I came across a lovely passage in an intellectual biography of Montaigne I read recently:
A more private kind of writerly doubt sometimes afflicted him, all the same. He could not pick the book up without being thrown into creative confusion. “For my part, I do not judge the value of any other work less clearly than my own; and I place the Essays now low, now high, very inconsistently and uncertainly.” Each time he read his own words, this mixture of feelings would assail him – and further thoughts would well up, so out would come his pen again. (pg 288)
This is an extremely reassuring thing to read. At present I’m vacillating between thinking my PhD is brilliant and concluding that it’s shit. One day, it’ll seem as if I’ve done something genuinely innovative. Another day, it feels like I’ve erected a vast conceptual house of cards which will topple as soon as someone who doesn’t share my theoretical
prejudices starting points examines it. Sometimes, it seems as if I’ve done exactly what I’ve set out to do and developed a distinctive approach to analysing biographies. Other times, it feels like I’ve just come to some conclusions about my data and then articulated them in an obtuse language of my own devising, with some random insights culled from Margaret Archer’s books thrown in for good measure. The obvious conclusion to draw is that it’s not world shatteringly innovative or obtusely devoid of purpose, stunningly original or problematically derivative, not brilliant but not shit either.
The obvious conclusion to draw is that writing a thesis is a form of apprenticeship, learning through doing, with the results needing to be evaluated in these terms. But drawing this obvious conclusion is proving very distracting when I need to be focusing 100% on my writing. It’s also left me aware of the interestingly strange feeling that an inchoate project, started part time in September 2008 (and in some ways planned for a year before that), has almost become something concrete and final. It’s also weird to realise that despite how much it has changed in the process of writing, as have I (intellectually and otherwise), the focus hasn’t really shifted. The central question is the same: how do people become who they are and how do we study these processes? But I’m increasingly aware of the thesis as a provisional first step in addressing a question I’ll likely be working at for a very long time.