Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Advent Calendar to Adventure Part 4: My Oxford Tutorial

And a hard rain fell.
And a hard rain fell.

It's hard to believe, but those two sentences lie profoundly at the heart of who I am as a scholar today. How? Let's take a flashback to September 2006. I was a senior at Middlesex, running my last season of cross country (badly) and getting stressed out over college applications. I was taking a pretty average load of courses, but was extra excited about one in particular: AP Art History. I'd taken the required introductory Art History class as a sophomore, and had liked it enough to pique my interest in taking the AP level my senior year but not much beyond that; I was more interested because I'd heard legendary stories of the course's teacher--who also happened to be my cross country and track coach. So really, when I sat down for my first Art history lecture, my expectations were high, yes, but I wasn't sold at all that this would be a subject that I would have more than a passing interest in.

After going through the basics of formal analysis and the initial mysteries of cave paintings and the Venus of Willendorf, we turned to a land that I had never even heard of before: a civilization of sun and sand, of now-lost fertile valleys, of ritual and technology all before even the mighty Egyptians--ancient Mesopotamia and specifically Sumeria. I admit, before that fall I couldn't have accurately described to you the location or significance of Mesopotamia, but I listened now with rapt attention. Everything we looked at seemed more beautiful than that which had preceded it: vast and ordered ziggurats, beautifully carved reliefs, little votive statues of clay, masks of bronze, and finally the largest statues of stone.

But it was really the cuneiform that got me. I have always been an extremely tactile person-- the halls of my high school were lined with carved plaques, and I think I could have spent every hour of every day of my four years there just running my hands over them and would have counted it a worthwhile experience. So, when our teacher brought in actual cuneiform tablets for us to examine in class, it was a revelation. Here, for the first time, art was something I could touch and hold, not merely a flickering image on a screen or something roped off in a museum to protect from wandering fingers. The tablets were so precious, so perfect, and with them in my hand I felt profoundly connected to a vastness of space and time in a way I'd never understood before. It was magic.

At that same time, my teacher mentioned the epic of Gilgamesh, written on stone tablets and long lost to the ages but now refound and restored. My interested piqued, I went over to the library and picked up a copy. I read it all in one night, absolutely enthralled from cover to cover; it was amazing, just as ordered and yet mysterious as the art itself, and I reveled in imagining the words I was looking at written on those very same hand-sized tablets I had held in class. The two sentences from the top of this post are from the passage after Enkidu is killed and Gilgamesh is mourning his death, and I can't explain why completely but I was very nearly overwhelmed when I read them. The work was moving and powerful to me in a way no other ancient work had ever been, and I knew then that I could be happy studying this culture forever.

So now, fast forward three years and change. I'm taking a class in comics (because yes, THAT'S real), and we're talking about origin stories. By this point, I'm deep into my life as an Art History major, studying 18th Century art and falling in love (in spite of myself) with Gilles and the rest of Watteau's work, and I suddenly realized how far I was from my own origin story. I never would have taken this path if it had not been for those small stone tablets, and I felt a sudden, desperate need to reconnect with that magic that had started it all.

Stanford, unfortunately, has no program in Sumerian whatsoever. Even Oxford, a university with a renowned ancient Middle Eastern department, has only one professor in the specific area of my interest. So, I feel very very lucky that they have even one! Within my tutorial, I'm going to be studying Ancient Sumerian History and Material Culture (a title so chewy I just love throwing it out there wherever I can, hah), and will also be getting a chance to participate in a museum class that will be examining and handling cuneiform tablets. I think I just discovered my vision of heaven.

No comments:

Post a Comment