QOTD (2011-10-10); or, Princeton Sunday

From Plato’s Phaedrus, 251-252C, translated by Harold Fowler:

But he who is newly initiated, who beheld many of those realities, when he sees a godlike face or form which is a good image of beauty, shudders at first, and something of the old awe comes over him, then, as he gazes, he reveres the beautiful one as a god, and if he did not fear to be thought stark mad, he would offer sacrifice to his beloved as to an idol or a god. And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat; for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the germ of the feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting, become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul; for it was once all feathered. Now in this process the whole soul throbs and palpitates, and as in those who are cutting teeth there is an irritation and discomfort in the gums, when the teeth begin to grow, just so the soul suffers when the growth of the feathers begins; it is feverish and is uncomfortable and itches when they begin to grow. Then when it gazes upon the beauty of the boy and receives the particles which flow thence to it (for which reason they are called yearning), it is moistened and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy; but when it is alone and grows dry, the mouths of the passages in which the feathers begin to grow become dry and close up, shutting in the sprouting feathers, and the sprouts within, shut in with the yearning, throb like pulsing arteries, and each sprout pricks the passage in which it is, so that the whole soul, stung in every part, rages with pain; and then again, remembering the beautiful one, it rejoices. So, because of these two mingled sensations, it is greatly troubled by its strange condition; it is perplexed and maddened, and in its madness it cannot sleep at night or stay in any one place by day, but it is filled with longing and hastens wherever it hopes to see the beautiful one. And when it sees him and is bathed with the waters of yearning, the passages that were sealed are opened, the soul has respite from the stings and is eased of its pain, and this pleasure which it enjoys is the sweetest of pleasures at the time. Therefore the soul will not, if it can help it, be left alone by the beautiful one, but esteems him above all others, forgets for him mother and brothers and all friends, neglects property and cares not for its loss, and despising all the customs and proprieties in which it formerly took pride, it is ready to be a slave and to sleep wherever it is allowed, as near as possible to the beloved; for it not only reveres him who possesses beauty, but finds in him the only healer of its greatest woes.

I avoided the Jowett translation this time, because Jowett changes the pronouns, but when Symonds had tutorials with Jowett when he was the age that I am now, he read the Phaedrus and he underlined this passage. Today, almost exactly one hundred and fifty years later, far from the city of dreaming spires where Symonds set pencil to page, it was Sunday. It was not an Oxford Sunday, and so I did not wake up to churchbells and, because the library was shut, pace my room all day while listening to Radio 3. But I did have two meals with friends today, and I did write eight pages of my thesis about when Symonds was my age and learning how to read and how to think and how to love, and I did think deeply today about matters of love, and what it means to love one’s friends, and what it means to love one’s neighbors as oneself.

At 9pm in the Princeton chapel there is a high-church Episcopal choral eucharist, a service both familiar from the ritual from my Oxford Sundays and simultaneously very alien: American in unexpected ways, and in others much more demanding than an Oxford service is of a kind of devotion and religiosity that I am unwilling, unable, to give. But the sermons are smart, and today the sermon was, after a fashion, about loving one’s neighbor, about (as so many sermons are) really properly walking the walk of Jesus’s teachings and rejoicing in the love—the communion—between all the people who know and follow Christ.

Well, I channel this ecclesiastical language, but it’s not my own. Why, then, do I go to a service that reminds me whenever I go that it is not my religious tradition, not my spiritual community, not my place to take, eat the wafer and take, drink the wine? I go in part because I want to understand what the Eucharist means to the people who value it, and why it is so shrouded in mystery for them, which is something that seems important enough to western history to try to understand. But I also go because although the language of the Book of Common Prayer isn’t mine, it does give me some tools to access my own kind of religious tradition. Because this was a Princeton Sunday, when I walked down the chapel steps at a quarter past ten onto a silent, deserted plaza lit by a full moon, I immediately crossed the plaza and descended to a desk covered in books on the bottom floor of the library, and bent my head over a green Loeb volume that had something to say about love. Pagan love, idolatrous love, the love of ο παις καλος that a certain Anglican churchman who wrote about The Interpretation of Scripture once said was “mainly a figure of speech.” But you know what? It wasn’t until I started going to church in the old-fashioned atheist-humanist way of Oxford Sundays that I started to know what love, any love, could be: that it is a force with the power to transform souls and lives, to bring out all that is worst in people and all that is best, and that it is something that we can never fully apprehend but that inspires us to greatness all the same. Love can inspire us to worship gods, be they the Holy Trinity or beautiful boys, and to sacrifice ourselves—sometimes ill-advisedly, but sometimes wisely—to their might.

My Princeton Sunday ended at 11:45pm when, as deep as one can be in the bowels of the university library, the closing bell rang out once, twice, three times. I ascended from the land of beautiful boys out again into the night, and with a passing nod to the hulking figure of the land of Jesus Christ, its stained-glass murky in the moonlight, I trudged the all-too-familiar route back to my land, back to a room in college. I sit here now, the hour getting later, acutely aware that I have a 10am lecture I must not miss again, but wondering above all how to translate Phaedrus-love and Church-love into my love. For as often as I go to church, and as deep as I steep myself in the homoerotic literary tradition, neither faith is truly mine. Short a doctrine, the work of knowing what I live for, how I love, will take all the days of my life.

But I can’t help thinking that if Hellenism and Hebraism are in accord on this point, if John 13:34 (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another”) rings out in harmony with Howard’s End (“Only connect”), the old-fashioned humanist might have a path through a lonesome valley to walk down. Term is marching on and the work is getting harder, but this week I am going to try loving: my work, my friends, my teachers, my students, my colleagues, my family far away—and maybe, in the very end, myself. I am going to mingle Hellenism and Hebraism, pleasure and pain, and try to wake up tomorrow morning strong in the desire to make myself and my world better.

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