It is the brightest of Septembers, all frigid mornings and sun-through-windows and hot tea.
The German Literature course is reading Kleist, who writes like a post-post-modernist out of a permanently fractured universe. In 1811 he shot a woman, and then himself, barely 34. Suicide. “Should we read his works, then?” asks the German Professor on the loveliest of afternoons. “Nein,” says Herr Catholicism, who is currently shredding papers and glaring across the classroom. “Wir können nichts von ihm lernen–we can’t learn anything from him.” The German Professor, immaculately dressed and eternally, intensely enigmatic, comes around to stare from the front of the desk. He takes off his glasses and leans all the way over the first row of students. “But does art always have to teach us something?” Such fervor. You think that this professor, who loves Nabokov and the craziest melismas of Baroque opera, would probably answer no. You suspect he believes in Beauty the way his colleagues believe in God.
You truck up to the German department and down to Classics, exasperate both and yourself as well. Why can’t I write on that? Who says? And what happened to humanism? All future plans are up in the air.
Philosophy. The professor looks like Aristotle. Socrates is our contemporary, he says–to care for your soul is the most radical thought in Western civilization. You like the Pre-Socratics, too, who thought themselves out of time.
Music. There are dozens of old scores to be memorized– plainchant, Gregorian chant, trouvere, organum, motet. These earliest of Western melodies are utterly strange, haunting, shockingly modern. You think the idea of organum is exceptionally fascinating, this concept of voices in polyphony over a sustained drone. The melodies only had to be consonant with the bass line, not with each other, so the music is sometimes as chromatic and dissonant as modern atonalism. But it didn’t sound that way in 1,200! Then, organum was the most reverent of sounds, written for the Church and the glory of God.
You listen until you are entirely saturated with it all, with pure voices that bring out the echo of ancient cathedrals even through cheap computer speakers.
The philosophy chap who looked like Poe all last semester has undergone a remarkable transformation (less mustache, more hair) and now bears a striking resemblance to the young Goethe in, say, 1773–bright manic eyes, cravat, waistcoat. You think the change is an exceeding improvement, because the 20-something Goethe pretty much rocked. Ironically, the 2012 version is writing his thesis on 19th-century Germany and the East, and you try to persuade him to include Wagner’s Parsifal.
It’s suit-jacket weather. Goethe, and everybody else, is wearing them, tweed, patched at the elbows, wool, fitted. You are certainly not at all adverse to the fashion, but wear yours with pearls.
On the night before classes started, someone made a gigantic bonfire and read Eliot’s Four Quartets, shouting, standing too close to the flames. Shadow on light.