Autobiographical Interlude; or, In Which We Continue to Complicate the It Gets Better Narrative

I have been wanting to write a very academic post about the so-called “uncensored” Dorian Gray, an essay by Carlo Ginzburg from a 1980 issue of History Workshop Journal, Freud, postmodernism, the AIDS crisis, and the homoerotic literary tradition. There’s an outline sitting on my desktop, but I have been tired from churning out essays and painstakingly revising the present iteration of the Symonds project, and haven’t been able to marshal my resources. But I have, of course, as always, been thinking. I watched the new episode of Doctor Who tonight, and so I have been thinking about timelines, and my own timeline, and past and present and historical moments and change over time. Maybe I have been thinking about those things because I am a historian, too. Hey, maybe that’s why I feel so drawn to Doctor Who.

But I have been thinking about the strange colliding time-collapsing feeling I had when I saw Symphony in White, No. 1 in the V&A a couple weeks ago, and I have been thinking that term, officially, starts tomorrow, and I find myself realizing that two years ago, the last time I spent some number of weeks reading and writing and thinking on my own outside of an academic term, it was in Washington and I was learning how to believe in beauty. I grew so much that summer—I spent my days with myself, but I grew outside myself. So, too, do I find myself looking back on the past seven weeks spent mostly with my interior monologue (which has developed a disconcerting habit of impersonating Symonds), and being grateful for how I saw the daffodils and the crocuses bloom, and how I took long walks by the river, and how I came to love Oxford with a hurting feeling I know does not wrench my gut for just any love. In these seven weeks I went to Ireland and Scotland, and I went to London, and I made some awesome new friends, and spent time with some awesome old ones (academia: small place), and some of my favorite people in the world came to visit me from the other side of the Atlantic. Yet all the same, how have I grown? I have grown in eight- or nine-hour days in the Upper Reading Room, locked in passive-aggressive fights about whether to keep the window open with the English dons who sit near me in the southeast corner by the nineteenth-century literature reference collection, and reading my way into the mentalité of Oxford 150 years ago. I have grown in the heady enthusiasm of making discoveries, of cutting pages and discovering folios of manuscript material. I have grown in the meals of ever-increasing complexity and variety I have cooked for myself, and in the late nights when I ask the Symonds in my mind what it would mean to him to know that there are gay bars in Oxford today. (I still don’t know how he would react to this information, and I think that if I did I would have a much better JP than I do now.) I have grown because spending so much time alone is always an experiment: when I was in Washington, the interior monologue that led me to bookshops and to Pride and finally, pivotally, to the National Gallery shifted my sphere away from politics, and found for me the compass that guides my life today. I came back to Princeton and I picked a major. I came back to Princeton and I applied to Oxford. I came back to Princeton and I started to talk to my mentors about grad school. I wrote my Oxford application and I saw in it, with its personal statement and writing sample and recommendations, the echo of a grad school application. I went to the information sessions and talked to my friends who know from Oxford and heard how few class hours there are, how much of the work is my own. I learned I would have seven weeks between terms to put to good use on my own. I said to myself that I would cross the ocean, and then I would know whether it would be safe to leave me to my own anxieties, aspirations, and interior monologue for six to eight years, and perhaps the rest of my life.

Today was the last day before the start of the second, and last, term. Today the weather could not have been more perfect, and today I set out bright and early on a charity-shop crawl in search of a dress, because this is Oxford and I am going to a black-tie dinner next weekend, and if I am going to play the part of someone who goes to black-tie dinners, I am going to play by the rules. But before I found a great dress, some hours later, I happened by serendipitous accident into the best secondhand bookshop, and perhaps the most secret bookshop, in all of Oxford. It’s no Oxfam—you won’t find a book there for under £5. But you will find the third volume of Symonds’ Renaissance in Italy, the one on The Fine Arts. And you will find W.H. Mallock’s The New Republic, in lovely early-twentieth-century leather binding. And you will tell yourself that it is simply absurd to spend too much money on the collected works of Pater when the collected works of Pater will not fit in your suitcase. And you will ask for the first time in your life to please see that book behind the locked glass door, because you read the word “Ionica” on the binding and you know it’s one of of a very rare edition of William Johnson Cory’s “Uranian” verse, which was for Symonds a key pinpoint in the homoerotic literary tradition. And the shopkeeper will watch eagle-eyed as you flip through the gilt-edged pages and take in the details; and as your eyes widen when you realize that the label with the Eton crest identifying the Ionica as a prize book is inscribed to someone with the same name as the name on the flyleaf of the Symonds you’re anxiously clutching. And you will buy the Symonds and the Mallock and step out into the sunshine, wondering if you can justify charging the £65 Ionica to your research grant.

For after all, dear reader, it is the last day of seven weeks spent talking to Symonds. And (before finally going back to shopping just at the end of business hours and finding an ideal dress at the last possible minute) I spent hours trying to discover the identity of the man who wrote his name on the flyleaf of my new possession (no fruit has been borne yet, but I haven’t given up). And I spent the rest of the day in a café making my cappuccino last for hours and marking up a JP draft. In the long-shadowed, golden-glowing evening, I mixed fresh vegetables in with my pasta sauce out of a jar, and I watched the new Doctor Who, and wrote a blog post in which I, appropriately, sent tense consistency all to hell. And now I find myself called to reflect. What did I learn over my Easter vacation, dear reader? I learned that the world’s great college towns defy the expectations of minor nineteenth-century men of letters and grow up to have gay bars. And I learned that little girls defy their own self-sabotaging, anguished expectations and grow up to have research grants.

It Gets Better: brought to you by long, hard days of writing an 11,500-word essay in the sweet spring air of the city of dreaming spires. By dint of work and purpose, we make our lives into the very things we dream of inhabiting.

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