I left graduate school when I realized I wouldn’t make a notable contribution to the world of ideas.
I like to believe I was unwilling to be someone who wrote about, analyzed, celebrated, critiqued or dumped on other people’s groundbreaking theories. You can scoff at Freud and Jung, you can take apart Lacan, Marx, Greer or Freidan, goodness knows there’s reason enough to do it, but the fact is they did something other people hadn’t done yet.
It’s easier to edit than it is to write. It's easier to point fingers than to come up with the next brilliant thing. Not that folks haven’t built huge careers riding roughshod on the backs of other people’s ideologies and theories - whip in hand. But being the creator of something revolutionary or visionary – the pioneer, stands well apart.
I recently visited the New York Absract Expressionists show at the AGO . Criticize as you might the work of Rothko or Jackson Pollock as simplistic or lacking skill, as in “my three year old could have done that piece”, point is, no one before them had ever painted the way they did, and called it art.
The closest I ever came to landmark-ery was my MA thesis on Boris Vian. I developed a brilliant theory on why the French writer was dismissed, vilified even, when he first started writing in post-WW2 France, only to be celebrated and added to all French High School curriculum by the late 60s. The details of my brilliant theory don't really matter. They were about the relationship between the reader and the text. In effect, I had invented reader-response criticism.
Problem was, others already had. I was both affirmed and disappointed to discover my "original" theory was an established, albeit young, field of study. I went back to my thesis, having read some reader-response critics, and credited their work. I would get no marks for claiming I'd had the landmark idea, and not realized others had beaten me to it.
On CBC’s Q the other day, host Jian Ghomeshi asked Susie Bright about her legacy – her contribution to contemporary thinking and theory on radical sex. It wasn’t the response itself, but the fact she had one, that made me grab a pen while driving on highway 400 to jot down the word she used- groundbreaking.
Maybe there’s no need to think in terms of breaking new ground. Ground needs to be broken for a lot of things - a tulip, a sequoia or the foundation for the Burj Dubai skyscraper.
Ultimately it’s an attribution only hindsight can bestow. No one breaks it for the sake of breaking it. As long as I plow on, scratching unlikely linkages, pairing words that are surprised to find themselves bedmates, observing from odd angles, who knows what might happen.