College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)

 

Bargain Sale Patriarch: A Tale of the Sad Decline of Art Collecting

I was surprised to read the news that British investment banker Jonathan Ruffer is to open a new public gallery dedicated to his collection of religious art, focusing on the period known as the Spanish Golden Age of the 17th century.  Ruffer famously purchased the monumental series of paintings known as “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” (c. 1640-1644) by Francisco de Zurbarán a few years ago for the bargain price of £19 million, and then gave them back to the Anglican Church, which had owned them for the last two centuries.  However Mr. Ruffer has been accumulating many other works for his personal collection for years now.  The reason he is able to do so, frankly, is overall rather a sad one for the world of art collecting.

Creating an art collection like the one which will form the nucleus of this new museum in County Durham, focusing on major works from the Counter-Reformation in Spain, is not an easy thing to do.  The majority of the art of this period is now housed in publicly-owned museums, rather than held by individual collectors.  The fact that someone could still, just within the last 20 years, assemble a group of works of the level we’re expected to see in this new, public-but-private museum, is truly remarkable.

The fact that Ruffer chose not to hold on to the Zurbarán paintings, which would have been the star of this new museum, surprised many, but then there are many surprising things about these pictures.  The story of how “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” ended up in England in the first place, for example, is pure speculation. The generally accepted theory is that they were captured as booty by British privateers, stolen on their way to a monastery in the New World from Spain.  They were then brought back to London and auctioned off quayside.

What is known for certain however, and which is rather fascinating, is that at some point the paintings entered the collection of James Mendez, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had come to England as the personal physician of Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II.  As the Mendez family wanted to get along with the Anglican gentry, they discarded what they perceived as more overt aspects of their Jewish culture.  Although these paintings were painted by a Catholic for a Catholic institution, their Jewish subject matter and monumental scale probably seemed too overtly Jewish for a family trying to mingle in English high society at that time, which was often blatantly anti-semitic. Thus they eventually passed into the collection of the Anglican Bishops resident at Auckland Castle.

Today the stigma of being a lover of religious art has spread to become a kind of general malaise throughout the world of art collecting.  When a group of thirteen magnificent, beautifully made religious paintings like these, from one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, sells for around $30 million, while a hideous monstrosity like this sells for $142 million, something is very wrong.  If you wanted proof that our present society prefers ugliness to beauty, not just aesthetically but in everything else, here at least is some compelling evidence advancing that theory.

Of course, the flip side to this downturn in taste is that it is a great time to be a collector with an eye for beauty and meaning, as Mr. Ruffer clearly is.  The paintings and sculptures that are being overlooked, by the pursuers of the new and lacking in nuance or skill, do not fetch as high a price.  So of the saleable stock remaining from the world of Western Civilization before its decline into incontinence, should you have a few million sitting around, there are still some lovely things to be had.

Detail of "Jacob" by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644) Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

Detail of “Jacob” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

 

 

 

That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles