On Pushing Your Boundaries

photo by Paul Dobraszczyk

photo by Paul Dobraszczyk

“I wish you to see the monster London in the varied phases of its outer and inner life, at every hour of the day-season and the night-season; I wish you to consider with me the giant sleeping and the giant waking; to watch him in his mad noonday rages, and in his sparse moments of unquiet repose. You must travel twice round the clock with me; and together we will explore this London mystery to its remotest recesses—its innermost arcana”

(Twice Round the Clock, by George Augustus Sala, 1862)

This Victorian account of a man pushing through London, guiding his imaginary friend (the reader) to see every element of its street life, is as grandiose as the architecture of its time, studded with adjectives that multiply to convey the splendid beast-city that sleeps and wakes around them. The narrator encourages his companion to keep ‘very bad hours’, to see the sides of London that he is not used to and to wake at times that he should be asleep. It’s a story of eyes being opened.

In making this strolling tour of London, the men see parts of London that are usually shut out of their conscious mind by their sleeping eyes. The fish of old Billingsgate Market ‘salute the eye’ with their saltiness. The pair witness the morning papers being squeezed out by throbbing steam engines and watch as the ‘monster is fed with reams on reams of stout white paper, which he devours as though they were so many wafers’. The sleepy reader is jostled awake every time his head begins to desire the pillow. The narrator promises: ‘believe me, the pilgrimage will repay fatigue, and the shrine is rich in relics’. For Sala, it is essential that he and his companion observe everything, and that they are subjected to what they are unused to, that they are wide-eyed during hours that they find uncomfortable and strange. Their reward? They see, in the space of two days,  London’s manifold and diverse guises, one after the other.

I found this Victorian text as I was researching a new article on city soundscapes. My fresh venture was one that shuffled me, like our walking Victorians, beyond my self-imposed limits and into somewhere new and unfamiliar. It thrust my eyes open, and asked me to see things that I usually push into my peripheral vision. For many, this is not so strange. But, as a happy inhabitant of the comfort zone, this was something new for me. Ever since, I have been embracing change more than ever, and I thought I’d write a little about my experiences.

Being in your first postdoctoral year is a precarious balancing act. On the one hand, it is crucial to build upon the strengths of your thesis and to get material that you spent those years researching published. On the other hand, the first year is a wonderful opportunity to reach a five-ways in life, and choose to follow any one of those roads. To progress down one of them excitedly, like a boisterous dog, only to, perhaps, decide that another was more interesting and to pursue that instead. This year has been like that for me. I have continued to work on the central themes of my thesis: the work of fifteenth century-scribes, the production and transmission of literature, and the boundaries between literary and bureaucratic texts. However, I have also begun to explore some new ideas.

I have recently been doing some work transcribing sixteenth-century documents that describe and discuss Roman currency. Roman history is a topic that is alien to me, but the person with whom I am working is an expert. By working with him, I’ve absorbed some knowledge and I’ve become eager to learn more. This experience has led me to see collaboration as one of the secrets to pressing forth successfully into the unknown. In addition, despite the newness of the subject matter, the transcription work makes use of my existing skills. My prior experience of deciphering pre-modern script has allowed me to make a leap into the strange without feeling too much at a loss. In this way, I have kept the comfort zone somewhere in sight (even if it’s far away, on the horizon). Thus, I think it is important for an early-career researcher to tie her new ventures in to a central thread somewhere.

The two Victorian men in Twice Round the Clock were exploring their city at unfamiliar times, seeing fresh sights and hearing unknown sounds. However, they did know how Billingsgate Market and the early-morning printing press related to the concept of the city that they had formed through experiencing its streets by day. This is how I feel about my research at the moment. I’m forming new ideas and trying out unfamiliar areas of research, but I am looping them together at their strongest points with solid ties.

I’d be really interested to hear about others’ experiences in pushing out of the comfort zone…

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