Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saved by an Idea

Grant Morrison, in Supergods and elsewhere, says that the idea of The Bomb nearly drove him to despair, but that the idea of Superman saved him by being a better idea. Helen DeWitt, in today's interview with the LA Review of Books, says that she was saved by the idea of Oxford in a similar way:
When I started college I thought I would now lead the life of the mind, rather than making good grades. It wasn’t like that. I hated the intellectual mediocrity, I did not know how to find something better; I attempted suicide for the first time at 19. Afterwards I asked myself: Is there anything, anything at all, that would make it a good thing that I did not die? And I thought: If I could go to Oxford, where the life of the mind is taken seriously, that would make it a good thing. Years later a psychologist told me it was not necessary to commit suicide when alienated by intellectual mediocrity: He had gone to Cornell, with its frat culture, but he had found one friend and it had been all right. He asked me why dealing with my publishers had led to a suicide attempt, and I said, well, if a book is technically challenging it is hard to get it through the machine, but if you want to write a work of genius it is necessary to take risks. He said: Your sanity is more important than writing a work of genius. I thought: Nobody who thinks that will ever write a work of genius. I thought: We all die sooner or later.

What I mean is. The Oxford of my imagination was not the Oxford of the actual world. But going to Oxford did transform me intellectually; it was the absolute impossibility of staying where I was, the ability to imagine something better, and the ability to work very hard for it, that took me there. In that sense the Oxford of my imagination was more powerful than the real university: I was trying to live by the standards of something that I had made up in my head, a place where everyone had read Proust in French, every classicist read the whole of Greek tragedy in the original….
Go and read the whole thing. Perhaps you will be saved by it. Who can tell? We are fortified in this life by the strangest and most happenstance of things.

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