“Classics was a minority subject, very twee”
DeWitt had her first sense of real academic or literary possibility after arriving at Smith College in 1975, and even that was a letdown. “The good thing about it was that I started ancient Greek,” she said. “But I had a very ahistorical take on the world. I imagined that the women’s colleges would still have the intellectual focus and dedication that they had when they were founded. That was what I wanted: to go someplace where everybody was focused on the life of the mind, and nobody cared about social life. I was completely naïve.” It didn’t help that the students in the residence she was assigned to had the nickname “Jordan Jocks.” “It was classist, it was racist, it was homophobic,” she said. “I’m not saying that all of Smith was like this, but our residence — it was loathsome.”
Ancient Greek was an exciting discovery until she realized that she was in the wrong place to be serious about it. “Classics was a minority subject, very twee, like in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and many of the students treated it as a kind of joke. I thought that if I majored in classics here, I’d always be an amateur. So I took a leave of absence and started reading independently, reading Pound and Eliot and Proust in French, and I thought, Now I’m engaging in the life of the mind, but I’m also working as a chambermaid in Provincetown.” DeWitt employs the phrase life of the mind without irony, with reverence really, but from her books, you can imagine she could build an entire dystopia around it.
“While I was away,” she said, “I thought, All right, now I know what the life of the mind is about, so I can go back and make this work. And I went back and I just felt sick. So I ended up attempting suicide with an aspirin overdose. In the days of the internet, nobody would be that stupid, but in those days, it was harder to get an idea of what an effective method would be. I just thought I would pass out if I took too much, but aspirin doesn’t work that way, so I just threw it up, and I felt so defeated. Then I thought, Well, what could I do that would make it a good thing that I didn’t die? The answer was applying to Oxford. I said to myself, with my sketchy grounding in classics, I know this is going to fail, but you have to try first.”
This is what I came to think of as the first of DeWitt’s Socrates moments, the first time when, surrounded by the philistine citizens of Athens, she had the impulse to eat hemlock rather than settle for a crap life. Two decades later, she incorporated the episode into The Last Samurai. Ludo knows that his mother once attempted suicide with paracetamol, as the English call Tylenol, and he tells one of his potential fathers: “You should never try to kill yourself with paracetamol. It’s a horrible way to die. People think you just pass out, but actually you don’t lose consciousness, you think nothing’s happened but then a day later your organs shut down. It destroys the liver. Sometimes people change their minds, but it’s too late.”