Friday, March 29, 2019

On procrastination in letter-writing

It was a funny convergence....

I've been writing this week under the auspices of a fourteen-day boot camp organized by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity; my college classmate and fellow academic Julie Lynch was praising this organization on Facebook a few weeks ago, so when I got an email from the provost's office shortly thereafter saying that Columbia is now a member and that we would have free use of many of its resources, I thought I should give it a try. In fact since I am on sabbatical (and since I have long hewed to a "production of quota" method that basically is very similar to what these boot camps do) it was not really necessary, but if I am going to recommend it to others, I will always prefer to have tried it myself.

Anyway, today's writing was fun because I got to the part of my skeleton draft that includes all the material about Gibbon's habit of putting off writing important letters! He refers in a letter to his good friend Holroyd to "[t]he aversion to Epistolary Conversation, which it has pleased the Daemon to implant in my nature” (2:14), and the problem produces many very funny but also rather painful expressions of penitence and shame.

This is from a letter to Gibbon's Swiss friend Deyverdun, apologizing for a long silence: “my long silence has been occasioned, as far as I understand the anatomy of my own mind, by various reasons: during the summer it was mere idleness and procrastination: from the meeting of Parliament, when it became necessary to finish my book and to subdue America I found myself really involved in a greater hurry of public private and litterary business than I have ever known in any part of my life” (2:104).

There are a lot of good ones to Holroyd:
You wish I would write as a sign of life. I am alive, but as I am immersed in the decline and fall, I shall only make the sign.—It is made. (2:246-47)

Since my retreat to Lausanne our Correspondence has never received so long an interruption, and as I have been equally taciturn with the rest of the English World it may now be a problem among that sceptical nation whether the historian of the decline and fall be a living substance or an empty name. So tremendous is the sleepy power of laziness and habit, that the silence of each post operated still more strongly to benumb the hand and to freeze the Epistolary ink. (3:4)
And to his stepmother: “… you will be satisfied to hear that for many Wednesdays and Saturdays, I have consumed more time than would have sufficed for the Epistle in devising reasons for procrastinating it to the next post” (3:130).