Steven Christopher McKnight

Heat in the Hermitage

I’m 21 when I read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for the first time. It’s the first script I ever fall in love with, and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m obligated to be in love with it because it’s my capstone paper topic, or because I am legitimately and soulfully smitten with wry pretentious British pseudointellectual diatribes.

The play takes place in two historic moments: the early 1800s, and the “present,” though the play was written in 1995, so that present could be skewed. The setting is always the same. It’s a study room in an old English manor. In the past, the audience watches the young heiress Thomasina Coverly navigate her affections for knowledge around her affections for her tutor, the dashing Septimus Hodge, while Septimus dodges a duel with a half-botanist-half-terrible-poet after being seduced by this man’s wife. In the present, the audience gets to laugh at goofy scholar Bernard Nightingale trying to figure out where this story ends up by misconstruing historic record. His career burns to ashes as a result. Delightful. In the end, past and present become one, and the audience is left with two tragic realizations:

  1. Thomasina will burn to death that night.
  2. Septimus was deeply, irretrievably in love with her.

And so, Septimus retires to the hermitage in the manor’s garden for the rest of his life, becoming the mythical Sidley Park Hermit, and is hailed by the characters of the present as a symbol of the breakdown of the romantic mindset. But he’s more than that, because Septimus, in his love for Thomasina, chooses to devote himself to her one true goal: to find the formula by which all reality is captured. Over the few decades he lives in the hermitage, he covers thousands of pages in formulas. When he dies, they’re all burned. In his honor, my Twitter bio reads, “Decorative Garden Hermit for Hire.”

I write my capstone paper while the love of my life, at least at that moment, is away at some conference, and while I’m typing up fifteen pages of double-spaced tragicomic theory, I feel like I, too, am writing the formula for existence in my poor man’s hermitage. She’ll shatter my heart later that week when she tells me that while, yes, she is looking for someone, that someone is not me. I’ll return to my capstone and check some citations in my despair.

Septimus is not the breakdown of the romantic mindset. He is love and logic in dissonance, and that’s tragicomedy at its finest: the tragic condition with a humorous twist. Comedy is an intellectual venture, just as tragedy is a visceral one, and when the two intersect, it’s the whole being in conflict with itself. Even when I pursue my intellectual goals, they are always motivated by the presence of love, or a heartrending lack thereof. Ideas without an emotional imperative cannot propagate. All of life is tragicomedy. Thomasina burns to death, and the work that Septimus does to immortalize her burns to death as well.

I print my paper for submission, but catch a flaw in the heading. It is not proper MLA, so I set it aside and print another copy. My old paper sits on my table for a while, and I give half a thought to handing it off to my roommate Jason to light on fire. He craves the flame. I decide against it, and leave this flawed copy in my department’s green room.

When I get the paper back, I receive a 97: two points docked because I bolded my citations, and one for no reason I can find. I flip to the back of the paper to find my final sentences. They read, “In the final scene of Arcadia, the audience knows it is the eve of Thomasina’s accidental death by fire. Sending her off to bed, Septimus lights Thomasina a candle and tells her to be careful with the flame. The audience knows for a fact that she will not be, and she winds up burning to death that night. A young woman is struck down in her prime, holding the secrets of the universe in her mind, because she could not think to be careful with a candle despite her teacher’s warnings. It is tragic. But also, is that not at least a little bit funny?”

My professor has circled those sentences and scrawled in big red letters: “It’s not.”

Steven Christopher McKnight aspires to move to some city in Central Europe, write terrifying fiction in a cafe, and die mysteriously in his mid-30s. He is from Pennsylvania.