“See better, Lear”: Gaining New Perspective in Oxford

A blog post from course coordinator Julie Sutherland, as we look ahead to the Oxford ReLit Summer School 2018: 

I first moved to Oxford in September 1998. I was twenty-two. Oxford was a winding mystery of pillars and domes, of spires and towers. From there, I could head out in any direction and see the whole country, literally, in just a few days. And I loved all of it. It was the land of Shakespeare, and for me that meant the land of new learning. Of learning to see better and think more creatively.

This is not to suggest that Canada has nothing to offer. The nation’s snowcapped mountains and ancient trees, its plunging fjords and crystalline lakes make Canada the holy of all holies for nature lovers. But I had taken our space for granted. As a twenty-two-year-old, I barely thought about it at all.

Although I was besotted with Oxford, living there presented challenges to a young Canadian, accustomed as I was to colossal houses and sprawling avenues, to massive and near-empty city blocks. As it turned out, many of us were spoiled and wasteful, and we didn’t value the economy of space. Oxford taught me to see my own country in a new light. Not only her fine points, but also her flaws.

I moved to Oxford again in 2004, this time from Durham, in England’s industrial North—a region with a pulchritude so jarring it caught in my lungs. In Durham I began my quest in earnest to learn more about Shakespeare and his contemporaries, about their enduring relevance. But, I ached for Oxford, and I made my way back to her Palladian symmetries and Apollonian grace.

On both occasions, living in Oxford afforded me the opportunity to think differently. I learned, for example, to appreciate the virtues of a tiny flat. I discovered the value, and the charm, inherent in repurposing space. But I also learned to engage more critically with ideas. I deepened my appreciation for Shakespeare, not as the great English bard, but as a poet with keen insight into human nature—one who could strip us to our barest selves and compel us to rethink who we are. I saw how he had been used for ill and for good, and I lingered on the good even while I confronted the ill.

***

The entire planet has altered irrevocably since I first lived in Oxford nearly two decades ago. Some changes are for the better. We have seen the institution of landmark policies that have improved rights for many minorities. The explosion of social media has democratized advocacy (for better and for worse). A nation historically steeped in slavery has seen its first black president. Tyrants have fallen. Wind turbines have sprung up.

Alas, many changes are for the worse. The rise of right-wing populism. Increased hate crimes. ISIS (IS/ISIL). The gluttonous depletion of non-renewable resources. In these dark times, every flash of breaking news is enough to crack my heart. But I try to think more imaginatively in these moments when the world closes in on me. I remind myself that I belong to humanity—a humanity that spans tiny flats and gargantuan homes, grass huts and stilt houses, genders and races, religions and creeds. The kind of humanity that studies in Shakespeare helped me appreciate. We can be more than the poor, bare, forked animals a devastated Lear perceived us to be.

Living in Oxford in 1998 and again in 2004 instilled in me an appreciation for imaginative thinking that I have never forgotten. Participating in 2017’s ReLit Summer Sessions gave me that chance again. With its heightened focus on the power of nature to effect change in each of us, I have no doubt the 2018 Summer Sessions will do the same, and then some.

Julie Sutherland, Nov. 2017

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