an excerpt by Clifford Geertz
Young Man Geertz: A Senior Paper (1949)
The first day I came to Antioch, I wandered up by the Catholic Church looking for the college; the catalog had flooded my head with image and idea and had said the towers would be visible for fifty miles. My suitcase was heavy, everything I had brought from California was in it, and I was afraid to ask anyone about the location of the college, because I didn’t know how wise it was to reveal the fact that one was new. Finally however, I did ask someone, because it was dreadfully hot and I had begun to fear that I would never find the place, that I had got off at the wrong station, or that there was no college at all and those pamphlets and forms had only been someone’s idea of a practical joke. Even when directed, I had difficulty, and I was only about fifty feet away from the main building when I first saw the towers so grandiosely described. I have not read a catalog with an even mind since.
Prose, to draw the moral clearly for the unimaginative, should not obstruct the mind, but rather, as Miss Bowen says, “make objects appear brighter than themselves, as in very clear morning light, instead of darkening behind a mesh of words.” Too much at Antioch does obstruct; the mesh of words seems at times almost impenetrable. The senior paper institution, unfortunately, is no exception, as a glance at last year’s final Antiochian will show. In some hands it seems like the last step of the humiliation, the final drawing of a curtain of words between the individual and experience. All of us, as Ernest Schachtel has lately said, tend to schematize our experience, to drown our pasts in a sea of symbols, leaving place-names as the result of travel, clichés the sediment of feeling, and mouthings about “the good life,” “basic value patterns,” and “personal goals,” as the precipitates of education. If such a starvation of the self is to be at all avoided and “clear morning light” is to be at all gained, the gap between experience and words must be somehow narrowed; for as Schachtel says, “It is only in those experiences that transcend the conventional memory schemata, that every new insight … has its origin.”
What then: free association? Hardly. I intend no spiritual striptease, as I think it would embarrass us both. Besides, new insights are rare, and I cannot hope to run off a whole string of them here for you now, like a magician drawing beads out of his ears. But by scrupulously avoiding the usual Antioch terminology, the easy flow of familiar words, and by attempting to discuss my experience at the College in a language somewhat less Procrustean than the syllabus suggests, I hope to tell you at least something about me of significance; for if I do not bring you closer to me than the catalog brought me to Antioch, this paper becomes but an exercise in obedience, a final lie.