The most interesting and provocative comment on Rachel Moss’s wonderful blog post last month on Choosing Not To Give, on the sacrifices that women are expected to make in academic culture, was from Lucy Northenra: “How many women are remembered for their ability to never miss a school run compared to those who manage against all the odds to publish enough to be made professors?” Rachel’s response was equally passionate: “I may well only have one child, and during the week I see her for an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. Perhaps I might somehow write an extra 4* publication if I gave up one of those hours each day. For me, the cost isn’t worth it.”
Do you want to be remembered as a great scholar but a lousy parent – or not remembered at all except by your nearest and dearest? Why are you mucking about with plasticine instead of changing the world? Why are you wasting time on an article that five people will read with limited attention when you could be making a real difference to one or two individuals who completely depend on you? Such dilemmas go to the heart of academic ambitions and self-image.* Who do I think I really am, who do I want to be, and what to do about all the things that threaten to get in the way?
This issue of personal and creative compromise, of the choices we have to make in life, lies at the heart of two equally brilliant works of art that I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks: Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes at Sadlers Wells, and La La Land. Perhaps because I came to them after reading Rachel’s post, and perhaps because this is something I think about quite a lot anyway**, I’ve found myself returning to their common themes and concerns, reading each against the other and measuring my own life against them – as well as humming a lot. In both cases, the lead characters face painful choices between different paths, in a manner that speaks to much more than their niche concerns of ballet and Hollywood respectively – or at least speaks to those of us, like academics, who treasure a sense of ourselves as being full of creative potential if only we had the full opportunity to develop it.
In the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, the red shoes are the devil’s snare and punishment for vanity and godlessness. In both the Powell & Pressburger film and the Bourne ballet that’s based on it, they are curse and blessing: they represent the ability to produce great art, at the cost of renouncing other aspects of life. Is artistic perfection worth the sacrifice of love? Lermontov, the impresario, insists that it is; he sees Vicky Page solely in terms of her potential for greatness, and cannot comprehend any other attitude to life. Vicky disagrees, choosing instead her love for the composer Julian – but is then faced with the question of whether love is worth the sacrifice of art; what is she, if she can no longer fully express what’s inside her, but is reduced to dancing burlesque (a lovely and hilarious touch in Bourne’s version)? There are echoes here, I think, of Andersen’s other great foot-fetish story, The Little Mermaid, who for the sake of love denies her true nature and suffers the agony of it every day. It’s not the red shoes that kill Vicky, it’s the necessity of making this choice between different parts of herself, which drives her mad and leads to her suicide.
You could say that at least Vicky knows exactly what her choices are: true art or true love. La La Land flirts with a darker strain of tragedy in showing how Mia and Seb are both contemplating the sacrifice of health, happiness and love for things that may prove utterly illusory. We root for Mia, but there’s not much evidence from her auditions or performances that she’s genuinely a brilliant actress; Seb’s drive, meanwhile, is not to produce great music, for all his snobbery on the subject, but to open a bar for which no audience may exist. The former pursues fame, the latter a fantasy; they are committed to the dream, but with no confidence that it will actually justify their endeavours.
But the emotions are still real: despair when the dream seems increasingly beyond reach, the feeling of utter failure and the destruction of self-image when Mia gives up and goes home, Seb’s anger and frustration at the compromises that he feels he has to make with his music. Both seem terrified of losing the thing that gives them a sense of themselves. It all feels very familiar from the academic life course, even if for me some of it is well in the past: the feelings of failure and nagging imposter syndrome, the constant questioning of how long it’s worth plugging on with auditions and menial jobs, the sense of having to compromise one’s academic/artistic values for pragmatic ends – and the nagging doubt about whether it’s actually worth the struggle, the suspicion that surely plagues even Seb occasionally that his passion is of no interest to anyone else. Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true? What if it all turns out to have been wasted time? How much is it worth?
This is the curse of the Red Shoes; a punishment not so much for vanity (though that can’t be ruled out completely) but for ambition. We’ve dared to believe in our own possibility; we’ve put on the Red Shoes, and they will drive us to drive ourselves into the ground, to sacrifice others for the sake of art and knowledge, to feel frustrated at every necessary compromise. We do it to ourselves, and that of course is why it really hurts…
*I am conscious that by presenting it in those more general terms I’m moving away from the focus of Rachel’s discussion and the question of gendered roles and expectations. I don’t deny for a moment that there is a long and not yet extinct tradition of male academics solving the problem of the necessary compromise between work and life by dumping all responsibility for domestic and emotion labour onto their long-suffering wives and partners: “Hush, children, Daddy’s writing deathless prose.” But this is slowly changing, as Rachel and a number of the commentators noted, and so the dilemma is becoming more universal even if still very unbalanced.
Indeed – at risk of getting yelled at by a lot of people – I vaguely wonder how far Seb, while in various respects the epitome of the narcissistic male jazz snob (yes, I know the ‘male’ is a bit redundant there), actually takes on more of the traditionally female role in the relationship: he compromises his artistic principles and dreams to make sure there’s a meal on the table (albeit with a fair degree of resentment at the lack of recognition for this – “I thought it’s what you wanted!”), he’s the one who’s constantly urging Mia on and supporting her ambition (yes, he misses her one-woman show – but because he’s stuck with unavoidable commitments as a result of the aforementioned compromising gig, not because he’s off boozing with his mates or prioritising his own ambitions). In both the real ending and Mia’s fantasy alternative, she gets the fame, husband, big house and baby; it’s Seb who’s shown giving up his own dream for her sake – in the fantasy – though of course we don’t get to see his fantasy in which maybe Mia is waiting at home with the kids while he hangs out in his bar…
**Not necessarily that domestic life is getting in the way of my brilliant contributions to scholarship, but more often that the demands of the day job take time away from the veg garden and my development of innovative salami flavours, and heaven only knows when I’ll ever be able to write my novel…