(A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Prufrock magazine. Again: everyone should subscribe to Prufrock immediately. The editors are princes and princesses among men, and they have made a magazine which really deserves the widest circulation possible.)
I had a dinner party the other night, and this guy started talking about his PhD. No one really asked him to. He just up and started in on us, in response to the most routine inquiry about his job. He was a sort of interloper, this guy: the American friend of a friend of a brother. This did not seem to deter him. He talked and talked at us, without pause or mercy. His thesis was on three John Barth novels that no one at the table had either read or heard of. He continued undeterred. He was interested especially in spatiality and travel in these three novels that no one had ever read. He was interested in montage and the implications of repetition. He talked and talked to this table of people that did not care or understand, and we all nodded gamely along. We were rescued, eventually, when someone knocked over a wine glass and made a big deal about it. Later that night I saw him showing my neighbour a sketch he did of his own penis.
This kind of thing is commonplace, by now, and I am mostly used to it. Not the penis-drawing, but the part where someone talks to you without inhibition about their obscure and naturally boring PhD. I am doing my own obscure PhD, and I try my best to keep it quiet. I do this because I believe we all have a civic duty not to bore each other in public. Also, I find it embarrassing. I love my work, but for a long time I believed that there was something fundamentally uncool about the Humanities.
It’s hard to trace the origins of this. I feel as it if has always been with me, but really it started when I was a teenager, with me and my friends and our narrow, arcane definitions of coolness. I wonder where we got it from. Was it from watching so much Dawson’s Creek? Was it from knowing every word of every scene in Empire Records? There were five of us girls and a rotating supporting cast of boyfriends and second-tier babes. We were mostly ridiculous, and we had such a good time. We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen: the Dark Ages. We shoplifted. We went to the movies in Musgrave Centre and smoked like five little trains. We tried to sneak out at night and we always, always got caught. We were just like everyone else.
For most of my adolescence I thought it was gross to be anything other than passionately mainstream. I had a lot to say about Losers. I had a lot of rules and opinions. There was this one girl. For this story she is called Emma Steiner. Oh, Emma Steiner. She used to wear a bandana, for instance. She didn’t smoke or drink and she used to come up to us in the bathrooms at our Grade Ten Social and try talk to us about school. We were appalled. She used to tell jokes in public. She had a T-shirt tan. She rode around everywhere on her stupid bike. She did debating. She did inter-school debating. We couldn’t believe it.
The borders that we drew around coolness could not be expanded to include people like Emma Steiner. We were afraid that it was simply not possible. The cool people in Durban, as far as we were able to legislate, were the surfers and the skateboarders. The people in their orbit, such as ourselves, were also permitted entrance. That was it. Not even musicians made it in. The musicians we knew were all cast in the mould of Jack Johnson or Jewel. They had long hair and long toes. They were always using those toes of theirs to fiddle with their endless guitar pedals. Or else they were in a ska band, all wearing pulled up socks and playing the trumpet and having tattoos going up into their shorts. They did a lot of covers of songs by Sublime. We found it hard to be impressed by such people.
So rigid and inflexible, us five. So tireless in our efforts to sort our peers into categories. There were three groups: cool people, nerds, and then Losers. Just like we seemed to have picked up our ideas re: Being Cool from the 1950s, we had some extremely quaint notions about nerds. We are talking very broad strokes here. A nerd was a person who liked Maths and Science. A nerd had glasses on, and Jerry Seinfeld shoes. Nerds had braces. When they were little they told you too much about helicopters and dinosaurs. Small nerds, as we knew them, were exuberant and unembarrassed. You could not prevent them from telling you about spy planes. By the time they were in high school they’d had the stuffing knocked right out of them. They were quiet and shy. They took no joy in the cut and thrust of social politics. They thought we were stupid, and we accepted that. We were, in fact, pretty dumb. So we were fine with nerds. We were not fighting for the same territory.
So that just left the Losers. It should go without saying that we were not fine with them. By “them”, I mean any stray person of our age who we couldn’t immediately peg as one group or the other. Neither Cool nor a Nerd, neither a Shark not a Jet: we could not understand such people, and so we were affronted by their existence. How could someone just opt out, and not even attempt to be groovy and popular?
In Grade 10 I spent a whole term locked in combat with a male Emma. For this story he is called Stephen Fisk. I talked ceaselessly of how much I hated Stephen Fisk, my enemy. Hating someone that much is the same as being in love: I was obsessed with him. It was his voice and his hairstyle, everything. He used to shoot his hand up in English and say why he didn’t like the book. He gave high fives every day to our benighted Maths teacher. He was exactly like Martin Prince in The Simpsons. I rolled my eyes when he talked, and clattered my files around during his orals. For a whole term, Stephen Fisk was the last thing I thought of before I went to sleep.
My behaviour is just about incomprehensible from this distance, but I can try to explain it by saying that I was catastrophically, pathologically insecure. People who find their inner monologue tolerable don’t act like this. I sensed, accurately, that I was a mere step from Stephen Fisk-ism myself. There were many points in my disfavor: I wore my hair in a low pony for a long time, and had given one too many impassioned English orals. I could not get a tan. The unpopular teachers liked me too much. I knew, in my reptile brain, that I could wake up tomorrow as Emma Steiner, or the girlfriend of Stephen Fisk, and so I had better put as much distance between me and them as possible. This is what is known as pulling up the ladder behind you.
I grew out of it eventually. By seventeen, I was human. But, like a lapsed Catholic, I had a few little rituals and articles of faith that I could not shake, even though I no longer believed. For instance: Here I am, in first year, waiting for my new best friend Caitie on the Arts Block. I’ve been in Cape Town for three weeks. Me and Caitie made friends on the second day of Orientation Week. I have not yet agreed to let her out of my sight. She is nearly six feet tall and has extraordinary bone structure. She wears a green jacket which fits her perfectly. When did she start smoking? Twelve years old. Caitie is unimpeachably, everlastingly cool: the Margot Tenenbaum of first-year English.
She’s supposed to be meeting me after her linguistics tut. She’s late though, and I don’t have a book. This means I must People-Watch. The people I must watch, then, are the ones behind me on the Arts Block. I clench my hands into little fists in preparation.
My parents have a friend who emigrated to New Zealand nineteen years ago. He comes back once a year, and every time he does, he is horrified afresh by the laxity of Health and Safety Standards in this country. He sees two little kids standing up in the back of a bakkie on the freeway. He goes to Kloof Gorge, and notes the absence of guardrails. He is a metre away from the powerful back legs of a giraffe. Each time, his response is the same: “This Would Never Happen In New Zealand.” This sort of nonsense would never fly over there, he tells us, and a good thing it is too. I used to mock him and sneer, but here on the Arts Block, I came to understand him. Here on the Arts Block there are many people who refuse to wear shoes. A boy capers around on the grass in ever-tighter circles, shouting “Who’s afraid of neo-liberalism?” over and over. He canters up to a second boy and uses “Po-Mo” in three successive sentences. A girl in a tutu and little green socks is telling them and everyone else that she hasn’t taken her meds for three days. She is talking about Rimbaud and Proust. She says it like Rambo and Proost.
I feel as if I am dying. This sort of thing, I think, would simply Never Happen In Durban. In the Durban of my adolescence, if it had been left up to me, these people would have been shunned. They would have been placed in some kind of stress position and marched off the premises. And now here we are, and no one is doing a thing. The fifteen-year-old little witch inside me is aghast. And, unbelievably, Emma Steiner is here, in her bandana, on her bicycle. The bicycle at this moment is lying on its side, next to her library copy of Of Grammatology. This isn’t actually the first time I’ve seen her. I walked past her on the first day of Orientation. She looked at me, narrowed her eyes very slightly, and turned back to her friends. How many high fives does she get now, as she sits down? Three. How many times does she do a fist bump? More than none – and that is too many. I am completely at sea.
Caitie arrives. She greets me breezily. I start telling her about the Po-Mo incident, when a Stephen Fiskish boy walks up. Stephen Fisk II, where are your shoes? Is that a copy of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas that you have there in your hand? I think these things, but I do not say them, because I do not want to address him directly. The next thing that happens is that he says hi to Caitie, and she says hi back. Then, he asks her what she’s doing later, and she straight up just tells him. Stephen Fisk II, unaffected by my hostile presence, goes back to his friends. He tells them that Caitie is going to this party later, so maybe they should go too. You can imagine my feelings at this time. Caitie, the coolest person I know, has looked Stephen Fisk in the face and seen nothing to be alarmed by. For her, he is just an ordinary and voluble boy, a little bit too clever, a little bit too indulged. Caitie does not lose sleep over Stephen Fisk, or talk about Losers in a pointed whisper. She is not afraid of the Humanities. She is a grown-up and I am an idiot child. This is the beginning of my university education.