I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Do you have a research talisman?

I'm returning, today, to a short post I wrote late last year about this little piece of rock I picked up from the Merri Creek:


I was thinking about this rock this afternoon when I gave a talk in my department that was a mash-up of two recent papers I've written on Samuel Pepys and the great fire of London, comparing some modern responses to Pepys's journal as a document in the history of emotions; and some texts and objects associated with the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February, 2009.

Here Pepys is writing on the fourth day of the fire:
up to the top of Barkeing steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw. Everywhere great fires. Oyle-cellars and brimstone and other things burning. I became afeared to stay there long; and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it (VII, 276)
 But later that day, he went out walking again in Cheapside:
And took up (which I keep by me) a piece of glass of Mercers' chapel in the street, where much more was, so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire, like parchment (VII, 277). 
So too I picked up a piece of basalt from the creekpath by my house, as a talisman of my project. Not quite the same as Pepys' glass, as my stone "speaks" to the present and the future of the writing of my book, not the past as a remembered traumatic event. It's not a nostalgic souvenir, nor a relic. But as my colleague Peter pointed out in question time, Pepys' glass and other objects retrieved from fire function as markers of control. Several of the objects I talked about were forged and/or fused by fire, collected and held for a while by home owners, then eventually given to the Museum. These objects are like Freud's child's cotton reel in the fort-da game: the child learns to compensate for/control the absence of the mother with control over the disappearance and reappearance of the object.

Talisman seems the right word here. But what is a talisman? According to the OED, the word is of Arabic origins, and means something like an amulet, a magic, occult or powerful object, perhaps a ring inscribed with occult signs of astrological or planetary configurations. (There's nothing etymologically "manlike" about the suffix.) I don't think I really knew what this word meant, and was embracing the idea of something secular, but looks as if the word means a good luck charm. I suppose, in the end, that's what it's for.

And after giving my paper today (even to gorgeous local colleagues) I realised again, how much we subject ourselves to scrutiny and judgement in our work. I am happy with my two papers, but was very nervous about submitting myself to my colleagues' judgements. I currently have some work on other projects being read by referees, too, as academics usually do. So it's not surprising if I should seek a way to control such anxiety with my little rock that I can grasp in my hand, and measure its physical limits as the project grows and grows.

So here's my question for researchers. Do you have a talisman?

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