The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation
Reflections on home and selfhood in times of trauma (in the context of my doctoral research):
Emmanuel-Philibert de Pingon (1525-1582) begins his autobiography with the line, ‘It is beautiful to consider who we are, and who we have been’ (‘Il est beau d’arrêter sa pensée sur ce que nous sommes, et sur ce que nous avons été’). For the past two years I have devoted many of my days studying ‘who’ Pingon was. He was a poet, diplomat and historiographer at the court of Savoy, as well as a friend to many at the court of France during the Renaissance. I have walked through his home in Turin and touched the mural on his bedroom wall with faded paintings of anonymous faces, the emblem of Savoy, and a small empty mirror. I saw the Roman stones that he collected, preserved to this day in the basement of his home. He had an esoteric and creative spirit, and his poetry concerns my PhD project primarily as I am making a critical edition in which I explore his allusions to classical mythology. While I have enjoyed following his threads up to Mount Olympus and down to Persephone’s underworld, this edition will begin with a study of his life which I am currently in the process of writing.
As I type up his handwritten autobiography, I have been struck by moments in which he discusses some of the harsher 16th-century ‘calamities’ (and constant fear) that he experienced as a young person. The French occupation of Savoy resulted in certain trauma, and he describes the terror of various fires as well as the ‘hardships of plague and famine’ (les rigeurs de les pestes et de la famine) that ravaged his hometown of Chambéry.
My own hometown is Portland, Oregon; a city currently mentioned in international headlines for the federal troops that have been deployed to halt protests regarding the Black Lives Matter movement (without approval from the State of Oregon). This has sparked immense trauma, particularly as the troops have used unprecedented violence (with tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades and other such destructive devices) to stop peaceful protesting. In recent days, media channels have focused on a group of Portland’s mothers who have formed a front line to protect the younger generations, only to be teargassed.
I am proud of the mothers (and fathers) in my hometown who have shown up so courageously to protect other generations in the face of such violence. I am proud of everyone who has shown up for their communities in whatever way they can. The only way to move forward is through such love and protection.
Part of protecting our communities includes doing our part to mitigate the spread of the virus, no matter how ‘safe’ we feel individually in the face of an invisible threat. We are simultaneously learning the same message from so many avenues – that no one is an island unto oneself. If we can collectively learn this lesson, we may actually come out of this just fine.
Something we have in 2020 that previous eras lacked is the ability to reach out to one another immediately and often, despite physical distance. I am grateful to live in a time when no matter how isolated we are, how different our life experiences have been, or how threatening the dangers become, we can still connect with one another and work together to defend our communities.
Pingon writes of the lack of security he felt growing up (‘l’on ne trouvait nulle part de sureté’) yet he proceeds to list his ‘camarades’ in a swift change of subject, as if the invocation of their names lifts some of the pain associated with this memory. At the time in which he wrote his autobiography, Pingon was entering his later years, living in Turin and a long way from his childhood in Chambéry. The way in which he shrouds old trauma with familiar names touched me as I transcribed his text. It hurts being away from the city I grew up in, and from my family and friends back home when I see such violence each day in the news. Unlike in the Renaissance, however, I can reach my hometown whenever I want, even if it is from behind a screen. In this way I have maintained a sense of community (and ‘sureté’) and I do not know what I would do otherwise. I also want to acknowledge how some of my friends’ nations are experiencing similar disruption, chaos and even violence yet we continue to wake up each day and figure out how to move forward together.
I think it comes down to this: no matter what we are going through, we are not alone. It is indeed beautiful to consider who we are, and who we have been, no matter how dangerous the future may appear. This beauty exists primarily, I believe, in how we are shaped by the people who make up our communities (both at home and abroad), and by the extent to which we transcend the barriers of selfhood to protect one another.
As I write Pingon’s biography, I keep returning to one idea: the self is in the many. Perhaps this is key to moving forward.
Alexandra Corey is a PhD candidate in the Department of French under the supervision of Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey. Her dissertation, Emmanuel-Philibert de Pingon (1525-1582): A Biography and a Critical Edition, involves establishing an edition of a large portion of the poetry of Emmanuel-Philibert de Pingon; a poet, historiographer and diplomat at the court of Savoy in the 16th century as well as a study of his life. Her research concerns questions of intertextuality and influence and her project is funded by the 1252 Studentship Award. Alexandra has an MPhil in Comparative Literature (Distinction) from Trinity College Dublin, and a BA in English Literature from Reed College (in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A).
- Identities in Transformation
- School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies
- Department of French
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