I’m always on the lookout for passages that articulate things I’ve observed more clearly than I’ve ever managed to express them. Here’s one from Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that applies equally well to milieux I have experienced:
…to become an insider at Cambridge or Oxford does not in itself require conformity, except perhaps to intellectual fashion; it was and is a function of a certain capacity for intellectual assimilation. It entails knowing how to “be” an Oxbridge don; understanding intuitively how to conduct an English conversation that is never too aggressively political; knowing how to modulate moral seriousness, political engagement and ethical rigidity through application of irony and wit, and a precisely calculated appearance of insouciance. It would be difficult to imagine the application of such talents in, say, postwar Paris. (pg 56)
The details of mien and moue vary from place to place, and time to time (early-1960s Harvard not the same as late-1960s Stanford, in my own case, and present-day fashions are different again), but Judt really nails it with ethnographic precision and verbal elegance. I have the sense that Tony Judt spoke with semicolons…
One of the most enduring lines in William Gibson’s oeuvre is
You can’t let the little pricks generation-gap you.
(Molly, in Neuromancer, pg 59)
–a passage I keep handy for topical application (and used as the epigram for a prescient 1999 posting [alas, the graphs link doesn’t work]).
Well, gappage happens. As a non-cellphone user I’m (happily) out of a bunch of loops anyway, but at my recent high school reunion I witnessed several of my contemporaries being taught the wonders of text messaging, and was content to adopt the anthropologist-watching-bizarre-behavior stance. The second cartoon in a Language Log posting today seems a balm.
Every five years I get a new installment in the ongoing saga of my college class (it was Harvard 1965), and the Fourtieth Anniversary Report arrived yesterday. I’ve spent quite a few of the last 24 hours immersed in the lives of people I didn’t know, or knew only very slightly, and I’m as much affected by the experience as I was by the seven previous iterations. This time around, the themes of retirement and grandchildren and parental death are much to the fore, with antiphonal threads of travel and health crises, and occasional notes of dissatisfaction with the directions in which the world is headed.
I am surprised to feel so connected with a group of people, my cohort, but at the same time so disconnected from nearly all of them as individuals. My freshman roommates are dead or vanished, and quite a few others I can recall pretty clearly are also gone. It seems that I didn’t have many friends in the class, though there are a few I’d be delighted to see again. I’m amazed to find that two classmates live within 5 miles (and that they’re recent transplants to Maine, as I am), but I’m not sure if hunting them up is likely to be a good idea, since what we share is granfalloonish membership in a fund-raising pool.
Wallace Shawn, yes that Wallace Shawn, wins my award for most eloquent entry, from which I’ll quote a paragraph:
And today, still addicted to the fantasy that we’re better than others and deserve a bit more, we accept with our well-known tight-lipped equanimity (occasionally broken by our well-known inaudible warblings of protest) all the blood spilled and the bones broken by our servants –Bush and the rest– in their effort to preserve our well-merited position down to the last Reunion.
Those I am most curious about are the 50-odd who are listed only with Last known address, and who have managed to escape the vigilance of the fund-raising arm of Mother Harvard. Their stories would be worth knowing.
There are a few whose lives and eloquence I admire, and whom I wish I knew.