In which I wax philosophical

In Others
September 21, 2009

ITV3 is rerunning Brideshead Revisited at the moment and I’ve been watching it with a great deal of pleasure. I stayed away from watching or reading it while I was writing my novel. Working on a novel about Oxford, I thought it was important to steer clear. But I know that some elements of the book are a response to Brideshead. Or perhaps not a response to the book as much as a response to the way that Oxford presents itself post-Brideshead, the way that Oxford students think of themselves post-Brideshead, the experience students hope to have at Oxford having read or seen or heard of Brideshead Revisited.

[I had a conversation about a year ago with someone who I
knew distantly while I was at Oxford. The kind of person who, when I said I was
writing a novel about Oxford immediately said “oh, it’s about me then,” even
though I think I literally never had a conversation longer than three sentences
with this person the whole time I was there. Anyway, when I made my suggestion
that Oxford itself is now a response to Brideshead Revisited and that the
experiences students have there now are partly based on expectations created by
the novel, this person immediately said “oh no, you’re totally wrong, because I
never read it.” Which is, charmingly, exactly what I had a character in the
book say in an early draft of my book – later deleted for being far too
postmodern. I think that people who say this are even more vulnerable, in a way, because they have the yearning without knowing that’s what they’re yearning for. I think that Brideshead taps
into an English nostalgia for a between-the-wars perfection that probably never
existed and hooks it onto our oldest university. I think that, whether you’ve
read the book or seen the series or not, your idea of what it means to ‘be an
Oxford student’ has been shaped by it because those ideas are ‘wild’ in our
culture now, no longer needing to be transmitted by print or film. Oxford is not
a place which exists comfortably in the present anymore; it is full of people
pretending consciously or unconsciously to have stepped back in time.]

 So. Watching Brideshead collided in my mind with having
spent a few hours at The School of Life recently, and I started thinking for
the first time in probably a decade about my experience in studying Philosophy
at Oxford, what I had expected and why I was disappointed.

 At all my ‘safety schools’ I didn’t apply to read straight
Philosophy, I applied to read Philosophy and English. Which actually still
pretty accurately sums up the locus of my interests: I’m interested in writing
and words and I’m interested in ideas and that philosophical cliché, the
Meaning of Life. The School of Life feels like a perfect place for me because
there are people there grappling with the same issues that I thought I’d study
at Oxford: how does one make meaningful relationships? what is the right way to
think about death? how far ought one to go for a friend? is suffering improving
or just pointless?

 Maybe studying philosophy at Oxford now, one gets to deal
with some of these questions. Or maybe I would have got to deal with them if I
hadn’t become disillusioned quite early on and started ‘phoning it in’. But in
my memory, there was never a point at which studying philosophy touched on the
questions I’d imagined would be at its heart: the questions about how to live.

 Instead, we read a lot of ancient philosophers and tried to
find flaws in their reasoning. I am still grateful to have a bank of useful
philosophical ideas in my mind, grateful to have read Descartes and Spinoza,
Leibniz and Aristotle and Hume. They’re good writers with interesting ideas.
But I remember wondering at Oxford, with increasing desperation, when we were going
to start discussing our own * ideas,
our own lives. When we were going to start talking about something real. Which,
of course, never really happened.

 In my third year, I finally had a tutor who I felt I could
raise this issue with. She (the only woman who tutored me during my whole time
at Oxford) told me that the problem with philosophy was that it had had its
wings clipped. It used to be a huge discipline of reasoning, in which
philosophers would start by using their reason to work out truths about our
physical universe (are we all made up of small particles which cannot be
divided? How do mind and body interact? Does God exist?) and, using that as a
base, would reason all the way up to “What is the good life? How is it best to

 But slowly that territory had been diminished. Physics now
took all the questions about the physical universe. I remember being incredibly
frustrated during a tutorial on Leibniz, that neither I nor my tutor knew *
what modern Physics actually said * about whether his ‘monads’ – tiny
indivisible particles – really exist. All we were doing was examining his
reasoning, without knowing whether reason had in fact led him to the right
answer. And religion – or despair – had taken away the questions about how to
live a good life. It was no longer considered something about which one could
reason one’s way to a conclusion.

 So Philosophy was left with the stuff in the middle.
Theoretical questions that almost never touch the ‘real world’. Not ‘how should
we use language?’ but ‘what is language?’ Not ‘what is the right way to live?’
but ‘what is the meaning of the concept ‘right way to live’?’ Not ‘is there a
God?’ but ‘is there a coherent way to understand the idea of God?’ And while
it’s certainly useful to be able to parse concepts like this with clarity… I
eventually found this approach frustrating and dull.

 It’s not the way those philosophers intended to be read, and
it’s not the way to grow to love them. It’d be like reading Jane Austen purely
in order to learn about punctuation and being set essay after essay critiquing
her use of semicolons. Or like reading music scores and debating their merits
without ever actually listening to or playing the music. Like reading recipes
without tasting the food. Like reading sex manuals without… well, you get the

 So, The School of Life – it feels like home to me, because
people are finally using the philosophers I read as a teenager in the way they
themselves intended to be used. Not as objects for reason or examination of arguments
but as guides to living. Not perfect guides; there’s no such thing as a perfect
guide anyway. But writers who practise an art as much as a science and who must
be responded to with the emotions as much as with reason.

 I remember feeling almost overwhelmingly excited when I
first read Alain De Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy because I suddenly saw
what I had missed at Oxford; someone who treated these philosophers seriously
and wanted to think through their ideas and then * use them *.

 Perhaps I started the wrong way round. Perhaps when I was a
teenager I was too fundamentalist about my Orthodox Judaism to have been
willing to entertain ideas about the right way to live from Greek philosophers
anyway. Perhaps I needed years of therapy – or just years of living – to begin
to understand what any of them really meant. But I find myself now, finally,
free to read philosophy again and simply to love it, to appreciate it on the
level of the writing and ideas.

 This is how Marcus Aurelius’ second book of meditations
starts: “Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with
interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will and selfishness.”
Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t it inspiring, and funny and somehow magnificently
calming? I honestly do not care what reasoning led him to say it and whether or
not it was flawed. It is not about pure reason, it is about living.

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