Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Power of Procrastination

The main excitement of this Wednesday in my house is the looming fact next Wednesday, when we shall be in Paris recovering from the exhaustion of trying to achieve, but of course failing to do so, all the things that at the moment seem non-negotiable prerequisites of our leaving. Posting a blog essay is not high on the list. Indeed, it is not even on the list, and at the moment that is a considerable advantage. It means that at least for now I am not required to abandon the purity of my proscrastination. In my undergraduate days I had a classmate who had taken fecklessness to an altogether new level, and proved that sloth might be classed among the fine arts. This man was the master of the wheedled extension and the negotiated Incomplete. He spent most of his waking hours playing bridge and watching a television program called “Gun Smoke”. He was very accomplished in both endeavors. He seemed to have total recall of every card played and of every obscure incident in every episode of “Gun Smoke”. One day the man gave me the following advice: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the next day.”

I scorned his advice. I was a determined overachiever. In fact on most days I had usually overachieved before two or two-thirty in the afternoon. I got good grades. I got a silver cup proclaiming me among the better students of literature in the whole Sewanee class of 1958. This man got mediocre grades—though, infuriatingly enough, passing ones. He had not so much as a ceramic flowerpot to show how smart he was. Fast-forward half a century. Eventually, after many more pewter cups, I got a meager pension from the debauched holdings of the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association and the College Retirement Equities Fund. This other guy, when he last surfaced, owned about a third of the state of North Carolina.

I might at least improve the hour by listing—not addressing, mind you, merely listing—some of the things I have to accomplish before I get on the airplane next Tuesday. I must write an ambitious lecture on “Scriptural Exegesis and Pictorial Imagery in Medieval and Renaissance Art.” As readers of my last post probably can divine, what I have in that line so far is a small collection of blurry pictures of pigs.

Being graded on a paper is a miserable experience; but there are experiences more miserable yet, such as assigning a grade to a paper. One of my former colleagues, who taught at Yale before he came to Princeton, told me that one of his own elder colleagues at that institution had made the paper-grading business bearable by limiting himself to but two grades and a single comment for all papers. His two grades, over which he often agonized in paroxysms of scrupulous indecision, were A- and B+. The written comment was invariably the same: “Some interesting ideas.” I thought retirement meant that my paper-grading days were over, but I find I must write an “expert” evaluation of a manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal. Writing evaluations of really terrific essays is easier. Writing evaluations of really horrible essays is yet easier. What is quite difficult is writing a helpful commentary on an essay that is almost good as is, but could be really terrific if only the author would rewrite it completely. In order to explain how this might be done, of course, I shall in effect have to do a complete rewrite myself.

Then there are several letters of recommendation for graduate school, law school, medical school, and business school. The liberal professions seem to me threatened by an entropic death brought about by a surfeit of evaluation; and the high cholesterol diet begins early, with the application process. I am rather unsure whether admissions committees actually read the letters I write, but their potential and perceived significance for the young and hopeful applicants is such that their author is required to take them very seriously indeed. It’s too bad in a way that they are all confidential, for many are masterpieces worthy of wide circulation. The Collected Letters of Recommendation of J. V. Fleming would certainly be the thickest of my various publications.

Those are just a few of the things I have to do before I leave, and they are as nothing in comparison with the domestic chores: garden, car insurance, root-and-branch search for overdue library books, pre-paying the property taxes, organizing medical prescriptions, etc., etc. I take some comfort in the example of the great Samuel Johnson, whose three hundredth birthday fell this month. Johnson is sometimes said to be England’s first professional man of letters—that is, he actually earned his living from his writing. That is not easy to do today, and it was practically impossible in eighteenth-century London. Johnson’s writing is extremely varied. The publication of his great dictionary of the English language was a Copernican event in the history of our culture. He has works of exemplary fiction that every educated person should read. (His Rasselas is in my opinion superior even to Voltaire’s brilliant Candide.) His Lives of the Poets—and especially the remarkable “Life of Savage”—established a mode of literary biography still vibrant today. But Johnson’s steady income came from his essays for the periodical press. In this capacity he faced definite, inflexible deadlines, and his mode of operation was inspiring. Ordinarily he only began writing his essay when the printer’s boy arrived on the doorstep to pick up the already overdue copy. Dr. Johnson—a blogger’s blogger!