Back on campus today, writing in the grad student lounge whilst hammering out serious notes on the bureaucracy and civil service (from John Brewer's masterpiece, The Sinews of Power (1989)).
As always, the company of grad students on campus causes me a strange reaction. I've seen myself here so many times.
In my mind's eye I can imagine (and recall) the happy conversations, the rapid exchanges of ideas. The fantasy is so vivid that every betrayal of it sacks me in the gut and leaves me feeling loose, unhinged, disconnected.
Like today, and like every day, when I write in their company too often -- I find myself looking up from my work, studying the blond hipster in a faded check shirt (the blue fades to white with wear around his cuffs), the girl flipping through notes by her laptop and the next table.
I both want to speak and am afraid -- afraid because, in reality, no grad student strikes up conversation with a stranger in the library or the study room or the cafe. It happens only in film. Strangers talk to each other in the Mission District of San Francisco, amidst the homeless and the starving musicians, but never in the Berkeley library.
Speaking to loose acquaintances is liable, all grad students know, to prompt hysteric displays of insecurities: lavish boasting on the one hand and asinine whining about unsolvable dilemmas on the other.
In the company of grad students I always want to approach strangers and find myself choking in my inability to connect.
Words from T.S.Eliot come back to me: "She would like someone to speak to her / and is almost afraid that someone may commit the indiscretion."
And so another scene comes back to me, from Lars von Trier's film work of genius, "The 5 Obstructions," a 2004 collaboration (or act of sadism) between Lars von Trier and his own mentor, Dutch filmmaker Jorgen Leth.
In the film, the two intellectuals are trying together to remake Jorgen's 1967 short, The Perfect Human. They boast, they brawl. They over-perform. They get self-conscious. Amidst their bizarre, intellectual jousting is spliced scenes from the original 1967 shot (in its ultra-modern white-screen space-age black-and-white glory) and its animated, Indian, and Cuban remakes.
And in each remake, the character main character, the perfect human, pauses from his shaving and dining and other lonely, perfect, activities, to recite, resignedly, as he did in 1967, the following line:
"Today, also, I saw something that I hope to understand in a couple of days."
A line gesturing past fear to some place where insecure individuals moving through the world may meet each other.