I was thinking, because I’m nearly done with my first term, that I have formed some unflattering opinions about university life, and its denizens, and its aims. Now, I love school, and I feel challenged by it, but I’ll have to deal with these things I don’t like.
If Milton is right then our lives, the lives of the high and the low, are defined by drama. At the end of our lives, our characters are fully defined, finished, done, fixed and frozen. At that time, all that will be known is known. There is nothing more to discover about a life, and there is nothing more to learn in that life. We do not change any more, and our words become fixed points that can be analysed but never changed.
Yet here we dissect these histories in order to change them. These lives of these characters whisper like ghosts from the tomes in our libraries and our collections, but we shut our ears and look for that something. We treat the material with both profundity and disrespect because it seems like the fix points they were and which became frozen at the time of death are largely irrelevant.
Jane Austen must become the paragon of Marxist thought, or the Antichrist of modern theology. William Hazlitt needs to be the poisonous observer from his centuries old grave, or the harbinger of the fall of man through imperialism. Shakespeare can only exist if he is the avatar of The Gay, or the oppressor of the benighted. Time, the big rubber, erases the details, and we rush in to fill in the blanks.
Those blanks are so debated, so argued, so defended, that my suspicion is always that it doesn’t really matter what the characters were like at the end of these lives. The character who whisper to us through the ages and the pages serve as clever props in clever games to impress in things that have nothing to do with the texts, the stories, the lives of the authors.
It is all about us, now, here. It is not about the authors, or the books, or the parables that their lives provided. I have this analogue, this somewhat derogatory image of humankind, in my head that I pull out sometimes. In this simile of mine we’re no more than displaying chimps that try to impress the flock so that we can climb another step up the hierarchical ladder toward status and fame.
Sometimes the work we do here is about beating sticks in the ground to impress people or the higher-ups with our vigour and stamina and strength. Milton, Hume, Hazlitt, Yeats, Byron – they all become props in our status games. Maybe I had an unrealistic, idealistic view of how things would be, but there is no difference between this university and college last year. It’s still teenage drama, except it’s more nuanced and enacted with words which have more syllables in them.
And then I can sit in a warm library with a copy of a book in front of me and trace the dry humour of some writer of ages past, and think to myself that we take all this far too seriously. The writer treated him or herself with frivolity and self-deprecation, while we elevate the writer to a solemn authority for our cause of choice. A cause of choice that we’ve selected not because of progressing that cause, but because we want to look good.
The furious writing of Hazlitt about someone he didn’t like, the wit and wryness of Milton, all become dry as dust because we will it so, because it is not Milton and Hazlitt that are important. What is important is the clever ploys and stratagems that Hazlitt and Milton can support and which will make us, those who are alive and here and in these buildings, look clever and smart and good.