I’ve spent the last few years with a dead man. But the end of my PhD is near

Laura Kennedy: Finishing a thesis on theories of emotion makes you quite emotional

Laura Kennedy: I am more reminded of the wisdom of David O’ Doherty than Spinoza. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Laura Kennedy: I am more reminded of the wisdom of David O’ Doherty than Spinoza. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

I have spent every day for the last several months with a dead man, and that is just the days without a break. In fact, I have spent almost every day for the last five years with him, and things weren’t casual between us in the two-to-three years before that, if you know what I mean (which of course you don’t). I am not, in fact, a necrophiliac, but I am the most socially acceptable next-best-thing, a person who has spent the last 10 years in academia devoting almost all of their time to a long-dead Dutch philosopher and loons like Sigmund Freud. I am about to stumble over my own feet on soft, atrophied legs and with the beady, squinting eyes of a mole accustomed to the dark, out of Plato’s sartorial cave, and into the light of the real world, in which there is pizza, and conversation, and locations other than my desk.

This is no accurate reflection of academia as a whole, of course, but the process of writing a PhD thesis is rather like being tipped upside down and having your contents shaken out, at which point you are put the right way up and instructed to set them in order, paltry and disjointed as they are, in preparation for an incredibly stressful oral exam. While you do this and the time passes, the walls around you narrow “Indiana Jones” style while the sour, recirculated the air you breathe becomes increasingly composed of your own terrible, recycled ideas and you resign yourself to the idea that your last experience will be the intense cranial pressure just before your head explodes from being compressed on every side. And yes, probably there are insects in your hair – you won’t have washed it since 2015.

Interestingly, the finishing of a thesis on theories of emotion has the rather arbitrary side-effect of making you quite emotional. In a fit of overworked frustration, I shouted an unforgivable string of expletives at our living room fern, affectionately named Fernest Hemingway. I kicked the freezer drawer (gently, but still) when it wouldn’t shut immediately, and I think venomous thoughts.

When your resources are fewer than the demands upon them, as happens to us all in the midst of drawn-out and stressful situations, something, somewhere, will crack. My patience is usually the first to go – that carefully constructed wall behind which I keep my less venerable and beastlier emotions starts to look a bit thin in patches, and I’m only a few irritations away from going feral and biting someone.

Ironically enough, Spinoza postulated that the key to individual freedom is in understanding, and understanding our emotions in particular. We cannot, he would suggest, go about swearing at ferns and only barely not biting people, but then he probably wasn’t in the last four weeks of a PhD thesis when he wrote about how we should think and behave in relation to our emotions. As I write this at midnight, after a 14-hour work day, clad with indignity in Christmas pyjamas because I haven’t had time to wash any of my non-holiday specific pyjamas, I am more reminded of the wisdom of David O’ Doherty than Spinoza (though I am quite literally supposed to be writing about the wisdom of Spinoza).

In his song Life, O’ Doherty depressingly described life as “a marathon, not a sprint, but it’s a sort of marathon that you have to sprint”, and these weeks certainly feel that way. What a pity that even a mild jog is impossible, given that my body – with the exception of brain and fingers – has been sacrificed at the great and wise altar of academic exercise. I don’t doubt for a moment that when all of this is over, I will remember what I loved about Spinoza in the first place. For now, I feel about him the way you would feel if a sibling who clips their toenails in the kitchen had to move in with you for six months because their house flooded. They burst into your space, holding a malodorous open bag of cheese and onion taytos, shouting “So where should I leave my collection of antique foghorns?” Just for now and from here, Spinoza looks fierce smug when he’s telling me how to feel.

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