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.

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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: Christmas Break and Thomas Mann

Home! The Sister and I flew in last week, back to wood floors and fireplaces and gourmet pizza, to tramps through the woods in rubber boots and an excess of fuzzy cats. The house smells like moth balls and pine branches and fires and hay. I can discard tailored wool blazers and ironed blouses and dress like a hippie for a month. The Brother has perfected a dozen new yoyo tricks to perform to Rod Stewart turned up too loud. We all have to spend inordinate hours making Christmas cookies and watching Dr. Who. It is simply good to be here.

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Everything is more or less Thomas Mann. He was my independent study topic with the enigmatic German Professor, and took up every spare moment of the semester, as well as many moments that were not spare, to the general bereavement of the research projects. The study was fantastic, one of the best things I have done at the college–a four-month-long discussion of art, music, philosophy, criticism, literature, auf Deutsch, all per Thomas Mann. And he is astounding.

The first half of the semester was Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice)–fin de siecle and classicism, a heady and haunting synthesis of pagan gods and decadence and the music of a dead composer from Vienna. And Plato’s Eros, which may well have been the most thrilling discovery of the semester. Read the Symposium and Phaedrus. Creation in Beauty, possession of Beauty–are they all that different? And why does Aschenbach fall so tragically short of both?

Next came the question of salvation, redemption–Erlösung–in Mann. Where was it? Certainly not in Art, that much was certain. Mann  was no Romantic, and those who loved Art in his world strayed towards damnation. What then? I was discomfited.

We ought to look at Irony, said the Professor. That was as much a solution in Mann, as much a redemption, as anything he could think of. So we did, in Tonio Kröger and then Beim Propheten (At the Prophet’s), where the Novelist (Mann himself?) day-dreamed about a ham sandwich in the middle of the most mystical revelations. The Professor laughed until he had to wipe his eyes, and said that–ironic laughter–was as good a redemption as any, Emily, and didn’t I agree? I, being a good Wagnerian and thus rather in love with the idea that Through Art All Men Are Saved, didn’t, really.

And then the women. Gerächt (Revenged/Avenged) was Mann’s feminist manifesto, at first glance. Or was it? Was Mann’s treatment of women–in his other works–really any different than that narrow and laughable view he exposed to such ridicule in Gerächt? It all tied into my general uneasiness with the women in the works we were reading in 19th Century Lit, going all the way back to Goethe’s Ewig-Weibliche…..

I got a little carried away.

“You should write a feminist interpretation of Thomas Mann,” said the Professor. “But that’s boring.” I said. “And sad.” I don’t want to be a feminist, I want to be a humanist. And it is ever so much more productive to love these great artists, through and beyond all their short-sightedness and prejudice. Cynicism, disenchantment, and bitterness get one precisely nowhere, as a student, critic, and human being.

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But there was a broader tension, behind it all, something discomfiting about the discussions. By taking Thomas Mann so seriously, by letting him be so vitally important, by allowing–by even demanding–that he speak in the 21st century, were we not at least a little outdated? Are his artistic, cultural, political questions–the questions of nearly one hundred years ago–the questions of today? Could they be? Have we moved beyond Mann’s Munich, Mann’s America?

After the Doktor Faustus discussions, the Professor asked if anyone can create great art now without the Devil. Where can valid artistic inspiration come from, anymore? I wanted to know if he was posing the questions as Thomas Mann or himself, in 1945 Germany or now, in mid-western America at a liberal arts college that believes in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. He didn’t know. Neither did I.

I asked  if he thought Germany would ever produce another towering, all-conquering Artist, Künstler, along the lines of a Goethe or Wagner or Mann. “Welt-erobernd…” he says. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they can. That time is long past.” That is heart-breaking, I said. What happened to Faust? What happened to the future?

On the final day of classes, we read the last page of Doktor Faustus, this final book, aloud. Almost impossibly difficult. Is it not a novel for the end of the world? What can follow such final chapters? When art is its own criticism, when the novel as a genre is consummated and destroyed by the very act of its creation–as Wagner did, I said, with Tristan und Isolde–what can come next? It is an end, not a beginning.

But, in differing ways, both the Professor and I came to the conclusion that there is some small hope, some way out. He pointed to the final sentence of the novel, a prayer–one must have hope, he said, one must believe in something, to pray. Prayer, like the question that ends Der Zauberberg, looks towards the future.

And I said, whether blindly and youthfully optimistic or not, that there is often an ending, but always an answer. Mann’s Faustus is not the last ending, nor the first. What about Greek Tragedy, that narrows and narrows and narrows human experience into a dark and endless point? What about King Lear, where they kneel and pray to a God who never comes?  Where Howl, Howl, Howl are the only honest words left? Nihilism, denial, renunciation writ large, long before Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Art could have ended right there–but it didn’t, I said, it didn’t. Look at everything that has come since. I’m not going to go through life believing that Western Culture is in decline because Adrian Leverkühn wrote a twelve-tone Lamentatio and went insane.

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And there it was. A wonderful, difficult semester. And best of all, we are going to start all over again with Robert Musil next year–from what I can tell, a very different creature. Lyric to Mann’s epic, perhaps, all sparkling inner-ness and Gestalt psychology, pace classicism and irony.