The Home of Lost Causes; or, Eros in Oxford

A little over one year ago, it was a late night in New Jersey, and a friend and I sat facing each other in the window seat of that beautiful big room on Holder quad where I spent my senior year. A little over one year ago, I was still waiting to hear whether I would be awarded the funding that would allow me to return to Britain for graduate school, and my friend and I were weighing my postgraduate options. There was a lull in the conversation, and silence had fallen, but then my friend spoke up.

“I don’t think you should go to Oxford,” he said. “It is a repressive place.”

My friend knows his psychoanalytic theory better than I do, and for many months I dwelt upon his declaration. True, for those fin-de-siècle types who are inclined to think that sexuality is perverted unless it is directed toward the copulative, Oxford is bound to look rather strange and cold. For centuries its begowned inhabitants lived a monastic existence within their quads and cloisters; they read and they prayed and their procreation was not sexual so much as intellectual, the particular form of sublimated eros that by the time of the period I study hovered somewhere in the background of the tutorial system. In Oxford—I told my friend many months later, in a different late-night conversation on the other side of the world, after thinking long and hard upon his declaration—life does not run on a hookup culture, or the rumor of one, the way American universities seem to do, but the stone walls and certainly those rather phallic dreaming spires seem fairly to hum with a certain erotic energy. If there is repression, it is not pointlessly so, for the more you know about the history of this place (particularly in my period, when the erotics of intellect were foremost in many dons’ and students’ minds), the more you can pick up a certain residue of all that sublimation when you participate in an Oxford evensong or hunker down in the reading room or follow the path down to the far end of Christ Church Meadow and see a perfect line of aspirational spires looking hopefully upwards in search of something greater than themselves and the work of the colleges to which they belong.

In literature and history, so much of Oxford eros is not about coition, but rather what “eros” really meant, philosophically, to people like Plato or the lyric poets. Symonds, knowing whereof he spoke, defined eros in terms of ὄρεξις: yearning or longing or, in the words of Liddell and Scott, “appetency” and “conation”: the state of longing for or desiring on the one hand, and of attempt and endeavor on the other. So would the medieval poets have told Oxonian scholars past that love is not true love if it is requited; so is modern Oxford Anglicanism about doubt and searching and tracing the lines of St. Mary-the-Virgin or Christ Church Cathedral’s spires up into the grey sky, but never quite expecting to hear anything back. So do we talk about the things we spend our lives studying as labors of love undertaken for their own sakes, undertaken because we have given something of our souls to their fruition.

Indeed, coming back to Oxford now with a comparative sense of having lived here and in other universities, so much about the intensity of living in Oxford, and particularly of that orexetic quality to it, seems to fall into place. Even as a beaten-down graduate student who seems to spend an awful lot of time running from one end of town to the other in the rain, wrestling with the all-too-twentieth-century bureaucracy of the History Faculty, or making jokes about classical reception over coffee in the MCR, it’s not so difficult, once you come to know this place, to understand why it was here that Pater wrote about burning always with a hard, gem-like flame, or even why Symonds, at Oxford in the same years, wrote that “theology penetrated [emphasis mine] our intellectual and social atmosphere,” particularly in those contexts where “young men and their elders met together.” The history of a university whose primary fields of study were for most of its history theology and classics naturally mingled to inseparability Hellenic and Hebraic forms of love. In exchange for policing the sexual behavior of fellows and students alike (viz. marriage regulations, attempts to curb prostitution in the city, sodomy trials, blackmail scandals, and much much more), the curriculum and social atmosphere of the university provided two very rich intellectual traditions in which to conceive of intensely erotic attachments to people and to ideas, both in some wise about a yearning, power-imbalanced, and exceedingly place-specific love. There is a canon of Oxford orexis, and it’s not just Hopkins or Housman or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited but also Matthew Arnold, whose poetic and prosaic descriptions of the city of dreaming spires are nothing if not erotic; and even Max Beerbohm, whose “Oxford love story” Zuleika Dobson gives us a highly heterosexual object of desire who is nevertheless inextricable from the erotics of this city.

I could go on and on. Jude the Obscure is about yearning—for knowledge, for a woman, for knowledge of a woman—while Tolkien and Lewis and latterly Philip Pullman give us quests of tonally different but no less potent kinds. When E.M. Forster wanted to include in Howards End a character whose love for alma mater is akin to love for brother or sister, husband or wife, he didn’t use his own university, Cambridge. Instead, for Tibby Schlegel, it is Oxford that is the “place, as well as a person” that “may catch the glow.” And there is a glow, though you’d have to come here to know it, because the way the late-afternoon sun that you can see from the Upper Reading room turns the spires of All Souls golden is something that does not happen anywhere else I’ve ever been.

My bedtime reading at the moment is Ian McEwan’s novel(la?) On Chesil Beach, which evokes an innocent yet intense, very Oxonian kind of romantic relationship. The book’s gender politics are not unproblematic—let’s just say that it’s perfectly obvious it was written by a man—yet I think McEwan gets something rather right about a kind of Oxford eros that starts with yearning to know and yearning to feel before it gets on to yearning to touch. Yearning to touch is the kind of yearning that we in the larger popular culture perhaps think of when we think of desire, and it is also perhaps that which we are keen to proscribe those whom we have diagnosed as “repressed.” Yet I shall never forget sitting in the History Graduate Study Room three floors underground and reading the New Yorker profile of Derek Parfit that said that, after years of living in rooms in All Souls and dining on high table like so many unattached scholars in this city who don’t have kitchens to come home to, he met a nice lady philosopher and rather matter-of-factly moved to North Oxford, like so many dons to get married before him. Now, this is what I mean when I say that Oxford is the home of lost causes: for repression is as repression does, but sometimes loneliness is really just assuaged by moving in with a lady philosopher at long last. This is true of all the universities in which I’ve ever lived, and many academic couples I have known—but Oxford is the only university I’ve called home that knows it and admits it and makes a house in North Oxford seem as richly satisfying a fantasy as anything generated by Manhattan or Los Angeles.

The hold that psychoanalytic method has had upon modern western thought and life is a powerful one, and I appreciate many things about how it’s taught us to think critically about who we are and what we want. It’s a shame that the academy has in most respects come to see it as a way of thinking that’s so inflexibly dogmatic that it has to be discarded as unproductive—but it’s a shame, too, that the imprint it has made upon the popular culture is one of inflexible dogmatism with respect to what eros is and what it can do. Psychoanalysis’s reception, particularly in the US, seems to have consisted largely of calcifying this sense that eros need be only and most importantly about sex, about corporeality. It’s only in this other world—where my friends study papyrology and civilized conversation is a virtue—that it also seems as if there are more routes to learning to feel and to desire than seemed possible when you spent your adolescence watching others fall in and out of love.

There are downsides to the pull of this place, and if you get stuck inside it for many years I think it is often possible to forget how to keep growing. Yet almost everything I have to this point learned about how to feel, about self-knowledge and adherence to it, about human experience beyond intellect and about things in Heaven and Earth not heretofore dreamt of in my philosophy, I have learned from this city. Foremost among them is that eros isn’t about knowing, it’s about wanting to know—and the latter is something I’ve always been able to do.

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