Category Archives: Nerdiness

Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

On Decolonisation

some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:

I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.

I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.

II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.

III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.

IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.

V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.

VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.

VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.

VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.


Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.


QOTD (2014-02-05); or, Everyday Homosociality

Much has been made (often, ahem, by literary critics) of the steamy nature of Victorian homosociality; according to some, all you need to do is get half a dozen Harrow sixth-formers or pre-Raphaelite artists in a room together and they will all be sodomizing each other before you can say “eros.” But I rather suspect that this passage, from G.B. Grundy’s (kind of boring and badly-written) Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: An Unconventional Autobiography is more illustrative of the many elite contexts in which male homosociality flourished in the late-Victorian period:

A surprising incident of a kindred nature took place one night in Corpus Common Room. Cuthbert Shields, who was a great and not infrequent critic of the looks of women, said in that way of his… that he considered that Mrs. Vinogradoff [the wife of the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence] was a very good-looking woman. Women’s looks were not a very favourite topic in Corpus Common Room, so no one took up the challenge, and there was an appreciable interval of silence. [Professor of Latin Robinson] Ellis, who had apparently been asleep in the chair on my left, woke up at this and said across me to Lightfoot [no idea who he is], who was sitting on my right, ‘I sometimes think, Lightfoot, that your wife is quite a good-looking woman.’ He was right, for Mrs. Lightfoot was at the time a very beautiful girl.

Apparently (says Chris Stray in one of his many books about the history of classical scholarship in this period) a classicist called Gilbert Norwood commented in 1923 that “many dons are simply sixth-form boys who have kept on,” and I think that’s true in a variety of ways: I have learned more about Victorian male homosociality as a widespread social institution by talking to modern-day young English men who attended single-sex secondary schools (still, I would argue, neo-Victorian institutions, hence their usefulness as historical comparators) than I ever could by reading the literature about homosexuality. This is what makes writing about Sidgwick so different to writing about Symonds, even though the two were good friends and moved in the same circles: women were simply not interesting enough to Symonds for interacting with them to be a significant factor in his life, but Sidgwick was interested in them as people and as sex objects and as an “other” his single-sex upbringing had not always prepared him to relate to as real, fully-fledged human beings. When I look at Victorian homosociality and heterosexuality, I see a series of fascinating tensions within the lives and thoughts of men who are attracted sexually and personally to women and often are theoretically in favor of women’s intellectual and social equality, but have grown up avoiding them, fearing them, seeing them as a constraint on propriety, and generally being reduced to paroxysms of awkwardness whenever they enter the room or come up in conversation. The parallels to conversations in today’s university common rooms and department lounges are, perhaps, worth noting, but I leave such matters to the reader.

Research Notes

After much dithering, I’ve finally started to get back into the swing of archives, and to start to process the fairly large pile of material on Arthur Sidgwick and his times that I’ve already gathered: converting the Word documents in which I take notes linearly as I proceed through the archives, fascicle by fascicle, into individual database entries in EndNote for each letter, poem, set of lecture notes, scrap of paper on which is scrawled a bet Sidgwick made with his youngest daughter as to whether women would get the suffrage or the Oxford degree first (no, really!). Impelled both by practical urgency—this thesis is due in only nine months—and by a hope that getting down and dirty with the documents will rekindle my passion for the scholarly craft, I’ve been sifting through the raw material in the hopes that out of it some kind of narrative will magically emerge before my eyes. The scope of this project means that it doesn’t lend itself quite to a chronological telling of Sidgwick’s life in a manner analogous to the Symonds thesis; instead, I have to figure out how to get from Sidgwick’s life to a coherent and more thematically-organized argument about the nature of politics, universities, and the people who lived within them in the Victorian-Edwardian period—a rather more complicated proposition.

One reason it’s complicated is by a fairly obvious point about the nature of how real historical life is reflected through the sources, which only just hit me yesterday and today; it’s for this reason that I’m writing this post. You see, I’ve been irritated all along by the paucity of Sidgwick’s material leavings when compared to Symonds’: in Symonds’ case there is just piles and piles of paper, most of it well-documented (though some of it, excitingly, I was able to discover!) and much of it preserved in about 2,000 pages of edited, published letters. In addition to all these letters to far-flung friends, there are lecture notes, books with marginalia, manuscript poetry, and other such documents on which I’ve relied heavily in constructing a picture of Symonds’ mental furniture and the routes by which he arrived at his theory of homosexuality. This winds up actually being fairly straightforward, because it will turn out that he’s written a letter to Henry Sidgwick, Graham Dakyns, Edward Carpenter, or Havelock Ellis saying exactly what he thinks about some aspect of Greek literature, sexual science, or what have you and how it relates to his vision of what the homosexual man is to the rest of society.

Due to this incredible stroke of luck, I went into the Sidgwick project expecting that this is just what you find for literate, intellectual Victorians who were scrupulous in documenting their evolving ideas about the world. But while the disparate, candid, lively nature of Sidgwick’s day-books was what made me commit to a thesis on him, I’ve found that the archives contain very little actual working-through of the intellectual themes important to his life: pedagogy, women’s education, and professionalized teacher-training, Liberal politics, and the bonds of friendship in educational/intellectual communities. There is plenty of institutional record of the basic fact that he was involved, for instance, in such-and-such a reform committee or student society, but almost nothing self-reflective about what impelled him to get involved in such an organization or why such work was socially important—which makes writing the kind of thesis I’d hoped to write about how such day-to-day activities can help us to understand Victorian values and the “intellectual aristocracy” vastly more difficult, if not altogether inconceivable.

Yesterday I cycled up the Woodstock Road to St Anne’s College, formerly the Oxford Society of Home Students. Back in the 1870s when there were only two women’s colleges, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, which were not formally incorporated into the University and could only offer certificates that attested that their students had completed an equivalent level of work and exams to that of the men students who would be given degrees for it, there was also something variously known as the Association for the Education of Women, the Home Students Association, and the Society of Home Students, which was an administrative body that would organize teaching for and advocate on behalf of women students—often the wives, sisters, or daughters of dons—who lived at home in the city instead of joining Somerville or LMH. T.H. Green was the AEW’s first secretary, in 1877; two years later, his wife, Charlotte—Symonds’ sister—took over the position. Members of the committee over the years, before it became a more formal organization with a Governing Body, included the venerable Annie M.A.H. Rogers, the first woman to formally register for a University degree (because she registered at Balliol under her initials, and they didn’t realize she was a woman until she showed up), Walter Pater’s sister Clara, renowned heads of house and professors like Mark Pattison and Henry Nettleship, and—you see where this is going—Arthur Sidgwick, whose daughters Rose and Margaret sat Pass Mods and Modern History Finals as Home Students in the 1890s and 1900s. (Rose went on to be one of the UK’s first women lecturers, first at Somerville and then at Birmingham University, before dying tragically in the 1918 flu pandemic while on a tour of America with other British academics.)

It seemed not out of character with St Anne’s informal beginnings—which I was there to research in their college archive—that it was also the most informal archive visit I’ve ever done. There were no rules about bags or pens; I was simply shown to a desk in the college library’s main reading room and invited to call up anything I fancied, which the archivist then had to go and hunt for, piling masses of disarrayed papers on my desk. Looking for evidence of Sidgwick’s involvement in the AEW, I did. I noticed that he was President of the AEW during years that the organization made a major push to lobby the University to admit women to the degree, 1907-10, and so looked for him particularly in a scrapbook Annie Rogers had compiled documenting that fight. There were a few letters he had written on behalf of the AEW to the then-Chancellor, Lord Curzon, but no private correspondence between him and Rogers, in contrast to the many letters Rogers had received from prominent dons and teachers to whom she had written asking for their support for the degree campaign. It finally struck me that, even today, the leaders of social and political organizations don’t make important decisions by letter (or email): they do it in meetings, face-to-face. And even if they take minutes, those usually don’t reflect the same kind of frank, candid opinions that a letter might. Annie Rogers and Arthur Sidgwick lived in the same city, and they were good friends: if they had a matter about women’s education to discuss, they could go round to each other’s houses and chat about it face-to-face, leaving no permanent record of the conversation.

Circling round back to Symonds, while going through the other archival material today I re-encountered a letter I found in Henry Sidgwick’s papers at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly before Christmas, 1875, he wrote to his mother, “If you have to be in London after the 10th, you will find us all there—by all I mean Nora, Self, A.S, Charlotte, H.G. Dakyns, J.A. Symonds – “the whole company” as I told them this morning when I wished good bye at Clifton….” Nora is Henry’s wife, A.S. is of course Arthur Sidgwick and Charlotte is his wife, and the Sidgwick brothers were very close to Graham Dakyns (whom they knew from Cambridge) and his good friend Symonds (Dakyns’ neighbor in Bristol) until Symonds took off for Davos in 1877. The four went on holiday together to Europe when they were just out of university; Henry, Dakyns, and Symonds staged an intervention when Arthur was thinking about initiating an erotic relationship with a pupil at Rugby in 1867; and it sounds as if after the Sidgwick brothers married, their wives joined the gang too. (It’s interesting to note that Symonds’ wife Catherine, who wasn’t as intellectual or as outgoing as either Nora or Charlotte Sidgwick, doesn’t seem to have been part of this particular gathering.) I devoted some minutes to wishing I could have been a fly on the wall at assemblies of “the whole company,” before the contrast between this time and the period after Symonds moved to Davos really illuminated itself. Of course, after the move, Symonds only had letters with which to keep in touch with his friends, let them know what he was thinking about, and share personal feelings about which, because of their homoerotic nature, he couldn’t confide in his wife. In England, on their Christmas holidays, they could just hang out in London—as Henry, Arthur, and their other friends continued to do even after Symonds left the country and basically lost a normal social life in the process, having to replace it with those now-familiar, oh-so-confessional letters.

It turns out that you can really do a certain amount of historical work by thinking about the relation of the present and the past. The intellectual problems with which these men and women grappled—the ones which I’m most interested in unravelling—can seem very foreign to us today. We think we’ve solved quandaries by which they were sincerely troubled, or aren’t affected with the same passionate intensity by emotions that could overcome them. But if I think about how many Deep Conversations I’ve had in university and since with close friends that no one wrote down, I realize how much the prospect of reconstructing my own intellectual world would stymie a scholar a century and a half hence. There is continuity as well as change, and being sensitive to the ways in which this circle of friends are like so many other young people with ideas can make us still more alive to the ways in which they are very alien indeed.

QOTD (2013-04-15); or, Oxoniana

Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):


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.

Receiving the Classical Tradition; or, Three Weeks in Greece, and What Came After

As a tourist in Greece, it requires a double take to realize that the country is in a bit of a mess. After all, even a functional Greece wouldn’t look as clean and shiny and new as France or Germany, the US or Canada. It’s never been as wealthy, as full of luxury goods. The large number of men in late middle age who apparently do nothing but sit in cafes and drink iced coffee can be chalked up to cultural differences, and in Athens homeless people don’t beg in the street on anything near to the scale of Paris, London, or any of the large US cities. But look again, picking yourself off the floor whither you’ve fallen in shock at the sight of the insanely cheap food prices (I’m still reeling at the memory of one particular shopping trip, on which I bought for two euros an assortment of fruit and veg that would easily have cost ten in Paris). Then you’ll see how many storefronts, in Athens and outlying towns, are boarded up and empty, how many supermarket shelves are thinly stocked, how many services are inexplicably missing. The trains haven’t run in over a year, for instance, and on the rare occasion that you find a post office that isn’t shut due to strikes or lack of money, you may discover, as I did, that it inexplicably sells neither envelopes nor stamps. When I travelled round the Peloponnese for a week with two friends, we not infrequently found ourselves the only diners in a restaurant, even at peak mealtimes in touristy areas; more than once, we suspected ourselves to be the only guests at our budget-to-midrange hotels. Even what the internet suggests to be one of the best restaurants in Athens, where we ate twice, wasn’t more than half-full on either occasion, while I can readily imagine that at its US equivalent you’d never be able to get a reservation. The strongest reminder of the economic crisis came in Selianítika, the little village on the Gulf of Corinth that for two weeks played host to fourteen Americans’ study of written and spoken ancient Greek: we arrived to discover that the village’s only ATM had been recently blown up by thieves desperate for the cash inside it. But you’d almost never have known it, so loudly did the beachfront bars blast American pop hits and so enthusiastically did large bathing-suit-clad Greeks sling back cheap beers and plunge into the salty water as a respite from the scorching midday heat. Greece right now is a strange country—but at least, as far as this traveller could figure out, there isn’t any reason not to give it your badly-needed business.

The beach at Selianítika.

But what are the implications, then, for the tourist and would-be conversational Attic speaker? Well, as in so many other parts of elite academic life, it means cognitive dissonance. It takes exactly the same state of mind to walk past the Big Issue-seller on the way to the Bodleian as it does to settle, amidst economic crisis and large-scale unemployment, into a routine of climbing mountains in blazing 100-degree sun to view the ruins at the top, wandering through archaeological museums looking at Mycenaean pot-shard after Mycenaean pot-shard, and spending fourteen days in a fruit garden surrounded by a ragtag international collection of philhellenes, would-be opera singers, and the odd innocent holiday-maker, among whom (aside from we hapless English speakers) the lingua franca seemed to be German, with modern Greek, Italian, and even Latin thrown in. Just so have generations of young academics before me wound up their grand tours by traipsing round some ruins in the Peloponnese. Just so have centuries of Oxford reading parties blundered headlong into some rural area on the Continent in order to get to grips with Plato and Homer. Just so have they been met with strange Germans and Germanophiles intent on enthusiastic amateur cultural and artistic pursuits as combined with swimming and calisthenics. Just so have ancient adventures, philosophical quandaries, and the mysteries of the attraction of the relative pronoun come to seem more vivid and palpable than the daily lives of locals who pop up every once in a while to provide some essential service, speaking a modern language the philhellenes find impossible to understand. It isn’t pretty, and it’s certainly got the weight of cultural-imperialist history to it.

The Hellenikon Idyllion, home of spoken Attic.

For that matter, everywhere I went in Greece, I found myself wading waist-deep through my own palimpsest. I thought of Schliemann and Byron, of course, revisited Cavafy, and read Symonds’ travel narrative about Athens. Atop the Acropolis, I thought of Freud’s “Disturbance of Memory” there in 1904; when a sudden downpour at Epidaurus sent my travelling companions and me running headlong for the archaeological museum, and we stood in sopping-wet silence in its main hall, dripping on the tile floor and looking at the remains of shrines to Aesclepius, I made a less-predictable connection (though perhaps one no less redolent with a sense of the uncanny!) to the eerie shots of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the planetarium in Manhattan. Greece does funny things to the spirit. Some of them are wonderful: in the sculpture gallery in the Acropolis Museum, the conviction pierced me like a thunderbolt that it is utterly wrong for the British Museum to keep hold of the Elgin Marbles when they so obviously demand to be seen here, in their proper context—something that it is quite impossible to appreciate when you’ve only seen the ghostly parade make its way across the wall of the gallery in London. At the top of the hill at Delphi, looking down at the lean white columns half-restored out of the ruin of the Temple of Apollo, standing starkly erect against the backdrop of the lush green valley below, I could easily see why, when, in an apocryphal (albeit plausible) story related by one of our teachers, the great classicist Kenneth Dover beheld that same view, he felt himself moved to the point of literal orgasm. But at the same time, I can’t say that I was surprised that my struggles with reading and speaking ancient Greek left me exhausted in body, mind, and spirit, as easily overwhelmed by a variety of personal issues as by my efforts to keep up with Attic-immersion conversations about Plato’s concept of τέχνη. Disturbances of memory crowd upon one in a country where you can walk through the physical remnants of civilization from a thousand years before Homer; where recent history is fraught with all sorts of conflicts and questions of national identity that seem at once foreign and familiar, at once of a piece with the longer history and separate from it.

On the Acropolis.

So, on the one hand (μὲν), Greece was wonderful, utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, a rich learning experience. But on the other hand (δὲ), I spent a lot of it sad and confused—which I remain now, despite being back in the mind-clearing, noise-free world of my usual close of summer in rural Canada. Being somewhere so puzzlingly unheimlich heightened the sense that this has been a very difficult, unheimlich summer, spent floating back and forth across the western hemisphere with no fixed address or institutional affiliation, no motivation to make academic progress, and no shortage of personal conflicts through which to struggle. The contrast with a year ago—coming to Canada to piece together six weeks spent in English archives and to start writing my first chapter, before I fell headlong into the whirlwind of thesis year—is stark. It leaves me wondering if this deadened feeling of writer’s block that has resulted in an unproductive summer is travelling’s fault, or growing-up-and-graduating-college’s fault, or my own. It leaves me wondering how real academics manage the tendency of summertime to leave one at loose ends, and the tendency of real life and its accumulation of small troubles to intercede upon one’s ability to sit down and write. It leaves me wondering if real academics ever see their work the way that novelists and poets and visual artists see theirs: something that can be done as much by being thoughtful and reflective about one’s life as by sitting at the computer and banging out words, something that takes time and quiet and country walks and human relationships for it to percolate, something that can act as its own form of therapy, helping the writer to understand all that is most unheimlich about other times, other places, and herself in relation to them.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

I spend a lot of my academic life—one which, like many academic lives, observes no distinction between work and home, between the professional and the personal—thinking about how many other young women and men before me sat at desks scattered across the western hemisphere and weighed their life’s ambivalence in μὲν… δέ clauses, thereby managing to cope somehow with the (admittedly relatively softball) pitches life throws at them. Thus, on my last night in Greece, my program had a talent show of sorts, and I stood up in front of ragtag mix of American students and teachers, Greeks, and the odd German, and gave a performance at which I wasn’t particularly talented, but which meant the world to me. As I said to my audience, barely able to look them in the eye, I started wanting to learn what the classical tradition had to do with me, started realizing how deficient my education had been in this regard, and thus took up Greek, for a wide variety of reasons academic and personal. But all of them could be summed up synecdochically (there’s a nice Greek word!) by my desire to understand what has since become my favorite passage in the Greek corpus, Phaedrus 251-252. Almost eighteen months since I bought my first Greek textbook from the Turl Street Oxfam shop in the Easter vacation and one of the various Indo-European philologists who suddenly and coincidentally appeared in my life taught me to notice “Ο ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ” (“the beautiful boy”) inscribed on the red-figure vases in the Ashmolean, almost a year since the start of the most intense nine months in two decades’ worth of schooling, I read my passage aloud to thirty or so philhellenes, in Greek and in my own English translation—and I could claim to understand every word of it, in heart and in mind.

Statue of Antinous, one of the most famous τῶν παιδῶν κάλων, in the Delphi Archaeological Museum.

I append the relevant passage below. It’s a fitting note on which to close this summer, and one which, as I look out on the sun-dappled Pacific Ocean (to which no poet, so far as I know, has ascribed the darkness of wine), doesn’t make me feel so bad. Not so shabby for eighteen months of Greek. Not so shabby for twenty-two-and-a-half years of life.

Rosy-fingered dawn over the wine-dark sea at Selianítika.

ὁ δὲ ἀρτιτελής, ὁ τῶν τότε πολυθεάμων, ὅταν θεοειδὲς πρόσωπον ἴδῃ κάλλος εὖ μεμιμημένον ἤ τινα σώματος ἰδέαν, πρῶτον μὲν ἔφριξε καί τι τῶν τότε ὑπῆλθεν αὐτὸν δειμάτων, εἶτα προσορῶν ὡς θεὸν σέβεται, καὶ εἰ μὴ ἐδεδίει τὴν τῆς σφόδρα μανίας δόξαν, θύοι ἂν ὡς ἀγάλματι καὶ θεῷ τοῖς παιδικοῖς. ἰδόντα δ᾽ αὐτὸν οἷον ἐκ τῆς φρίκης μεταβολή τε καὶ ἱδρὼς καὶ θερμότης ἀήθης λαμβάνει: δεξάμενος γὰρ τοῦ κάλλους τὴν ἀπορροὴν διὰ τῶν ὀμμάτων ἐθερμάνθη ᾗ ἡ τοῦ πτεροῦ φύσις ἄρδεται, θερμανθέντος δὲ ἐτάκη τὰ περὶ τὴν ἔκφυσιν, ἃ πάλαι ὑπὸ σκληρότητος συμμεμυκότα εἶργε μὴ βλαστάνειν, ἐπιρρυείσης δὲ τῆς τροφῆς ᾤδησέ τε καὶ ὥρμησε φύεσθαι ἀπὸ τῆς ῥίζης ὁ τοῦ πτεροῦ καυλὸς ὑπὸ πᾶν τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς εἶδος: πᾶσα γὰρ ἦν τὸ πάλαι πτερωτή. ζεῖ οὖν ἐν τούτῳ ὅλη καὶ ἀνακηκίει, καὶ ὅπερ τὸ τῶν ὀδοντοφυούντων πάθος περὶ τοὺς ὀδόντας γίγνεται ὅταν ἄρτι φύωσιν, κνῆσίς τε καὶ ἀγανάκτησις περὶ τὰ οὖλα, ταὐτὸν δὴ πέπονθεν ἡ τοῦ πτεροφυεῖν ἀρχομένου ψυχή: ζεῖ τε καὶ ἀγανακτεῖ καὶ γαργαλίζεται φύουσα τὰ πτερά. ὅταν μὲν οὖν βλέπουσα πρὸς τὸ τοῦ παιδὸς κάλλος, ἐκεῖθεν μέρη ἐπιόντα καὶ ῥέοντ᾽—ἃ δὴ διὰ ταῦτα ἵμερος καλεῖται—δεχομένη τὸν ἵμερον ἄρδηταί τε καὶ θερμαίνηται, λωφᾷ τε τῆς ὀδύνης καὶ γέγηθεν: ὅταν δὲ χωρὶς γένηται καὶ αὐχμήσῃ, τὰ τῶν διεξόδων στόματα ᾗ τὸ πτερὸν ὁρμᾷ, συναυαινόμενα μύσαντα ἀποκλῄει τὴν βλάστην τοῦ πτεροῦ, ἡ δ᾽ ἐντὸς μετὰ τοῦ ἱμέρου ἀποκεκλῃμένη, πηδῶσα οἷον τὰ σφύζοντα, τῇ διεξόδῳ ἐγχρίει ἑκάστη τῇ καθ᾽ αὑτήν, ὥστε πᾶσα κεντουμένη κύκλῳ ἡ ψυχὴ οἰστρᾷ καὶ ὀδυνᾶται, μνήμην δ᾽ αὖ ἔχουσα τοῦ καλοῦ γέγηθεν. ἐκ δὲ ἀμφοτέρων μεμειγμένων ἀδημονεῖ τε τῇ ἀτοπίᾳ τοῦ πάθους καὶ ἀποροῦσα λυττᾷ, καὶ ἐμμανὴς οὖσα οὔτε νυκτὸς δύναται καθεύδειν οὔτε μεθ᾽ ἡμέραν οὗ ἂν ᾖ μένειν, θεῖ δὲ ποθοῦσα ὅπου ἂν οἴηται ὄψεσθαι τὸν ἔχοντα τὸ κάλλος: ἰδοῦσα δὲ καὶ ἐποχετευσαμένη ἵμερον ἔλυσε μὲν τὰ τότε συμπεφραγμένα, ἀναπνοὴν δὲ λαβοῦσα κέντρων τε καὶ ὠδίνων ἔληξεν, ἡδονὴν δ᾽ αὖ ταύτην γλυκυτάτην ἐν τῷ παρόντι καρποῦται. ὅθεν δὴ ἑκοῦσα εἶναι οὐκ ἀπολείπεται, οὐδέ τινα τοῦ καλοῦ περὶ πλείονος ποιεῖται, ἀλλὰ μητέρων τε καὶ ἀδελφῶν καὶ ἑταίρων πάντων λέλησται, καὶ οὐσίας δι᾽ ἀμέλειαν ἀπολλυμένης παρ᾽ οὐδὲν τίθεται, νομίμων δὲ καὶ εὐσχημόνων, οἷς πρὸ τοῦ ἐκαλλωπίζετο, πάντων καταφρονήσασα δουλεύειν ἑτοίμη καὶ κοιμᾶσθαι ὅπου ἂν ἐᾷ τις ἐγγυτάτω τοῦ πόθου: πρὸς γὰρ τῷ σέβεσθαι τὸν τὸ κάλλος ἔχοντα ἰατρὸν ηὕρηκε μόνον τῶν μεγίστων πόνων. τοῦτο δὲ τὸ πάθος…, πρὸς ὃν δή μοι ὁ λόγος, ἄνθρωποι… ἔρωτα ὀνομάζουσιν….

But the newly-initiated man, who has then seen much, whenever he sees a godlike face or bodily form that represents Beauty well, first thrills at the sight, and then some awe overcomes him. Beholding his beloved, he reveres him like a god. If he did not fear a reputation for excessive madness, he would sacrifice to his young beloved [παιδικοῖς], so as to worship him. And, seeing his beloved, he is so changed from the thrill that he is possessed by sweat and unwanted heat: for, when he accepts the flow of beauty into his eyes, it moistens the roots of the feathers; growing warm, these roots, which once had been closed through their hardness and prevented from growing, are melted. Having nourishment poured upon them, they become swollen and begin to bear forth from their roots the stems of feathers across the entire form of the soul, for all of it was feathered long ago. Then the whole soul seethes and throbs, just as, when growing teeth, one suffers pain around the gums. Just like this scratching and irritation in the gums, is the pain that the soul has when it begins to grow feathers: it seethes and throbs and tickles, as it produces them. Then when the soul regards a beautiful youth [παιδὸς κάλλος] and the thrilling feeling comes upon it, it receives this nourishing yearning. As it does so it is watered and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy. Yet when it is separated [from the beloved], the soul becomes dry and unkempt, dehydrating and closing up the buds of the feathers; and inside, having been shut up with the yearning, the feathers spring and throb, each one pricking the passage accorded it, so that the soul, having been stung all round, is caused to ache—until, once more recalling the memory of the beautiful one, it rejoices. And, out of the mixture of these two things, it is perplexed by the strangeness of its feeling and springs up in anger; and, driven insane, it can neither sleep at night nor remain anywhere by day, but, in longing, runs whenever it thinks to see the beloved; seeing him, the soul is bathed in the waters of yearning. The obstructed passages are let free, the soul has respite from its stings and relief from its pains, and this brings forth the sweetest pleasure there is. Indeed, such a man is incapable of being left alone by he who remains more beautiful than all others, but forgets his parents and siblings and all his friends, and neglects his property, caring nothing for its destruction, nor for the customs and manners in which he took pride before. Disdaining everything, he is prepared to be a slave to the one whom he desires, and to sleep anywhere it is permitted so as to be as close as possible to him: for he is in awe of the one who possesses beauty, and finds him the only healer of his greatest troubles. And people call this suffering about which I am speaking Love.

QOTD (2011-07-13); or, “What Drew You to Symonds?”

When people ask me that question—as a colleague did, the other day, in the British Library café—I tell them the story chronologically: how years ago I won an essay competition and the prize was Michael Robertson’s book Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and how in that book I first read about Symonds and his poignant efforts to get Whitman to agree that his adhesive love and the Platonic eros were really one and the same. How it was just happenstance, and then I got hooked, and the rest is history. I leave out, when I tell that story, the hours spent wading through the immense paper trail Symonds left behind, the hundreds of pages of notes on Homer and the hundreds of pages of letters about how boring Davos Platz, Switzerland is and how tiresome the politicking of being the President of the Committee for the International Toboggan Race is. I leave out the moments when, slogging through heavy-handed Hegelian narratives of 16th-century Italian sculpture, or equally heavy-handed metaphors about desire strung through Petrarchan sonnet after Petrarchan sonnet, I come to doubt whether this guy I’m spending my life with actually matters, and whether the man who I first encountered in Robertson’s book ever existed at all.

But humanistic endeavor is a kind of religion, and through doubt we come again to faith. Here is a long letter that Symonds wrote in 1889 from his Swiss exile to his old tutor and lifelong friend, Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol:

My dear Master,—I am glad to hear from the last letter you wrote me that you have abandoned the idea of an essay on Greek love. Little good could come of such a treatise in your book.

It surprises me to find you, with your knowledge of Greek history, speaking of this in Plato as “mainly a figure of speech.”—It surprises me as much as I seem to surprise you when I repeat that the study of Plato is injurious to a certain number of predisposed young men.—

Many forms of passion between males are matters of fact in English schools, colleges, cities, rural districts. Such passion is innate in some persons no less than the ordinary sexual appetite is innate in the majority. With the nobler of such predetermined temperaments the passion seeks a spiritual or ideal transfiguration. When, therefore, individuals of the indicated species come into contact with the reveries of Plato, (clothed in graceful diction, immersed in the peculiar emotion, presented with considerable dramatic force, gilt with a mystical philosophy, throbbing with the realism of actual Greek life), the effect upon them has the force of a revelation. They discover that what they had been blindly groping after was once an admitted possibility—not a mean hole or corner—but that the race whose literature forms the basis of their higher culture, lived in that way, aspired in that way. For such students of Plato there is no question of “figures of speech,” but of concrete facts, facts in the social experience of Athens, from which men derived courage, drew intellectual illumination, took their fist step in the path which led to great achievements and the arduous pursuit of truth.

Greek history confirms, by a multitude of legends and of actual episodes, what Plato puts forth as a splendid vision, and subordinates to the higher philosophic life.

It is futile by any evasion of the central difficulty, by any dexterity in the use of words, to escape from the stubborn fact that natures so exceptionally predisposed find in Plato the encouragement of their furtively cherished dreams. The Lysis, the Charmides, the Phaedrus, the Symposium—how many varied and unimaginative pictures these dialogues contain of what is only a sweet poison to such minds!

Meanwhile the temptations of the actual world surround them: friends of like temper, boys who respond to kindness, reckless creatures abroad upon the common ways of life. Eros Pandemos is everywhere. Plato lends the light, the gleam, that never was on sea or shore.

Thus Plato delays the damnation of these souls by ensnaring the noblest part of them—their intellectual imagination. And strong as custom may be, strong as piety, strong as the sense of duty, these restraints have always been found frail against the impulse of powerful inborn natural passion and the allurements of inspired art.

The contest in the Soul is terrible, and victory, if gained, is only won at the cost of a struggle which thwarts and embitters.

We do not know how many English youths have been injured in this way. More, I firmly believe, than is suspected. Educators, when they diagnose the disease, denounce it. That is easy enough, because low and social taste are with them, and because the person incriminated feels too terribly the weight of law and custom. He has nothing to urge in self-defence—except his inborn instinct, and the fact that those very men who condemn him, have placed the most electrical literature of the world in his hands, pregnant with the stuff that damns him. Convention rules us so strangely that the educators do all this only because it always has been done—in a blind dull confidence—fancying that the lads in question are as impervious as they themselves are to the magnetism of the books they bid them study and digest.

Put yourself in the place of someone to whom the aspect of Greek life which you ignore is personally and intensely interesting, who reads his Plato as you would wish him to read his Bible—i.e. with a vivid conviction that what he reads is the life-record of a masterful creative man—determining race, and the monument of a world-important epoch.

Can you pretend that a sympathetically constituted nature of the sort in question will desire nothing from the panegyric of paederastic love in the Phaedrus, from the personal grace of Charmides, from the mingled realism and rapture of the Symposium? What you call a figure of speech, is heaven in hell to him—maddening, because it is stimulating to the imagination; wholly out of accord with the world he has to live in; too deeply in accord with his own impossible desires.

Greek love was for Plato no “figure of speech,” but a present poignant reality. Greek love is for modern students of Plato no “figure of speech” and no anachronism, but a present poignant reality. The facts of Greek history and the facts of contemporary life demonstrate these propositions only too conclusively.

I will not trouble you again upon this topic. I could not, however, allow the following passage in your letter—”I do not understand how, what is in the main a figure of speech should have so great power over them”—to go unnoticed without throwing what light I can upon what you do not understand.

I feel strongly on the subject, and where there is strong feeling, there is usually the risk of over-statement. But I hope I have not spoken rudely. 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, while the baser forms of Greek love have grown to serious proportions in the seminaries of youth and in great centres of social life belonging to that nation.

Ever most sincerely yours

J.A. Symonds

This is the man who a few short years before told the Harvard professor T.S. Perry that his “essay on Greek Morals” would never see the light of day, who shrouded his intense desire for sundry young men in dense overwritten spiritually-inflected metaphor, whose amour de l’impossible dogged his life and assuredly exacerbated his ill health. But the so totally cool thing about him—the reason why he is more than the repressed, tortured Victorian Phyllis Grosskurth claims—is that this is the man who, finally, almost thirty years after first reading the Symposium, finally writes to the tutor who coached him to his First and tells him that there is something that he doesn’t understand. I am writing a thesis about how one of the most amazing things that Symonds does is that he finds a way out of metaphor into literality, out of idealism into realism, whether in his own poetry or in Jowett’s lit crit. Despite the endless discussion of tobogganing, that’s why I keep on.