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From an interview with Zadie Smith a few years ago:

… [T]here were many things about academic life that I found unbearably oppressive and absurd. There’s so much of one’s real lived experiences that you have to leave at the gates. There’s something about English departments in particular—a kind of desperate need to be serious, to be professional, to police this very ambiguous and necessarily amorphous act, reading—that I find hard to deal with.

English, as a subject, never really got over its upstart nature. It tries to bulk itself up with hopeless jargon and specious complexity, tries to imitate subjects it can never be. I always feel a disappointment coming out of English departments, as if all these brilliant people are gathered and poised to study something and all they have to study is . . . these things? Novels? But they’re so . . . smooshy. It’s as if, at some fundamental level, they consider the novel beneath them. They want something more macho, harder, with a more rigorous structure. It depresses me, how embarrassed some people seem to be about novels, how much they want them to be something else.

The flip side of that experience is finding a professor here, a professor there, who is absolutely willing to engage with everything a novel is and face up to its strengths and failures as a human product and allow students to express their most intimate intellectual and emotional experiences of reading. When that happens, there’s no better place to be in a university than in an English department. But when someone is spending a semester explaining to you why Adam Bede is an example of the nineteenth-century pastoral fallacy, that’s a little demoralizing. To me, a university is one of the most precious of human institutions; that’s why when they fall short of their own ideals, you feel so cheated.

How did I get onto this page, this particular Zadie Smith interview?

Via Roger Deakin, via Iris Murdoch, via scribbling in my journal while I was coming home on the train from the university this afternoon, even via the burqa…

Well, I’ll try to straighten it all out. But it’s got something to do with this quotation from Murdoch. Smith cites it in her interview:

The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one. . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals.

Real lived experiences… intimate intellectual and emotional experiences… Smith is after these, and she rightly identifies the university as a bastion of actuality, a much-evolved, much-elaborated truth-seeker. The university embodies, ideally, Murdoch’s discipline of seeing what there is outside one, tearing the tissue of self-centered fantasy in order to attain what Murdoch elsewhere calls the “merciful objectivity” at the core of morality.

Deakin? In the few days since I discovered this British environmentalist and nature writer (he died five years ago), I’ve experienced the same excitement I felt first reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Albert Camus’ Lyrical Essays, and George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” and Jan Morris’ essay “La Paz,” and quite a few other great works of descriptive prose. Like these writers, Deakin has the gift of writing outside of himself, the gift of merciful objectivity, which he trains on the natural world.

This is from his book Waterlog:

Natural water has always held the magical power to cure. Somehow or other, it transmits its own self-regenerating powers to the swimmer. I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling idiot. There is a feeling of absolute freedom and wildness that comes with the sheer liberation of nakedness as well as weightlessness in natural water, and it leads to a deep bond with the bathing-place.

Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things. A swimming journey would give me access to that part of our world which, like darkness, mist, woods or high mountains, still retains most mystery. It would afford me a different perspective on the rest of landlocked humanity.

One writer, remembering Deakin, singled out his “enormous exuberance and anarchic life.” He said of Deakin that “The poems of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge were as immediate to him as today’s newspapers.”

Deakin was Zadie Smith’s ideal English department. He had what Murdoch calls the discipline of art as well as the amorphous smooshy exuberance of real experience. Because he wasn’t landlocked in his own dreams, or in the virtual dreams of technolife, he was able to see the world of nature and people with great clarity, and this clarity compelled his morality, his environmental work which continues after his death to change the world:

“The writer needs a strong passion to change things, not just to reflect or report them as they are.”

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One Response to ““A university is one of the most precious of human institutions…””

  1. University Diaries Says:

    […] Iris Murdoch says: The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue […]

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