Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Whereof One Dare Not Speak

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Whereof One Dare Not Speak

Article excerpt

Is it really so strange that a study of cowardice would leave a scholar prey to a hundred indecisions, visions and revisions? Chris Walsh on screwing his courage, at last, to the sticking place

Are you afraid to finish your book?" My colleague was in the habit of needling his fellow scholars with this question. It struck particularly deep with me, because my book was about being afraid - or rather, it was about being excessively afraid and therefore failing to do what you should do. It was about cowardice.

And, yes, I was afraid to finish it. Ever since I'd begun work on the topic 20 years ago, I'd always been afraid to finish. I did manage to complete a dissertation that was, as dissertations are, narrowly focused and rigidly structured - "intellectually diapered", as a cheeky novelist friend said: a series of 30-page readings of "craven images" in American fiction. After I submitted it, I ran away as far and as fast as I could.

But after a five-year escape I found that cowardice would not let me alone. The idea was in the news repeatedly in the decade after 9/11, and I returned to the work intent on looking beyond the American context, on writing something more interdisciplinary than my dissertation, less diapered and more, I don't know, readable. Miraculously, a proposal got me an advance contract with a January 2009 deadline - which I missed by four years - because I was afraid of finishing.

Some of my fears were typical: that the outside reviewers would hate the manuscript, that my method was flawed, that some theorist somewhere would show that the assumptions underlying my project were utterly specious, that the whole enterprise was an exercise in futility and vanity - as if there aren't enough books in the world!

I also feared that the topic was deservedly obscure. Even Dante's Virgil, the guide to the tour of sin that is the Inferno, does not want to discuss the numberless cowards just inside the gate of Hell, the abject wretches who lived with neither disgrace nor praise, including those "cowardly angels" who refused to side with either God or Satan. Sometimes called neutrals or opportunists, they were guilty of the sin of cowardice in its most basic form. Fearing to commit or to act, they remained spectators to life, and now in death they have nowhere to go. Paradise won't have such shades tainting its beauty, and the Inferno is barred lest the condemned have someone to glory over. So there they are, not across the Acheron in Hell proper, but in the anteroom, Hell's lobby. "Let us not speak of them," Virgil tells Dante.

This command has echoed down through the centuries. That no scholarly book has been devoted to cowardice in and for itself leaves a gap that calls out to be filled, you could say, and in my more hopeful moments, that is certainly what I thought. But the gap also called to mind the moment in Kingsley Amis' academic satire Lucky Jim, when the protagonist reads over with horror the first words of his article on the economic impact of developments in Western European shipbuilding techniques between 1450 and 1485: "In considering his strangely neglected topic..." Academics are in the business, it sometimes seems, of exploring justly neglected topics. Was mine one of them? There were times, many times, when I wondered why, if cowardice was so interesting, it had been so ignored.

I also feared that there was something redundant or self-defeating, even self-parodying, in writing about cowardice. The very act of writing can seem evasive - an escape from "real life". "Trope", a word for the writer's rhetorical turn of phrase, comes from the same word (trope) that the Greeks used for "turning to flight". Timidity may be especially characteristic of the scholar. As Peter Elbow notes in his essay "Being a writer vs. being an academic: a conflict in goals", the writer comes to the reader exclaiming, "Listen to me, I have something to tell you! …

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