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.

Keeping the Faith

Since Oxford, my life has followed, more or less, the rhythms of a more ancient academic life. Since Oxford, I have passed my days in quiet scholarly contemplation, doing my best even in the hustle and bustle of Princeton for time spent at my desk in the library basement or over meals in quiet conversation about academic matters. And since Oxford I have ended my week, every week, with an evening church service, and I have tried to use the discourse of the Anglican tradition to formulate ways of keeping faith in what I do. When I was being a tourist round the Evensongs of Oxford colleges, I discovered the Anglican liturgy as a way of making sense of, and expressing, the moral call to wake up every morning full in the desire to do better and to be better. I saw the church as one of the few institutions in the modern Anglo-American world that believes in contemplation as a good in itself and as a route to human flourishing. And although in the months since I have struggled with the implications of being a churchgoer, and with the metaphysical, supernatural aspects of Christianity that simply don’t help me to make sense of the world, my churchgoing has become intrinsically entwined with my sense that my scholarship, and my academic aspirations, are a vocation in the service of a future promise greater than myself.

There are many reasons why this is true for those who make their lives in universities, many of which I’ve discussed before. And it is of course no coincidence that it is through a particularly scholastic religious tradition that owes a lot to Oxford and Cambridge that I found ways of thinking about the moral value of what it is that I’m doing with my days and with my life. But I often feel as if faith in the academic mission—in the good of universities, of teaching and learning, of spending one’s day in the library, of devoting oneself to abstract concepts rather than material things, of teaching intellectual curiosity rather than skills—entails leaping off an epistemological cliff in a manner similar to what’s required of the person who aspires to religious faith. Grappling with the faith expected of a churchgoer has helped me to realize just how hard it is to explain to outsiders what you naturally, emotionally, intuit. But it’s also helped me to realize that there are points of entry into faith-based ways of thinking even for those of us who remain fundamentally and unashamedly agnostic. The Anglican tradition is fantastically admitting of metaphor (and so is the Bible itself, of course—just look at Jesus’ parables), and just as this allows non-Christians access to its precepts, it also allows anyone to repurpose its precepts into tenets of right-living outside the immediate boundaries of worship. The intellectual and cultural structures of Anglican worship make me think a lot about what it means to have a vocation, to think about texts and ideas, and to have an emotional connection to the texts and ideas one studies. And they also have helped me to understand what it means to have faith.

In my attempts to understand various parts of the Christian, and specifically Anglican, worldview, faith has been one of the greatest sticking-points. I remember sitting in my Victorian Intellect and Culture seminar last Hilary term being completely outraged by the kind of faith-based logic Newman proposes in his Apologia: Newman basically says that he started from a point of religious faith, and that living his life in accordance with that faith and the principles it preached led him to feel spiritually rewarded and thus to shore up his faith. But I didn’t understand: where did the faith come from in the first place? I’ve never been an especially faithful person: with low self-esteem, cynical about politics and world affairs, requiring external affirmation from others to believe in what I do. I didn’t understand how you could just posit this positive feeling for what seemed to me to be no reason. And hence, I suppose, why I have had so many tortured conversations over the past several years, with my parents and my advisors and my friends, about whether it is possible to ethically justify spending my life in universities, learning and teaching the things that give me the greatest joy. I didn’t believe that I could give to others by giving to myself; I thought I had to give everything of myself until there was nothing left. And I didn’t know how to say that some things are just good, regardless of whether—as my British colleagues might say—we can track their impact in empirical terms.

Discovering the Anglican discourse, on the other hand, has made this calendar year—my junior spring and senior fall—my most intellectually fulfilling year so far. It feels strange saying that, as someone with so little connection to the supernatural aspects of Christianity. But instead, now, I am starting to develop frameworks in which I am spiritually equal to all my neighbors—in which, just as I am to love them, they are also to love me, and I am to love myself. I am starting to believe that I need to be spiritually whole before I can do my best work to help others, that peace and beauty and joy are goods to work towards, that part of being good people is waking up every day with a firm commitment to getting better. I am starting to believe this now because I have knelt in college chapels and prayed with words like this now countless times. I’m starting to perform that kind of illogic logic that I read nine months ago in Newman. I’m starting to think that I can do my part to help the world by rejecting the assumption that a good person works until they cannot work anymore and then works some more after that, and instead slowing everything down. I’m trying to think of my research and my conversations, both in their own ways efforts to expand human knowledge (whether of the past or of ourselves) as the kind of mental upkeep that we need as much as we do the physical to really, properly be whole. And I feel safe, and relatively unashamed, in saying that without Oxford Anglicanism, I wouldn’t have the framework to believe that being good to myself allows me to be good to others; and that nurturing my own unique talents, my own deep sense that I would not be truly happy outside of universities, is a legitimate way to increase the general good of those around me.

I’m not trying to make this all seem facile: like any believer, from day to day I find that once I’ve struggled out of bed, this Onward-Wisdom’s-Soldiers kind of determination evaporates all too quickly. My diary is full to bursting and I pound the pavements through my days: not always doing the reading, not always being any more than instrumentalist about my undergraduate education, and usually so exhausted when I reach dinnertime that all I can do is bitch instead of being charitable to my classmates, my professors, and why we’re all here. I while away hours procrastinating, lingering at meals or on the internet, not quite so ready to practice the virtues of scholarly devotion as I am to preach them. But every night, I say my confession. And every morning, I try again.

There’s one more thing I’ve learned from the Anglican tradition, and while this is something I want to talk more about in a future post in order to really round out the lessons of this calendar year, I think it bears mentioning here. Between Symonds’ own brand of Anglicanism and the one I encountered in today’s Oxford, I started to know what “love” means. This was a word that in my adolescence I never really felt as if I understood, and the more than purely academic understanding of sexual desire it seemed to require was never something I felt I could engage with. Religion—Phaedrus beautiful-boys religion, or Jesus love-thy-neighbor religion—has helped me to access a register of emotional ecstasy for the people and the places and the texts and the ideas in one’s life that places desire not quite so much in the body as in the soul. The search for spiritual communion—to feel a little less lonely, to connect, to be responsible for another’s soul, in the Platonic Socrates’ words, taking flight—is something to which I can aspire, and something which I sense has the best shot of anything of making me whole.

Of course, there are still the moments like this one, when all is quiet on the quad at quarter to midnight, I am too exhausted to start the next of my mounting pile of things left undone, the Christmas lights in my room burn through the silence, and I reflect on how isolated I feel, and how little energy I have to do my schoolwork or write my thesis or keep on giving my life to my work. These moments have been happening very frequently of late, and until I understand a bit better what it really means to leap off that epistemological cliff of faith, I’m not sure I will be able to gin up fiery passion out of this kind of ennui. But I know enough about faith to know that it means that even if logic tells you that you will never reach the summit of your steep uphill climb, you have to keep going anyway. You have to keep trying to love all your neighbors, you have to keep trying to love all your work, you have to keep trying to love yourself, and you have to keep hoping that someday someone will love you back. And if you fuck up, nothing too bad will happen. It’s not the end of the world. But you have to say that you’re most heartily sorry, and you have to try harder next time.

On nights like this, when I don’t know how I’m going to do history, much less love, tomorrow, I say my own kind of non-supernatural prayer: O, Wisdom: Grant me the grace to love what I do, and through loving what I do to love myself. Grant me the grace that I may, through a life of moderation in your service, be a more fitting recipient of the love of others. And through the love of you and of all who walk in your way, may I be a better servant to the causes of peace, of happiness, and of human flourishing. In Wisdom’s name, Amen.

QOTD (2011-10-30); or, On What Matters

Professor Stefan Collini, concluding his remarks at Cambridge on “The Very Idea of the University,” 11 October 2011:

We all in our way have an obligation to try to hand on to our successors an institution that has managed, through difficult times, to keep alive and embody what is most precious in this particular idea of the university. Organised scepticism is one of its animating principles: that questioning of all claims to truth, no matter how familiar or well-established, and no matter how elevated the academic or political authority who makes them….

As I hope every student who passes through this university comes to realise, the house of intellect is in one sense necessarily a democracy. Yes, of course we have our rituals and our hierarchies, but in the end, across a supervision room or seminar table or lab bench or wherever, the powers that ultimately govern our doings are the better arguments and the better evidence, and it doesn’t matter who puts them forward.

So whatever decisions we make in the present about our funding or our institutional structures or our forms of teaching or assessment, or the hundreds of other practical things we have to decide about, I think we have no choice but to be committed to handing on to our successors an institution which is still able across the whole field of human activity to challenge the current state of understanding, and which is always free to suggest that there are other places to start and other things worth understanding. And keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—really alive, not just paying lip service to it when we put all those lifeless abstract nouns into those life-destryoing report forms, but keeping that spirit of inquiry alive—is what all of us, in this room and in this university and in other universities, have to regard as our priority.

I should make clear that this does not seem to me a comfortable or easy position. In fact, it’s a very radical notion in its way, because it says that we’re committed to this kind of freedom of inquiry come what may. And what may come are not just government directives or external decisions that we may regard as misguided and even damaging, but—an even truer test of our mettle—what may come includes those moral and political values to which we, as ethical agents and responsible citizens, feel a strong commitment: values which these days often take the form of, for example, ensuring for others a genuine respect and equality of treatment and improvement of life chances, and so on. Those are all hugely important things, but they’re not, I submit, primary and distinctive responsibilities of universities, and at times they may even conflict with the prime task of extending understanding. This is not the least of the ways in which the very idea of the university is such an outrageous one.

If we are only trustees for our generation of the peculiar cultural achievement that is the university, then those of us whose lives have been shaped by the immeasurable privilege of studying and teaching in a university are not entitled to give up on the attempt to make the case for its best purposes and to make that case tell in the public domain, however discouraging the immediate circumstances. We owe it to those who preserved and enriched the traditions of inquiry which we have inherited, and we owe it too to the generations yet unborn who should not be denied the precious opportunity to wander through the galleries of the human mind with no more fixed purpose than a curiosity to understand how such mangifience came to be and how it can be renewed and extended. A sense of our place in this longer history chastises the petty vanities and foolish crotchets of the present, but it can be inspiring; and we reflect that, even in circumstances that may have looked to them as little propitious as ours do sometimes to us, no previous generation entirely surrendered this ideal of the university to those ontological fantasists who think they represent the ‘real world’. I deliberately choose there that rhetorical excess, because, as Newman well knew, such verbal serpents can be the carrier—even though it can in no straightforward propositional sense be the statement—of the mind’s drive for fuller and deeper comprehension, a drive which it is the function of universities to allow to pursue its endless quest without being subject to the requirement to produce some measurable practical outcome in the present.

Please do not abandon this idea of the university, however debased you may think any manifestation of it has temporarily come to be. Tending to this idea may remind us, amid distracting circumstances, that we are indeed merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create and which it is not ours to destroy.

All twenty-one years of my life in universities, I have had the sense that I belong to something much larger than myself, much larger than my family and all the people my family knows, much larger than my friends and my colleagues and my professors and all the people my friends and colleagues and professors have ever known. This is why I’ve not left yet and could never imagine leaving: these institutions together stand for something palpable and valuable in the web of things that make us human and alive and worth wondering at.

I recommend that you follow the link above and listen to the whole of Prof. Collini’s talk, only whose last five or so minutes I have transcribed here. In fifty-one captivating minutes, he makes an eloquent and at times even fist-pumping attempt to carve out a cultural space for the university past and present that runs counter to, and at times even directly critiques, the dominant cultural rhetoric of output, productivity, and other economic terms that we today suppose universities are generally good for boosting. He points out that in the so-called “real world” that universities are claimed not to be sufficiently accountable to, people don’t just work as mindless automatons the way the language of business and industry might suggest. Rather, they wonder and wander and love and question their purpose in life, and they often actively seek out the ideas that the University (as Platonic form) stores for the sake of those who seek ways of understanding where they fit into the world and how the world fits into them.

But if there is anything that is lacking in this sermon (for so he self-mockingly calls it) by one of my all-time heroes where the cause of defending the idea of the university is concerned, it is that he presents the university as a rather static institution: withstanding the vagaries of time, of trends, of economic systems, and tended by custodians who seek to keep it true to its founding principles. To an extent, this is indeed what is so marvelous about the university, and believe in it so passionately that I hope to be fortunate enough to grow up to be one of those stewards of human knowledge myself. And to be sure, Collini does impress upon the listener the fact that the university is always moving knowledge, always stretching its boundaries further and testing every intellectual proposition put to it on the most rigorous of grounds.

But—if I may be so presumptuous—what I think he leaves out is the lifesaving grace (if you will; Collini started this off by calling his summing-up a sermon!) that universities may grant those who find human flourishing within their walls. There are reasons he might have done so: it sounds absolutely silly to talk about this, especially if you’re a rather famous, eminent, and brilliant Cambridge don. But I am a 21-year-old undergraduate, and it is my role in life to be silly, so that is precisely what I am going to proceed to do. We caretakers are not guarding all this knowledge for nothing: we are guarding it so that eighteen-year-olds may come to stay for a while and learn that they have best selves, and that their best selves are worth being. Of course, not all eighteen-year-olds discover this in universities. But some—and I can speak only from my own experience—cannot find it anywhere else. These, I find, are the ones most likely to take a life sentence, to become the next caretakers. But even those who do not know for three or four years that they are growing within and beyond themselves may find themselves years later thanking those fustian caretakers for keeping alive something eternal so that it might inside them become quite dynamic indeed.

As I write this, I find that I am sounding to myself rather Platonist and perhaps even rather Hegelian, which is either the product of a day spent writing about the influence of Hegel in Symonds’ early scholarship on Greek literature or a reflection of the reactionary Victorianism that characterizes a great deal of my own critique of political economy these days. Just about eight months ago now, it was reading Arnold and Ruskin (and not, in fact, Marx a year before) that gave me a sense of possibility outside the totalizing rhetoric of capitalism, of industry, of production, value, return, reward, winning, profiting, gaining, optimizing. Of course, as Collini argues, it’s the rational inquiry that universities support that can help us to recognize that we all live according to more discourses than that of political economy after all. But we shouldn’t forget, I think, that when that happens it’s not just that we have a better society right now, or that human understanding is safeguarded, in some abstract way, for the next generation. It’s also that hearts and minds are changed within universities. Speaking as someone who feels myself growing and becoming almost by the day, I know that’s an absolutely extraordinary and beautiful thing.

Past and Present; or, Sesame Street and Lilies: A Scene of Academic Life

I remember when I was a radical, and when I was an activist. I remember my “welcome to college” moment, in the days before I was a historian, before I discovered Symonds, when I sat up late with some friends and a guitar writing comedic and ultimately nonsensical lyrics about keeping freshmen off the grass to the tune of “This Land is Your Land” because my friends and I had a bright idea about how to make fun of California’s Proposition 8. I remember meeting one of my best friends when we got together to blast “It’s Raining Men” at the headquarters of the so-called National Organization for Marriage across the street from our dining hall. I remember going alone to talk to the Board of Trustees about gender-neutral housing. I remember being attacked for being too masculine-looking in the right-wing press from here to Washington. I remember when I took the early morning bus down to Washington and marched in the streets.

A couple weeks ago I was walking with a friend through a collegiate neo-Gothic arch at dusk, prattling on about virtue ethics, or the evils of political economy, or the value of agrarianism, or maybe that particular neo-Gothic arch, or something, and this friend—whom I had not hitherto taken as particularly familiar with the canonical Victorian essayists—said to me, “You’re really a Ruskinian conservative, aren’t you?”

Reader, I am.

The thing is, I am honestly exhausted by social engagement, by participating in a marketplace of ideas whose undergirding metaphor I am uninterested by. I do not believe in the values enshrined by the government of the country in whose elections I have voted, and I cannot be bothered to play along with its discourse to the extent required to try to fix it. I have never made change through statistics and “accountability,” and I have no intention of starting now. I don’t believe in “winning the future,” or indeed in winning full-stop. And I haven’t marched in the streets many times, but I have marched in the streets enough times to have gained the sense that the great change marching in the streets promises is not something I can believe in.

What can I believe in, then? Well, a lot actually. I can believe in going to class or going to a meeting with my advisor or another professor and coming home with a new idea. I can believe in spending an hour over lunch in hall bitching with my friend about the school newspaper, and coming up with a cogent critique of a campus problem; or in spending months with the same friend building up complex theoretical models to describe the world around us and the texts we’re reading. I can believe in helping the freshman advisee who wants course advice, or the fellow senior who wants to vent to me about her job hunt, or the sophomore torn between joining her friends’ eating club and her general distaste for the Street, or the junior who wants to know how I handled my workload when I was writing my first JP. I can believe in the community of my cooking co-op, where we all (mostly) do our part absent any reward but each other’s satisfaction. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of seeing Symonds work his ponderous Victorian dialectical way to a vision of sexual freedom no one has ever had before. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of a freshman, coming out for the first time, recreating that process, or an upperclass student, redefining his sexual identity having gained a little more theoretical apparatus, doing the same. I can believe in the big-government best intentions of our administration’s efforts to keep grading fair and to make sure there are social options on campus in which everyone can feel included. I can believe in the camaraderie in my college, in my co-op, and in my new home, the History Graduate Study Room. I can believe in the value of a place that tells undergraduates, “Here are four years that are yours. We’re fortunate enough to be able to give you all the resources you could ever possibly want to realize your best self in those four years. Use them well.” And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, part of an institution that helps young people have a shot at being better. I can believe in the value of a place that, to its graduate students and its faculty and its staff, embodies the only lifestyle they could ever possibly live and live well. And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, there for the next kid who comes through it and needs to discover that there is actually a place for those who love knowledge and wisdom above all else, and that they can be taken care of, respected, and even perhaps loved in turn therein.

Defending the ivory tower—the impregnable fortress of the world’s knowledge, guarded by its lovers of wisdom—is, as readers will no doubt know, nearly impossible in today’s politico-economic discourse. In a world whose terms are so much set by the calculus of utility, how can we defend something whose virtue lies precisely in its un-usefulness? Well, after years of asking this question, I’m beginning to think that we can’t—not in so many words.

Instead, we have to live it. We have to turn conversations toward why we love what we study and away from our anxiety about what we’re going to do about it afterwards. We have to make space for unstructured free time in our lives, and we have to talk about not why you should do one job instead of another, but why everyone, no matter their job, deserves the right to an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week. We have to demonstrate that two hours spent playfully joking and arguing over after-dinner cups of tea isn’t (as one friend suggested to me last night) a luxury, but is rather the just desserts of stepping off the hamster wheel. Think of it like slow food: this is slow college. This is living deliberately, learning deliberately, learning for its own sake, and loving to learn: about our fields of academic study, yes, but also about others and about ourselves. And maybe, in the process, some of us will become conscious of our own alienation, and resent that the wringer of elite universities in the western world today has turned us into automatons trained to produce. And maybe we will think more about how to be good, whole, loving beings.

Why haven’t I picked up shop and moved to Occupy Wall Street? Because refusing to engage with the terms of a discourse of wealth and production that I loathe is my job. Because spending every day in a basement three floors underground writing about a subject I adore is my job. Because helping freshmen—and everyone—find their way is my job. Because making food and eating it with my friends at my co-op is my job. Because being home if someone knocks on my door needing to talk is my job. Because I love any one of these things that I do more than a job, and more than I love standing outside with a sign. I love that I make a living—a spiritual as well as a material living—through my mind, through my pen, and through my conversation. I love that my conversations have the power to change hearts, and minds, and lives—or, well, if they don’t now, they will someday. I love that when the world seems very, very dark and I feel very, very alone, it is a life full of books and ideas that makes me feel as if I can go on.

This is my world. This is a world that I believe in—that I will always believe in—and that I will always fight for. I may have long since ceased to be “the campus radical,” may have long since stopped caring about gay marriage, but I will always be on the front lines for the right to sit and think. Knock on my door, and sit on my window seat next to my Bert and Ernie plush figures, and let me make you a cup of tea.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

And then sing with me: Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l’amour de l’impossible; or, In Which a Sermon Is Attempted

What is a utopia?

When we ask such definitional questions, we often find ourselves starting with a definition. From the Greek, a ου-τοπος is literally a “no-place,” and it is a concept that has been deployed by countless writers and thinkers since Thomas More to describe places, ideas, societies, and conditions that are not. Utopias can be bad or good or morally ambiguous; however, they are often constructed in order to describe what could be, or what one wishes could be. They tend to be worlds in which people get on rather more harmoniously than they do in our own.

For John Addington Symonds, utopia was a world where l’amour de l’impossible was possible. It was a world where human relations were stretched into new permutations, and where the morality that governs such human relations could be bent ever so slightly to accommodate “an intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man.” Symonds described his impossible love in this way in an 1889 letter to Walt Whitman, and it was Whitman whose own utopic hymn to “the new City of Friends” did so much to shape Symonds’ sense of what could be. In his Memoirs, Symonds wrote that L’amour de l’impossible est la maladie de l’âme (the illness of the soul); in the margins of Whitman’s “Calamus,” he wrote that “Comradeship is… a need of the soul”—medicine for the illness. Through Whitman’s gospel above all else, Symonds kept alive his faith in the achievability of this new world where something crudely degenerate could be exalted, and where Symonds himself could find peace and satisfaction.

What is a utopia? That is one utopia: one where the word “love” is transfigured, and where sexual satisfaction may be glorified. And as Symonds found himself shaping it in his mind, he also found himself beset by doubt in the promise of a different utopia, the one promised by the devout, God-fearing, Low-Church tradition in which he was raised, in which the Kingdom of God awaited the good. Aside from a few exceptions—such as when his eldest daughter died—Symonds had by his late twenties largely moved away from the Christianity that dominated his youth. He fell into its familiar rhetorical strides when writing his sister or his aunt a Christmas letter, and he remained an active patron of the English Church at Davos, Switzerland, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. But it was in large part a habitual, cultural Christianity: after his undergraduate years, he did not write rapturously of epiphanies achieved while kneeling in chapels—nor even of choristers loved. In Symonds’ adulthood, as alternative gospels assumed priority in his worldview, even his sites of sexual attraction shifted from cathedrals to the secular spaces of schoolrooms, Swiss mountain slopes, and the banks of the Serpentine, as he proposed to live rather more pantheistically in “the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful.”

But on the last day in July, 153 years after Symonds’ first date (if we may be so presentist to call it that) in the cloister of Bristol Cathedral, a rather old-fashioned sermon was preached in that self-same house of worship about poverty and humility and the Kingdom of God. It ended on R.S. Thomas’s oft-quoted-in-sermons poem “The Kingdom”:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

What is a utopia? Well, Thomas here offers us another one: the Kingdom of God, where admission is by faith alone, where the good are rewarded with more goodness, where no one covets either riches or each other. And this is the sticking point: a Doubting Symonds Scholar may find herself looking up at the pulpit and thinking, it’s no wonder that a man striving for a world where there are more ways to love and to be loved ceased to seek solace in those men who proposed to speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The love of God as delimited by such men can only go so far, then: pantheist and pagan, Symonds may have preferred Zeus, who at least had Ganymede going for him, than the Christian God.

But I think there is also more in the Thomas poem than meets the eye: for it is also promised us that in the Kingdom of God, “the consumptive is/Healed.” When I heard the preacher read this line out, I found myself hearing it as if “The Consumptive” was capitalized, as if it referred to one particular Consumptive: one particular member of this cathedral’s very diocese whose consumption led him away from England and away from its Church. It is a common trope in literature that the homosexual man is wasting away, and I don’t just mean from AIDS: the perceived moral degeneracy of his condition is figured in the metaphorical terms of a chronic illness. So it often seems with the real-life ill health of Symonds, whose consumption was assuredly compounded by the depression and anxiety visited upon him by the impossibilité of his amour. If Symonds were to be healed, it would not only mean restoring his lungs to their former robustness, but also transplanting him into a utopia where love of any kind is not a maladie.

The incredible, awe-inspiring thing about Symonds is that by the end of his too-short life he knew where to find this utopia, how to make it. He knew to look in Whitman, and in others who wrote in transcendent terms, like Goethe; in the newest advances of science, of evolution and psychology; in a canon of writers including Plato and Michelangelo and in the homoerotic, Hellenistic spirit they conveyed; and, yes, in the Hebraic spirit too. For despite all his very deep doubt, despite the clearness to him that the modern Christian world would not admit the possibility of his love (to the detriment of his and others’ mental health), Symonds never really left the faith into which he was born. To read his poetry, into which his tortured, impossible longings are intensely and intently sublimated, is to read, alongside dense references to classical mythology, a constant refrain of trinitarian imagery, and to hear the deliberate echoes of poets who negotiated the boundaries of Christian faith and reason, like Petrarch and Milton. I don’t think these are just the unconscious effects of being steeped in a Christian culture. As he did in so many other instances, I think Symonds is again working as hard as he can to stretch the fabric of the culture just wide enough to let l’amour de l’impossible slip in, allowing Platonic love to nestle neatly alongside Dantesque chivalric love. The Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful were Symonds’ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—and he too, through the deployment of a doctrine of love, wanted to make utopia here on Earth.

To a devout Christian, Symonds, and indeed I writing (preaching?) here, have stretched and bent and twisted the paradigms and doctrines of Christianity beyond all recognition. In church, there is a line of metaphor and symbolism beyond which the language does not go (and this is why, out of all the bits and pieces of a given Anglican service, the one I the non-Christian do not say is the Creed). There is only so much one can do to bend before the framework shatters and falls to the ground. And yet I do not believe that Symonds thought he had done this, and here is the rub. For Symonds knew better than I that Jesus told His disciples to “Love one another,” and at the end of the day Symonds was all about love. Though he spoke as passionately as perhaps anyone has ever done about the need to repeal the Labouchere Amendment and decriminalize “gross indecency between males,” it was not so much in a literal sense, so that men would be free to have sex with each other. Rather, it was in a spiritual sense—as he wrote in his appendix to Sexual Inversion, it was so that men’s souls might not be destroyed as he felt his had been by the pressures of the double life. He was all about homosexual rights for the sake of making the double life whole—and good, and beautiful—and for the sake of letting us love one another.

And so here we come to the point in the sermon when the preacher, who has rambled incoherently about a few texts for a few minutes, tries desperately to leave her parishioners with the impression that she has half a brain and can tie all the threads together. We ask, again: what is a utopia?

Drawing my answer not from the Bible—or at least, not only from the Bible—but rather from the humanist (what Philip Pullman, lo these many months ago, called the pagan) tradition, I can answer that a utopia is a land where there are many roads to goodness and to love. It is a land where we all toil alongside each other on the uphill climbs towards our own Celestial Cities, each person seeking the best of all possible paths (for this is, after all, utopia), the one that will best help her to make her life whole. It is a land where as well as loving one another we learn from each other, and we feel free to share with each other whatever we hope will help us to stretch the fabric and patch the holes of the belief systems that help us to wake up in the morning and to go to sleep at night having done something worthwhile with the day. It is a land where the impossible is possible, and where pagan humanist Doubting Symonds Scholars find themselves in church on Sundays, hearing (and perhaps even offering a few) prayers to the Christian God.