Don McKenzie and the University

Don McKenzie Victoria University Wellington Oxford University
Danny Abse, “The Green Field”, as printed in the pamphlet by Wai-te-Ata Press commemorating the life and work of Don McKenzie.

I spent yesterday reading some of the books and ephemera held by the Bodleian by and about D F McKenzie, New Zealander, bibliographic scholar and long-time professor here at Oxford. I had only previously read excerpts from his famous Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, so this was my first real engagement with his work—it seemed appropriate too to read on the 6th and 7th of February his work on the Treaty of Waitangi.

What a coincidence, then, to receive an email reminding me that that very day, at 5pm, would be held the 23rd D F McKenzie lecture, this year to be given by Professor Kate Nation on “linking biology and culture via cognition.” The timing couldn’t have been more strange, so I walked straight from the library to the talk.

But I want to write here not about that lecture, and instead about one given by McKenzie himself in 1997 at Victoria University when he received his honorary doctorate.

Some background: in 1997 the New Zealand Government published a “green paper” discussion document titled “A future tertiary education policy for New Zealand.” This built on explicit promises made less than a year earlier in the coalition agreement between the National and New Zealand First parties to review tertiary education. The paper sparked strong debate, and obviously great concern from the universities—for this was one of the moments when the commercialism that had long been encroaching upon the universities was made explicit, and accelerated.

In his speech McKenzie weaved back and forth between graciousness and praise for his colleagues, a story of his life and career, and explicit concern about what the proposals laid out in the green paper might do to the university that he so loved. The speech was given less than a year after Don’s retirement from his professorship at Oxford, and less than two years before his death. It was reprinted in the service pamphlet passed out at his funeral in 1999 at Old St. Paul’s in Wellington (probably the most beautiful pamphlet printed in New Zealand, by Wai-te-Ata Press which Don himself founded in 1962).

There are two academic traditions which could be noted here, the Socratic and the Sophistic. In the Socratic tradition, the end of knowledge is virtue. Socrates simply says, ‘This is so, is it not?’. If you say ‘Yes’, then you fully accept as your own the truth you’ve arrived at. There can be no question of being badly taught and then later sueing your teacher, because at every stage, your participation implies a responsibility on your part to question and resolve the point at issue before you proceed further. This is the way in which, in the humanities, we have traditionally taught and learned. Within this tradition, a phrase like ‘the knowledge of business’, for example, is a solecism.

The Sophistic tradition, however, is money-based. Sophists are information-providers. They advertise and say: ‘I know, and for a price I’ll tell you’. There’s a financial contract which implies an efficient transfer of information, and if it doesn’t happen, the student who pays may claim compensation. The Green Paper would like us all to be Sophists.

It’s not surprising therefore that the Green Paper pays scant attention to those definitions of a university given in the Education Act of 1989. Let me remind you of three of the most pertinent: (1) universities are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the main aim being to develop intellectual independence; (2) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge; (3) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society. All three, I believe, are now at risk.

For New Zealanders, and for many people around the world, the state of affairs that McKenzie worried about has sadly come to pass. Two years ago the New Zealand government published a report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which some of the more worrying parts of the 1997 report have become hidden foundations. (I published my own concerns about that report in this essay).

But then again—I am here, studying at a university, with the freedom to read the words of someone like Don McKenzie. The worry about the future of the university itself sometimes seems a sign of the success of the university in the kinds of things that McKenzie quoted from New Zealand’s Education Act. The worry remains, though, about numbers—how many people feel the freedom to do this kind of reading? Ever fewer, from accounts of professors. And this reading itself can sometimes seem ever more difficult as the instrumentalist logic of reports like the Green Paper seeps into every corner of the library.

Of the poem I photographed above, McKenzie said: “It’s one which shows how blind we are when the variety of our human and natural worlds is obscured by our distance from the objects of study.” Thanks to Don McKenzie for the ever-fresh reminder of what we’re really here for—for being A New Zealand Scholar. And thanks to all those who continue his work, and keep his lecture series running.

Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations

     Aria.

“It is held to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.” It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall most probably think when I am yours.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

     1. 

I daresay that if, as he sat in his studio in 1955 and prepared to record his first version of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould had somehow been able to listen to his own recording of Bach’s same composition twenty-six years later, he might not have been able to begin at all. His 1981 recording, completed just a year before his untimely death at 50, is everything that his youthful 23-year-old version of 1955 is not: sombre and calm to the earlier version’s unfolding energy; elongated and unhurried, shorn of the precocious rapid-fire momentum of youth; effortlessly philosophical and reflective, a grandfatherly stroll rather than the young man’s competitive sprint. To listen to Bach’s aria in the 49-year-old Gould’s recording is to glimpse, for a few minutes, the illusions of youth, to see how, as Fitzgerald put it in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, “It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” 

But could a 23-year-old, in his prime and about to be propelled towards all that Fitzgerald’s flowers and gold represent, have been able to continue in his youthful recording had he a premonition of the wisdom of old age—a premonition, that is, of his own present illusions? Can youth maintain its confidence when it sees its own eventual, inevitable demise?

Gould himself, of course, recorded his variations on the Variations not in advance of his own life, but at the speed at which he was living. His recording at age 23 was the self-fulfilling prophecy he needed it to be, leading him to widespread recognition, its barely contained energy pushing him towards the fame he was later to have a conflicted relationship with. The aria is here reflective, as Bach’s melody demands, but Gould’s haste and precocity give it the sense of a young man’s reflectiveness. On the other hand, those of us standing at the same point that Gould stood, age 23, perhaps hear too much. I hear in Gould’s 1955 Variations all the pent up hopes that are my own, and then hear, soon after, their conclusion in the 1981 recording. From one starting point, the Variations (both Bach’s and Gould’s) are the multiform directions that life could take, each variation subtly informing path dependencies of the next, but always back, in the end, to a kind of primordial beginning. To see the inevitable reflectiveness of almost three decades’ time before I’ve even begun, and to see how all life’s variations play out ultimately to lead me to where I am now: this is my personal conclusion from perhaps too many listenings.

     2. 

The difference is thirteen minutes. 38 minutes in 1955; 51 minutes in 1981. Thirteen minutes: how much longer it took Gould to play the Variations in his old age compared to his youth. There are the same number of keystrokes in each recording, only the space between each stroke—the nothingness, the lack of sound—is extended, elongated. 

This fascinates me. It is a paradox: the young man, who has so much time, feels the need to rush, while the old man, with less than a year to live, plays as if he has all the time in the world. I wonder if the paradox can be explained by a respect for nothingness. For the 23-year-old, the time between keystrokes on the piano sounds like time wasted, time never to be recovered or regained, and therefore time best minimised or avoided. But for the 49-year-old inactivity, or the time between actions, can be the most fruitful—it is precisely the aching nothingness of the time between each keystroke in Gould’s 1981 recording that gives the aria and particularly the aria da capo, in which the notes are strung out imperceptibly but so fruitfully, their power and poignancy. 

     3. 

Finished less than a year before his death in 1982, it is unsurprising that Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations has been thought of as premonitory. The reaching pauses in the aria da capo between each perfectly formed, independent keystrokes are pregnant with all the variations of a life that remained unfulfilled: the countries not visited; the mornings wasted in busyness; the youthful dreams long forgotten; the loves not consummated. We are here back at the beginning, this time with no more variations or possibilities to be explored. The pauses ache. The sound of nothingness hurts, because we want existence to continue.

“The implication of the negative in our lives reduces by comparison every other concept that man has toyed with in the history of thought,” Gould explained to a crowd of 23 year olds in a graduation address in the ‘60s, mid-way between his two Goldberg recordings, half-way through his life. “It [nothingness] is the concept which seeks to make us better—to provide us with structures within which our thought can function—while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic.”

Whether Gould’s value-free advice helped any of those 23-year-olds in his audience, I’m not so sure. I can understand his point about nothingness—most of all when I listen to his 1981 Variations—but, still standing in youth, it is intangible philosophy. Knowing what I will likely think and feel in my forties does little to change how I can live my life in the present.

     4. 

Three variations on nothingness:

Ecclesiastes 1: “Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? No, it has already existed, long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”

Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat: “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”

Alan Watts, The State of Nothingness: “If you are aware of a state which you call is – or reality, or life – this implies another state called isn’t – or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is. You can’t know one without the other.”

     5.

My introduction to the variation form in music came, in fact, not through music at all. Throughout my whole life, until very recently, there hung in my family home a painting by the artist Colin McCahon. It is a vertical panel almost two metres high and one metre wide, painted in raw, earthy yellow, brown and blue tones—it depicts, as a whole, an abstracted landscape, with curvaceous forms reminiscent of both the human body and geomorphic landscapes. The lines of the forms, however, could very well be read in musical terms, as if a bass line is rising and falling across a musical score, as is the case with the Goldberg Variations. And indeed McCahon encouraged this reading through his title: ours was panel I from the third series of the Landscape Theme and Variations. 

Each of the three series has eight panels. One series was split up, and it was from this series that my grandparents obtained our panel. The other two series remain together in national public collections, and seeing them still complete, the variation form was brought home to me long before I ever heard Bach’s Variations.  

 

Glenn Gould Bach Goldberg Variations McCahon Landscape Theme and Variations

Colin McCahon, Landscape Theme and Variations (Series A), 1963. Copyright McCahon Estate.

There are variations on variations on variations. Each panel contains its own variations on the theme that is ever-present, set in McCahon’s case through any panel you look at, as in Bach’s through the aria (this is the difference between the variation form in painting and music: in the former you can begin anywhere, in the latter you must start at the beginning). Each panel contains its own variations, its own forms that are reconfigurations of the common forms that are present throughout every panel in every series. Then each series has subtle variations: subtly different hues indicating a different mood or time of day, smaller or larger landscape forms suggesting different location. And then there is the possibility of a curator hanging the panels in a different order, introducing another element of variation: the visual artistic equivalent of the creative freedom Gould has in playing the Goldberg Variations.

But, prepared for Bach’s Variations by McCahon’s paintings, I was unprepared for the effects of Gould’s two variations on the Variations. It was through the difference between Gould’s two recordings—the difference between the young man and the middle-aged—that I became obsessed.

     6. 

No matter which recording of the Goldberg Variations I listen to, I always get a fright at the start of the first variation. I now know to expect it: I tense up in the final few notes of the aria in anticipation. The brooding melancholy of the aria then gives way in an instant to a flash of energy. There is suddenly excitement and a freewheeling spirt. I see dresses twirling and shoes quick-stepping. People dancing. Students smiling.

This is Bach, and the first variation is indeed thought to be a take on the Polonaise, a kind of Polish dance performed, often, at graduation parties. There is a carnival-like mood, the carefree weeks or months before graduation and responsibilities. 

Of all Gould’s variations on the Variations, it is perhaps here that I see the greatest difference. In the 1955 recording the energy is unrestrained, our ears barely able to keep up with Gould’s fingers. The carefree nature of the variation is unfettered. But in 1981, the tempo has slowed. Now, it is as if the Polonaise is being recollected through the memory fog of many years—the memory is still there, but tinged with regret for those days having passed. Or, perhaps, it is the Polonaise now transmuted to the music of a regal procession rather than a student prom.

     7.

Cicero’s earliest surviving work is thought to be his youthful De Inventione, written when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two. It is a work of oratorical lessons, the kind of book Cicero might have produced to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject before having to put it into practise. He looks back across time, writing a kind of history of oratory to be used in the present. 

Inventione is rediscovery. Rather than our modern notion of invention as creation, inventione for Cicero was the sense of discovering arguments from the past that might be used in his oratory in the present. He combined the best of what he thought had been argued in the past to write a manual for his future oratory. Only, he soon came to regret the work. Cicero’s later De Oratore was the book he wrote to supersede his youthful treatise. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the more we learn, surely, the more we come to repent for our prior views. 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a work of inventione. From the Polonaise of the first variation to the quodlibet of the last, Bach’s work is a plundering from places and genres and time periods. It is as if through this kind of inventione he can show us the full variety of variations that are possible, and all the ones that have been possible. 

Edward Said’s point in his essay Glenn Gould, The Virtuoso as Intellectual, is to think about the combination of both Bach’s and Gould’s inventione. Gould, he argues, is not just playing Bach’s Variations, but is “inventing” them himself, in that classical meaning of “invention”: “So what Gould seems to be attempting at such moments is a full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated, rather than simply presented, through performance.” And, moreover, it is Gould’s unique choice to focus on the recording studio rather than the concert hall that allowed the full extent of this inventione: “Hence his insistence throughout his career that the very act of performance itself had to be taken out of the concert hall, where it was limited to the implacable chronological sequence and set program of the recital order, and planted in the studio where the essential “take-twoness” of recording technique—one of Gould’s favorite terms—could be submitted to the art of invention—repeated invention, repeated takes—in the fullest rhetorical sense of “invention.”

I wonder, in light of this, what Gould’s own relationship to his two Goldberg Variation recordings was. To even consider doing another recording was he, like Cicero, coming to repent for the inventione of his youth? Was the 1981 recording a final statement, the work he hoped people would henceforth listen to? Or was his relationship to them more complex—was he aware of the multifaceted natures of human beings across time, and see that it was the combination of both recordings that would lead to all manner of discoveries in a twenty-three year old three decades henceforth?

Rhetorical questions, of course. But here’s the issue. Hearing simultaneously both of Gould’s recordings, I am shown the inevitability of youthful views being superseded. And that’s why I asked, to begin, whether Gould could have gone on with his recording at age 23 had he been able to hear the recording of almost three decades later. Why, too, should I trust my present listening of the Goldberg Variations when, through Gould, I can anticipate a different interpretation in mid-life?

     8. 

At the very beginning of a musical education, I’m left wondering why it is that Bach and his Goldberg Variations seem uniquely capable of leading the mind to these broadest questions of life, ageing, and death—the very fundamentals of our lives, in other words. For hearing a live performance of Shostakovich, or Brahms, or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, as I’ve done in recent weeks, did not lead to the same point. There were visions of human grandeur in these composers—Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, for instance—but not the meditative reflectiveness of Bach’s Variations. In the symphonies I heard Picassoesque visions of humanity, as perhaps in his Guernica—triumph and suffering; in Bach, I hear the sounds of Giacometti’s Walking Man—the solitary awareness of mortality, or nothingness, and all that we have before it, which is life.

I have two variations of an answer, from Edward Said. The first is to do with the nature of counterpoint, exemplified in the Goldberg Variations with the common baseline and varying melody. Said writes: “The contrapuntal mode in music is, it seems, connected to eschatology, not only because Bach’s music is essentially religious or because Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is highly fugal. For the rules of counterpoint are so demanding, so exact in their detail as to seem divinely ordained.” The answer here might be that my lack of understanding of Bach’s counterpoint makes the Variations a mystery to do with life itself. The Variations inject some mystery into the over-explained, technologised world I’ve grown up in. This is not to say that I yet understand Mahler’s symphony either—but the unassuming simplicity of the Goldberg Variations, with Gould sitting alone, hunched over his piano, makes the mystery all the greater. With so many instruments in an orchestra, the mystery appears overtly as mystery.

The second variation of this answer is to do with Gould himself. It is only half an answer, for other, non-Gould recordings of the Variations still lead to, in large part, the same reflectiveness that Gould’s do. But here is Said: “This process of proceeding brilliantly from microcosm to macrocosm and then back again is Gould’s special accomplishment in his first Goldberg: by doing it pianistically he also lets you experience the sort of understanding normally the result of reading and thinking, not simply of playing a musical instrument.” I see no reason why this is not true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in Gould’s later 1981 recording. The microcosm of the theme, the aria, is made multiform in the same way that a human life is: from one starting point, so many possibilities, so many variations, and back, ultimately, to a point somewhat near where one started. The Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy. 

Whether or not the apocryphal origin story of the Goldberg Variations is true—Count Kaiserling stopping in Germany and requesting a composition from Bach, to be played by Goldberg at night to alleviate his insomnia—I can’t help but feel the Variations are early-morning music or late-night music. The unassuming quality of their reflectiveness makes them suited, in my view, to these times of day alone. Leave the symphonies to early evening; Bach alone, for me, at the very beginning and the very end of the day.

     Aria da capo.

“Because I have reached Paris, I am not ashamed of having passed through Newhaven and Dieppe. They were very good places to pass through, and I am none the less at my destination. All my old opinions were only stages on the way to the one I now hold, as itself is only a stage on the way to something else… Here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure consent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

 


 

Thanks to Professor Andrew Hui at Yale-NUS College for giving me the space and time to write this essay, and for all his reading suggestions. 

What Shall We Do Tomorrow?: An Essay On College

“”Well”, he sighed, “I sure am up in the air. I know I’m not a regular fellow, yet I loathe anybody else that isn’t. I can’t decide whether to cultivate my mind and be a great dramatist, or to thumb my nose at the Golden Treasury and be a Princeton slicker.”

“Why decide?”, suggested Kerry. “Better drift, like me. I’m going to sail into prominence on Burne’s coat tails.””

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

 

For the Yale-NUS College class of 2017. 

 

Is youth still wasted on the young?

I ask because for some years now I’ve been told that You Only Live Once; exhorted, time and again, from early youth, to note my own impermanence. But what the millennial adage really means, I still don’t know. Is life long, or is it short? Do we have a lot of time, or very little? Casey Neistat said to Make It Count—but what time can I count on?

For four years the question has followed me like a tedious argument. Insidiously, it seems intent on suggesting two incompatible views of life. The common wisdom, if it can be called that, is: live it up. In liquor and in love and in literature, let what life you have out of its cage. Like a bank account in which dollars are days, the goal is to spend it and use it until at last the day it is depleted is the day it is no longer needed. Putting myself on this side of life, writing a sincere essay about college and some lessons we might have learned seems akin to breaking up the suite party at 11PM so that I can curl once about the house, and fall asleep.

The other interpretation: live it well. If life is indeed a bank (“though I’ve always resisted that loathsome platitude, the means by which the very gold of our lives is transformed into the base lead of commerce”) then what we have is a savings rather than a chequeing account. Deposit your diplomas and in a few years out will come promotion; deposit your dollars and out will come vacations; deposit those, and hoard the Experiences until the account bursts at the seams, your iPhone filled with photos and your eyes full of wisdom. On this side of life I write sincerely so as to make a deposit in my account, and yours. I write to capture, like fragments of poetry found in classes and old books—after the novels, after the coffee cups, after the skirts dropped to the floor—some sense of what all our time here was for… to squeeze these four years into a ball, to roll them towards an overwhelming question…

How shall we live? 

Live it up, or live it well?

 — — — 

Flying here in 2013 I stared out the window as the city lights fell away beneath me and imagined myself living in a New York penthouse, adoring fans looking up from the streets below as I sang, “I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world, just a lie we’ve got to rise aboooove.” Later, flying over dark and dense forests, a pond just visible in a clearing, I tired of the hectic city life, tired of the torrents of noise and news that chased us down, always telling us nothing but that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough. Seeing a small log cabin, I resolved to live more honestly. Later: as the cabin lights dimmed and the A380’s starry sky appeared above, I had a Parisian Dream, entranced by the image, distant and dim, of that awe-inspiring landscape such as no mortal ever saw. I awoke to otherworldly gardens, crystal domes, misty waterfalls and glossy white towers. The Prime Minister came to give us the keys, and I resolved to be him. 

What will I imagine, flying home after graduation? Imagination seems difficult when held up against the mundanities of resumes and interviews for jobs one does not really want. It struggles, too, when faced with a ticking clock: Kygo tells me, again and again, that I ain’t getting any younger, and Dali’s clocks stretch and drip away from me (but how memory persists!) Most likely I will watch a movie, and fall asleep.

We’ve had almost four years to figure it out: what life do we want? New York penthouse, Concord cabin, Premier House? The life of the soldier, the saint, the sage or the citizen? From so many books and so many Instagram accounts we have seen so many different lives, each of which could be ours if we so chose—and amidst so many possibilities most of us wallowed, for a few years. The World Was Our Oyster, but no one who ever said that also told us that despite the sea of possibility we only in fact get one life. Do we then choose it, arranging all possible lives before us and selecting the reddest apple; or do we let it happen to us while we are busy doing other things? Live it well, or live it up?

The more we read the less sure we are. Each page is a new possibility, and, since You Only Live Once, you must not choose in ignorance. Keep reading, for the answer always lies on the next page.

But read for too long and you forget to live.

Have we read too much or too little?

Yesterday I read of the curator at the Louvre, daily moving masterpieces of our world, and I wanted to be him. Today I re-read a poet I am rather partial to, and have resolved to be a writer. Tomorrow… 

What shall we do tomorrow? 

What shall we ever do?

— — — 

Seneca said to keep death always in mind. Spinoza said that a free person is he or she who never thinks of death. Damien Hirst showed us that, besides, death is a physical impossibility in the mind of someone living.

How shall we live? We first need to know what we think of death. How shall I write? I first need to know what I think of death.

Believe Seneca and I must write it all and write it right now, for what can happen at any moment can happen today. Believe Spinoza and I have all the time in the world, able to take another three years of classes before writing a single word. Believe Hirst and it does not matter either way—whether I write now or I write later, I will regret both.

Do we have time to wait for the interest to accumulate in our accounts—to slowly make deposits until in old age we are rich? Or must we skip the becoming and be, since we never know when our becoming will be tragically cut short?

Do I write badly now, or wait a few years to put it better—but in waiting risk never being able to say it at all?

— — — 

This is education: knowing everything until you one day realise you previously did not know everything, but knowing now that you once again do. 

Robert Louis Stevenson put it better: “A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right.”

The trouble comes when we anticipate our not knowing everything. Known unknowns are far more dangerous to the development of a young mind than are unknown unknowns. The latter are harmless, where the former can paralyse. For why, knowing that one day I should have knowledge requiring me to recant all I now believe, should I now speak? Why speak, when others know more, and why speak, when I will later inevitably contradict myself? Why write, etching into permanence truths that I will later learn to be either truism or untruth? Truly, should I not wait five years, avoiding the embarrassment of stating sincerely something others already knew, or knew to be untrue?

“Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes…” “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day…” But even they do not help, for tomorrow I could discover the book that contradicts their hopeful advice; or I could choose a political career, in which heeding the Transcendentalists’ counsel would in later life sting as if I came upon a hornet’s nest.

— — — 

We leave port and set out up the uncharted river in search of promised ivory. We head West to search for the Sanzangjing, or perhaps it is Ithaka. But what if we arrive to find her poor—or if we find, half way there, that Phoenicia was enough after all?

We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

How shall we live? It is impossible to decide. I’ve learned enough to believe in my own ignorance, but not enough to know how to overcome it. I cannot yet lecture Wisdom, and I still do not know whose Wisdom to trust.

And so, tying myself to the mast of this rickety ship, I grasp at both worlds, hoping that, like flipping a coin, I’ll suddenly be shown which one I wanted after all.

By day we put our heads down, listening to Spotify and allowing the music to present images of us ahead of others, others looking at us, us bathed in some kind of glory, and we finish our essays. By night—we watch Netflix, we chill. We recover. We rebel. We rail against the system, regretting having ever believed in secret societies and the Rhodes scholarships. 

We are all of us caught between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom. 

How are we to learn which life is best when the first rehearsal for life is life itself? Kundera told us that we are all merely actors going on cold. 

— — — 

Three years ago we said: There will be time, there will be time… Time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions…

And now we say: Will there be time, will there be time?

What happened to all that time? 

There is no time for indecision.

We cannot turn back and descend the stair.

We came here for many reasons. Our reasons weren’t entirely normal, because part of our mission was to reinvent liberal arts and sciences education. What is certain is that we will leave here next year with doubts and questions, jobs and internships, minor and major crises. 

And maybe there we see, for the first time, that this education didn’t need reinvention after all. Maybe instead of assuming education should be something else, we should simply be happy we’ve had it at all.

 


 

This essay was completed in May 2017.

Journey to Oxford

My own departure from New Zealand was aided by the departure of those before me, those who departed and felt a departure to be worth writing about. That’s how a country builds itself, how it makes itself a country worth writing about when one leaves: one writes and gives meaning to all those who come and go thereafter. 

I departed, or ‘journeyed away’ if I’m to use the terms of those before me, and as I did so I thought of Mulgan’s departure: his teary goodbyes at the wharf, his hours to contemplate the Southern sun setting for the last time for who knows how long (he was never to see it again), and then weeks to contemplate the spirit of the place he was saying goodbye to. By the time Mulgan crossed the equator and weeks later arrived in Oxford he had digested us and spat us back out again. We, a people for whom “loveliness too often goes often unnoticed”. Perhaps he sat in the University Parks on an early autumn afternoon and felt that if he didn’t start the tradition then nobody would. 

I sit in the University Parks on a late summer’s afternoon, and though I want to write about the journey to Oxford I find that there simply wasn’t enough of a journey to write about. Arrivals and departures are as mundane as remembering which day to put the rubbish out, and journeys are for luxury goods companies desperate to sell suitcases. Mine was a “trip” here, a trip like the hundreds I’ve done already (if I hold my boarding passes, which I’ve kept since I was fifteen, the stack is as thick as my thigh), and to want it to have been a journey is to simply be crassly literary about it: it doesn’t change the mundanity of any part of the process.

And yet for all the talk of distance these days being less tyrannical, a New Zealander in Oxford is still a New Zealander a long way from home. A New Zealander in Oxford is still one who thought our borders too small; he or she still thought the long trip and the goodbyes to be worthwhile. My arrival here is in so many ways a failure, because as much as the polite thing to say is that New Zealand’s universities are perfectly good, the fact is that one still leaves for Oxford if given the chance. I know of no one who has turned the chance down. 

“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned?”, John Beaglehole asked upon his return to New Zealand just a few years before Mulgan’s departure. My arrival here is, if not a national failure, then a personal one, because it answers Beaglehole in the affirmative: yes, we must still consider him or her so. The life of the province is rich but it is not yet rich enough; the country communicates life but it does not yet have enough of it. Meanwhile, New Zealanders in Oxford laugh at the British but vow never to return to those “Antipodes” (the British term for isles quaint but not worth knowing about). Beijing, a few of them mention. 

Days after arriving I went to the Sackler, Oxford’s art library, and asked for a book on McCahon (it did not take long for me to miss those hills). Your search returned no results. Rita Angus, then—no results. Perhaps I would re-read Mulgan from a new vantage point, but it wasn’t to be, for I am not a member of Balliol, the only college library to hold a copy, and I did not feel like making an appointment with the college library to “view” the book. See, it is still either there or here, here or there. While home I relish revelling in the culture that is ours, but regret that there is not enough culture that is ours merely by humanity, rather than nationality. Here, the opposite: humanity is just a short walk to the library away, but the Bodleian does not yet know how to categorise New Zealanders’ humanity (in fact, our books are simply not sold here). 

I left intending and planning to return, but a part of me is preternaturally scared that something will prevent it: something like a job. If I am to write, from here I could write to the world—from home I would write to ourselves. If I am to start a business, from here I start one facing outwards first and inwards second, whereas from home it is inwards first and outwards hopefully. Still it is for us a choice, whereas the mark of sufficient cultural life is to eradicate the need for a choice. It is true that “Should I stay or should I go” is still our national song, but for how long? For how long must we keep singing that song? 

 


(I asked someone close to me for their thoughts on this essay, and the reply was that, ironically, an essay such as this would never be read overseas either, precisely because it deals with New Zealand. Of course, I think that is true: which means that we must keep singing that song for at least another generation or two).

Here is John Mulgan’s fragmentary essay on his own journey to Oxford that sparked these reflections, edited by Victoria University of Wellington professor Peter Whiteford who himself journeyed to Oxford (but did, to our benefit, return).