Archive for December, 2008

the history essay

December 1, 2008

It’s great being an expert on historical events. Being able to pluck a name from the air, and weave bloody and gory stories around them. Dropping intelligent, yet witty comments in casual conversation with mates dahn the pub. It’s great. Except, I am not an expert. Neither do I go ‘dahn the pub’. I have, however, just completed a 2,000 word essay on certain aspects of crusading in the Middle Ages. It may look like a fairly pithy amount, sure, compared with the heavy-weight textbooks I have been ploughing through for the past three decades – essay preparation does relish somewhat in its ability to give a completely distorted concept of time. But it seemed like a fairly pithy subject to being with. Oh, how wrong I was. How incredibly moronic I was, to think that 2,000 words would give plenty of room for me to divulge in tales of adolescent excursions, and eschatological prophecies from harbingers of doom, destruction and anti-Semitism.

It all begins with the reading you do. You go to the library. Take out several of the biggest books you can find – regardless of suitability or language; I always find the brightly coloured ones most appealing, personally. You take these back to your room, place them beside the laptop – that quietly powers away, tempting you with its warm hum of procrastination, and YouTube videos of idiocy. And then begins The Reading. The Reading can be the single most painful, non-fatal process any human can experience – short of performing a self-tracheotomy with a bendy-straw, whilst simultaneously giving yourself a foot-bath, with your feet submerged in a pool of hydrofluoric acid. Other times it can be a truly enlightening experience. But once you’ve been sat staring at the same page for hours upon hours, dissecting the tiniest nuances of each sentence, of each word, of each mark of punctuation, it does tend to drag.

There is something wonderful in the way historians write. The same sentence that states simply, for example, the number of countries visited by a pilgrim, seems also to flow on forever. An endless tide of commas, and semi-colons – hyphens and quotation marks; as if the historian, momentarily mad, has been caught in some syntactic Möebius loop, falling endlessly back upon themselves as they struggle to regain a foothold in its purpose. Elsewhere, out of the blue, astonishing, mono-syllabic remarks are made – like it’s God’s honest truth, and anyone who questions it shall be branded either ‘pleb’ or ‘nincompoop’. I sometimes fear we are all victims to some hilarious joke they are playing on us. A trick, where they see how many nonsense-sentence they can hide within one book, then one chapter, and eventually one page.

So, you’re reading. And soon you’re lost in this wonderfully calming ocean current of informative prose. The kind of reading that makes you feel better about the world in general. Better about yourself – confident, knowing that you have one more tid-bit of information to produce over dinner. But it doesn’t last. And everyone just thinks you’re a self-gratifying tit anyway. And you stumble back into the arms of Plath, for a soothing bout of melancholy. Or don the headphones for another reassuring round of sardonic Mancunian wisdom.

Meanwhile, The Essay still looms. The vast expanse of blankness, of empty Word documents, tentatively awaiting the first glorious ounce of pressure produced by your fervid fingers, just sits there. Blankly. Blank… And then it hits you! O, Divine inspiration! O, Celestial awakening! Your fingers run in torrents across the keyboard, a veritable blur of fleshy phalanges. At least, they do for the first 1,000 words. Upon reaching the big One Zero, Zero, Zero, you inevitably realise that either all your decent, highly original and ground-breaking points have been made, or that you’ve completely avoided answering the question. Instead, building a highly floral image of something with very little substance. The Jessica Simpson of academia.

Despite this, some superhuman force within you drives you ever forward, ever closer to that two thousand mark. And then eventually you reach it, no matter how vague or irrelevant your conclusion may be. And inside your own little microcosm, inside the tiny self-perpetuating world that you’ve built up around yourself in this time of intensive studiousness, inside your own scholastic kingdom you celebrate! It doesn’t matter that nobody else cares, because it’s your kingdom, and you will celebrate! You run circles on your wheely chair. You put on your favourite upbeat song. Turn it up to eleven. And march around your kingdom in laps of sweet victory. You have defeated The Essay, and it is taken straight unto the humanities office. There She Goes, My Beautiful World!