Those of you who are Princeton students are no doubt aware of a certain Master of Rockefeller College given to holding forth to a large Facebook audience on life and literature and a combination of the two. A fan of his notes since I first became a member of his college 18 months ago, I’ve had particular reason in the past several weeks to slowly wade my way through his backlog. I’m just getting now to the ones he was writing my first few weeks here, and it’s quite strange to be reading these again in quite a different frame of mind. I remember, then, not understanding why I couldn’t understand what he was writing, why its meaning wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I remember feeling lost, as lost as I felt in my French class, when I didn’t understand the teacher; in meetings for the student publication I briefly wrote for, when I wasn’t as charismatic or articulate as the other writers; and out at Terrace on Saturday nights, when I sat alone in a corner and played with my iPod. I loathed myself: for being so stupid, for failing to integrate seamlessly into a foreign culture so far removed from my California public high school. I phoned my parents in tears and begged to come home for fall break.
But now it’s the second time around, the second read. I quit the publication; I stopped going to Terrace. I never stopped feeling stupider than all my classmates, and sometimes it still drives me to tears—but it’s all redeemed when I get good feedback from a professor, as occasionally I do. I have friends, good ones. And far from sitting in a corner in a well of shyness and discomfort and fear, I’ve discovered that what I do best is talk. I talk in precept, I talk on this blog and on Facebook, I talk in committee meetings, I talk at parties and study breaks, I talk when I’m at home—in the Rocky dining hall, that is. I talk about eating clubs, about how it seems like everyone at this university is in the closet, about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, about why the American political system is going to hell in a handbasket. And I’ve found out that when you talk enough, people expect you to do things. I’ve been asked to help start organizations and publications, to make things happen, to change the world.
When I talk on this blog, more often than not, it comes back to haunt me. I am not democratically (little-d!) impartial; I do not withhold my political views about my community or about the United States. I get pushback for being one of them legacies, for example, and a post I wrote back in September about dominant Princeton culture has gotten a disconcertingly large amount of mileage. I have tried, as a result, to write less about my life, to bitch a little less, to engage more intellectually with my world. I have tried to make myself think and to make other people think—and if I am going to bitch, I try to bring a method to my bitchiness. As I have learned to write about history, I have blogged about history. As I have learned to write about literature, I have blogged about literature. And as I have learned to engage with the world as an adult, I have blogged about that process too.
Sometimes I think that to an outside reader, my posts must seem as impenetrable as a certain college master’s did to me 18 months ago—except that mine are not impenetrable in a way that makes the reader want to learn how to read them properly! And sometimes I wonder whether the ethics of my blogging are appropriate, whether I do the right thing to mix the academic so inextricably with the personal, whether I do the right thing to be so forthcoming about the private angst that dogs my days. Does the world need to know that I am still, after 18 months, resolutely tortured by insecurity and guilt and shame at my failure to perform to academic heights? Does the world care how terrified I am that it seems as if my entire life hangs in the balance of one single professional goal which has become near-impossible to achieve?
Reader, I think all this angst must serve some instrumental purpose. It has to. It has to because writing is the road through angst, and has always been—but it also is a declaration that the rhythm of weekends (Thursday night drinking, Friday morning hangover, Saturday night drinking, Sunday morning hangover, Sunday night spent catching up on the weekend’s work) is meaningless to those who have spent their whole weekends in the library. It is a reminder that if seeking validation and self-worth in a dominant social culture that alienates you isn’t working out, you can after all these years of insecurity and self-loathing find a reason for being in books and in words, in writing and in talking. Of course, there are perils in this approach, the foremost being that now if you feel as if you’ve turned in sub-par written work, or if you gave a strange professor a first impression of stupidity and inanity, you’re disconsolate for days. Now you risk being formed only by what you have done, and thus it is imperative that you do Enough, and it is never possible to do Enough. And no matter how well the life of the mind works out, that much time spent tracing the same path between bedroom, dining hall, library, and coffeeshop, and pacing back and forth across 120 square feet of life above an early-20th-century Gothic-revival archway, can get just a little claustrophobic.
But do you know why it’s okay? It’s because you’re just twenty years old and you know that you’ve already discovered your reason for being. You read and read and talk and talk and slowly the secrets of great texts are unlocked; slowly you permeate the surface of those once impermeable Facebook notes. You read. And you talk. And most days you go to bed exhausted, depressed, dissatisfied with yourself. But some days, when the sun shines just right through the windows of your mostly-subterranean library refuge, and you’re listening to Tchaikovsky and drinking your coffee and suddenly the blank verse you’re reading makes so much sense that you have to scramble for pen and paper to note it down—then you remember why you’re doing this, why the greatest and lasting joy is to be found in what you do, what you were—in some sense—fated to do. What you’ve known since you were thirteen that you would do. It’s then, in those single, singular moments, that you know beyond any reasonable doubt that you’ve sold your soul to the ivory tower—and that you never, ever want to leave.