I've never been a big Blake fan, but my roommate Trent was. At UT, he was in the English Honors program, which was widely regarded as an extremely challenging and worthy enterprise. He was writing his thesis on James Joyce, and I guess that means that you end up back filling in on all the early modern British authors you can get your hands on. In particular, I think he was reading Blake in conjunction with Milton and Shakespeare. He would quote "The Proverbs of Hell" to me, marvelling at the sheer audacity of the insane mind of Blake.
At the same time, I was gearing up for philosophy honors and was working through what, until then, had been the most difficult book I had ever read: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabakov (the thesis bound Religion and Nothingness would eclipse Ada the next year as "hardest book I have ever read"). I remember Trent was struggling through Ulysses at the same time. We would both chain ourselves for hours at our preferred reading spots around campus, filter back to the room around 11 o'clock at night, and inevitably decide that we should go to Kerbey Lane and order some pancakes to reward our efforts.
Trent and I talked a lot about the books we were reading. We'd often disagreed and argued, but I also felt like we learned a lot about what we were reading just because we could think about what the other one was reading. I even went so far as to read both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist in my later years.
Undergrad was the first time in my life that I realized how much I enjoyed learning. And it was the first time that being smart was actually cool, and that you could actually find people who were interested in talking and thinking about things beyond the everyday and newsworthy. When i was younger, I was always considered smart and, you know, tested well, but I don't recall being partiuclarly proud of it. If anything, it was embarassing and painful since you were so friggin different from everyone. All I craved back then was a huge influx of social skills so that I wasn't so damnably awkward around everyone and everything. Even amongst my other smart friends we didn't spend time talking about, uh, smart things, but rather talking about all the same stupid and vital crap every other teenager talks about: relationships between people, whether amicable, romantic, pedagogic, whatever.
Probalby my very first enlightened experience of enjoying learning was being a kid with my modem and talking to a freshman at Georgia Tech. He explained the basics of quantum mechanics to me, and I thought it was the most intersting thing in the world (I never realized that absorbing thousands and thousands of pages of D & D material was actually learning). Then when I got into undergrad and got through the first semester or two of bull crap classes, I remember reading Descartes' Meditations and having no idea what he was talking about with a "plenum" of experience. I was in the Perry Castaneda Library's reference room, and I went up to that giant two foot thick dictionary and looked up nearly every word in the sentence. I had never done that before. And I remember the feeling of the "aha" moment when I finally got what he was trying to say. Later on, I read some academic refer to this, embarassingly, as a "mental orgasm".
Our philosophy club hung out and we all thought we were smarter than everybody else, naturally, but you really could stay up all night talking about things and pushing your brain down paths that it had never been down before. Along the way I managed to pick up those social skills that I had been lacking, so the drinking and partying naturally came along as well.
I guess I started thinking about this because I was just reading something on slate about 300. It's kind of foolishly dramatic, but the way I thought of us back then, walking along the edges of our understanding and pushing back against the great dark of ignorance in ourselves, was kind of like Leonidas and his boys. Trent and I would start talking about Shakespeare and poking into the experience of "bottomlessness", or I would try to understand what the hell Nabakov was saying in Ada, and I started to get a dizzying feeling of not qiute knowing what the heck I was doing or where I was. Eh, no, that's not it... it's maybe better explained by standing in front of the library and thinking about how many friggin books were in there, and how few I was ever going to read. And, maybe, how few I was going to understand.
I remember a remarkable passage from The English Patient, of all things, when Ondantjee is talking about the bomb defuser. He compares him to a knight preparing to storm a castle, or maybe inside the castle, who knows; and all the knight has is his own strict work, his own disipline and tools, to carry with him to win the day. There is something bare and pure and exciting about matching your wits against something that is very very hard to understand. Sure, you read secondary sources, and talk to your friends, but there is a moment of pure illumination when you understand whatever it is. Notihng else can fake that illumniation for you. You try to push as close as you can, each step coming closer or from a different angle, but at some point there has to be a jumping off into something new. It's like achieving satori, I guess, even though your awareness is limited to understanding inductive proofs rather than the vibrant void.
Sadly, I don't quite understand inductive proofs any longer. I can still kind of cook one up, but I don't have the same certainty I had in their truth and operation that I had when I was writing them in undergrad. Put another way, I look back over some of my old papers and find it impossible to understand what I was talking about. This could be due to opacity, or confusion at the time of writing, but I think it's just that your brain is like any other thing in your life. Disuse leads to atrophy. And it's not general brain atrophy, it's specific skill atrophy. I was very surprised that after we came back from New Zealand, and I hadn't written code in six months, that I found SQL very hard to write. Something I had written daily for six years, and now six months later, i was struggling to recall inner joins.
Use it or lose it, eh?
That bit early about 300 does have relation to that bit about The English Patient. As it does to Warwick's death in, uh, 3 Henry Vi:
My parks, my walks, my manors that I had.
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body's length.
(I had to go look it up... and I thought it was Buckingham rather than Warwick, so I spent a bunch of time reading throuh Richard III)
The point being intellectual challenge does have a way of stripping off your protective coating. I don't mean debate, since often a debate is won through rhetoric rather than truth, that is through a skill rather than an honest endeavor. But one of the lasting things I took away from philosophy in undergrad was Nosce Te Ipsum, of which a natural corollary is intellectual honesty. No one likes giving up a sacred cow or learning that they were wrong about something. But coming down to it, you can approach the problem with interest and humility, in a supsension of choice between the poles of dialectic, until you hit the moment of decision and illumination. You jump over that pause of ignorance and uncertainty and suddenly a realization opens up for you, and you have found something new.
It's the best part of coding, too. Finding that new way of solving some problem... that is heady stuff.