Friday, April 10, 2009


Well, it’s been one of those days, writing-wise. I’ve been working on my essay on the so-called ‘Whig historians’ for my course in Advanced Historiography and at this point, I swear I have written, erased and re-written the same damned paragraph a dozen times and it still doesn’t adequately express the ideas in my head. I’m being painfully reminded of the bit in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life where she reflects on writing for eight hours straight and being lucky to have a couple of usable sentences at the end of it.

I didn’t think this essay would be easy, and indeed it is proving a tough one to wrangle into shape. But not for the reasons I initially expected. To be honest, I went into it assuming that there wouldn’t be much of interest in a bunch of Establishment white guys who’ve been dead for a good 150-odd years, and that I therefore might struggle to put together a decent critical argument for their continued relevance. I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essays on India give a fascinating insight to how the English political and intellectual elite represented Indian people in ways that justified British colonial projects. And reading Leopold von Ranke’s conceptions of ‘Teutonic peoples’ and the destiny of the German nation is really quite chilling in the wake of WWII.

At times, too, they are just damned funny. I love Macaulay’s depiction in “Lord Clive” of pompous nouveau riche ‘nabobs’ returning from India flush with cash and making themselves unpopular as they “raised the price of everything…from fresh fish to rotten boroughs”. And Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is a delight, his wit and cynicism proving to have enduring appeal for a post-modern sceptic such as myself. I particularly enjoyed his gleeful skewering of religious hypocrisy and corruption, and snarky comments such as “the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church”.

So, I’ve done the reading, accumulated a solid set of notes and identified a number of productive themes to structure my argument, but I still haven’t quite figured out the optimal system to move from a notebook full of quotes, comments and connecting arrows and a head full of ideas to a coherent series of connected paragraphs. I find it difficult to start writing on the computer until things are pretty well advanced, preferring to work out my outlines and rough drafts on paper. Despite my best efforts, the middle stage, between the research and the final writing, always seems to deteriorate into a blizzard of index cards and scattered sheaves of paper covered in disconnected scribblings.

I’m in the middle of that paper whirlwind at the moment, but I know that soon things will fall into place (they always do) and the way forward will suddenly come to me, like a path becoming visible through overgrown scrub. If anyone has any good ideas on how to jumpstart the path-finding process, I’d be glad to hear them. Until then, I’m kicking back with a glass of Mount Dottrel Pinot Noir, a classic soft and fruity Otago pinot.

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