I’m not saying I’m a prophet. But seven years ago, the second thing I was ever paid to write—which sounds like there’ve been many more; not so—was a tribute to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a “postcard” written from an imaginary town of the kind he could have included, but didn’t get to, in his collection. My city was called “Ciudad Cruz.” It was, I wrote, a “labyrinth of tombs,” a ghost town that had succumbed to the new ways of dying the 21st century had brought with it. This city’s distinctive feature, its overflow of tombstones—in parks and squares at first but then in traffic islands, on certain streets, eventually covering every inch of public space—brought with it the extinction of public life. The few survivors spent their time indoors, in crumbling buildings, or else “jumping above or squeezing themselves between the tombstones that block the entrance to their houses and workplaces and leave no room to walk on the street.” Ciudad Cruz had a spectral aura not just for the obvious reason, the deaths; there was also something theatrical about it, or rather, a vestige of theatricality, and there is nothing eerier than an abandoned theater stage.
The origin of theater, as is well known, is a rite. Rites are events we engage in with a sense of occasion. Religious ceremonies, graduations, a first tattoo: we do these things to mark something, to announce it as important. As communicative acts, they need an audience; as nondiscursive (or not merely discursive), they need to be performed. Thus rites are a species of the general urge for public display. The only remaining such performance in Ciudad Cruz was the survivors’ custom of keeping the flowers at the base of the tombs alive. There is really no point in watering a tomb’s flowers or replacing the bouquet; usually, no one but the doer will notice the results. That doesn’t mean there is no audience for this performance, but simply that the audience is the performer herself. What marked my poor citizens’ flower-maintenance as a special kind of performance is what marks all rites: while pointless, it was fraught with meaning.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with rituals. With performances and audiences, generally. And it goes without saying that I’m uncomfortable with streets emptied out by new forms of death. Whatever foresight my little fiction had when I wrote it, it did not include the fact that, some years on, I would find myself in something like just the town I’d made up.
To describe the city of Oxford as a weird little world of its own would be to make an understatement. History has shaped it, like time does stalactites, into a thing that is separate from its surroundings even if it’s made of the same stuff. (A misleading simile, of course: history’s shaping of elite institutions—and in this case the city involved—into insular spheres entails a series of deliberate human actions, not simply the natural course of events. But that is another story.) To make it through the gates of Oxford, contenders from all over the world make a pilgrimage to prove their worth. If they succeed, the feeling of achievement is so great that it cannot go unsung—indeed, it never stops being sung. That is what makes this town so eccentric. Every occasion is special—every dinner, every exam—because every member of the university is special. The result is the exceeding number of rituals that occupy public life here.
Though prone to hyperbole, the Spanish writer Javier Marías intimately captures this love for performance in his novel All Souls, based on his years teaching literature at Oxford. All Souls could well be another of Calvino’s extravagant versions of Venice, as told not by a traveler like Marco Polo—Calvino’s narrator—but by a current resident of the town, which makes Marías’s exposé not an outsider’s report but something of an act of treason.
It is only partial treason, though. While written with the inside knowledge of a member of “the congregation” (Marías’s term), All Souls is also written by someone who has no patience for tradition. Thus the heart of the writer is split in two. One half is at pains to spare the people he esteems from his attack of dark humor; the other hastens to denounce a lifestyle that he perceives as an affront to normalcy, to level-headedness, to the moral disdain for pretension. “The English never look openly at anything,” he writes, taking a few dons for the whole country in a burst of melodrama, “or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances.”
No doubt every town appears to the foreigner as its own little world. But for me, as for Marías, it is hard to imagine a clash so stark as that between Hispanic intemperateness and the formality of British academia. In the quiet of my small room, in the attic of a big house stuck at the end of a sleepy street, far away from Oxford’s busy center, I have spent the past two years reminiscing about house parties in Mexico, where everyone was close to everyone else and we all lay about doing nothing, listening to music, legs and arms entangled, only getting up to use the toilet or, if in need of more beer, the kitchen, giving someone a peck on the way.
There is little more foreign to the Oxford mindset than this mix of idleness and romanticism. Most people here are too smart to waste their time and too ambitious to invest it in any activity that is its only reward. Where, then, does this interest in meaningful but pointless little acts come from? The explanation, Marías writes, is that much of academia involves not doing but being, by which in fact he means being seen. Like a peacock’s feathers or a soldier’s stripes, the academic gown distinguishes the wearer from the layman on the street and from academics of other ranks on one’s own dinner table. But academic dress—to be referred to by its Latin name, sub fusc, part of a body of jargon that harks back to the Middle Ages—is only necessary, by no means sufficient, to be able to “swim in this water.” At Oxford, you don’t simply go to dinner in the hall. Rather, you display your table manners and your gown—or suit, depending on the college—for your peers. (If you’re seated at the “high table,” the theatricality is hardly metaphorical. High tables are raised on a platform and everybody has to stand when their diners come in.) One doesn’t simply enroll at Oxford. Rather, one must be blessed in Latin (by a wearer of an even fancier gown, naturally) to be welcomed into the university, and then, quasi-mandatorily, spend the rest of the day drinking without taking off—this is important—one’s gown and/or suit.
About this tradition Marías writes, “I felt I ought to put on my black gown … with the primary aim of satisfying the many tourists whom I would pass en route from my pyramid house to the [library] and with the secondary aim of feeling both disguised and slightly more justified in my role as ornament.” Classes themselves were in Marías’s experience more performative than pedagogic. If a student asked a question for which Marías didn’t know the answer (likely because the question was absurd, posed for the sake of roleplaying), he’d make up whatever story he fancied in reply, in order to maintain the “gap between the students and myself [that verged] on that between king and subjects.” His distinct impression was that his students were just performing their parts in the script. So for two years Marías faked obscure etymologies for an audience that faked an interest in them.
We have reached the end of the summer term now, and evidently, these mechanics have been turned on their head. The news that Cambridge—known here as “The Other Place”—will not physically reopen for a full year makes it likely that they will remain so. Ivy still clads the ancient colleges; bikes left against the walls still crowd the pebbled lanes. The sun is out, the sky is clear. It would be a beautiful setting, if only there were more people here to see it. Dolphins, elephants and ducks won’t repopulate Oxford as they have done elsewhere. The endemic species here is the striving academic, and everyone is long gone home.
Alongside the complaints about Oxford’s formality, there has always been a case in its defense. In 2015, the Oxford University Student Union held a referendum to decide whether sub fusc should be kept obligatory in final exams. The response was overwhelmingly supportive: 76 percent voted to keep it. Academic life being much like a hermit’s, perhaps this desire for public ostentation is not just a desire to compensate for an excess of solitary time, but a way of placing oneself within a tradition, to keep company with the past and future generations of scholars.
To those of us who are strangers, however, being forced into a world where the public and the private are so conspicuously off balance has felt like being “transplanted into another element, water perhaps,” or worse still, like “having always been in the world (having spent all my life in the world) I suddenly found myself outside it.” The contrast with the city’s life today is stark. With no one to stand on them, the podiums of Oxford—both the literal podiums at the high tables, the Oxford Union, and the metaphorical ones in gardens where balls were held, in pubs where academics used to debate—are like lifeless bodies, like obsolete machines: things voided of their meaning.
What do we lose, exactly, when we are forced off those podiums—when we are forced, for a long time, out of public life? To construct and display a public image of oneself is to make oneself legible. The need for legibility stems from a need for recognition; one needs to be seen and heard not only by others; in order to make sense of our own identities, we also need to recognize ourselves. Cast in this light, the ostentatious practices that are epitomized for Marías by those damn gowns—which serve “the twin functions of concealment and aesthetics”—are the manifestation of just that need.
But these past months brought with them the realization that life is livable without Oxford’s cherished symbols. I wonder if it wasn’t this realization, at least in part, that pushed us to demand last week, once again, that an especially appalling symbol be taken down: the statue of the British colonialist and Oxford benefactor Cecil Rhodes.1 I wonder if it wasn’t the realization that public life is so fragile that made it distinctively clear that podiums have been occupied by the same few—even dead!—people for too long; that the human need to be recognized is not one best satisfied by simply wearing a gown or sitting at a high table; that in order to reclaim public life, we need to reclaim public space, to remake it in our own image.
Now that we’re all “outside of the world,” the forces that keep the lonely away from each other—the forces that keep the non-actors offstage—have inevitably relaxed here. And so, just before the lockdown, and no doubt thanks to the uncongested streets, I ran into a fellow castaway. It is hard to overstate the importance of having someone to see, and by whom to be seen, during a time of isolation. Then there are of course the perks of a warm bed in the morning, the late-night drunken confessions, the daily shopping and cooking—which are, in fact, not mere perks at all, but the new rituals of a new way of life.
When Marías last sees his Oxford lover, he is filled with gratitude toward her—not just for the time she’s given him, but also for the loneliness she has saved him from. As they say goodbye, he feels the suspension of life winding down. In the book, that means the end of Marías’s stay in Oxford: “It would not be long now before the weak wheel of the world would start rolling again and the stillness come to an end.”
The weak wheel of the world has started rolling again in momentous ways. Meanwhile, after last week’s protests, the stillness of spring is creeping back into the Oxford summer. The campus remains closed; more people are planning to leave town now that the term has ended. Yet it is difficult not to see a good omen in Marías’s final note of optimism. His time in exile from the world wasn’t so terrible after all; even among all those strangers, he was lucky to find his own fellow castaway.
In my imaginary town, too, the survivors’ isolation did not prevent them from showing care for something other than themselves. The tombs for which the citizens of Ciudad Cruz kept the flowers fresh did not belong to their loved ones but were, rather, whatever tombs they had close to them, “on their doorstep, or across the road.” “They do it,” I wrote, “as a routine gesture or maybe in the hope—who knows—that there will be room for their own when the time comes, and that someone will keep the flowers fresh for it as well.”