“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I suppose it's the sheer power of the image that compelled immediate and complete assent, the first time I read it. Yet the longer I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be advocating a philosophy of conservatism, of cowardice, and ultimately, a philosophy that located value in popular success. Few can, of course, reject it completely; but I think there's value in getting rid of this image of assured calamity in the absence of a narrow focus, this obsession with expertise and usefulness, this summary dismissal of poor old Jack-of-all-trades.
And so, my days in the first half of Michelmas term, with the ending of fourth week today, have been scattered, random, incoherent and utterly delightful. I shuttle from the Law Faculty to the English Faculty to Examination Schools to the Centre for Byzantine and Classical Studies, a few times a day. I take a look at lecture lists in the morning, and end up at whichever place catches my fancy that day. If it fulfills its promise, I stick with it for another week. If it disappoints, I go to some place else. My study table now has sheaves of steadily mounting handouts, climbing to form the shape of a medium-sized book. They range from lectures on Byron to Athenian Democracy during the Peloponnesian War; from Marlowe to Virgil; from Roman history to literary theory; from Plato's Republic to the style and character of Achilles' speeches in Book 9 of The Iliad. Is there a common theme, or to use the Aussie lawyer's favourite word, a synergy between all this? Not that I can see. Is it a colossal waste of time, time that would be better spent doing appropriately lawyer-ly things and working on positioning myself for my future career? Probably. Will it ever be of any use? I do not know. I do not think so.
But this much I know. I know that few things can match the thrill of hearing Nicolas Halmi quote - and then go on to explain - Byron's Manfred or Don Juan, his face suffused with the glow of scholarly enthusiasm, and his clear love for the great Romantic evident in his eyes and his voice. As I sit in the lecture, turning the pages of the hand-out, my eyes falling upon verses that I read before, that appealed to me in a strange, inexplicable and utterly compelling way many years go, I understand, suddenly and at last, why they gripped me in the way they did; and all at once, I understand the genius of the expression "half-dust, half-deity", and Manfred's world opens up before me, a world of depth, profundity and a wealth of thoughts, ideas, emotions and feelings to immerse oneself in. And I go that evening to Blackwell's, and purchase an unnecessarily large and unwieldy copy of Lord Byron: The Major Works.
I know that few experiences can match sitting in the cavernous South Schools, with classical portraits on its walls and its many-domed ceiling, and listening to Dr L. Morgan who, having made it his life's mission to convince us that The Aenid is the single greatest work of literature that the West has ever produced, is doing a bloody good job of it. Arma uirumque cano, he booms, and the strange language sounds so beautiful to the ear, that I am seized with a sudden, mad yearning to learn Latin. Arms and the man I sing, he goes on to explain, and then locates the entire scheme of the Aenid, its place in the epic tradition, and Virgil's complex relationship with Homer, all in that single half-line. We expand then, and we learn about Homer in Rome, we learn about Ennius, of Callimachus, of gods and myth, or topos - all converging in the figure of Virgil and the text of the Aenid. We see Rome, and Greece, and epic, and mythology, literature, poetry, culture - a birds-eye view, sketchy of course, and superficial for want of time, but tantalising, like the morning fog over the valley that reveals but the half-visible towers of the fairy castle, promising so much more by what it conceals. I read the Aenid when I was 19, an Allan Mandelbaum translation in blank verse. I know now that I actually read nothing.
I know that I would not be anywhere on Friday at 12 15 PM, than at the Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, in the Literary Theory seminar, hearing Classics graduates debate Catullus 85 and Sappo 31, and then myself engage in discussing Shklovsky and the defamiliarists, Barthes and Foucault and Bakhtin, only vague names all these years, but now brought into sharp relief by following the seminar's reading list, week by week. The concept of authorship, the promise and the pitfalls of intertextuality, parody and polyglossia - it's still all a lot of Greek to me, but there are moments of blinding, ludic clarity, of sudden and certain understanding, and in those moments, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world.
And there are others, of course, those which I do not look forward to as ardently as Byron or Virgil or Lit Theory, but which form integral parts of my day nonetheless. There is the Marlowe lecture, play by play, going deep into text, context, form, motifs, everything. And there is Athenian democracy, taken by an elderly gentleman who is entirely unable to lecture without his sub-fusc and his lectern, where we investigate a whole range of sources - Aristophanes' comedies to Thucydides and Xenophon, edicts and inscriptions to records of speeches, and so on, to understand the nature of democracy in classical Athens.
These are the five I've been to, week after week, loved every moment, drunk in every word. There have been disappointments, naturally. Roman history of the beginnings of the Empire was didactic and dry, nothing that you wouldn't get from a textbook. Roman history 264 - 146 BC was more interesting, but still, too much detail that simply couldn't grip a layman like me, interested though I am. Pre-classical Greek history was a fascinating class, but for me, just a bit too far removed from it all. The Plato Reading Group's discussion of the Timmeus went over my head entirely, especially when they pulled out their Greek texts and began quoting! Plato's Republic spent an hour discussing one part of Book 1, and I did not go back. Comedy was too general, Metaphor too abstract, and Iliad too technical (for me). Not that any of these lectures were bad - far from it - they were extremely good, but the day has only so many hours.
I do not look for method in this madness - there is none. Nor is there any logic in the one-hour morning runs with an NCAA athlete, that leave me half-dead and gasping for breach, my legs screaming in agony. But we've run along the Thames as the Sun comes up, and the mist rises above the silver-grey water like a dream, and the waters of the lake in Port Meadow shimmer in the first light of the morning, and all the world could be a beautiful landscape painting. And on a morning, I found myself on a bike, riding four miles down a narrow bend of the Thames, just the river and the alders drooping over it, at times forming little passageways that would be perfectly at home in Middle-Earth, arches of leaves over still water, and mist beyond, all under an iron sky. And without quite knowing where I was going, riding with the sun, I arrived in Woodstock, ye olde English towne, with a farmer's market and a Chaucer Lane, and the towers of Blenheim Palace rising around the bend. A journey that was begun with no plan and no destination, but came through beautiful things to a beautiful place; I don't know about the beautiful place, but my life certainly feels as though it's passing through many beautiful things right now; and they are imprinted powerfully upon my memory, to be carefully filed away and taken out again when the time comes for remembrance of these strange, mad, wonderful days.
And I've given a free rein, at last, to the Tolkien-Eddison-Morris epic fantasy obsessive in me, getting up at 6 30 in the morning to go shoot arrows with insanely complicated recurve bows at the archery range (I'm not very good), and making another trip that evening to don a vest, a jacket, a gauntlet and a mask, and take up the foils for a spot of fencing (I think I'm a little better than I am at archery). And then at 8 PM on Friday evenings at Christchurch, there are Tolkien Society Meetings, a small, communal group with lots of food, book-readings, parodic enactments, and general fun all around.
And in the middle of it all, yes, I am trying to work on a thesis in legal philosophy, breaking my head against JL Austin and John Searle, trying to comprehend Marmor and Greenberg (again!) and (joy!) reading and thinking about Dworkin every day. Perhaps I am not spending as much time upon this as I ought. But I'm trying, and no doubt, with time, the balance will come. And even if doesn't, this whole "priorities" business is darned overrated anyway.
And so, Sylvia Plath, you can pick your single fruit and enjoy it. But I'm going to bounce around the tree, grabbing at whatever I can, taking a bite here, a nibble there, tasting every flavour I possibly can until I fall off the tree. Because, as Heinlein said, to close with another quote:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
I am no renaissance man, nor can I be one - it is a sight too late in the day for Greek and Latin and all that sort of thing. But life's fascinating right now, I'm perfectly happy being a Jack-of-a-few-trades, and tomorrow morning, it's off to Nottingham, with only a book of Byron for company, and especially sans laptop. To Robin Hood land for a day.
PS. Moares, if you read this, I do still play football. :P But it's difficult to get up in the morning if it's not for the floodlights and crowd and the Captain and the magic-heartbreak-madness of PFL. You see, I remember. How can I not? Good luck for this year's campaign.