28 November 2006

An advantage in a life of adversity

(copy of a letter)

As I was saying, and perhaps should write about, the higher level was certainly a great advantage in the life of adversity that confronted me on leaving university. If I had not had a higher level I would have needed essentially the same things and needed to work towards them in the same ways, but it would have been a lot harder if I had still had the deficits and cravings with which I had arrived at Somerville. It was so long then since I had been able to get anything out of life that I needed to get something quickly, in many ways, and could not easily reconcile myself to further unrewarding chores.

I knew that the idea had been that as I was prevented from getting anything I wanted out of life, I would adopt the prevailing worldview as a compensation, but in fact it still presented itself to me as totally unattractive.

When hunger becomes too dominant it detracts from functionality. I suppose, however, that it was an advantage that my deprivations, although severe and painful, were not based on emotional deprivations in early life, as I think most people’s are.

Anyway, I cut other people or society out of my life as a source of significance, because I saw that any wish to derive support from that quarter was being used against me.

By the time I was thrown out without a usable qualification, and with no way of making a career, I was extremely well stoked up emotionally and all the deficits had been filled in. Which was just as well in the circumstances. If it had been otherwise, it is difficult to imagine how I could have been so pragmatic and extraverted in the terrible circumstances in which I found myself.

I was destitute and friendless in the world, my position was shocking. Every social contact was horrifying, and it was easy to imagine a protective reclusiveness. But I had derived from the higher level an assurance that there would be a way ahead and it would lead somewhere. This was where I found myself and I had to see how it might contribute to my return to an academic career. Disgraced and outcast as I was, I met everybody, explored every avenue, became aware of everyone’s attitudes and opinions. And saved money. I had a daily allowance for expenditure and at the end of each day the surplus was carried forward or transferred to permanent savings. My savings represented my freedom of action; one day there might be an opportunity and whether I was free to take it would depend on exactly how much money I had. Every penny counted.

Meanwhile I lived without an identity. I had been cheated out of the social position which I should have had, and now I was dead in the eyes of the world. At the SPR I was surrounded by professors and appalled to find myself - not only without the professorial status that I should have acquired myself, in less hostile society, at about 15 - but without any status or hope at all, being not even on a career track that could lead to a Professorship.

I was shocked and horrified, but I was well stoked up emotionally by the higher level, and I could proceed as purposefully as possible without deriving any feedback or reinforcement from anything I did or from any social reinforcement. That was the difference from when I arrived at Somerville. Having been thrown out, it did not do to think about how I appeared in anyone’s eyes, and I could proceed purposefully without doing so.

I realised for the first time how the despair which I continually rejected was being converted into anger when a member of the SPR Council commented on my dogged weariness and suggested I take a holiday. At least he might refrain from pretending that he cared about what was good for me. If he cared, he would be helping me to get back into the academic career that I should be having, with residential hotel facilities. I sold myself into slavery in the SPR office; I sold my life by the day, having nothing else to sell. Holidays were for Professors, not for slaves.