Yesterday, I had a powerful sense of getting better.

Here in Britain this year, the moveable feasts of Easter Sunday and the changing of the clocks coincided, and just as Christians are singing their alleluias for Eastertide, so are we pagans for whom the New Testament is one great redeeming story among many hailing British Summer Time, The Giver of Light. The change, coinciding happily with good weather, has been a marked one, enough to make new life stir within one’s soul.

Yesterday it was a friend’s birthday and a beautiful cloudless day, and the sun called to us through the windows of the café where we convened for tea in her honor, and then chased us through Christ Church Meadow and up along the High Street and Longwall Street on our way to Holywell Cemetery, where we spent a happy hour calling to each other amongst the graves. “Here’s a President of Corpus!” “Here’s the Bishop of Mombasa!” “Here’s Maurice Bowra! “Here’s Grenfell of Oxyrhynchus fame!” (My friends are a rarefied bunch.) The sun still shone golden upon the yellow stones of Magdalen as we made our way back across the bridge and home. Shortly thereafter, I convened with three others to cook dinner together, and as the sun finally set behind the playing fields and Boar’s Hill, we made soup and pasta and sat down for a long leisurely meal, drinking and laughing. It was a taste of summer, and perhaps of normal, well-adjusted adulthood: two men and two women in their mid-twenties hanging out, none of us talking about dissertation topics or how there are no jobs.

Meanwhile life goes on, and today I returned to the library, but the sense of feeling whole and alive that I gathered in yesterday’s sunlight remained with me. This time exactly one year ago the sun was shining in Princeton, too, but I sat dumbly staring into space in a depressive, gin-driven stupor, unbelieving that life could go on innocently all around me when my thesis had been ceded, finally, to the History Department. It was the most alcohol I’ve ever drunk, but I remember that day more clearly than many of the other occasions on which I’ve overindulged, remember the despair that came from watching the world continue as if nothing had happened and not knowing what I would do next.

In some ways I’ve felt as if the last year has been a slow recovery from that single moment of bewildered sadness. It’s been a year of breaking with old patterns and re-establishing new ones, looking in all kinds of new places for happiness and only finding it when I didn’t expect to, and most of all yearning to rekindle in my heart the burning love that made it possible for me to hand that thesis in. I still wonder nearly every day if that was my one great passion, the only time I will ever burn with a hard, gem-like flame, if after this it’s just going through the motions. They say that nothing is ever quite like the glukúpikron torture of your first love.

But last night at the end of the sun-kissed day I felt sleepy and warm and safe, and today in the library I felt as if I might be able to find in me some of the old enthusiasm again. Today was not so exceptional, but for that it still felt very much like old times, like the days I spent in the library during my first spring in Oxford when I started to learn how to love. To round off the day I went to evensong, as I did so often during that first Easter vacation. The resurrection brings with it hope, the priest said; and I’ve no doubt that if I ventured to tell her why this mattered, she’d have raised her eyebrows and said “ah” dubiously in the way that Anglican priests so often do when I venture to discuss theology with them. But afterwards I crossed a golden-stoned Tom Quad still bathed in sunshine, and was so very happy that just as color returns to the world and lambs are born and liturgies are said and some people dream of the messiahs to come, I am learning how to live and to love again and always.

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him. (Hopkins)

QOTD (2013-02-10); or, Halfway Hall

Rowan Williams, in a lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University last September, excerpts of which were read as part of the Oxford Corporate Collegiate Service at the University Church tonight:

What then is a university for?

I want to argue that universities historically have existed not simply for the pursuit of learning, but for the pursuit of intelligent citizenship…. The point of a university in this sense is, I would say, very clearly and very significantly to promote intelligence in public discourse…. But I do believe that public discourse requires critical edge. It requries the ability to weigh different perspectives, and the ability to argue in public. In the Middle Ages and in many other contexts, part of the significant purpose of university education was to equip you in what used to be called rhetoric—the ability to mount a good argument in public, and the ability to know what the difference was between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant, arguments. Pick up any one of the public media organs,… listen to any number of public speeches, and you’ll see that the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant arguments is not a capacity in huge supply, and it is very important that somebody should be there to take responsibility in furthering it…. A university is part of the equipment of a healthy, self-critical society, because it trains the intelligence. It trains the intelligence in argument and honesty. It trains people in the capacity to engage with honesty and intelligence in public debate. But for that, it needs a view of what intelligence is about. And the Christian tradition offers a robust and very resourceful account of what intelligence is all about, relating it to the divine image, to love, to the overcoming of fragmentation, the fulfilment and reconciliation of people, the liberation of mind and heart. The point of a university is to foster the honesty of public discourse, and to do so by taking seriously a whole range of intense and, yes, specialised research activities…. When Cardinal Newman in the 19th century wrote his celebrated essay on ‘The Idea of a University’, he did so not simply out of a narrowly or an abstractly theological set of concerns, but out of a set of experiences of the intellectual life which had their heart and their impulse in one particular Anglican university of his day. The University of Oxford at the beginning of the 19th century was in many ways an extremely hierarchical inflexible and rather dull place. But there were one or two settings within that university where this capacity to ask fundamental questions of each other, this expectation of intelligent public discourse as the result of university education, were a reality.

And so it is of the University of Oxford in our day. In the service, this was followed by the organ suddenly swelling and the massed choirs of seven colleges leaping to our feet to sing “Jerusalem,” as the University proctors and bedels in all their regalia escorted the preacher of the University Sermon to the pulpit. I couldn’t help but beam, and sing fortissimo. There are plenty of people I know who have dedicated their lives to universities and university teaching who would find this expression of academic identity alienating, if not outright b.s. Which is fine; it doesn’t have to work for everyone. But just as going to evensong reminds me that there’s more in the world than profit and publish or perish, wearing an academic gown and performing university ceremonies reminds me that there are larger truths and ethical obligations to which we pledge ourselves when we make our lives inside ivory towers. And being so reminded gives me the strength to keep going.

It’s Sunday of fifth week of Hilary Term: halfway through the first year. And still, always, my first love is lost causes and impossible loyalties.

2012 in Review; or, The Year I Read Forster

It is an annual tradition, dear reader, that I use this space to take stock in the last days of the year of everything that I’ve learned and thought and read since the last annual post. This one needs to take in perhaps the most momentous year since the blog began, nearly four years ago. I know I say that every year, but: 2012 was the year that I worked night and day, in my big sunlit bedroom on Holder quad or at my desk in the History Graduate Study Room three floors underground, on a labor of love that I called “John Addington Symonds: Humanism, Love, and Sexual Identity in Victorian Britain.” 2012 was the year that, one fine day in May, I left the college dining hall after lunch, gingerly walked the brown paper bag with the two copies of that thesis over to the history department, took my congratulatory chocolate-chip cookie to my afternoon seminar, went home afterwards, drank an enormous quantity of gin, then promptly fell into a postpartum depression that lasted for months. 2012 was the year that saw my biggest fight yet with a university for which I’d come to feel great affection, at which my time nevertheless finished in a whirlwind of ceremonies, receptions, and dinners in which I felt humbled by people I highly esteemed telling me that I’d accomplished things worth accomplishing in my time there. 2012 was the year that the rain stopped just in time on a Tuesday morning, the bells of Nassau Hall tolled, I put on a gown and a hood and a mortarboard, a brass band from Philadelphia incongruously played Last Night of the Proms music, Shirley Tilghman told thousands of graduates that the liberal arts matter for their own sake, I cried three times, and I headed off to brunch a bachelor of arts. 2012 was the year that I spent a month wandering the streets of Paris, living with one of my best friends, never getting started on the Symonds article I’d set myself to write, and then going to the French seaside to read Greek for hours on end at an English tea shop or on the promenade or in a crumbling fin-de-siècle railway hotel. It was also the year that I spent a week riding buses around the Peloponnese, climbing mountains at midday in hundred-degree heat to look at the archaeological sites at the top; and that I then passed two weeks in a garden on the Gulf of Corinth, surrounded by ancient-Greek speakers and other eccentrics, eating fruit and crepes, reading Homer for the first time and Plato for the second, and becoming progressively more depressed. 2012 was the year that I criss-crossed from Greece to the Gulf Islands, down to San Diego and then via New York and Washington back to England again, and then one day the sun came out in the Upper Reading Room, I was reading Anne Carson, and I felt the cloud of depression lift its weight off my shoulders. Since then, some days have been better than others, and the Symonds article still isn’t finished, but 2012 was the year that I ended singing carol services and observing Advent, determined to do what I could to keep candles lit against the darkness.

More importantly, 2012 was also the year that I read Forster.

In last year’s annual post, I wrote that I’d read Howards End because a boy told me to. Funnily enough, I then went on to spill hundreds of words saying that Howards End meant something to me because in 2011 I’d learned to love Oxford, humanity, and the worldly goodness and gentleness and ordinary beauty that I mean when I say “God,” but that I didn’t know how to love individual persons. I knew why “Only connect!” was important. But I didn’t know how to put it into practice.

Dear reader, if you ever read a book because a boy told you to, and it quickly becomes the most important book you’ve ever read, maybe you should ask yourself what that has to do with love. For the next year, I did nothing but, without entirely realizing I was doing it. My commonplace book shows that I finished A Room With a View on Christmas Day, and The Longest Journey on the 8th of January (I remember that, curled up on my sofa with endless cups of tea, when no one else was back yet in Princeton and it was only me and Symonds and the snow and darkness). I know that I read Forster’s short stories early in the new year, and his essays in the spring, when Princeton ended with almost a month of no schoolwork to do. I remember thinking that Forster might be able to teach me how loving others could help me to love myself, and I remember only feeling my sense of self—especially after handing in my thesis—slipping farther and farther away. I read A Passage to India in Paris, in cafés or in the queue for student rush tickets at the opera, and then, finally, on 21 December, I recorded one line from Where Angels Fear to Tread in my commonplace book: “… human love and love of truth sometimes conquer where love of beauty fails.”

I decided to become a humanist in the summer of 2009 because of a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, and for the next couple years there was a handwritten sign over my desk that said “Seek Beauty.” But time went on, that sign was replaced by other ones, I went to Oxford, came back, and went back again, and it didn’t seem so much that I was seeking beauty as I was a greater understanding of humans and of truth, and a perhaps less ambitious set of tactics for getting on in the world and leaving it a little better besides. When I came back from Greece I wanted to know how the people we live with can help us to finish our articles on Symonds, rather than leave us sulking in grape arbors reading Petrarch and not being much help to anyone. I wanted to know how they can help us to remember who we are and what we want, instead of to forget.

At the end of 2012, I still can’t really scan Homer properly, and the Symonds article is about four thousand words too long. But I have got to know more than I ever would have countenanced back in 2009 about eros ouranios, eros pandemos, and eros glukupikros. I have long since given up hope of ever establishing any kind of division between my work and my personal lives. But I have come to believe that one of the things that love means is wanting to know more.

How the globe would get on, if entirely peopled with individuals, is impossible to foresee. However, Man has another wish, besides the wish to be free, and that is the wish to love, and perhaps something may be born from the union of the two. Love sometimes leads to an obedience which is not servile—the obedience referred to in the Christian epigram above quoted. Love, after a dreadful period of inflation, is perhaps coming back to its proper level and may steady civilization; up-to-date social workers believe in it. It is difficult not to get mushy as soon as one mentions love, but it is a tendency that must be reckoned with, and it takes as many forms as fear. The desire to devote oneself to another person or persons seems to be as innate as the desire for personal liberty. If the two desires could combine, the menace to freedom from within, the fundamental menace, might disappear, and the political evils now filling all the foreground of our lives would be deprived of the poison which nourishes them. They will not wilt in our time, we can hope for no immediate relief. But it is a good thing, once in a way, to speculate on the remoter future. It is a good thing, when freedom is discussed, not always to be wondering what ought to be done about Hitler, or whether the decisions of the Milk Marketing Board are unduly arbitrary. There is the Beloved Republic to dream about and to work for through our dreams; the better polity which once seemed to be approaching on greased wheels; the City of God.


Ninth Week; or, Making Connections

In term time, at Oxford, we teach or we do the coursework our teachers set us, we go to seminars and language classes, we run madly round town seeing people and doing things. Out of term is when the real reading and thinking gets done. This is true in all academic contexts, of course, but I think it’s particularly true in a university where the terms are such short bursts of energy. There is something truly glorious—and sincerely appreciated, after the chaos of term—about getting enough sleep, attending to your correspondence, and then making your way to the Upper Reading Room and spreading out a diverse array of texts in front of you, the day’s reading and writing interrupted only by the welcome arrival of lunchtime and the attendant chatter of the MCR classicists.

As a symbol of ninth week, and where my thinking is pleased to settle after term-time’s disarray, here is a little collage of some things I’ve read today. We’ll start with the theory: Eve Sedgwick’s expostulation, in her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” of Melanie Klein’s “paranoid position.” I first read this essay two years ago, doing my homework late at night in a deserted college dining hall, and memorably burst into tears because I didn’t understand it. It’s particularly delightful to revisit it and know just how much reading, thought, and particularly life experience has gone into the fact that I understand it now:

The greatest interest of Klein’s concept lies, it seems to me, in her seeing the paranoid position always in the oscillatory context of a very different possible one: the depressive position. For Klein’s infant or adult, the paranoid position—understandably marked by hatred, envy, and anxiety—is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one. By contrast, the depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.

Yes, I know. The language is alienatingly abstruse, the subject-matter bringing to mind all those creepy Kleinian images of disembodied breasts floating in the air (okay, maybe that’s just me). But there’s a lot to work with here—let’s start with that ringingly clear last sentence: “Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.” Love, Sedgwick is saying via Klein, is a condition that helps us to alleviate the anxieties that the world brings upon us, that helps us to forge connections between ourselves and others and among a greater variety of humankind, or (depending on your point of view) perhaps between the human and the divine. It involves reciprocity, and the forging of something new, something greater than itself, but it still also nourishes the self—the self isn’t lost within it. And it’s reparative, something Sedgwick uses in which to ground her call for affective relations with texts (and something that’s important to me as I consider self-consciously my own more historicist reading methodology), but which is also important for theorizing about what affective relations might do for us as people living amongst other people.

Okay, so with that in mind, let’s look at a cool blog-post rendering of Stendhal’s theory of love, helpfully deposited in my email inbox by my father. The author of the post, Maria Popova, draws our attention to the concept of “crystallization” that Stendhal advances as central to the way we idealize our beloveds. Stendhal defines it as “a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one,” and in a half-way I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of that bit from Phaedrus 251 we keep coming back to here. Popova connects “crystallization” to theories of “attachment” drawn from evolutionary biology, but surely it shares at least as much in common with the Kleinian version of the metaphor, forming its own fragile solid through the clustering of molecules. The important thing to emphasize, then, is not the bond itself (between mother and child, between two lovers, etc) but the reconstitution of the world that occurs through it, of love as a prism through which a worldview is refracted.

Of course, I’m actually a historian, not a theorist, and this is all getting a bit disembodied for me. So I’ll ground it in some documents by referring next to Thomas Dixon’s weighty, handsomely-produced tome on The Invention of Altruism, which I was also reading today and which traces in intellectual and linguistic terms the evolution of “altruism” as a signifier (if you will. I promise I’m not a theorist!) in nineteenth-century thought, and its role in the philosophy of writers such as Comte, George Eliot, and Darwin. It’s a rich portrait, and one I hope to have the chance to pore over at greater length and in more detail at some point very soon. But just at the moment, I was struck by Dixon’s discussion of GE Moore’s Principia Ethica in his final chapter, and how it demonstrates a turn away from the identifiably Victorian theory and practice of altruism:

More’s main achievement in writing Principia Ethica was to produce an intellectual rationale for the way of life, and the kinds of love, favoured by a group of educated young men and women in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But advocacy of this post-Victorian way of life could not be undertaken in Victorian language. While Max Nordau, Alfred Douglas, and the editors of The Eagle and the Serpent, were all still tied to the language of ‘egoism’ and ‘altruism’, Moore and his friends were not. Instead of understanding love as something that was given from the ‘ego’ to a separate ‘alter’, they understood it as an emotion that brought two people into a unity. In a paper read to the ‘Apostles’ in 1898, Moore put it this way: ‘To be in the right relations with the right persons is all that can here be good; and if you are so, you do not do one thing for self and another for them, but all simply for the sake of the whole that is you and them and what is between you.’

I don’t know enough about philosophy to really assess Dixon’s claims about Principia Ethica‘s merits, but I do know a bit about the kinds of love people like the Apostles valued. What’s interesting here, I think, is the way that, just as Forster’s love proposed to join humankind to to each other, and thereby to find a force for good in a world without God, Dixon represents Moore as interested in healing a rift between self-interest and other-interest. It’s not so different, perhaps, from what any philosopher or theorist thinks happens when we try to negotiate the boundaries between ourselves and others and our various needs and wants. What’s perhaps more striking is the ease with which it seems possible to fit Sedgwick and Klein and Maria Popova and Stendhal and Thomas Dixon and GE Moore—and perhaps even Plato?—all under the rubric of “love.” I am a splitter, not a lumper, and yet there’s something disconcertingly universal starting to creep in here.

One thing I am still batting about in a vague sort of way is the (dis)juncture between mind and body when we talk about love, and how historically contingent this can be. For the Victorians, love doesn’t seem to have been very bodily, and I’m still having a very difficult time wrapping my head around how this changes over time and the ways in which sex and lust do or don’t have to do with the more emotional or spiritual kind of connection I’ve been talking about here. But I’m arguing in the essay that I’m writing for my coursework that historians have to recognize that the intellect and the emotions exist on common ground, and that reading for either in texts means understanding the ways in which they go hand in hand. And so here is my most recent personally meaningful discovery, a poem by Goethe, from his Roman Elegies, that makes clearer than anything else I’ve encountered to date the strange ways in which mind and body come into contact:

Froh empfind ich mich nun auf klassischem Boden begeistert,
Vor- und Mitwelt spricht lauter und reizender mir.
Hier befolg ich den Rat, durchblättre die Werke der Alten
Mit geschäftiger Hand, täglich mit neuem Genuß.
Aber die Nächte hindurch hält Amor mich anders beschäftigt;
Werd ich auch halb nur gelehrt, bin ich doch doppelt beglückt.
Und belehr ich mich nicht, indem ich des lieblichen Busens
Formen spähe, die Hand leite die Hüften hinab?
Dann versteh ich den Marmor erst recht: ich denk und vergleiche,
Sehe mit fühlendem Aug, fühle mit sehender Hand.
Raubt die Liebste denn gleich mir einige Stunden des Tages,
Gibt sie Stunden der Nacht mir zur Entschädigung hin.
Wird doch nicht immer geküßt, es wird vernünftig gesprochen,
Überfällt sie der Schlaf, lieg ich und denke mir viel.
Oftmals hab ich auch schon in ihren Armen gedichtet
Und des Hexameters Maß leise mit fingernder Hand
Ihr auf den Rücken gezählt. Sie atmet in lieblichem Schlummer,
Und es durchglühet ihr Hauch mir bis ins Tiefste die Brust.
Amor schüret die Lamp’ indes und gedenket der Zeiten,
Da er den nämlichen Dienst seinen Triumvirn getan.

I feel I’m happily inspired now on Classical soil:
The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
And am I not learning, studying the shape
Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
Then I know marble more: thinking, comparing,
See with a feeling eye: feel with a seeing hand.
If my darling is stealing the day’s hours from me,
She gives me hours of night in compensation.
We’re not always kissing: we often talk sense:
When she’s asleep, I lie there filled with thought.
Often I’ve even made poetry there in her arms,
Counted hexameters gently there on my fingers
Over her body. She breathes in sweetest sleep,
And her breath burns down to my deepest heart.
Amor trims the lamp then and thinks of the times
When he did the same for his three poets of love.

QOTD (2012-11-17)

This blog is going through a phase as commonplace book for collecting all the different ways that people try to write about what love is. Here is Thomas Dixon, author of a great book called The Invention of Altruism and director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, London, talking about some themes that came out of a recent conference at his Centre:

In all of this, two themes that are close to my own heart emerged: the need to pay close attention to the language and categories of historical actors (which was emphasised by Laura Doan and others); and the importance of understanding theological and devotional terms and genres when trying to comprehend the lives of Victorian and post-Victorian subjects. Angharad Eyre’s analysis of the place of love, emotion, and tears in the literatures of evangelical conversion, and Sue Morgan’s account of Maud Royden’s 1921 book Sex and Common Sense, her campaigns against ‘anti-somatic theology’, and her own unusual love life, both illustrated the complex but reinforcing relationships between theological and secular forms of love.

In thinking about the meaning of ‘love’, and how love has been made and remade in the past, the historian needs to keep all these complexities in mind. And my parting thought from the conference this week, as an historian of emotions, was that ‘love’ is not best thought of as an emotion at all. Perhaps Saint Augustine’s approach is better: to think of ‘love’ as an almost unknowable, underlying substance, out of which particular passions, feelings, emotions and experiences might arise….

Love is made in many ways, all of them at some level linguistic. The historian needs to listen carefully to the languages and dialects of the heart, through which love is called forth, expressed, made, and reinterpreted. Writing in her autobiography towards the end of her life, in her late seventies, Constance Maynard wrote that she supposed that psychoanalysts would say of her feelings that they revealed as ‘thwarted sex instinct’. Maynard rejected this language, preferring to write of the ‘hunger’ she had felt, which needed satisfying. That was clearly a spiritual need – a hungering and thirsting after righteousness – as much as a psychological one. To the end she feared that her great fault had been to prefer human to heavenly love.

This idea of listening as the guiding methodology of the history of the emotions is something I’m very interested in right now. In an essay I wrote for my supervisor this week, I discussed a move in the history of emotions away from structuralist frameworks shaped by anthropology or a version of psychoanalysis that envisions civilisation as the Oedipal family, and towards more multivalent analysis in which—or so I think—psychoanalysis endures not in translating regression and repression onto the social level, but in envisioning the relationship between historian and sources as an analytic one, in which listening both to the spoken and the unspoken and being alive to the possibilities of the transference are central. Joan Scott has an article in the last but one issue of History and Theory, called ‘The Incommensurability of Psychoanalysis and History’, in which she writes along these lines, citing theorists like Michel de Certeau and historians like Lyndal Roper who are particularly skilled at using psychoanalysis to ‘recognize one’s complicated connection to… others’. It’s this I want to keep in mind today as I go back to the archives and my work on Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries, but also as I negotiate relations among people living as well as long-dead.

QOTD (2012-09-14)

The reading about love continues. This is from Chapter 8 of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922):

The tendencies whose trend is towards directly sexual satisfaction may now be pushed back entirely, as regularly happens, for instance, with the young man’s sentimental passion; the ego becomes more and more unassuming and modest, and the object more and more sublime and precious, until at last it gets possession of the entire self-love of the ego, whose self-sacrifice thus follows as a natural consequence. The object has, so to speak, consumed the ego. Traits of humility, of the limitation of narcissism, and of self-injury occur in every case of being in love; in the extreme case they are only intensified, and as a result of the withdrawal of the sensual claims they remain in solitary supremacy.

This happens especially easily with love that is unhappy and cannot be satisfied; for in spite of everything each sexual satisfaction always involves a reduction in sexual over-estimation. Contemporaneously with this ‘devotion’ of the ego to the object, which is no longer to be distinguished from a sublimated devotion to an abstract idea, the functions allotted to the ego ideal entirely cease to operate. The criticism exercised by that faculty is silent; everything that the object does and asks for is right and blameless. Conscience has no application to anything that is done for the sake of the object; in the blindness of love remorselessness is carried to the pitch of crime. The whole situation can be completely summarised in a formula: The object has taken the place of the ego ideal.

The Home of Lost Causes; or, Eros in Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QOTD (2012-10-16); or, Eros Continued

From Kenneth Dover’s memoir, Marginal Comment:

The need to expound the Symposium in lectures and in print made me sort out my own ideas on sexual love, and thinking about it in Greek rather than English was a great help. Our use of the word ‘love’ has got us into a mess: ‘love thy neighbour’, ‘I love making love’ (= ‘fucking’) ‘on the carpet’, and so on. In Greek the verb phileîn and the noun philia denote the affection, ranging form intense to mild, which one may feel for a sexual partner, a parent, a child, a friend, a colleague, a nation or a place. The verb erân and the noun eros denote ‘love’ in the sense which it has in the English phrases ‘to be in love (with…)’ and ‘fall in love (with…)’, not just simple lust (for which Greek has other words) but the exclusive and obsessive lust which one feels for a particular person. Most of us are so constituted that we necessarily desire the satisfaction of lust by orgasm. Most of us also are capable of affection, and beauty is one (but only one) of the stimuli which evoke it. Affection sometimes generates eros, especially when consummation is physiologically easy and socially tolerated. Conversely, lust commonly generates affection, and its satisfaction may generate eros. It seems to me, therefore, that eros is not like a chemical compound, possessing properties which differ from the properties of any of its constituents, but like a chemical mixture, in which the constituents may be put together in any ratios and retain their own properties.

Kenneth Dover, needless to say, was once the President of my college. My day-to-day life may be full of busywork and departmental requirements, but it’s in thinking of the ways in which what intelligent people once said about love still remain within the walls of this university that I really spend my days.

On Carnal Knowledge; or, A Modest Research Proposal

It’s long been clear to me that I can be a better historian of intellect, education, and ideas in the nineteenth century if I can read the dead languages that were at the base of my research subjects’ body of knowledge. Yet I never had a good working example for why this was the case. Then, a month ago, under a blazing midday sunshine that only the Mediterranean (and similarly-latituded regions) in August can muster, I had occasion—and finally the ability—to do something that someone my age with a similar level of education a hundred fifty years ago could easily have done: spend a couple hours pulling together a scrappy translation from Plato, of a passage that by now will be quite familiar to regular readers. In so doing, I learnt a powerful lesson about my work and about life in general, particularly life as a young adult just starting to come to know the world: translation (from Greek, from Latin, from those barely discernible emotions which it is impossible to express in any language) is very difficult. And bowdlerization (or simplification, or even dehumanization) is very easy, and at times unavoidable.

Phaedrus 251-252, the most soul-stirring speech about love that I know, contains many references to παῖδες, children, or, more accurately here, boys. There is the darling boy (παιδικοῖς) to whom the lover would sacrifice as if to a god if he did not fear a reputation for madness (251a), the beautiful boy (παιδὸς κάλλος) the sight of whom produces a “thrilling feeling” in the soul, ceasing its pain and filling it with joy (251c-d), and everywhere masculine adjectives and participles that give no doubt as to the gender as well as the beauty and youth of the beloved. And when you are faced with the text in front of you, and a blank sheet of notepaper onto which to transcribe it in the vernacular for a general audience, it is awfully difficult to know what to do with all those boys. Your audience can be as well-versed as anyone in Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, as unruffled as can be by the knowledge that they did things differently back then, but how to make Socrates’ account of love’s mania instructive and inspiring to a modern audience without allowing them to be distracted by the suggestion of one of the most unpardonable sexual sins of our time? Reader, you bowdlerize. Benjamin Jowett, feeling himself helplessly caught, changed many of the pronouns, to my man Symonds’ chagrin; Harold Fowler, whose translation appears in the older Loebs, satisfied himself with using “beloved” where “boy” became a problem. Modern translators at times make bolder choices, but I think these texts are as much living guides to our own times as they are historical documents, and I went only as far as I dared—at one point using “beautiful youth” to get the original sense across, but for the most part sticking to “beloved,” preserving an echo of the erastes/eromenos dynamic but trying at the same time to universalize it. I had never before wondered so much as I did then what it really means to teach these texts and to use them as guides. It’s easy, from the 21st century, on the other side of gay liberation, to sympathize with Symonds’ outrage at Jowett’s hypocrisy in covering up the truth of the Platonic eros. When you try to translate παιδὸς κάλλος into the English of your own time, it’s a little more possible to see Jowett’s side of the story too.

I’ve related this anecdote because to me the difficulties of this translation—and the reminder within it of Jowett’s difficulties—tell us a lot about how to start thinking about love for the Victorians, and why to start thinking about it. Contemporary media sensationalize all the time about love in our day, and how broken it is and how misunderstood, how a dehumanizing “hookup culture” has come to take its place, and how we can get love back. But just as we wouldn’t know a παιδὸς κάλλος if it fell on us out of a tree, I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “love” either, or where to find it. I do think, however, that we are living with the legacy of the nineteenth century, and that understanding better the lines that Victorians drew betwixt love and sex and eros and related things, the people who developed such ideas and the places and cultures in which they developed them, might tell us a bit about why it does seem as if the Youth of Today (or at least the ones the magazines write about) lack a really viable, to say nothing of beautiful, discourse of human connection.

I’ve been thinking about how to think about this since the spring, when, a few days after I handed in the labor of love that was my thesis, I ran across Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

The eroticism of our students is lame. It is not the divine madness Socrates praised; or the enticing awareness of incompleteness and the quest to overcome it; or nature’s grace, which permits a partial being to recover his wholeness in the embrace of another, or a temporal being to long for eternity in the perpetuity of his seed; or the hope that all men will remember his deeds; or the contemplation of perfection. Eroticism is a discomfort, but one that in itself promises relief and affirms the goodness of things. It is the proof, subjective but incontrovertible, of man’s relatedness, imperfect though it may be, to others and to the whole of nature. Wonder, the source of both poetry and philosophy, is its characteristic expression. Eros demands daring from its votaries and provides a good reason for it. This longing for completeness is the longing for education, and the study of it is education. Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance is identical with his perfect knowledge of erotics. The longing for his conversations with which he infected his companions, and which was intensified after his death and has endured throughout the centuries, proved him to have been both the neediest and most grasping of lovers, and the richest and most giving of beloveds. The sex lives of our students and their reflection on them disarm such longing and make it incomprehensible to them. Reduction has robbed eros of its divinatory powers. Because they do not trust it, students have no reverence for themselves. There is almost no remaining link visible to them between what they learn in sex education and Plato’s Symposium…. The easy sex of teen-agers snips the golden thread linking eros to education.

In many respects, Bloom comes across as patronizing and oblivious, unaware that what it means to be an American university student has changed in the years since it became possible for more than those who read dead languages to be awarded a bachelor’s degree. Yet he’s right that students want something of eros, though don’t quite know what it is, or how to explain what dissatisfies them about the so-called “hookup culture”—witness a recent piece in the Daily Princetonian, in which an anonymous author writes that going out most weekends to drink and find partners for sex (or something sexual but not-quite-sex) left her feeling lonely and confused. And, at the opposite end of a not-so-wide spectrum, witness the Atlantic‘s seemingly annual article about sex and the college girl, which this time round notes that the so-called “hookup culture” works for women because it’s not too emotionally troubling, since modern women have more important things like their careers to worry about:

The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success…. Women in the dorm [in a sociological study conducted at Indiana University] complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork.

This, to me, is a problem, and one that our current attempts to figure out what the “hookup culture” is don’t help us to answer. We privileged college-educated Westerners who have nothing more important on our minds than how young people are discovering themselves erotically are very good at, variously, talking about the “hookup culture” as something that, booze, objectification, and all, detracts from the educational mission of a university; or at mockingly writing off the conservative pro-abstinence-and-chastity argument that casual sexual contact is degrading to all concerned. We argue that casual sex is oppressive or that it is liberating, but we lack a middle view: a way to recover Allan Bloom from his ridiculous naïveté, a way to respond to what’s dehumanizing as well as confusing about our culture’s sexual expectations for young adults (want proof? watch an episode of HBO’s Girls) without excising eroticism entirely from our sentimental educations or endlessly postponing it until it’s too late, as I think many social conservatives would like to do. My 2010s take on Allan Bloom—which, like his original, comes from thinking a lot about what “παιδὸς κάλλος” means—is that there’s nothing wrong with having lots of sex with lots of partners per se (as long as you use proper protection, etc.), but that there is something morally wanting in doing so in a way that’s instrumentalizing and objectifying, that prefers the pleasure of consumption and boxes ticked to a deeper pleasure of human connection in soul as well as body. Like Bloom, I think that sex as part of the culture of consumption denies young adults the opportunity to see sexual relationships as part of their liberal-arts education, something that will help them to understand how to take an ethical approach to relations with others and to figure out what a good life is and how to pursue it for themselves. It’s worth challenging ourselves to be both sex-positive and serious, and to make room for sentiment and affect within education.

My Victorians knew all too well that where knowledge lay, eros wasn’t far behind. Otherwise those with the cultural capital (wealthy, educated, white, heterosexual-or-something-like-it men) wouldn’t have poured so much energy into keeping knowledge out of the hands of women and children, the poor, Imperial subjects from far-flung lands, or those who stood to gain from the knowledge that Plato (the guide to civilization!) is full of some awfully sexually-charged masculine nouns. Double standards proliferated: the Lambs published their Tales from Shakespeare, and, as Symonds wrote to Jowett, “It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a text-book for students, and a household-book for readers, in a nation which repudiates Greek love,” yet commonplace books and letters that flowed in and out of the universities of the period are charged with the inextricability of learning and love.

Times are different—empires are no longer in fashion; universities are, theoretically, places where more than the most privileged are welcome—yet eros is still an essential part of the sentimental education, and denying its existence either by divorcing sex from the people having it or by refusing it a place in college life together isn’t the answer to trying to engage with it healthily and productively. Building an environment in which young people can approach their bodies and relations with each other in a psychologically healthy way entails acknowledging the myriad ways in which eros suffuses life, especially the life of the mind. It needs to acknowledge that eroticism doesn’t only happen in intercourse (or a hasty blowjob in a (eating) club’s cloakroom), but can happen in a class, in a tutorial, in a late-night conversation in a dorm room, in the pages of reading assigned or not, in the process of writing essays like this one. On the one hand, this is sublimation at its most classic and most Victorian, sure—but on the other hand, it needn’t stop there. Maybe those conversations, among well-adjusted individuals living in a well-adjusted university community with a healthy attitude to sexual matters, could also be the starting point for meaningful erotic relations that contribute to intellectual, psychological, emotional, etc. growth, regardless of whether they take place between friends, acquaintances, strangers, or steady significant others of any gender. This kind of thinking has the benefit of putting pleasure back at the center of what we expect to gain from knowledge and education, and allows us to think about college as part of the process of growing up and maturation rather than as a credential. And, by combining carnal knowledge with book knowledge, it also offers the possibility that when students are hurt by those with whom they enter into close and vulnerable relationships—as they invariably will be—they have some tools that will help them to deal with the pain. The women in the Indiana University study in the Atlantic seemed to prefer hookups because, while it can be disappointing when the boy doesn’t text, or when the relationship never morphs into something more emotionally meaningful, no-strings-attached assignations aren’t supposed to come with the potential for heartbreak’s soul-crushing pain. But (leaving aside the fact that hookups can be soul-crushing too) young people who have never let themselves hurt inside because they are too busy with their grades and their career prospects don’t know how to put themselves in the shoes of people who are hurting. They don’t know when it’s essential to exercise compassion. And I wonder if what’s wrong with Wall Street, etc., and all the inhumanity in modern American professional life is that students who come out of universities whose mottoes are “work hard, play hard” (I’m looking at you, Princeton and Oxford) never, by keeping those spheres so separate, let themselves be open to the most profound vulnerability.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, on the other side of my bachelor’s degree, it is a rare sunny day, and I am over the moon to be back in a city that has more to say about the seductive allure of the tree of knowledge than any other. I’m fresh from the first week of work on a master’s thesis that is going to be, in some wise, about classical education and what tools it gave young Victorian adults—both men and women—to think about love. This week I read Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s excellent new book The Origins of Sex, which among other extremely interesting and insightful cultural analysis discussed the transition from an 18th-century Britain of sexual liberty and libertinism to a nineteenth century that was far more confused about what it would accept, socially, with respect to sexual expression. That confusion is evident in phenomena like Symonds’ call for an out and proud homosexuality that at the same time employed a moral code largely indistinguishable from that which governed opposite-sex “chivalric love.” Indeed, it seems to me, the Victorians in general rediscovered chivalry (see pre-Raphaelitism) as a way of doing something with one’s bodies that’s not just having fun: that instead mingles love’s pleasure and pain, and that involves a deep connection to the past and sense of one’s place, as a lover, with respect to it.

This is the “glukúpikron” love that Anne Carson’s wonderful Eros the Bittersweet discusses, and its reception is just as fascinating as the original. I’m interested in the connection between, in Anne Carson’s words, “falling in love and coming to know,” which are “not like anything else, but they are like each other.” Back in the Upper Reading Room, now, reading about learning and loving, I feel more alive than I have ever felt since I crashed into crushing despair on the day that I handed in my Symonds thesis. It’s enough to reawaken in me the feeling of that line from Howards End: “a place, as well as a person, may catch the glow.”

I hope to write more in the months to come about pedagogic eros, about carnal knowledge. I hope to write about how being back in Oxford is going to help me get my head around the extent to which the repressive hypothesis about Victorian culture is true, and the extent to which it isn’t. I hope to tell my gentle reader a little bit more about why this city makes my heart stir, why it has made me feel more human than any hookup ever has or, I have come to believe, could. And, finally, I want to work out a little anti-repressive hypothesis of my own, one that needn’t oppose repression with sexual liberation but instead with a different, rather Victorian, kind of freedom: the freedom to jettison short-term satisfaction and the distraction of physical wants and instead to work towards carnal knowledge of a more profound kind. Unpacking the sublimation humming in the walls of this city might, in the end, send us back down a path of bodily discovery, albeit one richer and with more potential for connection than those experiences related in the Atlantic or the Daily Princetonian. Or it might send us down myriad other paths entirely, paths of comradeship or discipleship or companionate marriage (not so much passion as contentment) or the path of the sunset I saw last night from my kitchen window, the sky streaked purple and gold behind Old Tom Tower and casting its dwindling light on the empty Christ Church School playing fields. Everyone has to find their own route to goodness. In Oxford, home of lost causes, where they always knew that what “παιδὸς κάλλος” meant wasn’t so much obscene as just plain untranslatable, it is possible for someone like me to learn to be human and humane in a way that it never was in America.

QOTD (2012-09-25); or, -1 Week

There are sunbeams breaking through the clouds over the Radcliffe Camera, back at my old vantage point of desk U95 in the Old Bodleian Upper Reading Room, and I’m starting my MPhil by reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Here is what she has to say about that passage in the Phaedrus to which I (see below) keep returning:

As Sokrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That incursion is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it you come into contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way. You perceive what you are, what you lack, what you could be. What is this mode of perception, so different from ordinary perception that it is well described as madness? How is it that when you fall in love you feel as if suddenly you are seeing the world as it really is? A mood of knowledge floats out over your life. You seem to know what is real and what is not. Something is lifting you toward an understanding so complete and clear it makes you jubilant. This mood is no delusion, in Sokrates’ belief. It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved (249e-50c).

The point of time that Lysias deletes from his logos, the moment of mania when Eros enters the lover, is for Sokrates the single most important moment to confront and grasp. ‘Now’ is a gift of the gods and an access onto reality. To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live. Eros’ mode of takeover is an education: it can teach you the real nature of what is inside you. Once you glimpse that, you can begin to become it. Sokrates says it is a glimpse of a god (253a).

Here in the home of lost causes, my heart is full of hope and the will to knowledge. As I sit in the library waiting for term to start, I feel more alive than I have in months—my life seems pregnant with new possibilities. I think it’s going to be a good term.