Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.

26th Birthday

Five years ago, Facebook reminded me this morning, I was celebrating my first birthday outside North America. It was a Sunday. I had been in Oxford less than a month, and hadn’t yet made most of the friends who keep me coming back whenever I can. I took myself to the Ashmolean, ate lunch in the cafe, and in the evening went to the pub with the Lincoln College Choir, because they did that after they sang on Sundays and a friend who sang tenor very kindly gave me somewhere to be.

I think often of those two terms, though particularly of late: my therapist tells me that, at the age of 26, it is “developmentally appropriate” to have some nostalgia for one’s undergraduate years. But I also think of them because I learned rather more in them than how to hold my liquor. Many of my memories are of criss-crossing Oxford in search of books, writing essays in the Rad Cam and poring over Symonds’ letters in the Upper Reading Room; the time that my tutor told me to read Thomas Arnold’s preface to his edition of Thucydides and, when I found the book—a first edition, natch—in the Trinity college library, realizing in astonishment that the main text was in Greek. I had never seen a book in Greek before, and as it dawned on me that many a 16-year-old would have slogged through this edition I began slowly and laboriously to trace the letters of that foreign alphabet in a notebook and sound out the phrases I found in the archive: σωφροσύνη. ἔρως τῶν ἀδυνάτων.

There was so much I didn’t know then about what my life would be like now. I might have been starting to think about grad school, but I certainly couldn’t have told you that most days out of the week I wear a skirt and heels, that I sit at the head of a seminar table and answer endless emails about information that could have been gleaned from the syllabus. I didn’t know that I would go back to Oxford, and then that I would live in New York, as if that is a normal thing that people do. I didn’t know how successful my research on Symonds would be. I didn’t imagine that, just a couple years later, I would experience a romantic relationship, couldn’t guess how changed I would feel after it ended.

Yet there are a few things I could probably have guessed then. I could have imagined that my mental landscape is still largely composed of green fields, Cotswold stone, incessant church bells, and the nagging sense that one has completely bungled an invisible social cue, and that when I look out my window at the frat houses of 113th Street I see the views from other rooms: Broad Street and the Bod; the Magdalen College School cricket pitch and the hills beyond. I could have guessed how often I think of the friends I made those terms, perhaps even how many of their birthday, handing-in and viva drinks I have been fortunate enough to be there to partake in. And surely, surely I could have guessed that on my birthday five years later, I would still, as I did this morning, be writing essays with this paragraph in—and how much love stirs in my soul every time I have the great privilege to write it:

The 1890s and 1900s, when Warren’s collecting business and his community at Lewes House were at their height, were a pivotal moment in the development of ideas about what it meant to be a man who was sexually and romantically attracted to men. Men had always formed sexual and romantic attachments to each other, and male prostitutes always plied their trade. But at the turn of the twentieth century, men of all classes—as well as doctors, the law, and moral opprobrium—began to see same-sex desire not as an activity, but as who you were as a person: part of your identity even if you never acted on it. Highly-educated men in particular could draw on a range of information to contextualize this notion, from ancient and early modern history to the burgeoning new field of sexual science. Men who had studied at Oxford, where a wide-ranging course in the literature, history, and philosophy of Greece and Rome was the hallmark of the curriculum, made a particular contribution to the belief that what they called “inversion,” “Urningliebe,” or “eros ton adunaton [the love of impossible things]” was rooted in ancient Greece. In the Athens of Socrates, they believed, elite men like themselves enjoyed social respect for the erotic and educative relationships they formed with adolescents and young men. Oxford-educated intellectuals such as Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde often emphasized the “purity” of these relationships: because they involved much longing gazing at young men’s athletic physiques, but no sordid physical contact, they could be assimilated to norms of Victorian propriety without too much difficulty.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Because I am at heart nothing more than a boring liturgically conservative Anglican, I wandered round the corner to evensong today with the expectation of hearing a sermon attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and hopefully getting to sing “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” Instead, this being St John the Divine, today had been designated “queer evensong,” all male pronouns referring to God had been replaced with female ones, and no reference to the liturgical calendar was made.

During the Magnificat a storm broke out, and the music was almost drowned out by loud thunder. So many idiots over the decades have tried to link extreme weather with their belief in their religious tradition’s condemnation of homosexuality. But I was reuniting with old friends in Princeton yesterday, who some years ago helped me to see love and fellowship in the defiant, catty, camp mockery of that kind of appeal to a higher power.

When I watched Russell Davies’ new TV series Cucumber last week, I remembered that what is so enduringly right about a certain camp gay tradition is the way so much of it is about putting up a bold front against self-hatred, fear, and shame, fiercely asserting one’s right to love and to be loved. Camp is not transhistorical, but the need to love and to be loved is, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the Christian and the gay traditions might have something to say to each other about that.


Acknowledgements: You know who you are.

Oxford, Fin

On the third of June, I submitted my master’s thesis. Six weeks or so later, a grade came back from the mysterious black box that is the examination system. I attended a leavers’ dinner. I said some goodbyes. I sang my last chapel evensong. I walked along the Thames from a meadow near Cirencester to the other side of the M25. This weekend I am visiting friends in Cambridge, and when I come back I will go to evensong in the Cathedral. I will take all my belongings out of the cupboards and bookshelves and put them on the floor. I will have my thesis hardbound and send it to be deposited in the Bodleian. I will put the belongings into boxes and suitcases and give them to the UPS man. I will say goodbye to Boar’s Hill, Iffley Church, the Natural History Museum, the Ashmolean, Trinity, Corpus. I will graduate, and my degree will go in the suitcases that aren’t going to the UPS man, along with the print of nineteenth-century Corpus I bought in an antiques shop, an extra copy of the hardbound thesis, my academic gown, a soft toy hedgehog called Harold, and maybe one or two of the books by John Addington Symonds I can’t bear to let out of my sight. I will sit in the front of the bus to Heathrow, as I did the first time I left, three years ago, and find the right song to put on my iPod, calculated to make me cry as my last glimpse of Magdalen tower fades out of view. But unlike last time, this time I am really leaving, because this time, I think, has ended in a parting of the ways between me and my beloved Oxford. I am a historian, but I think unlike many people who have a strong emotional investment in the past, I wouldn’t want to live myself in any era other than now—and Oxford is not a place, an institution, a culture, a way of life, that will allow me to move forward into a twenty-first-century adulthood.

Today a friend posted on Facebook a kind of bizarre, adoring profile of Oxford philosophy couple Derek Parfit and Janet Radcliffe-Richards. A magazine writer so enamoured of his subjects that he refers to them by their first names throughout would grate in any circumstance, but as I look ahead to my last week in an entity which has had one of the greatest emotional impacts of anything upon my life, this is the pullquote that jumped out at me:

Derek had lived almost his entire life in institutions—he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then went to Oxford as an undergraduate, to study history, and after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls aged 25 he never left. All Souls is a unique Oxford institution in having no undergraduates, only academic researchers.

“Derek has no idea what it is for a building to exist without a manciple and domestic bursar,” says Janet.

This alone speaks volumes about what, to any adult who wishes to lead an adult life, but particularly perhaps to women and to foreigners, is elusive and impenetrable and sometimes downright wrong about how Oxford works. But I also got that sense from the rest of the piece, which fetishizes obsessive, all-consuming academic work and a lack of social and emotional intelligence, and implies that both are indicative of someone being a better thinker and perhaps a better or more interesting person than others.

When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, a year beset by intense emotions of various kinds, I had on my carrel desk all year the New Yorker containing Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece about Parfit and his book On What Matters. I was moved by its account of Parfit and Radcliffe-Richards’ relationship, because it offered me hope that adults who are not especially beautiful or emotionally intelligent might still be able to find other people with whom to share their lives, and that our age offers not only different visions of family structure, marriage, etc. but different possibilities for the emotional content of an intimate partnership.

However, after two years in Oxford I see the institutional and structural side to this story rather than the personal. I see a set of values that I don’t think encourages people to be their best selves. And I find it difficult to understand how serious and huge ideas about how we should live and what the future of our planet is can be given shape within the confines of a microcosm which must first posit the existence of a manciple and a domestic bursar.

After I say goodbye, setting off for Canada and then, semi-permanently, New York City, I will be undertaking a serious literary essay about my Oxford, this long relationship. I hope that the essay will offer some way to move forward from the impasse at which I now find myself, of wholesale rejection of Oxford’s idiom as incompatible with the wider practical, and moral, trappings of modern life. I want to think seriously about what is extraordinary—and redeemable—about this unique institution, as well as what about it is reprehensible and out of keeping with the twenty-first century. In the course of this I hope to offer at least some aspect of my own beliefs about the meaning, value, and future of liberal-arts education: grounded in nineteenth-century British history; in the cultural superstructure since built up around reformed Oxford, the greatest educational institution of 19th-century Britain; and in one graduate student’s take on learning, love, and late-adolescence.

Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months

It has been two years since the final downhill sprint to my last thesis. When I handed that one in, I knew it was too long and not ready, but I did know that it was good, at least for a college senior. I was keenly aware how much of my self and my lived experience had gone into it; moreover, my advisor had checked the history and had me convinced that somewhere in those too-many pages there were at least one or two things worth saying.

But I was so young then, and so filled with the flush of youth and of my first real piece of history. When I went through the year’s worth of revisions that it took to turn that thesis into an article I began to realize that in academic history there is more to a subject being interesting than simply stating that it is interesting, a fact which haunts me now as I try to turn around the second thesis. I started this one a little later on—when I hand it in it will have been just under two years of work, whereas the first one took two and a half—and knowing what I know now about how to do history has made this one harder rather than easier. I only see how difficult it is to do a credible job in two years with little training (and much less advising: the kind of guidance my excellent undergraduate advisor gave me, considered exemplary by Princeton standards, is here at Oxford dismissed as “hand-holding” tantamount to academic dishonesty). The knowledge of how far the bound product will fall from perfect, and how unlikely it is to live up to particularly English ideals of fine academic work, are more likely to be tear-inducing than anything else. The culture here is punishing: no one tells you that you are doing well for fear of causing excessive self-love; while at Princeton someone might have complained that she was too busy and too tired because she was over-committed to extracurricular activities, here the complaint tends to mean (as someone on my course claimed to be true) that you are working on your thesis sixteen hours a day. For someone like myself already predisposed to low self-esteem this is not a happy place to be, and day after day I go to the library under a black cloud of premonitions of failure—except on the really bad days, when I don’t go to the library at all, and I sit in my room all day crying.

I think it is important to talk about these things because no one in Oxford does, especially at the graduate level; the presumption (and I have been told this) is that if you find any of it difficult, that must be your fault, and a sign you’re not suited to it. It is considered impolite, I believe, to reply that you were admitted to various US PhD programs, have a publication, and so on, and still find it unbelievably difficult. And so—though I hate to say it after all this time since the last thesis, living in and loving England and Oxford—I am counting the days until I go back to America and start over with a US PhD. This relationship with Oxford of over three years’ standing, my longest and truest one, has started to turn abusive, and it’s best to get out now while I’m still relatively unharmed.

But with what time I have I am determined to fight back against this punishing culture: to see people, to carve out domestic space cooking and mending clothes and watching television, to eat lunch in restaurants by myself, to run down to Iffley and visit my friends the three Shetland ponies who live in the field opposite the church. I took up running as another way to punish myself, for my fatness and my ugliness, but I have come to value it as a way to take time away from the computer and take myself out of the city centre without feeling guilty. And (here we come to the point) it was while running this morning—and not while putting in sixteen hours at a desk!—that I came up with a central analytic conceit for the section I’m currently trying to write about Arthur Sidgwick’s marriage. Here is a paragraph I just wrote, which concludes the section:

Most of the evidence we have for the intimate details of Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick’s marriage is written from Arthur’s perspective, and so it is not always easy to know how seriously he took her as an equal, how she felt about her marriage, and—most elusive of all—how willing a participant she was in the ever-present ἀσπασμοί [’embraces’, a euphemism for sex]. But their marriage, falling somewhere between the twin archetypes offered by the much-mythologised stories of Arthur’s siblings [Minnie Sidgwick and E.W. Benson; Henry Sidgwick and Eleanor Balfour], offers a picture of daily liberal life as a pattern of compromises with the strict ideals recorded in published form by Mill, Henry Sidgwick, and others. While people like Arthur and Charlotte Sidgwick may have tried to live their lives along with the pages of philosophy, real life—differing access to educational opportunity; differing ideals of fulfilment, both altruistic and personal; the birth of children; the presence or lack of physical desire for each other—may have, and did, intervene.

I realized as I was writing this paragraph that it serves as a really illustrative example of the kind of history I love to do, the kind of history that keeps me caring about history: finding the sites at which ideas and lived experience meet, where the universally human and the historically contingent stare each other in the face, and where compromise—the idea that came to me halfway back from Iffley, but that could probably be said to underlie most of the history I try to write—is the lynchpin that holds together all my claims for interest. John Addington Symonds, Arthur Sidgwick, and all my other elite B-list Victorian men whose elitism and maleness makes me feel guilty do something that we all do: no matter our ideals, we compromise between them and our own self-interest, and more importantly our own happiness. The theses we hand in, the relationships we pursue, and the balance we strike between the two are all compromises, and while they may torture us (they certainly did Symonds, less so Sidgwick), life isn’t worth living if it’s spent in ceaseless mental anguish.

Months ago I said to an American classmate that I wished I had his capacity to let go: to accept that differences between the conventions of British and American history may affect how our theses are evaluated, and to write the thesis I want to write anyway even if it isn’t going to be, numerically, the best—or even as good as my undergraduate thesis was. I’m not there yet, and it saddens me to think that the first rush of passion for Oxford that helped to make that first thesis possible is now just dying embers. But maybe, like accepting a breakup, that’s what letting go means. And maybe that’s what I’m doing—just not in the way that I expected.

Milestones and Mattering

Finished Middlemarch. Cried. After all, I’ve spent at least the last five years growing up enough to be able to read it.

I don’t know how to write about it yet–though I do think that in the parade of meaningful authors it’s interesting, and telling, to have gone from Forster to Eliot.

But one thing that struck me rather unexpectedly was the backdrop of the Reform Bill. It brought me up short from the privileging of political and constitutional history that Oxford has been leading me unconsciously to do. How can you read Middlemarch and still think that the movement of the Reform Bill through the Lords carries anywhere near as much moment as the struggles and disappointments and loves that seems to touch us more directly?

People often pin cases for why history, and the humanities, matter on Reform Bills: on what history and knowledge of it do to help us to become citizens, on how we as thinking people engage with the body politic. But that primes them to envision a smooth sine curve, or worse yet, the graph of a plain old exponential function: history as a series of Reform Acts, as the story of a citizenry instead of a people. But I am more moved by a history that looks more like what happens as you turn a radio dial: loud bursts of static and brief moments of Debussy or electric guitar or the news, voices fading in and out of each other and sometimes amounting to nothing at all. Middlemarch is a historical novel, and I am moved by a history where the narrative of Reform Bills is elusive and forgettable, but small human voices trying their best echo out of the static. I can see why Middlemarch might appear to some readers as saccharine and self-righteous, but as for me it’s a way of telling the past that gives me hope that we are not doomed to our future—that it gets better and that we can better ourselves. Which also, as it happens, is the thought that keeps me and my soul alive.

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. THose who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of her brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A Long-Overdue Update

I just put down The Mill on the Floss mid-sentence and leapt across the room to the computer, because after many months of mostly chugging unremarkably forward, I feel my soul being stirred enough for it to be worth writing again. This week a good friend from undergrad came to visit, and I had cause to remember and to reminisce about the years in which I transitioned from child to adult, as well as to revisit all the most beautiful parts of the city that enabled that transition, as we saw the sights. It’s real high summer now, a nice round 25 degrees celsius with not a cloud in the sky, and after I saw my friend off this afternoon I came home with a smoothie, and I did my laundry and cleaned my room and made dinner, and now at 10pm it is only just dark, I have rewatched the first episode of the Granada adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and made some small progress in The Mill on the Floss (my first Serious George Eliot Novel; Scenes of Clerical Life doesn’t count), and I am reflecting on how many evenings I have spent like this over what I presume to call the years, wandering through sun-drenched Oxford by day and flitting from trapping of culture to trapping of culture by night, building up a fortress of ideas and feelings that served both to teach me how to live and to insulate me from the dangerous business of doing so.

If I do this now, though, I think that I do it for old times’ sake more than anything else. Last week, the Corpus Christi College Chapel Choir were on tour in Bordeaux, we sang sacred music, went to the seaside and tasted wine, and as my fellow grad student and I felt acutely our distance from the undergrads and their cares, the snatches from our repertoire that had lodged themselves in my head came to mingle with another refrain: “I can’t believe how much has changed.” On another international tour, seven years ago in Helsinki, a first violinist who was very nice but to whom I was not particularly attracted made advances towards me, I said yes because I felt that I should, and because in those days the world—even in Helsinki—seemed very small, unlikely to be full of people willing to make advances towards a shy and self-hating sixteen-year-old with baggy trousers and a bowl cut. On this tour I wore linen skirts and a big straw hat and started thinking about whether I might grow my hair long after so many years, and after so many years of reading novels and wishing, I beamed and beamed when we took the train to St.-Émilion and I had the chance to spend the day among grape vines in the golden sunlight.

Last night my friend and I laughed as we looked up old Daily Princetonian articles and remembered all those old conversations about the Anscombe Society in which I, at least, first started to learn how to think. Today I can’t bring myself at all to worry about how much archival research is still undone, because it is with such joy in my heart that I thank whatever it is that I pray to at evensong that a happy and fulfilled life seems possible now in a way it definitely didn’t before I first started to know this city of aquatint, before I lived with Symonds and impossible love, before I read Forster or saw the Mediterranean. I rejoice that my life is so full of possibility that I no longer need say yes solely out of obligation.

Some time ago, at about this time of year, I would have been eager to express pride in membership of a community whose desires had long left them outcast and criminal. I can’t say that I have ever been personally ostracized on account of my desires by anyone other than my own sadistic superego, and I no longer need that community to help to explain my visceral sense of disconnect with everything surrounding me. Whatever the complexities and problems with such ways of establishing identity, though—and the more that I have learned, the more they have increased—they have long demonstrated so well how deserving of pride it is when you come not to hate yourself quite so very much. I am proud beyond measure to say that, this spring and summer, it seems that I am finally learning to do just that.


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.