On April 8, I was one of about 45 people who, via Zoom, attended the doctoral dissertation defense of a dear friend of mine named Ligita. I will dispense with the drama forthwith — she passed! — but I will linger on something one of the dissertation committee members said during the proceedings.
The professor in question wanted to call attention not only to the richness of Ligita’s thought, the sharpness of her arguments and the impressive way she charted new theological ground in her research but also to the beauty of her prose. Dissertations are not typically page turners, so anyone who writes one should beam at such a plaudit.
Ligita had more reason still to be proud: Like most people who grew up in Lithuania in the 1980s, she spoke Lithuanian first, and Russian second, from her earliest years. Next up for her was German, which she studied in secondary school. She first made acquaintance with English only in her early 20s, yet it was in that language, not any of the other three, in which she wrote her dissertation.
One of the things that stuck with me most from the defense, however, even more than the fact that this professor applauded Ligita’s prose, was the manner in which he did so. He borrowed a line from Samuel Johnson, an 18th-century British author who wrote in just about every genre imaginable — essays, poems, book reviews, plays and lexica are merely the most well known of his works. Out of the oceans of texts Johnson produced, the professor fished this line: “That which is written without pain is read without pleasure.”
Apparently, the original quotation reads, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure,” but I file the professor’s version of it under the heading, “If this wasn’t the line, it should have been.” To be sure, Johnson is not urging writers to be masochistic or readers sadistic. His point is that it is very hard for anyone to write well. But embarking on the seemingly Sisyphean task of writing and revising over and over again — or as Johnson said, the pain, the effort — is worth it. It is worth it for the reader and, despite the pain, it is worth it for the author as well.
The line from Johnson was ringing in my head even hours after Ligita’s defense because now, as the end of the semester and the start of summer approach, we Hoyas are becoming a more intense community of writers and readers.
For students, final papers, lab reports and take-home exams beckon. For faculty, writing projects that have been put on the back burner for much of the semester will be front and center again by mid-May. For staff, self-evaluations and fiscal year summaries rise to the top of the agenda. For administration, more communiqués are forthcoming to give all of us clarity in the fog that has settled on our world these days. Writers all, we have before us the words and, indeed, the counsel of Johnson. Write with effort! Write with pain!
The effort and the pain are worth it in and of themselves, but more practically speaking, they are worth it because they stand the chance of offering us some pleasure. After all, we are not just writers. We are all readers as well. Professors read papers, editors and reviewers read book manuscripts and submitted articles, supervisors read the work of their direct reports, and virtually all of us read with interest and hope what the people charged with the leadership of Georgetown University send to our inboxes.
In writing this column, I speak as much to myself as to anyone else. I find writing effortful and even, at times, painful. And I am writing in English — my first language. But I also find good writing — writing like Ligita’s — to be so deeply satisfying, so utterly pleasurable. Would that I, would that we, should dedicate ourselves in these weeks and months ahead to bringing our readers pleasure from our writing. But the cost of that pleasure is the author’s to bear. It is worth the cost. It is worth the effort. It is worth the pain.
Fr. Peter Folan, S.J., is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies in the College. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.