In response to some questions from Penni, this is the first in a series of posts – or second actually, if you count this one on why Australian poetry – on how I ended up doing the phd I did ( – er – am doing. Can’t wait till I can use past tense here!).
When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2000 I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was heart-broken and burnt out. I’d just written an honours thesis on Dostoevsky which I had loved, but I was tired. I didn’t have an idea for a PhD topic, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD. In fact, I’d never really considered what to do with my life. So I decided to work for a while, doing anything, and write my novel (a long term project I’d been dreaming about for four years) on the side.
After a stint of fruit picking, I got a job as a home care-worker. This was a huge shock to the system, but I loved it in the end. At the end of 2001, I decided I wanted to keep doing it for another year.
Mid-way into that year, I realised I didn’t want to keep doing that forever, and started thinking about other options. I considered doing a degree in social work. I would also float into my old English department occasionally. And that’s when I saw it. A poster advertising a masters in medieval literature at the University of York. I’d been to York, once, it was beautiful. It was love at first sight. I looked up the masters on the internet and couldn’t believe how amazing it looked. You had to learn Latin and Old English and paleography. And there was a subject called ‘Rereading Old Books’, which looked at the books that were an influence on the Middle Ages – the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. I was hooked.
I’m not sure why the Middle Ages suddenly seemed so fascinating. Partly the age, and the distance. The thought of touching a far off world that was somehow connected to mine. And the aesthetics of it. The strange, barely recognisable language, the deliciously flexible spelling, the colours and the patterns of illuminated manuscripts. I’d done a couple of medieval literature subjects as part of my English degree, and I’d really enjoyed them, but they hadn’t stood out as something I’d devote my life to. But there are three things during my honours year that I now recognise as seeds for what I ended up doing later.
1. The Pearl-Poet. I can’t remember whether we looked at Pearl or Gawain that year, but I love both of them dearly. Ah, the language!
2. My honours thesis was on the image of the Holy Fool in Dostoevsky. The image of the holy fool goes back to the Middle Ages, and I’d done a lot of reading on that in the context of the Russian Orthodox church (something else I’d found fascinating).
3. The other thing was the theory subject we were forced to do. I was very anti this at the time. It was team-taught and not terribly well structured, with one huge tutorial group of about thirty students, which did nothing to make me like the subject more. There was a weird buzz about theory in the university at that time, particularly among the students. A lot of posturing. But I couldn’t help noticing, some of the stuff we read, Derrida in particular, reminded me a lot of writings I’d read by the medieval mystics. And everyone was saying this was all so postmodern and so new and so secular, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe it wasn’t. Maybe in some aspects of it were very old indeed, and not secular at all.
So it was partly spiritual, too. I grew up around various sorts of Protestantism, all dismissive of each other, and all dismissive of Catholicism. What I noticed, from my reading in medieval mysticism, was that some ideas that people claimed were very new or unique to their particular sect or whatever, were in fact very old. It really annoyed me that people would claim an idea or an image as original or unique when people had been writing about it hundreds or thousands of years ago. I thought the Middle Ages were unfairly maligned. Also, my own beliefs were changing, and the idea of a ‘cloud of unknowing’ was more appealing than a God who wanted you to feel bad about yourself all the time.
Anyway… I applied for a scholarship to do the masters in York, but it felt like a long shot, so I decided to apply for PhD scholarships in Australia as well. I listed everything I was most interested in:
- the Middle Ages
I looked at the list, and I thought – maybe I can link them all together! I thought about how this would work out in the work of some Australian poets I liked, and I came up with a proposal.