

Thus, I relied on the local library, which more than fit my needs of those days.  Heck, that library even had Fahrenheit 451, and The Prophet, which are evidence enough that it was not a bad library by any means.  When we moved to the big city of Madras, I then made wonderful use of the libraries at the American and British consulates.

Attending graduate school at a university with more libraries than I could have imagined, with more books than I could have ever dreamt of, meant that I now had even less of an incentive to purchase books.

But, every once in a while, I do buy books.  And am always ready to loan them to anybody who is interested.  (There are a few books that are ultra-special to me and the fear of losing them means I shall never loan them!!!)  A student had borrowed my copy of Mario Vargas Llosa's Letters to a Young Novelist.  And it came back to me yesterday, which gave me an opportunity to scan through the book and re-read a few of my favorite sentences and paragraphs there.

Perhaps you wonder why I purchased that book when I have no plans ever of writing a novel.  Non-fiction essay writing shares in plenty with writing novels.  For that matter, the existential drive to be an academic has a lot in common with the angst that drives fiction writers.  Consider the following sentences that Llosa writes:

At peace with themselves!  Which is why I went through all those career changes--ditching electrical engineering, quitting professional planning--even though those, especially engineering, would have made me worry less about my financial well-being.  As I blogged a while ago, I don't want that life most people lead, which Thoreau noted:
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them
So, "what is the origin of this early inclination" to choose this vocation?  Why this nagging feeling that without pursuing this vocation we won't be true to ourselves?  Llosa provides an answer that sums it up really well for me: "The answer, I think, is rebellion."  A rebellion "against authority, the establishment, or sanctioned beliefs."  Yes, to rebel, even if seems like I have no cause!

This existence means that I never truly take a holiday from my work.  Why would I, when this is all I want to do?  Llosa writes regarding the literary vocation:
The literary vocation is not a hobby, a sport, a pleasant leisure-time activity.  It is an all-encompassing, all-excluding occupation, an urgent priority, a freely chosen servitude that turns its victims (its lucky victims) into slaves.
I live that kind of a life so much so that one of my biggest problem is that most teachers do not view themselves the same way.  Instead, they view their vocation as one that pays them so that they can do whatever else that really interests them.

Llosa also consoles me about my failures--having failed at getting promoted to the rank of full professor, not being recognized by my peers, ... when he writes about "confusing literary ambition with a hunger for glory and for the financial gains that literature affords certain writers"

This academic life of reading, thinking, writing, learning, and teaching, is, indeed, the best thing that ever happened to me.  Here's to hoping that it will continue for a while more.


Ramesh said...

Choosing the vocation that is best suited to one's aptitude and interest is a delightful thing to do. Lots of us may not consciously do it, or do it as vigorously as you did, but in some small way, everybody does that. Even if its not a fully weighted and carefully evaluated choice.

I want to consider the proposition that there isn't just one vocation in a life time, but two, and maybe even more than two. We are blessed (?) to live longer and are financially more secure than earlier generations. This gives us the luxury to choose a second vocation at a later age when the criteria for selection would be different - simply because we have aged and life's experiences have taught us something. I would also argue that having just one vocation in a lifetime is a form of stagnation, however interesting and challenging that vocation is.

Anne in Salem said...

"Instead, they view their vocation as one that pays them so that they can do whatever else that really interests them."

I would posit that those who work merely to pay the bills so they can pursue outside interests are not following a vocation but are doing a job. Anyone who endures the work day, who counts the minutes (not counting meetings), who would rather be anywhere else but at work is not following a vocation.

I like the idea of two vocations in a life. I love my work and have to earn money at this time in my life, but I envision other opportunities, challenges and joys in retirement. Activity and stimulation should stave off stagnation.

mahesh said...

Dear Sriram Sir,

From what I have read and understand from your posts - you love teaching and inspiring students to chase their dreams. At 70 plus, you still teach and have a dedicated and small band of students who listen to your lectures. That is indeed a wonderful gift. To be a teacher who can mould the minds of students and guide them on the 'right path'.

My biggest dream was to teach Literature - circumstances forced me to find a job as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. In a way I was blessed to find a campus placement with an IT-firm despited being a Literature graduate. I have been sucked into the vortex of fulfilling the dreams of my family (mother), repaying old loans and debts and buying a small flat (my mother's biggest dream). FOr the next 20 years, I have a loan to pay and the fear of EMIs keeps me chained to doing what I am doing.

Your love and joy for teaching and practising a vocation that you love is indeed a gift!

Thanks for quoting Mario ji - a window from my past - reopened today!


mahesh said...

^^ despite not despited ^^ sorry!

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, Ramesh/Anne, Llosa's advice was to the writer-wannabes and my reflections were about academics and my kinds of writer-wannabes. As Llosa notes, deciding to become a writer means sooner or later the person gives up the day job, if there is one. When I criticize most fellow academics, it is because they operate as if this is not their vocation but merely a day job, and such an approach won't help in professions like writing or teaching.

Now, within this, I should also note that I have had other careers before I ended up doing what I love doing. I think that is the case with almost all writers too.

Within the writing, we don't always work on the same plot over and over again. The repertoire grows. And, thus, every piece of writing is an invigorating challenge. We end up learning new skills, and learning about few more topics.

Mahesh, do not scare me that I am "70 plus" because that gets me very close to my preferred expiration date of 75 ;) I have barely crossed into the 50-plus ... but, it is the story of my life that people always, always, think that I am way older than I am ;)
That love of literature within you is what Thoreau referred to in "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" ... I wish you well on that one.

Ajay said...

Another though on quiet desperation . (wonder if roger waters plagiarised / adapted from Thoreau)
Pink Floyd - Time

Sriram Khé said...

I suppose artists and philosophers have been at this theme for the longest time ... I don't imagine anybody can claim ownership to that idea that our time here is finite and if we don't figure out how to make the best use of it, we might be carrying quite a few regrets with us as we exit ...

Thanks for the reminder about that Pink Floyd number ... had been a while since I listened to it ...

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