How I discovered that my travels might just help me finalize my dissertation topic.
“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad,” Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
As a literature and film student, I suffer from a condition where I frequently relate essentially everything that I experience back to pieces of work that I have read or watched. I’m willing to wager that this is a pretty common malady for all people who love the arts. I suppose it is a side affect of being trained to think analytically and critically. Yet I have no doubt that as I get further into my dissertation research, this affliction will encroach more and more into my daily life.
Thus, an academic blog is the perfect platform for someone who experiences the aforementioned sensation, for it provides me with the opportunity to relate my research to my everyday life through writing and multimedia. This process should help me to informally flesh out my ideas. At the moment, I’m feeling quite unsure about my dissertation topic, which is why it is imperative that I examine my ideas in this blog.
Luckily, I do have some thoughts about the focus of my dissertation. I know that I want to analyze film rather than literature. This is not to say that I am completely excluding literature. If I find a particular text that relates to the films that I am discussing, then by all means I will engage with it. In my undergraduate classes, I wrote some term papers on adaptation theory. As a literature and film student, adaptation seems like a natural fit, but I want to avoid taking that route again. My main undergraduate research focused on the contemporary Irish-American double protagonist genre (The Departed, The Town, The Fighter, Black Irish, Monument Ave., Brotherhood etc.) and the troubling presentation of dueling modes of masculinity connected to the “toxic” Irish versus the “procreative” American identity. One of the recurring plot structures that I explored in the paper, citing feminist critics like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, was the triangulation of male interaction through a female, who serves as the vessel for the male protagonists’ emotional needs. I want to move away from Irish-American film, however, I think that some of the tensions that I have examined in my past work could be further developed. This leaves me with a very vague goal of wanting to explore Irish film, most likely something in the realm of feminist studies.
Additionally, I am an international student who is visiting Cork from the United States, so during the course of the year I plan on traveling around Ireland, as well as some other places in Europe. On a recent trip to Devon, England to visit a friend, I realized that my travels can help me focus my ideas — partly because of my aforementioned desire to relate my life to the texts that I study.
This term I have been reading Irish gothic literature, which is clearly having an effect on my imagination. While in the UK, my friend and I spent a couple of days hiking in Dartmoor National Park. The English moors are famously the setting of many pieces of classic literature. Prior to my gothic class, I always associated the moors with the Brontes (although their novels are set in the Yorkshire moors). Now the “awe inspiring granite tors, deep wooded valleys with fast flowing rivers, and rugged, wide open spaces” of the haunting Devon moors make me think of something a bit more sublime than romantic (Visit Dartmoor). When I say sublime, I refer to Edmund Burke’s idea of something that “excite[s] the ideas of pain and danger,” “operates in a manner analogous to terror,” and “is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Burke).
I am far from the first person to experience a sublime sensation when visiting Dartmoor. We visited Hound Tor, which are the striking granite tors that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Walking around the almost eerie Hound Tor, I understood how Conan Doyle thought that this would be the perfect setting for a sinister mystery. Would I be struck by a similar bolt of inspiration and finally decide the topic of my dissertation?
Ultimately, it was not meant to be. After consulting many maps and travel books, we decided to follow a hiking trail that would take us to Castle Drogo. Castles, of course, are common gothic settings because of their medieval architecture. The concept of the decaying aristocracy, which live in these austere homes, is also quite pertinent to early Irish gothic literature. When I heard the name, I pictured something similar to the description of Charles Maturin’s fictional representation of Leixlip Castle, a building that once “possessed a character of romantic beauty and feudal grandeur” but is now “totally effaced by the destruction of its noble woods” (Maturin). “Drogo” made us think of Dracula, so we hoped that we were about to stumble upon something frightening and fantastic.
It turns out that Castle Drogo was built in the early 20th century, therefore the style is fairly modern. The hike was filled with views of rolling green hills, the beautiful wooded Teign valley, and a bubbling river. It did not fit the image of the moors that elicits any sort of unsettling feeling; rather its beauty and grandeur could be more likened to romanticized images of England in cinematic period dramas. The biggest disruption to my preconceived gothic vision of the castle came in the form of the giant crane and scaffolding surrounding the building because it is undergoing renovations.
As a result of this less-than-sublime walk, I could not help but feel like Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey. Like Catherine, I’ve been reading one too many gothic tales and I let my imagination convince myself that I was about to stumble upon something truly eerie. Yet, the the fact that it didn’t remind me of gothic literature provided me with the opportunity to relax and think of other things. It is that space that gave me the chance to digest my studies this semester.
In high school, I took an IB Theory of Knowledge course, which taught me about my process of thinking, learning, and “knowing.” One day, my teacher passed out the New York Times crossword puzzle and instructed the class to work on it for ten to fifteen minutes. By the end of that allotted time, I had filled in all of the answers that I knew, which left a lot of open space. After an hour of class discussion on an unrelated topic, my teacher told us to take another stab at the puzzle. I realized that I did in fact know a few more answers. Our class then watched an hour of a film and following a short discussion, he directed us to make one last attempt at the crossword puzzle. Yet again, we all discovered that we knew more answers than we had previously thought. My teacher told us that this was because even when you’re not actively thinking about something, your brain is still processing information and making connections.
I think that my trip to Devon was a lot like completing that crossword puzzle. I hoped that leaving UCC and having the opportunity to focus on something other than my studies would provide me with a relaxing mini-break from academia. Although, because of my penchant to relate my studies to my life, I would occasionally make connections between my course work and the things I saw during the trip, even when our hike to Castle Drogo did not turn out to feel that gothic. But as I learned in Theory of Knowledge, even when I was not actively thinking about my classwork, my brain continued to synthesize and associate my readings with what was happening in my real life. Excitingly, I thought of an idea for my term paper during that time.
As someone who is new to Europe, I will continue to “seek adventures abroad” because that is something that provides me with joy in my personal life. It turns out that my travel experiences will help me with my academic work because it provides me with contradictory, but equally necessary things. First, the opportunity to make connections between my studies and reality, which could potentially illuminate things that I had not previously thought about. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it will give me space to not actively think about my work. Between researching in the library, attending class lectures, writing this blog, and living my personal life, my brain will continue to make connections until one day (hopefully soon) all of these things will coalesce and I’ll finally realize the topic for my dissertation.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. John Murray, 1817.
Burke, Edmund. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Vol. 1. Ser. 12. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm, 27 Mar. 2005. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Maturin, Charles. Leixlip Castle. Project Gutenberg of Australia. Aug. 2006. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
“Welcome to Dartmoor.” Visit Dartmoor, The Official Tourism Organisation, http://www.visitdartmoor.co.uk/