Renaissance Love, So to Speak
When I was 8, I went to the mall, bought my first diary, came home, and wrote about “The Boy at the Mall.” We didn't talk, but we made eye contact, and it was as if time stopped and we entered another dimension, in which we communicated everything, forever.
I wrote about him a lot, although I’m sure that I invented him. Still, I didn't have any other significant crushes until high school, when I fell in love with a boy who died. I didn't know him, and I only liked him after he died, so that was never going to happen. He just suddenly seemed so perfect.
My early life was dominated by these romantic commitments to idealized strangers, keeping me a virgin until I was 25, much like a nun. The fulfillment of this pattern was John Guillory, who was, not suprisingly, my college English Professor.
I was a Sophomore at Johns Hopkins University and still unsure about my major. I enjoyed my English classes, but they required a lot of reading. I wanted to be an intellectual without having to sit and read that much.
Then, I took John Guillory's seminar on Milton. He wasn’t pedantic, like my other professors. He rarely lectured. He lead open discussions. He had this distinctive way of making his students feel like whatever they said was probably wrong. You couldn't tell. He would just stare for a few beats, and then say something like, "Mmm hmm. Anyone else?" He saw through us. It was intimidating, and I loved it.
Once in awhile, he would toss off some casual brilliance. I still remember the things he said, like, "Everyone's relationship to culture is complex. Hmm?" And “It can take years to achieve that simplicity. Hmm?” With a sentence, he would resolve the tortured debates raging in my brain about how I should think and live.
During our classroom discussions, I would often shoot up my hand before I had anything to say. I hadn’t done that since grade school, the last time I obsessively craved attention for its own sake. Then I would ramble confusingly. "No, sorry. I don't follow," he would reply, in his aloof manner, staring at me. I had wanted to be an intellectual, and he was calling my bluff.
So, I changed my strategy. I sat in the back, quietly, and put it all into my essays. I spent weeks working on my final essay on Paradise Lost. I got an A and felt an enormous high, like nothing I had felt before. This was a much better strategy for winning his approval, although a part of me missed the public humiliation in class.
I wouldn't say that I had romantic feelings for professor Guillory. That's simplistic. He was gay, I thought. He dedicated his first book to a man, wore an earring, and had a daintiness that I associated, at the time, with being gay.
It wasn't about that for me. It was that I believed - no, I knew - that he was an angel. I mean, metaphorically, but a literal metaphor because everything is metaphor. His skin was fair, his face was boyish, and when he walked it looked like he was floating.
At the end of the year, I approached him, my heart beating loudly, and I asked him to be my faculty advisor. "Sure," he said.
I felt, like Milton, that I had been called.
At the beginning of my junior year, I signed up for four English classes and read everything. My essays became my obsession. I would stay up for one, sometimes two nights in a row writing them – on a “college bender.”
In everything I read, I kept seeing the same allegory – the youthful pursuit of an ideal, a fall from grace, the return to a paradise that is less idealized but more grounded, where I assumed John Guillory kept court and I longed to be.
I did really well in my classes, but I developed a disorder in the eating department. I would binge at night then starve myself in punishment. I rarely pooped. I also stopped socializing. I had trouble talking to people my own age without decoding their language. No suitors could hold my attention, with their tendency to talk and emote in an earthly way.
Professor Guillory wasn't teaching first semester. He was writing a book. He spent his afternoons in this gorgeous reading room. I spent my afternoon there too, not coincidentally. I won’t lie.
He always sat three tables in to the right. I always sat three tables in to the left. I saw him, in the distance, like an idealized vision of beauty and truth guiding me. He was blurry really, I needed glasses. Out in the world, I felt anxious and bloated. There, with him, I felt at peace.
I could sense him watching me too, so I performed for him. I would read, with my legs up on the desk; think, while biting my nails; discover truth, scribbling in my notebook; realize that truth is unknowable (again!); and so on. It was a magical time for us.
Second semester, I took Professor Guillory's class on Renaissance poetry. I couldn't handle being that close to him again, after everything we had been through. I sat in the back, behind people. I couldn’t look directly at him, so I'd stare at his forehead, where his gentle cowlick would bounce up and down.
I didn't say a word in class, but everything poured out in my essays. "The poet feels that the moon is seductive but unknowable," I wrote. "The moon is like a coy teacher." I couldn't help it. I was a vessel! He gave me an A and wrote, “Enjoyable, although you took it further than I would have."
So, I took it even further in my next essay. “The poet gives his lord everything - his heavy flesh, his heavy language. Why doesn't his lord love him back?” “Interesting,” he wrote. “A.”
I wasn’t sure, but I thought he was also communicating back to me in class, in code. When he talked about Shakespeare’s tempting Dark Lady, was that me?
Once, we passed each other on a staircase. I was surprised, so I smiled and said, “Oh, hi!” He replied, “Oh… hi,” with a knowing half-smile. Was he flirting? Or just mimicking me? It was driving me crazy not knowing! That was the first time we talked all year so I thought about it a lot.
Then, it was spring break, and while many of my friends were at the beach, I found myself sitting in Washington Square Park in New York, with my luggage. You see, John Guillory's book had recently come out. He dedicated it to a woman, this time. I looked her up. She was a professor at NYU. I didn't know where her office was located. I just wanted to be near them. I was supposed to be visiting my aunt in Brooklyn.
I knew, then, that I had hit bottom. This relationship wasn't good for me. I deserved better. Plus, I was making it all up!
At the end of the year, I went to his office to get my schedule approved. As he signed it – failing to engage in the earthly ritual of advising, as usual - I stood there, burning up. Couldn't he see what he was doing to me? Finally, it just burst out of me:
“I want you to guide my senior thesis!” I exclaimed.
“Oh. What's it on?”
“Um... Hamlet.” I didn't have any idea. “I have some ideas. I'll send them to you.”
I felt trapped.
We had class later that day. It was our last class. We were reading the famous poem by Robert Herrick called “To the Virgins” that begins, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Professor Guillory said, "Justine, why don’t you read it aloud?" This was very strange. I had never read aloud. I don’t think I had ever heard him say my name!
So I read the poem, nervously and quickly. Then, he skipped the usual discussion and gave his direct interpretation: “The poet is telling this young person to go on, have fun, be young! But he's also saying, stay here. Stay, go. He's conflicted. Hmm?”
I won’t lie. I can sometimes read too much into things. But that one, I’m still pretty sure it was intended for me.
That summer, I discovered Metamucil and regular exercise. I unblocked, so to speak, literally.
When I started senior year, I walked into the reading room, went straight to Professor Guillory’s table, and broke up with him: "I won't be doing my senior thesis on Hamlet with you. I’m doing an independent study with Professor Ferguson on Keats. I can’t do both. Here I need you to sign my add-drop form." And I dropped him. For a second, I thought, he looked disappointment.
I ended up writing a thesis called “Allegory in Keats,” which finally put to rest that meta-story of artistic growth that had dominated my thoughts. Then, I spent a year writing essays that deconstructed the myth of “love.” In everything I read, I kept seeing the same story of projected fantasies of the other.
Often, I think back upon the moment at which I “dropped” Professor Guillory. I wonder, if I had done the project with him, would we have gotten to know each other as real people? Was I a real person? That might have scared me. Or, it wasn't sexy enough.
I ended up applying to graduate school in English literature. I pretended to apply to one school so that I could open my professors’ sealed letters. Professor Guillory’s letter was surprisingly long page of praise, including for the would-be thesis on Hamlet. Reading it was like a fantasy of requited passion, sort of.
In any regard, I ended up getting into a first-class PhD program in English and became officially an intellectual. I have Professor Guillory to thank for all of it!
Then, I dropped out. It required way too much reading.