It is an annual tradition, dear reader, that I use this space to take stock in the last days of the year of everything that I’ve learned and thought and read since the last annual post. This one needs to take in perhaps the most momentous year since the blog began, nearly four years ago. I know I say that every year, but: 2012 was the year that I worked night and day, in my big sunlit bedroom on Holder quad or at my desk in the History Graduate Study Room three floors underground, on a labor of love that I called “John Addington Symonds: Humanism, Love, and Sexual Identity in Victorian Britain.” 2012 was the year that, one fine day in May, I left the college dining hall after lunch, gingerly walked the brown paper bag with the two copies of that thesis over to the history department, took my congratulatory chocolate-chip cookie to my afternoon seminar, went home afterwards, drank an enormous quantity of gin, then promptly fell into a postpartum depression that lasted for months. 2012 was the year that saw my biggest fight yet with a university for which I’d come to feel great affection, at which my time nevertheless finished in a whirlwind of ceremonies, receptions, and dinners in which I felt humbled by people I highly esteemed telling me that I’d accomplished things worth accomplishing in my time there. 2012 was the year that the rain stopped just in time on a Tuesday morning, the bells of Nassau Hall tolled, I put on a gown and a hood and a mortarboard, a brass band from Philadelphia incongruously played Last Night of the Proms music, Shirley Tilghman told thousands of graduates that the liberal arts matter for their own sake, I cried three times, and I headed off to brunch a bachelor of arts. 2012 was the year that I spent a month wandering the streets of Paris, living with one of my best friends, never getting started on the Symonds article I’d set myself to write, and then going to the French seaside to read Greek for hours on end at an English tea shop or on the promenade or in a crumbling fin-de-siècle railway hotel. It was also the year that I spent a week riding buses around the Peloponnese, climbing mountains at midday in hundred-degree heat to look at the archaeological sites at the top; and that I then passed two weeks in a garden on the Gulf of Corinth, surrounded by ancient-Greek speakers and other eccentrics, eating fruit and crepes, reading Homer for the first time and Plato for the second, and becoming progressively more depressed. 2012 was the year that I criss-crossed from Greece to the Gulf Islands, down to San Diego and then via New York and Washington back to England again, and then one day the sun came out in the Upper Reading Room, I was reading Anne Carson, and I felt the cloud of depression lift its weight off my shoulders. Since then, some days have been better than others, and the Symonds article still isn’t finished, but 2012 was the year that I ended singing carol services and observing Advent, determined to do what I could to keep candles lit against the darkness.
More importantly, 2012 was also the year that I read Forster.
In last year’s annual post, I wrote that I’d read Howards End because a boy told me to. Funnily enough, I then went on to spill hundreds of words saying that Howards End meant something to me because in 2011 I’d learned to love Oxford, humanity, and the worldly goodness and gentleness and ordinary beauty that I mean when I say “God,” but that I didn’t know how to love individual persons. I knew why “Only connect!” was important. But I didn’t know how to put it into practice.
Dear reader, if you ever read a book because a boy told you to, and it quickly becomes the most important book you’ve ever read, maybe you should ask yourself what that has to do with love. For the next year, I did nothing but, without entirely realizing I was doing it. My commonplace book shows that I finished A Room With a View on Christmas Day, and The Longest Journey on the 8th of January (I remember that, curled up on my sofa with endless cups of tea, when no one else was back yet in Princeton and it was only me and Symonds and the snow and darkness). I know that I read Forster’s short stories early in the new year, and his essays in the spring, when Princeton ended with almost a month of no schoolwork to do. I remember thinking that Forster might be able to teach me how loving others could help me to love myself, and I remember only feeling my sense of self—especially after handing in my thesis—slipping farther and farther away. I read A Passage to India in Paris, in cafés or in the queue for student rush tickets at the opera, and then, finally, on 21 December, I recorded one line from Where Angels Fear to Tread in my commonplace book: “… human love and love of truth sometimes conquer where love of beauty fails.”
I decided to become a humanist in the summer of 2009 because of a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, and for the next couple years there was a handwritten sign over my desk that said “Seek Beauty.” But time went on, that sign was replaced by other ones, I went to Oxford, came back, and went back again, and it didn’t seem so much that I was seeking beauty as I was a greater understanding of humans and of truth, and a perhaps less ambitious set of tactics for getting on in the world and leaving it a little better besides. When I came back from Greece I wanted to know how the people we live with can help us to finish our articles on Symonds, rather than leave us sulking in grape arbors reading Petrarch and not being much help to anyone. I wanted to know how they can help us to remember who we are and what we want, instead of to forget.
At the end of 2012, I still can’t really scan Homer properly, and the Symonds article is about four thousand words too long. But I have got to know more than I ever would have countenanced back in 2009 about eros ouranios, eros pandemos, and eros glukupikros. I have long since given up hope of ever establishing any kind of division between my work and my personal lives. But I have come to believe that one of the things that love means is wanting to know more.
How the globe would get on, if entirely peopled with individuals, is impossible to foresee. However, Man has another wish, besides the wish to be free, and that is the wish to love, and perhaps something may be born from the union of the two. Love sometimes leads to an obedience which is not servile—the obedience referred to in the Christian epigram above quoted. Love, after a dreadful period of inflation, is perhaps coming back to its proper level and may steady civilization; up-to-date social workers believe in it. It is difficult not to get mushy as soon as one mentions love, but it is a tendency that must be reckoned with, and it takes as many forms as fear. The desire to devote oneself to another person or persons seems to be as innate as the desire for personal liberty. If the two desires could combine, the menace to freedom from within, the fundamental menace, might disappear, and the political evils now filling all the foreground of our lives would be deprived of the poison which nourishes them. They will not wilt in our time, we can hope for no immediate relief. But it is a good thing, once in a way, to speculate on the remoter future. It is a good thing, when freedom is discussed, not always to be wondering what ought to be done about Hitler, or whether the decisions of the Milk Marketing Board are unduly arbitrary. There is the Beloved Republic to dream about and to work for through our dreams; the better polity which once seemed to be approaching on greased wheels; the City of God.