Carrying the Classics

Although I chickened out on posting this when I wrote it initially four weeks ago, it still contains the essence of the ‘here and now’ for me. I plan to update this blog fairly regularly, and I’ve already got a couple of ideas for future posts kicking around. Basically, this blog is an opportunity for me to explore my writing self on a less academic level. Many, perhaps most, of the posts will be about Classics in some way, at varying levels of tenuousness, but some will have nothing to do with the subject. Thanks for reading!

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In two weeks my life’s circumstances will have altered in magnificent, yet slightly terrifyingly, and certainly bittersweet proportions. I will be married to the most delightful person I have had the pleasure to meet in my adult life. Several of my close friends will have moved far away from the safety of the quiet, stolid, studious sanctuary of our Oxford College, the inner sanctum of the MCR, and our favorite wing of the mob library. That wing is cut in two by the green runner that lies placidly across the wooden floor like a steady river, bordered by banks of wide wooden tables, with soft track lighting above, and natural light coming in through the ornately parceled glass windows.

The tables on one side of the mob library have a view of the oldest quad in Oxford. The tables on the other face the lawn, and the fields beyond. I like this side best. He sits on the righthand side of this table. She sits across from us. When they are at tea and I come in mid-morning, I recognize her purple laptop cover, and the little green sticker on his laptop and I set myself up nearby, assured they will be back soon following the usual discussion of politics, social issues, or hipsterdom, a conversation which I seem to have missed this time around.

Blades won by rowing crews in the 1890s, 1900s, 1920s are mounted on the walls, reminding us that there are more important, or at least more enjoyable things in life than earning the right marks. Such happy legacies rest above the books—surely it is more of a joy to be remembered for being part of the crew that bumped Teddy Hall, Exeter, Magdalen, AND Christ Church that year than to have a chair in Hall inscribed with your name.

I am almost finished drafting the first full version of my PhD thesis—just the conclusion to go. Then the job search, which will take me and my friends away from this library as well. Well, except for one of us, who will likely stay here for many years—we all knew this would happen, ‘Big (insert initial here)’.

I plan to continue to carry the Classics, as I have since I was twelve. Classics as an entity, and the texts, have accompanied me throughout the years, to the extent that I haven’t gone a year without reading Latin in some form. Can’t say the same for Greek, I’m afraid, but such is life. Those texts were a form of consistency throughout times of hardship, trauma. When I was an angsty sophomore in college, my enthusiasm for everything except for those texts seemed to drain out of me. In my junior year, the morning after my house burned down, I went to my Theocritus class—nothing else could really be done. I was inspired to plod on with everything, understanding that these texts had withstood more than fire.

In 2012, when I could not continue for a PhD course in philology, I took this as a sign that I was done. I had hit the ceiling of my potential, my intelligence. And I came to the realization that at this point I judged my ability to generate a recognisably astute academic interpretation of those texts that had always been a comfort to me, a source of consistency, as a reflection of my intelligence. If I was not sufficiently intelligent, I could not ‘read’ the texts sufficiently, I could not read them at all.

I strode—albeit at some points stumbled—into the world of reception studies, which is concerned with questions of interpreting ancient cultures in later times and places. I practiced reception studies, beginning my dissertation in it, before I even received formal instruction in the theory (this is not unusual for those first getting into reception studies). What won me over to reception studies was a fundamental idea that struck me very personally, and soothed my former conception that I could no longer take Classics with me because I ‘wasn’t good enough’: Classics is what we make it. As Charles Martindale has said, meaning is only constructed at the point of reception.

As I grow up, the Classics grow up with me. Ovid, Catullus, Theocritus, Hesiod, Homer, Sappho, they all grow up with me, and when I read Vergil for the first time at fifteen, the author’s poetry was reborn in an adolescent’s mind. A girl who used her spare time to film little sketch comedy snippets, and parodies of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings with her best friend on the weekends. A girl who put too much pressure on herself to get ‘A’s. A girl who sang and danced in a showchoir with girls she never would have been friends with at school, because she would have been too scared to approach them. A girl who lived in Santa Barbara, but never went to the beach. Vergil was hers. Aeneas and Dido.

When I was 20, and I took the little teddy bears previously belonging to my deceased grandparents from the house on the night it burned, I thought of Aeneas, carrying the penates to safety, as the fire tore through his city. Driving with my mother on the freeway, seeing the ridge ablaze, the fire cutting through the black November sky and threatening to leap from the hills down to the heart of the city by the ocean, I thought of Pompeii.

The Romans, the ancient Greeks, are with us in their own way, enlivened as we receive them. And that is not only reception. That is portation. It is a soulful carrying, even a recognition, if you believe, as Socrates demonstrated in his tale of Er, that we have access to all truth, all wisdom, and just need to remind ourselves after our souls’ prenatal dip in the river Lethe.

And it is from Er that I assert that by necessity that I have become ‘errant’. Right now I want to hold onto these places, these friends, about to change in the next several weeks. But it is in our human nature, like texts, to be errant, journeying, the only destination being the changing circumstances of life (or lives, even). And like texts, although we are bound to be mishandled or misinterpreted by our environments and by those around us from time to time, our message, the very essence of the particular brand of wisdom we bring to the world, remains intact, and it is this which many who encounter us can cherish and value and preserve.

So this is the time when I happen to start this new blog. And the theme, as Saturn relinquishes its hold on my Sun and proceeds into Sagittarius, is travelling, wandering, with the highest ideals for the next stage of my life as the guiding principle amidst the transforming environment.

Addendum: I haven’t been back in the mob since my wedding day over two weeks ago. It’s difficult to imagine working there without becoming distracted by the obvious absences of the two most consistent inhabitants of the chairs in the graduate corner. So I am working at a combination of the American Library*, the Weston Café, the MCR. Plodding along, anticipating the structured rhythms of the new academic term, just getting on, really (a very British way of putting things). If anything can wait, it’s excessive nostalgia.

*I know its proper name is the Vere Harmsworth, but I still have trouble with this name, which appears to attempt continually to convince me of its rather bizarre, etymologically-justified claim that ‘really, harm is worthwhile!’ So I have taken to referring to it as the ‘American Library’.