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Art in the Age of Academic Exhaustion

By: Serena Suson

Art by: Asya Ulger


“I am more and more driven by the need to render what I feel, and I pray that I may continue to live not too helplessly, because it seems to me that I could make some progress.”

— Claude Monet[1]


I can tell you what I remember from my freshman year. In the blur of my first fall, I remember being petrified by the thought of having to leave my room to pee. That first night, I remember how unsettled I was as I fell asleep, watching the shadows wash uncertainty over my closet door. I remember sitting cross-legged on my dorm room floor, the bare walls a blinding white, the full realization of my independence impressing dread into any idea of the months to come. Autumn and winter, for me, oscillated somewhere between ecstasy and despair.

[Should there be a space here? I don’t quite know how to say it: by spring, I was someone else.]

Sometime in April, fate threw me a bone. Done was I divining my happiness; for a moment, I grasped it. Before I could memorize only agony, I found myself racing down Frat Row, one moment taking selfies on the sidewalk with Trevor, the next laughing without limit as I encouraged my best friend Chris to climb a tree. I remember sitting on the Green, soaking up the rays of a shimmering spring sun, having just finished the final draft of a Spare Rib article, feeling, though I still had work to do, like I was finally at peace. [It’s strange how vividly I can remember it.] I remember Pancake Night. I remember dancing carefree on the grass of Gold Coast Lawn. I remember feeling like I had become everything I had ever wanted to be. That June, when I drove home for the summer, I remember crying, crying harder than I ever had before, struck by a greater sorrow than sadness had ever sustained in me. In the midst of my tears, though, I remember one certainty: how truthfully lucky I felt to have been so sad, because it meant in time I had grown to be so very happy.

[Is that enough? Is the anaphora too overdone? It’s “remember,” “remember,” “remember” all over again.]

Early on, I had formed some idea of how college would realize me. Amidst the glamor of new acquaintance, freed from an identity I had formed in prepubescent scholarship, I would relinquish my introverted hermitude [That feels redundant] and sublimate someone new. I would predicate certainty on the “me” I had always been within, who, to my excuse, had never had time in high school to bear the light of day. Between extracurriculars, solidifying my class standing, and studying for the APs, I spared scarcely any time indulging in my youth. At the time, I had persisted in spite. Begrudgingly, I had paced a path of excellence in a desperate quest to be remembered, a fire still burning I had begrudged every In a desperate quest to be remembered, I had paced the path of excellence and begrudged every part of an academic system , [At this age, I can’t recall what incited me. Resentment typified my younger years — I would say that’s only natural — but I still burned with a desire to be great. So, with a hand over my heart, I set out, devoted to a cause, with the only knowledge I had been taught of how to get there.] Though a pawn in a greater game, I held my head high and awaited my next command, assured of every sacrifice, assured that someday I would have the cause to move more than two squares forward.

College secured my liberation. Fixating most of my then-lived life on the prospect of finding some parochial East Coast university that would supply me the means to obtain my heart’s most mendicant desires, I matriculated at Dartmouth College, one of the world’s greatest academic institutions and a member of the Ivy League, supposing I had very little to want.[2] Professionally, I presumed that I could rest. For my first year, I fulfilled a dream I had imagined some years ago: I took only classes I wanted to take. Outside of strict requirements, I experimented, and I explored interests I had only ever considered secondary to my clear talents and career. My choices fulfilled me. In one of those classes, I met my current partner; in another, I discovered the play that would change my life forever. Even in courses of familiarity, I attended at least one lecture a term that moved me to tears. Finally, after years of approaching my education with Machiavellian discretion, I felt like I had finally entered an institution that valued a love of learning above academic advancement. I moved a step forward.

My life, in other respects, flourished the way I always knew it would. While I had my moments of loneliness, I formed friendships of a breadth I had thought I would never have the fortune to experience again. At last able to cede all prepossessions of my social destiny, I deposed the nostalgia of my teens and began living in the present. I accomplished feats I could never have envisioned being as I was then, the version of myself who was still so scared to live. I communicated with my friends through conflict, and they still loved me afterwards. I got a stick-and-poke because one of my friends was too scared to get one herself, and then I got two more. I told someone I had a crush on them, and it didn’t work out. Hardship, for a time, was something almost becoming; ripening was all. [I’m leaving too much out, but that’s what made my certainty for a long time. I anticipated happiness because I had experienced a kind my past self, with her limited knowledge and abilities, could not possibly conceive. A paragraph’s too little to describe it. For once, the future did nothing but excite me.]

In my bliss, I forgot addiction follows accomplishment. Conquest bids continuation; one success necessitates the next. By sophomore year, my ego clamored at my complacency; my bones rotted to recall my already diminishing returns. Procuring my heart’s ideals required a meticulous course of the material, a master plan I had neglected to understand would follow me past high school. If I wanted to be able to do what I actually wanted to do with my life, I had to establish myself. Within an infinite industry, I had to be an arbiter of culture, substantiating sufficient credit to my name. I had to build an empire. Somehow I had forgotten that. I had basked too long in the temporal

Nowadays, joy comes sparingly. Routine dogs my every move. My hands cramp typing transitions. I choke on every page I have to read. Every lecture feels like a trapeze, in which I contort my legs under performed profundity and grasp eminence in a string of grandiloquent polysyllables. I am asked to be brilliant

I feel like I’m stripping away at the marrow that makes me human.

I want

[Paragraph about neglecting the arts/doing art. I want to do art, but I’m scared if I ever do art again in broad daylight, they’ll drive it out and try to kill it.] ὅταν δὲ αἰσχρῷ,

I used to be terrified of living in the same old town with the same old people who shared the same old pre-existing ideas of me. Now I’ve realized

I am the same

[It used to really feel like home once. I think I just remembered myself.]

When I was little, I wanted to be a writer. Sometimes I still do.

Serena, what you need to do is actually what you should have done about a year and a half ago.

[I don’t think I have time to say enough. None of this makes sense.]

[I want to do enough.

Once, Chris on the walk home from a late night out, asked me how it had come about that we had been so lucky to be living the life we were living. I repeated to her then a message I had heard somewhere myself a long time ago: “We must have been very good in a past life.” I would like to believe that. Sometimes I still do.

I know I speak from a place of privilege. I have been extremely lucky to receive the level of education I have had and to pursue a career with little financial impediment. I have been extremely lucky to discover my passions so early and to have had the chance to foster them while I still loved them. I just wish

To tell you the truth, I have not much art left in me anymore.

[This isn’t a feasible way to end.]

I just wish someone could tell me what to do.

[I want to end this article with some grandiose conclusion that makes the ineffable obvious. I haven’t talked as much about art as the title appears to suggest, but I hope that’s all right. All of this was an attempt at art, and it has left me very weak. I know these parentheticals feel contrived, but I don’t have the heart to write outside them. I fear to make my statements too opaque. My purported reason for wanting to become a writer someday was because I wanted to give people comfort. I wanted to write out my uncertainty, and I hoped that someone somewhere would read it, and, in knowing that they weren’t alone, feel like they could go on to see what was to come. If I could reduce someone’s pain from 100 to 99, 98, or just 97, I thought my life could be worth living.[4] But I don’t know if I can do that anymore. Not the way I imagined. I will probably never have a large audience; my biggest critic will always be myself. I haven’t written much lately, but I hope I can say I have lived. That’s what I was trying to say. That’s my art now, the love I’ve felt, the memories I’ve made. I’m sorry I can’t transcribe it all. I hope you understand what I mean. I’m very tired now, and it’s 1 a.m., so I think I’ll have to go to sleep since I have a 10 tomorrow. But I hope I remember it when I wake up. And I won’t say “That’s art! That’s art!” again all theatrically because I don’t want people to think I’m pretentious and selfish and ungrateful and acting like some transcendentalist that has some greater clue what’s going on. And I don’t want to break the fourth wall again because I don’t want to act like I know at all what you’re going through. But I hope it gets better. I know that’s not much coming from someone you don’t know. But this is as much as I can do.]


 

[1] Gustave Geffroy, “Monet: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre” in Monet: A Retrospective, ed. Charles F. Stuckey, (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1985), 157.

[2] “Dartmouth | Dartmouth,” https://home.dartmouth.edu/.

[3] Plato, Symposium, 206d, trans. Harold N. Fowler, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925), https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0173%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D206d.

[4] Namjoon Kim (speech, 2017 BTS Trilogy III The Wings Tour The Final, Seoul, South Korea, December 10, 2017).

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