In light of the recent conservation and redevelopment plans regarding a certain characteristic monument on campus, I have felt compelled to consider said monument, and to propose what case I can for its reconciliation with the student body.
Now is a very difficult time in which to write; one feels obligated to address the unfortunate nature of contemporary circumstances and as well to lament the catastrophic devastation of many lives lost and ruined. In a time of such profound confusion and restriction, we often find ourselves alone. Alone, and with the relatively unfamiliar leisure time in which to reflect. Perhaps we have received more time than we would have willingly bargained for, but one takes the good with the bad. We are obliged to recognise our privilege in having had any time at all.
But in those introverted hours of sitting and thinking and drinking tea, the fixation of the past needles away at our minds; now more so than ever, as it often provides more pleasant recollections than the comforts of our present daily experiences. Whether this reflection involves flicking through the social media accounts of every ‘one that got away’, or simply glancing at the buildings you pass during your mandated daily exercise walk, the feeling invoked remains the same: appreciation. Regardless of the extent of our meditation, it is difficult to resist the intrigue of the images of history. They alone remain the physical testaments to intangible time. Memories overwhelm our minds and the space that surrounds us. The past is ever active and as such ever altered by our own actions in the present. Our engagement with it is crucial to our present, and with it our future, and our future past. But if we limit this engagement solely to appreciation, we are met with the compulsion to preserve, and in doing so, we forever distance ourselves from possibility and reality alike.
Here at Trinity, the past is all around us. We are constantly reminded of those poetic figures who scurried over the same cobblestones late for a lecture, huddled on couches around the same fireplaces in Front Square, and mused over current affairs in the same rose garden. The vibrancy of such characters is palpable, and experiencing their presence is one of the joys of attending this university. But the ghosts that our generation will leave behind will not be so filled with excitement. Pavement makes paths through cobblestone, fireplaces are boarded up, and the most spectacular testament to Trinity’s history, the Old Library, has been locked away from us as a museum. Immediately within the action of choosing to preserve, we have stripped from the monument its original purpose that it was in fact designed to serve. It is de-contextualised and thus disfigured, and we are left in distant appreciation rather than authentic engagement.
The celebration of our institution is a welcome one, and I am sure no students would wish to deny the wonders of the Long Room to anyone who desired to pay homage to such a noble guardian of knowledge. Fellow classmates and tourists are honoured to bask alike in the rich maple-y musk of the mysterious books and marvelous looming hall. But those relics remain closed on shelves too high to reach or too far behind velvet chords, and we, the viewers, are ushered out from under the roof to keep along the moving traffic.
“To stand within the Old Library, as a Trinity student, and fantasise perusing leathery spines, flipping open dusty jackets, and arranging oneself beneath a green lamp to drink in the novelty that surrounds you, is incredibly painful.”
Nonetheless, the experience of visiting the Long Room remains ultimately and quietly consuming, and I wish not to be ungrateful for such an enriching encounter; but even so, one cannot help but lament the distance between oneself and a desirable object. Greater still is such a lamentation when the distance is not purely physical. To stand within the Old Library, as a Trinity student, and fantasise perusing leathery spines, flipping open dusty jackets, and arranging oneself beneath a green lamp to drink in the novelty that surrounds you, is incredibly painful. It was not in the very distant past in which this fantasy would in fact have been reality, and here we stand in the same room, completely torn apart from the true meaning of the space, which was in fact to do all these things.
Now the Long Room is a museum, and we cannot touch or read these wonderful books as they are expected instead to be preserved for the future long ahead of us. This aspect of preservation is relatively understandable, as many of these books, though we may long to learn from them, are delicate to the touch, and one would never wish to hurt its object of desire unless one were quite sick minded. Perhaps these books themselves are indeed better kept away from irresponsible hands, but still the question of the room remains. Surely our presence could not harm it. Enough people walk through every day. The tall dark wood ceilings, the shiny bannisters, and that fantastic smell. I remember in my very first week of college, my professor declared in anguish to the lecture theatre that such a smell could not be bottled up and bought!
“We divide our time between the leisure pleasures of a beautiful space and the hours spent working within the more pragmatic, practical, and less pleasurable spaces.”
Surely if students were permitted to work within such a beautiful setting we would have far more appreciation not for distant objects, but for our own hours spent. We would not be so removed from the joyful parts of life as would be the case studying in a more oppressive setting. But here we have separated ourselves from the aesthetic. We divide our time between the leisure pleasures of a beautiful space and the hours spent working within the more pragmatic, practical, and less pleasurable spaces. If it were untrue that the Old Library is one of the most pleasurable buildings on campus, perhaps the Book of Kells would be kept in the Berkeley instead. The difference in standards is undeniable, and I do not understand the attraction of compartmentalising one’s life between the pleasant and less pleasant; all societies past have striven to spend as many precious moments as possible in the pleasant.
These last few months have more than anything proven to us the turbulent nature of life. I cannot imagine I am alone in determining that when found in the unpredictable, the least one can do is seek shelter in the most uplifting and enjoyable spaces possible, and attempt to make the most of what vastly small time the human life is given.
“Though the greater half of our student lives is spent focusing on academics rather than leisure, why should we not try to make this greater half equally pleasant?”
It is with this conclusion of the recognition of the continuous nature of history, and the celebration of life and enjoyable experiences, that I propose the reconciliation of the Long Room and the student body. Though the greater half of our student lives is spent focusing on academics rather than leisure, why should we not try to make this greater half equally pleasant? Our morale and work ethic would be entirely improved by spending our most stressful hours in at least relative enjoyment. It is not bound to be perfect, for all challenging study can be found to have its disheartening moments. However, I can safely say that if things go quite wrong academically, I would rather be crying in the Long Room than in the Berkeley.