Category Archives: Ethics

Baby-Stepping Towards Adulthood

Just now, I received an email that began, “‎Dear Ms. Rutherford, This is to inform you that preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) number at the University of Oxford has begun.” As preliminary–and silly–as “preparation for your Confirmation of Acceptance” sounds, this is the important document standing between me and my student visa application, for which I’ve been eagerly waiting. But the silly tentativeness with which the very helpful woman in the History Faculty office framed this email also speaks volumes about where it seems as if my life is right now. Over the past few weeks, my mind has accommodated itself to the notion that I graduated from college, a place that I’m now speaking about in the past tense. I’ve had some distance from the people and the place that has helped me to be able to figure out what I think about it, overall; coming back to my thesis after months away, I’m starting to recover from my burnout and be able to do academic work again; and I’m also just doing a lot of thinking on my own. I’m reading for pleasure, I’m walking, I’m looking at art and listening to music, I’m talking to friends and family, and most importantly I’m trying to figure out what I want out of life, and what a good life entails. Just as the History Faculty are preparing my CAS, it seems, so am I preparing to formulate a set of principles and goals and hierarchy of needs that will help me decide whether the adult life I want to live is both a personally enriching and a socially valuable one–and, if it’s not, how I can try harder to make it so. And, well, I guess that if there’s anything more impenetrable than immigration bureaucracy, “What is the good life?” is it. It’s worth a little thought.

I write now from Paris, where I’m spending the month of July rather on a series of whims and coincidences. I’ve not been doing very much to further the pursuit of my short-term academic goals: I’m still not quite up to the level I need to be at to benefit from the ancient Greek class I’m taking in August; the academic article I’m trying to write is in the earliest planning stages; my subscription to the Bibliothèque Nationale Française has gone largely unused. Instead, in the city of the flâneur, I think I’ve been benefiting from being a little less goal-oriented. Some days I sit and read and write at home, but on others I walk halfway across the city in alleged pursuit of some English-language bookshop or better-than-average cafe, but really just to walk, and to have the time to myself to think about what I’m doing here. There are a lot of reasons that brought me to Paris, but all of them are personal, and as ever, the balance between what is good for me and what is good for society is very difficult to strike.

This year, I consciously tried to take some time away from agonizing about whether what I’m doing with my life is socially beneficial (and then doing it anyway) in order just to focus on doing what I’m doing with my life in the best possible way. Then, and perhaps accordingly, this year was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Between writing a thesis, leaving the first place I ever lived as my own person, and learning what love is, I was rather preoccupied with dealing with huge personal emotions, some of them for the first time. Going back to read my thesis in preparation for the article I’m writing has been quite painful: as I revisit every sentence, I can remember exactly how I was feeling when I wrote it, and whether it was a joyous or a melancholy day down at my desk in the library basement. I can see all the conversations I had with my advisor reflected in its pages, and wince especially at the parts where I can only now see what he meant, why he was right, or why there were some points that I could have fleshed out in more detail or with more substantive evidence. In this thesis, also, are all the pieces of my world that over the past year came to mean the most to me about acknowledging and acting in accordance with my own desires for connection and comradeship. When I read the story I told of Symonds’ journey through Plato, through Oxford, through faith and science, through passionate positivist pursuit of the truth, through personal relationships, and when I see how I brought in outside, related writers and thinkers like Freud and Forster, I remember how Oxford, the Anglican tradition, the Phaedrus, psychoanalysis, Howards End, and the people with whom I became friends over the past couple years all helped me to feel as if I was discovering for the first time something extraordinary about what it means to be human, and as if living well and living joyously are important for their own sake, not merely ancillary to living a purposeful and socially useful life.

Well, it’s been a long and difficult several months since the last time Oxford sponsored me for a student visa, and the novelty value of the world’s beauty has soured just a little. There are upsides to this: I started to think, again, about the social value of my life goals, and realized that while I can ethically justify becoming a university teacher and living a life that is fully invested in intellectual community for its own sake, I can’t justify according to my own idiosyncratic code of ethics being a freelance researcher/writer who isn’t committed first and foremost to some kind of communitarian enterprise. (This isn’t a prescriptivist position—it’s a calculus based on how I think I can best use my unique talents to make myself and others better. Others, with a different distribution of skills, wants, and needs, may reach different conclusions.) And I realized, just a little more recently, that while part of being committed to the public good is taking public stances for unpopular positions when you believe that you’re in the right, doing so doesn’t do much social good if in trying to explain your position others, you end up alienating them, or making them believe that you’re purely self-interested instead of trying to put your own house in order before trying to move outside of it.

Last night, a friend who was in town for the weekend walked with me up and down the Seine for hours, and he quizzed me on my moral principles, trying to prod me into defending my intuitions about what is a sufficiently good way to live, and leading me to talk in circles about whether any life path that doesn’t focus on solving world hunger is justifiable. It was a very undergraduate kind of conversation, like many such conversations I’ve had before in my dorm room or around my co-op’s kitchen table—the kinds of conversations you can have when it doesn’t matter whether you need to wake up early in the morning sharp enough to put in a productive day at your job. Because, you see, I think one of the things that we do in the modern western world when we become adults is that we start thinking about putting food on our own tables, on living lives that make us more materially comfortable (because the older you get, the harder it gets to sleep on an air mattress or see the world while staying in youth hostels), on seeking out the people who will make us feel less alone and will help us to share the burden of leading stressful, busy lives. I’d argue that that’s one of the many reasons why university is a good, and why our society needs people who will devote their lives to ensuring that it continues to be a good: that three- or four-year haven from the world is where we get the chance to stay up late talking about ethics and morals, and where high-minded ambitions of solving world hunger—or instilling love for the humanities in a new set of young people—are born.

But my friend is a better arguer than I am—I’m not a very good one, especially when I have a quick and forceful interlocutor and don’t get to take thousands of words to spin out my thoughts—and, besides, thinking that the university is a good doesn’t insulate professional academics from the various calls of pragmatism, seductive materialism and security, and marketized politico-economic logic. I’m as guilty as the next academic of wanting things that give me pleasure: a high-ceilinged and big-windowed apartment in a pleasant place to live, a prestigious job with good students who are easy and fun to teach, my name on the cover of a well-reviewed book, maybe pets or even a family, leisure time in which to really appreciate them, the ability to keep visiting new places and meeting new people. And I know as well as the next humanist with slight Marxist tendencies that while the downside of the capitalist consensus is that it enslaves us to things and alienates us from people, it can in the here and now get food on tables that haven’t got any in a way that all the utopianism in the world can’t—and that teaching the British history survey isn’t exactly helping to bring about the revolution either.

In short, my conversation last night, from which I’m still reeling, ended with a big “I don’t know.” I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t satisfy my friend with the rationality of the life choices that I’ve thus far made, but I also feel that as I’m lucky enough to have more time before pragmatism really sets in, I might as well take it. I have at least two more years before I have to settle, and I have a lot more to learn about myself and what, therefore, is the social good that I am actually capable of doing. And so, as I sit in Paris and read over my BA thesis, I become ever more certain that my next thesis is going to be more centrally about love, about what it is that draws us to other people, about the things about the world that we intuit and can rationally explain the least of all. I’m curious to know, in Victorian Britain, what sex had to do with love, and why; I’m curious to know how what students read in schools shaped their ideas about love in and outside the classroom; I’m curious to know what sexual science, coeducation, shifting socioeconomic structures and population distributions, the changing social role of religion, and many other exciting developments of the nineteenth century, have to do not only with how people had sex with each other but with how they cared for each other. And, because when we do projects like this, we can’t deny that we’re studying ourselves first and foremost, I hope also to learn what love has to do both with desire and with social responsibility in my own life, and what the hell a sentimental education is good for, anyway.

At the end of the next two years, will I be able to start a PhD with an easy conscience? Probably not. Will I have become mired in even more navel-gazing whirlpools? Probably. And will I have spent two more years pacing up and down wallowing in the luxury of being able to think about what I’d like to do with my life, and sitting up till all hours discussing it with members of my intellectual community? Undoubtedly.

As academics say when they give papers at works-in-progress talks: “I’m still early in my thinking about this.” It’s one of my favorite pieces of academic jargon, and I am profoundly grateful that there still exist enough people with power, money, and prestige who will take a bet on a young historian’s moral waffling turning into something properly good.


Going Back, Moving On; or, In Which a Bachelor’s Degree Is Conferred

The first thing I noticed on Thursday, when I woke up in my childhood bedroom for the first time in two years, is how quiet everything is. There’s not much wildlife, no people walking past outside, no churchbells or sirens. It seems as if there’s only one ambient noise at a time. Every once in a while, a single car will drive past, or a single child will shout, or a single lawn mower will rev its engine, but then everything lapses into silence again. “Culture shock” is the only way to describe how I’m coping with returning to the place where I lived for nine years: it’s been a long time since I spent my days under the capacious, cloudless blue dome of the southern California sky, drove 80 miles an hour down the freeway, sat on a sun-drenched concrete terrace at the UCSD student center and slurped at a bowl of Japanese noodles, or even taken an elevator seven floors up instead of walked three floors down to find some books to read under Library of Congress catalogue number PR. It’s nice to see my family, nice to be on vacation, nice to have good weather. But cleaning out the piles of paper that pack my childhood bedroom hurts—to have to go back in time again, to high school, as if the past four years hadn’t happened—and as always when I go west, I feel profoundly and suddenly cut off from the close relationships one forms when one lives on a college campus and eats meals with the same people every day. And this time, it’s not just for the summer—it’s for good.

For the last few weeks before I left Princeton, I told my friends I was feeling remarkably “zen” about the end. Unlike in previous years, when I’d been stressed and depressed about going away, and irrationally afraid that I would lose touch with the people about whom I care, this year I felt primed to deal with impermanence. I was sick of Princeton, for one thing, and ready for a break; for another, I knew that at the end of June I would be diving into a European adventure with some of my closest friends; for a third, Oxford in September is a known quantity, full of its own wonderful people and new academic horizons. To be sure, it hurt a bit to pack up the co-op’s pots and pans; I felt at loose ends as people slowly started to trickle away. But in the last few days, I calmly said my goodbyes. I gave hugs. I made sure to track everyone down. I saw old friends who came back to town for alumni reunions, and felt as if not much had changed in my relationships with them. My family came to town, helped me to finish packing my life into boxes, and cheered me resolutely through three days of awards presentations and academic processionals. By day I donned academic regalia and sat and stood through solemn ceremonies; by night I sat on the floor in empty dorm rooms or went out and danced; I spent the weekend a bit buzzed on too much sparkling wine and forgot to hurt—that is, until the very end.

On Tuesday morning at 10:30am, 2,067 degree candidates processed onto the front lawn of Princeton’s campus, and despite the ludicrousness of the situation, despite the incongruity of a wind ensemble from Philadelphia playing the classics of the British festival band repertoire, I cried. I cried when it became clear that, after weeks of worrying, the weather was going to miraculously hold off to make it through the ceremony; I cried when the University president pronounced, “Auctoritate mihi a curatoribus Universitatis Princetoniensis commissa, vos ad gradum primum in artibus et cum honoribus, ut indicatum est, admitto”; and I cried at her Commencement address—one of the better defenses of a liberal arts education I’ve heard of late, and it’s my business to keep an eye out for defenses of a liberal arts education. It concluded, in part, thusly:

What I am saying is that to be successful in the 21st century, just as in the 18th century, a society requires citizens who are steeped in history, literature, languages, culture, and scientific and technological ideas from ancient times to the present day. They need to be curious about the world, broadly well-informed, independent of mind, and able to understand and sympathize with what Woodrow Wilson referred to as “the other.” Our colleges and universities need scholars who have dedicated themselves to the life of the mind, to preserving the wisdom of the ages, to generating new knowledge and a deeper understanding of the past, and to passing that knowledge and understanding on to the next generation.

Here, President Tilghman points to something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: the two senses of time that operate simultaneously in any modern university, but particularly a university like Princeton that relies for its continued success upon strong and lasting alumni relationships. There are the beneficiaries of liberal arts educations who use them as stepping-stones to other things: to lives of public service or to wealth accrual or both; to starting businesses or starting wars; to making peace or making families; to inventing new technologies and curing cancer. In the crass terms of Annual Giving, getting those people back to Reunions every year through the appeal of orange-and-black debauchery keeps investment (at the bottom line, of the financial sort) flowing into the university’s twin projects of teaching and research. In my own terms, skeptical of market logic and the rule of capital, there are many ways more than money to do good in the world, and when done right a liberal arts education can instill young people with a sense of civic responsibility they can impart in some way to their chosen life path, always remembering that the universities that set them on that path continue to require their ideological, if not their financial support. At any rate, this is one side of university time: a series of comings and goings seen from the individual perspective, in which the student graduates and then moves on, a little wiser and richer, save only—in the case of somewhere like Princeton—returning once in a while to renew the connection. In this sense of time, university is something that happens between the ages of 18 and 22, and then there’s “real life.”

But there’s another sense of university time, and it’s the one Tilghman comes to at the very end of the paragraph I quoted. Each of us who goes to university only graduates once. But every year, those whose lives are spent in having new ideas and preserving the world’s old ones pass them on to the young people who move fleetingly through their lives. (As Andrew Delbanco writes in his recent book about College, “One of the peculiarities of the teaching life is that every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.”) Every year, a professor at a place like Princeton says hello to dozens of new students and goodbye to dozens more, not to mention salutations and valedictories to colleagues and staff members and their families whose careers take them from campus to campus. For those who stay behind, I imagine, June is full of saying goodbye to people you will in all likelihood never see again, as well as to people you in all likelihood will—you just don’t know on what campus, in what country, in what year, in what guise. And I suspect, furthermore, that the observers of each sense of university time don’t fully understand the other’s sense: to the faculty and staff, alumni’s eagerness to parodically relive their college days must seem ludicrous; too rarely, on the other hand, do alumni stop to think about the full weight of what the faculty and staff do to keep an institution of higher learning operational and emotionally alive. But to observants of neither sense do the precise codes that sense prescribes for saying goodbye make saying goodbye any easier to bear.

I’m expostulating all this half-baked theory because I’m beginning to think that some of the reason a sense of severance and loneliness crept up on me when I made it out west to my parents’ home is that I don’t quite know into which category I belong. For years, I have made periods of loneliness, at Princeton or away, easier to bear by reminding myself that the university is my home and it will always be there for me. There is no leap into the unknown, no discontinuity; I’ll be returning in September to friends, mentors, and colleagues I know and to projects with which I’m familiar. I trust in the knowledge that academia is a small world, and that people from one’s previous postings have an uncanny habit of popping up when one least expects it (especially in Oxford). I’m also in the privileged position of being able to travel to see friends who are staying in the US, and/or who haven’t chosen academic paths—the only hurdle is the leap of faith it takes paranoid, shy me to trust that when I send an email out into the void, my friends miss me as much as I miss them, and will answer. Heretofore, for the most part, they’ve tended to.

And yet. On Tuesday night at 2am, diploma in hand and packing all but done, I sat down on the window seat in my empty room with one of my closest friends and we solemnly marked it as the end of an era. We’d got to know each other this year, quite by a series of chances, and a friendship flowered of the type that the novels tell me flowers when you study, read and write, eat and drink, laugh and play together, when you are young and your heart is open to connecting with others. We’ll see each other this summer. We’ll see each other next year. We’ll call and write. But we said goodbye so poignantly because we knew that, with me leaving Princeton, it wouldn’t be quite the same. That romantic openness of undergraduate days—when you can take a class in any discipline and you never know what new ideas will be stirred within you—that allowed this friendship to flourish isn’t going to come round again. When I return to the city of dreaming spires—the place where I first knew what love was, a lightness of spirit I brought back to Princeton for this final year—things will be a little more circumscribed by my professional aspirations, by the slow shift from student into scholar, from one sense of time to another. (As an aside, given that time is a river, and given that one of the last things that I did as an undergraduate was go mess about in a rowboat, I wonder what is to be made of the fact that Jerome K. Jerome’s three men, striped blazers and guitar and dog and all, spend 150-odd pages struggling resolutely upstream.)

There are still so many unanswered questions, still so many places I haven’t been and so many languages I don’t know, still so many ways my heart might yet grow larger and my soul wiser. But out here on the other side of the world (or so it seems), it is near-overwhelming to look at the walls of this old bedroom and think how much has happened inside me since I first put these posters up. And it hurts so much to think that everything that happened is now past, and that—as any Victorian or Edwardian worth their salt could have told you—youth fades, and then we have to get on as best we can with finding another sense of time, one that’s as much focused on doing good in the world as it is on our own self-development.

Princeton commencement

Bloom, “Eros,” in The Closing of the American Mind, 132-137
Davies, The Rebel Angels, 65, 187, 257
Collini, What Are Universities For?
Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, 9
Nabokov, “The University Poem
Forster, The Longest Journey

QOTD (2012-06-09)

From Adam Phillips, “Promises, Promises,” in his essay collection of the same name:

If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field. It is a question of relationships, but perhaps it also points to the drawback of making ‘relationships’ the primary category. I think we should make our primary category something like moral aims, or preferred worlds, what Stanley Cavell refers to… after Emerson, as ‘moral perfectionism’, which he defines as ‘some idea of being true to oneself’, but which ‘happily consents to democracy’. Our description of our relationships—which entails our description of what it is not to have one, what a good one is, and so on—depends on our moral aims, on the kind of selves and worlds we are consciously and unconsciously committed to fashioning. There can be no democracy without the notion of relationship as somehow central, but the idea of being true to oneself may involve redescribing the idea of relationship so radically that it may sometimes be barely recognizable…. Democracy thrives by valuing rival and complementary interpretation. It is not equally clear what being true to oneself thrives by, or whether it could ever be subject to generalization or, indeed, formulation. Our relationship to ourselves must be inextricable from our relationship with others; but in what sense does one have a ‘relationship’ with oneself, or with a book, or with its author, or with a tradition? In other words, is there sufficient resemblance between these objects to make ‘relationship’ the right, or rather the illuminating, word?

What we actually do—or find ourselves doing—in the presence of a book or an analyst could not be more different, from one point of view. The implication of Literature and Psychoanalysis is that we must be using them for distinguishably different things. But how we use them depends on what I am calling here our ‘moral aims’, our conscious and unconscious moral projects about whose very consequences we can have so little knowledge. What or who we seek to be influenced by—to be changed by—depends on the kinds of selves (and worlds) we want to make and the kinds of culture in which we happen to live.

I have a sense that Phillips here is making a rather Forsterian point, and I think a line of Forster’s speaks to some of his rhetorical questions: “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

I first read that line right at the beginning of this academic year, just before I discovered Forster proper and started on this year’s emotional, intellectual, and ethical course, defined by personal relationships, books, and—yes—psychoanalysis. It seems, too, a fitting way to end—and today, after much writer’s block, I started finally to find the words to talk about what it means to end one era, and to allow another to begin. Here comes summer, and with it a lot of processing.

ἀρετή and Apology

Sometimes I suddenly feel the urge to make this blog into one of those blogs wherein I actually discuss what’s happening in my life. Well: it’s still February (it seems as if it’s been February for a very long time), the sky outside my west-looking window is a rosy-grey, and the bare branches of the trees are taunting me with their lack of buds. It’s the weekend after the second week of classes, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and I could be working on my thesis or reading Descartes or Beckett or learning some more Greek verbs, but instead I’m clinging for dear life to my appealingly aubergine teacup and turning up the volume as loud as it will go on Leonard Bernstein conducting the first movement of the Pathètique. Since fall classes ended, I’ve really only been listening to classical music, and there are a few things I keep coming back to: the Art of the Fugue, Tallis’ Spem in Alium, this or that Vaughan Williams, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, the Chopin Nocturnes, the Pathètique. Sometimes, pretending that I’m an intellectual from an age before pop music grounds me. It makes it easier to believe in the whole, the good and the beautiful, in knowledge for its own sake, in moral imperatives and self-bettering. But then sometimes the search for ἀρετή—one of this week’s Greek vocab words—needs to go down different timelines. Sometimes what we’re tested on isn’t our knowledge of history—or the classics—but our knowledge of ourselves. Yes, I know I sound cryptic—let me explain.

So there’s a fable in my family, one I’m especially proud of, of “the time when I stopped the battle.” I was five, it was “Camp Castle” summer camp, and amidst all the dressing-up and kings and queens and whatnot there was this game whereby if you accumulated a certain number of points for good behavior and “chivalry” you could become a knight and then, hurrah, you could ride into battle on the final day of camp. Now, a good left-wing child raised on the Weavers’ version of “Down By the Riverside” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, I respectfully declined, and carried on quite happily with my turn at being queen for the day and getting to serve the medieval-themed snack (usually cheese and crackers, for some reason). And then it was circle-time on the final day, the day of the battle, and some kids started handing out weapons, and one dropped a purple cardboard dagger in my lap. I had no idea what it was doing there. I handed it back—surely it was a mistake—but a teacher told me I had been drafted and was now being called up (or, you know, age-appropriate words to that effect). So I did what any sensitive five-year-old conscientious objector would: I started crying, and then I stood up and gave a speech about how war was wrong and I was going to have no part in it. This being Montessori school, the teachers realized I had a point and cancelled the battle. When my parents picked me up, they were so proud.

We told that story again and again in my house, and I told it again in one of the essays I included with my Princeton application. In that essay, thirteen years later, I wrote about how I could only hope and strive to have the courage of my convictions that my five-year-old self had. Somehow, though, I sense that I’ve never quite attained that level of courage and independence again. I’m not so much of an iconoclast, these days. I’m non-confrontational. I don’t like to stand out. I sit in the corner and read a book, sure, but I don’t exactly burn my draft card.

Witness last night at 11pm, when—not really knowing what I was getting into—I agreed to join a team of members of my co-op to play intramural laser tag. I’d never played laser tag before, thought it might be a mildly entertaining new experience, and hied myself naively down to the recruiting office (err… replied to the recruiting email). But there are a lot of things I should have done since I sent that email last week. When I saw a poster for the laser tag tournament that showed people on an obstacle course firing what looked like guns at each other, I should have backed out. When I showed up to the gym last night and saw camouflage everywhere and ROTC recruiting, I should have offered to watch my friends’ coats and quietly step back. When someone put a heavy plastic toy that looked for all the world like a machine gun in my hands, I should have put it down on the ground and left. I don’t care if it’s just a beam of light: I am ashamed to look my five-year-old self in the eye and tell her that I aimed a gun at a member of the Ballroom Dancing Club and pulled the trigger.

I lay awake long into the night, nauseous and wracked with guilt that, more concerned with being a good sport and a fun person than with my core principles, I hadn’t said no at any point. My mind raced through other memories: the occasional first-person-shooter video game at a friend’s house in high school, sure, but also every other time when I should have uttered a serious moral objection and didn’t. How are the five-year-olds going to know that it’s okay to stand up in circle time and stop the battle if the 22-year-olds don’t show them how to do it?

Ancient Greece being ancient Greece, I have learnt a lot of words in the past four chapters about war. I can send men into battle and destroy the peace and order the strangers to free the brothers from the island so that they may write books about war. Maybe, last night, I just got a little carried away. But I shouldn’t let myself forget that the reason I decided to learn Greek in the first place is what Plato has to say about love.

I was going to try to draw this post to a neat conclusion with a tidy didactic moral lesson, but I’ve realized that I don’t know what the lesson is. I suppose that’s because I’m too young, still, and because the balance between love and war is one which entire civilizations have failed to strike. But a five-year-old could do it—which I suppose means that there is never any excuse for a 22-year-old. It is always imperative to try to be better, and more virtuous—and, contra my common-knowledge understanding of ἀρετή, being virtuous needn’t include being a hero in battle more than it should being someone who is kind and able to love.

And so I’d like to offer a public apology to my five-year-old self: I am most heartily sorry. Tomorrow, I will try to be as good and as strong as you were.

Some Brief Thoughts on Love

Between writing the chapter of my thesis on Symonds’ late work, and getting really seriously into E.M. Forster’s novels and essays, and having loads of conversations with my friends who are budding philosophers and psychoanalysts about the meaning of desire and love, I have been thinking a lot about the philosophy and ontology of love, and a lot about the space between loving a person and loving people, and a lot about the space between thinking about love and doing love. I was reminded that love can sometimes be very political—something that, these days, I often forget, despite my thesis topic—when I read a NYT column in which Frank Bruni criticized (as we have done here so many times) the “Born This Way” attitude to gay identity.

Bruni’s column begins with the story of the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has recently caused a storm of controversy by calling her “gayness”—in the form of her decision to, after years of partnership with a man, start a family with a woman—”a choice.” Bruni holds that, rather than thinking that Nixon has hurt the LGBT cause by declining to repeat the “being gay is not a choice” mantra, we ought to see things rather differently:

But while her critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed and used, they have no right to demand the kind of silence and conformity from Nixon that gay people have justly rebelled against. She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.

Besides which, there are problems with some gay advocates’ insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath.

By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been — and perhaps won’t be — scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they hitch it to a moving target. The exact dynamics through which someone winds up gay are “still an open question,” said Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association. “There is substantial evidence of various connections between genes, brain, hormones and sexual identity,” he said. “But those do not amount to a simple picture that A leads to B.”

Bruni goes on to point out that we shouldn’t need to argue that homosexuality is something with which we’re born to argue that it should fall under the rubric of civil liberties. As should come as no surprise, this is nothing new. As I’ve been writing about this week, Symonds knew that trying to probe the medical and psychological reasons why we are the way we are, why we desire what and whom we desire, can be one route to understanding ourselves. That’s why he read widely in the field of sexual science (though wound up dismissing as ill-founded or illogical most of its findings), was interested in the developing field of the study of human consciousness, and collaborated with a doctor, Havelock Ellis, on an academic book about “sexual inversion” that was intended to be equal parts cultural-historical and medical. (Symonds died before the manuscript was completed, and Ellis’ subsequent work shifted it heavily towards the medical side.)

But although Symonds tried to understand sexual science, I don’t think he ever wound up thinking that it had helped him to understand what it is like to love, and especially to love outside the patterns for which one’s particular society has words and rules. Some of the first questions that Symonds asked about desire and love, when he was a teenager, were about how to keep from being controlled by one’s desires, how to translate desire into something good and noble, how to better oneself through loving and being loved. The literature that Symonds used to answer questions like these was catholic, but it was overwhelmingly literary: Plato, Dante, Walt Whitman, and many others. And after a couple years of work on sexual science, he came back to the canon—the last book he ever wrote was a study of Whitman’s poetry.

I think this is because Symonds was above all a humanist, and an ethicist. Though he was curious about how many people in his culture were, like him, homosexual, and about how they got that way, he knew that wouldn’t help him to answer the questions he believed to be most fundamentally human. Knowing definitively whether our desires were determined by our genes or moulded in early childhood or culturally constructed or something we can shape through conscious effort or something else entirely does not help us to understand how to get on in the world once desire and love—for anyone, anything—are things that are part of our life experiences. Having a word like “gay” or “straight” to call ourselves doesn’t really help us to know when it is right to reach out and touch the object of our desires, and when to let well enough alone. Knowing when in our lives we first began to feel the stirrings of desire—and knowing that that slight nausea and tightness in the stomach and quickening of the heart is “desire”—doesn’t help us to translate what we want of others into our willingness to give ourselves to them. And being political about the right to marriage, as noble a cause as that may be, doesn’t help us to be married, or even more generally “companioned” or “partnered”—doesn’t help us to turn our bodily wants into the kind of connection that not only assuages loneliness but leads the soul to sprout wings and take flight.

At the end of his article, Bruni coins a phrase that’s wonderfully admitting of nuance, “moved to love”:

I use the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself.

We love in the most unpredictable ways. Sometimes we find ourselves loving in ways that our society clearly doesn’t admit, and we write books and wage campaigns to have our love declared an equal inalienable right. But sometimes we merely find ourselves loving in ways that are a little different, or unexpected: the best friends who, without ever having sex, give all of themselves to each other, reminding those of us who study the homoerotic literary tradition that Adhesiveness and “the love of comrades” have always been more than an identity politics; the woman who finds that the shifting genders of her lovers, long past the accepted period of “experimentation,” defies the easy application of a label of sexual orientation; the woman in her early twenties who feels at the same time as if she could be fifteen or thirty-five, and who against all her expectations finds herself on the eve of her last undergraduate term feeling a desire for connection that she never dreamed she’d feel, and who turns to men who write about impossible love for other people in other times and places to explain it.

These are understandings of the muddles and fallibilities of love and the humans who are moved to it that transcend any kind of identity politics or label or taxonomic, empirical explanation. As Symonds knew 120 years ago, human feeling is a many-splendored thing that must be understood as such, not crammed into any kind of rubric. Our only duty is to ensure that this powerful force is to be used responsibly and well, purposed to the highest good of making the world better and brighter, and that the communities we build allow for this to be a central and noble endeavor.

QOTD (2012-01-21)

There is something awfully emotionally compelling about late-Victorian agnosticism. Symonds, “The Limits of Knowledge,” in Essays Speculative and Suggestive, 1890:

Nothing is known by human beings which is not in the consciousness of collective or individual humanity—in the mind of the race or of the person.

What this means is, that man cannot get outside himself, cannot leap off his own shadow, cannot obtain a conception of the universe except as a mode of his own consciousness. He is man, and must accept the universe as apprehended by his manhood.

It does not therefore follow that what man knows is the universe. It does not follow that man’s sense and thought create the outer world. It does not even follow that the laws of human consciousness are the laws of Being. The utmost we are justified in saying is, that man forms an integral part of the world, and that his consciousness is consequently a substantial portion of the whole.

All that Philosophy can do is to analyse the mass of human thoughts and feelings, to ascertain the limits within which we apprehend the world, and to show the direction in which our faculties may be applied. Philosophy must abandon ontological explanations of the universe. These have invariably proved their own futility, being successively left behind and superseded in the progress of relative science, by which is meant the development of human thought and knowledge about the world.

The science of God and the science of Being, Theology and Ontology, have no foundation except in the subjectivity of man. Both are seen to involve impertinences, naïvetés, solemn self-complacences, the egotism of Narcissus doting on his own perfections mirrored in the darkness of the river of the universe.

This does not preclude a sincere belief in man’s power to obtain partial knowledge of the world. Such knowledge, so far as it goes, rests on a firm basis; for man is, ex hypothesi, an integer in the universe, and his consciousness accordingly represents a factor of the universal order. The mistake of theology and of ontology is to transfer this partial knowledge to the account of the whole. These self-styled science are only doing what polytheism and mythology did. They are attempting to account for the whole by the experience of a part of it, which experience varies according to the stages of the growth of the creature we call man.


Man has the right to use time-honoured language, and to designate his apprehension of the unity in Nature by that venerable title, God. He is only doing now what all the men from whom he is descended did before him. Mumbo Jumbo, Indra, Shiva, Jahve, Zeus, Odin, Balder, Christ, Allah–what are these but names for the Inscrutable, adapted to the modes of thought which gave them currency? God is the same, and His years do not change. It is only our way of presenting the unknown to human imagination which varies.

We are at liberty to leave God out of our account, and to maintain that we can do without that hypothesis. But how shall we then stand? We must remain face to face with the infinite organism of the universe, which, albeit we can never know it in itself, is always being presented to our limited intelligence as more completely and organically one. The mystery flies before us, and will ever fly. The more we say we know, and the more we really know, the less we can afford to omit the elements of unsearchableness and awe-inspiring unity which have produced religions.

In these circumstances we are led back to the primitive conditions of human thought .We still much acknowledge a power from which we spring, which includes all things, which is the real reality of all we partly grasp by knowledge. Evade it as we will, we are driven to the conclusion, at which the earliest men arrived, that human intelligence alone is insufficient to account for the universe, and that there is a Something beyond, with which man is indissolubly connected, and which has to be approached in the spirit of devotion. This Something, now as then, compels reverence and inspires awe. We may call it God or not as we think fit. Meanwhile it subsists–the one paramount fact, in comparison with which all other facts are unimportant. It is variously envisaged by successive generations, according to the tenor of their sensibilities and the nature of their speculaiton. Was there ever, or is there now, any other God but this?

The augmentation of knowledge only increases our sense of the reality and inscrutability of Being. Science and Agnosticism are therefore paths whereby we are brought back to religion under forms adapted to present conceptions of the world we live in, and of which we are a part.

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.