How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Intellectual Power that Moves Through Me
Some end-of-sabbatical reflections.
I’ve been thinking about deep time, recently. So I picked up a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle—his popular 1987 book on the concept of deep time, in geology. I’ll have more to say about this book, and deep time, next week. But this week, I wanted to tell you about a passage of the book that struck me, and stuck with me, for days after reading it. It was just an aside, for Gould. It didn’t have anything to do with deep time, really. It was something he’d thrown in off-handedly as a justification for his broad reading habits. “The study of major texts by great thinkers needs no rationale beyond the pure pleasure that such intellectual power provides,” he wrote, adding that “the main motivation for my [research] strategy was pure joy.”
I had one of those strong shocks of recognition, when I read this. I knew exactly what he was talking about, although I don’t know that I would have ever used that sort of language to describe it. Power can be an off-putting word. But let’s call it intellectual power, why not? And let’s see what we can do with a creative (mis)reading of it.
I recognized this methodology motivated by the search for a particular sort of joy. And I told myself I knew exactly what he meant by intellectual power: that force your intellect stumbles upon in a book, that thing you can just drink and drink, as if you’re parched and it’s really hot outside. It’s something vital, alive, and enlivening that seeps out of the words and sets things on fire at the same time as it quenches them. For a brief moment I remembered, again, how I got into this bizarre “vocation” that I’ve landed in. I guess you could say it was a kind of mad quest for these joyous flickers of “intellectual power”. Not as a property or characteristic of me per se, not as something to describe who or how I become when I read. Instead, as something precious that moves through the world, something we share, grow, cultivate, and hunger for. Something like a natural resource that we package and redistribute.
This passage probably wouldn’t have hit me as hard, if I wasn’t also simultaneously preparing the syllabi for my fall courses, at the end of my first sabbatical. Part of the anxiety, for me, in building a syllabus is wondering how to pass along, to my students, the pleasure and joy I get from reading a set of texts. I want my students to learn, sure. But even more than that, I want them to have that feeling of touching intellectual power as it moves around in a text. I want them to feel how it’s moving around in them, too. I want them them to want to do something with it: to embrace it, experiment with it, shape it in new ways, and pass it along. But ultimately, it’s a feeling. You can teach strategies for sensing it, but you can’t teach the feeling of touching intellectual power’s live wire. And there are so many powerful forces of boredom and distraction to struggle against, in a classroom.
Reading this passage was also a sharp reminder that I’d really lost touch with my own ability to feel that electric joy of intellectual power, in the years leading up to my sabbatical. I’ve come to the end of my first (and who knows, perhaps my only!) sabbatical. I’ve been feeling some grief for the end of this time that’s been deeply restorative, and clarifying for me in so many ways. I haven’t felt ready to move on, for many reasons. But one of the reasons is because I still wasn’t quite sure what it had all been for. I wasn’t sure what had just happened to me, what I had learned or done or gained. And because of that, I wasn’t sure what to carry with me as I waded back into the bog of normal.
Reading that passage, in Gould’s book, it struck me suddenly that—if nothing else (or above everything else)—what the sabbatical time brought me was a reminder of how to experience the joy of and in intellectual power. So many things, from the onslaught of everyday responsibilities to the endless reams of papers to grade, had almost made me forget about that feeling. I’d lost track of how to access it. I had a distant memory of those moments where I’d once felt that power rippling through me. But it seemed like another person who’d had those feelings, not me. I suppose it wasn’t me. It was a person who lived a different life from the one I live now. I’m different now, and I work differently now. That other me is gone. My interior world is differently shaped.
At any rate, it’s been kind of a revelation to feel like I remember how to touch that live power. And that I can still find ways of inviting it to move through me.
I don’t want you to think that I’m talking about my cognitive capacities, or things that my brain can do. My brain is involved in this form of access to what I’m referring to as “intellectual power”, of course. But what I’m talking about is something that the text itself bears, and carries along. I process it in an embodied way (brain activity, etc). But the power I’m talking about is wilder, and more mobile, than the part of my body we call the brain.
People encounter this power in many ways, I know. There are all sorts of forms and materials that can harbor it (clay, numbers, microscope slides). But I don’t find it anywhere, the way I find it in books. I come across it when I’m listening to someone, of course. I can feel that sudden rush of something great moving through me when I listen to someone speak. But I get so distracted by bodies, and the many wonderful things they do. I start looking at the way their face moves, or how their clothing drapes. And then I start looking around the room at other people. And then suddenly I’m not listening anymore. So, books focus me. They channel my attention. Black words on a white page. It’s a sparse medium that serves as a container for so much. This is why I love to read so much; it fills me with that rare sort of joy that comes from an encounter with the intellectual power that’s moved through someone else, and that they’ve worked to pass along so that it can move through me. I love this sort of power sharing that’s integral to intellectual life. It’s the thing I’m always trying to figure out how to share with my students.
When I write, it’s much more rare for me to feel that sort of intellectual power. But it does happen from time to time, which is probably the reason I write. Of course, I write to communicate. I write to organize my thoughts and internalize knowledge more deeply. I write because it’s a compulsion, for me, at this point in my life. I write because it’s part of my job. But more than anything, I think, I write for those moments of pure joy when I feel a new thought-form or a new thought-image taking shape in the world, and I can feel that rush of power that comes with this sort of poeisis (that ancient word for making, or creating). I don’t know that there’s a better way to describe what that is. Power seems to encapsulate it.
Writing is so difficult (so physically difficult!) and despite the fact that I do it compulsively, it’s easy to forget why I do it. Especially when the only writing I’m doing is the tedious revision of dusty old academic essays that I wrote without a drop of joy (and sometimes with a little resentment). But it feels so incredibly good, when I tap into that feeling of intellectual power. Nothing else feels quite the same. It’s like some closed door in my mind is thrown open, and sunlight comes streaming in, and the fresh smell of the wild outside, and the sound of birdsong. Everything starts singing like a hundred cicadas. But silently. I’ve always felt like this is what Spinoza must have meant by the intellectual love of God.
I was recently listening to adrienne maree brown interview Starhawk for her podcast series she’s calling “witch school.” A particular moment of their conversation reminded me of the way that power can be a kind of dirty word. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about how women have been taught to mistrust their own power. I won’t waste too much time on this, only just to say that I’ve spent most of my life learning that I’m too much: too intense, too intimidating, I wear too much makeup, I think too much, I talk too much. So, yes, I’ve mistrusted many things moving through me that feel powerful. And some of this is because I’m a woman.
Despite this, I understand why power is a thing that we mistrust. It’s much more common for us to become acquainted with power as a thing that’s used to manage and control us, rather than a thing that we share with generosity, and that moves through us. Power is intoxicating, and dangerous. There’s no way to render it free of danger. When power concentrates in one location, it’s being sapped from somewhere else. Power’s give always has a form of take. So, even when we share power, we do so with the knowledge that it’s being pulled from elsewhere. Power gives, and power takes.
Maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn toward intellectual forms of power: powers that you can feel in your mind-body complex, but which take you monastically outside of “the world” in certain regards. There’s a distance, and remove, to intellectual experience. It’s not entirely private (especially not when you’re writing and publishing!) But it often feels that way. The best place to read and write is in a quiet room, all alone. When you read, and write, it’s easy to have the feeling that you’re not doing anything to anyone else. Intellectual power can feel harmless, sometimes.
Of course, as social media and the frequent cancellation of writers remind us: when you’re writing and reading you often are doing things to (or for) other people. Even (or especially?) intellectual power has its unsettling give and take. The “great works” that Gould himself is talking about in that quote I loved were mostly written by a certain set of people, who’ve been allowed to publicly express and share their intellectual power while others are silenced, or made to serve those with big powerful platforms for their intellects. I do feel an obligation to pass many of those old “great works” by, so that I can make time for the powerful voices who speak from other social locations and conditions. Power is, so often, a big problem.
But power is a very big word. It’s so incredibly abstract. It is so incredibly life-negating to let it become a dirty word! Power is also what we give, and share, when we love and care for one another. It’s what we feel when we walk in the woods, and smell its smells and hear its sounds. It’s what we witness when we see the plants in our garden bloom, and fruit.
There are moments when my little dog and I lock eyes for a stretch of time, and I know that she’s reading me like a book—with all of her senses, and especially her nose. She’s caught a glimpse of a power moving through me and she’s studying me, waiting to see how I will use it. Will I do something strange and unpredictable, or selfish? Or will I share it with her? Will I open up time and space for her to have a new or well-loved taste or experience? To be more alive?
Power is something that’s essential tap into, if we are going to have any chance in hell of resisting the circumstances we’re so often stuck in, or thrown into. We know this intuitively even if we don’t always affirm it, intellectually.
I learned, through the long process of earning my PhD, getting a tenure track job, and working to earn tenure, to fit myself into a very powerful mold. While I was working on my PhD, I wrote academic essays of course. But I also wrote other things. I played around with different kinds of voices and perspectives. When I started teaching full-time, and especially once I had a kid, I had much less time. I stopped doing anything but academic writing. I stopped thinking of myself as anything but an academic. I realize now, post-sabbatical, that I was very deeply caught up in following the rules of a very particular game. It didn’t kill my spirit, but it definitely trapped it, and drained the vitality from it. I think the most clarifying and restorative thing about my sabbatical was that it reminded me of who I am, and how I can be, outside of that game, and its rules.
I think that this is what I am most afraid of, as I’m poised to return to the classroom after my sabbatical. I’m afraid that I’m going to lose this clarity, this insight, and this channel back into the feeling of intellectual power and joy that I’ve found. There’s a small part of me that’s grateful to be exiting the sabbatical. Among other things, feeling the many different pressures that I didn’t feel on sabbatical is making me prioritize things in a way that feels healthy. But I’m still anxious, and a little afraid.
I started writing this substack when my sabbatical began. Ostensibly, it was because I had just published a book, and I was following advice to start a newsletter. But I also saw it as an opportunity to do the sort of writing that I missed out on, when blogging was the thing. When other people were blogging, I kept quiet. I wanted to do it. But I didn’t trust that I had enough to say, or that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I didn’t think that anyone would be interested in what I had to say. I’m still not really sure that anyone is interested, but I think I’m just more committed to opening up new channels for thinking and feeling that set intellectual power loose in the world, whatever the risk. And I don’t know how to do this, other than through writing. I want to do this for myself, of course, because it brings me joy. But I also want to do this for you. I hope you’ve stumbled on something of value over the past eight months, since I’ve been sending these missives out into the void. I hope you’ve been charged with at least a moment of intellectual power and joy. That would make it all worth it, for me.
I don’t really know what will happen to this space, as my sabbatical ends. Next Monday is my first day back in the classroom, and I’m already feeling the pressures of teaching and committee work. I don’t have the intention to shut this space down, at least not now. But I might not be able to keep up the wild sabbatical pace of one post per week. As long as it continues to help me feel a little more joy, I plan to maintain it as part of my writing discipline. But if you hear from me with less frequency, then it’s probably because I’m out there struggling to find more of that joy, and trying to let go of the things that make it less possible.
By the way, if you haven’t yet read Alexis Pauline Gumb’s fantastic piece on the menopausal earth, you should!
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