In the Interests of Accountability; or, Lost Causes, the Good, and the Beautiful

Since I last wrote here, the first of my two Oxford terms came to an end. In the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed visits from my father and from some friends from Princeton, I’ve made lots of new friends at Trinity, particularly among the graduate student body (or, as they say here, the MCR), and I’ve switched academic gears in a big way. From churning out one or two eight-page essays a week, I’ve gone to major big-picture conceptualizing of my senior thesis, and starting work on what will one day be the first chapter of it, my spring JP. In little moments snatched between languid walks across Port Meadow, harried sightseeing in London, and several pints of bitter, I wrote a five-page proposal for my thesis, which I’m submitting as a part of my applications for summer research funding. As I emailed drafts back and forth with my adviser, I became terrified by the enormity of the project I am taking on; as I walked miles through the green spaces of Oxford and rode miles underground across London, my mind drew scary blanks on how I would start to write my JP, which is not as far along as my fall JP was this time last semester. The last of my guests left this afternoon and college has emptied itself eerily out for the vacation. I went to Tesco this afternoon and bought £15 worth of ingredients I can make into meals with a single saucepan and a hob in the JCR kitchen. I dithered: uploading pictures to Facebook, catching up on magazines and iPlayer, writing letters to the editor. And it wasn’t until 10pm, after I’d submitted my first thesis funding application and dithered in front of the Victorian literature shelves in the college library, the dinner dishes glaring at me from the washbasin in my room, that I realized I needed a plan, and a method by which I can remain accountable to it, if I am to have a draft of my JP in to my adviser by May 1. (“A draft?!” I hear you say, Princeton juniors? Yes: because I am doing a JP on top of a full Oxford courseload, and because Oxford’s academic year goes well into June, I have a month-long extension.)

And so here, for the whole internet to read, it is: tomorrow I will return to the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian for the first time in two weeks, write some deadlines and benchmarks for the next six weeks in my diary, and start to make a skeleton outline of my JP. A week from tomorrow, I am going on holiday to Ireland for a week, but by then I will have read all my primary sources, and a reasonable number of secondary ones. When I return, I will have just over three weeks to pull together 30 pages on three themes in the intellectual background and Victorian cultural context of John Addington Symonds’ writing on homosexuality—yes, that’s a week on Henry Sidgwick, T.H. Green, and ethics; a week on Benjamin Jowett, Matthew Arnold, and Hellenism; a week on Walt Whitman, democracy, and the British fantasy of America; and a few days in which to hash out my critical space with respect to the historiography and to draw some conclusions about what is innovative about Symonds’ theory of male homosexuality in his late-Victorian context. Frankly, dear reader, I am terrified.

But after eight weeks at Oxford, I can just about manage to write at least a draft of an intellectually interesting essay in a week, and I know how fortunate I am to have the vacation to focus on only this, and a month after next term starts to revise and make it good. I know how fortunate I am that when writer’s block strikes, I can leave the Bod and walk through the Parks and think, “Symonds would have known this path.” I know how fortunate I am that I can go in the same day to the University Museum and to hear Evensong sung in Christ Church Cathedral, and can think about how much Symonds and others like him struggled to reconcile the conflicting identities of those two very different Gothic buildings.

I have been in England ten weeks, now, and I am starting to miss Princeton—or, to be specific, Rocky College and my Princeton family—desperately. I am thinking daily about the friends who are growing and changing every day without me to see them do so, and the friends who will leave Princeton in June whom I worry I will never see again. Following the life of my home for three years on the Internet, I come across gems like this which make me proud to represent my university (and more particularly my own small community and university family) abroad, and which far outweigh the number of times I have had to explain to a new acquaintance here in Trinity College that Princeton makes admissions decisions based on academic merit as well as on athletic ability or legacy status. I did not think that I would find myself identifying with Princeton even in another academic institution. I have always thought of myself as someone who lives in and is defined by the culture of universities, but I did not realize that one University with a capital U would loom so large in a life with so much academic peregrination still ahead of it.

But even as I nearly cried putting my friends from Princeton on a bus to Heathrow this afternoon, I knew it was right for me to come to Oxford. Reasons of cultural diversity and realizing that Princeton really is, as someone once said to me, the Disney version of Oxford aside, I could not have written as good a JP as I am now writing if I had never seen the place where Symonds’ intellectual and cultural compass was formed. I am discovering (with thanks due to some key observations from my adviser and from my Victorian history tutor this term) that the primary problem I have with much of the existing work on Symonds is that it does not invest itself fully in what it meant to be and to think like a Victorian, Oxford-educated intellectual. It does not adjust its outlook to a very narrow circle of men (and the very occasional women) preoccupied with large-looming questions about how to live a good life in a modernizing, industrializing, capitalizing, secularizing age—questions which we oh so (too?) rarely consider as vital as someone like Symonds must have done. We in the 21st century can’t really know what it was like to think like a Victorian, I suppose, but we can get flashes of realization when the Magdalen choir sings the Magnificat or when we see Ruskin’s watercolors up close in the Ashmolean Print Room or when we walk out along the Isis into countryside that is literally the stuff of poetry. When one lives in Oxford one sees how someone like Symonds, or someone like Arnold, or someone like Ruskin, or someone like Pater, or someone like Wilde (for they were all such different individuals and thinkers), built an aesthetic compass, and rendered it so central to their cosmologies that the pursuit of happiness or of knowledge or of beauty, as well as the building of a better world, seemed possible. In Oxford, where dreaming spires reached to Heaven and no dark Satanic mills could pour coal dust into the sky, the search for “sweetness and light,” the quest “to burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame,” the mission “to live with steady purpose in the whole, the Good, the Beautiful,” the possibility that one might be able—as Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”—”to live,” seemed realizable. To Symonds, who died before the Wilde trials sounded out loud and clear all sorts of appellations for the love that dare not speak its name, it was worth dedicating one’s life to a particular strain of humanistic inquiry whose overarching purpose was to develop a cultural and literary history and a set of ethical precepts governing what he was the very first person to call male homosexuality. And would he have done so had he not learned to think in the “home of lost causes”? Back here in the present in a room on Broad Street, the Trinity bells are sounding midnight, and I can’t help but think that without Oxford so many things—from Symonds’ first forays into academia to mine—would have been quite impossible.

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