I’ve been asked in recent weeks what my life is like now that I’ve submitted the Thesis. I myself asked this very question of colleagues and friends as they too entered the stage between submission and the impending viva. One answer that seems to always come up, and one in which I, again, have agreed with, is that my life is now defined by an odd sense of ‘malaise.’ While others might not agree with my wording here, I think this term perfectly sums up this stage for me.
First, the term’s lexical definition, the definition you might find in a dictionary, seems to fit this stage quite nicely:
1 : an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness
2 : a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being <a malaise of cynicism and despair
Spending years obsessed with writing a long paper takes it’s toll on a person. That’s years of feeling guilty for ‘taking the afternoon off,’ or, as a good friend was once advised to do, ‘take the full weekend.’ That’s years of thinking about the weakness at the end of chapter three, how the conclusion needs to be a bit more nuanced, how you should ‘unpack’ your term usage throughout. That’s years of feeling like everything you write is terrible, that your ideas are too simplistic, that you aren’t saying anything truly unique or different. Then, finally, there’s that feeling that someone, somewhere, will point out how you didn’t read that one obscure text related to your subject, and, of course, that person will be one of your examiners.
This sort of life is a disease in itself, so the malaise that follows is very much a side-effect of replacing these symptoms with those associated with the equally obsessive curiosity about how what you have written is being read. This is a very special kind of malaise, like a bizarre liminal stage, just this side of the threshold that defines us as ‘finished.’ Which also means, it is a different sort of stage than that which defines the post-viva mindset. This, again, is why I think this term is perfect. The viva is like the impending ‘illness,’ so that the malaise felt at this stage is like the ‘lack of health’ indicative of the onset of that illness.
Second, because other people have used this phrase to point out (even metaphorically) similar issues, my usage seems like a good comparative adaption.
Of those ‘other individuals,’ Jimmy Carter is perhaps the most memorable person associated with ‘malaise.’ Thirty-six years ago this week, and in regard to the looming energy crisis, he took to the airwaves with his ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech. In this address, he pointed out and discussed what he referred to as a “fundamental threat to American democracy,” an erosion of the nation’s confidence in itself:
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
He went on to describe what he felt were the precursors to this crisis: the assassinations of President Kennedy, his bother Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr; the violence and defeat in Vietnam; the distrusting results of the Watergate scandal; and the decreased value of the American dollar during a long and arduous inflation. He described much of this as symptomatic of “paralysis and stagnation and drift.”
Here’s a video of the speech, for those interested:
This address became known as the ‘malaise speech,’ a critical association because it eventually came to negatively effect his presidency, ultimately leading to his re-election loss in 1980. Moreover, the term was associated with what he said because, as many critics argued, it merely pointed out Carter’s own criticism of the American people’s mood, his notion of a ‘crisis’ based on his own perception of the despair, ill-feeling, and cynicism emanating from the nation’s public.
While there is much to debate here about Carter’s language use and how it influenced, and was influenced by, the discourse of the American public at this time in history, the terminology is still quite poignant, especially in its association with the ‘crisis’ we might feel in our post-submission confidence. Which leads me back to my own usage.
To conclude, the malaise that I associate here with the post-submission mindset is in its own way indicative of a ‘crisis,’ not only in our confidence of what it is we have written, but in the loss of the obsession that is writing a thesis. It is a malaise defined by this double loss, a horrific perfect storm bolstered by a separation from that which has defined us for years, and the ultimate concern that the typo on page 137 will be the deciding factor in our inevitable failure.
So, in answer to the question, ‘what is life like after the submission,’ perhaps the best response is: not much, emotionally at least. Which is also why I felt it might be useful to write about this malaise, not only for myself, but for others who might have equally experienced this same sort of emotional tempest. That, and because the malaise has taken quite a strong hold on my current perception of the world, and created for me a distinct crisis of confidence in my own work, I really had no idea what to write about this week.