They say art reflects life, and the older I get, the more I turn to it and see within the very same lessons that I’ve learned, or am grappling with myself.
I realized recently that there’s a reason why two of my favorite books are The Great Gatsby and Love in the Time of Cholera. They’re very different stories, but are united by one thing: A character who idealizes a love narrative, to the point of it becoming a lifelong obsession that never waivers.
I’m hardly a muse in the artistic sense of the word – I’m a fairly ordinary person, and quite proud of the fact. But even those of us who revel in their ordinariness can become someone else’s hinge. I was once a young person with rather literary sensibilities, and the youthful idea that I was going to be different. I wasn’t going to succumb to the quotidian world – I was going to rise above it. So when I encountered people with similar convictions, I tended to gravitate toward them – and the more outlandish their convictions, the more fascinated I became.
I smile at my younger self now. I understand why she felt that way, why many young people feel that way. But with experience comes evolution, and like many people, I evolved into the early middle ager that I am today. I have no particular regrets about giving up on those romantic sensibilities – as I have said to more than one person, there are certain things that interest me in art, but would repel me in real life.
One of those things is that person who becomes so attached to a youthful narrative that they aren’t able to let it go.
There’s a book I come back to periodically throughout my life – a strange piece of Scottish literature called The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I encountered this book when I was quite young. I didn’t completely understand it the first time I read it, but it stuck with me. The main character, Jean Brodie, and her charisma were seductive and enchanting. I was a child, and easily charmed by such people, even in fiction.
When I first had to grapple with this question years ago, I told people, “I can apply to law school!” I was, as a very young adult, skilled in the art of telling people what they wanted to hear in order to temporarily cover up my true designs. If I’d told them that I had no interest in law school, I would have been treated to many useless lectures that older adults tend to smother younger adults with. (I try not to do that myself, as much as I’d like to sometimes. They need to learn and grow on their own, and as much as I’d like to think I do…I don’t know everything.)
But if someone were to ask me today, What can you do with an English degree?, my answer would be this:
I was in high school when I first read Walt Whitman. I remember being introduced to the idea of Transcendentalism, finding something about it intriguing, and liking something I read by Whitman. He’s lumped in with both the Transcendentalists and Romantics, but if you think of Transcendentalism as the American spin on Romanticism, or as two highly entwined movements, that makes a lot of sense.
I picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere, in which the poem Song of Myself is prominently featured. When I read it, I realized with excitement that I was already familiar with it. I was in a choir as a child, and someone picked out several passages to arrange into a chorale piece. It’s about innocence and death, which Whitman seamlessly entwines without allowing it to become dark…