August 20, 2011 § Leave a comment
This past week, I learned that one of the central characters in my dissertation is buried in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. So today, armed with the division, line, row and grave number, off I went. Turns out, it is really hard to find a single gravestone in Père-Lachaise cemetery. The place is huge. The inner rows are narrow and rambling and not numbered. I found the division I was looking for, but I could not tell where it started or ended. Where to begin counting the rows and lines and graves? I was lost. But I was lucky, in a sense, because cemetery staff were in the division preparing for a burial. Between one Spanish speaking tourist armed with a map and three funeral workers and a guard, I was finally led to the grave I was looking for. And I was moved.
I have been reading this man’s correspondence and notes, accumulating more and more knowledge about his life, creating an image and understanding of him in my mind, but visiting his grave, where he is buried with his wife and his mother, reminded me that I am writing about a real person, a historical actor, but also a son, husband, father. A loved person. This is a reminder that I find very useful and refreshing. It is easy to get sucked so completely into the dissertation research and writing process that other aspects of your personal life disappear. This is, not surprisingly, unhealthy. I am also beginning to figure out that it is not in fact necessarily beneficial to the dissertation.
I want to write a history that is also a story, containing individuals whose thoughts and actions intrigue the reader while teaching them something new about a very particular time and place. If I want my dissertation to one day become a book, which is of course the ultimate goal of this whole process, then it needs to be readable and to reach people on some personal level. So if I remember to treat my characters as people, and to treat whoever might be in my life in the same way, I will be better off in the end personally and professionally! Right?
For the moment, the main person in my life is buried in Père-Lachaise and I visited him today. I placed a small, smooth, round white stone on his grave (the Jewish version of placing flowers on a grave to pay respect) and spoke to him. I introduced myself, explained why I was there and that I hoped to honor his life, work, and memory. I hope that he approves. And I hope that no one heard me because I was talking out loud to a gravestone in the middle of a huge cemetery filled with tourists.