some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:
I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.
I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.
II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.
III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.
IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.
V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.
VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.
VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.
VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.
Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.
Much has been made (often, ahem, by literary critics) of the steamy nature of Victorian homosociality; according to some, all you need to do is get half a dozen Harrow sixth-formers or pre-Raphaelite artists in a room together and they will all be sodomizing each other before you can say “eros.” But I rather suspect that this passage, from G.B. Grundy’s (kind of boring and badly-written) Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: An Unconventional Autobiography is more illustrative of the many elite contexts in which male homosociality flourished in the late-Victorian period:
A surprising incident of a kindred nature took place one night in Corpus Common Room. Cuthbert Shields, who was a great and not infrequent critic of the looks of women, said in that way of his… that he considered that Mrs. Vinogradoff [the wife of the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence] was a very good-looking woman. Women’s looks were not a very favourite topic in Corpus Common Room, so no one took up the challenge, and there was an appreciable interval of silence. [Professor of Latin Robinson] Ellis, who had apparently been asleep in the chair on my left, woke up at this and said across me to Lightfoot [no idea who he is], who was sitting on my right, ‘I sometimes think, Lightfoot, that your wife is quite a good-looking woman.’ He was right, for Mrs. Lightfoot was at the time a very beautiful girl.
Apparently (says Chris Stray in one of his many books about the history of classical scholarship in this period) a classicist called Gilbert Norwood commented in 1923 that “many dons are simply sixth-form boys who have kept on,” and I think that’s true in a variety of ways: I have learned more about Victorian male homosociality as a widespread social institution by talking to modern-day young English men who attended single-sex secondary schools (still, I would argue, neo-Victorian institutions, hence their usefulness as historical comparators) than I ever could by reading the literature about homosexuality. This is what makes writing about Sidgwick so different to writing about Symonds, even though the two were good friends and moved in the same circles: women were simply not interesting enough to Symonds for interacting with them to be a significant factor in his life, but Sidgwick was interested in them as people and as sex objects and as an “other” his single-sex upbringing had not always prepared him to relate to as real, fully-fledged human beings. When I look at Victorian homosociality and heterosexuality, I see a series of fascinating tensions within the lives and thoughts of men who are attracted sexually and personally to women and often are theoretically in favor of women’s intellectual and social equality, but have grown up avoiding them, fearing them, seeing them as a constraint on propriety, and generally being reduced to paroxysms of awkwardness whenever they enter the room or come up in conversation. The parallels to conversations in today’s university common rooms and department lounges are, perhaps, worth noting, but I leave such matters to the reader.
After much dithering, I’ve finally started to get back into the swing of archives, and to start to process the fairly large pile of material on Arthur Sidgwick and his times that I’ve already gathered: converting the Word documents in which I take notes linearly as I proceed through the archives, fascicle by fascicle, into individual database entries in EndNote for each letter, poem, set of lecture notes, scrap of paper on which is scrawled a bet Sidgwick made with his youngest daughter as to whether women would get the suffrage or the Oxford degree first (no, really!). Impelled both by practical urgency—this thesis is due in only nine months—and by a hope that getting down and dirty with the documents will rekindle my passion for the scholarly craft, I’ve been sifting through the raw material in the hopes that out of it some kind of narrative will magically emerge before my eyes. The scope of this project means that it doesn’t lend itself quite to a chronological telling of Sidgwick’s life in a manner analogous to the Symonds thesis; instead, I have to figure out how to get from Sidgwick’s life to a coherent and more thematically-organized argument about the nature of politics, universities, and the people who lived within them in the Victorian-Edwardian period—a rather more complicated proposition.
One reason it’s complicated is by a fairly obvious point about the nature of how real historical life is reflected through the sources, which only just hit me yesterday and today; it’s for this reason that I’m writing this post. You see, I’ve been irritated all along by the paucity of Sidgwick’s material leavings when compared to Symonds’: in Symonds’ case there is just piles and piles of paper, most of it well-documented (though some of it, excitingly, I was able to discover!) and much of it preserved in about 2,000 pages of edited, published letters. In addition to all these letters to far-flung friends, there are lecture notes, books with marginalia, manuscript poetry, and other such documents on which I’ve relied heavily in constructing a picture of Symonds’ mental furniture and the routes by which he arrived at his theory of homosexuality. This winds up actually being fairly straightforward, because it will turn out that he’s written a letter to Henry Sidgwick, Graham Dakyns, Edward Carpenter, or Havelock Ellis saying exactly what he thinks about some aspect of Greek literature, sexual science, or what have you and how it relates to his vision of what the homosexual man is to the rest of society.
Due to this incredible stroke of luck, I went into the Sidgwick project expecting that this is just what you find for literate, intellectual Victorians who were scrupulous in documenting their evolving ideas about the world. But while the disparate, candid, lively nature of Sidgwick’s day-books was what made me commit to a thesis on him, I’ve found that the archives contain very little actual working-through of the intellectual themes important to his life: pedagogy, women’s education, and professionalized teacher-training, Liberal politics, and the bonds of friendship in educational/intellectual communities. There is plenty of institutional record of the basic fact that he was involved, for instance, in such-and-such a reform committee or student society, but almost nothing self-reflective about what impelled him to get involved in such an organization or why such work was socially important—which makes writing the kind of thesis I’d hoped to write about how such day-to-day activities can help us to understand Victorian values and the “intellectual aristocracy” vastly more difficult, if not altogether inconceivable.
Yesterday I cycled up the Woodstock Road to St Anne’s College, formerly the Oxford Society of Home Students. Back in the 1870s when there were only two women’s colleges, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which were not formally incorporated into the University and could only offer certificates that attested that their students had completed an equivalent level of work and exams to that of the men students who would be given degrees for it, there was also something variously known as the Association for the Education of Women, the Home Students Association, and the Society of Home Students, which was an administrative body that would organize teaching for and advocate on behalf of women students—often the wives, sisters, or daughters of dons—who lived at home in the city instead of joining Somerville or LMH. T.H. Green was the AEW’s first secretary, in 1877; two years later, his wife, Charlotte—Symonds’ sister—took over the position. Members of the committee over the years, before it became a more formal organization with a Governing Body, included the venerable Annie M.A.H. Rogers, the first woman to formally register for a University degree (because she registered at Balliol under her initials, and they didn’t realize she was a woman until she showed up), Walter Pater’s sister Clara, renowned heads of house and professors like Mark Pattison and Henry Nettleship, and—you see where this is going—Arthur Sidgwick, whose daughters Rose and Margaret sat Pass Mods and Modern History Finals as Home Students in the 1890s and 1900s. (Rose went on to be one of the UK’s first women lecturers, first at Somerville and then at Birmingham University, before dying tragically in the 1918 flu pandemic while on a tour of America with other British academics.)
It seemed not out of character with St Anne’s informal beginnings—which I was there to research in their college archive—that it was also the most informal archive visit I’ve ever done. There were no rules about bags or pens; I was simply shown to a desk in the college library’s main reading room and invited to call up anything I fancied, which the archivist then had to go and hunt for, piling masses of disarrayed papers on my desk. Looking for evidence of Sidgwick’s involvement in the AEW, I did. I noticed that he was President of the AEW during years that the organization made a major push to lobby the University to admit women to the degree, 1907-10, and so looked for him particularly in a scrapbook Annie Rogers had compiled documenting that fight. There were a few letters he had written on behalf of the AEW to the then-Chancellor, Lord Curzon, but no private correspondence between him and Rogers, in contrast to the many letters Rogers had received from prominent dons and teachers to whom she had written asking for their support for the degree campaign. It finally struck me that, even today, the leaders of social and political organizations don’t make important decisions by letter (or email): they do it in meetings, face-to-face. And even if they take minutes, those usually don’t reflect the same kind of frank, candid opinions that a letter might. Annie Rogers and Arthur Sidgwick lived in the same city, and they were good friends: if they had a matter about women’s education to discuss, they could go round to each other’s houses and chat about it face-to-face, leaving no permanent record of the conversation.
Circling round back to Symonds, while going through the other archival material today I re-encountered a letter I found in Henry Sidgwick’s papers at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly before Christmas, 1875, he wrote to his mother, “If you have to be in London after the 10th, you will find us all there—by all I mean Nora, Self, A.S, Charlotte, H.G. Dakyns, J.A. Symonds – “the whole company” as I told them this morning when I wished good bye at Clifton….” Nora is Henry’s wife, A.S. is of course Arthur Sidgwick and Charlotte is his wife, and the Sidgwick brothers were very close to Graham Dakyns (whom they knew from Cambridge) and his good friend Symonds (Dakyns’ neighbor in Bristol) until Symonds took off for Davos in 1877. The four went on holiday together to Europe when they were just out of university; Henry, Dakyns, and Symonds staged an intervention when Arthur was thinking about initiating an erotic relationship with a pupil at Rugby in 1867; and it sounds as if after the Sidgwick brothers married, their wives joined the gang too. (It’s interesting to note that Symonds’ wife Catherine, who wasn’t as intellectual or as outgoing as either Nora or Charlotte Sidgwick, doesn’t seem to have been part of this particular gathering.) I devoted some minutes to wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at assemblies of “the whole company,” before the contrast between this time and the period after Symonds moved to Davos really illuminated itself. Of course, after the move, Symonds only had letters with which to keep in touch with his friends, let them know what he was thinking about, and share personal feelings about which, because of their homoerotic nature, he couldn’t confide in his wife. In England, on their Christmas holidays, they could just hang out in London—as Henry, Arthur, and their other friends continued to do even after Symonds left the country and basically lost a normal social life in the process, having to replace it with those now-familiar, oh-so-confessional letters.
It turns out that you can really do a certain amount of historical work by thinking about the relation of the present and the past. The intellectual problems with which these men and women grappled—the ones which I’m most interested in unravelling—can seem very foreign to us today. We think we’ve solved quandaries by which they were sincerely troubled, or aren’t affected with the same passionate intensity by emotions that could overcome them. But if I think about how many Deep Conversations I’ve had in university and since with close friends that no one wrote down, I realize how much the prospect of reconstructing my own intellectual world would stymie a scholar a century and a half hence. There is continuity as well as change, and being sensitive to the ways in which this circle of friends are like so many other young people with ideas can make us still more alive to the ways in which they are very alien indeed.
Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):
THE JUMPING FROG.
It has been mentioned above that a curious question has arisen about this famous tale; and as I have been unwillingly mixed up in it, I have been asked to put down a plain statement of the matter as far as it has gone.
It appears that in 1865 Mark Twain heard this story from a Californian gold-miner who had witnessed the incident in 1849. How the tale was given by Mark to a paper—how the paper perished immediately afterwards—how fatal the Frog was to all who undertook to tell of it—Mark Twain sorrowfully informs us in the North American Review for last April. The story finally was translated into French; and that the Revue de Deux Mondes (in which it appeared) still continues to drag on a precarious existence, can only be accounted for (says M.T.) by the badness of the translation.
Anyhow, the story was included in Mark Twain’s works about twenty-five years ago; and when I was collecting simple tales for Greek prose exercises in the year 1876, I borrowed this tale, aong others, for the purpose. A Greek version of the same was printed in the ‘Teacher’s Key’ to the work.
Last year, however, a certain Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, told M.T. that his story was not new, but was related by a Greek writer at least two thousand years ago: that he, Van Dyke, had seen both the original and a translation thereof, and offered to send him either. M.T. preferred the translation, because ‘Greek makes him tired.’ Accordingly he received from the Professor—a copy of the exercise in my Greek Prose Composition!
Hereupon M.T. writes his article for the North American Review, musing sadly on the hollowness of all earthly things, and especially on the impossibility of getting hold of a story which has not been told before. He sorrowfully compares the stories point by point, and gloomily admits that they are the same.
The English newspapers—it is the slack season at the end of the Easter Vac. [yes, it is—ER.]—follow suit, and most of them accept M.T.’s view, commenting (in the tone of weary anthropologists) on the oldness of everything. But the Daily Chronicle, in an amusing leader, suggests that the professor has been playing it very low down on his friend; and indicates the true character of the Greek original.
At that point it became my duty to intervene. I wrote to the D.C., confirming their divination about the Greek original, confessing my gross plagiarism, and protesting against the high antiquity attributed to me. When one is getting on in years, one grows testy about the question of age, and objects to being thought older than one is, even if it be only a trifling difference of 1946 years.
The points still to be cleared up may be put briefly in the form of questions, as follows:—
(a) Is the Professor a real person, or did M.T. invent him?
(b) If he is real,
1. Did he take M.T. in?
2. Was he himself deluded?
3. Did he and M.T. make up the jest together?
If (b 1) or (b 2) is the truth, the next move is M.T.’s.
Update: A Facebook correspondent has pointed out that there is a certain consonance between this and a riveting academic detective story in this week’s TLS, to which I commend my readers’ attention.
As a tourist in Greece, it requires a double take to realize that the country is in a bit of a mess. After all, even a functional Greece wouldn’t look as clean and shiny and new as France or Germany, the US or Canada. It’s never been as wealthy, as full of luxury goods. The large number of men in late middle age who apparently do nothing but sit in cafes and drink iced coffee can be chalked up to cultural differences, and in Athens homeless people don’t beg in the street on anything near to the scale of Paris, London, or any of the large US cities. But look again, picking yourself off the floor whither you’ve fallen in shock at the sight of the insanely cheap food prices (I’m still reeling at the memory of one particular shopping trip, on which I bought for two euros an assortment of fruit and veg that would easily have cost ten in Paris). Then you’ll see how many storefronts, in Athens and outlying towns, are boarded up and empty, how many supermarket shelves are thinly stocked, how many services are inexplicably missing. The trains haven’t run in over a year, for instance, and on the rare occasion that you find a post office that isn’t shut due to strikes or lack of money, you may discover, as I did, that it inexplicably sells neither envelopes nor stamps. When I travelled round the Peloponnese for a week with two friends, we not infrequently found ourselves the only diners in a restaurant, even at peak mealtimes in touristy areas; more than once, we suspected ourselves to be the only guests at our budget-to-midrange hotels. Even what the internet suggests to be one of the best restaurants in Athens, where we ate twice, wasn’t more than half-full on either occasion, while I can readily imagine that at its US equivalent you’d never be able to get a reservation. The strongest reminder of the economic crisis came in Selianítika, the little village on the Gulf of Corinth that for two weeks played host to fourteen Americans’ study of written and spoken ancient Greek: we arrived to discover that the village’s only ATM had been recently blown up by thieves desperate for the cash inside it. But you’d almost never have known it, so loudly did the beachfront bars blast American pop hits and so enthusiastically did large bathing-suit-clad Greeks sling back cheap beers and plunge into the salty water as a respite from the scorching midday heat. Greece right now is a strange country—but at least, as far as this traveller could figure out, there isn’t any reason not to give it your badly-needed business.
But what are the implications, then, for the tourist and would-be conversational Attic speaker? Well, as in so many other parts of elite academic life, it means cognitive dissonance. It takes exactly the same state of mind to walk past the Big Issue-seller on the way to the Bodleian as it does to settle, amidst economic crisis and large-scale unemployment, into a routine of climbing mountains in blazing 100-degree sun to view the ruins at the top, wandering through archaeological museums looking at Mycenaean pot-shard after Mycenaean pot-shard, and spending fourteen days in a fruit garden surrounded by a ragtag international collection of philhellenes, would-be opera singers, and the odd innocent holiday-maker, among whom (aside from we hapless English speakers) the lingua franca seemed to be German, with modern Greek, Italian, and even Latin thrown in. Just so have generations of young academics before me wound up their grand tours by traipsing round some ruins in the Peloponnese. Just so have centuries of Oxford reading parties blundered headlong into some rural area on the Continent in order to get to grips with Plato and Homer. Just so have they been met with strange Germans and Germanophiles intent on enthusiastic amateur cultural and artistic pursuits as combined with swimming and calisthenics. Just so have ancient adventures, philosophical quandaries, and the mysteries of the attraction of the relative pronoun come to seem more vivid and palpable than the daily lives of locals who pop up every once in a while to provide some essential service, speaking a modern language the philhellenes find impossible to understand. It isn’t pretty, and it’s certainly got the weight of cultural-imperialist history to it.
For that matter, everywhere I went in Greece, I found myself wading waist-deep through my own palimpsest. I thought of Schliemann and Byron, of course, revisited Cavafy, and read Symonds’ travel narrative about Athens. Atop the Acropolis, I thought of Freud’s “Disturbance of Memory” there in 1904; when a sudden downpour at Epidaurus sent my travelling companions and me running headlong for the archaeological museum, and we stood in sopping-wet silence in its main hall, dripping on the tile floor and looking at the remains of shrines to Aesclepius, I made a less-predictable connection (though perhaps one no less redolent with a sense of the uncanny!) to the eerie shots of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the planetarium in Manhattan. Greece does funny things to the spirit. Some of them are wonderful: in the sculpture gallery in the Acropolis Museum, the conviction pierced me like a thunderbolt that it is utterly wrong for the British Museum to keep hold of the Elgin Marbles when they so obviously demand to be seen here, in their proper context—something that it is quite impossible to appreciate when you’ve only seen the ghostly parade make its way across the wall of the gallery in London. At the top of the hill at Delphi, looking down at the lean white columns half-restored out of the ruin of the Temple of Apollo, standing starkly erect against the backdrop of the lush green valley below, I could easily see why, when, in an apocryphal (albeit plausible) story related by one of our teachers, the great classicist Kenneth Dover beheld that same view, he felt himself moved to the point of literal orgasm. But at the same time, I can’t say that I was surprised that my struggles with reading and speaking ancient Greek left me exhausted in body, mind, and spirit, as easily overwhelmed by a variety of personal issues as by my efforts to keep up with Attic-immersion conversations about Plato’s concept of τέχνη. Disturbances of memory crowd upon one in a country where you can walk through the physical remnants of civilization from a thousand years before Homer; where recent history is fraught with all sorts of conflicts and questions of national identity that seem at once foreign and familiar, at once of a piece with the longer history and separate from it.
So, on the one hand (μὲν), Greece was wonderful, utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, a rich learning experience. But on the other hand (δὲ), I spent a lot of it sad and confused—which I remain now, despite being back in the mind-clearing, noise-free world of my usual close of summer in rural Canada. Being somewhere so puzzlingly unheimlich heightened the sense that this has been a very difficult, unheimlich summer, spent floating back and forth across the western hemisphere with no fixed address or institutional affiliation, no motivation to make academic progress, and no shortage of personal conflicts through which to struggle. The contrast with a year ago—coming to Canada to piece together six weeks spent in English archives and to start writing my first chapter, before I fell headlong into the whirlwind of thesis year—is stark. It leaves me wondering if this deadened feeling of writer’s block that has resulted in an unproductive summer is travelling’s fault, or growing-up-and-graduating-college’s fault, or my own. It leaves me wondering how real academics manage the tendency of summertime to leave one at loose ends, and the tendency of real life and its accumulation of small troubles to intercede upon one’s ability to sit down and write. It leaves me wondering if real academics ever see their work the way that novelists and poets and visual artists see theirs: something that can be done as much by being thoughtful and reflective about one’s life as by sitting at the computer and banging out words, something that takes time and quiet and country walks and human relationships for it to percolate, something that can act as its own form of therapy, helping the writer to understand all that is most unheimlich about other times, other places, and herself in relation to them.
I spend a lot of my academic life—one which, like many academic lives, observes no distinction between work and home, between the professional and the personal—thinking about how many other young women and men before me sat at desks scattered across the western hemisphere and weighed their life’s ambivalence in μὲν… δέ clauses, thereby managing to cope somehow with the (admittedly relatively softball) pitches life throws at them. Thus, on my last night in Greece, my program had a talent show of sorts, and I stood up in front of ragtag mix of American students and teachers, Greeks, and the odd German, and gave a performance at which I wasn’t particularly talented, but which meant the world to me. As I said to my audience, barely able to look them in the eye, I started wanting to learn what the classical tradition had to do with me, started realizing how deficient my education had been in this regard, and thus took up Greek, for a wide variety of reasons academic and personal. But all of them could be summed up synecdochically (there’s a nice Greek word!) by my desire to understand what has since become my favorite passage in the Greek corpus, Phaedrus 251-252. Almost eighteen months since I bought my first Greek textbook from the Turl Street Oxfam shop in the Easter vacation and one of the various Indo-European philologists who suddenly and coincidentally appeared in my life taught me to notice “Ο ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ” (“the beautiful boy”) inscribed on the red-figure vases in the Ashmolean, almost a year since the start of the most intense nine months in two decades’ worth of schooling, I read my passage aloud to thirty or so philhellenes, in Greek and in my own English translation—and I could claim to understand every word of it, in heart and in mind.
I append the relevant passage below. It’s a fitting note on which to close this summer, and one which, as I look out on the sun-dappled Pacific Ocean (to which no poet, so far as I know, has ascribed the darkness of wine), doesn’t make me feel so bad. Not so shabby for eighteen months of Greek. Not so shabby for twenty-two-and-a-half years of life.
But the newly-initiated man, who has then seen much, whenever he sees a godlike face or bodily form that represents Beauty well, first thrills at the sight, and then some awe overcomes him. Beholding his beloved, he reveres him like a god. If he did not fear a reputation for excessive madness, he would sacrifice to his young beloved [παιδικοῖς], so as to worship him. And, seeing his beloved, he is so changed from the thrill that he is possessed by sweat and unwanted heat: for, when he accepts the flow of beauty into his eyes, it moistens the roots of the feathers; growing warm, these roots, which once had been closed through their hardness and prevented from growing, are melted. Having nourishment poured upon them, they become swollen and begin to bear forth from their roots the stems of feathers across the entire form of the soul, for all of it was feathered long ago. Then the whole soul seethes and throbs, just as, when growing teeth, one suffers pain around the gums. Just like this scratching and irritation in the gums, is the pain that the soul has when it begins to grow feathers: it seethes and throbs and tickles, as it produces them. Then when the soul regards a beautiful youth [παιδὸς κάλλος] and the thrilling feeling comes upon it, it receives this nourishing yearning. As it does so it is watered and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy. Yet when it is separated [from the beloved], the soul becomes dry and unkempt, dehydrating and closing up the buds of the feathers; and inside, having been shut up with the yearning, the feathers spring and throb, each one pricking the passage accorded it, so that the soul, having been stung all round, is caused to ache—until, once more recalling the memory of the beautiful one, it rejoices. And, out of the mixture of these two things, it is perplexed by the strangeness of its feeling and springs up in anger; and, driven insane, it can neither sleep at night nor remain anywhere by day, but, in longing, runs whenever it thinks to see the beloved; seeing him, the soul is bathed in the waters of yearning. The obstructed passages are let free, the soul has respite from its stings and relief from its pains, and this brings forth the sweetest pleasure there is. Indeed, such a man is incapable of being left alone by he who remains more beautiful than all others, but forgets his parents and siblings and all his friends, and neglects his property, caring nothing for its destruction, nor for the customs and manners in which he took pride before. Disdaining everything, he is prepared to be a slave to the one whom he desires, and to sleep anywhere it is permitted so as to be as close as possible to him: for he is in awe of the one who possesses beauty, and finds him the only healer of his greatest troubles. And people call this suffering about which I am speaking Love.
When people ask me that question—as a colleague did, the other day, in the British Library café—I tell them the story chronologically: how years ago I won an essay competition and the prize was Michael Robertson’s book Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and how in that book I first read about Symonds and his poignant efforts to get Whitman to agree that his adhesive love and the Platonic eros were really one and the same. How it was just happenstance, and then I got hooked, and the rest is history. I leave out, when I tell that story, the hours spent wading through the immense paper trail Symonds left behind, the hundreds of pages of notes on Homer and the hundreds of pages of letters about how boring Davos Platz, Switzerland is and how tiresome the politicking of being the President of the Committee for the International Toboggan Race is. I leave out the moments when, slogging through heavy-handed Hegelian narratives of 16th-century Italian sculpture, or equally heavy-handed metaphors about desire strung through Petrarchan sonnet after Petrarchan sonnet, I come to doubt whether this guy I’m spending my life with actually matters, and whether the man who I first encountered in Robertson’s book ever existed at all.
But humanistic endeavor is a kind of religion, and through doubt we come again to faith. Here is a long letter that Symonds wrote in 1889 from his Swiss exile to his old tutor and lifelong friend, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol:
My dear Master,—I am glad to hear from the last letter you wrote me that you have abandoned the idea of an essay on Greek love. Little good could come of such a treatise in your book.
It surprises me to find you, with your knowledge of Greek history, speaking of this in Plato as “mainly a figure of speech.”—It surprises me as much as I seem to surprise you when I repeat that the study of Plato is injurious to a certain number of predisposed young men.—
Many forms of passion between males are matters of fact in English schools, colleges, cities, rural districts. Such passion is innate in some persons no less than the ordinary sexual appetite is innate in the majority. With the nobler of such predetermined temperaments the passion seeks a spiritual or ideal transfiguration. When, therefore, individuals of the indicated species come into contact with the reveries of Plato, (clothed in graceful diction, immersed in the peculiar emotion, presented with considerable dramatic force, gilt with a mystical philosophy, throbbing with the realism of actual Greek life), the effect upon them has the force of a revelation. They discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not a mean hole or corner—but that the race whose literature forms the basis of their higher culture, lived in that way, aspired in that way. For such students of Plato there is no question of “figures of speech,” but of concrete facts, facts in the social experience of Athens, from which men derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their fist step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth.
Greek history confirms, by a multitude of legends and of actual episodes, what Plato puts forth as a splendid vision, and subordinates to the higher philosophic life.
It is futile by any evasion of the central difficulty, by any dexterity in the use of words, to escape from the stubborn fact that natures so exceptionally predisposed find in Plato the encouragement of their furtively cherished dreams. The Lysis, the Charmides, the Phaedrus, the Symposium—how many varied and unimaginative pictures these dialogues contain of what is only a sweet poison to such minds!
Meanwhile the temptations of the actual world surround them: friends of like temper, boys who respond to kindness, reckless creatures abroad upon the common ways of life. Eros Pandemos is everywhere. Plato lends the light, the gleam, that never was on sea or shore.
Thus Plato delays the damnation of these souls by ensnaring the noblest part of them—their intellectual imagination. And strong as custom may be, strong as piety, strong as the sense of duty, these restraints have always been found frail against the impulse of powerful inborn natural passion and the allurements of inspired art.
The contest in the Soul is terrible, and victory, if gained, is only won at the cost of a struggle which thwarts and embitters.
We do not know how many English youths have been injured in this way. More, I firmly believe, than is suspected. Educators, when they diagnose the disease, denounce it. That is easy enough, because low and social taste are with them, and because the person incriminated feels too terribly the weight of law and custom. He has nothing to urge in self-defence—except his inborn instinct, and the fact that those very men who condemn him, have placed the most electrical literature of the world in his hands, pregnant with the stuff that damns him. Convention rules us so strangely that the educators do all this only because it always has been done—in a blind dull confidence—fancying that the lads in question are as impervious as they themselves are to the magnetism of the books they bid them study and digest.
Put yourself in the place of someone to whom the aspect of Greek life which you ignore is personally and intensely interesting, who reads his Plato as you would wish him to read his Bible—i.e. with a vivid conviction that what he reads is the life-record of a masterful creative man—determining race, and the monument of a world-important epoch.
Can you pretend that a sympathetically constituted nature of the sort in question will desire nothing from the panegyric of paederastic love in the Phaedrus, from the personal grace of Charmides, from the mingled realism and rapture of the Symposium? What you call a figure of speech, is heaven in hell to him—maddening, because it is stimulating to the imagination; wholly out of accord with the world he has to live in; too deeply in accord with his own impossible desires.
Greek love was for Plato no “figure of speech,” but a present poignant reality. Greek love is for modern students of Plato no “figure of speech” and no anachronism, but a present poignant reality. The facts of Greek history and the facts of contemporary life demonstrate these propositions only too conclusively.
I will not trouble you again upon this topic. I could not, however, allow the following passage in your letter—”I do not understand how, what is in the main a figure of speech should have so great power over them”—to go unnoticed without throwing what light I can upon what you do not understand.
I feel strongly on the subject, and where there is strong feeling, there is usually the risk of over-statement. But I hope I have not spoken rudely. 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, while the baser forms of Greek love have grown to serious proportions in the seminaries of youth and in great centres of social life belonging to that nation.
Ever most sincerely yours
This is the man who a few short years before told the Harvard professor T.S. Perry that his “essay on Greek Morals” would never see the light of day, who shrouded his intense desire for sundry young men in dense overwritten spiritually-inflected metaphor, whose amour de l’impossible dogged his life and assuredly exacerbated his ill health. But the so totally cool thing about him—the reason why he is more than the repressed, tortured Victorian Phyllis Grosskurth claims—is that this is the man who, finally, almost thirty years after first reading the Symposium, finally writes to the tutor who coached him to his First and tells him that there is something that he doesn’t understand. I am writing a thesis about how one of the most amazing things that Symonds does is that he finds a way out of metaphor into literality, out of idealism into realism, whether in his own poetry or in Jowett’s lit crit. Despite the endless discussion of tobogganing, that’s why I keep on.
A century and a half ago or so, John Addington Symonds took his Victorian culture from a point at which same-sex desire was an inconceivable, inchoate longing that could only be expressed in Greek and Latin or with the French phrase l’amour de l’impossible, to a point at which there existed an entire historical, literary, and philosophical tradition that both validated same-sex love and relationships and provided an English-language discourse in which to study and express them. Symonds was an undergraduate in Oxford in the years 1858-1862. He studied Plato with Jowett, and astonished his tutors by not only getting one of the best Firsts of his year, but also winning the Newdigate Poetry Prize and the Chancellor’s Essay Prize. On a chance visit to a friend in Cambridge in 1861, he heard someone read aloud some excerpts from “Calamus.” When Symonds was 21, the seeds were sown for the framework he would build up over the course of the next thirty years through which to describe the way he felt when he went to Bristol Cathedral to listen to, and look at, the choristers.
In 2011, I am 21. In two weeks, I suppose you’ll be able to call me a quondam junior member of Trinity College, Oxford. I won’t have any exam results or university prizes to show for my time here. I do a modern subject. But I have read Plato (in translation), and Whitman. I have made friends here in this world across the Atlantic who did in the 21st century the same course that Symonds did in the 19th. This is the puzzling Oxford palimpsest. This is life in this strange city of dreaming spires, where on Saturdays you can go out to gay bars and dance, and on Sundays you can choose from two dozen different services of choral evensong and follow it up with formal hall. A century and a half or so ago, Oxford undergrads next-door in Balliol would have studied for their Greek prose composition papers and sat up till all hours debating about their Master’s article about Biblical interpretation in Essays and Reviews. Today, they can do these things too. But they can also celebrate Pride.
Oxford’s Pride festival was yesterday. I didn’t go. I worked and I socialized and I paced my room on Broad Street listening to Radio 3 while wondering, as I always do, how well Symonds would recognize this city now. I think I was just as happy for it. Why? Because the repurposing of cultural compasses works all ways, and because I am growing older, and because I believe the best way to rescue the message of Pride from commercialization and “homonationalism”—the best way to give “It Gets Better” and “Born This Way” the benefit of the doubt instead of simply getting angry—is to universalize, and essentially to reclaim, the message.
And so I didn’t go to Pride yesterday. But when a friend emailed me yesterday afternoon with an expression of sadness and uncertainty about hir future, I replied that with the careful practice of coping mechanisms and management of self-expectations and self-doubt, it can “get better.” And when another friend self-deprecatingly called hirself a “freak” for doing hard academic work on a Saturday night, I channeled my inner pop star, and said, “You were born this way, baby.” I said it with a raised eyebrow and a sarcastic tone of voice, the double camp that comes from grad students in jeans and woolly sweaters talking about their work through the language of a wildly successful surrealist diva. But, at the same time, I meant it with all my heart.
Because, you see, if there is anything that the long transhistorical (and ahistorical) narrative of cultural reclamation stretching from Plato to Gaga has taught me, it is that fabulousness comes in many forms, and that we all have a right to pursue it where we see it and use it as a way of enriching our own lives. The things in which we take Pride can be sexual liberation and the thudding bass of a disco beat, but they don’t have to be. I think that they can be anything and anyone we love, any work that we do. So many people deserve the chance to celebrate their survival, their learning of self-reliance, their community spirit, and the ways that they are able to make spaces for themselves in the world. There are many kinds of love that seem impossible, inexpressible.
When I use the Pride metaphor to make sense of my life, it stretches back 21 years through a string of confusions and evolutions of identity: from preschool when I wore frilly party dresses but took the boys’ side in the Boy-Girl War, to kindergarten when I stopped the battle, first grade when I first started to hear that I was going to Hell for being an atheist, fifth grade when I started to refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, seventh grade when I wore my wool cape to school and ninth grade when I dressed up as Thomas Jefferson, tenth grade when I joined a rock band and the following summer when an orchestra mother walked up to me and said “Stay away from my daughter,” twelfth grade when I fought for the right to wear trousers instead of a dress under my graduation regalia, and the long hard process of adjusting to university and accepting myself and my right to be there. All the way through I had Lewis Carroll and L.M. Montgomery and Brian Jacques and Robert Louis Stevenson and a raft of fantasy and historical fiction books about the girl-warriors who disguised themselves as boys to join the Royal Navy or fight in the American Civil War; all the way through I had dead languages and living ones, Ovid and Shakespeare, the Children’s Bible and D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. When I use the Pride metaphor, I celebrate that I now live in a world filled with people who dressed weirdly and rebelled esoterically, and who sought in fiction and in history the kindred spirits who would keep them from going mad from loneliness. When I talk about how “it gets better,” or more accurately how we can better ourselves through a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress, I think about how all of us (and I know there must be lots of us) who all too recently experienced the exciting moment when real friends started to replace a social life lived entirely in the imagination owe it to those who haven’t quite got there yet to be there for them; how we all owe each other help at assuaging the feared inevitability of dying alone. And when I talk about being “born this way,” I mean when I started to realize that having friends didn’t mean pretending not to care about school. It makes me remember my third semester of university, when I started to remember that I had never stopped being the constantly-pontificating three-year-old who loved Aladdin and the solar system and tap-dancing and whose party trick was reading the New York Times aloud to her easily-impressed grandmother.
Pride is a time of year when we celebrate the Stonewall drag queens who stood up and fought back. But it is also a time of year when we celebrate difference of all kinds, and particularly, perhaps, the kinds that don’t fit so easily into an identity-politics box. It’s a time when we remember those who died alone, making their spirits less lonely in our memories, and when we try to make sure we are creating a world in which mental survival is not always so very difficult. And yes, I believe that at this time of year, as at all others, it is not quite so important to hold a banner in a parade as it is to be there for a lonely kid who needs her world widened. But if you know a kid, and you think she will be startled into self-acceptance by a chance encounter with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, by all means get on your nearest source of public transportation and high-tail it down to your local Christopher Street Day Parade. Sometimes, what you really do need is a drag act and a disco beat.
Late last night, after my friends and I all went back to our respective homes under the constant drizzle of English June, my downstairs neighbors were having a party, and as I lay in my bed trying to fall asleep all I could hear was loud music, drunken shouting, and a lot of words I don’t like to hear: “bitch,” “twat,” “cunt.” When your personal space is being invaded at two in the morning by the culture of juvenile sexism whence you’ve spent all your life running, it’s awfully hard to marshal the courage to go outside and try to tell a lot of drunk kids that what they’re saying is wrong (though I did eventually ask them to please turn down the music, though fat lot of good it did). But what you can do is you can drown out their shouting with a podcast of RuPaul being fabulous on National Public Radio. It’s all about the coping strategies. It’s all about survival. It’s all about Pride.
There’s been a bit of buzz on the internet (or, well, okay, fine, the Ivy League internet; yes, I know I’m an elitist bastard) recently about an 1899 Harvard admissions exam that the NY Times posted on its website, seemingly largely consisting of dismay at how difficult it must have been to get into Harvard or a school like it in 1899. Here’s IvyGate, whose post caused me to become very irritable:
If you thought getting accepted to an Ivy League school was tough today, you should count your blessings that you weren’t born in the 1880s. In addition to having diphtheria and bad teeth and a pompadour like a mangy cat, you’d also be forced to take a comically rigid entrance exam and speak ancient Greek.
The New York Times recently unearthed a Harvard entrance exam from 1899, and man, is it ugly. The text spans three major disciplines–classical languages, history and math–and requires its victims to jump through flaming hoops in topics like Greek Composition, Random-Ass Geography, and Hard Numbers.
In their usual pained attempts to be sarcastic, IvyGate seem to have forgotten the first rule of history, which I hope they learned before taking their AP U.S. History test to get into their own fancy schools: change over time. No, of course secondary-school students aren’t taught the same things now that they were in 1899. Classical studies are (sadly, some might argue) out of fashion in favor of modern subjects; since we all have TI-83s now, it’s no longer as much a mark of mathematical competency to do complicated arithmetic as it is to differentiate and integrate single-variable equations. And, in reference to the Columbia entrance exam the post also references, obviously before 20th-century literature came along, people read different things—and yet I’ll wager most of us who go to Ivy League schools read at least some of those works of literature in high school, such as Macbeth, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and House of the Seven Gables, and have covered more of them (such as Milton) since entering college.
As to the Latin and Greek—well, it’s a question of fads, not so much a question of competency. Most people applying to university in America take a modern language; if you go to a fancy school in America today, you might still do Latin, and possibly even Greek (though it’s not particularly likely). I did Latin on my own for three years, and while I couldn’t do well on the Harvard exam if I sat it today, I would certainly have been able to answer all those questions after three years with the language. This is very similar to the sort of stuff I was asked to do as a Latin student, particularly the English-to-Latin translations where they give you a lot of clues as to which words they’d like you to use. I’m sure if those questions were in French or Spanish, most people would be able to conjugate some verbs and do a little translation and composition in the language. It’s not clear to me that this is any more difficult than taking an AP language test—and in fact, it was probably easier. Why, you ask? Well, because the boys who applied to Harvard in 1899 were probably groomed to it in a way few students are today. They attended a much smaller array of elite east-coast schools, which knew what to teach in order to get their students into the universities. Anyone with their sights on Harvard in the late 19th century would probably have been heavily coached to be good at their Greek verse and to know fun facts like the dates of the battles of Philippi and Actium, just as a lot of people applying to university today do SAT prep classes. University students in 19th-century Britain and America were rewarded for pretty foreign-sounding things by our standards (on the other side of the Atlantic, both Symonds and Wilde won prizes at Oxford for their Latin verse stylings!) but hey, we now award prizes for community service and school spirit. Go figure.
Bottom line, it was probably much easier to get into Harvard in 1899, because the number of people who could even enter the admissions pool was so limited. You obviously had to be a white man, and more than that to even have a shot you had to go to a fancy high school, probably in the northeast and even more probably in Massachusetts, where you would be taught ancient subjects ad nauseam. If you even had the opportunity to sit this exam in the first place, you’d probably do well.
As for us, in our age of uber-competitive, 6-8% admission rates for these schools, the insane regimes of prep classes and extracurricular activities to which prospective applicants feel pressured to subject themselves, and the widespread disappointment that spreads across the New York Times readership every year at this time as people realize that 21st-century college admissions isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a madhouse? Yeah, I’d take declining a few Greek nouns, describing the differences between Athens and Sparta, and using a slide rule any day.
But oh wait: it’s a moot point—I’m a woman. No Harvard Greek for me in 1899—and there’s the rub, really.
Since I last wrote here, the first of my two Oxford terms came to an end. In the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed visits from my father and from some friends from Princeton, I’ve made lots of new friends at Trinity, particularly among the graduate student body (or, as they say here, the MCR), and I’ve switched academic gears in a big way. From churning out one or two eight-page essays a week, I’ve gone to major big-picture conceptualizing of my senior thesis, and starting work on what will one day be the first chapter of it, my spring JP. In little moments snatched between languid walks across Port Meadow, harried sightseeing in London, and several pints of bitter, I wrote a five-page proposal for my thesis, which I’m submitting as a part of my applications for summer research funding. As I emailed drafts back and forth with my adviser, I became terrified by the enormity of the project I am taking on; as I walked miles through the green spaces of Oxford and rode miles underground across London, my mind drew scary blanks on how I would start to write my JP, which is not as far along as my fall JP was this time last semester. The last of my guests left this afternoon and college has emptied itself eerily out for the vacation. I went to Tesco this afternoon and bought £15 worth of ingredients I can make into meals with a single saucepan and a hob in the JCR kitchen. I dithered: uploading pictures to Facebook, catching up on magazines and iPlayer, writing letters to the editor. And it wasn’t until 10pm, after I’d submitted my first thesis funding application and dithered in front of the Victorian literature shelves in the college library, the dinner dishes glaring at me from the washbasin in my room, that I realized I needed a plan, and a method by which I can remain accountable to it, if I am to have a draft of my JP in to my adviser by May 1. (“A draft?!” I hear you say, Princeton juniors? Yes: because I am doing a JP on top of a full Oxford courseload, and because Oxford’s academic year goes well into June, I have a month-long extension.)
And so here, for the whole internet to read, it is: tomorrow I will return to the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian for the first time in two weeks, write some deadlines and benchmarks for the next six weeks in my diary, and start to make a skeleton outline of my JP. A week from tomorrow, I am going on holiday to Ireland for a week, but by then I will have read all my primary sources, and a reasonable number of secondary ones. When I return, I will have just over three weeks to pull together 30 pages on three themes in the intellectual background and Victorian cultural context of John Addington Symonds’ writing on homosexuality—yes, that’s a week on Henry Sidgwick, T.H. Green, and ethics; a week on Benjamin Jowett, Matthew Arnold, and Hellenism; a week on Walt Whitman, democracy, and the British fantasy of America; and a few days in which to hash out my critical space with respect to the historiography and to draw some conclusions about what is innovative about Symonds’ theory of male homosexuality in his late-Victorian context. Frankly, dear reader, I am terrified.
But after eight weeks at Oxford, I can just about manage to write at least a draft of an intellectually interesting essay in a week, and I know how fortunate I am to have the vacation to focus on only this, and a month after next term starts to revise and make it good. I know how fortunate I am that when writer’s block strikes, I can leave the Bod and walk through the Parks and think, “Symonds would have known this path.” I know how fortunate I am that I can go in the same day to the University Museum and to hear Evensong sung in Christ Church Cathedral, and can think about how much Symonds and others like him struggled to reconcile the conflicting identities of those two very different Gothic buildings.
I have been in England ten weeks, now, and I am starting to miss Princeton—or, to be specific, Rocky College and my Princeton family—desperately. I am thinking daily about the friends who are growing and changing every day without me to see them do so, and the friends who will leave Princeton in June whom I worry I will never see again. Following the life of my home for three years on the Internet, I come across gems like this which make me proud to represent my university (and more particularly my own small community and university family) abroad, and which far outweigh the number of times I have had to explain to a new acquaintance here in Trinity College that Princeton makes admissions decisions based on academic merit as well as on athletic ability or legacy status. I did not think that I would find myself identifying with Princeton even in another academic institution. I have always thought of myself as someone who lives in and is defined by the culture of universities, but I did not realize that one University with a capital U would loom so large in a life with so much academic peregrination still ahead of it.
But even as I nearly cried putting my friends from Princeton on a bus to Heathrow this afternoon, I knew it was right for me to come to Oxford. Reasons of cultural diversity and realizing that Princeton really is, as someone once said to me, the Disney version of Oxford aside, I could not have written as good a JP as I am now writing if I had never seen the place where Symonds’ intellectual and cultural compass was formed. I am discovering (with thanks due to some key observations from my adviser and from my Victorian history tutor this term) that the primary problem I have with much of the existing work on Symonds is that it does not invest itself fully in what it meant to be and to think like a Victorian, Oxford-educated intellectual. It does not adjust its outlook to a very narrow circle of men (and the very occasional women) preoccupied with large-looming questions about how to live a good life in a modernizing, industrializing, capitalizing, secularizing age—questions which we oh so (too?) rarely consider as vital as someone like Symonds must have done. We in the 21st century can’t really know what it was like to think like a Victorian, I suppose, but we can get flashes of realization when the Magdalen choir sings the Magnificat or when we see Ruskin’s watercolors up close in the Ashmolean Print Room or when we walk out along the Isis into countryside that is literally the stuff of poetry. When one lives in Oxford one sees how someone like Symonds, or someone like Arnold, or someone like Ruskin, or someone like Pater, or someone like Wilde (for they were all such different individuals and thinkers), built an aesthetic compass, and rendered it so central to their cosmologies that the pursuit of happiness or of knowledge or of beauty, as well as the building of a better world, seemed possible. In Oxford, where dreaming spires reached to Heaven and no dark Satanic mills could pour coal dust into the sky, the search for “sweetness and light,” the quest “to burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame,” the mission “to live with steady purpose in the whole, the Good, the Beautiful,” the possibility that one might be able—as Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”—”to live,” seemed realizable. To Symonds, who died before the Wilde trials sounded out loud and clear all sorts of appellations for the love that dare not speak its name, it was worth dedicating one’s life to a particular strain of humanistic inquiry whose overarching purpose was to develop a cultural and literary history and a set of ethical precepts governing what he was the very first person to call male homosexuality. And would he have done so had he not learned to think in the “home of lost causes”? Back here in the present in a room on Broad Street, the Trinity bells are sounding midnight, and I can’t help but think that without Oxford so many things—from Symonds’ first forays into academia to mine—would have been quite impossible.
Yesterday was my 21st birthday: age of majority and all that jazz. In the past year, I’ve really started to think of myself as an adult, and so I feel as if this birthday marks something real that my 18th didn’t. Of course, I’m still in the process of Becoming, and always will be—but I feel much more myself than I did three years ago, back when I lived in the suburbs and, although I knew I was an academic brat, didn’t know I would come to call the world’s great universities my home.
Now I am living in a room that looks out onto Broad Street, and I spend my days reading Victorian history. In particular, I spend a lot of time thinking about John Addington Symonds and his circle of friends and colleagues, most of whom he’d known since he was an undergraduate right here on Broad Street, at the college next-door. I spend a lot of time thinking about men who, in my mind at least, were Eminent Victorians, and how their biographers trace their success and literary acumen back to their undergraduate careers. Symonds and Wilde: two double firsts (Wilde’s was the highest first in Greats Magdalen had ever seen, if I remember correctly); two Newdigate Prize for Poetry winners. Two men who, when they were my age, walked around this town in gowns reading Plato. When Symonds was 21, he was being coached towards his first by Benjamin Jowett, one of the greatest dons of Victorian Oxford. When Symonds was 21, his world was changing as his head-over-heels love for the boys who sang in the choir at Bristol Cathedral collided with his study of Plato, and he began to see things between the Greek lines that Jowett wasn’t telling him. When Wilde was 21, he swanned around Oxford being clever, impressing his tutors and his classmates, and spending far too much money on furnishings for his room.
Yesterday, I spent £3 on postcards for my wall, which didn’t particularly strike me as extravagant. Today, I exchanged a series of emails with my advisor sorting out what I’m going to say about Symonds for the purposes of my spring junior paper. I can’t read Greek, and my poetry is shit. I don’t think I even know what a heroic couplet is.
And yet I had a chilling sense of almost-deja-vu two weeks ago, when I was sitting in the Radcliffe Camera reading Thomas Arnold’s edition of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (Arnold’s bits in English, obviously; not Thucydides’ bits in Greek, as we’ve just established the only words I can read in Greek are ones like παιδεραστια, ερως, ἐραστής, and ερωμηνος). For it is not improbable that, 150 years ago, Symonds sat in the Radcliffe Camera reading Arnold’s edition of Thucydides too, just as I know for a fact that he must have taken the same path that I do every day, east down Broad Street to the Bodleian. It’s a funny, funny thing—and it makes me wonder why I haven’t done the equivalent of reading my prizewinning poem at an honorary degree ceremony in front of dozens of dignitaries including Matthew Arnold, as Symonds did in 1860.
The comforting thing, though—and, in part, why I’m drawn to spending my days thinking about this man—is that Symonds was no Wilde. He was a well-reviewed author and scholar who held the esteem of many of the greatest intellectuals of his day, and counted heavyweights like T.H. Green and Henry Sidgwick among his friends, and Swinburne and Pater and Wilde himself among his eager readers. But when he died too early in Venice in 1893 it was not in the flames of martyrdom or in the glow of celebrity. It was quietly, of the accumulation of years of consumption and years of nervous breakdowns, with a modest but unheroic reputation which, for fear of scandal, was quickly covered up by a literary executor who knew too well what Symonds was saying behind the elaborate Hellenic metaphors of his poetry, and was one of the earliest recipients of his privately-circulated essays about what a much more famous Newdigate Prize-winner would, two years hence, loudly proclaim to be “the love that dare not speak its name.” (Symonds, rather sadly and sweetly, called it in some of his letters and poetry “l’amour de l’impossible.”) Symonds quickly faded drab, against the flashiness of Pater and Wilde, and when the critics talked and talked through the twentieth century about Jowett’s Oxford and the Greats curriculum, the texts in the back of their minds were Studies in the History of the Renaissance and The Picture of Dorian Gray, not a pamphlet printed in ten copies called A Problem in Greek Ethics.
When Symonds was 21, he may have been at the peak of the fame and glory he would accumulate during his lifetime—which seems to me all the more reason to sit and worry that I haven’t got a JP topic yet, never mind a prizewinning poem, though I have got a pretty awesome set of mentors, tutors, and advisors who I don’t hesitate to say could give Jowett a run for his money. And it makes me wonder what I will write that will be reviewed by the Walter Pater of my day in the popular literary press, and it makes me wonder what I will do to advance the discipline of cultural history, and it makes me wonder what I will privately circulate that will become the basis for my posthumous reputation. It makes me wonder how the person I am going to become will manifest herself in my work. And it makes me wonder whether I will die quietly in Venice, and whom I will die with: my long-suffering wife and cherished daughters? My doted-on gondolier?
Symonds was not, really, Eminent, as Victorians go. But he was a scholar who put his heart into his writing and into his many loves, who fathered three daughters, who loved the hills of Rome, of Switzerland, and of the village outside Bristol where he grew up. He also highly esteemed Middlemarch, which he read as it was published serially in 1871-2. The first time Symonds read Middlemarch, he was at the beginning of his career, barely starting on his massive five-volume cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, and only just starting to articulate what was so impossible about l’amour d’impossible. But I wonder if, later in life, he thought more about that book about ordinary people, about people whose lives are important for all their ordinariness, and who were important enough for one very talented woman to write a book about them. I wonder what Symonds would have thought of that, because I’m quite sure that he never would have countenanced the thought that there is a 21-year-old girlwoman in Oxford today who maybe will never win the Newdigate Prize or read Greek well enough to pass an exam in anything remotely related to classical studies, but who could certainly see living a quiet cultural historian’s life—and maybe, just maybe, writing a book about another quiet cultural historian who, sure enough, rests in an unvisited tomb.