By Shi Huiwen
Forgive me if I sound preposterously enthusiastic in the following piece, and forgive me if you spot me babbling occasionally. To be honest, I am still finding it difficult to adjust to the post-SCT life: half of me remains in Ithaca, refusing to come home. So if you ever get the chance to apply for this programme at Cornell, do it. You won’t regret it. The only danger is that once you are there, you may not want it to end.
One hundred years ago, Hu Shih, a Chinese thinker and educator, studied literature and philosophy at Cornell. He gave Ithaca a beautiful name, “綺色佳”, “a town of fairest colours”. Living there for six weeks, I came to understand what he meant. A summer’s day in Ithaca is simply gorgeous: the sunset against the hill, the Cascadilla Falls, and the flowery garden behind A.D. White House. Fairest colours they have. I also had numerous encounters with fireflies, deer, a skunk family and a lot of squirrels. Born and brought up in a natureless metropolis, I found this place simply surreal.
The philosopher and the tree
But nothing is more beautiful than the people I met there. My fellow participants struck me as those who are always after knowledge and truth. For example, by the end of the first week, just as I was still struggling with the texts on the syllabus, I received emails inviting me to about eight different reading groups! Whenever I had a question, it was answered patiently and carefully, with an assurance that there is no such thing as a naïve question. I also got to know very talented and hardworking creative writers and poets, who generously shared their work. Four hours were spent to critique five short poems, with the attempt to perfect them. In these poetry workshops, I was convinced that criticisms and arguments are not attacks, and that they can indeed be loving and constructive.
Stanley Fish, a senior fellow at SCT, said on the very first day of the programme that it was going to be transformational. I think he’s right. Strangely, it was a journey both extremely humbling and empowering. The six weeks leaves me feeling academically inadequate still, but I have certainly become a fuller person. I have learned and gained so much from every single conversation I had with the professors and the participants.
The summer programme itself was very packed and intense: every week there were regular two 3-hour seminars, at least two public lectures, one mini-seminar, one colloquium, a garden reception, with occasional book readings and picnics. Leading figures in critical theory came to give talks. In retrospect, I am glad that I didn’t know how famous some of these people are. My impression, though, was that they were all modest and kind, curious and open.
In Chinese, we have an idiom, which no doubt you are familiar with, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, meaning that “hidden in the woods are the most unexpected heroes and talents”. This is certainly the case in the woods of SCT. I mean, how often can you get a friend to give you a summary of a Walter Benjamin’s essay, guiding you through his metaphysical maze with top clarity and precision? How often can you have a friend to teach you how to select and approach readings differently so that you guide your own readings and not the other way around? How often do you get a recitation of Paradise Lost on a casual walk? And one moment you were still with Milton, the next moment you were taught how to curse properly in American English? And how often do you get your long-standing knee injury cured while learning about Indian philosophy? All the friends I met there were like fragments of the vessel that Benjamin talks about in The Task of the Translator: they are by no means like one another, but together they showed me the possibility of “pure friendship”.
Now that I am back in Hong Kong, back at the School of English, I start to think how we can make our own community a dream. By embracing that loving vibe of openness, we can nurture our very own reading groups, poetry workshops, close-reading seminars, and of course drinking parties, to share ideas, boil down theories, and perhaps most importantly, let out frustrations.