“That’s the advantage of studying [at Oxford]: it’s assumed that after enduring our teaching methods and our continual hounding of them,… they’re fitted for any task, even if all they can do is scan sonnets and stammer out a few incoherent remarks about Calderón or Montaigne in an oral exam. Only the most ill-equipped for life in the world… come creeping back wearing these silly gowns.”
– Javier Marías, All Souls (1989)
Oxford is a beautiful place. It’s one of those cities where you feel like you’ve sneaked into Disney World without paying.
It’s also a place to which I’ll probably never return. Basically, I love it, but I’ve had enough of it. For Matthew Arnold, his alma mater is dreamlike, a scene straight out of the Elysian Fields in Homer’s Odyssey:
Humid the air; leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers;
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening
If we pardon the sentimental wetness in Arnold’s diction (“sweet”, “tender”, “beauty”), the sibilants and lyricism could well have us buying into this lore as reality. If Saint Frithuswith is the patron saint of Oxford University, then Matthew Arnold, Victorian poet and PR embassador par excellence, is surely that of the Oxford Tourism Board. Seriously, whoever says that poetry doesn’t make money has probably never heard of the phrase “dreaming spires”, nor seen the swarms of tourists it’s attracted to the city since the advent of air travel.
I’ve just finished reading Javier Marías’ All Souls* (1989), a book haloised by the TLS as “a dazzling example of the Oxford novel” and which I personally recommend to anyone who’s interested in the campus genre. If you’ve read John Williams’ Stoner** (1965), then you’ll probably like All Souls – it’s Stoner’s British counterpart, except with less raw emotion and more narratorial self-consciousness. Both are tales of lust and loneliness in an academic setting, but they are divided by a huge transatlantic gulf in feeling. You’ll have to read both to find out what I mean.
In Marías’ book, Oxford is described as –
“A static city preserved in syrup”, where “Sundays are in exile from the infinite”.
I’d like to think that the reference to “syrup” is an allusive nod to Arnold’s “sweet city”, but what I appreciate most is the slice of realism that Marías brings to the table. In the case of Oxford, that notorious precis of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot – “Nothing happens, twice” – may as well be “Nothing happens, ever“.
The Spanish author spent two years as a lecturer at the university from 1983-85, so I guess it’s reasonable for one to assume that this novel is a semi-autobiographical reflection of his time here. I don’t care what Barthes says, but his ‘Death of the Author’ spiel just doesn’t sit well with my interpretation of the novel. What distinguishes Arnold and Marías’ versions of Oxford, I believe, is the difference in their identities. Both took up teaching posts at colleges, but whereas Arnold was a native of Southern English soil, Marías is a continental foreigner from Southern Europe, and one whose Mediterranean tan would have stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of Saxon pallor. He didn’t, and would never, truly belong to Oxford.
His non-native perspective is something I intimately empathise with, being someone who hails from outside the Anglosphere, from the Southern part of what is considered ‘Far East’ to Western eyes***. In particular, Marías makes one observation about ‘the English gaze’ that I myself, as a foreigner, have also noticed in my days of wandering about in Oxford:
“As is well known, the English never look openly at anything, or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances.”
(p. 41, Penguin 2012 edition)
This is quite different from the street dynamics back home, where everyone seems to be equipped with a hyperactive peripheral vision that runs 24/7.
In Hong Kong, people could be elbowing each other out of the way at peak hour and still everyone would be gawking at everyone, on the metro, in the streets, at the mall, whatever. At Oxford, though, you could walk out in an 80s-style metallic onesie with fluorescent pink antennas fixed to your head and no one would look at you twice – the folks here are too busy upholding their great Republic of Letters to care about any individual eccentricities. Now scuttle off, dah’ling, and leave me to my scrolls while I adjust the billowing sleeves of my gown.
From a city that never sleeps to a “city” (for the last time, it isn’t) that ‘dreams’ out its own existence, I’ve moved between two extremes and am now torn between a desire for both. I realise that’s a classic case of me wanting my cake and eating it too, but tbh, the idea of going back to the hustle and bustle that I’ve grown up with for 18+ years after three years of living in relative tranquil scares me a bit.
Recently, I’ve developed a habit of reading on one of the porches outside the Old Bodleian, where, half hidden behind a pillar and my ray-bans, I punctuate whatever narrative in front of me with spots of stoic voyeurism, as I people-watch to my heart’s delight like some weird sociologist geezer. I may not agree with Barthes on his ‘Author isn’t human’ premise, but somehow I’ve come to adopt his method of ‘intermittent’ reading, which he outlines in his 1973 Pleasure of the Text:
“What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again… this is erotic, [like] the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing, between two edges; it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.”
My gaze, then, is neither brash nor surreptitious, but self-determined and ‘intermittent’; so not exactly the scrutinising eye of my compatriots, but hardly like the stiff side-glances of the English (or at least the English in Marías’ impression).
It’s more a kind of wilful nonchalance, I guess. Like, yeah I’m aware that you’re aware I’m looking at you and I know you’re looking at me too because otherwise how would you know that I’ve been looking at you (or if I’m even looking at you and not at the person next to you).
Content with this logic, I give myself carte blanche to just keep looking, at the benches outside the King’s Arms, at the packs of summer school students and Asian tourists who, more often than not, speak in a tongue that transports me back – prematurely (if only by half a month), in an instant, to the land from where I originally come.
At this moment, I’m reminded of a simple but moving lyric by Fernando Pessoa, which I came across while browsing through a Portuguese poetry anthology at the Museu Coleção Berardo in Belem, Lisbon:
I love what I see because one day
I’ll stop seeing it. I also
Love it because it is.
In this calm moment when I feel myself
By loving more than by being,
I love all existence and myself.
(Lines 1-6, 11 October, 1934)
To me, this is the most genuine and most generous form of love: by loving all that surrounds us, we surprise ourselves with our capacity for loving, and in turn, grow to love ourselves all the more for it.
My sudden magnanimity, though, perhaps stems from an awareness of imminent loss: maybe I’m in love with even the most mundane sighting these days precisely because I know that very soon, “one day”, “I’ll stop seeing it all”. And when that day comes, I will have returned to my native folds of metropolitan flurry, and in the flotsam and jetsam of that urban rhythm, whether or not there’ll even be time to “feel” at all, let alone feel “in a calm moment” – I’ll probably be too busy to question.
Anxiety aside, I suppose there’s also the anticipation of homecoming. You can always count on the Romantics for a bit of optimistic chin-upping, even when it’s (originally) in German and the Germans don’t exactly have a rep for being the best ‘chin-uppers’ these days (cf. Merkel and Schäuble). But anyway, cue Hölderlin, the father of German idealism, with his 1801 poem ‘Homecoming’:
But of course, this is the land of your birth, the soil
Of your own country: what you seek is close by and
Rises to meet you. The traveller stands before you,
O happy Lindau, surrounded by waves, like a son
At your door affectionately singing your praises.
This is a welcoming gate to the nation, inviting you
To travel forth into the distance, a place of promises
Ah, Hong Kong, “a place of promises and miracles”. It probably was for the Baby Boomer generation of my parents, and I can only hope that it’ll continue to be so for the Boomerang generation of me and my peers. If only Hölderlin could see the Hong Kong today; I wonder how he’d revise his poem for me (although I’m aware that ‘if’ is the bigger question here).
Or maybe he’ll just rewrite the whole thing and retitle it as “Home-crumbling’.
Gotta hand it to myself for converting optimism to pessimism in fewer than two lines.
I can only blame it on them pre-departure jitters. It’s all in my mind, really. Just like everything else.
*Shoutouts to my friend and fellow Englisher MM for recommending the book to me (twice).
**Everyone should, imo, it’s a fine testament to how far American realism has developed since the days of Hawthorne and Steinbeck.
***An interesting coincidence that Arnold, Marias and I all happen to be ‘Southerners’…
[All photos my own]