QOTD (2012-09-25); or, -1 Week

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

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

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

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

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!

QOTD (2012-08-03); or, Postscript

With thanks to Tony Grafton and his comment on my last post for the reference, here is Natalie Zemon Davis concluding her ACLS Haskins Lecture in 1997:

The study of the past has been a constant joy, a privileged realm of intellectual eros. The necessary constraints under which the historian operates—to find evidence for every affirmation—I have accepted freely: that quest is what makes it so much fun. The mistakes I made—say, a project not finished (or as I like to say to myself, still remaining to be done)—seem trivial compared to really important mistakes, as those we might have made in parenting. Moreover, the study of the past provides rewards for moral sensibility and tools for critical understanding. No matter how evil the times, no matter how immense the cruelty, some elements of opposition or kindness and goodness emerge. No matter how bleak and constrained the situation, some forms of improvisation and coping take place. No matter what happens, people go on telling stories about it and bequeath them to the future. No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur. At least things can be different. The past is an unending source of interest, and can even be a source for hope.

I like this theory of history a lot. It doesn’t mean you necessarily think things are better than they were in the past, or that they inevitably will become so. But it can give you the hope that they might, the will to make them so, and the inspiration to teach—because however and in whatever venue it happens, that’s the only way anything really gets better.

QOTD (2012-07-21)

Some excerpts from Horace Mann’s remarks upon his inauguration as president of Antioch College in 1853:

Sir, the work of education, always paramount to all others, sometimes assumes a super-added importance. Its appropriate object is youth, and its appropriate duty is to imbue them with the saving predestinations of wisdom and love. Education addresses itself specifically to the young, because the young are always ductile and mouldable; while, under our present methods of human culture, the hearts of men fossilize with a rapidity and a flintiness that have no parallel in natural petrifications.

This Western country is increasing in its wealth beyond all precedent in ancient or modern times. It has a annual lake trade of three hundred millions of dollars, and a river trade of four hundred millions, beside its immense traffic upon the Gulf; yet all this, when compared with its undeveloped resources, is only the pocket-money of a school-boy. But without the refining influences of education, wealth grows coarse in its manners, beast-like in its pleasures, vulgar and wicked in its ambitions. Without the liberalizing and uplifting power of education, wealth grows overweening in its vanity, cruel in its pride, and contemptible in its ignorance…. If a poor country needs education, because that is its only resource for changing sterility into exuberance, a rich country needs it none the less, because it is the only thing which can chasten the proud passions of man into humility, or make any other gift of God a blessing.

… such is the diffusive nature of human action that no limits can be affixed to the influences which the humblest institution, or the humblest individual, may exert. Some influences act more directly upon one department of human interests and some upon another. It is the high function of a College to act more or less upon all human interests and relations.

I completely failed to find online the text of Mann’s 1859 Baccalaureate address, in which appears his famous exhortation, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” (if you have a source, let me know!), but the above paragraphs have been helping me over the course of the past week to rebuild from scratch the ethical principles by which I live and the reasons for which I justify pursuing the life path I do. It’s essential routine maintenance, but boy is it exhausting and emotionally draining—and I wonder if it’s really keeping me from just getting on with things and doing the work I spend so much time wondering whether I should be doing.

QOTD (2012-06-09)

From Adam Phillips, “Promises, Promises,” in his essay collection of the same name:

If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field. It is a question of relationships, but perhaps it also points to the drawback of making ‘relationships’ the primary category. I think we should make our primary category something like moral aims, or preferred worlds, what Stanley Cavell refers to… after Emerson, as ‘moral perfectionism’, which he defines as ‘some idea of being true to oneself’, but which ‘happily consents to democracy’. Our description of our relationships—which entails our description of what it is not to have one, what a good one is, and so on—depends on our moral aims, on the kind of selves and worlds we are consciously and unconsciously committed to fashioning. There can be no democracy without the notion of relationship as somehow central, but the idea of being true to oneself may involve redescribing the idea of relationship so radically that it may sometimes be barely recognizable…. Democracy thrives by valuing rival and complementary interpretation. It is not equally clear what being true to oneself thrives by, or whether it could ever be subject to generalization or, indeed, formulation. Our relationship to ourselves must be inextricable from our relationship with others; but in what sense does one have a ‘relationship’ with oneself, or with a book, or with its author, or with a tradition? In other words, is there sufficient resemblance between these objects to make ‘relationship’ the right, or rather the illuminating, word?

What we actually do—or find ourselves doing—in the presence of a book or an analyst could not be more different, from one point of view. The implication of Literature and Psychoanalysis is that we must be using them for distinguishably different things. But how we use them depends on what I am calling here our ‘moral aims’, our conscious and unconscious moral projects about whose very consequences we can have so little knowledge. What or who we seek to be influenced by—to be changed by—depends on the kinds of selves (and worlds) we want to make and the kinds of culture in which we happen to live.

I have a sense that Phillips here is making a rather Forsterian point, and I think a line of Forster’s speaks to some of his rhetorical questions: “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

I first read that line right at the beginning of this academic year, just before I discovered Forster proper and started on this year’s emotional, intellectual, and ethical course, defined by personal relationships, books, and—yes—psychoanalysis. It seems, too, a fitting way to end—and today, after much writer’s block, I started finally to find the words to talk about what it means to end one era, and to allow another to begin. Here comes summer, and with it a lot of processing.

QOTD (2012-04-06)

As I’ve started to take stock of what it is I’ve learned and become in the past four years of college, I was much surprised by how moved I was by the following passage, from the section titled “Eros” in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

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

[…]

I believe that the most interesting students are those who have not settled the sexual problem, who are still young, even look young for their age, who think there is much to look forward to and much they must yet grow up to, fresh and naive, excited by the mysteries to which they have not yet been fully initiated. There are some who are men and women at the age of sixteen, who have nothing more to learn about the erotic. They are adult in the sense that they will no longer change very much. They may become competent specialists, but they are flat-souled. The world is for them what it presents itself to the senses to be; it is unadorned by imagination and devoid of ideals. This flat soul is what the sexual wisdom of our time conspires to make universal.

The easy sex of teen-agers snips the golden thread linking eros to education. And popularized Freud finishes it for good by putting the seal of science on an unerotic understanding of sex. A youngster whose sexual longings consciously or unconsciously inform his studies has a very different set of experiences from one in whom such motives are not active. A trip to Florence or to Athens is one thing for a young man who hopes to meet his Beatrice on the Ponte Santa Trinità or his Socrates in the Agora, and quite another for one who goes without such aching need…. Such longing is what students most need, because the great remains of the tradition have grown senile in our care. Imagination is required to restore their youth, beauty and vitality, and then to experience their inspiration.

A significant number of students used to arrive at the university physically and spiritually virginal, expecting to lose their innocence there. Their lust was mixed into everything they thought and did. They were painfully aware that they wanted something but were not quite sure exactly what it was, what form it would take and what it all meant. The range of satisfactions intimated by their desire moved from prostitutes to Plato, and back, from the criminal to the sublime. Above all they looked for instruction. Practically everything they read in the humanities and social sciences might be a source of learning about their pain, and a path to its healing…. The itch for what appeared to be only sexual intercourse was the material manifestation of the Delphic oracle’s command, which is but a reminder of the most fundamental human desire, to “know thyself.”

QOTD (2012-03-21)

Tony Grafton, in the introduction to his Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West:

Thirty years and more spent living within the modern university—as well as the larger media and publishing worlds outside it—have sometimes left me shaken, even despairing. Times have been, and are, dark. But even in dark times, the social worlds of scholarship provide room for human warmth and the desire and pursuit of the truth and promote deep scholarship and intelligent writing. And these abide.

Even after only four years in Princeton—but especially now, just under two weeks before my thesis is due—this is the heart-gladdening ideal in which I try to keep faith. I have been fortunate beyond all measure to have learnt it from those who know how to express it so beautifully, warmly, and comfortingly, and who are there for the few undergraduates who really need to hear words like these.

Relatedly, Tenured Radical had a lovely post today about the lessons of her college years, and I mean to take it as my model once I turn in my thesis, my own college years wind to a close, and I’m called to reflect on the use to which I’ve put this sojourn in the wilds of suburban New Jersey. But I can say now that most of all what I’ve learned here is the pressing importance of building intellectual communities that, if not quite ever spreading sweetness and light to civilization far and wide, at least help people like me, who have always struggled to be in the present as easily as we are in the past, to achieve the kind of human connection we need to become better, to love more, and to be more human and more whole.

QOTD (2012-03-01)

JH Newman, “The Idea of a University,” from the section on “Knowledge its own end”:

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former Discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a University, as contrasted with other places of teaching or modes of teaching. This is the main purpose of a University in its treatment of its students.

QOTD (2012-02-24); or, The Days When I Love My Job

This last slog toward a finished thesis and a finished bachelor’s degree is proving much more arduous than I expected. Despite what a cushy life I lead, this year has not always been so happy, especially this winter. Sometimes it’s made me strongly doubt whether I really can sentence myself to a life sentence of reading and writing and be content with that.

But then I read beautiful things, and I am sincerely grateful that I get paid to be an intellectual and literary historian and that I am currently at an institution where the librarians will special-order recently-published and very expensive volumes for me, such as the new Philip Gardner-edited edition of E.M. Forster’s diaries and journals. My thesis ends with Forster, who is one of the most interesting twentieth-century readers of Symonds, and the following entry in Forster’s “Locked Diary” explains why. He wrote it on 10 January 1912, after a visit to Symonds’ old friend Graham Dakyns reminded him of Symonds himself:

J.A. Symonds. Feel nearer to him than any man I have read about — too near to be irritated by his flamboyance which I scarcely share. But education — (Classics, Renaissance, Eng. Lit.) — , health — (tendency to phthysis) — literary interest in philosophic questions, love of travel, inclination to be pleasant and above all, minorism. True, he married,but he had better not have. His contrary inclinations only dragged him asunder till the strongest triumphed. He was a brave & intelligible man, and I am proud to be in some ways so like him, & mean to think of him in difficulties, though having a weaker brain and a stronger sense of humour, I may get through life more easily. Such a fine passage — end of Vol I of his life — about never acting from moral reasons. What wouldn’t I give to read the Autobiography entire but Horatio Brown will never let me. ‘Rough handsome young man.’ It is odd. He has met Walt Whitman by now, if the dead are meetable, and has rebuked him for his hypocritical letter, & on that supposition I too shall meet them, and though Whitman will have most to say to me, I shall have most to say to Symonds. Samuel Butler would be nice for a little. Then there are the big people whom one feels one has to want to meet, like Keats and Petrarch and Michelangelo.

Reading that means something human. Accessing the universal through the particular. The promise that even three floors underground, elbow-deep in books at a little boxy desk, reading others’ commonplace books and filling in my own, the books and the world will, on the best of days, work together—and I will learn how to connect.

QOTD (2012-02-07); or, This Day in History

Symonds to Whitman, 140 years ago today:

I have pored for continuous hours over the pages of Calamus (as I used to pore over the pages of Plato), longing to hear you speak, burning for a revelation of your more developed meaning, panting to ask–is this what you would indicate?–Are then the free men of your lands really so pure & loving & noble & generous & sincere? Most of all did I desire to hear from your own lips–or from your pen–some story of athletic friendship from which to learn the truth. Yet I dared not to address you or dreamed that the thoughts of a student could abide the inevitable shafts of your searching intuition.

Shall I ever be permitted to question you & learn from you?

What the love of man for man has been in the Past I think I know. What it is here now, I know also–alas! What you say it can & shall be I dimly discern in your Poems. But this hardly satisfies me–so desirous am I of learning what you teach. Some day, perhaps–in some form, I know not what, but in your own chosen form–you will tell me more about the Love of Friends! Till then I wait. Meanwhile you have told me more than anyone beside.–

Thesis Day: 55 days and counting down!