The Student’s Melancholy

An academic year in Cambridge consists of three eight-week terms, unlike most UK universities which have a ten-week system. This is a key difference because it allows long periods of vacation for students to revise and find relevant work experiences. In particular, the four-month summer vacation is an invaluable moment to gain skills and know-how. At the same time though, students might feel their time at university fleeing quickly and inexorably. Since it is week five already (arguably the toughest moment of the term for Cantabs), I am gathering some personal thoughts around the idea of transience and how this is changing my own college experience.

Moonrise over the Sea – Kaspar David Friedrich – 1822 – oil on canvas

To me, student life has always had a transitory connotation. In fact, this statement may sound preposterous since I have been a student uninterruptedly since the age of six or so. The school context has deeply characterised the vast majority of my life. Desks and (only recently) libraries characterise the most significant memories in the same way Cambridge has been dominating my existence for the last two years. Yet, I have often associated school to a sense of frustrated tension toward the next goal. Passing exams is more than overcoming a contingent obstacle. It is a sign of progression and, in my experience, personal growth. I spent my last three years of high school worshipping the prospect of college, more or less in the same way I am now longing to demonstrate my abilities in a new enterprise. To some extent, I may have enjoyed more my time if I considered the present with the same ardour. Even now, entering my second year, I feel obliged to question my academic and professional future. Indeed, student life is a prolonged process of change and development.

Bronze Horse – Barry Flanagan – 1983 – bronze

Jesus College hosts a notable collection of contemporary sculptures. A notable piece is Barry Flanagan’s Bronze Horse, located in the middle of the lawn in First Court. As he enters the college, the visitor is welcomed by its metallic silhouette. In the last thirty-four years, the artwork has seen the arrival of each applicant and fresher, as well as the departure of the college’s graduates. As many post-modernist works, it is site-specific and its position next to the entrance is not casual. Flanagan was inspired by the great horse figures of Western art history, such as the equestrian portrait of Marcus Aurelius in Rome or the four horses of Saint Mark in Venice. However, the Bronze Horse is not monumental at all. Actually, it appears quite clumsy. Flanagan, who died in 2009, had a witty sense of style and used humour to convey content in a playful and light-hearted way. The horse is an allegory of the student, who enters the college to start his academic journey. This will lead him to imitate and challenge the great examples of the past. However, as the horse is still distant from its monumental counterparts, so the student is still at the beginning of his personal development. The educational experience will support and eventually lead him to the greatness achieved by his predecessors.

Picture in Remembrance of Johann Emanuel Bermer – Kaspar David Friedrich – ??? – oil on canvas

I find Flanagan’s work inspiring, probably because of its easy but not banal reference to success and self-realisation. However, the Bronze Horse fully embodies the transience described above. As the student, it is destined to grow and change. Student life is a period of passage and probably (maybe hopefully?) not the moment of our life we will be remembered for. When I realised, I felt fostered to question the relation between me and my older self. In this context, I found the painful burden of doubt. Is there actually any relation between different instants and times of our life? I have probably not lived enough yet to answer. Melancholy is witnessing the inevitability of change and accepting its dialectic contradictions. It means, to me, perceiving the constant departure from our transitory experiences and attempting to harmonise them in our own existential narrative. As Charles Baudelaire said, meaning is not an absolute given and we create new ones day by day.

A Walk at Dusk – Kaspar David Friedrich – 1835 – oil on canvas

The short terms and the hectic student life made me aware of the flowing of time and the necessity of exploiting every single minute. The slow, peaceful years of high school look indeed distant and I am left with a nervous sense of loss. In Italy, we often say “all that is left behind is lost”. Melancholy is the understanding of this loss, which stems from the inevitable choices that students are forced to do throughout the college experience. To some extent, I left high school as pure unshaped potential. Now I am sharpening my own existence, my own story. The tender sense of sadness deriving from this state is the positive sign that I am growing aware of my own presence in the world.


Featured image

Moonrise over the Sea

Bronze Horse

Picture in Remembrance of Johann Emanuel Bermer

A Walk at Dusk

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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