Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to writing a dissertation, particularly a dissertation in the humanities (or so it feels to the one writing such a dissertation), is the absolute triviality of it all. No life will be saved if I complete my dissertation. No cancer cured nor heartbreak mended. The world will continue spinning and the universe will continue expanding whether or not I finish and no word I write will make the world spin any faster or the universe achieve its doom any sooner.
My life, generally speaking, is much the same. Some people feel stress because they are pulled in too many directions and bear too many responsibilities. Others feel stress because they are pulled only ever inwardly and bear no responsibilities to others. No more that is, than the very thin responsibility to not be an asshole, or the the very vague responsibility to commit to justice and things for everyone. No one depends upon me for anything. If I do not earn a living, no stomach will suffer but my own. If I do not make something of myself, no person's pride will suffer but my own. If I decide to hide myself in the deepest solitude, no one will be affected. If I ruin myself with hard living, no one stands to be disappointed. In this way I am very, very free. I am entirely free to mean and be nothing. This is, I find, a very burdensome freedom.
My response to such freedom has been indulgent self-pity--yes, I am free to wallow, as well. Instead, I might take a cue from artists, as described by Virginia Woolf.
Further, accentuating all these difficulties [those that attend the creation of a work of genius] and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want.
But I care that Flaubert has found his word, my mind cried out. The world is a poorer, dimmer place if he has not! And that is precisely why and how I and my dissertation can matter. Not in a splashy and important way. We are not, after all, relativity, or a categorical imperative, or the enthymeme. But in a very small way (because I am, myself, very small) I can matter in ways parallel to those in which Flaubert's word matters. No belly goes empty whether Flaubert finds or does not find his word. No cancer cured. I am free to live a life of genius, a life full of moral beauty. No one's needs stand in my way and others can only help, not hinder, my project. The world is indifferent, yes. The world will not pay for the life I want to create. I need to remember that I don't need it to do so. The world will not pay for a line of Flaubert, either, but I wouldn't want to live in a world made up only of things that achieved value in this way.
There is another world. A secret world. An invisible world filled to bursting with invisible value. In this world, empires topple when the right word is not found. There are cancers of the soul for which only the only cure is some expression of aesthetic genius. I am wretchedly free in this art-indifferent world and must learn to bear my responsibilities elsewhere.