Sunday, September 18, 2005


One of the local colleges (there are four) boasts a newspaper which students publish weekly during the academic year. The issue in question, which was distributed to sojourners on the campus about two weeks ago and to which meticulous copy editors have affixed the dates "September 2, 2005" to the cover and "January 28, 2005" to the inside pages, has graced its readers with a column by a Miss Elisa Benson. It will likely be displayed to the world's internet users (including, presumably, Miss Benson's father) 'ere long.

One might allow for the possibility that the column is intended to be satirical, in which case one might wish to instruct the paper's editors that the sensible experience of mirth is qualitatively distinct from that of the mixture of fascination and dismay that tends to ensue when a toilet backs up and floods the bathroom floor.

Miss Benson has some advice to those, two or three years her junior, who have recently arrived at the college:
First things first: kick to the to the curb your high school luvuh. [The village government's automated street sweepers take care of the litter.] Do it now, before you find yourself in the inevitable process of mentally redefining what constitutes cheating.... Even if you and your sig-other stay loyal, you're both cheating yourself out of new people and new opportunities....Here, you'll hook up sooner (like, this weekend), fall in love [?] faster, and definitely have more kinky sex than you did at seventeen. [You owe it to yourself. Act now. Call 1-800-BLOWJOB.]

College also provides tremendous opportunities for sexual exploration. [See the brochures at our visitors' center.] For some people this means making out with their roommate at a frat party, but for others, its a chance to... take advantage of the LGBTQ support groups on campus. [Some...others...which suggests that the college's housing apparat has billeted your daughter in the same room with...] Or, for some, its a first chance for physical and emotional intimacy. [Do you suppose princess might be unclear on the concept, Mr. Benson?]

...[you] should keep condoms on hand if you're sexually active, regardless of your gender. (If you're sexually adventurous, stockpile a variety of colors/flavors/textures). [As would any informed consumer.]

...people who say Colgate students don't have relationships are only bitter because they've been unattached, and probably drunk, for most of their time here...Colgate is whatever kind of place you want it to be, sexually and otherwise. Take advantage of it. [Your 40K @ work, Mr. Benson.]

The poet Philip Larkin was a meticulous diarist. His journals were said by one of the few to have examined them to have been filled with the spew of his more impure and unappealing cogitations. He had them burned at the time of his death in 1983. That was then. Miss Benson penned the foregoing and turned it over to a student editor by the name of Fein, who in turn also disregarded what conscience owes to taste and what taste owes to conscience and made use of it to fill his idle column inches. To date, public remarks upon it have been limited to what you see. The subsequent issue contains another dispatch from Miss Benson, this time of mechanical advice. The substance is Alex Comfort's, the diction, Moon Unit Zappa's. It also contains two letters of complaint, both concerning a tasteless pun in a headline on the front page of the issue of 2 September, which the letter writers' conceived of as insulting to one of the institution's sugar daddies. Perhaps we can take heart by assuming that no one reads her godforsaken column.

Leaving aside the question of the actual nocturnal activities of Miss Benson and her peers, one has to ask what it says about that dimension of morals that is manners, such as it is at this time. The mode by which one interacts with people is in part an outgrowth of the self to which one aspires and influences the quality of the human relations formed. Here we can see what Miss Benson is willing to say (which is to say, how she wishes to appear), how that is implicitly evaluated by her readers, and pose the question of what that says about the dynamic of social relations in her milieu (and perhaps ours).

John McWhorter recently gave an interview to the Mars Hill Audio Journal the burden of which was that formal speech had largely disappeared in this country in the last forty years. He quoted from a letter composed about a century ago by a young man to his love, a diary entry of sorts in which the young man told of his small activities of the day and also how much he had thought of her. Dr. McWhorter offered that a young man of our own time who wrote thus would likely end his days as a bachelor, as he would be offering something unpalatable to contemporary women, something to be regarded as risible. In place of the refined meanings that might be conveyed with strata of formal and informal speech, and with categories of poetic and prosaic speech, we have what we have. The campus in question is shot through with young women who are terrible motormouths but are scarcely able to utter an unclutterd and grammatically well-constructed sentance; who are distasteful to listen to even when they are not discussing fruit-flavored condoms. We are right to suspect that there is much they cannot think or say that might have been commonly uttered sixty years ago.

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury presented to his readers a quasi-dystopian vision of a society of people who were given over to amusing themselves to such a degree (and evading any disputation or grief) that they could appreciate neither the sublime nor the mundane. Some aspects of the latter (e.g. family conversation or an after-dinner walk) perplex the inhabitants of this world and make them suspicious; manifestations of the former are met with incomprehension or are experienced as acutely painful. Matters of heart and mind are actively avoided and seldom experienced, with the consequence that the social relations which are nurtured by them exist only in vestigial form. There are still people referred to as husbands, wives, mothers, sons, friends, and neighbors, but the sensible aspects of these relations have been drained away. Those who have retained some capacity to appreciate what makes life worth living are an odd, semi-clandestine, and self-consiously counter-cultural minority.

And what of the tragic? Bradbury offers a scene of a pair of medical technicians attending to a woman who has attempted suicide bantering with her husband. "Got to clean 'em out both ways...No use getting the stomach if you don't clean the blood. Leave that stuff in the blood and the blood hits the brain like a mallet, bang, a couple thousand times and the brain just gives up...W'ere done...That's fifty bucks...We get these cases nine or ten a night....We gotta go..." Not far from that campus is a funeral parlor which generally has calling hours or services several times a week This summer happening by I saw something that I am not sure I had ever seen before. There was a gathering there, with people lined up outside the building. A great many of those 'mourners' were in golf shirts and shorts.