On (Academic) Writing

For several months now, I have regularly been posting on social media photos and screenshots of my efforts to write my dissertation. Some might call it self-aggrandizing, but I have found this habit—and the “likes” and comments it generates from my Facebook and Instagram friends—to be a powerful source of motivation that keeps me cranking out words daily. Due to posting these photos, I often receive requests to describe my writing process, and in particular what I am doing with the hundreds of little slips of paper with which I cover my desk and bedroom floor. So (and really this is just an excuse to procrastinate on cataloguing the endless varieties of misogyny expressed by interwar male undergraduates, which I find rather wearing) I thought I might write something describing how I write.

It’s necessary to begin with several caveats. First, there are not objectively better ways to write—or to do research, or any other academic or creative task. People find the systems that work well for them based on their learning styles, writing styles, and other life circumstances (for example, if you have children, your writing process may look very different to mine!). Second, while I am probably fairly good at being a fifth-year graduate student, I am not the right person to advise peers at the same career stage as me how to write a dissertation, because I haven’t written one yet. Furthermore, due to a combination of the structure of my program and receiving an extra year of funding through an additional internal fellowship, I have not had to teach for the last two years and thus have been able to engage in an intensive period of research and writing. While I do part-time work to supplement my income, it amounts to less than ten hours per week, and I mostly do it in the evenings and weekends. I say all this not to brag, but rather to observe that structural privilege accumulated over many years affects our ability to write in the way that we would most like. For example, the flexibility of my schedule allows me to block out a few hours every morning, at the time when my brain is sharpest, to devote only to my dissertation, a circumstance available to few graduate students. I am thus not the right person to advise the many peers whose path through graduate school has been considerably more difficult than mine.

In general, most of the brain-work I do is not very systematic. I have a free-associating mind rather than an analytic one, whose natural tendency is to dive very deeply into one topic rather than assessing patterns across different cases or bodies of material. I mostly do history by collecting very large quantities of archival material and then simply telling the reader, at some considerable length, what they contain, before embarking upon an editing process in which I compress that description to a more manageable size. When I get round to writing, therefore, I have spent many weeks or months in an archive or several, and have hopefully had the time to organize my findings, taking apart the Word document of hundreds of pages in which I have recorded my stream-of-consciousness impressions of the archive and creating an entry for each document in my Zotero database. I don’t do much in Zotero beyond recording the correct citation information and organizing all the documents by repository and by date. But I can then print off that database—the poor trees, but for me the most essential part of the process (enabled by the laser printer I bought out of the research account I am exceptionally fortunate to possess)—and get on with writing.

The writing, then, starts with several hundred pages of source material, and a space like a floor or a big table, large enough to lay it all out and get a visual sense of the shape of it. Even a large computer monitor doesn’t quite provide the scope for this, for me. Spreading it out makes it possible to see patterns—for example, if student politicians across many different institutions all became preoccupied by a particular topic in a particular year—and also to trial different ways of structuring the argument and exposition that I might follow over the course of the text. It’s actually possible to skip this step if the piece of writing is very short (such as a conference paper or a blog post), as in that case it might be possible to hold the whole structure in my head at once and/or to take a less comprehensive approach to incorporating all the source material. But for a dissertation chapter, it is absolutely essential—I shouldn’t be able to do any actual thinking without it. I used to nail down a structure on the floor and then paste all the slips into a notebook, but more recently as I have been working with larger and more complex quantities of material I have found that I want to revisit and revise the structure as I write. I keep the slips laid out on the floor, or file them in a more mutable way with paper clips and folders.

So that’s what the slips of paper are. They become the raw material out of which the story is written up, and I interpellate in my own words context and analysis that lead the reader from one slip of paper to the next and sum up what the whole picture is. To draft, I use a piece of software called Scrivener, which allows one to do various fancy split-screen things that make it possible to see, for example, an outline, multiple chapters, and the footnotes all at once, and to save notes and chaff in different folders as part of the same database as the main text. (Scrivener costs $38 with an educational discount; I am fortunate to have been able to afford to buy it.) I write at the rate of about 600–1,600 words per day, which will take between two and four hours of concentrated, intensive thinking that typically leaves me too exhausted to do brain-work the rest of the day. I do this about six days a week, every week (it has been many years since I took a vacation). I usually write between 10am and 1pm, and do other work, paid work, or housework in the afternoons, but occasionally this varies or I have enough energy to be able to write all day. I try to push myself if I can, but listen to my body and stop if I can’t. I never write in the evenings, and only rarely, under extreme time pressure, do other work at that time.

While on the face of it this quantity of word production in this amount of work time might seem productive, it is actually not efficient at all. With so many slips of paper, it can take weeks to progress through a given section of the text as it is laid out on the floor. Almost every aspect of writing the dissertation so far has taken much longer than I had imagined it would, and my goal of finishing a draft by September has slipped progressively further out of reach. Moreover, this word production is the first in a series of revision stages. The first drafts of the chapters that have so far got as far as a first-draft stage have been 35,000–40,000 words long: baggy objects that are not only of an inappropriate length for the genre of thing that they are, but would be much too onerous to ask anyone, even my long-suffering advisor, to wade through. It takes another series of weeks to sculpt this material into something that looks like a chapter. My goal is always to get it under 20,000 words before I show it to anyone, through a painful and painstaking process of winnowing. Then comes the slow round of workshops and seminars, getting feedback from expert and general audiences that will be the basis for further revisions. In previous writing tasks this process, potentially endless, has been put to a stop by a university-imposed deadline or by publication of one sort or another (in a journal, on a blog). But in this case I am several years away from the book going to press which will mark the formal end of writing.

My way of thinking about and doing writing has been influenced—I am still realizing how much—by the semester I spent in John McPhee’s writing workshop in spring 2009. McPhee, a longtime New Yorker correspondent and the author of many works of long-form journalism, has taught a creative writing seminar at Princeton for decades. Most of the students are aspiring journalists, as I was then—though most were much better writers than I was, and I think McPhee was rather tired of my tendency to insert myself into every piece of writing I created for the class. The main lesson McPhee impressed upon us was about structure. Clarity, he said, comes from the structure the writer creates, which leads the reader through the events or concepts discussed in the text and slowly opens out its central meaning to the reader’s understanding. In class, we scrutinized the diagrams McPhee had drawn to visualize the structure of his own essays, often metaphors taken from the natural environment which has been the subject of so much of his writing: a snail shell, a wave. This class was my first realization of how important it is to be deliberate and disciplined about writing, rather than just expressing one’s feelings. I took to heart the structure lesson. It fell to the back of my consciousness when I became disillusioned with journalism and began to study history, however, and I was surprised recently when reading a New York Times review of McPhee’s new book to be reminded that his office, like my bedroom, is filled with little slips of paper that he obsessively arranges and rearranges in an effort to make meaning. Evidently, I had taken away more than I had imagined; evidently, too, there is more than one way to be a writer. But now I, too, tell my students about structure.

I have always had a natural aptitude for writing, though it has improved considerably as I received more formal instruction in the subject and have been prompted as a professional academic to think more consciously about suiting one’s writing to a specific task. As an adolescent, I had perceived writing primarily to be a means of self-expression, and rebelled at restrictive formats. But now I see it primarily as a means of communication, and am happy to embrace formats as constructs that convey meaning and aid the reader. A dissertation chapter, a grant application, an online essay for a general audience, an email all have different audiences and purposes, and the format and style one selects must vary accordingly to be effective at getting one’s message across. I believe it is possible to (strive to) marry beauty and eloquence with clarity and analytic rigor. I admire in others, and try to achieve, a style which is engaging but also articulates a clear argument and makes it possible for the reader to follow it without working too hard. I have had interesting conversations with colleagues who opt for what I might call a more subtle or literary style, to tell a story more than to deliver an argument. It is clear that this is a matter of personal preference that might vary, and that when workshopping others’ writing it is important to respect what their aspirations for their own writing might be.

It is difficult, however, to remain true to personal preference in the context of an academic environment, where one has the sense that one is constantly being evaluated, that extenuating circumstances affect one’s ability to follow one’s instincts. Almost daily, my feeling of pride at having created 1,000 usable, relatively intelligent words in a morning is subsumed in my feelings of guilt, anxiety, and exhaustion: are those words good enough? why am I so tired now? how might I summon up the energy to do an afternoon shift? how will my advisor, or a conference audience, react to them? am I making enough progress to finish on time? will anyone else find this interesting, or just me? If I had to live solely by selling my words instead of by the strange cocktail of things that might see one lucky enough as to win the academic jobs lottery, I might be asking different anxious questions. But I have often felt that if I somehow had income coming in regardless and could still be writing for my own gratification, I would be much more confident in my ability to do good work, and to stop when I am tired and it isn’t possible to do more. It does not help that many in permanent jobs seem often to advise advanced graduate students about writing in precisely the same tone they would take with undergraduates ten or fifteen years younger, forgetting that grad students might have extensive professional training and experience in writing and editing—or, as I indicated above, that writers’ own personal processes and styles may differ and that what works for one person may not work for another.

We all, whatever our level of seniority, I think, often forget that work does not always look like work, and that there are all kinds of non-obvious pursuits—baking, going for a walk, sitting in the pub with friends, playing video games, childcare—that for many are actually an integral part of the writing process. For those who do their best thinking while doing something else, it is necessary to set time aside in the day not only for office/desk time but also for these activities. It is necessary also, whether an individual graduate student’s routine includes caring responsibilities or not, to respect that a 9–5 office schedule is not everyone’s best way of achieving work–life balance. To me, the greatest benefit of academic work has always seemed to be the flexibility of its hours. While for some the babysitter’s schedule is the most important constraining factor, or the 9–5 really is an ideal setup, for others the time that has to be set aside is late at night, or as in my case the hours of 10am to 1pm and those alone. For others still, the luxury of being able to do the grocery shopping in the middle of the day on a weekday may be the one thing that allows them to get the housework done alongside their more-than-full-time job. Much as the writing process takes many forms, and not everyone may be best served by drowning themselves in little slips of paper, so too is it the case that different people work best at different paces or at different times or in different ways. We do not guard work–life balance in the way best-suited to making academia accessible to everyone if we insist that everyone conform to a 9–5.

And with that, I am off to play video games. A happy 2019 to all!

Labor improbus; or, D-Day minus two months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Notes

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.

QOTD (2013-07-10); or, Adventures in the Archives

Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):

My dear Catharine,

I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.

I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.

The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.

All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.

I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.

Yrs ever most truly
A Sidgwick

For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.

Microhistory? or, Steps Towards a Thesis Proposal

Dissent has published a review article about Harvard historian Jill Lepore and her recent collections of essays, which makes a rather heavy-handed case that Lepore should be identified as a microhistorian. This appellation leapt out at me: I have read “microhistories” in every methods or historiography class I’ve ever taken, been assigned over and again Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and asked to consider the relationship between Ginzburg’s mad miller Minocchio and his intellectual and cultural context, and Ginzburg’s success at articulating it. But I’ve also wound up with an idea of microhistory as something that’s over and done with, a quaint relic of the 1960s-’80s “history from below,” or maybe of the postmodernist transmogrification of everything into a text and a narrative, à la the work of Natalie Zemon Davis from that period. It has never occurred to me that a historian of a younger generation might be described as writing microhistory, and indeed it’s made me wonder if, by the criteria this piece lays out, I am a microhistorian. After all, I have, since I began writing history, been interested in “second-tier” figures in the modern intellectual classes, and I use those figures—as this piece characterizes Lepore’s work—as a lens through which to view contemporary trends in sensibility, sentiment, ideas, intellect, values, ways of engaging with the world. Symonds’ life, and the way in which he pieced together a theory of homosexuality from a disparate set of intellectual influences, are a window onto what sex and love meant to the Victorians. So, I am hoping, are the ways in which Arthur Sidgwick put into practice philosophical and political positions that he’d developed as a young man in his relatively quiet, unhistoric political life as a teacher, parent, and activist in local politics another window onto late-Victorian and Edwardian ideals of liberalism and social reform from that afforded by the ever-chic, ever-larger-than-life Bloomsbury.

But I’m not sure this is what makes something microhistory. To me a microhistory is primarily self-contained, and one of the radical things that it does is that it does not feel a need to make the case for its subject’s importance. Menocchio or Martin Guerre are intrinsically interesting people, not necessarily because they can be connected directly to trends in life and thought larger than themselves. They leave a lasting impression on our sense of the colorful tapestry that is early modern Europe, but I don’t think of them primarily as figures who help us to understand things larger than themselves—c.f. another example of microhistory cited by the Dissent piece, Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre. Ginzburg and Zemon Davis both demonstrate prodigious contextual knowledge about the times and places in which Menocchio and Martin Guerre lived, but they use it not to get from their subjects to something “bigger,” but rather to add more detail and color to the lives of their subjects—particularly, in Zemon Davis’s case, to establish what we know and can’t about the life of Martin Guerre.

By contrast, I am not drawn to—or, perhaps, I don’t have the prodigious skill it takes to pull off—projects that can maintain historical interest intrinsically. With Symonds, I felt driven to talk up his importance to the story of the development of male homosexuality as an identity; I got myself into countless tussles with a secondary literature that doesn’t regard him as quite so important as I do in order to firmly establish the necessity of taking on this project instead of any other. Maybe this was kind of a juvenile impulse, the desire of a student still trying to establish herself as a “real” historian and demonstrate that she knows what is an appropriate subject for research and what isn’t. But I find myself doing it again with Sidgwick. For the first half of the Easter vacation I despaired a bit about my putative master’s dissertation project, not sure whether—absent a pivotal academic discovery like Symonds’—I could make a case for why we should care about Sidgwick. (Nor, in fairness, am I sure that there’s enough in his diary to sustain intrinsic interest, in the way that there sometimes is with a single breathtaking document that a historian has the excellent fortune to stumble across.) I feel that, without a way to connect Sidgwick in an important way to big names and big trends in the late-Victorian intellectual culture that interests me, this isn’t a project that would sustain my interest, much less my readers.

Happily, though, while going over some notes I’d made in Michaelmas, I remembered the key fact that (I hope!) is going to make it all hang together: Sidgwick was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. He makes passing, coded references to Apostles meetings and dinners in his diary (the Apostles were famously secretive, and used a certain set of slang to discuss meetings and members’ issues). William Lubenow’s The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship is a flawed group biography of the Apostles’ widespread infiltration of and influence upon public life in the period, but it does decode those references in the diary and mention Sidgwick’s (along with his brother Henry’s) membership in the organization, and its primary subject is the Apostles’ relation to a particular stripe of turn-of-the-century liberalism that shaped fora from parliamentary politics to university reform to the novels of E.M. Forster and, indeed, the narrative of the development of sexual, and particularly homosexual, identity. It was this connection that helped me to see that Sidgwick’s work as a teacher and as an activist in Oxford university and local-government politics, and his personal relationships to his wife and children and to his students, might be a route to understanding what all these moving fin-de-siècle pieces might have to do with each other, how they might add up to a cohesive worldview, and what it has to do with other intellectual-cultural movements in the period, from Decadence to the evangelical Christianity that spurred so much social reform and poor relief. (I’m also personally compelled by the fact that when Symonds moved to Switzerland in 1878, this is precisely the world that he left behind, and seeing it through Sidgwick’s eyes (he and Symonds were good friends as young men, though they later drifted apart) may help me to understand what Symonds was missing and why his worldview may have been shaped more fundamentally than I’ve previously suggested by his expat status.)

We have a tendency to get distracted by larger-than-life personalities, it’s true, and that’s why people like Symonds or Sidgwick can help us to retell stories that have hitherto placed disproportionate emphasis on figures such as Wilde and the Bloomsbury Group. But I’m interested in telling these stories not for the sake of Symonds and Sidgwick, though they are people for whom I feel immense affection. Rather, what motivates my interest in history in meta terms is the perspective it can give us on huge humane things: how we treat each other, how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, how those connections are negotiated through the historically contingent avenues of sex, love—or pedagogy. For the most compelling thing about Sidgwick, to me, was that he was a lifelong teacher with a fierce passion for his vocation and a dedication to making education accessible to more people, whether in a set of lectures on Greek verse composition that attempted to recast the skill as accessible to and learnable by non-public-school audiences, in his successful efforts to remove Greek as an entrance requirement to Oxford, or in his lifelong commitment to women’s education in school, university, and private contexts. This is a model very far from that of the mid-Victorian schoolmasters in the mold of Thomas Arnold who have already received a great deal of historical attention; it allows us to engage in questions of what a university is for and what relation education has to do with social equality that are still extremely current.

I still need to learn what late-nineteenth-century liberalism is, much less what Sidgwick has to do with it, but I am excited to think that he is, after all, a way to ask the biggest questions. Before I hand in my dissertation proposal midway through next term, I will need to do more to nail down the precise primary sources I will need to track down and read in order to develop the sense of Sidgwick’s worldview I was able to develop for Symonds. Unfortunately, Sidgwick doesn’t have Symonds’ voluminous paper trail, but his diaries are of course all in Oxford, and his contributions to the Oxford Magazine and his many textbooks and school editions of classical texts are freely available here as well. Some of his children’s papers are also in Oxford. But I need to determine whether the Apostles thread will be worth a trip to Cambridge, and indeed how far in general I will need to venture outside of Sidgwick’s own life in order to tell this story.

But as I begin to push forward on this I think that my conclusion has to be that focusing your research, and the stories that you tell with it, through the lives of C-List celebrities doesn’t make you a microhistorian. At the end of the day I’m interested in the macro, and still—bright-eyed youth that I am—see my great lifelong research question to be, “What does it mean to connect with others?” But I stand on the shoulders of giants, from Ginzburg and Zemon Davis to, perhaps, Jill Lepore, to my own teachers, who have given me a sharp sense of the relation between micro and macro and an ambitious sense of what it is possible to do with history.

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 (2012-02-10)

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.

Some Brief Thoughts on Love

Between writing the chapter of my thesis on Symonds’ late work, and getting really seriously into E.M. Forster’s novels and essays, and having loads of conversations with my friends who are budding philosophers and psychoanalysts about the meaning of desire and love, I have been thinking a lot about the philosophy and ontology of love, and a lot about the space between loving a person and loving people, and a lot about the space between thinking about love and doing love. I was reminded that love can sometimes be very political—something that, these days, I often forget, despite my thesis topic—when I read a NYT column in which Frank Bruni criticized (as we have done here so many times) the “Born This Way” attitude to gay identity.

Bruni’s column begins with the story of the actress Cynthia Nixon, who has recently caused a storm of controversy by calling her “gayness”—in the form of her decision to, after years of partnership with a man, start a family with a woman—”a choice.” Bruni holds that, rather than thinking that Nixon has hurt the LGBT cause by declining to repeat the “being gay is not a choice” mantra, we ought to see things rather differently:

But while her critics have good reason to worry about how her words will be construed and used, they have no right to demand the kind of silence and conformity from Nixon that gay people have justly rebelled against. She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.

Besides which, there are problems with some gay advocates’ insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath.

By hinging a whole movement on a conclusion that hasn’t been — and perhaps won’t be — scientifically pinpointed and proved beyond all doubt, they hitch it to a moving target. The exact dynamics through which someone winds up gay are “still an open question,” said Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office of the American Psychological Association. “There is substantial evidence of various connections between genes, brain, hormones and sexual identity,” he said. “But those do not amount to a simple picture that A leads to B.”

Bruni goes on to point out that we shouldn’t need to argue that homosexuality is something with which we’re born to argue that it should fall under the rubric of civil liberties. As should come as no surprise, this is nothing new. As I’ve been writing about this week, Symonds knew that trying to probe the medical and psychological reasons why we are the way we are, why we desire what and whom we desire, can be one route to understanding ourselves. That’s why he read widely in the field of sexual science (though wound up dismissing as ill-founded or illogical most of its findings), was interested in the developing field of the study of human consciousness, and collaborated with a doctor, Havelock Ellis, on an academic book about “sexual inversion” that was intended to be equal parts cultural-historical and medical. (Symonds died before the manuscript was completed, and Ellis’ subsequent work shifted it heavily towards the medical side.)

But although Symonds tried to understand sexual science, I don’t think he ever wound up thinking that it had helped him to understand what it is like to love, and especially to love outside the patterns for which one’s particular society has words and rules. Some of the first questions that Symonds asked about desire and love, when he was a teenager, were about how to keep from being controlled by one’s desires, how to translate desire into something good and noble, how to better oneself through loving and being loved. The literature that Symonds used to answer questions like these was catholic, but it was overwhelmingly literary: Plato, Dante, Walt Whitman, and many others. And after a couple years of work on sexual science, he came back to the canon—the last book he ever wrote was a study of Whitman’s poetry.

I think this is because Symonds was above all a humanist, and an ethicist. Though he was curious about how many people in his culture were, like him, homosexual, and about how they got that way, he knew that wouldn’t help him to answer the questions he believed to be most fundamentally human. Knowing definitively whether our desires were determined by our genes or moulded in early childhood or culturally constructed or something we can shape through conscious effort or something else entirely does not help us to understand how to get on in the world once desire and love—for anyone, anything—are things that are part of our life experiences. Having a word like “gay” or “straight” to call ourselves doesn’t really help us to know when it is right to reach out and touch the object of our desires, and when to let well enough alone. Knowing when in our lives we first began to feel the stirrings of desire—and knowing that that slight nausea and tightness in the stomach and quickening of the heart is “desire”—doesn’t help us to translate what we want of others into our willingness to give ourselves to them. And being political about the right to marriage, as noble a cause as that may be, doesn’t help us to be married, or even more generally “companioned” or “partnered”—doesn’t help us to turn our bodily wants into the kind of connection that not only assuages loneliness but leads the soul to sprout wings and take flight.

At the end of his article, Bruni coins a phrase that’s wonderfully admitting of nuance, “moved to love”:

I use the words “moved to love” in an effort to define the significant, important territory between “born this way” and choice. That solid ground covers “built this way,” “oriented this way,” and “evolved this way”; it incorporates the possibility of a potent biological predisposition mingling with other factors beyond anyone’s ready control; and it probably applies to Nixon herself.

We love in the most unpredictable ways. Sometimes we find ourselves loving in ways that our society clearly doesn’t admit, and we write books and wage campaigns to have our love declared an equal inalienable right. But sometimes we merely find ourselves loving in ways that are a little different, or unexpected: the best friends who, without ever having sex, give all of themselves to each other, reminding those of us who study the homoerotic literary tradition that Adhesiveness and “the love of comrades” have always been more than an identity politics; the woman who finds that the shifting genders of her lovers, long past the accepted period of “experimentation,” defies the easy application of a label of sexual orientation; the woman in her early twenties who feels at the same time as if she could be fifteen or thirty-five, and who against all her expectations finds herself on the eve of her last undergraduate term feeling a desire for connection that she never dreamed she’d feel, and who turns to men who write about impossible love for other people in other times and places to explain it.

These are understandings of the muddles and fallibilities of love and the humans who are moved to it that transcend any kind of identity politics or label or taxonomic, empirical explanation. As Symonds knew 120 years ago, human feeling is a many-splendored thing that must be understood as such, not crammed into any kind of rubric. Our only duty is to ensure that this powerful force is to be used responsibly and well, purposed to the highest good of making the world better and brighter, and that the communities we build allow for this to be a central and noble endeavor.

A Year in Review: Lessons Learned and Things to Be Done; or, On What Matters

This has been a year of comings and goings. I ended 2010 with a post on that theme, suggesting that I had it All Figured Out: that the university qua idea was my home, that I was at ease with myself and my place in the world, that I was psychologically prepared to spend the majority of the coming calendar year living abroad alone.

Of course, things were a bit trickier than that. I filled the pages of this blog quite a bit over the coming year, and particularly those parts that I spent in the UK. All year, as I travelled from British Columbia to Princeton, from Princeton to Oxford, from Oxford to Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, London, Bristol, and back again, from Oxford to Princeton and New York and Rhode Island and southern California and back to Princeton and finally back to the sun-drenched kitchen table with a view of the San Juan Islands where I wrote last year that I was done searching—well, dear reader, I searched. I searched for myself, I searched for others, I searched for places to live and people to love, I searched for goodness and for emptinesses and ways to fill them. I got some answers, then found I had still more questions.

Sitting again at the kitchen table with the Christmas tablecloth, catching up on the Radio 3 Christmas programming, rejoicing that the sun is out and warming the house for the first time in a week, I find myself facing a year of more comings and goings. On the fifth of June I am finally going to have my long-dreamt-of bachelor’s degree, and the university and town where I have lived for much of the past three and a half years isn’t going to be my home anymore. Yesterday, I was researching flights and looking at a map of Europe and dreaming very big indeed about the new places I want to see this summer. In October I will cross the Atlantic again, I will come back to the city of dreaming spires, I will spend a day parading around in subfusc and just like that I’ll be a member of a university again.

But it will be so different from the last time: my eyes won’t widen in alarm at all the trappings of Oxford pomp and circumstance—in part because I’ve seen it all before, but in part because I will be a grad student, an adult, who lives in a flat and cycles into town every day to go to work in the Upper Reading Room. And what, I have to ask, does this mean for comings and goings, for people and places, for my presently long-distance relationship with the city of Oxford, my first love? What does this mean for loving? What does this mean for connecting?

I first heard E.M. Forster’s name seriously mentioned over a year ago. Of course, I’d heard it before; of course, me being me, most of what I knew about him was that he was gay, or something like it. But I didn’t think that he was someone I ought to read until, in September 2010 or thereabouts, a friend whose literary acumen I highly esteem happened to say that reading Forster in high school had determined him to study literature. This remark had a strong impression on me, and it percolated in the back of my mind until one morning towards the end of last Trinity term when I woke up with a strong desire to Get Into Forster right then and there. I dashed out of college and down Broad Street and into Blackwells and up the stairs to the secondhand department; I bought Howards End, Maurice, and Wendy Moffat’s new Forster biography, which another literary friend had suggested I would enjoy. I came home, I put the books on my shelf, and then I went back to Symonds, and the moment passed. I read the Moffat biography in Paris, and found it very interesting. I read Maurice in London, saw Symonds’ ideas in it, and thought it would be quite useful to the reception chapter of my thesis. But Howards End languished in a suitcase in Oxford, and then it languished on my overflowing bookshelves in Princeton. And then a few weeks ago it was midnight in the room of another friend whose literary acumen I esteem, and we were both trying very hard indeed not to do our schoolwork. He read aloud to me from Howards End and A Room With a View, and I saw what all the fuss was about. As soon as I’d discharged my obligations to my graduate seminar in the history of sexuality and my survey of modern British history and my art history seminar on natural history in America and that literary theory class I decided to audit for some reason, I opened the cover of that Penguin paperback with the Blackwell’s pricetag still on it: One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

It took me two days to read the book, out here in semi-annual Canadian exile. Very near to the end, there is this exchange between Helen and her sister, Margaret:

“… There’s something wanting in me. I see you loving Henry, and understanding him better daily, and I know that death wouldn’t part you in the least. But I—Is it some awful appalling, criminal defect?”
    Margaret silenced her. She said: “It is only that people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be. And others—others go farther still, and move outside humanity altogether. A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow. Don’t you see that all this leads to comfort in the end? It is part of the battle against sameness. Differences—eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.

The Penguin paperback is now dog-eared and pencilled beyond all recognition, but of all the monologues where Forster’s own ideas about love and connection burst through the narrative, this is my favorite. I think it speaks better to the more quotidian questions we might have about how to get on in our oh-so-human lives than does the earlier, perhaps more famous, “Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer” bit. I think it has something special to say about the fact that what we may regard as a failure in ourselves—inability to love sufficiently—may simply be evidence that we love differently. And I like that it acknowledges—as Forster does in Howards End several times—that “A place, as well as a person, may catch the glow.”

Because, you see, this year I feel as if I’ve fallen in love with everything but people. I fell in love with Oxford, which I hope I’ll always hold dear as my first love: the only passionate amour I’ve had that I felt was alive, was reciprocated, in terms equal to my own. I fell in love with the idea, or perhaps the ideas, of love: with ἀγάπη and ἔρως, with the universalist commandment to love thy neighbor and with what Plato says happens when one beholds one’s particular beloved: one’s soul “is moistened and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy.” I fell in love with the idea of the salvific, grace-giving force of humanity. I fell in love with the idea that only connecting will help us through our muddles and heal the wounds of our messed-up world.

By the time I read Howards End last week I felt as if I knew this—I’d been working toward it all year. It was there in what I thought about Symonds and in what he thought about l’amour de l’impossible. (For, after all, I have written more words about Symonds this year than I have ever written about anything in my life, and the love—for a rather small and unimportant man who has been dead over a hundred years—that it requires to sustain a project of this length and type is great indeed.) It was there when I thought about how we all make our own cultural compasses, and how so often what teaches we lonely dorky kids to love is the books that tell us that we’re not alone. It was there when I thought about the meaning of theology, of grace, of taking love on faith.

I know that my discovery of Christianity as a discourse that makes sense to me has unnerved, disturbed, and troubled some of my readers. But in a funny way it’s what really made Howards End the apotheosis of this Year in Emily’s Ideas. Christianity is a system of religious devotion that people have created to help them to access the universe’s great mysteries, and the beautiful words of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are therefore a part of the “religion of humanity,” of all that is good in our world where people live—where, since we can’t answer the most fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and its first causes and why what is good is good, we’ve just got to get on with loving each other, since each other and the things we can create are all we have. Sometime between Episcopalian Lessons and Carols in the last week of term and Christmas Day, I was much impressed by this excerpt from a post UMass-Amherst philosophy professor Louise Antony wrote on the NY Times’ “Stone” blog:

Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you.  I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.

Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant.  I think just the opposite — they would become surpassingly important.

If the Earth is our world and it is all we have, it is our responsibility to do all the loving, all the forgiving, all the good works, all the bettering. We’ve got to make the most of our time in it, no matter what we might or mightn’t think will happen to us when we die. We’ve got to make sure that every day, we wake up sure in the knowledge that today we will get better, we will be better, we will do better, we will treat others better. I thought a lot this year about bettering, about how we treat others, about how we behave amongst others. Now, having the Forsterian language at my disposal, I might say that a prerequisite for connecting is sociability—by which I mean keeping yourself open to meeting others and learning from them and being willing to teach if there is something they can learn from you. I mean seeing the attempt to make connections as a good in itself, I mean setting up institutional structures so that this kind of connecting can take place, and I mean valuing conversations that mean something and get somewhere. I noted this year that, for all its faults, Oxford is very good at doing this, and I noted that Princeton is rather less so, but that it’s worth working to make Princeton better.

It is universities where I live; unsurprisingly, I have a keen interest in university policy. I take a great deal of pleasure in asking, what does my university life have to do with sociability? How can we build a wider world where it is Good to come round for a cup of tea? Let a thousand flowers bloom, of course, but in my life it’s the humanities that help me to connect, to find in me that which is universally human and therefore that which I owe to others and to myself. I’m thinking about a really lovely article that Mary Beard wrote in the last issue of the New York Review of Books, which talks about how the study of the classics helps us to understand “the gap between antiquity and ourselves,” and how it also occasions “a due sense of wonderment” at the copious quantities of “human documents” (Symonds) that survive to sing, O Muse, of the ideas people thought and the feelings that they felt two millenia ago. I thought a lot this year about what being a humanist has taught me about these themes of continuity and change, and I thought a lot about how we can demonstrate that “a due sense of wonderment” and the self-knowledge that, I hope, ensues are goods without slipping into the realm of another discourse, like that of political economy. To get there, I had to work through modes of apology and of hysteria. But I ended the year rather at Mary Beard’s position: that not everyone needs to be a humanist, but that we do as humans need to believe that some people should be. That sublimity is something that we’re capable of as humans, and that beauty is something we can all seek, study, and share. That beauty is Homer and Shakespeare and the Bhagavad Gita, and beauty is young adults sitting up all night talking because they are young enough to think so much and feel so much and love so much.

This is an optimistic note on which to end my twenty-second year. But where do we go from here? This year, I learned to value love, and to love the idea of people, to love humanity. But how, now, do I love persons? How do I love myself? If I have discovered the secret of loving humanity, why do I feel lonely so often, experience so many dark nights of the soul? Well, perhaps I haven’t really discovered anything; after all, I’m still so very young and naïve and inexperienced of the world. And perhaps dark nights of the soul are as much a piece of humanity as sublimity is, the price we pay for the moments of ecstasy that sit alongside them in the panoply of things we feel that make us certain we are alive. But I have to keep wondering whither this state of mind will lead, in 2012. I can’t help but think that if I were truly one of Forster’s people who “catch the glow” from a place rather than a person, I wouldn’t feel the void of people-loving so much in my soul. Will going back to the city that I love keep me from learning to love people, too? I think about how Matthew Arnold figures Oxford as an alluring woman in the preface to Essays in Criticism:

And yet, steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age, who will deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us nearer to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection,—to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side?—nearer, perhaps, than all the science of Tubingen. Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic! who hast given thyself so prodigally, given thyself to sides and to heroes not mine, only never to the Philistines! home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties! what example could ever so inspire us to keep down the Philistine in ourselves, what teacher could ever so save us from that bondage to which we are all prone, that bondage which Goethe, in those incomparable lines on the death of Schiller, makes it his friend’s highest praise (and nobly did Schiller deserve the praise) to have left miles out of sight behind him;— the bondage of ‘was uns alle bandigt, Das Gemeine’! She will forgive me, even if I have unwittingly drawn upon her a shot or two aimed at her unworthy son; for she is generous, and the cause in which I fight is, after all, hers. Apparitions of a day, what is our puny warfare against the Philistines, compared with the warfare which this queen of romance has been waging against them for centuries, and will wage after we are gone?

You could hardly fail to fall in love with a city like this. Which means that sublimation can, at times, be just a little too successful.

Yet, even in Oxford, it is possible to connect. Perhaps, for those of us who find connecting rather hard, it may be possible to do so more successfully in the “home of lost causes” than anywhere else. The September 5 issue of the New Yorker included Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent profile of the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, who recently wrote an enormous ethics tome called On What Matters. I don’t have a subscription to the magazine, and so can’t access the article anymore, but I remember that amidst explanations of Parfit’s ideas about ethics was the moving story of how this shy, almost reclusive man, a quintessential bachelor don who lived in his rooms in All Souls, recently met a woman philosopher and moved into a little Oxford terraced house with her. They married, I think, just for tax reasons, but the important point is that they made a life together and made each other less alone. I think that story is what I’m going to take with me most this year, as the message for this year ending and the one to come. It tells me that there is hope yet for connection—even when the causes seem most lost, even when the beliefs seem most forsaken—and that love and bettering and goodness and connection come in many forms, and are furthered by many kinds of people.

QOTD (2011-12-16)

Henry James wrote “The Author of Beltraffio,” about an “aesthetic” writer and his wife and child, after Edmund Gosse told him about the strange and rather ambivalent relationship Gosse’s friend J.A. Symonds had with his (Symonds’) wife. James only ever met Symonds once, briefly (though after Symonds’ death James regretted never having got to know him); what is incredible is that, only on Gosse’s hearsay, James constructed this knowing portrait of Symonds’ intellect and work:

On that high head of the passion for form—the attempt at perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the holy grail—he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things. He mixed with them a thousand illustrations from his own life, from other lives he had known, from history and fiction, and above all from the annals of the time that was dear to him beyond all periods, the Italian cinquecento. It came to me thus that in his books he had uttered but half his thought, and that what he had kept back—from motives I deplored when I made them out later—was the finer, and braver part. It was his fate to make a great many still more ‘prepared’ people than me not inconsiderably wince; but there was no grain of bravado in his ripest things (I’ve always maintained it, though often contradicted), and at bottom the poor fellow, disinterested to his finger-tips and regarding imperfection not only as an aesthetic but quite also as a social crime, had an extreme dread of scandal. There are critics who regret that having gone so far he didn’t go further; but I regret nothing—putting aside two or three of the motives I just mentioned—since he arrived at a noble rarity and I don’t see how you can go beyond that.