Being: A Scholar and a Lady

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAs a teenager, my two greatest aspirations were to be manly and intellectual.

Manly and intellectual–because to be intellectual is to be manly, of course, I thought, and vice versa. That’s just the way things go. Men are the scholars, men write the books, men are the philosophers and composers, men are the thinkers.

Before I left for college, this never really bothered me. I loved men–their thoughts, their art, their history (I still do). I had nothing against women; I just wasn’t interested in adopting their usual aspirations. When I was younger, I wanted to be the men I read about–I was Robin Hood, or Lewis and Clark, making wooden swords and killing monsters and obsessing over The Hardy Boys and Jules Verne. I picked out books from the library because they looked masculine, and therefore scholarly. The old editions, heavy, with gilt lettering and no pictures. That was cool.

And all my literary heroes were men–Socrates, Hector, Don Quixote, Werther, Faust, Hamlet, Hans Castorp. The men who think about things, the men who love words. It was their image I wanted to cultivate for myself, was in love with. It was what I wanted for my future adult self, both as a way-of-being and as a career. I had intellectual aspirations in highschool, read my Latin and Greek and listened to inordinate amounts of German opera. I was going to be a professor, and a thinker like all those men in my books. I was going to have a book-lined study and wear patched tweed jackets. I was going to live the [masculine] life of the mind.

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But then I went to college and became a reluctant feminist, and suddenly the image I loved (or rather, my love for that image) became deeply disturbing. Perhaps I had the makings of a scholar–but I was not, after all, a man.

The question was unavoidable: what happens when one is a scholar, but not a gentleman? Because it is only the men, who are portrayed as capable of devoting themselves to the stringent, lonesome, heady, wonderful world of the intellect and academia. That’s what the media tells us, that’s what 3,000 years of art tells us. Think: name one film, one book, that portrays it otherwise. The intellectual, the aging male professor, in a dusty study surrounded by books, the pipe-smoke, the tweed jackets, the unkempt hair. Faust in his dumpfes Mauerloch, Socrates pattering about Athens in rags, Prospero with his scrolls and spells, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. This is the image we know and expect, in all its variations over the past millennia. Scholarship, reason, dialectic, debate–all these are somehow masculine traits. The archetype of intellectuality–the life of the mind–belongs to men.

I knew all this in highschool, at some level. But somehow I never saw any obstacles to my desire to take up the role and adopt the image for myself. Now it all seemed insurmountably problematic. I was female, after all–but the woman intellectual just didn’t fit the mold, didn’t have a place in three thousand years of art. She didn’t have an image, a reflection somewhere in the collective consciousness.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAI wasn’t going to give anything up, because I loved my dreams, loved the archetype of the (male) academic. The rigor, the Word, the devotion to thought, the study and the books–it was in this universe that I was most joyful. But–did my pursuit of the life of the mind, as a career and a way-of-being, imply a betrayal of femininity? Had I already done that? Or, conversely–was the image that I loved one I, as a female, was even allowed to participate in?

How do I be female (let alone feminist)–I asked–while pursuing an image that is so overtly male? What heroes do I take, what scholarship do I produce?

Yes, there are people (and ever more of them!) like the new young Classics professor in my school’s department. She is tenure-track, publishes widely on Platonic philosophy, has the book-lined study–and is also married and pregnant, and is teaching an entire semester of Myth in heels and power suits. She is doing it all, with intelligence and grace. But–what is she drawing on? Where are her heroes, her archetypes? Even her presence in my life, for which I am incredibly grateful, doesn’t do a thing to fill the void of the past 3,000 years.

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And yet–and yet–I am beginning to see how one might revel in the ambiguity, in the silence of art, in the lack of a self-reflection in mainstream literature and film. Isn’t it all incredibly freeing, after all? As a woman and hopeful future scholar, I have no archetypes, no image that belongs rigidly to me–and so I can create! I can make a new idiom, new tropes, and let go of the idea that I have to adhere to the old ones.

In this way, female intellectuals and academicians have much more freedom than their male counterparts–their existence is fluid, flexible. To steal another lovely German word, they are Mischwesen. Mixed beings. They are between two worlds, and they can move between them.

I can move between them. And I do. I wear skirts and heels to class one day, tweed jackets and button-downs the next. I can produce real scholarship, maybe write that book on metaphor one day, and still want to be a mother and a wife. I can write on “Women’s Issues” if I wish, or not. I can still hold on to all those old male heroes, but realize that they only tell half the story.

“You’ll never be a cult figure,” says the young Classics professor, when I stop by her office to thank her for three years of good teaching. “That’s just not how students relate to female professors.” I think about the dozens of freshmen I work with in the Writing Center, all breathless with adulation for their male Heritage and Lit professors. Can I let that go? Yes, I think so. Did I even want it in the first place? Perhaps not. No human being deserves worship. I will be content with (and honored for!) the chance to earn respect in the classroom, to create and participate in dialogue, to think and write about beautiful things.

But I still have a long way to go. In the meantime, I revel in this in-between area. There’s something incredibly playful about it all, in the end. It is the space, the vacancy, and the silence that allow for real creativity.

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Perhaps someday the image of the female intellectual will start making it into the collective consciousness, into mainstream art and film and literature. Perhaps someday there will be a new type. But maybe, I think, I don’t even want that to happen. Archetypes and images are comforting, but in the end they imply restriction, a lack of freedom.

In the moment, I like falling through the cracks.

_______________________

This article from thehumanist.org has many fascinating things to say on women in academia.

The photo was taken outside the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. The sign reads “Women, women, women.”

Being: Spring Semester

snowstorm3It is the coldest of Februarys, all frozen mud and raw mid-western sleet. Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind–no matter which way you walk, it blows in your face.

This semester is full of Robert Musil, and you love him. You try to talk in German about the part of human existence that lies outside of words. You fail.

Latin. You start admiring secondary literature for the first time in your life, thanks to the young Classics professor who gives you as much literary theory and crazy feminist interpretations of Ovid as you could wish for. She is new to the department, and the adulation of the female Latin and Greek students is only slightly veiled. An article by Foucault on the death of the author derails the seminar and her office hours for half a week.

 
What if the author didn’t matter? You are still debating this point days later, with the vanload of bright-eyed 19-year-old Classicists on the way to teach Latin to third graders.

And Eros, from Plato’s Symposium, in Greek, with Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig added in for good measure. Everything is thrown open. There is more here than you ever thought. Eros as possession and procreation. Eros as philosophy and the philosopher together. Eros as the mediator transcendent, halfway between foolishness and wisdom, poverty and wealth, appearance and reality. Eros as a way of being–give and take, presence and absence, the tension and release at the root of all scholarship and of all being-in-love-with. It is the idea of the semester.

~~~~~

Elsewhere. Being a good Nietzschean and nagged by the fear that you just might turn into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, you resolve to learn to dance. You find out that you are more horrible at it than you thought. This is a great disappointment not only to yourself, but also to whatever poor sap ends up partnering with you in Social Dance 101.

Young Goethe from last semester has grown out his sideburns and entirely ruined his looks.  You decide that he amply compensated, though, by simultaneously darning his own jacket and reciting Auden last Friday.

The other weekly readers of poetry and singers of songs have fixated on medieval chant. Crucem Sanctam Subiit–there are a dozen verses, and everyone must learn them all so you can sing them thirty-five voices strong, pounding on the floor, the faces of the young men transfigured in some sort of spiritual ecstasy. They all want to be monks someday.

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Photograph from my sister, ever-talented.

Being: Language, Virginia Woolf, Sugaring Season

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The thing about studying this beautiful foreign language is that it leaves me starving for English. After oral exams and sight translations I want to collapse into familiarity, into the comfort of Shakespeare or Nabokov or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For all the intoxication of foreign languages, there is always for me an underlying level of disquiet, a persistent feeling of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. There such a luxury in one’s own speech, really, in the ability to fly through paragraphs unencumbered by dictionary and pocket grammar. The resonance behind the words, cadence and illusion–all there for the taking. English majors are spoiled, I think.

The desire to flee into English was strongest last August when I returned from Germany. I was weary of my own ineptness in the language, of stumbling through small-talk with bus drivers and trying to read between the lines in Kleist, who never meant what he wrote anyway. Petulantly, I wanted beauty and familiarity, wanted to be able to read a hundred pages in one afternoon. So I fell into Nabokov on the iron daybed on our porch, reading, reading, reading, too hot, with my eyes half-shut and the neighbor making hay across the road. Nabokov’s prose was sick and beautiful, and above all searingly good English.

This Christmas break the desire for familiarity was the same, after a semester where the only prose in my language I studied was secondary articles on Cicero. Boring, oder? So I looked forward to a few weeks of literary English, Plato word lists be damned. This time, there was Virginia Woolf–The Waves, on the recommendation of a friend who copied out a quote for me that was too arresting to ignore.

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I finished The Waves in two afternoons in front of the wood stove, moving a bronze bookmark back and back to the last page. It had been three years since I had read Virginia Woolf, and I had forgotten the beauty of her English–heady stuff, prose not as red-blooded as Nabokov but equally as musical.

The first time I read Woolf–To the Lighthouse–I was 17 and a senior in high school, making notes in the margins for a presentation on art and atheism. My recollection of the book had since receded to only a sense of the prose, vague outlines of imagery like the wedge of darkness before the sea.

Memory is funny, though. The book and author are, for me, unalterably bound to another recollection, one still piercingly vivid. It was late March in Vermont–maple sugaring season–and I was reading To the Lighthouse in the tiny sugar house across from the barn. I copied out the quote about the wedge of darkness and wrote a little more.

I am sitting in the sugar house, looking out the white-washed door into the last clean light of day. Luke is on the step, spitting into the yard and melting the edges of his rubber boots on the door of the arch. This is a terrible season for sugaring, and all the neighbors gather to commiserate. Too warm–too early–the sap is not sweet. The Beedes made 9 gallons out of 400 taps, and Jim Curtin burned his new front pan. The Cute Farmer Down the Hill once again drank more beer than he made syrup.

There is something about the light in March in Vermont, like it is filtered through air that is is thinner or sharper or something. As clear as Woolf’s prose, or clearer, perhaps the apotheosis of clarity. And the whole world is flowing, water, mud, sap, everything is liquid flowing downhill. My sister and I scratched Elvish into the arms of the plastic chairs inside the sugar house, raw-cheeked and smelling like smoke. The steam off the boiling sap curled the pages of anything we were reading. The wind was coarse but warm enough for sweaters and no hats. There were lambs in the barn.

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Now reading Woolf again, in January when nothing flows, this memory of sugaring comes back and the vagueness of To the Lighthouse is also filled out. There are the same themes, I think, running throughout Woolf’s entire opus like a symphony.

For instance there is always the sea. The descriptions of ocean and light that run through To the Lighthouse and The Waves are like worded versions of the sea interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera, I think. Dawn, Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

 

And time. Time is romanced in Woolf, ebbing and flowing like snowmelt in March, or like music, but certainly not like history or clocks. What was she getting at? Perhaps Wagner had it right in his Parsifal. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit–Here time becomes space. Or perhaps it was the opening lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In Woolf one is never certain. A day, a life–which has passed? And was the one as long as the other? And time lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. What does that mean?

And one more thing, that struck me as especially oxymoronic, dreadful, somehow misplaced in the clear light in March, and also now in the firelight in January. In Virginia Woolf there is such darkness at the edge of being. The roar of blackness just within consciousness was louder than any spring flood, measureless, burning. I was disturbed, and tried to get at that in the art and atheism presentation. And now, here it was again, writ large in The Waves.  Now I say there is a grinning, there is a subterfuge. There is something sneering behind our backs. That was frightening.

And so Virginia Woolf’s sea broke itself, her nights were full of wind and destruction. But the destruction, whatever else it was, was beautiful.

Being: Fall Semester

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.

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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.

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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.

Dialogue: Cassandra and Hamlet

 

Cassandra was my first literary haunting.

She was a startling creature in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, utterly alone and unlike anything I had ever encountered. She persisted and pervaded, and will never again be far from my consciousness.

I was sixteen, about to start the Tragedy unit in my online Greek and Roman Literature course. My very wise teacher told us nothing about Aeschylus or tragic theory, but merely told us to open our books and read Agamemnon outloud from line one. I played the Trojan seeress, and the power and terror of her words were like a storm.

Who was she? A priestess, the daughter of the king, cursed by Apollo to speak the truth and never be believed. They say she refused to sleep with the god, and he spat in her mouth.

Aeschylus picked up her story after the fall of Troy, with her arrival in Argos as the war-prize of Agamemnon. Of course we all know now what only Cassandra knew then—the tabloid-saga of the queen’s infidelity, her revenge for a slaughtered child, the murder (in the bath!) that awaited the lord of the house and his concubine. Cassandra was wild to speak of all this, wild to be heard by a Chorus that could not believe until it was too late. Her final moments, in the beautiful translation by Robert Fagles, are all poetry and desperate nobility.

Hamlet came two summers later. He was less freakish, funnier–but equally demanding, asking the same sort of insistent questions. His story was much better known: the prince only mad north-northwest, his murdered king and ghost, poisons, players, letters, nunneries. He arrived when my sister and I determined to read Shakespeare until we loved him, and accordingly spent an inordinate amount of time lounging about on the bedroom floor declaiming soliloquies and not doing chores.

Hamlet was our first play, and the night we got that Danish prince, we danced into our parents’ bedroom to tell them that Shakespeare rocked. And that Hamlet rocked most of all, and we had no idea who he was, and we were in love and in hate.

The following autumn I left for Hillsdale College, and heard things that started the conversation between the two characters: a lecture on tragedy in Agamemnon from a recovering feminist one semester, a rambly study of Shakespeare the next. Hamlet and Cassandra, I discovered, had things to say to each other.

I collected quotes, read with both books open side-by-side, and was astounded. They were separated by 2,000 years, and yet so similar! Both were displaced royalty, and crazy, but also the only sane characters in worlds gone mad. Both were defined by otherness, equally tortured by their capacity for thought and knowledge of the truth. And both learned to die with nobility and perhaps a little wisdom.

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It was clear that Cassandra and Hamlet moved in worlds dictated by Fate, or Moira to the Greeks. This Fate was the merciless, faceless entity that hemmed in the edges of the Tragic universe, that dictated that the human condition be full of unjustified sorrow and suffering. In such a world, the measure of a man was in how he responded to such a destiny, whether with truth and nobility or with fear and evasion.

But who could blame Cassandra and Hamlet, really, if their first response was all horror? The seeress’ scream “The agony—O I am breaking!—Fate’s so hard, and the pain that floods my voice is mine alone” (1138-9) echoed in Hamlet’s “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.191). They were young, and life could have been so easy.

There was evasion in the beginning, too. Wouldn’t it have been much pleasanter, neater, to cheat such a cruel lot? To find an easier way out? Indeed—and so Hamlet toyed with suicide and not-to-be, and Cassandra turned to songbirds.

The Nightingale—O for a song, a fate like hers!

The gods gave her a life of ease, swathed her in wings, no tears, no wailing. (1148-9)

Flight was desperately attractive.

But something changed before the end, because Hamlet didn’t kill himself, and Cassandra remained human. By their final scenes both had replaced evasion with readiness, the desire to flee with the understanding necessary to let be. In the end, they told us, it really wasn’t a matter of escape, of flight into madness or suicide, but of facing the human condition open-eyed, with dignity, compassion, and humanity.

It was the harder course, this lucid encounter with Fate, but one fulfilled with ultimate grace. With heartbreaking eloquence, Hamlet drew his conclusions in his penultimate scene: He was finished playing with a bare dagger. The decision for life or death would no longer be his hands. Horatio would not lie and excuse him from the duel.

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness

is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,

what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.2.196)

Cassandra, too, turned her back on evasion and hysteria moments before her death. “My time has come,” she informed the deluded Chorus. “Little to gain from flight” (1324). Like Hamlet, she was no longer willing to cheat her way out. She would face whatever might come with sanity, standing upright.

~~~~~

These resolutions were vital, because death was suddenly the here and now. The readiness gained in their final scenes enabled Cassandra and Hamlet to face their own mortality with clarity and truth.

It would have been easy to lie, because everyone else did. The chorus wanted something glorious, and so smelled Syrian myrrh instead of the reek of blood. But Cassandra was explicit, urgent, clear-headed: “No escape, my friends…. I must go in now, mourning Agamemnon’s death and mine” (1324 and 1335). Two millennia later, Claudius wanted his propriety, and so extended the farce till the moment of his death (“Help me friends, I am but hurt!” (V.2.307)). But Hamlet said simply “I die, Horatio” (V.2.316, 321, 335).  Like Cassandra, he met the tragedy of his own death with the dignity and awareness that none of the other characters were able to achieve. All madness, affected or genuine, fell away at last.

 ~~~~~

One more question, because one must always ask. What about immortality—did either really hope for a blessed afterlife? I couldn’t find that they did. Hamlet spoke of “the dread of something after death” (III.1.78), and the rest, after all, was silence. Cassandra cried on the steps of the palace.

Oh men, your destiny.

When all is well a shadow can overturn it.

When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,

And the picture’s blotted out. And that,

I think that breaks the heart. (1350-1355)

But in a way, Cassandra and Hamlet lived on. Perhaps it was their very doubt of a neat metaphysical solution that compelled them to so purposefully leave something behind. In so doing, they engendered the writing of their own dramas.

Thus Hamlet to Horatio, in his final moments: “Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story” (V.2.331). He would offer his tale to a shocked court, and seek to prevent such “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” from happening again (V.2.364).

Cassandra, too, turned from sorrow to speak to a frightened Chorus: “No more riddles. I will teach you. Come, bear witness, run and hunt with me” (1183). Her final words echoed Hamlet’s:

Friends—I cried out,

not from fear like a bird fresh caught,

but that you will testify to how I died

That’s all I ask, my friends. A stranger’s gift

for one about to die. (1338-43)

Her death would become part of the Oresteia, to be remembered again with Orestes’ return, with the queen’s death, with the revenge of the man married to grief. As Hamlet was a prince and actor, she was a seeress—and in the face of the greatest personal tragedy gave away her story to the yet-unknowing world.

~~~~~

So there it is. In Tragedy, death is not a private event, but reflects individual character and becomes a measure of human capability and potential—ugliness and fear for some, wisdom and greatness for others. As the chorus in Agamemnon says, “to go nobly lends a man some grace” (1327). Cassandra and Hamlet found that grace, and the wisdom it granted, in life and in death.

In the end, perhaps what separates the two is aloneness. However estranged he may be, Hamlet is surrounded by familiarity, by those who have known and maybe tried to understand him from childhood. He is a part of his society, whether he likes it or not. After all, he would have been king, without the poison-and-treachery business—and even in the end, he will be buried like a prince and remembered as one.

But what about Cassandra? She was uprooted, kept alive only because she was young and attractive enough to tempt a hero, born away from an immolated city on the chariot of her captor. She had no players to set traps, no Horatio to keep her confidences—in fact, no one had ever believed her, before or after Troy. Her father was murdered on the altar of Zeus, her god cursed her. And now, in Argos, there was literally nothing left.

Of all the finely drawn women in Classical literature, perhaps Cassandra is the most alone. So many of the others—and this is an observation, not an agenda—are bound and remembered by their relation to others, to men. Dido is eternally burning on her lover’s bed, Andromache holding her child and weeping over Hector’s plumed helmet. Penelope waits for her family, Psyche chases after Cupid.

How strikingly does Aeschylus’ portrait of Cassandra differ—she is forever alone, sapling straight, silhouetted against the open palace doors. In her final moments she is not Agamemnon’s war-prize or even the daughter of Priam. She has only truth, and is only herself, and maybe that is why she can speak for us all.

Zeus has led us on to know,

the Helmsman lays it down as law

that we must suffer, suffer into truth.

We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

the pain of pain remembered comes again,

and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

there comes a violent love.

Agamemnon, first Chorus 177-184


Yes, I know I said no footnotes. But I should say that I am most grateful to Dr. Deborah Belt for laying the foundations of these ideas. The concept of the tragic worldview belongs to her.  

The picture of Cassandra and the quotes from Aeschylus are from my Penguin edition of the Oresteia, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin Group 1979).  The painting of Hamlet  is by William Hunt, 1864. The video is, of course, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet, the Shakespeare quotes from The Pelican Shakespeare ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Penguin Group 2001).

Also, for those interested in further reading, I find most fitting that a writer like Christa Wolf should again take up the seeress’ story, in 1984, for her outcry against the oppression of women and censorship in East Germany. Her Kassandra  is a beautiful addition to the mythos, I think.