Wednesday, 9 February 2011

VI. Meditations on Time and Miracles of the Bungy Jumping, Essay Writing, Scarborough Fair, and Rabbit Year Variety, With Dashes of YouTube Footage

Too much has happened since my last chapter, and I'm not quite sure where—or even how—to begin. My life has been insane, and that is putting it relatively lightly. It always has been, but these past several weeks (this entire term, in fact) have been more surreal than ever. What is also surreal is the fact that it is already fourth week—i.e., halfway through Hilary, as well as halfway through my entire Oxonian study abroad experience. Where has the time gone?

Time. Such a strange concept, because it is at once so abstract and so conventional. For me, however, it does not exist: at least not in the conventionalised sense. Yes, I am forced to use its vocabulary; we all are. But if you really think about it, it is just an excuse, and the most abused excuse of them all. If you tell someone that you "don't have time" to see them, what you are really saying is that you don't want to see them. But you have to obey the rules of polite society, so unless you want to come across as completely uncouth, you refrain from being so direct. Which is absolutely fine—even necessary, to a certain degree. It still bothers me, though.

Re: time as an abstract concept, I remember studying pre-Columbian societies of North America in an anthropology class I took at Columbia two years ago, and being fascinated by their formulation of it. Time, for Native Americans, is not a strictly chronological progression of past into present into future; the past is enmeshed within the present, and the present is enmeshed within the future. They view the past not as something detached from them, but as something perpetually with them. Viz., when an event happens is less important than what the event actually is. Which to me is fascinating, because I am a romantic, and one of the fundamental characteristics of Romanticism is an obsession with the past as something completely different and detached from the present. This difference is what gives it value; what invests it with a certain kind of new life.

But no matter. I am still living in the present more than ever before, and enjoying every millimoment of it. Things have settled into patterns, yes, but there are always disruptions—or should I say surprises. Biggest case in point: last Friday evening I met David Kirke, the man who invented bungy jumping. The situation was utterly bizarre—it was the reception after a short dance performance (Project Volume's Intonation) at Oxford's Modern Art museum (the museum itself is very small; there are only two rooms of exhibitions, but the café on the ground floor is lovely and not overly expensive for the quality of its fare). The reception was in the basement, and I sat down in the back because I had to leave early. He saw me and asked if I was American. I was surprised because I hadn't said anything, so he couldn't have judged from my accent. He explained that my clothes gave me away, which didn't really help because I thought that what I had on—lots of plaid, greys—looked very European. He then asked what college I went to in Oxford, and what I was studying. I told him. He also went to Oxford but to a different college (Corpus Christi), but he whipped out the book he was reading, Milan Kundera's The Joke, and tore off its last page, upon which he wrote down the name of a friend of his, Paul Torday, who is a famous novelist who went to Pembroke. He also gave me his own phone number and e-mail. Intrigued, I gave him my e-mail and the link to this "novel." He then promptly gave me the names of three other people to get in touch with, one of whom is the daughter of Harold Pinter's widow (apparently he knew Pinter and had also met Beckett at one point during his stint as an editor). At that moment I left. But since then we have exchanged many whimsically abstruse e-mails, upon which many of his friends have been cc'ed, and I will eventually get to meet these friends in real life. It's quite exciting, but also a little daunting; they are all terribly accomplished people. I do enjoy meeting people, though. Each new person I meet is like a mystery to be unravelled, a story in him or herself. And it goes without saying that I love mysteries and stories.

[Oh, and this was his explanation: "One of my detours in life is to know that when a lady has beautiful or beautifully ordered handwriting she will be what she says she is and expect the same from you yourself." I always knew that there was something to be said for chirography. And for first impressions. More than something to be said, in fact. Presentation deserves more credit than it gets these days.]

I have met him again, twice—he came to Evensong in Pembroke Chapel on Sunday, and on Monday afternoon I joined him at the Madding Crowd, a delightful off-the-beaten-path pub in Oxford. He bought me tea and we asked each other questions, after playing a very interesting game that reveals your personality through animals. He gave me a book to read about the "Life and Inebriated Times" of four famous British actors: Hellraisers by Robert Sellers. I'll bring it with me to Scotland this weekend (10-hour bus rides cannot be spent sleeping and thumb-twiddling, although I rarely ever indulge in either of those activities).

So Oxford has taught me that anything is possible. Literally. Second case in point: I've learned in the past several weeks that work and play are not at all antithetical. Rather, they are in the greatest feedback loop of all. You cannot have one without the other, and it's always best to "err" more towards the latter, especially when one is writing about Modern Drama (Synge, Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, et al). Proof: I went to Kukui (the sleaziest club in Oxford but also the most prototypical) on a Tuesday several weeks ago, got back at 2am, twiddled on Facebook for half an hour (merely necessary procedure), but managed to finish a 3500-word essay that was supposed to be 2500 words in five hours, with the help of an impromptu Numa Numa dance party at 8am. And it most certainly was not bullshit. I had cancelled tutorial for this very essay the previous week (at 1am the day it was due, not the greatest move), because I knew that if I had tried to write it then it would have been bullshit, and I do not ever bullshit an English paper. It would be tantamount to killing my soul, and I am not exaggerating.

[A quick but related interlude: last week I finished a 3,300-word essay in a little less than three hours, submitting it five minutes before it was due. I had to deliver a hard copy to the porter's lodge, where I was accosted by a Middle Eastern gentleman and his British friend. The Middle Eastern gentleman asked me if he could take a picture of me with the essay. Then he had the British gentleman take a picture of both of us, with the essay. Utterly bizarre... but story of my life.]

The post-Kukui essay was on John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, one of the masterpieces of 20th-century modern drama. It espouses pretty much everything that I have always believed about identity, and the tenuous line between fact and fiction. Essentially, identity is a collaborative construct. You are not the only one in charge of "who you are": other people have expectations of who you are, and vice versa, and you can only fulfil these expectations to a certain extent. But you become them to another extent—it is the antithesis of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Public performances can lead to the truth, and this is exactly what happens to Christy Mahon. I am not a fan of summarising great works of literature, however, so I'll leave it at that.

The unfortunate conclusion of all this is that while I thought Oxford would improve my habit of writing essays on time, it seems to have exacerbated the situation. I am having loads of fun, though—despite the extreme last-minuteness I am hardly ever stressed when writing essays anymore. That is not to say that they come effortlessly. Not at all. I have struggled, and quite painfully too, but that is what all writers have to go through, no matter how many successful works they have already produced (in fact, the more successful the work the greater the expectations and agony will be). Pain is a necessary component of creation, of saying something new, something different, something meaningful: in a sense, it creates and gives value to meaning.

But as I have learned the difficult and painful way, it can only go so far. There are limits to everything. "It" being the fact that there are only so many good essays you can bang out in three hours on the day they are due (submitting them just on time, or several hours late), and the probability of this happening is directly proportional with your familiarity and fondness with the text. So my method worked for Beckett and Synge because I believed in them so much, but I mistakenly thought it would also work for Tennyson even though I did not identify with him as much—especially not The Princess, which was ironically more absurdist to me than Waiting for Godot or Pinter's The Birthday Party. I wonder what that reveals about my personality...

Enough about academics, at least for now. Several more miracles have occurred since I last wrote, and I will explain them in a pseudo-organised manner because I cannot ever resist the opportunity to indulge in a) Roman numerals and b) lists:

I. I went to Scarborough Fair on Tuesday, January 25th, with my dear friends Jennie, Maggie, and Fitz. Jennie and Maggie and I sang it at the Pembroke Master's Recital (a twice-termly event held in his beautiful lodgings), accompanied by Fitz on the guitar. I first sung it in eighth grade chorus, and I had kept my teacher's beautiful arrangement ever since, because I hoped that I would have another opportunity to go back. And I have, with three incredibly talented people. It wasn't pitch-perfect, but we still did it, and it was incandescently magical.

II. Inside New York 2011—the long-delayed product of my endless and excruciating summer—finally arrived in my pigeon hole on Saturday, after I had practically given up on ever seeing it. It is beautiful, and the cover is perfect. It (and the many people involved in its creation) will be the sole subject of a future chapter for sure. It does not deserve any less.

III. I had the most unconventional Chinese New Year celebration last week. It involved buying a corset, making big bows out of bin liners, and dressing four British gentlemen up in raw bacon. Come to think of it, all of my holiday celebrations this year have been unconventional, to say the least (Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Western New Year). But this was by far the wildest of them all.

The corset, bows, and raw bacon were integral parts of costumes for the Lady Gaga bop that my college had inappropriately scheduled for that evening. I originally wasn't going to go; I thought it was an outrage. But the side of me that is crazy and likes to have fun triumphed, as it so often tends to. And my darling friend Isabelle (who I call Alice from Wonderland because she resembles her so much in appearance and personality) persuaded me. She is such a delightful girl: every day for her is a costume day, although I suppose her norm would be the inverse of the conventional norm. She also has a lovely ring between her nostrils (something I would never ever dare to do), evidence of which is on her blog.

All Lady Gaga-ed Up

Needless to say, we made quite an entrance into the Pembroke Chapel and formal hall afterwards. Thank goodness our dear Chaplain, Andrew Teal, is (dare I say) over-the-borderline sacrilegious, and quite proud of it. Another person who loves to have fun.

And we will have a repeat of this, relatively soon. We're going to London the last weekend of term for a shopping and art gallery extravaganza and dressing up as swans. Black and white feathers, roses, more glitter, et al. will be involved. Already very excited.

Here is video footage of the meat costume and a brief episode involving cider and a funnel, which ironically never ended up making it into the club.

IV. To merge my novel with one of Woolf's, I have met Septimus. I am Clarissa, and I always have been. They never met in Mrs. Dalloway but we have. We have met, we have transformed fiction into fact, and we are rewriting the novel as we live it. [We will, in fact, host a party on May 14, the publication of the novel, for which I am buying flowers.] I am not quite sure what will happen; it is one of the strangest friendships I've ever had. But he, like David Kirke, speaks my language. We were all at the wedding of Irony and Circumstance: I was a bridesmaid, he was the illicit love child, and David was best man, the shadow hiding in a corner of the church. Quite perfect.

So as I have already indicated several times in this post, I have finally developed my YouTube presence. I made a channel several months ago just for the sake of having one, but didn't think about actually making use of it until now. But make use of it I have, and make use of it I will. I've already posted some rather humorous video clips from family vacations, as well as several of my passably mediocre piano performances. I'll be making more recordings in the future too: of not just Oxonian shenanigans, but also of myself reading aloud (which works perfectly for what I am studying this term). Thinking aloud too, perhaps. It's quite amusing. And it'll expand this novel into a new dimension, a dimension that is only possible through the medium of the Internet. Quite thrilling.

I end with this, an excerpt from John Stuart Mill's essay "What is Poetry?", that resounds with a point I made in my last chapter:
Eloquence, as well as poetry, is impassioned truth; eloquence, as well as poetry, is thoughts coloured by the feelings. Yet common apprehension and philosophic criticism alike recognize a distinction between the two: there is much that every one would call eloquence, which no one would think of classing as poetry. A question will sometimes arise, whether some particular author is a poet; and those who maintain the negative commonly allow, that though not a poet, he is a highly eloquent writer.

The distinction between poetry and eloquence appears to us to be equally fundamental with the distinction between poetry and narrative, or between poetry and description ... Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and bodying itself forth in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind. Eloquence is feeling presenting itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavouring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action.
So in Mill's terms, I am an eloquent writer—or, rather, I strive to be one. Eloquence. I like the sound of that. I very much like the sound of that.

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