I am normally not given to autobiographical commentary of any sort, because in a certain sense I regard it as a kind of imposition of myself upon others. But recently I was asked by someone on Facebook if I could answer questions about, or convey in some fashion, what the University of Oxford was like. I suspect that others would ask such questions, so, for reasons that will become apparent upon conclusion of this reminiscence, I have decided to share my impressions and recollections – to convey the experience of the place – as best as I can, so that I do not have to relive it for each and every person who wants to know these things.
My best and closest friend for almost this last half of my life, Dr. Scott D. deHart, a fellow survivor of the University of Oxford, put it quite aptly in a conversation about our common experience there, a conversation we had some months ago, when he nicknamed Oxford “the Old Fiend.” Indeed. It is for us and for anyone who survived it, the Old Fiend. I think, in some measure, I am speaking as much for him, and anyone else, as for myself, who have passed through it and emerged on the other side: none of us emerge unscathed; we all bear the scars of the common experience of going through it.
It is not a university. That is just the cover story; it is a living, breathing, clanking fire-breathing mediaeval basilisk. One either survives the encounter with it, or one is slain.
I could, I suppose, attempt to convey the grand, heavy brilliance of the place by describing its “system of education,” but that would be to impose a template upon it that is wholly foreign and even anathema to it. I could describe the churning nervous nausea one experiences when one obtains the Examination Decrees and Regulations, a monstrous grimoire of hundreds of pages of distilled academic arcana laying out the “requirements” for a particular degree in a particular “subject.” I could attempt to convey the immediate pressure that never leaves until the ordeal is passed, or I could attempt to convey the giddy comprehensiveness with which one must have mastered one’s “subject” in order to survive the place. But not even that would convey it, for it is also the one university on the Earth where serious brilliant academics can pursue their alchemical studies or Atlantean pursuits; one need only think of Newton (at Cambridge), Bruno, or Thom in this regard.
That heaviness, that constricting, oppressive pressure weighs down with a suddenness upon you the moment you step off the train at the city’s west edge, and look out over the spires spread against the sky like a carpet of daggers, and the spires of many of these buildings are older than America. You realize that the ghosts you see and walk amongst, the ghosts that you sense populating the heavy air with its ethereal oppressive weight, are not ephemeral. They are real. You can reach out and touch their words, read and touch the papers they signed, feel their monuments, live and move in their rooms and buildings and streets. You are a stranger here; you have been allowed in; you will – one way or another – leave it, but they will remain. You realize at once, with an acute and searing intuition, that you walk with Tolkien, Lewis, Ashmole, Wren, Hawking, Wilde, the Wesleys….on and on the list could go. You doubt – immediately and for every second of every waking or sleeping minute – that you’ll survive and achieve what you hope to achieve. The atmosphere is heavy with brilliance; it is known for its successes because it has no hesitation whatsoever of telling you or anyone else that you do not measure up, that you’ve failed, that you are to be “sent down” with less than you came for.
It is a place of extremities, of survival or failure, with little middle ground between. It gives you no second chances; there is only one comprehensive chance. There are no “classes,” no “attendance” rolls to be taken, no “credit hours” requirements to fulfill, for it is not interested in form, but substance. You either know it, or you do not; you either barely succeed, or you fail gloriously, and within this spectrum, there is no room for the movements of mediocrity. At the slightest sign of ignorance, of hesitation, of doubt, there is always someone willing, able, and ready to challenge any aspect of anything you say. There is no “faculty” in any recognizable sense, only collections of scholars and experts in their several disciplines who determine all requirements, adjudicate all evaluation, whose determinations are final, and whom one must convince by all the techniques of reason to be allowed entry into their ranks, or fail.
You do not “graduate” from the Old Fiend; you merely survive it. You do not “attend” the Old Fiend; you “go up to” it; you do not “leave” it for it is always part of you; you either “go down,” or are “sent down.” You do not “major” in “a subject” by attending classes and having your name ticked off in a roll call to meet the requirements of form, for as I have said, it is not about form, but about substance. You do not “major” in “a subject”, you read for a degree in it. It is not an education; it is an initiation into a tradition, for it is a place that has made originality a tradition and brilliance a commonplace. The words of Oscar Wilde – himself a survivor of the Old Fiend – might be suspended over it all to describe the ordeal, for they are not congenial, casual words; they were forged in the crucible of Oxford: “The man who does not think for himself, does not think at all.”
The Lord of the Rings was not forged in Mordor, but in Oxford; the talking beasts of Narnia were not brought to life in a far off land, but by the magic of Oxford; the Picture of Dorian Gray was truly not painted in London, but in Oxford, the arcane depths of the event horizon were not plumbed at the edge of a black hole, but by mathematics in Oxford; “Eve” was not discovered in Africa, but by genetics and algorithms in Oxford. The measurements of Atlantis were not discovered by cranks scratching away in silly journals, but by an Oxford engineer, and the first theory of gravity was discovered by an Oxbridge alchemist – if we allow the inclusion of that other great institute of academic torture into our purview – studying the Great Pyramid.
There is no explaining it. It is impossible to convey to someone who has not passed through that crucible. I have never been ashamed of being there nor of having survived it. I am grateful for that fact that I did and achieved what I achieved. Yet… my diploma is not hung on the wall, for I need no reminders of the heaviness of the place; that sensation is with me still, and it is why I seldom talk about it. It is the one University in the world where, with so many “survivors,” so few ever return to visit it. There is no need to go back to see the place – to walk its narrow streets or breathe that heavy air again – every brick, every stone, every spire, every building, every thought and emotion ever experienced there are forever and indelibly etched on your soul and mind. There is no need – nor desire – to go back and rekindle “the old memories,” for they are as fresh, undiminished and unrepentant as the day they were born there.
And even now, having to relive it by writing about it, I experience again that thrilling, brilliant, giddy, joyous and terrible oppressive weight of it, and having thus written, say no more.