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One rainy afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, our class teacher at my Catholic primary school – I’ll call him Mr K – was off sick and, as was common in those times, one of the mums from the parents’ association took over to fill in. Mrs O’Brien was the mother of a rather immature dirty blonde boy called Michael (not their real names). I had been wary of Michael for some time because, the previous year, it had somehow transpired that he had written “I love [my name]” on his ruler in maths class and everyone knew about it. Despite my mortification with her son, Mrs O’Brien was an awesome substitute teacher. She was a pillar of calm and reason amidst the screaming, maddening outbursts of the pupils and dealt with every end-of-the-world crisis without batting an eyelid. We spent a lovely afternoon conducting an art class in which we painted, cut, pasted, folded and decorated to our hearts’ content. At the end of the day, during the mad rush that was ‘packing up time’, I remember someone knocked over a pot of blue paint. It fell straight on the floor and spattered all over the carpet, splashes dirtying the table legs and spilling over onto the lino. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Michael, which was a felony offense at Catholic school (“Stop using the Lord’s name in vain!” was a warning frequently heard in and around our school grounds). Children were squirming everywhere, running around, laughing, kicking, jostling each other in hysterical yelps to avoid the blue liquid oozing over the terrain.

Mrs O’Brien just looked at her son and said, “It’s not God, it’s paint on the floor. Now let’s get this cleaned up.”

Thanks for teaching me to stay calm in a crisis, Mrs O’Brien. Right now I’m typing away madly trying to get this draft chapter finished and sent off to my supervisors. I have a headache, cracked lips, and a sore neck. I have the rest of my thesis to write before the spring comes. And I am doing my absolute best to hold on to my sanity, and see this through.

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

Data collection for the winter has started.

I keep telling myself this is my last study.

That doesn’t seem to help.

I was reading a critique paper from my field last night and it just dawned on me what a vast area of intellectual space our knowledge already covers, even in a relatively new topic like mine. Research and theory in my area has virtually exploded in the last 15 years, and the more you read about it, the more sure you are that you couldn’t possibly come up with something new, and useful, to add to it.

So it’s daunting to think about my PhD, and everyone’s PhDs, being “an original contribution to knowledge.”

I’m collecting data for my last study and I’m supposed to make an original contribution to knowledge with it. It seems simple on the face of it, but when you sit on it for a while you realise each chapter of your thesis is essentially a paper in itself, and each paper should be of publishable quality. And by the time you work those brain cells to read all the literature to critique it to come up with the idea to design the project to do the research to write it up to edit it to realise it’s completely wrong to go back and start from scratch to do it all over again to write it up again to edit and delete and rewrite it to get it all bound and sent off to your examiners on time- someone else has already done it all! Ping! Sorry! Your contribution is no longer original!

There have already been several close shaves which I have survived, in which I have read some seminal paper or other that I had not come across previously, and have been shocked to find the sheer similarity between some of the authors’ arguments and the arguments I have been trying to substantiate through my own writing. For a moment, I enter a hysterical state of terror that everything in my thesis has already been done, and hence its contribution will be completely unoriginal, and even worse than that, I have no knowledge that all this original work already exists, and I will go into my viva thinking my thesis is great only to be interrogated by my examiners and found to be utterly ignorant about anything to do with my subject matter, whereupon they will eat me alive like savage rabid thesis-gobbling monsters.

Then I calm down.

The work you produce in your thesis is unlikely to have been done before, at least in the precise way you have done it. If you hunt around and dig deep, you will, in all likelihood, find something that is original, and that’s your original contribution to knowledge. Reiterate that thing through the whole thesis, highlight it here and there, blow a trumpet about it and put it in the closing remarks. That’s what your examiners are interested to see.

Somehow – and I’m not quite sure how, yet – I’ll find a way of articulating my thesis. I’ll find a way of explaining just what I mean to say, and of showing the world my examiners that it is new and useful and exciting.

 

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July 2020
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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!