I love listening to conversations. People seldom realize the brightness of their own words: how they drop, glittering, from their lips without second thought. Like a magpie, I love catching each precious phrase in my palms, so that I can reflect over their flushed colors in private.
Conversations at Oxford are all the more interesting to think about, as they are so integrated with academic learning. People stroll around casually debating the usefulness of an omniscient being in thought experiments or the political ramifications of an economic model. Just a few days ago, as I waited in line for lunch, I listened to several students arguing fiercely about the different definitions of reality.
“So let’s say it’s true that the sun has a certain diameter. But that’s not the same as being necessarily true. Or being possibly true. It could be necessarily possible that x is true, or possibly necessary that x is true.”
“Yes, but for different semantics in objects…”
“I know, but I’m saying, the question is, how can we prove that there are six maximum possibilities for the reality of…”
Whoops. This was getting beyond my comprehension. Cradling my pasta in my hands, I edged gingerly away from them, as edified as I was entertained.
Outside the classroom, of course, such discussions tend to derail with all the elasticity of youth. My visiting student friends and I were enjoying curry and ramen together when we noticed Lynette carrying Heidegger’s Being and Time with her. “For fun,” she said, cheerfully. “I really enjoy reading Heidegger.”
“For fun?” we cried, gaping at her in horror.
“Heidegger? Do you mean Heineken?” interjected Lou helpfully. “Oh wait, that’s a beer brand.”
“For shame,” said Jess sternly, “it’s common table manners to know your Heidegger.”
“Yes,” said Lynette, smiling, “I enjoy him and Albert Camus very much.”
“Albert Camus?” Lou exclaimed. “I know an Albus. Albus Dumbledore.”
“Yes, Camus was a famous French philosopher,” said Berlin, nodding. “He had some very interesting views.”
“Camus’s The Stranger is so disturbing,” I said with a shudder.
“Yes,” Lynette said gravely, “with its famous first lines: ‘Mother died today.’”
“—‘Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure,’” I joined her. Those two lines carried such unsettling meaning—or lack of meaning, as Camus might argue. We were silent for a moment, and then Lou said, “Camus? Do you mean Caboose? Albus Caboose?”
Berlin smiled mildly and stirred his ramen, ever the peacemaker. “Let’s talk about the weather instead.”
It is difficult not to talk about academic subjects, however, as so much of your time is spent reading, writing, breathing them! As I wrote several essays on the boundaries of reality and theatricality in Jane Austen and the impact of 18th-century female namelessness on Freudian theory, I found myself also thinking about my life, and writing to my sisters, in the light cast by my recent studies.
My philosophy professor at Whitman once said that our everyday life is “stereoscopic”: that there is someone living within this embodied imagination as if this scene could be right out of this novel and yet is just this scene. That I should pay attention to deja vus, where my past conflates with my present, and when the theories I learn or the novels I read echo loudly into my own life.
And isn’t that, after all, the joy of learning? To reflect and know more about how the world works, so you can begin to know yourself? Oxford has compelled me to think not only more deeply about my favorite authors, but also about this complex, self-contradictory thing called my own life. I have come to question my own performativity: to what extent am I adapting myself to societal structures, or sacrificing sincerity for survival? And my own relationships: if I feel so uncomfortable with the “happy ending” marriages for Burney and Austen’s heroines, what kind of “happy ending” do I really want for myself?
Like literature, life is never easy to analyze. Both resist easy answers. Yet I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, and to continue to be amused and moved by the way other students also grapple with everything they learn, as they shape their supple and ever-growing lives.