QOTD (2013-06-20); or, The Special Relationship, Antecedent

From Corpus Christi College’s Pelican Record, 9:1 (Dec 1907), p. 4:

It is probably generally known that Princeton University some time ago applied to the College for leave to have a copy made of the Corpus Pelican, to be erected in their own University buildings. The leave was given, the copy made and transported; the function has now been held, and the Pelican has been duly inaugurated in its new home. Our readers will be glad to know that on the day of the ceremony the President sent to Princeton the following telegram, the exact words of which he has kindly communicated to us. It ran as follows:–

‘Corpus Christi College, Oxford, sends greeting, and rejoices that Princeton University has erected a reproduction of Turnbull’s dial in its original form.’

The last words refer to the fact that the American dial stands, not on a square pedestal like ours, but on an octagonal base, such as is shown in the C.C.C. MS. by Hegge, who died in 1629. This earlier base was recently discovered beneath the square pedestal of the Corpus dial, the insertion having been made at a considerably later date.

The President has received the following letter from the President of Princeton University:–

Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
November 1, 1907.
President’s Room.

My Dear Sir–
We had yesterday the pleasure of unveiling the beautiful reproduction of the Turnbull sun-dial which stands in the quadrangle of Corpus Christi College, presented to us by Sir William Mather. The Right Honourable James Bryce, the British Ambassador to the United States, made the address of presentation; the weather was brilliant and perfect; and all who were present wished me to convey to you the warm thanks of Princeton University for the courtesy shown by yourself and the Fellows of Corpus Christi in permitting this copy of the dial to be made and presented to us. It will always be for us a visible symbol of the connexion we already sensibly felt between our traditions and the traditions of Oxford. I hope that you may yourself some day visit Princeton and judge whether we have suitably placed the interesting column on our own grounds.

With much respect,
Sincerely yours,
Woodrow Wilson.

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.


QOTD (2012-09-09)

From Princeton President Shirley Tilghman’s address to the incoming freshmen at today’s Opening Exercises:

With your matriculation at Princeton, and irrespective of your family circumstances up to this moment, you have now become part of the 1 percent, not in terms of wealth, but certainly in terms of future opportunity. Admission to Princeton is a privilege that is bestowed on very few individuals, and with it comes a responsibility to use your education to make the world a better place. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of all Nations” is not a hollow phrase, but a call to action that justifies the immense effort and resources that go into educating each of you. By virtue of that education, and the credential you will earn that signals to the world that you have worked prodigiously hard to pass a very high educational bar, you will have a dizzying array of options before you. We are agnostic about what you choose to do, but we do insist that it have a purpose that is larger than you.

I have been angry and bitter the last week or so as members of my Facebook newsfeed have begun to trickle back to a campus I was happy, in June, to leave behind. All summer–particularly at the end, when I did a course where many of my colleagues were still Princeton students–I couldn’t stand to hear my alma mater’s name mentioned. I was so happy to be done, so ready to move on (and I still am, dreaming every day about the first things I will do in Oxford, from the moment that I alight from the bus at the High Street stop and trundle my suitcases in the direction of Corpus Christi College), and I found that I had a very hard time indeed appreciating the central importance the small-time campus politics of that little town in central New Jersey to my former classmates, even though they’d only lately assumed such central importance to me too. (Forgive the long sentences–I’ve just been reading Trollope.)

But reading this particular excerpt from President Tilghman’s speech makes me feel a lot less bitter. The past four years, nearly to the day, since I sat down at Princeton’s version of a college freshers’ dinner and a boy down the long table asked us all what we’d done to get in, and I didn’t know what to say, since I was sure it was all a giant mistake, were for something. In four years I have come to understand something of what abilities I actually have to be put in the service of this nation and all nations, and having attained that clarity of purpose am now slowly beginning to do so–and, indeed, it is in large part because my undergraduate education served me so well that I have come to believe that liberal-arts education is, given those abilities, one of the greatest social goods that I can work to further.

To be sure, I’m glad it’s all over, I wouldn’t want more time, and in fact I’m just a little worried about how my sanity will bear my impending visit to Princeton at the end of the coming week, as I wend my way towards Oxford. But I have to keep remembering, too, what a solemn sense of purpose that university vested in me, and how I became on all accounts more honest, more generous, more conscientious, and more open-hearted during my time there. And that counts for a very great deal indeed.

If only (and here I hope you’ll allow me just a little self-righteousness!) more of the students who are lucky enough to spend a few years in the world’s fanciest universities realized that the burden Tilghman advises is the proper one to assume in appreciation of that good fortune!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Princeton commencement

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

Reflections on the End of an Undergraduate Career

I read so much, in my scholarly life, about young people whose minds were broadened and whose lives were changed and whose souls took wings when they spent three or four years within quads and cloisters. It is strange to think that my time as an undergraduate is nearly at a close, and conceptually difficult to wrap my head round as well: after all, my career in quads and cloisters is far from over, yet this special time of golden youth that the poets elegize won’t come round again, and I can’t help wondering if I’ve made the best use of it. I go up and down, day by day: today the weather is beautiful and the leaves are spreading out over the great trees that ring the quad, and I am sitting on my window seat and feeling grateful. My father is visiting me today, and I’ve been able to introduce him to many friends and mentors (and give him a bound copy of my thesis) and feel proud of how many connections I’ve made, how much good work I’ve done, these past few years. Other days maybe the weather isn’t so nice, and I struggle to be the best friend and the best scholar and the most open-hearted person I can be, and I sink into dark moods and wonder whether it was all worth it. But today, happily, I feel rather balanced, rather at peace, sad to put my life in boxes again in a few weeks, but ready nevertheless, excited to travel in continental Europe this summer and then to move to Britain come autumn.

The University sent we seniors a long and detailed survey about our lives these past four years, and told us that we can’t collect our caps and gowns and other graduation accoutrements unless we complete it. I also heard a rumor that our responses are actually read, so I took some time and some honesty with the final, free-response questions. I wanted to share some excerpts, because I want to illustrate how it’s possible to leave this rather strange place a little bit bitter but still profoundly grateful—how possible it is to be extremely ambivalent about Princeton and to value it while simultaneously being skeptical about some of its most visible aspects. When that column about Annual Giving that I wrote for the Daily Princetonian attracted so much vitriol a couple months back, I was disappointed to see how little space there is here for a discourse of nuance and complexity surrounding students’ and alumni’s relationships to their alma mater. When I wrote my comments on this survey, I wanted to give balance and ambivalence another go:

I have not necessarily found it easy, over the past four years, to find a “home” at Princeton. Too often, in my experience, the attempts to artificially inculcate community through university or residential-college team spirit, and the overwhelming attitude of orange-and-black exceptionalism that dogs eating-club culture, overshadow what is truly remarkable about forming connections and community with other people here. I have flourished through close friendships and mentoring relationships with faculty and grad students, and found a few close friends my own age. I feel at home here when I’m sitting on a university policy committee, talking to faculty at a reception after an academic talk, in a meeting with my thesis advisor, or lingering after dinner at my co-op, talking about ideas or just complaining about my day. But all this community has come at the expense of a powerful sense of exclusion from “mainstream” Princeton. It has been years since I attended a major undergraduate event like Lawnparties; I don’t feel as if I belong at even the undergraduate events that attempt to be most inclusive, like this fall’s Orange and Black Ball. Princeton has given me the opportunity to achieve academically beyond my wildest dreams, but I have a lingering sense of regret that I haven’t been able to have a normal undergraduate experience because I feel like such a cultural misfit.

Yet, over the past four years, I have grown from a child into an adult, and from a student into a scholar. Thanks to intellectual and moral support from my academic mentors, I began to see myself as someone capable of carrying out large-scale research and of making innovative intellectual discoveries, and then I actually did that, writing an original and smart senior thesis into which I poured my soul and my intellect and of which I’m extremely proud. Princeton helped me logistically to write that thesis: through preparation from my writing seminar to my departmental independent work; through extremely good academic advising (my thesis advisor is truly a gentleman and a scholar); through financial support that enabled me to do copious research overseas and (in a few weeks) to present my research at a conference alongside senior faculty; through the provision of a life-changing opportunity to study abroad at the same university that my research subject attended. But as important to the process were the books I’ve read in my classes and in my spare time, the conversations I’ve had, and the interpersonal connections I’ve made that have helped me to bring a truly humane element to my scholarship. In all honesty, I’ve spent more of my time here frustrated that the opportunities for those conversations and connections aren’t thicker on the ground than I have spent inspired by the ones that have materialized. Yet I’ve learned that this is a place where academic drive and ambition make all kinds of remarkable conversations and connections possible. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to grow out of Princeton and out of being an undergraduate, and I wouldn’t feel emotionally and intellectually capable of moving to another country and beginning graduate school next year.

On another note, I’m a member of the 2 Dickinson St. Co-op, and I think it’s worth emphasizing to my reader how special that place is, and how unlike any other part of Princeton. It’s an organic community (the fruits and vegetables, literally!), in which each participant has a stake and commitment, and it’s a building in which one always feels at home. Our membership is the most diverse of any organization I’ve been involved in, from freshmen to post-docs and everyone between, including students who have taken time off or otherwise have a broader diversity of life experiences than your average, say, eating club. We cook tremendous food, we are moderate and mature social drinkers, we have talent shows and go on hikes, we sit outside in the hammocks on our porch and read for pleasure. Some of our members who aren’t in grad school already are grad-school-bound, but those who aren’t are equally intellectually curious, invested in their coursework and independent work and in the idea of a collegial academic community such as is extremely rare among undergraduates here.

This is all to say that I know that the administration are interested in learning how to build more close-knit and intellectually and socially stimulating communities here, and have struggled with how to encourage the ones that are healthy and discourage the ones that aren’t. 2D is a community that I think those who make decisions at this university often forget about–and while perhaps that’s one reason that we’ve flourished so organically and autonomously for decades (learning to manage our own efficient and successful financing and accounting system, for instance), it seems to me that the University may well want to take an interest in what we’re doing and how well we’re doing it. 2D and the other co-ops could be models for how to build communities elsewhere on campus that are truly student-driven, self-sustaining, and socially healthy.

And now I’m off to read and write, to socialize, to think and feel, to see if I can squeeze in any more soul-growing in these last few weeks—after all, golden youth doesn’t end until the fifth of June!

QOTD (2012-02-10)

This afternoon found me in the Princeton University Library Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, poring over some 1890s Oxford undergraduate periodicals that became rather notorious because they were edited by Alfred Douglas and were thus made much of in the Wilde trials. They were fabulous as a window into late-nineteenth-century student life, featuring everything from ads for High Street businesses to original verse in Greek and of course endless commentary on Summer Eights and bad attempts at humor about scouts. And, naturally, there’s quite a lot of homoeroticism of the neoclassical sort, including some poems by Symonds, Douglas, and Wilde. But this anonymous poem jumped out at me in a way the others didn’t—it seemed to me to be actually about the unique romanticism of Oxford, not the romanticism of other times and places:

Love in Oxford

When the shades of the twilight come
Hiding the face of the flow’rs,
My heart yearns blind and dumb
In a city of mist-girt tow’rs,
In a place of shadows and spires
The love of my heart goes forth
To the sea and the clear cold north,
To him whom my soul desires.

The southern skies and the mist
Chill me and blind my sight.
I long for the lips I kiss’d,
And the eyes that were brave and bright;
I long for the touch of his hand,
And the sound of the voice I knew
When the breeze of the evening blew,
And the stars shone cold on the sand.

Out of his northern home
I call him here to my side,
On his face is the salt sea-foam,
In his ears is the song of the tide;
He shall come with his soul aflame,
His voice shall be sweet and strong,
He shall sing me a golden song,
He shall rob me of fear and shame;
He shall steep my spirit in bliss,
He shall triumph and set me free,
For love is as deep as the sea,
And sweet as the core of a kiss.

Bettering, Adulthood, and Being Almost 22; or, Four Years is a Long Time

It is January and there is snow on the ground and the spring term does not start for another two weeks, which means that I have a lie-in every morning and the days all bleed hazily into each other. This Sunday morning I dragged myself grumpily out of bed at half ten, and stumbled through coffee and the internet; by noon I was eating a bagel in hall and frantically re-reading Symonds’ 1891 essay A Problem in Modern Ethics. Then I went to the library and spent the next five hours arguing in eight pages that Modern Ethics is a humanist critique of late-nineteenth-century Continental sexual science and cursing the monster that is my thesis, until the clock mercifully struck 6.15 and I could go to my co-op and have dinner and an hour and a half’s social time. Back to the library, then to chapel for the weekly hour where I try to exhort myself to be a better person, then home to watch TV and—the event that prompted this post—draft my first entry on the Princeton admissions office’s blog for this year’s admitted students.

Writing my post tonight, I was reminded of a time a little less than four years ago, when the world was only as large as a (admittedly sprawling) suburb in the wilds of southern California, and I sat at my desk in my second-floor bedroom that looked out over the street where the children of the parents with the “Yes on Prop 8” signs in their yards played. That was the time when I was alternately astonished that I’d gotten into Princeton and certain they’d only wanted me because my mother had graduated thirty years before. But that was also the time when I read the amazing Andy Chen‘s posts on the admitted students’ website, and I was struck so much by his understated prose style and controlled yet profoundly moving vulnerability as a writer that I wrote to him, and he wrote me back, and I began to think that, legacy anxieties aside, I would have to be stupid not to accept the gift of the next four years that I’d been given. I sent in my acceptance, and I turned the University of Chicago down.

We all know what happened next. I got through intermittent mild depression and anxiety, I made life-changing friendships, I learned how to love what I study and to study what I love, I rediscovered the thirst for knowledge and the boundless imagination that had governed my life before the hard road of adolescence ground them to dust. I sat in my future thesis advisor’s office in October of my junior year, talking about my midterm paper for his methods seminar, and suddenly I didn’t hate myself. I went to Oxford and I fell in love with the home of lost causes, fell deeply enough in love that, now that I’m going back next year, it seems impossible that I should ever do anything else. I learned to love the quests for beauty and for wisdom, and slowly I learned to start to value myself as a writer and a historian, a teacher, a friend. I started to learn that to be a whole person, I need to try to connect with others, and that if I expect them to give any of themselves to me, I need to screw my courage to the sticking-point and give all of myself that I can to them. I learned to see God—or, well, what I call God, which I suspect is not very much at all like what my religious friends call God—in moments of intellectual clarity, emotional vulnerability, and intense interpersonal connection that seem miraculous in their soul-soaring glow.

Well, that is all very well, said Candide, but we must cultivate our garden. It is easy to get carried away, when one thinks one has Found Spirituality, and to forget that one is tethered to the ground and one’s work is here on Earth and there isn’t anything else, anyway. That’s what I’m trying hard to remember, now, in the dark January days spend in a library basement in which I spend so much time wishing I were anywhere but here. It’s easy to forget that Princeton got me to such mental heights, and it’s easy to want to run away. Before Oxford, I was never bored, here. Depressed and lonely and insecure, yes, but never bored. The discovery of romance as part of human experience bestows upon one a pair of rose-colored spectacles, and so it’s quite understandable that this January should seem, with the spectacles removed, exceptionally gray. It’s tough to remember that this is really how the world looks, and that if we are to make our lives within it we must learn to cherish the gray alongside the rose.

And so that’s why I was so happy to write my first blog post tonight. I wrote a letter to thousands of eighteen-year-olds I’ve never met and I told them how honored I was to be able to tell them what Andy Chen told me, more or less. Four years later, the way I remember Andy’s message is that even those who have struggled the very most with lives of not-belonging can find a Princeton for themselves—even if it’s a Princeton on the margins of campus, as far as it’s possible to be from the eating clubs. I wished that for my new correspondents, and told them I couldn’t wait to tell them more about my thesis and my college and my co-op and the importance of unstructured social time and how although I’m not a “campus radical” anymore, I’m proud of the work I did as one. And then I put my computer down on the sofa and drank the last sip of my tea and tuned back in to Thomas Tallis, who was on the radio, and closed my eyes in thanks. Because, after all, Princeton changed my life: the adult who will receive a degree in June is not only four years older; she’s not the same person as the eighteen-year-old who had no idea what those four years would hold. We all get better, every day, but it can take four years’ hindsight to realize just how much.

And now I just have to get through this last semester. And I have to do whatever it takes to ensure that I finish my thesis, that I don’t forget to value every aspect of my life here and the people in it, and that I remember that every day I wake up is a chance to be better.

QOTD (2011-10-28); or, Slow College

From Symonds’ Memoirs:

I took to examining my thoughts and wishes with regard to the mysteries of the universe, God, nature, man. This I did seriously, almost systematically, during more than two years of reading for the Final Schools at Oxford. The studies on which I was engaged, Plato, Aristotle, the history of ancient and modern philosophy, logic, supplied me with continual food for meditation; and in the course of long walks or midnight colloquies, I compared my own eager questionings with those of many sorts of men…. A book called Essays and Reviews attracted extraordinary attention at that time; and a vehement contest about the endowment of Prof. Jowett’s chair was raging between the liberals and conservatives of the university. Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology at breakfast parties and at wine parties, out riding and walking, in college gardens, on the river, wherever young men and their elders met together.

I wish those who bemoan the loss, particularly in America, of this kind of liberal intellectual education, founded on the virtues of conversation and particularly of dialogue, could have been a fly on the wall of my college room last night. Last night, the night before fall break, is a time for debauched revelry in Princeton, when students attend Halloween parties and celebrate having no school for a week. I sat at home, and then over the course of the evening one, then two and three, then four friends arrived at my door. We sat around the coffee table and opened a bottle of wine and talked—and we talked and we talked, until four in the morning, about free will and the mind-body problem and whether a computer can love. I had an uncanny moment of historical déjà vu—a bit like the one I had once in the Radcliffe Camera, reading Thomas Arnold’s edition of Thucydides just like Oscar Wilde. The other week I wrote the part of my thesis that is about Symonds in 1860, reading Stallbaum’s commentary on the Phaedrus and trying to understand what Plato means when he says that love is a disease. Well into the fourth hour of our own symposium, when I found my friends and I talking about what one feels when one sees the person (or the place, or thing) one loves, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude and pride that for us, at least, the questions college students ask haven’t changed. University is a special time when you can stay up till four talking philosophy, a time when you can inhabit that academic world that revolves entirely around the virtue of conversation. As far as I am concerned, it is a crime not to avail yourself of that chance. And as far as I am concerned, there is no question that when it comes to spending my senior year well, I’d rather be at symposia than Halloween parties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Responsible Drinking and Reverse Culture Shock; or, In Which Adulthood Is Again Pondered

I have been thinking a lot since I returned to the U.S., and to Princeton, about the different cultures of drinking that manifested themselves in my higher ed experiences on either side of the Atlantic. I think that perhaps the foremost cultural difference between Princeton and Oxford (which are in many respects quite similar) is how I saw alcohol consumed at the two institutions: the juvenile way I saw it consumed for the two and a half years I spent as an under-21 student at Princeton; and the adult way I saw it consumed and consumed it in Oxford, in an environment where I was not only legal, but where most of my friends were graduate students and thus the tenor of social drinking was different. Being an RA this year—as well as reading about the dangers of student drinking from a faculty perspective—reminds me how important it is to talk openly about how college students drink, why they drink, and how to encourage them to drink like adults. Now that I am actually 21, I can not only drink much more openly and responsibly, but also talk openly and responsibly about why and how I drink and have drunk at college. This is obviously very important, and we need to be having more conversations about this.

I spent my share of my orientation week at Princeton lurking awkwardly behind eating clubs, a member of one of the furtive crowds around kegs on back porches of the clubs to which a roommate’s OA leaders belonged. I felt uncomfortable, disoriented, out of place, overtired, but there didn’t seem to be much else to do. And in orientation week, of course, freshmen travel in packs, and they follow the throngs of people heading east to Prospect Avenue because it is such a clear visual marker of the direction of the campus social scene. I kept this up first semester. Culture-shocked to all hell, convinced I didn’t belong here and didn’t deserve to be here, I repeated the routine once or twice a week, going to an eating club to drink cheap watered-down beer because drunk people are always happy to see you. At the time I didn’t know how to drink, and was unused to it, and would often end my nights crawling back home alone to throw up the three or four watered-down beers I’d had. I wasn’t endangering myself much, or slipping into alcoholism, but I wasn’t drinking maturely, I wasn’t drinking healthily, and I wasn’t happy.

The thing going for me was that I knew this. I knew this kind of drinking was childish, different to the kind of drinking that my over-21 friends did and in which I wasn’t allowed to join them, since most of them had advisory roles in my college that prohibited them drinking with their advisees. But I didn’t know how to find for myself the middle ground between drinking childishly or drinking as a coping mechanism, and not drinking at all. Until, that is, I turned 19. When I turned 19 I was legal in the other country where I live, Canada, and the first summer that I was 19 I started drinking wine at home with my parents, and my dad and I went to the local pub. In however small a way, I finally got access to a world where consuming alcohol was something adults did. It was exciting, a sense of Things to Come—and when I returned to Princeton for my second year, it made me feel more embarrassed by the emotional and social distance between me and my older friends, and the extent to which they had to make allowances for me. When I was around, we couldn’t go to the bars where they might have liked to go. I spent a memorable portion of ages 19 and 20 standing inconspicuously across the street from liquor stores: no big deal for some, but for me a constant reminder of how far I had to come, how much I had to grow up, to be the adult my friends were.

A few weeks before I left Princeton for Oxford, one of my older friends jokingly said to me, “People drink a lot in Oxford! You’ll have to improve your tolerance!” I knew this—I hadn’t drunk much thus far, and knew I didn’t do it well—but it took going to Oxford for me to really hit the alcohol learning curve. I had no idea what many kinds of things I would be expected to drink (and to develop a discerning palate for), what diverse social contexts in which I would be expected to drink, and how important it was not to get sloppy-drunk on starting the third glass of wine. But, as this blog shows, I learned. I learned not to show disorientation when I was making it through those weird Oxford marathon formal dinners, and similarly to reevaluate my process of alcohol consumption as something where drinking, but not drunkenness, is the goal. I’d go to the pub with my friends and have one or two drinks after a long day. And thus I learned also to do my drinking in public: instead of cheap vodka out of those opaque red cups in the claustrophobic confines of a dorm room, I’d be drinking beer or wine or gin and tonic out of a clear glass. And it felt, even when I went out dancing, that I was acting much more like an adult. I felt like I had what I’d always wanted: access to this mystical world where grad students lingered at the reception instead of running away right at the end of the lecture, hobnobbing with famous scholars, the motif of their hobnobbing the little plastic glasses of red wine they’d clutch with the tips of their fingers. In Oxford, with access to that talisman, I felt I had the ability to hobnob, too.

I came back to Princeton as a 21-year-old, and so have been able to replicate a lot of what I liked about social drinking in Oxford in a way I couldn’t before. I can go to the nearest equivalent to a pub in Princeton and order a pint of a good ale. I can go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of gin and have a g&t with my friends on a Saturday night. This past Thursday, I attained what for me has always been the apotheosis of adulthood and, at the reception after a talk, had a glass of wine. For me, drinking without getting drunk is always something that has been made possible by having the legal and financial ability to order and/or buy one’s own alcohol. I can’t practice responsible drinking behavior if I don’t have any control over the environment in which I come across accessible alcohol. Now that I can drink at departmental receptions, I don’t have to vomit from eating-club beer anymore.

I went to one party during this year’s orientation week (when, before everyone’s classes and workloads begin, there’s a lot of revelry). I had one of the biggest moments of reverse culture shock I’ve had since being back when I noticed that everyone at the party was acting much drunker than two or three drinks over the course of a couple hours should have made them. I went home early: whether it was Oxford or the age of majority, I just didn’t know how to relate to this culture anymore. Two weeks later, though I’ve done plenty of moderate social drinking in other settings, I haven’t “gone out” again.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the atmosphere of juvenility at Princeton: how much hand-holding there is, how much in loco parentis attention we get from grown-ups, how freshman orientation so much resembles a summer-camp atmosphere, how despite claims to the contrary in the brochures, there’s not a lot of institutional support for undergrads who want to do the work of and be treated like grad students. We’re coddled, we’re treated like children still, and while that seemed normal when I was 18, three years later it’s all gotten a little bit boring—not to mention ridiculous. People our age are learning how to shoot AK-47s and going to risk their lives in Afghanistan. We’re being given matching college t-shirts to wear in a parade during orientation and an intramural sporting event in the gym, and then the adults who manage our lives are surprised that we drink excessively, shirk our academic work, and otherwise behave with little attention to consequence, so determined are we to forget the strains placed upon us by a pointlessly uber-competitive academic atmosphere and the uncertainties of the grad school and employment opportunities (or lack thereof) that we face upon graduation.

I have been quite angry this week with a collegiate culture that places so many parameters on what we do in some fields, and so few parameters on what we do in others. I have spent much of the week fighting to get allocated my own reserved desk and bookshelf at which to write my thesis (as of now, I’m expected to share with another person). Many of my friends have been frustrated at the unexpectedly low intellectual level of some of their classes. I don’t think any of us are perfectly happy with the social scene on this campus, as much as we make do. And yet there is still so little effort on the part of the otherwise overinvolved administrative layer to help us to see ourselves as adults academically and socially. Call it reverse culture shock, call it getting older, but whatever it is, I’ve been frustrated.

But the thing is, we all make our own cultural compasses. Now that I’m 21, I can be the one who models responsible drinking, who treats herself to a drink when she’s put in an eight-hour day on her thesis. I can behave like an adult as much as I feel able, and hang out with people who do the same. And when I’m the RA on-call tonight, I can do the job that I signed up for: the job that entails making sure that 18-year-olds in their second week of college are staying safe and are learning how to grow up and to be better. Growing up means giving back, doing for the kids next to come along all that was—and wasn’t—done for you.