The narcissism of small differences

I was somewhat bemused this week to receive an email from a well-known scholar of esotericism and generalist author on related topics, informing me that they had decided to write a biography of Péladan, and inquiring whether I would be willing to act in an advisory role, especially since it seemed the language barrier (the only reliable information on Péladan is in French) posed them quite a problem.

Considering that I’ve been quite public about my intensive research of Péladan in recent years, this struck me as both amusing, and inappropriate ,and I quickly informed them that I already have several works on Péladan in the pipeline, which cover his biography quite exhaustively. Lest I be misunderstood I should add that while I certainly do not own Péladan, it should be obvious that it is inappropriate for a senior scholar, who has no need of more publicity, to try to filch the hard work of a junior scholar only just starting out on a writing career. Legal it may be; moral it is not.

The possibility of co-authorship was raised, but when I asked for an even 50/50 split of royalties as well as equal control over the structure, design and content of the publication, the other party backed out. I’ll never know what the deal-breaker was, though I have my suspicions. What I do know is that having been the first English-language scholar in several decades to pay any attention to Péladan, and having spent 5 years of my life getting the research right, I wasn’t prepared to give that away for an unpaid and uncredited advisory role. According to my correspondent, this makes me “stand-offish”.

I don’t know whether they will go ahead with publication, nor am I too concerned – discerning readers will know the difference between fantastical claims and proper research. In any case, no two individuals think alike and every subject can be approached from numerous angles. But I am left astonished by the need of some scholars, and some authors, to pick the brains of younger scholars for inspiration, and am also quite perplexed by the promise of accolades (in  a niche market yet) which were supposed to spur me into giving away my work to the lowest bidder.

While pondering what it is that irritated me most about this recent exchange, I realised that it is just one more example of academic politics … a dirty world in which the proverbial low stakes provoke venomous exchanges, and backstabbing worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The bottom line is, I don’t own Péladan, and of course anyone is free to research and publish on him should the whim take them (though I must probably warn – Thar be Dragons!). But I have done the work, and I am not about to give it away. The narcissism of small differences can lead to counterproductive, smouldering feuds  to the detriment of quality work, and celebrity scholars (budding or established) are too often victims of their own narcissism. We all have good minds. So how about using them to help and support each other instead of chasing oneupmanship?

Yes, I know, I’m a quixotic dreamer. But I’m a quixotic dreamer with  a voice and I’m sharing this story as a (health) warning to other young scholars as well as a morality tale for authors and readers alike: when we all become dust it is the quality of your work, not your elusive celebrity that will stand the test of time. And the proverbial Nike had wings for a reason… as the ancient Greeks knew all too well, laurels wither and victory is skittish. Over and out.