I started reading This Secret Garden by Justin Cartwright tonight. I picked it up one day when I was working at a bookstore that was in the process of going out of business; I found it in a bargain bin during my shift and hid it, before purchasing it on my break. It’s a book about Oxford – supposedly about the city, but Cartwright’s account is self-confessedly centred on the university. And why wouldn’t it be? The author admits that in his mind, the two are inextricably intertwined.
Oxford is simultaneously a real, tangible, bricks-and-mortar place as well as an ideal. Cartwright writes at length about famous alumni and their work, testament to the fact that the accumulated creative output of its people is as much a part of this entity called ‘Oxford’ as the vaulted-ceiling dining halls of the colleges. He also discusses the tension between the Oxford “myth” and reality, and whether insiders or outsiders have a better grasp of what Oxford’s true worth is.
I am not able to add any astute observations to the debate as I have never been to Oxford, or spent enough time in Britain to understand its cultural status in that part of the world. I come from a country where a handful of university colleges try to emulate Oxbridge to the point that one is obliged to speak of “coming up” to or “going down” from college. When I was forced to adopt this kind of language as a first-year, it felt hopelessly contrived; and yet I wonder, is saying grace in Latin any less pretentious in a dining hall at Balliol College, than it is on a sweaty February evening in Australia? Or does the latter situation merely bring the wankery home more forcefully? Like Justin Cartwright, I am unashamedly sentimental about Oxford University. Like Cartwright, I place immense value on an institution that, at least in theory, propounds the good of knowledge for its own sake. What’s more, I see in places like Oxford and Cambridge a respect for knowledge so intense that it seems to spill over into the very stonework that houses the classrooms where such knowledge is transmitted and developed, and into the gardens that spread from beneath the windows: here in the physical artifact, the glory of learning manifesting itself as beauty.
At its heart, the book is about Oxford as a haven for the rational, ethical (in Cartwright’s view the sole ethical) human endeavour of striving to grapple with and leave some small mark on the “unheeding universe.” It’s really wonderful to pick up a book that explores the very notions your own head is full of at that moment. You feel a little less alone, like when you meet a stranger and, after a few moments of conversation, discover that they’re a kindred spirit. Justin Cartwright’s blend of rationality with unashamed sentimentality felt so intuitive to me that I criticised his few faults with the feeling that I was examining my own work.
Geza Vermes, a retired professor of Jewish Studies and a friend of Cartwright who is quoted in the book, felt upon his arrival at Oxford that he had “woken up in heaven.” I have fervently dreamed of studying at Oxford for many years, and I was about to write that I worry sometimes my idealistic expectations may not be met, but in fact that’s not true. I am not worried at all; I consider dispassionately that Oxford may not be how I expect it to be, yet I remain absolutely sure that I’ll love it. I truly feel as though I’ll belong, in a time-honoured community of people dedicated to the beauty of learning; this is indeed how Cartwright felt, for the first (and, it seems, last) time in his life. Do I suffer from the Oxford version of Jerusalem syndrome, as Cartwright suggests many do? Does it matter, if I’m happy?