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I ended my first night of college at J.P. Licks, eating chocolate ice cream and listening to the president of Hillel as she told me how much she loved her Sanskrit classes. I did not realize that discussing dead languages with friends was how nearly every college evening would play out for me over the next four years.
For me, this time was defined by the verbal, including editing, and occasionally writing, some sentences for this newspaper. I’ve been a bit too comfortable within the beautiful, motionless world of carefully articulated ideas. The vicarious excitement of studying history and literature, and critiquing the present, has worn off.
I am exasperated with my naivete. The blank page held appeal because it came with infinite choice and creative power. But now it seems a prison. It holds my ideas captive. It annihilates and institutionalizes them, making them linear, safe and designed to be appealing to others. The existence of words is contingent upon societally shared meanings. Those shared meanings embody all of the generalizations, inconstancies and prejudices I want freedom from.
My own words are less well suited to explaining my situation than those of a couple of my favorite literary characters, who seemed sensitive to their imprisonment on the page. Isabel Archer asked, “What’s language at all but a convention?” She mentions that it makes no sense to pretend we are able to express ourselves with “original signs,” but awareness makes the reality no less constricting.
Education by way of words has not led to “high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, [but] rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction.”
And despite that, there is a certain freedom to be found within the restrictions imposed by the communal nature of language. It happens when we lose our senses of self in the words of others. As when Lizzy Bennet’s love overcame prejudice to the point that she “listened, wondered, doubted and was impatient for more” when hearing words “most opposite to her ideas.” She discovered unique, intended meaning rather than closing her mind to a projected, constructed meaning.
Can I escape the tyranny of societal meaning and, as much as is possible, replace it with meaning that I create with others, out of passion, understanding, and love? Isabel is right, “we must take our duty where we find it, and we must look for it as much as possible.” My suspicion is that defining our duty in terms that are of our own making is the only way to go forward. For when we create the language by which we conceive, the world becomes immense. “The world, in truth, had never seemed so large; it seemed to open out all around her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters.”
Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a classics concentrator in Eliot House.
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