A Year in Review: Lessons Learned and Things to Be Done; or, On What Matters

This has been a year of comings and goings. I ended 2010 with a post on that theme, suggesting that I had it All Figured Out: that the university qua idea was my home, that I was at ease with myself and my place in the world, that I was psychologically prepared to spend the majority of the coming calendar year living abroad alone.

Of course, things were a bit trickier than that. I filled the pages of this blog quite a bit over the coming year, and particularly those parts that I spent in the UK. All year, as I travelled from British Columbia to Princeton, from Princeton to Oxford, from Oxford to Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, London, Bristol, and back again, from Oxford to Princeton and New York and Rhode Island and southern California and back to Princeton and finally back to the sun-drenched kitchen table with a view of the San Juan Islands where I wrote last year that I was done searching—well, dear reader, I searched. I searched for myself, I searched for others, I searched for places to live and people to love, I searched for goodness and for emptinesses and ways to fill them. I got some answers, then found I had still more questions.

Sitting again at the kitchen table with the Christmas tablecloth, catching up on the Radio 3 Christmas programming, rejoicing that the sun is out and warming the house for the first time in a week, I find myself facing a year of more comings and goings. On the fifth of June I am finally going to have my long-dreamt-of bachelor’s degree, and the university and town where I have lived for much of the past three and a half years isn’t going to be my home anymore. Yesterday, I was researching flights and looking at a map of Europe and dreaming very big indeed about the new places I want to see this summer. In October I will cross the Atlantic again, I will come back to the city of dreaming spires, I will spend a day parading around in subfusc and just like that I’ll be a member of a university again.

But it will be so different from the last time: my eyes won’t widen in alarm at all the trappings of Oxford pomp and circumstance—in part because I’ve seen it all before, but in part because I will be a grad student, an adult, who lives in a flat and cycles into town every day to go to work in the Upper Reading Room. And what, I have to ask, does this mean for comings and goings, for people and places, for my presently long-distance relationship with the city of Oxford, my first love? What does this mean for loving? What does this mean for connecting?

I first heard E.M. Forster’s name seriously mentioned over a year ago. Of course, I’d heard it before; of course, me being me, most of what I knew about him was that he was gay, or something like it. But I didn’t think that he was someone I ought to read until, in September 2010 or thereabouts, a friend whose literary acumen I highly esteem happened to say that reading Forster in high school had determined him to study literature. This remark had a strong impression on me, and it percolated in the back of my mind until one morning towards the end of last Trinity term when I woke up with a strong desire to Get Into Forster right then and there. I dashed out of college and down Broad Street and into Blackwells and up the stairs to the secondhand department; I bought Howards End, Maurice, and Wendy Moffat’s new Forster biography, which another literary friend had suggested I would enjoy. I came home, I put the books on my shelf, and then I went back to Symonds, and the moment passed. I read the Moffat biography in Paris, and found it very interesting. I read Maurice in London, saw Symonds’ ideas in it, and thought it would be quite useful to the reception chapter of my thesis. But Howards End languished in a suitcase in Oxford, and then it languished on my overflowing bookshelves in Princeton. And then a few weeks ago it was midnight in the room of another friend whose literary acumen I esteem, and we were both trying very hard indeed not to do our schoolwork. He read aloud to me from Howards End and A Room With a View, and I saw what all the fuss was about. As soon as I’d discharged my obligations to my graduate seminar in the history of sexuality and my survey of modern British history and my art history seminar on natural history in America and that literary theory class I decided to audit for some reason, I opened the cover of that Penguin paperback with the Blackwell’s pricetag still on it: One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

It took me two days to read the book, out here in semi-annual Canadian exile. Very near to the end, there is this exchange between Helen and her sister, Margaret:

“… There’s something wanting in me. I see you loving Henry, and understanding him better daily, and I know that death wouldn’t part you in the least. But I—Is it some awful appalling, criminal defect?”
    Margaret silenced her. She said: “It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others—others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don’t you see that all this leads to comfort in the end? It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.

The Penguin paperback is now dog-eared and pencilled beyond all recognition, but of all the monologues where Forster’s own ideas about love and connection burst through the narrative, this is my favorite. I think it speaks better to the more quotidian questions we might have about how to get on in our oh-so-human lives than does the earlier, perhaps more famous, “Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer” bit. I think it has something special to say about the fact that what we may regard as a failure in ourselves—inability to love sufficiently—may simply be evidence that we love differently. And I like that it acknowledges—as Forster does in Howards End several times—that “A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow.”

Because, you see, this year I feel as if I’ve fallen in love with everything but people. I fell in love with Oxford, which I hope I’ll always hold dear as my first love: the only passionate amour I’ve had that I felt was alive, was reciprocated, in terms equal to my own. I fell in love with the idea, or perhaps the ideas, of love: with ἀγάπη and ἔρως, with the universalist commandment to love thy neighbor and with what Plato says happens when one beholds one’s particular beloved: one’s soul “is moistened and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy.” I fell in love with the idea of the salvific, grace-giving force of humanity. I fell in love with the idea that only connecting will help us through our muddles and heal the wounds of our messed-up world.

By the time I read Howards End last week I felt as if I knew this—I’d been working toward it all year. It was there in what I thought about Symonds and in what he thought about l’amour de l’impossible. (For, after all, I have written more words about Symonds this year than I have ever written about anything in my life, and the love—for a rather small and unimportant man who has been dead over a hundred years—that it requires to sustain a project of this length and type is great indeed.) It was there when I thought about how we all make our own cultural compasses, and how so often what teaches we lonely dorky kids to love is the books that tell us that we’re not alone. It was there when I thought about the meaning of theology, of grace, of taking love on faith.

I know that my discovery of Christianity as a discourse that makes sense to me has unnerved, disturbed, and troubled some of my readers. But in a funny way it’s what really made Howards End the apotheosis of this Year in Emily’s Ideas. Christianity is a system of religious devotion that people have created to help them to access the universe’s great mysteries, and the beautiful words of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are therefore a part of the “religion of humanity,” of all that is good in our world where people live—where, since we can’t answer the most fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and its first causes and why what is good is good, we’ve just got to get on with loving each other, since each other and the things we can create are all we have. Sometime between Episcopalian Lessons and Carols in the last week of term and Christmas Day, I was much impressed by this excerpt from a post UMass-Amherst philosophy professor Louise Antony wrote on the NY Times’ “Stone” blog:

Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you.  I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.

Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant.  I think just the opposite — they would become surpassingly important.

If the Earth is our world and it is all we have, it is our responsibility to do all the loving, all the forgiving, all the good works, all the bettering. We’ve got to make the most of our time in it, no matter what we might or mightn’t think will happen to us when we die. We’ve got to make sure that every day, we wake up sure in the knowledge that today we will get better, we will be better, we will do better, we will treat others better. I thought a lot this year about bettering, about how we treat others, about how we behave amongst others. Now, having the Forsterian language at my disposal, I might say that a prerequisite for connecting is sociability—by which I mean keeping yourself open to meeting others and learning from them and being willing to teach if there is something they can learn from you. I mean seeing the attempt to make connections as a good in itself, I mean setting up institutional structures so that this kind of connecting can take place, and I mean valuing conversations that mean something and get somewhere. I noted this year that, for all its faults, Oxford is very good at doing this, and I noted that Princeton is rather less so, but that it’s worth working to make Princeton better.

It is universities where I live; unsurprisingly, I have a keen interest in university policy. I take a great deal of pleasure in asking, what does my university life have to do with sociability? How can we build a wider world where it is Good to come round for a cup of tea? Let a thousand flowers bloom, of course, but in my life it’s the humanities that help me to connect, to find in me that which is universally human and therefore that which I owe to others and to myself. I’m thinking about a really lovely article that Mary Beard wrote in the last issue of the New York Review of Books, which talks about how the study of the classics helps us to understand “the gap between antiquity and ourselves,” and how it also occasions “a due sense of wonderment” at the copious quantities of “human documents” (Symonds) that survive to sing, O Muse, of the ideas people thought and the feelings that they felt two millenia ago. I thought a lot this year about what being a humanist has taught me about these themes of continuity and change, and I thought a lot about how we can demonstrate that “a due sense of wonderment” and the self-knowledge that, I hope, ensues are goods without slipping into the realm of another discourse, like that of political economy. To get there, I had to work through modes of apology and of hysteria. But I ended the year rather at Mary Beard’s position: that not everyone needs to be a humanist, but that we do as humans need to believe that some people should be. That sublimity is something that we’re capable of as humans, and that beauty is something we can all seek, study, and share. That beauty is Homer and Shakespeare and the Bhagavad Gita, and beauty is young adults sitting up all night talking because they are young enough to think so much and feel so much and love so much.

This is an optimistic note on which to end my twenty-second year. But where do we go from here? This year, I learned to value love, and to love the idea of people, to love humanity. But how, now, do I love persons? How do I love myself? If I have discovered the secret of loving humanity, why do I feel lonely so often, experience so many dark nights of the soul? Well, perhaps I haven’t really discovered anything; after all, I’m still so very young and naïve and inexperienced of the world. And perhaps dark nights of the soul are as much a piece of humanity as sublimity is, the price we pay for the moments of ecstasy that sit alongside them in the panoply of things we feel that make us certain we are alive. But I have to keep wondering whither this state of mind will lead, in 2012. I can’t help but think that if I were truly one of Forster’s people who “catch the glow” from a place rather than a person, I wouldn’t feel the void of people-loving so much in my soul. Will going back to the city that I love keep me from learning to love people, too? I think about how Matthew Arnold figures Oxford as an alluring woman in the preface to Essays in Criticism:

And yet, steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age, who will deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us nearer to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection,—to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side?—nearer, perhaps, than all the science of Tubingen. Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic! who hast given thyself so prodigally, given thyself to sides and to heroes not mine, only never to the Philistines! home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties! what example could ever so inspire us to keep down the Philistine in ourselves, what teacher could ever so save us from that bondage to which we are all prone, that bondage which Goethe, in those incomparable lines on the death of Schiller, makes it his friend’s highest praise (and nobly did Schiller deserve the praise) to have left miles out of sight behind him;— the bondage of ‘was uns alle bandigt, Das Gemeine’! She will forgive me, even if I have unwittingly drawn upon her a shot or two aimed at her unworthy son; for she is generous, and the cause in which I fight is, after all, hers. Apparitions of a day, what is our puny warfare against the Philistines, compared with the warfare which this queen of romance has been waging against them for centuries, and will wage after we are gone?

You could hardly fail to fall in love with a city like this. Which means that sublimation can, at times, be just a little too successful.

Yet, even in Oxford, it is possible to connect. Perhaps, for those of us who find connecting rather hard, it may be possible to do so more successfully in the “home of lost causes” than anywhere else. The September 5 issue of the New Yorker included Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent profile of the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, who recently wrote an enormous ethics tome called On What Matters. I don’t have a subscription to the magazine, and so can’t access the article anymore, but I remember that amidst explanations of Parfit’s ideas about ethics was the moving story of how this shy, almost reclusive man, a quintessential bachelor don who lived in his rooms in All Souls, recently met a woman philosopher and moved into a little Oxford terraced house with her. They married, I think, just for tax reasons, but the important point is that they made a life together and made each other less alone. I think that story is what I’m going to take with me most this year, as the message for this year ending and the one to come. It tells me that there is hope yet for connection—even when the causes seem most lost, even when the beliefs seem most forsaken—and that love and bettering and goodness and connection come in many forms, and are furthered by many kinds of people.

2 thoughts on “A Year in Review: Lessons Learned and Things to Be Done; or, On What Matters

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s