Letter to an Undergraduate from Christy Anderson

Letter to an Undergraduate from Christy Anderson

Christy Anderson is an associate professor of History of Art. Her publications include Inigo Jones and the Classical Tradition and The Built Surface: Architecture and Pictures. She is currently writing a book on architecture and alchemy.

Coming in through the headphones is my favorite music, Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5, performed by the Kronos Quartet. The first time I heard it, about seven years ago, I was in the middle of something mindless, washing dishes, folding clothes, thinking about something else. It was a summer afternoon, quiet, lazy, unremarkable. But then this music, these sounds, this winding up and spinning down, this building and falling, this tumult of emotion over the radio. The music was infinitely sad and completely joyous, ecstatic. In the building energy of each movement I had felt my heart quicken, more alive, more engaged. I had heard something primal and powerful. Quickly, in a panic that I would never know what this was, I phoned the radio station (this was in the days before playlists were available online). `Please,’ I begged as if I were phoning 911, `what is that? That music that was just on. I have to know what it was. It was the most painfully beautiful thing I have ever heard.’ The staid announcer at my local NPR station laughed, gave me the information, and hung up.

Painfully beautiful. Like Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, John Cheever’s diaries, Bramante’s Tempietto, New England in November, Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, the Book of Common Prayer – a pretty random list – Philip Glass’s music feeds a sense that the most ecstatic and beautiful things are one whisper away from despair. Now I could easily wish you just the first part of this equation: days of joy, the good sense and fortune to know only happy times in college and beyond. But you have already lived too much to believe any such silliness, and I want more for you. I would wish for you a life of passion.

A casual observer of undergraduate life might see no need to urge you into a more passionate mode. Decrying the wanton college years, these critics might say that some restraint is in order, less “entwining in rocking delight” (to quote Rilke) and more solitary contemplation. But mine is not a hope for a more active social life.

And if the issue were simply scheduling then I urge learning to say no. Less is more. You came to Yale on the basis of your accomplishments, and that usually adds up to very busy days. A more passionate life is not one with a longer To Do list.

No, I would urge you to take passion to heart.

Somewhere long ago, we were all taught to curb our passion, to divorce our emotions from our intellectual life. We are the product of good schooling and attentive parents who steered us through the landmines where emotions threatened at every turn. Isn’t this the definition of adolescence?

Your parents and teachers were right: passion is dangerous, and painful. It suggests physical anguish, that sinking, terrible wrenching when you feel the arctic winds around your heart. Passion is suffering, even in its sweetest incarnation. It doesn’t take too many years of living before we all start to understand our happiness in the language of business cycles: good times followed by periods of retrenchment, occasionally recession and sometimes even depression. A few rounds of that and its hard not to anticipate the fall.

Please know that I am not talking only about your love life.

What would your life be like if you lived always with a faith in passion? Try to imagine it.

First, you would need to be in good physical shape. This passion stuff is hard work. Healthy diet, lots of sleep, plenty of exercise. If you are planning on experiencing life to your very toes, they had better be well tended. You need enough excess to test the systems but never so much as to blow the fuse. Next, you’ll need a band of brothers (or sisters) for support and encouragement. But mostly I hope that you find a group that keeps the pressure on, that challenges you, makes you always see the world anew, that never allows you to slip into complacency. And finally, you will need to find a room of your own, a place where you can be alone without the drone of others.

Mostly, though, you will need courage – and that is not easy to produce on demand. (Think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.) It is so easy to fill up the spaces in your days with events and running from thing to thing that the really difficult questions are buried under the immediate pressures of everyday life. Why suffer when the distractions are so much more pleasurable? But the passionate life is filled with uncertainty, and we have been well trained in planning our futures.

When you are thinking about what to do with your life, worry less about what profession you will enter and more about how you will live it. Lawyer, doctor, scholar. The what is less important than the how. Invent new (old) vocations. Be an explorer-poet, like Walter Raleigh. Or moonlight as an activist-teacher.

I can already hear you: nice idea, in theory, in college, in some utopia somewhere. But I need to [pick one or more]: get a job, get into grad school, get good grades, get a date, get a life. With work, and a little patience, I think that all those elements of life fall into place. What we can’t control, only make space for, is the tenor of life. The passionate life refuses the conventions and embraces the contradictions that a busy day keeps hidden from view. I wish that I could save you (and me) all of the sadness that follows on the heels of all of our ecstasies.

Then, again, maybe I don’t.