I just (finally) watched the film of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys. I laughed, I cried, I felt a little emotionally richer at the end, and I was particularly moved by this line, spoken by the pathetic (in the sense of pathos) “general studies” teacher Hector:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular, to you; and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met—maybe even someone long-dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
The context of the play makes clear what is so arresting about this line: it’s not giving much away to say that Hector has at the time he delivers this line been told that he’s being fired for fondling one of his students; the boy to whom he delivers it, Posner, is starting to realize that he’s not just going through the proverbial phase. I sit here and think that there is little but the fashions and the language of the 1980s (when the play is set) to distinguish Hector’s sentiment from that of J.A. Symonds, who wrote so movingly of how, when a pupil at Harrow, he discovered Plato; who wrote so movingly to Whitman asking confirmation of the passion he saw reflected back at him from Leaves of Grass because he himself had been tortured by its intensity. It is the story of nearly every literary gay memoir in the history of literary gay memoir—and it’s why I read literary gay memoir. For whatever reasons, perhaps more reasons than I can fully identify, this sentiment is as important to me as it was to the men whom I study.
But I think it’s The History Boys, more than Symonds or Whitman or Wilde or Isherwood or Edmund White or even (though I certainly wouldn’t put him in a class with the others) Stephen Fry, which makes the point that you don’t need to be a gay man to know that literature can speak to you in a private, personal way that no other sort of encounter can manage. The play, and the film it’s become, is saturated with homoeroticism and (dare I say it) paiderastia, but it speaks to a more universal desire for knowledge, a more universal desire to teach, a more universal caring for literature, than what a gay boy’s bildungsroman of an autobiography can give those of us who have not had the very same experience, similar though our trajectories of self-doubt and growing self-awareness may be. The Special Relationship one has with the writers with whom one grew up is not a Uranian or an Arcadian thing, it’s a human thing: I too came to know myself before friends, before professors, when books were all I had. I too, when I was alone, learned through literature the words for my thoughts and emotions: Love. Fear. Anger. Sadness. Longing. Hope. And I, too, have gone off to university—an American playacting at the Oxford of Symonds, and of history boys and history girls—and while I hope I don’t end up like Hector, I do hope I shall like him thank my books for what they’ve done.
Last night I had another meltdown of fear and self-doubt, feeling unable to fulfill the requirements of becoming what I think I must become. But after watching The History Boys I feel quite inclined to consign to the trash heap of sleep-deprived nighttime insecurities my rantings and ravings about my thesis and graduate school and the job market. You don’t need all those things, or even any of those things, to be a teacher. You just need to believe that books can speak to you, and to your students, in a way that material concerns can and will not; and you need further to believe in your students and care for them at least as much as you do for your books and your sad and lonely gay men who write them. And I don’t know whether I can write a thesis or write a dissertation or write a book. I don’t know whether, if I set out to do so, I’d have anything worth saying. But I know that I love my books and that if I were allowed to talk about them for just a few hours a week, my students would love them too, would know what it is to feel a special connection with writing which has touched them.