Category Archives: Ethics

Back to School

I am sitting in a cubicle (my computer is broken and I had to come into work to use one there) and I am meant to be creating tidy little summaries of monographs about the eighteenth century Church of England (corrupt or vibrant? you decide!). But weighing on me is the script of The History Boys, which I pulled off the shelf on my second day back in New York for the new academic year. I have seen the film so many times I have most of the dialogue memorized, but I had only read the script once, five years ago now, when I bought it at Blackwell’s on my first tour in Oxford. At the time I noted that the play seemed more morally ambiguous about “handling the boys’ balls” than the movie is (was able to be?), but now on the other side of the teacher/student divide, I noticed much else besides about how the play handles the problem of pedagogic eros. There are three things I think it’s worth pointing out about the play, particularly if you’re familiar with the film.

1. It seems like one of, if not the most, central driving force of the play is Irwin’s fear that he will turn into Hector. In the play it is much clearer that Irwin is gay, and knows himself to be gay, and that his conversation with Posner when the latter comes out to him as well as Dakin’s proposition are real moments of crisis to him about what that means for his future as a teacher. So is the scene with the three teachers outside the headmaster’s door when it is being explained to Irwin and Mrs Lintott that Hector is being let go. It seems like Irwin makes this sharp tack into telly-don life as a way of escaping the fate of Hector—and more what the fate of Hector means about being in tantalizingly close proximity to teenage boys than it does about having failed to become a scholar or having only gone to Oxford for your PGCE and not for your undergrad degree. None of this really comes out in the film, though now that I am more familiar with the play script I can see that the actors (almost all of whom were also in the West End production) are putting this into their portrayal of the characters.

2. I don’t know Alan Bennett’s corpus well, but I believe that people say that in the plays there is typically a character based on Bennett himself. The film would lead you to believe that character is Posner, whose struggles with his homosexuality get a sweet, sympathetic hearing, and who ends the closing scene by saying that he lived up to his teachers’ example by becoming a teacher himself. In the play, by contrast, it’s very clear that the Bennett character is Scripps, the devout Christian, who becomes a writer and actually narrates the play, stepping out of the scene to provide a retrospective view on events. In an introduction to the published script, Bennett cements the connection, discussing how religious he was as a teenager and explaining that he puts his own experience of going up to Oxford for interview directly into the mouth of Scripps. Posner, by contrast, grows up a really hapless eccentric, essentially broken by all the events, who fails to find a profession and becomes a crank: in the middle of the play, we see him as an adult, confusedly, almost crazily, trying to wrest some kind of apology from Irwin for what happened when he was a sixth-former. This adds to the sense that the play offers a rather different account of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the significances of that than is offered by the film. The play and the film were produced fairly close in time to each other, though, and fairly recently. I can see why the film might have wanted to do less to valorize sexual abuse of minors given that it achieved a much wider audience than the play, but otherwise I’m not sure why the treatment of homosexuality seems so different.

3. Twice in the play, characters ask with some urgency, “Why does Hector lock the door?” This is not a line in the film, and it gives an added frisson of weirdness to what it is Hector does in his classroom. Of course, both the play and the film make clear that Hector only touches the boys on the motorbike—but the locked door both introduces the problem of suspicion (as in history, stories about pedagogic eros are as much about what people fear might be happening as about what is happening), and helps our minds to make a connection between Housman and Brief Encounter on the one hand and genital fondling on the other. It raises huge questions about educational structures that transcend the fantasy environment of the play, sharpening this moral question Bennett wants us to come away with about whether the boys have been “scarred for life” or whether they’ve had a really special educational experience that resounds throughout their later lives.

As anyone who reads the New York Times knows, I came back to New York just at the time that the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees and as such are entitled to form unions. My university and the union my colleagues are trying to form was the test case. The senior administration at my university, by contrast, argue that unionization would damage relations between graduate students and faculty/the university and disrupt the things that make the university special as a place of work, study, and community. My orals reading in eighteenth-century English social history suggests to me that graduate students and post-PhD academics have much more in common with pre-industrial guild artisans, the clergy, or possibly other traditional professions than they do with industrial workforces, and I have little patience for the small but vocal minority who support unionization at the expense of other models of relation, or who use unionization rhetoric as a way to co-opt all academics into a proletarian struggle as much as, if not more, romanticized as my craft-and-calling vision. But even so, there is no evidence to suggest that the senior administration’s claims hold water. And The History Boys dramatizes how that is so. Learning is a matter of personal relations, structured in deep emotional investments of all kinds: desire, power, adoration, longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those emotions, especially if you are someone who temperamentally is intoxicated by teaching, and troubling things can happen behind locked doors. Individuals who struggle to get along outside educational contexts can look to the institutional structure to provide them things they can’t find elsewhere: affection. appreciation. a lover. a family. And genuine desires to connect, which can be deeply sympathetic and endearing, can easily be turned to highly inappropriate ends. The History Boys is unquestionably a sexist play, but it shows us that these things happen not necessarily because of the patriarchy, but because well-intentioned people get a little too far up their asses in imbuing transference with some kind of positive value. As the headmaster says in both the play and the film in response to Hector’s high-minded invocation of a western tradition of pedagogic eros—eliciting an unexpected moment of sympathy for a character the play seems to want us to hate—”Fuck the Renaissance…. This is a school.” Present-day structures of human resources and health and safety and harassment policies and so on bring us down to earth, keep us from getting carried away or thinking we’re special, and remind us that duty of care is about the students, not about us and our feelings, which we need to find healthier and less grandiose ways of working out. In this case, bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing, and reforming and making more efficient the bureaucracy currently in place, or trying to introduce a new kind of bureaucracy through a framework such as unionization, are worthwhile goals.

The problem we’re left with, though, is that you can’t hate Hector, even though he has committed the grossest violation of professional ethics, and even though a well-played Mrs Lintott would make clear just how small and self-absorbed are all these men by whom she’s surrounded. The problem is that, like Irwin, some of us might have more of a Hector fantasy than we’d like to admit. And while we might agree with the headmaster, Mrs Lintott and the boys that “there’s not room for his kind anymore,” and probably view that on balance as a good thing, we might well still feel a sense of loss at Hector’s passing, and a sense that that yearning has a role to play in determining who we are as teachers and as students.

All this is jumbled up in my head as I deal with the more mundane aspects of back-to-school, like booking classrooms and buying notebooks (and getting back to orals), making it difficult to think straight. I’ve spent an hour writing this. I suppose the moral of the story is a caution against assuming that there is a straightforward black-and-white answer to the future of the university, of education as a vocation, and of the Youth of Today. These issues are huge ones, unequal to any particular political program. I suppose, then, that they wind up making a case for the humanities, since they deal with the deepest questions of the emotions and intellectual responses that make us human, and how we live among other humans in a community and a polity. From the fairly basic type of textual analysis I attempted to do for The History Boys here, to the more large-scale questions about the structure and culture of educational institutions which I intend to approach historically in my dissertation, there are clear avenues for how to approach what seem to be intractable and extremely complicated problems, and clear social and affective roles for my colleagues and I to play, regardless of how we approach questions of reform and revolution.

A sermon and a pep talk for the morning of Wednesday of 13th week

With tomorrow’s lesson on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my head, Will Pooley’s evocative blog post as my text, and two more weeks of this crazy semester to go.

There is far to much anxiety and negativity among the apprentices in my trade, and it has an extraordinary capacity to feed off itself and grow.

People who know me well know that I am so anxious, that I am too quick to let my academic work define my self-worth, that I can so easily come up with excuses to hate myself for not working hard enough. I have been lying awake at night the last few weeks worrying because in mid-May I know I am going to hand in a term paper—my last term paper—that will fall short of the highest intellectual standard of which I am capable. But the reason I know I am going to do that is because the term paper actually isn’t important and I actually don’t care.

Instead it is important that the sun is shining and the weather is warmer; that I have wonderful students whom I am teaching an interesting book this week; that I have a roof over my head and a salary that allows me to live comfortably, to eat well, to give to charity, to travel; that I am going to the UK in just six weeks; that my house will be filled with old friends this weekend; that, no matter what happens on the job market in four or five years, I have so many structural advantages that I will have no difficulty landing on my feet in some sort of middle-class, professional employment that uses my skills.

There are things that one can do to make oneself a stronger candidate for an academic job: other competitions (for grants, for publications) that one can practice winning, hours that one can put in on one’s intellectual work as well as the other aspects of being a professional university teacher. There are also structural inequalities that make some people more likely to get academic jobs than others. I am sure I will carry to my grave the shame and sadness that by virtue of being born into an academic family (though not, it must be said, a particularly wealthy or elite one) and by virtue of the extraordinary post-secondary educational opportunities I have had, I have a greater chance at success than some. But I think there are ways to work constructively around that unavoidable problem: to do one’s duty, to be a responsible and hardworking holder of that place that one didn’t deserve, and to make at least modest efforts towards widening access for those who will come after.

I also think—and I know that I have said this to many of you—that there are countless ways in which all of us who are engaged in pursuing a fully-funded PhD at a top program are extraordinarily, jaw-droppingly lucky. I kind of cannot believe how extraordinary it is that I live in New York, that I make a decent living, that I get to teach bright, fun students, that I have access to such good library and information technology resources, that I live a life where going to Europe every summer is normal. I also, sometimes, get to think and to write, and despite how hard it is to be clever enough, I think I want to keep thinking and writing for a long time to come. I think I will be doing this even if I am not paid to do it, because I have been doing it all my life thus far, and in any case if I am fortunate enough to obtain an academic job what I will be paid to do is to instruct the young, anyway.

Will Pooley’s advice is right: we have to stop behaving as if our advisors are monstrous parental figures of one’s worst psychoanalytic nightmare, sitting in judgment on us. We have to have the confidence to live into being the scholars and teachers that we want to be, even if our efforts don’t have immediate external reward. We have to do the work that we are willing and able to do, and not the work that we are not. And we have to accept that all this may not be enough, or the right sort of thing, to get us the Oxbridge JRF or its moral equivalent—but if not, we have accrued a breathtaking quantity of advantages that others in the US or in our home countries do not have. We will be. just. fine.

What we need to do is to ensure we are advocating for our colleagues around the world who are not making a middle-class salary, to dispense the one good piece of advice—that in this day and age it is not worthwhile to do a PhD unless you are fully funded—to give other such pep talks where they are needed, to ourselves as much as others; and also to remember that the poor are always with us—that there are many in this country and around the world who do need our material and spiritual help, that we need to think about how we as humanities academics can find our ways of being a voice for the voiceless, whether as activists or, for those who do not feel called that way, as teachers of the western humanities tradition or other traditions, or simply with our financial donations or volunteering time.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.

Prayers for Peace

I have been much affected by reading the world news of late, especially that coming out of Israel and Palestine. As Laurie Penny wrote in the New Statesman last week, “the abused sometimes go on to abuse others”—and I, whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors have literally traversed the globe over the last half-millennium while fleeing persecution, am complicit in the cycle of abuse which the Israeli government is continuing to perpetrate on the Palestinians it in turn expelled from their homeland two generations ago. (On the New York Review of Books‘ blog, Hebrew University professor David Shulman offers frightening, vivid detail as to just how eerily right-wing extremists in Israel echo the rhetoric and the actions of their own ancestors’ abusers.) Meanwhile there are the right-wing parties who gained a moment of credibility in May’s European Parliament elections; and there is the violence in Ukraine and the escalating tensions between the US and Russia, and the pervading sense that none of us in any country is governed by politicians who could be trusted to resist the temptation to send young men and women to die in the name of misplaced ideologies. Maybe I’ve been reading too many World War I retrospectives. But things right now seem an awful lot like a powder keg, and I am moving to New York and getting on with adult life, and I feel obliged to ask what it means to be a Jew who feels morally obligated to speak out about what the UN leadership has begun to allege are Israel’s war crimes, and what it means to be a young adult growing up now in an ever-violent world into which inheritance, it seems, I am slowly entering. Sure, donating to UNRWA, the only agency currently able to offer water, food and shelter to displaced and persecuted Gazans is one thing, and we should all be giving what we can afford. But we may need to start asking ourselves whether the urgency of the situation, and our own moral convictions, demand that we do more.

When I was five years old I, as family legend has it, “stopped the battle.” I know I’ve written about this before, or told the story to many of you: when my knights/chivalry/”medieval”-themed Montessori summer day camp tried to stage a “battle” with cardboard swords as an end-of-session party, and five-year-old me refused to participate, made a speech about how war was wrong, and shut the whole thing down. In some respects it is still the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and certainly the only piece of civil disobedience I’ve engaged in that has actually made a difference. I think back on it now as I think that my convictions impel me to do more than donate to UNRWA and post endlessly on Facebook about violence and persecution. I am searching for answers about what to do (and whether anything I could do would really help) and how to be brave enough to do it.

In searching the internet for morally absolute language from faith traditions about the strength and significance of pacifism, I came across a compelling document published by the primary organization of the Society of Friends in Britain. In a book which outlines the central tenets and practices of the Quaker faith, it describes through primary documents from the seventeenth century on the Quakers’ commitment to nonviolence and conscientious objection. The inspiring stories of Friends who laid their lives and liberties on the line in the service of peace transcend the particular professions of faith that impel and sustain them in doing so. And they record the contributions of pacifists to campaigns for nuclear disarmament, for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and other modern causes that show that it is possible to do more than just to accept the status quo as an inescapable cycle of abuse and violence. The document about “our peace testimony” frequently invokes the name of Christ and the words and stories of the Gospels, but while I sometimes employ language and imagery drawn from Christianity and other religions to express the moral seriousness of causes like peace, I don’t see any reason why humans’ desire to keep other humans from needlessly dying should be limited to those who believe in a man in the sky (and my own approximation of God certainly isn’t that) or his son here on Earth. Yet we who doubt have something to learn from the religious, perhaps particularly the Society of Friends, and how they throughout history have found the courage to say and do extraordinary and righteous things.

This week Britain and other countries in Europe are commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I: an occasion, I fear, for much jingoism and glorification of war at the expense of its grim and bloody realities, some civilian knowledge of what we actually ask our young men and women to endure, and any serious consideration of the causes—or lack thereof—for which the wars of the past century have been and are today being fought. When I first came to Britain I was appalled by the extent to which Remembrance Day, even and especially in churches, is observed as a way to celebrate the ongoing practice of war and the empty flag-waving patriotism that so often accompanies it, while prayers for peace fade out of earshot. Thereafter I pledged to don the white poppy for Remembrance Day in mourning for soldiers and civilians who have died in war, remembrance of conscientious objectors and others who hold different points of view about war, and forward-thinking commitment to peace. When I started evangelizing about the white poppy as an alternative to the standard red lapel poppy, which has become Britain’s patriotism-litmus-test answer to the American flag pin, I was astonished all over again by the fear with which my friends who professed agreement with my reasons for wearing the white poppy hesitated to wear it themselves, lest they be publicly perceived to be committing that ultimate sin of being unpatriotic.

But the thing is, it starts with us. It starts with white poppies, with our voices and with the courage of our convictions. A Friend called Kenneth Barnes is quoted in the “peace testimony” document as saying that “Conscientious objection is not a total repudiation of force; it is a refusal to surrender moral responsibility for one’s action.” As Jews around the world complicit in Israel’s perpetration of persecution, or as citizens of countries who remember wars as their finest hours and pledge again and again in words and in hard currency to repeat them, we need to remain committed to peace, and to the hard work of mediation and reconciliation. Regardless of what our sacred texts may or may not tell us, we are morally obligated to answer for what our countries and our peoples do in our names. And we are morally obligated to meditate long and hard upon what it is that we in particular can do, in terms of money, time, words, and so on, to amplify the voice of peace in response to world conflict and to militaristic nationalist sentiments at home—before it’s too late.

I was ultimately left unsatisfied by the lack of immediacy of the Christian prayers for peace I found on the internet, and by their lack of applicability to non-believers as well. So, this Sunday evening, in my own words, I pray—which is to say I hope and I cry, and I strive to translate my hope and crying into action—for peace throughout the war-torn regions of the world, most especially Gaza; for our politicians to make decisions that stand for the safety and flourishing of civilians and not for warmongering and power-grabbing; for those who are commemorating Europe’s century-old declarations of war to do so in the spirit of sorrow and solemn remembrance, not in the spirit of jingoism and glory; and finally and most importantly that we may all have the courage of our convictions to speak out against violence in all times and places, even when it may involve great difficulty and personal cost. In all our names, amen.

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Milestones and Mattering

Finished Middlemarch. Cried. After all, I’ve spent at least the last five years growing up enough to be able to read it.

I don’t know how to write about it yet–though I do think that in the parade of meaningful authors it’s interesting, and telling, to have gone from Forster to Eliot.

But one thing that struck me rather unexpectedly was the backdrop of the Reform Bill. It brought me up short from the privileging of political and constitutional history that Oxford has been leading me unconsciously to do. How can you read Middlemarch and still think that the movement of the Reform Bill through the Lords carries anywhere near as much moment as the struggles and disappointments and loves that seems to touch us more directly?

People often pin cases for why history, and the humanities, matter on Reform Bills: on what history and knowledge of it do to help us to become citizens, on how we as thinking people engage with the body politic. But that primes them to envision a smooth sine curve, or worse yet, the graph of a plain old exponential function: history as a series of Reform Acts, as the story of a citizenry instead of a people. But I am more moved by a history that looks more like what happens as you turn a radio dial: loud bursts of static and brief moments of Debussy or electric guitar or the news, voices fading in and out of each other and sometimes amounting to nothing at all. Middlemarch is a historical novel, and I am moved by a history where the narrative of Reform Bills is elusive and forgettable, but small human voices trying their best echo out of the static. I can see why Middlemarch might appear to some readers as saccharine and self-righteous, but as for me it’s a way of telling the past that gives me hope that we are not doomed to our future—that it gets better and that we can better ourselves. Which also, as it happens, is the thought that keeps me and my soul alive.

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. THose who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of her brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

On Carnal Knowledge; or, A Modest Research Proposal

It’s long been clear to me that I can be a better historian of intellect, education, and ideas in the nineteenth century if I can read the dead languages that were at the base of my research subjects’ body of knowledge. Yet I never had a good working example for why this was the case. Then, a month ago, under a blazing midday sunshine that only the Mediterranean (and similarly-latituded regions) in August can muster, I had occasion—and finally the ability—to do something that someone my age with a similar level of education a hundred fifty years ago could easily have done: spend a couple hours pulling together a scrappy translation from Plato, of a passage that by now will be quite familiar to regular readers. In so doing, I learnt a powerful lesson about my work and about life in general, particularly life as a young adult just starting to come to know the world: translation (from Greek, from Latin, from those barely discernible emotions which it is impossible to express in any language) is very difficult. And bowdlerization (or simplification, or even dehumanization) is very easy, and at times unavoidable.

Phaedrus 251-252, the most soul-stirring speech about love that I know, contains many references to παῖδες, children, or, more accurately here, boys. There is the darling boy (παιδικοῖς) to whom the lover would sacrifice as if to a god if he did not fear a reputation for madness (251a), the beautiful boy (παιδὸς κάλλος) the sight of whom produces a “thrilling feeling” in the soul, ceasing its pain and filling it with joy (251c-d), and everywhere masculine adjectives and participles that give no doubt as to the gender as well as the beauty and youth of the beloved. And when you are faced with the text in front of you, and a blank sheet of notepaper onto which to transcribe it in the vernacular for a general audience, it is awfully difficult to know what to do with all those boys. Your audience can be as well-versed as anyone in Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, as unruffled as can be by the knowledge that they did things differently back then, but how to make Socrates’ account of love’s mania instructive and inspiring to a modern audience without allowing them to be distracted by the suggestion of one of the most unpardonable sexual sins of our time? Reader, you bowdlerize. Benjamin Jowett, feeling himself helplessly caught, changed many of the pronouns, to my man Symonds’ chagrin; Harold Fowler, whose translation appears in the older Loebs, satisfied himself with using “beloved” where “boy” became a problem. Modern translators at times make bolder choices, but I think these texts are as much living guides to our own times as they are historical documents, and I went only as far as I dared—at one point using “beautiful youth” to get the original sense across, but for the most part sticking to “beloved,” preserving an echo of the erastes/eromenos dynamic but trying at the same time to universalize it. I had never before wondered so much as I did then what it really means to teach these texts and to use them as guides. It’s easy, from the 21st century, on the other side of gay liberation, to sympathize with Symonds’ outrage at Jowett’s hypocrisy in covering up the truth of the Platonic eros. When you try to translate παιδὸς κάλλος into the English of your own time, it’s a little more possible to see Jowett’s side of the story too.

I’ve related this anecdote because to me the difficulties of this translation—and the reminder within it of Jowett’s difficulties—tell us a lot about how to start thinking about love for the Victorians, and why to start thinking about it. Contemporary media sensationalize all the time about love in our day, and how broken it is and how misunderstood, how a dehumanizing “hookup culture” has come to take its place, and how we can get love back. But just as we wouldn’t know a παιδὸς κάλλος if it fell on us out of a tree, I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “love” either, or where to find it. I do think, however, that we are living with the legacy of the nineteenth century, and that understanding better the lines that Victorians drew betwixt love and sex and eros and related things, the people who developed such ideas and the places and cultures in which they developed them, might tell us a bit about why it does seem as if the Youth of Today (or at least the ones the magazines write about) lack a really viable, to say nothing of beautiful, discourse of human connection.

I’ve been thinking about how to think about this since the spring, when, a few days after I handed in the labor of love that was my thesis, I ran across Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

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

In many respects, Bloom comes across as patronizing and oblivious, unaware that what it means to be an American university student has changed in the years since it became possible for more than those who read dead languages to be awarded a bachelor’s degree. Yet he’s right that students want something of eros, though don’t quite know what it is, or how to explain what dissatisfies them about the so-called “hookup culture”—witness a recent piece in the Daily Princetonian, in which an anonymous author writes that going out most weekends to drink and find partners for sex (or something sexual but not-quite-sex) left her feeling lonely and confused. And, at the opposite end of a not-so-wide spectrum, witness the Atlantic‘s seemingly annual article about sex and the college girl, which this time round notes that the so-called “hookup culture” works for women because it’s not too emotionally troubling, since modern women have more important things like their careers to worry about:

The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and intern­ships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success…. Women in the dorm [in a sociological study conducted at Indiana University] complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork.

This, to me, is a problem, and one that our current attempts to figure out what the “hookup culture” is don’t help us to answer. We privileged college-educated Westerners who have nothing more important on our minds than how young people are discovering themselves erotically are very good at, variously, talking about the “hookup culture” as something that, booze, objectification, and all, detracts from the educational mission of a university; or at mockingly writing off the conservative pro-abstinence-and-chastity argument that casual sexual contact is degrading to all concerned. We argue that casual sex is oppressive or that it is liberating, but we lack a middle view: a way to recover Allan Bloom from his ridiculous naïveté, a way to respond to what’s dehumanizing as well as confusing about our culture’s sexual expectations for young adults (want proof? watch an episode of HBO’s Girls) without excising eroticism entirely from our sentimental educations or endlessly postponing it until it’s too late, as I think many social conservatives would like to do. My 2010s take on Allan Bloom—which, like his original, comes from thinking a lot about what “παιδὸς κάλλος” means—is that there’s nothing wrong with having lots of sex with lots of partners per se (as long as you use proper protection, etc.), but that there is something morally wanting in doing so in a way that’s instrumentalizing and objectifying, that prefers the pleasure of consumption and boxes ticked to a deeper pleasure of human connection in soul as well as body. Like Bloom, I think that sex as part of the culture of consumption denies young adults the opportunity to see sexual relationships as part of their liberal-arts education, something that will help them to understand how to take an ethical approach to relations with others and to figure out what a good life is and how to pursue it for themselves. It’s worth challenging ourselves to be both sex-positive and serious, and to make room for sentiment and affect within education.

My Victorians knew all too well that where knowledge lay, eros wasn’t far behind. Otherwise those with the cultural capital (wealthy, educated, white, heterosexual-or-something-like-it men) wouldn’t have poured so much energy into keeping knowledge out of the hands of women and children, the poor, Imperial subjects from far-flung lands, or those who stood to gain from the knowledge that Plato (the guide to civilization!) is full of some awfully sexually-charged masculine nouns. Double standards proliferated: the Lambs published their Tales from Shakespeare, and, as Symonds wrote to Jowett, “It is indeed impossible to exaggerate the anomaly of making Plato a text-book for students, and a household-book for readers, in a nation which repudiates Greek love,” yet commonplace books and letters that flowed in and out of the universities of the period are charged with the inextricability of learning and love.

Times are different—empires are no longer in fashion; universities are, theoretically, places where more than the most privileged are welcome—yet eros is still an essential part of the sentimental education, and denying its existence either by divorcing sex from the people having it or by refusing it a place in college life together isn’t the answer to trying to engage with it healthily and productively. Building an environment in which young people can approach their bodies and relations with each other in a psychologically healthy way entails acknowledging the myriad ways in which eros suffuses life, especially the life of the mind. It needs to acknowledge that eroticism doesn’t only happen in intercourse (or a hasty blowjob in a (eating) club’s cloakroom), but can happen in a class, in a tutorial, in a late-night conversation in a dorm room, in the pages of reading assigned or not, in the process of writing essays like this one. On the one hand, this is sublimation at its most classic and most Victorian, sure—but on the other hand, it needn’t stop there. Maybe those conversations, among well-adjusted individuals living in a well-adjusted university community with a healthy attitude to sexual matters, could also be the starting point for meaningful erotic relations that contribute to intellectual, psychological, emotional, etc. growth, regardless of whether they take place between friends, acquaintances, strangers, or steady significant others of any gender. This kind of thinking has the benefit of putting pleasure back at the center of what we expect to gain from knowledge and education, and allows us to think about college as part of the process of growing up and maturation rather than as a credential. And, by combining carnal knowledge with book knowledge, it also offers the possibility that when students are hurt by those with whom they enter into close and vulnerable relationships—as they invariably will be—they have some tools that will help them to deal with the pain. The women in the Indiana University study in the Atlantic seemed to prefer hookups because, while it can be disappointing when the boy doesn’t text, or when the relationship never morphs into something more emotionally meaningful, no-strings-attached assignations aren’t supposed to come with the potential for heartbreak’s soul-crushing pain. But (leaving aside the fact that hookups can be soul-crushing too) young people who have never let themselves hurt inside because they are too busy with their grades and their career prospects don’t know how to put themselves in the shoes of people who are hurting. They don’t know when it’s essential to exercise compassion. And I wonder if what’s wrong with Wall Street, etc., and all the inhumanity in modern American professional life is that students who come out of universities whose mottoes are “work hard, play hard” (I’m looking at you, Princeton and Oxford) never, by keeping those spheres so separate, let themselves be open to the most profound vulnerability.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, on the other side of my bachelor’s degree, it is a rare sunny day, and I am over the moon to be back in a city that has more to say about the seductive allure of the tree of knowledge than any other. I’m fresh from the first week of work on a master’s thesis that is going to be, in some wise, about classical education and what tools it gave young Victorian adults—both men and women—to think about love. This week I read Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s excellent new book The Origins of Sex, which among other extremely interesting and insightful cultural analysis discussed the transition from an 18th-century Britain of sexual liberty and libertinism to a nineteenth century that was far more confused about what it would accept, socially, with respect to sexual expression. That confusion is evident in phenomena like Symonds’ call for an out and proud homosexuality that at the same time employed a moral code largely indistinguishable from that which governed opposite-sex “chivalric love.” Indeed, it seems to me, the Victorians in general rediscovered chivalry (see pre-Raphaelitism) as a way of doing something with one’s bodies that’s not just having fun: that instead mingles love’s pleasure and pain, and that involves a deep connection to the past and sense of one’s place, as a lover, with respect to it.

This is the “glukúpikron” love that Anne Carson’s wonderful Eros the Bittersweet discusses, and its reception is just as fascinating as the original. I’m interested in the connection between, in Anne Carson’s words, “falling in love and coming to know,” which are “not like anything else, but they are like each other.” Back in the Upper Reading Room, now, reading about learning and loving, I feel more alive than I have ever felt since I crashed into crushing despair on the day that I handed in my Symonds thesis. It’s enough to reawaken in me the feeling of that line from Howards End: “a place, as well as a person, may catch the glow.”

I hope to write more in the months to come about pedagogic eros, about carnal knowledge. I hope to write about how being back in Oxford is going to help me get my head around the extent to which the repressive hypothesis about Victorian culture is true, and the extent to which it isn’t. I hope to tell my gentle reader a little bit more about why this city makes my heart stir, why it has made me feel more human than any hookup ever has or, I have come to believe, could. And, finally, I want to work out a little anti-repressive hypothesis of my own, one that needn’t oppose repression with sexual liberation but instead with a different, rather Victorian, kind of freedom: the freedom to jettison short-term satisfaction and the distraction of physical wants and instead to work towards carnal knowledge of a more profound kind. Unpacking the sublimation humming in the walls of this city might, in the end, send us back down a path of bodily discovery, albeit one richer and with more potential for connection than those experiences related in the Atlantic or the Daily Princetonian. Or it might send us down myriad other paths entirely, paths of comradeship or discipleship or companionate marriage (not so much passion as contentment) or the path of the sunset I saw last night from my kitchen window, the sky streaked purple and gold behind Old Tom Tower and casting its dwindling light on the empty Christ Church School playing fields. Everyone has to find their own route to goodness. In Oxford, home of lost causes, where they always knew that what “παιδὸς κάλλος” meant wasn’t so much obscene as just plain untranslatable, it is possible for someone like me to learn to be human and humane in a way that it never was in America.

First-World Problems; or, in Which Our Heroine Strives to Find a New Outlook on Her Middle-Class Liberal Guilt

Greetings from Granville, Basse-Normandie, on whose cliffs I have been climbing and on whose plages I have been promenading for the past three days, really and truly en vacances. I felt left behind and increasingly culture-shocked in my last weeks in Paris, as the city emptied out and the real Parisians were replaced by tourists. It turns out they’ve all (or, at least some representative sample of them) wound up here, in a little town by the seaside, full not of tourists but of holiday-makers. The distinction is a fine but an important one: there are loads of little historical and cultural tidbits here, but no Mona Lisa or Notre Dame, nothing anyone’s heard of. No one is gawking at anything; there are no crowds; occasionally someone takes a picture of the view or a particularly photogenic omelette, but there’s no strobe effect of flashes. French and British tourists, with the occasional German, Netherlander, or Scandinavian thrown in, wander up and down cobblestone streets, lie out on the beach (except for during the predictable afternoon or evening downpour, at which point they all calmly seek shelter under overhangs until it passes), and eat galettes and crêpes, which seem to be the local staple. I haven’t heard a single American accent since I’ve been here—not even, since almost none of the locals speak English, while they do speak French slowly enough to be comprehensible, my own. I’m staying in a crumbling Victorian railway hotel, across the road from the station, very few of whose fixtures seem to have been updated since the original introduction of indoor plumbing. But due to a fortunate failure of the toilet in my original budget single room, I’ve been moved to a spacious ground-floor double with ensuite bath and garden view, and I’ve been splitting my time this blissful week between people-watching on the beach and sitting at the desk in my room (though in my room all I seem to do is write emails; it seems that it’s only over leisurely lunches that I’ve been able to make progress on my academic work). Really, I’m having a wonderful time, and I could see coming to a place like this every summer to rest and recuperate, just like those who, the city museum today informed me, came here 150 years ago to take the supposedly health-giving waters.

In addition to noticing the absence of American accents in Granville, I’ve noticed the absence of posh accents. Granted, I can’t tell the difference in French, but because of its proximity a lot of British tourists come here on their holidays, and all of them sound so very normal. The tone was set on the train from Paris, when I sat opposite two older English ladies—one with a working class southern accent, one with a Yorkshire accent, who I gathered both now lived in London—who spent the entire three-hour journey exchanging gossip about the marriages and deaths and shop closures in their community, and who, when I dropped my iPod under the seat, kindly tapped my shoulder and informed me in halting, half-remembered school French. All summer, I’ve been feeling guilty that I have the freedom to spend most of it abroad. Even though I’m for the most part paying my own way, even though so many young people who finish university take the time to see a little bit of the world before starting the next stage of their lives, I felt, in Paris, as if every time I met a new person and she or he asked me what I was doing there and I struggled to find a good reason that I was spending the month there, I reeked of unconscionable privilege. It’s a relief to come to the seaside and find hundreds of other people whose national cultures allow them to come to the seaside every year. It reminds me how shocked I was when I was last in Britain and I first learned that “Where are you going on your holidays this year?” was an appropriate small-talk conversation to ask of people like hairdressers or shop owners. I’d never assume that someone in that position in the US would have the opportunity to take holiday time, and it’s good to know that, for all its faults, Europe isn’t quite so class-stratified as the US.

That said, I’m still really struggling to understand my class position, especially as my departure date for Oxford inches ever closer. The last time I was in Oxford, the part of my mind that’s always whispering, “You horrible, selfish person! How can you conscience studying history in university when there are starving children in Africa? How can you conscience having nice things, being comfortable, using the electricity and the running water? How can you not be devoting every second of your life to helping those less fortunate?” started to quiet down. And I worked hard and played hard, I learned so much (about history, about myself) and had so much fun, and I laughingly called myself a champagne socialist and really meant it, because I went to garden parties and drank champagne and bitched about the Tories. And now I’m going back, and I wonder if it’s going to happen again. I fell in love with Oxford the first time, well and truly in love, and it felt so liberating to take joy in my daily work and not to hate myself. But I also stopped being an activist, stopped being committed first and foremost to raging against the machine, grew disturbingly to accept my place amongst the privileged few, and started ever more frequently to rationalize my intention to stay there: “We need hearts and minds as well as bodies, and universities are there to help the former to flourish. We need teachers who will inculcate that sense of commitment to making the world better that young people need to do the work in the trenches. Guarding the world’s knowledge is a good in itself. College communities are utopias and we need them as a visible alternative to the capitalist consensus. My happiness matters; I have as much of a right to it as anyone else to love myself and what I do.” But none of it really seems to explain why, instead of getting a job this summer, I took off for Europe; none of it seems to explain why I’m spending my money on omelettes instead of giving it to the homeless; none of it seems to explain why I deserve to make a living studying dead white men while there are other people even in my own countries who can’t afford to eat at all. I may be really excited to go back to Oxford, to start a new academic project, to live in the city that changed my life. But that doesn’t make it okay.

In the past couple weeks, the conversation about such justifications that I had with a friend on the banks of the Seine has haunted me, and in the past few days, a long discussion on my Facebook wall about the custom of “subfusc,” or academic dress, at Oxford has spiralled into a stormy argument about privilege, class inequality, and exclusion. And suddenly I once more feel guilty that I’ve been so excited to move up to a graduate’s, instead of a commoner’s, academic gown. Because just like carbon offsets don’t actually stop global warming, donating your spare income or volunteering your spare time to charity doesn’t erase the fact that you have money in the bank, a fancy scholarship letting you study a “useless” subject, all the free wine any student could possibly want, and a life generally full of material and spiritual comfort. And it’s not like I do a lot of that donating/volunteering anyway.

There are a few reasons to believe that I’m not a morally awful human being. For I do believe we’d all of us be much poorer as a civilization if there were no one among us to study and to teach the humanities. And I do believe that we all have a fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness, and that there is a place for it at the table of human interests alongside our obligation to the greater good. I believe that we can’t do the greatest good of which we are each individually capable unless we each love what we do so much that we can’t help but infect others with our joy in it; and I know that those who devote every waking hour of their day to helping others very often, unless they’re made of superhuman stuff, don’t last long, in body or in spirit, at doing it (see: the Teach for America model).

This still doesn’t help me to fall asleep easily at night; nor, unfortunately, does it give me the motivation I need, if I’m not going to be utilitarian about my life, at least to put everything I have into my academic work. These two articles are not getting written; my next thesis is not getting begun. I guess what I’m saying is that I need help: at finding a way to live a socially responsible life that keeps me inspired enough to stay motivated, despite the fact that being “inspired” about what one does is a privilege that only the most fortunate have; at finding a way to have faith that academia really can be a socially responsible vocation, even and especially when it doesn’t mean giving basic education to the most underprivileged populations; and maybe trying to find other possible life choices that make me feel as if I have a reason to keep living just as much as the life of the mind, while doing more to actually lead a good and socially useful life.

But on the other hand (isn’t there always another hand?) as I free-associate from guilt to guilt now, another thought occurs to me. One thing I’ve learned in my work is that supposed social responsibility often has its dark side, especially in historical hindsight. It’s only when we look at Victorian social reformers with fresh eyes that we can see both the transformative effects of their particular brand of progressive reformist Protestantism upon those living in urban slums in England or America, and their unintentionally devastating effects as missionaries in countries far from their own. Indeed, as any bright-eyed Ivy League grad who’s gone into development work post-graduation could probably tell you (and many have told me), it’s awfully tricky to know how you, as a rich white American, can help those of the world’s communities that are in the greatest need, or even to know how you might begin to judge which communities are. There’s an argument to be made, after all, that instilling the very wealthiest Westerners with a little kindness and human feeling might have a profoundly socially good effect in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater and the opportunity for social mobility more limited than it has been in a very long time.

Last night, I watched Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, and unexpectedly felt a lot of sympathy for her character’s plaintive cries that, a few months post-college, she’s still “figuring it out.” Dunham’s character seems to do that in extraordinarily different ways to the ones I’ve chosen, but her desperate pleas for just a little more time really do seem like a generational thing. There is so very much wrong in the world that every problem is an urgent problem, and even people like me have cuts to humanities departments right and left to worry about. Yet I sometimes feel as if all that 22-year-old college graduates can think about is how overwhelmed they are by how unfinished they are, how ill-prepared they feel to take on the world’s problems and make their own, how wronged they feel by the adults in their lives for leaving them such a mess that they have nowhere near the right real-world skills to clean up. It’s certainly true of my friends and myself, some of whom have landed in long-term career paths but most of whom haven’t, and who a few months or a few years out of college are still having the same late-night conversations about how to spend our lives in ways that are both good and give us pleasure.

Well, in our fallen world, I don’t see a lot of people or institutions offering to help young adults figure these questions out. But I do see one, ready with its texts canonical and very much not, with its ethical questions, with its mental gymnastics, with its reserves of moral support practiced at dealing with young adults’ “quarter-life crises.” It’s the university, folks, where so many crippling ethical dilemmas are born, worked through, and hopefully made peace—but not too much peace—with. In a way, it’s a dirty job, trying to prod entitled well-to-do American kids into developing a social conscience and a sense of humanity. But someone’s got to do it, I think—otherwise the bankers keep screwing us all over, the generals keep waging war, the Lena Dunhams of this world keep making dubious choices in men instead of taking charge of their lives, and none of us is cultivating any garden at all—least of all our own.