29 March 2007

The irony of being "free"

Comments on being ‘free’ to do what ‘interests’ me

(copy of a letter)

Let us consider the amazing assertion by a philosopher at Somerville College that if I got a proper full-time salaried academic appointment I would be less free than as an unsalaried, statusless outcast.

What makes her think that I would value ‘freedom’ more than a social identity? I might well choose to sacrifice ‘freedom’, if I had any, for the sake of social status. I never expected, or wanted, to have to live without social status, and I was deeply grieved and shocked to find myself thrown out of society fifty years ago, not only without the Professorial status which I should have acquired at about 15, but without any status at all as an academic on a career track that could ever lead to a Professorship.

If, when I was thrown out 50 years ago, I had had the choice between (a) a Professorship, even with less than ideal residential hotel facilities, and (b) an equivalent salary, perfect hotel environment, and freedom to do whatever I liked within these conditions, but with no hope that what I did could ever secure for me any academic advancement, I would have settled for the Professorship.

Only if there was real hope of my ‘free’ but statusless environment leading to an ever-increasing scale of operations might I have considered it worth sacrificing the social identity of a Professor — which would have made (and still would make) one’s relations with society so much more ‘interesting’, to use that much-abused word. Even an expanding scale of operations as an identity-less freelance individual would have seemed sterile, in a certain way.

The model of the situation in which the ‘freedom’ of being unsalaried and statusless could appear preferable to a salaried Professorial position does not hold water, because if progressive and expanding work were ever possible, it would lead to social recognition and hence to academic reinstatement. So the idea of choosing a permanently exiled life in order to be ‘more free’ is an artificial one, and certainly never occurred to me, even when I hoped to be able to get a decent level of financial support from parapsychological sources.

I never actually considered the work I did manage to do as an outcast as sterile, in the sense of useless for making a return to an academic career, although it turned out to be so. The nostalgic pull towards a social identity was very strong. In practice, any possibility of opportunity for expansion appears to have been ruled out by my lack of identity.

The idea that I could prefer the ‘freedom’ provided by the bad, constricted and hopeless circumstances of the academic outcast to the much better circumstances of even imperfect Professorships is ludicrous and cruel.

I might have felt that the hotel-equivalent circumstances left something to be desired, but the salary would have provided me with enough to pay for at least a parttime housekeeper cum p.a., so I would have had at least the minimum conditions for getting something out of life.