First Semester Surprises

As I approach the last week of classes of my first semester, I want to reflect on some of the ways that my program has been different than I expected.

First of all, King’s College is a much more diverse place than I imagined. It makes sense—London is, after all, closer to Budapest than Ann Arbor is to the town I grew up in—but in the first few days I was overwhelmed by the amount of different languages and accents I heard. Half of my program is from overseas.

That said, there is also a surprising amount of Michigan here. In my first few days on campus, I met one classmate from Lansing, one who had gone to Wayne State, and one who had grandparents in Ann Arbor. A few weeks later, the Primark—think of a cross between Target and Kohl’s—had a wall full of Michigan gear. Hats, sweatshirts, beanies, all showing off the block M. No other schools, just Michigan. A man on the tube struck up a conversation, and it turned out he had graduated from Ross just a few years ago. Last year one of my professors was in Ann Arbor for a conference. And several bars have Founder’s All Day IPA on tap.

Every class I’m in is a seminar, something I’m very unaccustomed to as an engineering student. The point of the class is usually not to teach us a specific fact or idea, but rather to work together to illuminate and unpack the aspects of the books that interest us as a class. This requires a totally different kind of preparation and study—instead of just memorizing the material, we have to question it, dig into it, complicate it. And nobody ever knows where the discussion is going to go, least of all the seminar leader. I often feel like a kid who’s gotten his hands on his parents’ car keys and gone for a joyride without knowing how to steer.

One thing that really blindsided me about the program is that it’s not always primarily focused on books. In my class on the Arab Spring, we read several novels and some poems, but we also looked at blogs, films, social media posts, paintings, and music videos. Furthermore, our class discussions tend to reach beyond questions of literary technique and form to things like economics, politics, international relations, and human rights.

Despite this breadth of focus, people also focus on sometimes ridiculously specialized topics in their research. Have you ever wondered about the history of specific German words? Or the influence of radical Italian politics in 20th-century India? Or the influence that Classical mythology has had on Caribbean fiction? Then comparative literature might be the field for you.

Although it can be so specialized, there are moments of incredible connection. For instance, what do Glenn Gould, Luciano Visconti, Richard Strauss, and Dante have in common? According to Edward Said (and one of my instructors), it’s lateness—that is, an approach to artistic creation based on internal contradiction and refusal of conventional form. It’s these surprising and insightful moments that make this area of study worth it.

 

Season of Migration to the North

Apologies for the delay in updating the blog—too much has been happening in and out of classes for me to make the time to write it all down. Over the next couple of weeks, though, expect to hear a lot about what’s been going on. Here’s a little bit about a trip I took to Edinburgh:

As the semester continued, as each week I would finish my assigned hundreds of pages of readings just to start the next weeks, as the weather got colder and rainier, as I realized just how much there is to learn about comparative literature, I found myself spending less and less time outside the circuit of my flat, campus, and the library. Although I loved London, and still do, the city was losing its shine. Although London’s parks are numerous and beautiful, it’s hard to enter a state of serene contemplation when behind the sight of trees you can see construction cranes, behind the sounds of rustling leaves you can hear jackhammers, and behind the fragrance of flowers you can smell the ever-present city odor of exhaust, garbage, and cigarette smoke.

All of these are reasons why I found myself sitting backwards on a train bound for Edinburgh, Scotland. A quick aside about the trains in the U.K.: they’re incredible. Everywhere I’ve lived in the US I’ve felt a deep, primal need for a car, but here a car is almost a liability, when trains can get you anywhere you want to go faster, without traffic, and free to enjoy the incredible seaside views.

Edinburgh is one of the few places I’ve been that actually took my breath away on the moment of arrival. I felt like the lead in a coming-of-age movie; I could feel the camera, low, angled upward at my face as I climbed the last few steps, catch my reaction then pan around and up to reveal: an enormous medieval castle! On a sheer rock cliff, right in the middle of town! And below it, a shockingly green park deep in the valley! Behind it, the twisting streets and majestic buildings of an ancient capital city! And in the distance (yet still within walking distance) a looming, brooding dormant volcanic peak: Arthur’s seat!

Edinburgh had sights enough to keep me busy for days, but the thing that I enjoyed the most was the atmosphere, the sense of community that London only ever achieves partially. This was most evident at the Royal Oak, a tiny local pub, no bigger than my flat, which hosted musicians every night. I went there multiple times, and each time I saw some of the same people. The musicians were seated at a table right in the middle of the crowd, and at one point passed a guitar around so that myself and the other patrons could play songs of our own. I still haven’t found a place like this in London, and I’m not sure I ever will. Check out Ciaran McGhee, who I caught on two of the nights I spent there, for a taste of what it was like.

British cuisine is an easy target, so I won’t get into describing the details of defining dishes like beans on toast (exactly what it sounds like), fish and chips (the world’s most glorified fast food), or mushy peas (which actually sound somehow worse than they taste). One of those easy punchlines was, until this trip, haggis. It’s a traditional Scottish dish made of sheep heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with oats, and cooked inside the animal’s stomach. Having recently gone pescatarian, I wasn’t sure I would even try it during my trip, but curiosity, and the justification that all rules are off during vacations, got the better of me. I found myself using that justification over and over again that weekend—as long as you kept your mind on the taste, haggis is quite good.

When I got on my train back home, I felt renewed. Refreshed by the sea breeze that whips across Arthur’s Seat, inspired to my studies by the 200-ft monument to the writer Walter Scott, and full to the bursting from all the haggis. I sped—sitting backwards again—towards London, but in the dark it almost felt like I was being pulled forwards, out into the highlands, outer islands, and beyond. I hope I’m luck enough to return someday.

Paul Reggentin: An Introduction

Hi, this is Paul. I’m one of the Roger M. Jones Fellows this year. Along with Sonia, I’m studying in London. I’m taking an MA course in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, which starts tomorrow. Here’s a quick update on my first week in London.

The first thing I did in London was fall asleep. I set a 30-minute alarm; when that woke me up, I set another, and, after that, another. In total, a 90 minute nap.

In my defense, I had just been on a red-eye flight from Orlando, a flight on which I was the only person not a member of a family fresh off of a week at Disney World. Out of the many dozens of children on that flight, some were happy to be returning home, some were sad to be leaving Disney, some were excited to be on an airplane, some were bored to be on an airplane with nothing to do, and some had to use the bathroom, but all were expressing their feelings clearly. I was also seated one row in front of two infants.

It’s a weak excuse, sure. It’s hard for me to justify doing the one thing I can do anywhere in the world in a city that offers any number of things I can’t do anywhere else. But eventually I did get out of bed and into the city.

The first thing I noticed, which looks foolish now that I type it out, is that London is a really big place. Not only is it big, it’s sprawling. There’s no organization to the streets whatsoever. They make abrupt turns, split, merge, become suddenly one-way, and, in addition to all that, none of them are pointed in the same direction. As a mere pedestrian in the middle of such chaos, I am nearly always disoriented. One benefit of the constant confusion, though, is that I’ve wandered down many interesting streets with many interesting names. Names like Garlick Hill, Threadneedle Street, Limeburner Lane, Puddle Dock. Just outside the financial district, I found a series of streets named Milk Street, Wood Street, Cloth Street, and Oat Lane, which I learned had retained their names since they served as medieval markets selling those goods.

I found myself tripping over history many times throughout the week. Entering an art museum on a quiet square one afternoon, I spotted a sign reading “Roman Amphitheater: Basement”. Down two flights of stairs were, in fact, the foundations of the amphitheater from the era when London was a Roman colony. I also ran across one of the few remaining buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, the gravesite of Daniel Defoe, the house where Samuel Johnson composed the first English dictionary, and, just behind a massive glass-and-steel bank headquarters, a section of the city wall built by the Romans.

Every place in this city is hiding generations of history. I can’t wait to spend a year both uncovering the past and working towards my future.