Here’s something that folks don’t normally talk about: studying art can be extremely emotionally draining.
Investing one’s full self into anything is draining. If you have a career which you are passionate about, you will go through phases of utter and complete investment (of course followed by “down time” to recover yourself in order to push for the next accomplishment… it’s inevitable; we can’t give 150% of ourselves at every single moment).
When your career is centered around dealing closely with bodies of artwork that you, personally, find meaningful, it means that every reading or encounter with that artwork has the potential to move you. I’m not saying it will; simply that it might. And when you are dealing with art on a daily basis from a critical perspective, there are some things you must read at certain times. You can’t avoid it.
But, being a human being, you have a personal life outside of your work. And sometimes your work and your personal life clash in an unpleasant way. This is particularly upsetting when you may be going through an emotional crisis. In his book Will and Me (a great read, by the way, for anyone who has a remote interest in Shakespeare geekery), Dominic Dromgoole admits that certain plays of Shakespeare tend to find him when he is emotionally available to them (he specifically mentions reading Hamlet after the death of his father). This kind of personal connection to the work brings new revelation both about the piece in question and about one’s self. Really, I can think of no better guide to the human spirit than my man Will.
Every time I have encountered a play of Shakespeare’s in this way, I have been absolutely
astounded at how accurately his characters behave in circumstances similar to mine. I have continually wondered at how one man could encapsulate such a great spectrum of the human emotional experience (as, by the way, have countless other scholars – this is one of the arguments that the heated authorship debate is based in). Whomever Will was, I can assure you that he knew things about living; he knew people, he knew pain, he knew heartache, he knew love, and he knew desire.
So how is it, then, that we are able to compose ourselves through whatever it is we’re dealing with and focus past it into the work that’s presented itself to us? Certainly a degree of critical distance is helpful – if you can view the text before you as text rather than an emotional journey, it will help you to detach. If you can focus on the minutiae of what’s going on rather than give a general reading, it can assist in this; when you’re looking at the mechanical functionings of something, it’s much more difficult to become attached to an artistic whole.
Put your theory glasses on. Try and put the piece in context and then pull it out of context. Deconstruct the art; really break it down into nuts and bolts. Again, if you’re looking at pieces, it’s harder to become emotionally involved with it.
If you really can’t see past the big stuff, take a moment, walk away, deal with what you need to deal with (I find that journaling is generally good for this), then come back. When you come back, make it business. Change out of your pajamas if you have to (yes, I know, the cardinal sin of academia: working in real-people-pants while in your own home). I find it’s a lot more difficult to invest emotionally while wearing pants.
Remember this: at the end of the day, this is your job. You may love it, you may be devoted to it, it may overflow into many other aspects of your life, but it’s what pays the bills. Show me an engineer that weeps over robots on a daily basis, think about how ridiculous that is, then remind yourself that getting caught up in your work (while very easy to do) is equally ridiculous. It’s not sustainable, healthy, or good for you in any way.
….This does not, by the by, mean that I will be able to restrain myself from weeping every time I reach the end of King Lear. It does, however, mean that I’ll at least acknowledge the ridiculousness, allow myself to be human, and eat more ice cream when I’m working on Lear.