Stories including Manet

Language Arts

Asking me to dig through my Vassar memories is a real challenge. For one, I fear that much of what made a deep impression on me—a wide-eyed boy from small-town Indiana when I arrived on campus in August 1998—was barely felt by others. I tried to cultivate that same cool indifference that so many of my classmates seemed to possess, but secretly I was blown away: by new foods and fashions, new words and readings, new preferences and politics. Looking back, I wish I would have been less concerned with grooming an image and more unafraid to relish the joy of new experiences; but it is here that you realize the truly short distance between high school and college.

Two, there is much that I’d rather not remember. I’m one who is prone to blush from simply recalling an embarrassing memory, and my trip down Vassar memory lane gives me plenty to blush about. I’ll embrace the cliché that it is everything, good and bad, that makes up the person I have become. Still, I wish I had been wiser.

But it is my abiding gratitude for everything Vassar has given me that makes it difficult to pick just one transformative Vassar experience. As the first in my family to go to college, I was very aware of the great privilege of a Vassar education even while a student, and to this day I remain deeply grateful for the capacities and the worldview I developed at Vassar. In the years shortly after graduation, I identified primarily as a Vassar graduate: I wore my class ring religiously, and I spoke about Vassar every chance I had. (The ring increasingly sits on the dresser these days, but the Vassar pride hasn’t abated: just ask my partner about the number of times I point out Vassar connections in the news we read and the films we watch.) I would describe myself differently now—a devoted partner to Christopher, an editor, a Midwesterner becoming a Bostonian—but Vassar remains a touchstone, an indelible part of each of these other selves.

Whether it is the most significant Vassar experience for me, I’m unsure; but what immediately came to mind when asked to muse on Vassar memories was Art 105-106. For one who had grown up in a household with little or no overt interest in the visual arts, the class was a revelation. I of course knew that art could be looked at and vaguely appreciated, but I had no idea that art could be studied with methods and terms all its own. The fledgling writer and editor in me fell in love with terms like contrapposto and chiaroscuro; I swooned over the precision of descriptions: the “cadaverous gray” flesh of Manet’s Olympia, as Brian Lukacher put it, or the church that “rides the horizon” in Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem, as described by Susan Kuretsky.

The course offered up moments funny, breathtaking, and unsettling. Eve D’Ambra made us all laugh when she described Kritios Boy (or the New York Kouros?) as “quite a Greek hunk.” The lecture hall let out a collective gasp when a detail of Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina showed Pluto’s hand pressed into Proserpina’s stone flesh as if it were putty. Molly Nesbit left us feeling haunted by images, finishing up a lecture on Impressionism by saying, “The king is dead; the sky is blue.” Of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, she reminded us, “They look at you and they are whores.”

It’s funny that many of my most vivid memories from the class are rooted in language. But I think my education in this new way of seeing—of spending enough time with an object to find precisely the right word to describe the quality of the light or the peculiarity of a brushstroke—forever changed my approach to the words I choose to speak and write. I went on to be an English major after Art 105-106, but the course taught me something about the importance of language, of its beauty and efficiency, that I’m certain I never could have learned in English courses alone.

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