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Academia and the Maiden

My life wasn’t all bad though; few are. I was still kicking ass at school. Every semester I kicked more ass than the amount of ass I’d kicked the semester before. I had intended to major in English, but that had lasted about three weeks; I broke it off with English as soon as I met Latin. Latin was older, more mature, deeper—it had so much more to offer. I already knew English. What I wanted was to learn how to use it more articulately and creatively. Latin promised to satisfy both of these desires. It seduced me. But it wasn’t long before the relationship became dysfunctional. Latin became abusive. It made me cry every night. I would swear I couldn’t stand it and was going to kick it out of my life. But the next day I’d come crawling back. It was my fault, I’d pushed its buttons, I should have known better than to think that genitive was a dative. I was nothing without Latin. It made me what I was. I loved it. I hated it. It had taught me the true meaning of humiliation, but it had also taught me the true meaning of “humiliation”. I couldn’t stay mad at Latin. And Latin needed me, too. It was disappearing. I was one of a handful of people in the world who cared that it existed. I had to protect it, even if it destroyed me in the process.

Latin had a boisterous cousin, Greek, whose acquaintance I made the following year. Greek was charismatic as hell. Our relationship was amicable and uncomplicated until the aorist came along. Unlike Latin, which I had long suspected of being chronically depressed, Greek was manic and slippery. Latin read like boulders dropping stoically into the sea, Greek like stones skipping over a river. Even the tragedies partook of this lightness. Not that Greek and I didn’t have our problems: I was hypersensitive, it was hypercritical. Tears were shed. I loved its vivacious vocabulary, but on the other hand I had to look up nearly every word it said, and often, even after doing so, I still didn’t understand what it meant. It was like we were speaking two different languages. And, as had been the case with Latin, I never got to be on top and I never had the right to say no. Greek was more pleasant than its cousin, but I was still its bitch.

I didn’t break it off with Latin; that was unthinkable. If I’d packed my bags and left the country under cover of darkness, Latin would have tracked me down and dragged me back into its possessive embrace. But I did start seeing it less often. Subtly, over a period of months, I was able to put quite a bit of emotional distance between us. Greek and I, meanwhile, became what is known in modern courtship vernacular as friends with benefits—the benefits on my end being definite articles, ablative-free grammar, and a complete lack of Tacitus.

I was taking courses in classical mythology and philosophy as well. Philosophy was fun to play with, but I had a hard time taking it seriously. I quickly came to believe that questions about mortality and free will and God and souls were inherently unanswerable, and that that was exactly what made them so interesting. So it seemed to me there was more than a little self-importance in the notion that any person or group of them could solve such problems if they thought hard enough about them. Ancient philosophers had a habit of reaching the conclusion that the best seats in the afterlife were reserved for them. Mythology was much more compelling and believable, despite the surface craziness of the stories. Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem about the gods castrating and swallowing and cheating on each other, was a metaphorical account of the core elements of human psychology. And its author had meant it all literally; he hadn’t had a clue what he was really doing, which made what he did all the more astonishing: in the process of consolidating the mythology of his society he’d unconsciously revealed the content of the human unconscious. Hesiod’s genius was his ignorance, not his poetic ability, which was more or less negligible if you set it beside Sappho’s or Ovid’s. Once I’d read the Theogony I became incapable of thinking about anything without getting the gods involved. An annoying problem was Zeus having a laugh; a strange coincidence was Zeus making a point; the Muses accompanied me everywhere and inspired (or, in some cases, declined to inspire) the production of my papers. By the end of the term, I found I couldn’t recall what it had been like to think about day-to-day life without resorting to Olympian metaphor.

Literature was what happened when myth became self-conscious, when a writer felt that how he said it was at least as important as what he said. Advantages and disadvantages sprung from this outlook. The writing was beautiful, but extracting its truth was often difficult or impossible. Self-consciousness and the subconscious do not always mix well. It was no longer a given fact that the author meant what he wrote. But I admired the creativity and I came to terms with the artificiality. It was not in my power to resist the coloured sheep of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue.

And words. The old languages unlocked them. A word is like a person. Each one has a particular feel, a certain character, such that, through no fault or effort of its own, it fits in beautifully in one context and terribly in another. Like every one of us, a word has a history, cousins, parents, offspring. Near-death experiences to tell you about. Layers beneath layers, meanings on top of meanings, and it’s all too happy to share the details of every stage of its existence with you as long as you’re willing to listen. A word is created, struggles to live, becomes itself in the face of the forces of nature and nurture. You can get its back story and make it make sense. Why it’s grammatically weird. Why it’s spelled that way. Why it no longer acts the way did in 1550. How it has been loved, how it has been mistreated, what kind of relationship you can have with it under the circumstances.

I worked incessantly, partly to feed my GPA and partly because work was a distraction from life. Every assignment was undertaken in a spirit of apprehension and insecurity. Every time I handed something in I was convinced it was terrible. My efforts were generally rewarded with grades in the A- to A range. Not that the feedback on my work was entirely positive. There were two or three professors who failed to see the reverence behind my irreverence. They would write “Book Report on The Constraints of Desire by J. J. Winkler” or “Aspects of the Feminine in Homer’s Odyssey” above the lighthearted, pun-riddled titles they had crossed out with their red pens. They didn’t take kindly to my propensity to write gratuitous self-indulgent footnotes.  They wanted me to be serious and some of them took my weird prose as a personal affront. This crushed me. I was desperately serious. The approval of my instructors mattered more to me than anything else. I always put every scrap of available intellectual effort into my papers. I would rip my cuticles to bleeding shreds imagining what the professor would think of what I’d written. But I didn’t understand how I could, or why I should, wring the personality out of my own writing. Admittedly, I never tried. Writing was the only form of communication in which I was able to show any semblance of personality without having 37 anxiety attacks. All the comments I’d never made in class, all the questions I hadn’t asked, all the fondness I felt for the professor, all the enthusiasm I had for the course, all the eye contact I hadn’t made, all these things had to be written into my papers. If my effort was fated to go unappreciated or ununderstood now and then, so be it.

Due to self-loathing, -unconfidence, -esteemlessness, -etc., the good grades felt like mistakes to me and I was positive that it was just a matter of time before my department clued in to my sweeping incompetence and asked me to leave the program before I caused it or myself any further embarrassment. At the same time, due to the grades I was receiving, I couldn’t help but feel that I must be doing something right.  The inner monologue, which always had an opinion and was by nature incapable of not sharing it, helpfully explained that the good grades were a direct result of my inability to relax. I was on top of things, it told me, but I was balancing precariously, and it was a tall stack of things, and the stack was not exactly a paradigm of architectural soundness, and it was almost certainly going to fall; it was just a question of when. What I was doing right was maintaining a constant anxious vigilance: the slightest, briefest hint of calmness on my end would precipitate a collapse. I explained to myself, and when necessary to others, that the reason I didn’t go to parties or talk to my classmates or come out of my room on weekends was that I was focused, hardworking, intensely committed to my studies. I was a scholar. The only thing standing between me and a dynamic efflorescent social life was the pursuit of academic excellence. I tried to give everyone, myself included, the impression that I found this situation regrettable. I would start sentences with “I wish I could” and “I’m sorry I missed”. I was desperate to convince the world that I wouldn’t be failing at social interaction if I weren’t succeeding at school. Sacrifices had to be made. That was explained very clearly in the Theogony.

One of my increasingly conspicuous alleged sacrifices was dating. My singleness was becoming more anomalous with every day that ticked by. People liked to touch each other. I’d heard a lot about this, but never experienced it directly. Nearly everyone over a certain age had a particular person or collection of people in their life to touch and be touched by; those who didn’t were in some kind of chronic distress that I perceived but didn’t comprehend. Some people were more aggrieved than others, but I had yet to come across anyone who was symptom-free. The affliction in question seemed to be a species of self-insufficiency. I had no patience and no sympathy for it. I characterized it as a weakness to which I was impervious. Following Descartes, I considered myself a res cogitans. The story I told myself was that ancient philosophy had inoculated me against the touch-seeking pandemic, that I had made a conscious, informed choice to reject bodily matters in favour of those of the mind and soul: that my relationships, what few there were, were platonic because I was. But beneath this self-servingly soothing layer of thinking a sense of deep and incurable differentness festered in me. Whether the desire to be touched was a weakness or not, whether it was indicative of philosophical deficiency or not, it was clearly something everyone else felt, understood, accepted about themselves, and expected to find in others. I began to obsess over the question of whether a res cogitans was, or could be, human. And my age and appearance were now conspiring to illuminate my terror of physical contact. I was quite aware that a not unattractive woman in her twenties had no business hiding behind dead old men. It looked ridiculous.

Furthermore, mythology, which was more trustworthy than philosophy, insisted at every opportunity that physical contact was an inevitable part of human life. Where philosophy backed the soul and the mind, mythology put all its money on the body. The main point that myth wanted to make was that Eros existed and was the reason you existed and was pretty much the comptroller of humanity and would track you down no matter how far away from him you tried to run. Girls were particularly inclined to make escape attempts, because they had something to lose and their community would look down on them for losing it. (But also for not losing it. It was complicated.) The fittest girls (in mythological times, “chasing a girl” consisted of literally running after her) sometimes managed to evade Eros for a while. But they paid for their hubris; the god made damn sure of it: there were few maidens who didn’t get raped within about two weeks of their having publicly announced their intention to remain virgins forever. Arguably, a girl was much better off standing still, facing her erotic opportunities head on, and accepting her society’s criticism. It was, to put it anachronistically, a catch-22. The only loopholes in the system were nooses.

Times have changed; the arrows of Eros are gentler and subtler now. The gap between the sexes has narrowed substantially. Somewhere between 600 BC and the mid-20th century AD, sex became something for both people to enjoy, rape became something that society generally frowns upon, men began to get over their insecurity about women’s existence, and consequently relationships have become a source of pleasantness for all concerned. Chasing a woman now consists of giving her flowers and compliments. There was little danger that I would be run down like a weak zebra at the watering hole and impregnated against my will.

I knew all this. Knowing it made no practical difference because I didn’t feel it. I felt distaste for proximity in all of its forms. I was untouched and untouchable, intact and intangible. I admired Hesiod but he afforded me no protection. The philosophers assured me at every turn that by denying my physicality I was staking a claim for myself in the VIP section of the afterlife. I didn’t believe them but I clung to them.

(Figuratively, of course.)

While others were conducting their various physical transactions, I was busy making an unembodied name for myself via nearly-citationless term papers. I had never gotten into the spirit of research. During my undergraduate years I took exactly one book out of the library. It was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and I used it for a fourth-year philosophy paper. I had very little patience for research. It was irritating. It cost hours of time that should have been spent on thinking and writing. What was the point of restating the thoughts of others? It was laziness if you cited them, plagiarism if you didn’t. The only logical goal for an academic writer—any writer, actually—to pursue was originality. A writer knows what to say and says it in the most memorable way. A good writer can work a room without actually being in it. The more intellectual presence I had, the more physical absence I’d be able to get away with.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Norma Mitchell permalink
    November 14, 2009 7:24 pm

    Your writing is sublimely funny. Don’t let anyone ever wring your personality out of your work. I can see a New Yorker submission in your future. That is if you WANT to make one, of course. For all I know you would rather suck eggs than submit anything to the New Yorker.

    If you did, though, this piece would be good for that.



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