Me and Leonidas

“The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.”

That’s the last line of one of my favorite poems, “The Oracles” by A.E. Houseman. Do you know what it’s about? The Battle of Thermopylae, actually. I mean the line, not the whole poem. The story goes that before attacking the Spartans, who had agreed to hold the pass at Thermopylae, King Xerxes gave them four days to retreat. He was certain that such a small force would retreat before the might of the Persian army. But on the fourth day, there they still were, combing their hair and wrestling. This was their way of preparing to either conquer or die. On the fifth day, the battle began.

King Leonidas had a particular reason for not retreating. The Oracle at Delphi had told him that either Sparta would lose its king, or it would fall to the Persians. So, he chose to sacrifice himself for Sparta.

Why am I writing about Leonidas? Because on Friday, I met the last of my deadlines. I don’t have any more deadlines until the end of August. That means I have two months to focus on my dissertation. (And write the YA novel, when I’m so tired of my dissertation that I can’t focus on it any more.) So what did I do yesterday, to prepare myself for battle?

Let’s be clear, first of all, that it is battle. Academic writing doesn’t come naturally to me. I was thinking about this yesterday when I read the following sentence in one of the critical analyses I need to read for the dissertation:

“The impresario that stages this patriarchal drama is called ‘culture,’ itself the production of an emergent capitalist European society; the conflictual structures generated by its imbalances of power are consistently articulated through points of tension and forms of difference that are then superimposed upon each other: class, gender and race are circulated promiscuously and crossed with each other, transformed into mutually defining metaphors that mutate within intricate webs of surreptitious cultural values that are then internalized by those whom they define.”

You know what I thought when I read that sentence? I’ll articulate you! Surreptitiously and promiscuously. Who writes like that? Academics, that’s who. And I can’t do it. I can barely stand to read it. So that’s going to be a significant problem for my academic career, isn’t it? My dissertation doesn’t sound anything like that, of course. But in order to work on it, I have to get back into the correct mindset. Which means that I need to work on it every day, need to have it in my head every day. And that’s hard.

It’s a different kind of writing than my creative writing. I think I can both revise the dissertation and work on the YA novel, but we’ll have to see how it goes.

Yesterday, I prepared myself for battle. I did not comb my hair or wrestle, not being a Spartan. What I did instead was clean my room. I rearranged my physical space, putting my writing projects away on a shelf, placing my chapters prominently on my desk. Everything printed out, ready to work on. Want to see?

This is Chapter 1 and the comments I need to incorporate, on my coverlet.

These are Chapters 2 and 3 with comments, on my desk. And the binder in which I keep all the chapters.

This is a sticky note I put above my other desk, the one with the laptop on it. It says “Don’t Panic.” Anther valuable lesson learned from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

So, just in case you were thinking of asking me to do something that’s due within the next two months: don’t. I won’t be able to do it. I’m going to be working on my dissertation, otherwise known as battling the Persians. And I hope that I’m not going to perish, like poor Leonidas. But you know what Spartan mothers tell their sons: come back with your shield or on it. And that’s what I’m planning to do.

By the way, here is Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David. At my dissertation defense, I’m planning on wearing clothes.

And here is that poem I like so much, just because I think everyone should read it.

The Oracles
by A.E. Houseman

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air,
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

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4 Responses to Me and Leonidas

  1. Sofia says:

    Lovely poem. Thanks for posting.

    When appalled by academic writing, I try to remember those scholars who actually write very beautifully and produce clear, intelligent, even entertaining prose. Terry Eagleton and Edward Said are two of them. I might not agree with every word they say/said, but their writing is a pleasure to read. Marina Warner is another good one–I just finished her book “Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds,” and it’s great. Not that you need suggestions on what to read right now. šŸ™‚ But it’s good to remember that YOU CAN write compelling criticism and theory in the English language–by which I mean the English language we know and love, not some contorted and overwrought cousin. Good luck!

  2. Grey Walker says:

    Even though I haven’t produced academic writing in over a decade, I still read it. And I have discovered that there *are* succinct, clear, fascinating academics out there. Granted, they are few, but they exist. You can do it! You can be one of the few and the proud!

  3. Yes, I love their writing, Sofia! Tom Shippey and Jack Zipes as well. To the extent I write academic prose, I’m determined to be part of the few and proud! šŸ™‚

  4. Grey Walker says:

    Jack Zipes and Marina Warner are two of the ones I was thinking of, too. šŸ™‚

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