Ending a thesis
Be careful, there are substantial spoilers ahead from one of my favourite novels, Alain Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent (Horde of the Counterwind / The Windwalkers in English, unfortunately untranslated yet as far as my knowledge goes). You can read the note until the second illustration, and then dodge the rest, if you want to avoid them. And yes, you should of course read that book.
So here we are at last. I sit in my now empty room, waiting for the time to go, to another city, and hopefully, other projects. Almost exactly four years after I landed in Newcastle to start a PhD with a supervisor I did not know and in a University I had barely ever heard of, in a country I never thought I would live in, I prepare to leave England. With an almost-finished thesis in my computer, ready to be submitted (but not quite yet, I still have a few details to correct). Which was, at the time, a perfectly obscure and ridiculous notion. So how did we get from there to here?
About two weeks ago I had the chance to be visited by a friend and colleague, much more advanced intellectually and academically than I, but still writing, and as we ended up, as good PhD students, talking about our theses, I managed to say it for the first time: “My thesis is over, I’m done.” The process to get there had been marinating in my mind for quite some time, but I realised at that time that the work of getting a thesis out of me had been finished. Of course, lot of work was still to be done: corrections, cross-referencing, proofreading, etc., not to mention the submitting itself. But the thesis, the idea of the thesis, was over. Which was weird, to an extent, because it had not felt that way until then. There was no “end point,” per se. I just know that at one point I was still in the process of doing a thesis, and at another, later point, I was not anymore. I’m now working on a document which has to be refined, not produced anymore. And this feels liberating.
My thesis was an abstract notion until that point. When starting the project I remember thinking “How can I be capable of making a thesis? This is absurd.” I felt I was unable to do such a thing. And then I felt that way for four years, until the thing had been done. Leading to the question: how do you finish a thesis? How do you feel that the document you have is a thesis, roughly ready to be submitted? I think there are several indications, but overall, you finish a thesis by handing over whatever number of words you have been able to produce in the time allocated for you to do so. Of course other elements come together: your interaction with the supervisor, letting you guess that you are getting toward the standard expected of you. The actual content and fitting of your document to its original outline. Your own impression of having actually described what you observed during the collection of your data. But more fundamentally, is the acceptation that you have done what you could with your allocated time and resources. Meaning that you have to accept that your “masterpiece” is just a piece.
This is, I believe, complicated by our confrontation to absolutely fantastic pieces of PhD, such as Michel Foucault’s, Madness and Civilisation (forgetting that it took Foucault 11 years in total between the beginning of the project and its end, if I am not wrong, to get it done). We like to think of ourselves as painters or builders of cathedrals of the mind, masterpieces to glow and float for all eternity among the stars. This is very exciting, but also very wrong. I remember how Hélène Thomas, my professor of Political Science in Aix-en-Provence, used to describe academic work as similar to that of a potter: we use clay to do something which will hopefully not be too bad, but will look kind of messy, a bit overburnt perhaps, and rough at the edges, and will break easily. But it does not matter, because the “masterpiece” is just that, a piece, something that shows that you have enough knowledge of the craft to actually do it, and get better with time. To a large extent our corporation is still organised as a medieval guild of craftsmen, transiting from apprenticeship to journeymanship, and hopefully, if things go not too wrong, to mastery. In this process the PhD is just a step. It is not an end, but merely a threshold. And in the end, like most pots, it will break and be replaced by another. And this is fine: we’re just doing things, and hopefully these things will not be too bad, and be of some use.
This, I think, is how you finish a PhD. My thesis is not perfect, and it is not complete: it is, with the competencies, resources, and time I had, what could be done on the matter at hand. It will be criticised by the examinors, and it will be corrected to become yet another piece (an article, a book, whatever). The thesis itself will probably not even be read by more than ten people, counting my supervisor and the two examinors. What will remain will be whatever comes out of it. And that is that.
A few days later:
That’s it, my thesis has been submitted. Which means that four years of my life are now – viva pending – over. Since 2013 I dreaded the question “How’s your thesis going?”. It was going nowhere. That nowhere has slowly and almost without my notice condensed into a draft, and then chapters, and now a 300-pages long document. And I feel void. Submitting felt like crossing a threshold while I had already begun exploring what was beyond it: it was an important moment, but in the end, it was only that. There is no sacredness in ending a thesis. No sweet angel of achievement puts their hand on your shoulder, whispering pride. You’re just done, while you precedently were not done, but were kind of done, without having realised it. Ending my thesis was not a moment of change, because ending my thesis was not something exceptional. Which confirms what I felt before submitting it, and what I wrote a few days ago. It’s just an exam, not your life.
Post-scriptum: As the Horde of the Counterwind, after more than three decades of walking against this world’s devastating wind to find its source, reaches for the very first time in human history the very edge of the world, Golgoth, the Trackmaker who walked in front the whole time, never looking back, cannot withold the vision of the world’s end, the infinite cliff which marks it. So he starts walking again, making per miracle a bridge of his own substance, to counter more, go a few more steps onwards:
In less than a minute, as a gifted scribe who would, on a ultimate sentence, have played the entire might of his prose, hoping to extract but a fragment of life – raw and indivisible – from his mind, more consistent than any lived or liveable scene, Golgoth burnt before us his shell of flesh, guts, and dreams, which he had inhabited so prodigiously for foutry-five years, unveiling, in the rigor of the real, his quest’s cyste – or to say it better: his core. He did not merely walk on a land he only had the capacity to invent. He did not only overcome, by a few acres, the most advanced point of the human world. That he did, be advised! He did not merely show that the only track that matters is the one you make, at the sharp end of your potentialities. No: he used the very matter of his body to assure the passage, to assure the pursuit. All the time that the torch of his body burnt, his blazing silhouette walked on the bridge – and the Tracer kept countering. Came a point when Golgoth had not enough muscle or thickness of flesh to nourish the fire, not enough guts to feed the core’s vision, thus his body spread horizontally, in the air bridge’s continuity, a thin layer of Quick-nourished flames.
Basically, don’t try to be that guy.