QOTD (2013-05-01) 1 May 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, QOTD.
add a comment
Forster, The Longest Journey:
“The cow is there,” said Ansell, lighting a match and holding it out over the carpet. No one spoke. He waited till the end of the match fell off. Then he said again, “She is there, the cow. There, now.”
“You have not proved it,” said a voice.
“I have proved it to myself.”
“I have proved to myself that she isn’t,” said the voice. “The cow is not there.” Ansell frowned and lit another match.
“She’s there for me,” he declared. “I don’t care whether she’s there for you or not. Whether I’m in Cambridge or Iceland or dead, the cow will be there.”
It was philosophy. They were discussing the existence of objects. Do they exist only when there is some one to look at them? Or have they a real existence of their own? It is all very interesting, but at the same time it is difficult. Hence the cow. She seemed to make things easier. She was so familiar, so solid, that surely the truths that she illustrated would in time become familiar and solid also. Is the cow there or not? This was better than deciding between objectivity and subjectivity. So at Oxford, just at the same time, one was asking, “What do our rooms look like in the vac.?”
“Look here, Ansell. I’m there—in the meadow—the cow’s there. You’re there—the cow’s there. Do you agree so far?” “Well?”
“Well, if you go, the cow stops; but if I go, the cow goes. Then what will happen if you stop and I go?”
Several voices cried out that this was quibbling.
“I know it is,” said the speaker brightly, and silence descended again, while they tried honestly to think the matter out.
Rickie, on whose carpet the matches were being dropped, did not like to join in the discussion. It was too difficult for him. He could not even quibble. If he spoke, he should simply make himself a fool. He preferred to listen, and to watch the tobacco-smoke stealing out past the window-seat into the tranquil October air. He could see the court too, and the college cat teasing the college tortoise, and the kitchen-men with supper-trays upon their heads. Hot food for one—that must be for the geographical don, who never came in for Hall; cold food for three, apparently at half-a-crown a head, for some one he did not know; hot food, a la carte—obviously for the ladies haunting the next staircase; cold food for two, at two shillings—going to Ansell’s rooms for himself and Ansell, and as it passed under the lamp he saw that it was meringues again. Then the bedmakers began to arrive, chatting to each other pleasantly, and he could hear Ansell’s bedmaker say, “Oh dang!” when she found she had to lay Ansell’s tablecloth; for there was not a breath stirring. The great elms were motionless, and seemed still in the glory of midsummer, for the darkness hid the yellow blotches on their leaves, and their outlines were still rounded against the tender sky. Those elms were Dryads—so Rickie believed or pretended, and the line between the two is subtler than we admit. At all events they were lady trees, and had for generations fooled the college statutes by their residence in the haunts of youth.
But what about the cow? He returned to her with a start, for this would never do. He also would try to think the matter out. Was she there or not? The cow. There or not. He strained his eyes into the night.
Either way it was attractive. If she was there, other cows were there too. The darkness of Europe was dotted with them, and in the far East their flanks were shining in the rising sun. Great herds of them stood browsing in pastures where no man came nor need ever come, or plashed knee-deep by the brink of impassable rivers. And this, moreover, was the view of Ansell. Yet Tilliard’s view had a good deal in it. One might do worse than follow Tilliard, and suppose the cow not to be there unless oneself was there to see her. A cowless world, then, stretched round him on every side. Yet he had only to peep into a field, and, click! it would at once become radiant with bovine life.
Suddenly he realized that this, again, would never do. As usual, he had missed the whole point, and was overlaying philosophy with gross and senseless details. For if the cow was not there, the world and the fields were not there either. And what would Ansell care about sunlit flanks or impassable streams? Rickie rebuked his own groveling soul, and turned his eyes away from the night, which had led him to such absurd conclusions.
The fire was dancing, and the shadow of Ansell, who stood close up to it, seemed to dominate the little room. He was still talking, or rather jerking, and he was still lighting matches and dropping their ends upon the carpet. Now and then he would make a motion with his feet as if he were running quickly backward upstairs, and would tread on the edge of the fender, so that the fire-irons went flying and the buttered-bun dishes crashed against each other in the hearth. The other philosophers were crouched in odd shapes on the sofa and table and chairs, and one, who was a little bored, had crawled to the piano and was timidly trying the Prelude to Rhinegold with his knee upon the soft pedal. The air was heavy with good tobacco-smoke and the pleasant warmth of tea, and as Rickie became more sleepy the events of the day seemed to float one by one before his acquiescent eyes. In the morning he had read Theocritus, whom he believed to be the greatest of Greek poets; he had lunched with a merry don and had tasted Zwieback biscuits; then he had walked with people he liked, and had walked just long enough; and now his room was full of other people whom he liked, and when they left he would go and have supper with Ansell, whom he liked as well as any one. A year ago he had known none of these joys. He had crept cold and friendless and ignorant out of a great public school, preparing for a silent and solitary journey, and praying as a highest favour that he might be left alone. Cambridge had not answered his prayer. She had taken and soothed him, and warmed him, and had laughed at him a little, saying that he must not be so tragic yet awhile, for his boyhood had been but a dusty corridor that led to the spacious halls of youth. In one year he had made many friends and learnt much, and he might learn even more if he could but concentrate his attention on that cow.
QOTD (2013-04-15); or, Oxoniana 15 April 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Nerdiness, Oxford, QOTD.
add a comment
Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):
THE JUMPING FROG.
It has been mentioned above that a curious question has arisen about this famous tale; and as I have been unwillingly mixed up in it, I have been asked to put down a plain statement of the matter as far as it has gone.
It appears that in 1865 Mark Twain heard this story from a Californian gold-miner who had witnessed the incident in 1849. How the tale was given by Mark to a paper—how the paper perished immediately afterwards—how fatal the Frog was to all who undertook to tell of it—Mark Twain sorrowfully informs us in the North American Review for last April. The story finally was translated into French; and that the Revue de Deux Mondes (in which it appeared) still continues to drag on a precarious existence, can only be accounted for (says M.T.) by the badness of the translation.
Anyhow, the story was included in Mark Twain’s works about twenty-five years ago; and when I was collecting simple tales for Greek prose exercises in the year 1876, I borrowed this tale, aong others, for the purpose. A Greek version of the same was printed in the ‘Teacher’s Key’ to the work.
Last year, however, a certain Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, told M.T. that his story was not new, but was related by a Greek writer at least two thousand years ago: that he, Van Dyke, had seen both the original and a translation thereof, and offered to send him either. M.T. preferred the translation, because ‘Greek makes him tired.’ Accordingly he received from the Professor—a copy of the exercise in my Greek Prose Composition!
Hereupon M.T. writes his article for the North American Review, musing sadly on the hollowness of all earthly things, and especially on the impossibility of getting hold of a story which has not been told before. He sorrowfully compares the stories point by point, and gloomily admits that they are the same.
The English newspapers—it is the slack season at the end of the Easter Vac. [yes, it is—ER.]—follow suit, and most of them accept M.T.’s view, commenting (in the tone of weary anthropologists) on the oldness of everything. But the Daily Chronicle, in an amusing leader, suggests that the professor has been playing it very low down on his friend; and indicates the true character of the Greek original.
At that point it became my duty to intervene. I wrote to the D.C., confirming their divination about the Greek original, confessing my gross plagiarism, and protesting against the high antiquity attributed to me. When one is getting on in years, one grows testy about the question of age, and objects to being thought older than one is, even if it be only a trifling difference of 1946 years.
The points still to be cleared up may be put briefly in the form of questions, as follows:—
(a) Is the Professor a real person, or did M.T. invent him?
(b) If he is real,
1. Did he take M.T. in?
2. Was he himself deluded?
3. Did he and M.T. make up the jest together?
If (b 1) or (b 2) is the truth, the next move is M.T.’s.
Update: A Facebook correspondent has pointed out that there is a certain consonance between this and a riveting academic detective story in this week’s TLS, to which I commend my readers’ attention.
Microhistory? or, Steps Towards a Thesis Proposal 6 April 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Oxford, Thesis.
add a comment
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.
Resurrection 3 April 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford.
Yesterday, I had a powerful sense of getting better.
Here in Britain this year, the moveable feasts of Easter Sunday and the changing of the clocks coincided, and just as Christians are singing their alleluias for Eastertide, so are we pagans for whom the New Testament is one great redeeming story among many hailing British Summer Time, The Giver of Light. The change, coinciding happily with good weather, has been a marked one, enough to make new life stir within one’s soul.
Yesterday it was a friend’s birthday and a beautiful cloudless day, and the sun called to us through the windows of the café where we convened for tea in her honor, and then chased us through Christ Church Meadow and up along the High Street and Longwall Street on our way to Holywell Cemetery, where we spent a happy hour calling to each other amongst the graves. “Here’s a President of Corpus!” “Here’s the Bishop of Mombasa!” “Here’s Maurice Bowra! “Here’s Grenfell of Oxyrhynchus fame!” (My friends are a rarefied bunch.) The sun still shone golden upon the yellow stones of Magdalen as we made our way back across the bridge and home. Shortly thereafter, I convened with three others to cook dinner together, and as the sun finally set behind the playing fields and Boar’s Hill, we made soup and pasta and sat down for a long leisurely meal, drinking and laughing. It was a taste of summer, and perhaps of normal, well-adjusted adulthood: two men and two women in their mid-twenties hanging out, none of us talking about dissertation topics or how there are no jobs.
Meanwhile life goes on, and today I returned to the library, but the sense of feeling whole and alive that I gathered in yesterday’s sunlight remained with me. This time exactly one year ago the sun was shining in Princeton, too, but I sat dumbly staring into space in a depressive, gin-driven stupor, unbelieving that life could go on innocently all around me when my thesis had been ceded, finally, to the History Department. It was the most alcohol I’ve ever drunk, but I remember that day more clearly than many of the other occasions on which I’ve overindulged, remember the despair that came from watching the world continue as if nothing had happened and not knowing what I would do next.
In some ways I’ve felt as if the last year has been a slow recovery from that single moment of bewildered sadness. It’s been a year of breaking with old patterns and re-establishing new ones, looking in all kinds of new places for happiness and only finding it when I didn’t expect to, and most of all yearning to rekindle in my heart the burning love that made it possible for me to hand that thesis in. I still wonder nearly every day if that was my one great passion, the only time I will ever burn with a hard, gem-like flame, if after this it’s just going through the motions. They say that nothing is ever quite like the glukúpikron torture of your first love.
But last night at the end of the sun-kissed day I felt sleepy and warm and safe, and today in the library I felt as if I might be able to find in me some of the old enthusiasm again. Today was not so exceptional, but for that it still felt very much like old times, like the days I spent in the library during my first spring in Oxford when I started to learn how to love. To round off the day I went to evensong, as I did so often during that first Easter vacation. The resurrection brings with it hope, the priest said; and I’ve no doubt that if I ventured to tell her why this mattered, she’d have raised her eyebrows and said “ah” dubiously in the way that Anglican priests so often do when I venture to discuss theology with them. But afterwards I crossed a golden-stoned Tom Quad still bathed in sunshine, and was so very happy that just as color returns to the world and lambs are born and liturgies are said and some people dream of the messiahs to come, I am learning how to live and to love again and always.
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him. (Hopkins)
Progress Report; or, Some Thoughts Delivered in the Vague Direction of Michael Gove 28 February 2013Posted by Emily in Academia, Blog, Cultural Criticism, Oxford.
add a comment
When I do outreach workshops with teenagers, trying to get them excited about coming to university (and maybe even studying history!) I make myself out to be a bit like Indiana Jones. To the 15-year-olds from inner-city London or rural North Wales who come to visit Oxford on a programme that seeks to demystify the supposedly (or maybe actually) posh university and give them the same sort of university-application resources that students from independent schools get, I’m an eccentric, renegade American on an adventure who dives headfirst into archives and comes up for air ready to wave manuscripts in their faces and lecture them about Victorian women’s menstrual cycles. This is, naturally, exactly the sort of persona one wants to cultivate in stints as a schoolteacher, but it sure obscures the dull reality of the days spent in the library trying day after day to pull together the motivation to write master’s essays on the history of political thought (“this needs to be less about sex and more about political theory,” my supervisor said upon reading a draft), all the while thinking to myself that at least if I stay in Britain for my doctorate, I’ll never have to write another term paper. It’s been a long term.
But it’s nearly over, it’s staying light ever later, and doing these outreach sessions helps to remind me of the big picture of what the hell I’m doing here aside from what seems like just another year of term papers. After all, my funding is grounded in the idea of furthering mutual understanding between Britons and Americans, and I received that funding, I presume, in part because I spent 25 minutes in a conference room in Los Angeles telling a panel of interviewers how much I believed in universities and cared about what’s happening these days in the politics surrounding British education at the secondary and higher levels. Happily, this happens to be true, and actually having the opportunity to talk regularly with ordinary schoolkids—the ones I work with come specifically from schools who do not have a history of sending students to Russell Group universities—is an extremely effective way of putting what the newspapers have to say about British education, and the changes it has undergone since the ascent of the coalition government and Education Secretary Michael Gove, into perspective.
This became particularly apparent to me today. My lesson is centered on a handout including some excerpts from a primary source I’m particularly interested in at the moment, the diaries/daybooks of a Victorian classicist called Arthur Sidgwick. Sidgwick faithfully records everything—and I mean everything—that happens to him in his daily life, but the part that I’m most focused on—and that I discuss with the kids—is the story of his courtship, engagement, marriage and children. We look (or try to look) at the way he discusses getting to know and falling in love with his wife (after the first session, I ditched the section where he falls in love with a student—call me a whitewasher of the queer experience in history if you like, but that was just too complicated to take on in an hour with school groups), and what that can or can’t tell us about love, desire, and relationships in Britain c. 1850-1914. I make clear to the kids that this is my actual research question at the moment, that I don’t know the answers to the questions I’m asking them, and just see what happens and hope that it gets them excited.
When it doesn’t, however (like today), I veer off into more general conversation. Today, mindful of Michael Gove’s proposal to re-orient history education around narrative, I asked them what they thought about the fact that their history education has been entirely in isolated, thematic chunks (for instance, as one girl said she was doing this year, the American West and the history of medicine). To a student, they said they couldn’t imagine that a chronological approach would seem as fun or as accessible—they looked very bored indeed when I said that I had done all of American history from the Pilgrims to the present three times over in school! One boy said he felt that the anti-chronological approach had led him to make unexpected connections across different time periods, and that narrative would give you set answers about how one thing led to another and not allow you to draw your own conclusions. It was an interesting statement, and one that if I were a more experienced teacher I might have picked up and run with: what about things that are actually different in the past, not the same? Isn’t it important to know how different social or cultural contexts came about, and to assess whether change over the time is the same thing as progress or regress over time? Admittedly, these weren’t concepts that I truly started to grapple with until I started taking history classes in college, but the reason that my college classes—particularly those in American history—got me so excited was because they upended my preconceived, progressive narrative of American history. Getting that narrative drilled into me from a young age gave me a base of general knowledge that my college teachers were able to query and fill in, particularly about complicated topics such as gender, race and sexuality that often defy our attempts to make them into progressive narratives.
Anyway. Wary of digressing like that in my class, I returned the discussion back to Sidgwick’s diaries. A girl asked if Sidgwick’s obsessive recording of the minute details of his life was typical or representative, and by way of comparison I brought up the diaries of the prime minister W.E. Gladstone. Not one of my twenty students had ever heard of him at all. While I was explaining him and comparing his diaries to Sidgwick’s, I tried to figure out of this was worrisome or even remarkable. How many US Civil War-era politicians could I name, for instance? Certainly not as many as I could abolitionists, which is no doubt a result of historians’ and history teachers’ increasing acknowledgement over the past decades that history is made as much by people outside the corridors of power as within them. A central criticism of the new National Curriculum for history has been that it restores focus to dead white men that had been removed by a Labour curriculum that sought to emphasize the everyday experiences of ordinary people, and the contributions of minority and women figures to history. Gladstone and Disraeli get their own bullet point, however, in the new curriculum, and while I do hope that means that a new generation of schoolchildren will have the opportunity to titter at Gladstone’s “reform” of prostitutes, I still don’t know whether I think that matters. After all, just like David Cameron and Ed Milliband, Gladstone went to Oxford; like Nick Clegg, Arthur Sidgwick went to Cambridge. What it says about modern Britain that twenty kids from “nontraditional” university backgrounds have come up to Oxford for an open day attempting to demystify elite universities and encourage them to apply, only to sit in a fancy classroom in a sixteenth-century college and have an American grad student teach them their own country’s fairly recent history, menstrual cycles and all, is a question far above my pay grade, but it’s certainly one that I feel duty-bound to keep thinking about.
Either that, or it’s just that it beats writing about utilitarianism.
QOTD (2013-02-10); or, Halfway Hall 10 February 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford, QOTD.
1 comment so far
Rowan Williams, in a lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University last September, excerpts of which were read as part of the Oxford Corporate Collegiate Service at the University Church tonight:
What then is a university for?
I want to argue that universities historically have existed not simply for the pursuit of learning, but for the pursuit of intelligent citizenship…. The point of a university in this sense is, I would say, very clearly and very significantly to promote intelligence in public discourse…. But I do believe that public discourse requires critical edge. It requries the ability to weigh different perspectives, and the ability to argue in public. In the Middle Ages and in many other contexts, part of the significant purpose of university education was to equip you in what used to be called rhetoric—the ability to mount a good argument in public, and the ability to know what the difference was between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant, arguments. Pick up any one of the public media organs,… listen to any number of public speeches, and you’ll see that the capacity to distinguish between good and bad, relevant and irrelevant arguments is not a capacity in huge supply, and it is very important that somebody should be there to take responsibility in furthering it…. A university is part of the equipment of a healthy, self-critical society, because it trains the intelligence. It trains the intelligence in argument and honesty. It trains people in the capacity to engage with honesty and intelligence in public debate. But for that, it needs a view of what intelligence is about. And the Christian tradition offers a robust and very resourceful account of what intelligence is all about, relating it to the divine image, to love, to the overcoming of fragmentation, the fulfilment and reconciliation of people, the liberation of mind and heart. The point of a university is to foster the honesty of public discourse, and to do so by taking seriously a whole range of intense and, yes, specialised research activities…. When Cardinal Newman in the 19th century wrote his celebrated essay on ‘The Idea of a University’, he did so not simply out of a narrowly or an abstractly theological set of concerns, but out of a set of experiences of the intellectual life which had their heart and their impulse in one particular Anglican university of his day. The University of Oxford at the beginning of the 19th century was in many ways an extremely hierarchical inflexible and rather dull place. But there were one or two settings within that university where this capacity to ask fundamental questions of each other, this expectation of intelligent public discourse as the result of university education, were a reality.
And so it is of the University of Oxford in our day. In the service, this was followed by the organ suddenly swelling and the massed choirs of seven colleges leaping to our feet to sing “Jerusalem,” as the University proctors and bedels in all their regalia escorted the preacher of the University Sermon to the pulpit. I couldn’t help but beam, and sing fortissimo. There are plenty of people I know who have dedicated their lives to universities and university teaching who would find this expression of academic identity alienating, if not outright b.s. Which is fine; it doesn’t have to work for everyone. But just as going to evensong reminds me that there’s more in the world than profit and publish or perish, wearing an academic gown and performing university ceremonies reminds me that there are larger truths and ethical obligations to which we pledge ourselves when we make our lives inside ivory towers. And being so reminded gives me the strength to keep going.
It’s Sunday of fifth week of Hilary Term: halfway through the first year. And still, always, my first love is lost causes and impossible loyalties.
On January 13 January 2013Posted by Emily in Blog, Personal Life.
1 comment so far
I must be suffering from seasonal affective disorder. So seem to assume most of the supportive friends who have counselled me through the last gruelling, demoralizing week, encouraging me to invest in a sun-lamp and assuring me that before too long the days will get longer and the daffodils will bloom. It’s true that a burst of sunshine this morning made the ninth insomniac night in a row a little less abjectly miserable; it’s true that my soul always stirs to life with the coming of the green. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling that there’s a greater gulf than a sun-lamp separating me from happiness and health.
Facebook informs me that it’s reading period in Princeton, a time when there was snow on the ground and no classes to distract from reading and writing in the library or to tear me away from long lunches and dinners, a time that even in thesis year I remember fondly. A year ago, I was starting the third chapter of my thesis at my desk in the History Graduate Study Room, struggling to find the right words to describe clearly the ways in which Symonds’ writing about sexuality is representative of a particular 19th-century epistemological moment that combined affective reading of texts with data-driven scientific empiricism (think Freud). Throughout the winter months, my advisor sent me comments on my attempts, and I only slowly came to grasp the connections he was helping me to make between the different disciplines and interpretive methods with which Symonds engaged, and what they had to do with a wider historical context. This winter, my main extracurricular project has been to turn all that thinking into a real, grown-up article, and today as I sift through my supervisor’s comments on a draft I think back to doing exactly the same thing a year ago: formatting in brackets and all-caps my comments on sections I need to revise; placing at the top of the document in italics my supervisor’s general comments about how to make the thrust of my argument clearer. It reminds me—once more—of the gulf that separates this life from undergrad. I feel immeasurably older, now—and certainly more tired. I feel world-weary; I feel as if I’m spinning my wheels; I feel as if it should not be taking this long to rewrite and rewrite the same sentences about Victorian epistemologies.
I consciously try to give this blog a very Whiggish, it-gets-better thrust: in part because everything I’ve learned since I up and moved thousands of miles away for undergrad has made more things seem possible, make me seem better and more human, helped me to understand what I need to do to lead a good life; and in part because I hope that writing about leaving home and finding new homes in far-flung places can be of some use to folks in earlier stages of their lives who don’t know that such things are possible, or how to go about summoning the courage and the self-confidence to make them possible. Dear reader, it does get better, I do believe it does, and has—but sometimes it is January and life is a pit out of which you’re scrabbling to drag yourself, clutching haplessly at dusty clods of earth that just fall from the sides of the pit instead of providing you with a handhold. The moral lesson here (because there is always a moral lesson!) is that January does come once a year. It’s inevitable, and it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed; all the self-care and hard work in the world can’t prevent January coming. But thanks to, y’know, Persephone, or someone, soon it will be March, and the daffodils will bloom. And she also gives us—as she has today—one morning of sunlight out of a week of grey, to remind us that someday our hibernating souls will come alive again.
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.
2012 in Review; or, The Year I Read Forster 29 December 2012Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford, Personal Life, Princeton.
It is an annual tradition, dear reader, that I use this space to take stock in the last days of the year of everything that I’ve learned and thought and read since the last annual post. This one needs to take in perhaps the most momentous year since the blog began, nearly four years ago. I know I say that every year, but: 2012 was the year that I worked night and day, in my big sunlit bedroom on Holder quad or at my desk in the History Graduate Study Room three floors underground, on a labor of love that I called “John Addington Symonds: Humanism, Love, and Sexual Identity in Victorian Britain.” 2012 was the year that, one fine day in May, I left the college dining hall after lunch, gingerly walked the brown paper bag with the two copies of that thesis over to the history department, took my congratulatory chocolate-chip cookie to my afternoon seminar, went home afterwards, drank an enormous quantity of gin, then promptly fell into a postpartum depression that lasted for months. 2012 was the year that saw my biggest fight yet with a university for which I’d come to feel great affection, at which my time nevertheless finished in a whirlwind of ceremonies, receptions, and dinners in which I felt humbled by people I highly esteemed telling me that I’d accomplished things worth accomplishing in my time there. 2012 was the year that the rain stopped just in time on a Tuesday morning, the bells of Nassau Hall tolled, I put on a gown and a hood and a mortarboard, a brass band from Philadelphia incongruously played Last Night of the Proms music, Shirley Tilghman told thousands of graduates that the liberal arts matter for their own sake, I cried three times, and I headed off to brunch a bachelor of arts. 2012 was the year that I spent a month wandering the streets of Paris, living with one of my best friends, never getting started on the Symonds article I’d set myself to write, and then going to the French seaside to read Greek for hours on end at an English tea shop or on the promenade or in a crumbling fin-de-siècle railway hotel. It was also the year that I spent a week riding buses around the Peloponnese, climbing mountains at midday in hundred-degree heat to look at the archaeological sites at the top; and that I then passed two weeks in a garden on the Gulf of Corinth, surrounded by ancient-Greek speakers and other eccentrics, eating fruit and crepes, reading Homer for the first time and Plato for the second, and becoming progressively more depressed. 2012 was the year that I criss-crossed from Greece to the Gulf Islands, down to San Diego and then via New York and Washington back to England again, and then one day the sun came out in the Upper Reading Room, I was reading Anne Carson, and I felt the cloud of depression lift its weight off my shoulders. Since then, some days have been better than others, and the Symonds article still isn’t finished, but 2012 was the year that I ended singing carol services and observing Advent, determined to do what I could to keep candles lit against the darkness.
More importantly, 2012 was also the year that I read Forster.
In last year’s annual post, I wrote that I’d read Howards End because a boy told me to. Funnily enough, I then went on to spill hundreds of words saying that Howards End meant something to me because in 2011 I’d learned to love Oxford, humanity, and the worldly goodness and gentleness and ordinary beauty that I mean when I say “God,” but that I didn’t know how to love individual persons. I knew why “Only connect!” was important. But I didn’t know how to put it into practice.
Dear reader, if you ever read a book because a boy told you to, and it quickly becomes the most important book you’ve ever read, maybe you should ask yourself what that has to do with love. For the next year, I did nothing but, without entirely realizing I was doing it. My commonplace book shows that I finished A Room With a View on Christmas Day, and The Longest Journey on the 8th of January (I remember that, curled up on my sofa with endless cups of tea, when no one else was back yet in Princeton and it was only me and Symonds and the snow and darkness). I know that I read Forster’s short stories early in the new year, and his essays in the spring, when Princeton ended with almost a month of no schoolwork to do. I remember thinking that Forster might be able to teach me how loving others could help me to love myself, and I remember only feeling my sense of self—especially after handing in my thesis—slipping farther and farther away. I read A Passage to India in Paris, in cafés or in the queue for student rush tickets at the opera, and then, finally, on 21 December, I recorded one line from Where Angels Fear to Tread in my commonplace book: “… human love and love of truth sometimes conquer where love of beauty fails.”
I decided to become a humanist in the summer of 2009 because of a painting in the National Gallery in Washington, and for the next couple years there was a handwritten sign over my desk that said “Seek Beauty.” But time went on, that sign was replaced by other ones, I went to Oxford, came back, and went back again, and it didn’t seem so much that I was seeking beauty as I was a greater understanding of humans and of truth, and a perhaps less ambitious set of tactics for getting on in the world and leaving it a little better besides. When I came back from Greece I wanted to know how the people we live with can help us to finish our articles on Symonds, rather than leave us sulking in grape arbors reading Petrarch and not being much help to anyone. I wanted to know how they can help us to remember who we are and what we want, instead of to forget.
At the end of 2012, I still can’t really scan Homer properly, and the Symonds article is about four thousand words too long. But I have got to know more than I ever would have countenanced back in 2009 about eros ouranios, eros pandemos, and eros glukupikros. I have long since given up hope of ever establishing any kind of division between my work and my personal lives. But I have come to believe that one of the things that love means is wanting to know more.
How the globe would get on, if entirely peopled with individuals, is impossible to foresee. However, Man has another wish, besides the wish to be free, and that is the wish to love, and perhaps something may be born from the union of the two. Love sometimes leads to an obedience which is not servile—the obedience referred to in the Christian epigram above quoted. Love, after a dreadful period of inflation, is perhaps coming back to its proper level and may steady civilization; up-to-date social workers believe in it. It is difficult not to get mushy as soon as one mentions love, but it is a tendency that must be reckoned with, and it takes as many forms as fear. The desire to devote oneself to another person or persons seems to be as innate as the desire for personal liberty. If the two desires could combine, the menace to freedom from within, the fundamental menace, might disappear, and the political evils now filling all the foreground of our lives would be deprived of the poison which nourishes them. They will not wilt in our time, we can hope for no immediate relief. But it is a good thing, once in a way, to speculate on the remoter future. It is a good thing, when freedom is discussed, not always to be wondering what ought to be done about Hitler, or whether the decisions of the Milk Marketing Board are unduly arbitrary. There is the Beloved Republic to dream about and to work for through our dreams; the better polity which once seemed to be approaching on greased wheels; the City of God.
Ninth Week; or, Making Connections 4 December 2012Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Oxford.
In term time, at Oxford, we teach or we do the coursework our teachers set us, we go to seminars and language classes, we run madly round town seeing people and doing things. Out of term is when the real reading and thinking gets done. This is true in all academic contexts, of course, but I think it’s particularly true in a university where the terms are such short bursts of energy. There is something truly glorious—and sincerely appreciated, after the chaos of term—about getting enough sleep, attending to your correspondence, and then making your way to the Upper Reading Room and spreading out a diverse array of texts in front of you, the day’s reading and writing interrupted only by the welcome arrival of lunchtime and the attendant chatter of the MCR classicists.
As a symbol of ninth week, and where my thinking is pleased to settle after term-time’s disarray, here is a little collage of some things I’ve read today. We’ll start with the theory: Eve Sedgwick’s expostulation, in her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” of Melanie Klein’s “paranoid position.” I first read this essay two years ago, doing my homework late at night in a deserted college dining hall, and memorably burst into tears because I didn’t understand it. It’s particularly delightful to revisit it and know just how much reading, thought, and particularly life experience has gone into the fact that I understand it now:
The greatest interest of Klein’s concept lies, it seems to me, in her seeing the paranoid position always in the oscillatory context of a very different possible one: the depressive position. For Klein’s infant or adult, the paranoid position—understandably marked by hatred, envy, and anxiety—is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one. By contrast, the depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though, I would emphasize, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.
Yes, I know. The language is alienatingly abstruse, the subject-matter bringing to mind all those creepy Kleinian images of disembodied breasts floating in the air (okay, maybe that’s just me). But there’s a lot to work with here—let’s start with that ringingly clear last sentence: “Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.” Love, Sedgwick is saying via Klein, is a condition that helps us to alleviate the anxieties that the world brings upon us, that helps us to forge connections between ourselves and others and among a greater variety of humankind, or (depending on your point of view) perhaps between the human and the divine. It involves reciprocity, and the forging of something new, something greater than itself, but it still also nourishes the self—the self isn’t lost within it. And it’s reparative, something Sedgwick uses in which to ground her call for affective relations with texts (and something that’s important to me as I consider self-consciously my own more historicist reading methodology), but which is also important for theorizing about what affective relations might do for us as people living amongst other people.
Okay, so with that in mind, let’s look at a cool blog-post rendering of Stendhal’s theory of love, helpfully deposited in my email inbox by my father. The author of the post, Maria Popova, draws our attention to the concept of “crystallization” that Stendhal advances as central to the way we idealize our beloveds. Stendhal defines it as “a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one,” and in a half-way I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of that bit from Phaedrus 251 we keep coming back to here. Popova connects “crystallization” to theories of “attachment” drawn from evolutionary biology, but surely it shares at least as much in common with the Kleinian version of the metaphor, forming its own fragile solid through the clustering of molecules. The important thing to emphasize, then, is not the bond itself (between mother and child, between two lovers, etc) but the reconstitution of the world that occurs through it, of love as a prism through which a worldview is refracted.
Of course, I’m actually a historian, not a theorist, and this is all getting a bit disembodied for me. So I’ll ground it in some documents by referring next to Thomas Dixon’s weighty, handsomely-produced tome on The Invention of Altruism, which I was also reading today and which traces in intellectual and linguistic terms the evolution of “altruism” as a signifier (if you will. I promise I’m not a theorist!) in nineteenth-century thought, and its role in the philosophy of writers such as Comte, George Eliot, and Darwin. It’s a rich portrait, and one I hope to have the chance to pore over at greater length and in more detail at some point very soon. But just at the moment, I was struck by Dixon’s discussion of GE Moore’s Principia Ethica in his final chapter, and how it demonstrates a turn away from the identifiably Victorian theory and practice of altruism:
More’s main achievement in writing Principia Ethica was to produce an intellectual rationale for the way of life, and the kinds of love, favoured by a group of educated young men and women in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But advocacy of this post-Victorian way of life could not be undertaken in Victorian language. While Max Nordau, Alfred Douglas, and the editors of The Eagle and the Serpent, were all still tied to the language of ‘egoism’ and ‘altruism’, Moore and his friends were not. Instead of understanding love as something that was given from the ‘ego’ to a separate ‘alter’, they understood it as an emotion that brought two people into a unity. In a paper read to the ‘Apostles’ in 1898, Moore put it this way: ‘To be in the right relations with the right persons is all that can here be good; and if you are so, you do not do one thing for self and another for them, but all simply for the sake of the whole that is you and them and what is between you.’
I don’t know enough about philosophy to really assess Dixon’s claims about Principia Ethica‘s merits, but I do know a bit about the kinds of love people like the Apostles valued. What’s interesting here, I think, is the way that, just as Forster’s love proposed to join humankind to to each other, and thereby to find a force for good in a world without God, Dixon represents Moore as interested in healing a rift between self-interest and other-interest. It’s not so different, perhaps, from what any philosopher or theorist thinks happens when we try to negotiate the boundaries between ourselves and others and our various needs and wants. What’s perhaps more striking is the ease with which it seems possible to fit Sedgwick and Klein and Maria Popova and Stendhal and Thomas Dixon and GE Moore—and perhaps even Plato?—all under the rubric of “love.” I am a splitter, not a lumper, and yet there’s something disconcertingly universal starting to creep in here.
One thing I am still batting about in a vague sort of way is the (dis)juncture between mind and body when we talk about love, and how historically contingent this can be. For the Victorians, love doesn’t seem to have been very bodily, and I’m still having a very difficult time wrapping my head around how this changes over time and the ways in which sex and lust do or don’t have to do with the more emotional or spiritual kind of connection I’ve been talking about here. But I’m arguing in the essay that I’m writing for my coursework that historians have to recognize that the intellect and the emotions exist on common ground, and that reading for either in texts means understanding the ways in which they go hand in hand. And so here is my most recent personally meaningful discovery, a poem by Goethe, from his Roman Elegies, that makes clearer than anything else I’ve encountered to date the strange ways in which mind and body come into contact:
Froh empfind ich mich nun auf klassischem Boden begeistert,
Vor- und Mitwelt spricht lauter und reizender mir.
Hier befolg ich den Rat, durchblättre die Werke der Alten
Mit geschäftiger Hand, täglich mit neuem Genuß.
Aber die Nächte hindurch hält Amor mich anders beschäftigt;
Werd ich auch halb nur gelehrt, bin ich doch doppelt beglückt.
Und belehr ich mich nicht, indem ich des lieblichen Busens
Formen spähe, die Hand leite die Hüften hinab?
Dann versteh ich den Marmor erst recht: ich denk und vergleiche,
Sehe mit fühlendem Aug, fühle mit sehender Hand.
Raubt die Liebste denn gleich mir einige Stunden des Tages,
Gibt sie Stunden der Nacht mir zur Entschädigung hin.
Wird doch nicht immer geküßt, es wird vernünftig gesprochen,
Überfällt sie der Schlaf, lieg ich und denke mir viel.
Oftmals hab ich auch schon in ihren Armen gedichtet
Und des Hexameters Maß leise mit fingernder Hand
Ihr auf den Rücken gezählt. Sie atmet in lieblichem Schlummer,
Und es durchglühet ihr Hauch mir bis ins Tiefste die Brust.
Amor schüret die Lamp’ indes und gedenket der Zeiten,
Da er den nämlichen Dienst seinen Triumvirn getan.
I feel I’m happily inspired now on Classical soil:
The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
And am I not learning, studying the shape
Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
Then I know marble more: thinking, comparing,
See with a feeling eye: feel with a seeing hand.
If my darling is stealing the day’s hours from me,
She gives me hours of night in compensation.
We’re not always kissing: we often talk sense:
When she’s asleep, I lie there filled with thought.
Often I’ve even made poetry there in her arms,
Counted hexameters gently there on my fingers
Over her body. She breathes in sweetest sleep,
And her breath burns down to my deepest heart.
Amor trims the lamp then and thinks of the times
When he did the same for his three poets of love.
QOTD (2012-11-17) 17 November 2012Posted by Emily in Blog, Love, Personal Life, QOTD.
add a comment
This blog is going through a phase as commonplace book for collecting all the different ways that people try to write about what love is. Here is Thomas Dixon, author of a great book called The Invention of Altruism and director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, London, talking about some themes that came out of a recent conference at his Centre:
In all of this, two themes that are close to my own heart emerged: the need to pay close attention to the language and categories of historical actors (which was emphasised by Laura Doan and others); and the importance of understanding theological and devotional terms and genres when trying to comprehend the lives of Victorian and post-Victorian subjects. Angharad Eyre’s analysis of the place of love, emotion, and tears in the literatures of evangelical conversion, and Sue Morgan’s account of Maud Royden’s 1921 book Sex and Common Sense, her campaigns against ‘anti-somatic theology’, and her own unusual love life, both illustrated the complex but reinforcing relationships between theological and secular forms of love.
In thinking about the meaning of ‘love’, and how love has been made and remade in the past, the historian needs to keep all these complexities in mind. And my parting thought from the conference this week, as an historian of emotions, was that ‘love’ is not best thought of as an emotion at all. Perhaps Saint Augustine’s approach is better: to think of ‘love’ as an almost unknowable, underlying substance, out of which particular passions, feelings, emotions and experiences might arise….
Love is made in many ways, all of them at some level linguistic. The historian needs to listen carefully to the languages and dialects of the heart, through which love is called forth, expressed, made, and reinterpreted. Writing in her autobiography towards the end of her life, in her late seventies, Constance Maynard wrote that she supposed that psychoanalysts would say of her feelings that they revealed as ‘thwarted sex instinct’. Maynard rejected this language, preferring to write of the ‘hunger’ she had felt, which needed satisfying. That was clearly a spiritual need – a hungering and thirsting after righteousness – as much as a psychological one. To the end she feared that her great fault had been to prefer human to heavenly love.
This idea of listening as the guiding methodology of the history of the emotions is something I’m very interested in right now. In an essay I wrote for my supervisor this week, I discussed a move in the history of emotions away from structuralist frameworks shaped by anthropology or a version of psychoanalysis that envisions civilisation as the Oedipal family, and towards more multivalent analysis in which—or so I think—psychoanalysis endures not in translating regression and repression onto the social level, but in envisioning the relationship between historian and sources as an analytic one, in which listening both to the spoken and the unspoken and being alive to the possibilities of the transference are central. Joan Scott has an article in the last but one issue of History and Theory, called ‘The Incommensurability of Psychoanalysis and History’, in which she writes along these lines, citing theorists like Michel de Certeau and historians like Lyndal Roper who are particularly skilled at using psychoanalysis to ‘recognize one’s complicated connection to… others’. It’s this I want to keep in mind today as I go back to the archives and my work on Arthur Sidgwick’s diaries, but also as I negotiate relations among people living as well as long-dead.