A friend posted a video of a starving polar bear. I cried. I remembered a friend’s daughter who, when she was about eight, begged her father to take her to see the polar bears before they go extinct. I imagined how the video I had just watched might become one of the things I remember (it seems I forget so many things, but then some things become The Things I Remember, and one never knows at the moment) and thought of Kath Ferris, a character in Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. The novel was published in 1989, well before the end of the Cold War; Kath is obsessed with the damage that Chernobyl did to the reindeer in Siberia, has a fight with her partner, becomes convinced that there has been a nuclear attack, and runs away from civilization on a boat with her cats, Paul and Linda. The reader eventually comes to understand that she is not in a boat alone in a ruined world but in a mental hospital, where doctors patiently explain to her that her memories of what has happened are not true but are “fabulation,” a key concept Barnes returns to again and again to explain what history is. “The technical term is fabulation,” the doctor tells her in one of her lucid moments in the hospital before her mind returns to the boat. “You make up a story to cover the facts you don’t know or can’t accept. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them” (A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, chapter 4).
I taught Samuel Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, for the first time ever this past week. I hadn’t even read it since I enjoyed it as an undergrad, but I wanted to do something different in my 300-level early British literature survey. Since the election of Donald Trump, I feel more urgency about trying to get my students to value, even one iota more than they did before they met me, thinking, analysis, using stories to work out ideas. Johnson, like many of his contemporaries in eighteenth-century England, valorized reason and distrusted “fancy,” to the point of blaming insanity on too much daydreaming:
“In time, some particular train of ideas fixes the attention; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favorite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood, whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious, and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish” (Rasselas, chapter 44).
One of my students, who, I suspect, has a fair amount of experience with ruminations not conducive to peace or happiness, gave a thumbs-up to this explanation of the connection between obsessive thought and madness.
In the same chapter, Johnson’s mouthpiece, Imlac, says, “Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state.” Years ago, when I gave a ride to a woman who had been jailed overnight for being a nuisance, who had been treated poorly by the other women in the cell, and who had no way back to her car, I came to see that “crazy” is sometimes simply another word for “different.” Mass delusions are OK, but particular delusions are not. More relevant for me, there is a just-right amount of caring about things, a just-right amount of emotion, and if you go beyond that, people might begin to suspect your sanity.
Every semester for the past four semesters, something happens at work that I get my panties in a twist about, vocally and publicly. This past week it was over defending the right of faculty to control the curriculum in a department in which the dissatisfied faculty ultimately decided they would rather not rock the boat. And when people see me after one of these kerfuffles, they’re nervous—I really think they think I’m crazy . . . and if one definition of crazy is “cares too much” or “has stronger emotions than average,” then, well, yeah.
Unfortunately, linking emotionality to craziness is going to catch a lot more women in its definitional net, leading to bad outcomes for women in leadership. A male colleague recently asked a female colleague “Are you going to be polite?” before allowing her to speak in a meeting. My female colleagues are interrupted and undervalued, and it seems to come down to the fact that our emotions are troublesome and seen as out of place in the bastion of reason, academia. (The fact that men are also impolite, also get angry, is no problem.) I take a Xanax once a month, half an hour before the Faculty Senate meeting, because I know that if I sound anxious or emotional, what I say will be discounted. With the Xanax, I can string together a paragraph-long sentence, cool as a cucumber. Without it, I might sound shrill or upset, and then I can feel people thinking, “Why is she so angry?” I’m not angrier than my male colleagues, but I’m angry enough, shrill enough, outspoken enough that I doubt I will ever be allowed to be in an administrative position again at my university.
Over the past few months, I’ve transitioned to veganism, a diet for soft-hearted people that actually does make the heart softer even while making one the object of widespread cultural derision. This world is no place for a soft-hearted person. If 2500 years of the history of philosophy says that the proper proportion of reason to emotion is 95:5, then any amount of emotion above 5% is “too much,” even if it’s well below 50%. I’m in no danger of losing my reason, but the higher I get above that sweet, sweet 5% emotional content, the more people roll their eyes at me, the less seriously my ideas and concerns are taken at work. So it goes. I don’t think the polar bear will become for me what the reindeer became for Kath Ferris, but I do want to cry for polar bears, pigs, chickens, and the future of higher education in the United States.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen