In a space-making endeavour, I am sorting through and chucking out lots of my old clutter. I come across a file of old university essays and skim through them. About to start a masters, I find myself freaking out that my brain is no way up to scratch.
For goodness sake, when I was 20 I managed to write 2,000 words on the epistemological function of metaphor in Proust, and I have no idea what epistemological even means any more. I chuckle at my ramblings around the notion that women writers are always compelled to find ways of emancipating themselves from the prevailing social and aesthetic ideologies. I would probably quite enjoy writing that essay again. I can’t say the same about this one, which I don’t think I ever had a clue about: ‘By assiduously transcribing the discourse of betise, Flaubert transforms it into the object of an impassive yet unmistakeably ironic scrutiny.’ Discuss betise, irony and the relationship between the two in the list of this remark.
We all came up with what we considered to be clever lines, which we still quote proudly back to each other (such as ‘the praxis of one generation becomes the practico-inert of the next’) but our tutors never seemed all that impressed. I come across the comment scrawled by one of my tutors, which all of us still joke about: ‘A minor point, perhaps, but many people find few things more irritating than a multitude of split infinitives.’ Grr. I would probably now challenge his definition of a multitude. I counted 3. For many people, in my opinion at least, find few things more irritating than misapplied words. But at the time this minor point was a crushing blow. Oh well, it’s better than the comments he’d scrawled at the bottom of Hannah’s essay, a copy of which I found in my file:
Argument? Textual analysis? Consideration of the question?
Well, we may not have been great at our essays but, given my aim of unearthing my French and discovering some kind of confidence to speak it, I am encouraged that at one point in my life I wasn’t too daunted at the prospect of translating sentences like these into another language:
‘On the contrary, one might expect the new mandarin to be dangerously arrogant, aggressive, and incapable of adjusting to failure, as compared with his predecessor, whose claim to power was not diminished by honesty as to the limitations of his knowledge, lack of work to do or demonstrable mistakes’. Or another one we enjoyed: ‘histories twisted chickens came home to roost’.
Oh Oxford University! I suppose I can now see that being stretched to the point of discomfort has quite possibly had its benefits, and that what didn’t kill me probably made me stronger. And although I slightly mock it, I don’t entirely knock it, and am thankful for the opportunity that I had to be there. With just three A-levels in Spanish, French and Art, I don’t think I’d have stood a chance of it these days.
Nonetheless, I am hoping that my masters at SOAS will build on foundations I’ve already laid rather than demolishing me entirely to build everything up from scratch. Someone told me recently that SOAS is made up of ‘spies, missionaries, and others’ (I’m pondering which category to chose for myself), and most people seem to agree that it’s going to be good. Apart from one person, that is, who’s doing her PhD there yet avoids setting foot on campus. She was the first person to express such a vehement hatred of the place. ‘Of course,’ she qualified her remarks, ‘If you’re left wing and read the Guardian and like going on activist protest marches, you’ll be fine.’ Excellent.
On that note, it is time for me to boldly dust off the studying side of my brain, to joyfully re-enter the university world of words and concepts and parties and protests, and to graciously forgive Mr Split Infinitive Tutor for his confidence-crushing comments. Let’s see what an education looks like this time round.