Success has a way of engendering failure.
For example, when an academic publishes a major study on a subject, he is apt to get invited to lecture here, there, and everywhere on the same subject and to contribute an essay to a journal or an edited volume on that subject. This is what happened to me when I published Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution 1992). It happened against when I published Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (2008); and again when I published Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic (2009); and again when I published Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Project (2009). The results were gratifying, and to a modest degree the honoraria helped pay the bills. But, each time, they got in the way of my getting on with a new project (it has, for example, been a while since I have had the time to write even a paragraph about Sparta, the current focus of my research).
In the case of many academics, this is the end of it. One success – and they are shackled to a subject for the rest of their careers. It is hard to get loose, and there is little point in trying to do so – especially if one teaches at a major research university where one his shoe-horned into a narrow niche within one’s discipline. Then, one’s teaching responsibilities get in the way of breaking free, and it is dubious whether one would be rewarded for succeeding in doing so. I have profited from the fact that, apart from a very brief spell at the beginning of my career, I have taught in small places with small departments in which I was expected to teach a broad range of subjects and – more to the point – allowed to do so.
I mention my case and what I have seen about me for a reason. I suspect that the same principle applies in other fields. Consider acting.
Now, I must be frank. I do not know much about the subject. When I was in graduate school, I roomed with an old friend who was then enrolled at the Yale Drama School. He was interested in criticism, but he knew those studying acting – Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep, among them. Had I been inclined, I could no doubt have gotten to know these people. But my focus was my own work, and I missed the opportunity. I have never once had an extended conversation with a professional actor about the profession.
So I am guessing when I express the suspicion that Mel Gibson and Al Pacino are illustrations of my thesis. I have seen both in numerous movies. When Gibson starred in My Year of Living Dangerously and in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Hamlet, he showed what a genius of an actor he could be. When he appeared in most of the films I have seen him in, he simply did his shtick. It is pretty good, but once you have seen him do it twice you know it for what it is.
The same is true of Pacino. In The Godfather and in Godfather II, he inhabited the role, and the same is true of his rendition of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. But I have seen him in a great variety of films in which he simply did his Al Pacino shtick.
My bet is that these actors at some point demonstrated one side of their abilities, and from that time on, like many an academic whom I have known, they allowed themselves to be typecast. It was profitable; it was easy; and we have all lost in the process.
Am I right? And does this extend into other fields?