Every so often, perhaps on mornings that are either particularly busy or particularly still, I get the feeling that I am walking through the Princeton campus like a zombie, my face whitened by the seemingly eternal winter, sub-ocular scrota pronounced by lack of sleep, and arms rigidly stretched in front of me as I march to classes to feed on brains. There is something that causes these mornings to be surreal—maybe it is said lack of sleep—and inspires me to ask myself several trite questions expected of a self-conscious 20-year-old, questions such as “how does that person perceive me?” “is this my body?” “am I really that figure in the reflection?” “what the hell am I doing here?”. But just as morning dreams are often the most realistic and enlightening, these morning musings often make me feel the most alive; I end up feeling detached from my body, the walking corpse that it is, and my mind becomes almost disturbingly clear and free. I think of anything from love to philosophy, food to the tag of my shirt scratching the back of my neck, sex to architecture, literature to the food rotting in my mini-fridge, music, etc, whatever. These are some of my most formative moments.
After having attended a lecture on one such morning in October, I briskly walked over to Firestone to meet the novelist/journalist Beppe Severgnini. The Italian Department had asked me to give Mr. Severgnini a tour of the campus. Before me stood a sleek middle aged Italian with elegant gray hair, techy spectacles, and a distinguished smile (I was glad I had accepted the Department’s proposition). The tour was pleasant enough, and we parted by exchanging email addresses.
I recently returned from a vacation in Italy, during which I came across Mr. Severgnini’s books in one of the Roma Fiumicino bookstores. I deciphered the scrawled email address he had left me in my copy of Un Italiano in America, and dropped him a casual email to say hello. He responded with a copy of an article entitled “Sex? No, Friendship with Benefits” which he had written about Princeton in the Corriere della Sera, and these are some of its most salient sections:
1. “It was when I found out they didn\\\’t call it \\\”sex\\\” any more, but \\\”friendship with benefits,\\\” that I decided to get worried. Not about me. About them. The kids at Princeton are bright, smart, mature and organized. Perhaps too organized. They don\\\’t deny emotions, they just stack them away in a neat little box labeled \\\”emotions.\\\” There are other boxes for drinking or sport. Everything, except politics, which over here seems to interest no one, has its own little box.”
2. “So what are the 6,500 young people who study in this New Jersey haven, a couple of hours\\\’ drive from New York, actually like? It\\\’s not serious to make judgments after a single visit. But you can muster impressions, conversations, and what you have read. For example, an excellent article by David Brooks for The Atlantic Monthly, entitled \\\”The Organization Kid.\\\” Brooks describes a new class of \\\”professional students\\\” who are prudential, rather than poetic, indifferent to intellectual discussions outside lesson time, and disinclined to argue, whether in a work group or over politics.”
3. “America may not know where it\\\’s going, but it\\\’s putting the pedal to the metal to get there. And one day, behind America\\\’s driving wheel will be these young people, currently studying in the white light of the Firestone Library, or playing with the squirrels, instead of locking themselves away in their room with a consenting classmate. If you had savored the atmosphere of Georgetown or Harvard in the 1960s, you might have been able to predict a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore. What can you look forward to as you sniff today\\\’s breeze at Princeton?”
I was surprised to read Mr. Severgnini’s article. I clearly failed as a tour guide! Immediately Mr. Severgnini invokes the David Brooks article that callously greeted me when I arrived on this campus in 2001 (stupidly, I was the one who mentioned it to him during the tour). What’s frightening about Mr. Severgnini’s article is that it was printed in the prestigious Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera—the “Brooksian” perception of the Princetonian has asserted itself internationally (in a country where people actually read the paper). So here I am, writing a defense of the Princeton student, knowing full well that I will (or already have) surely prove some of his assumptions correct. Nevertheless, I think it is necessary to address some of his skewed observations for the sake of reclaiming some of our collective dignity.
First of all, I have not yet met a single student who organizes his/her personal possessions or emotions (!) in neatly stacked boxes. Secondly, last I checked, neither drinking nor sports are clean or neat habits, and are certainly too volatile to be boxed. Thirdly, though it is a sad fact that the average student is horrifically undersexed, this is an effect of more than just our type-A, goal-setting personalities. It’s a product of looking in the wrong places for mates, self-consciousness that accompanies intelligence, and our twin extra long beds.
I am disappointed that Mr. Severgnini paraphrases Brooks’ claim that we are not poetic. On the contrary, we make scientific discoveries, we create novels, plays, and screenplays, we travel the world to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves, we make music, we dance, we paint and sculpt, we learn languages, and we walk around this campus contemplating the quasi-existential and the menial. In short, we have varied love affairs with the world.
I invite Mr. Severgnini to return and “re-savor” the atmosphere on this campus, only next time without the presumptuousness of a “one night stand” attitude. Give us Princetonians a little more time and a little more credit Mr. Severgnini. Maybe we could even be “friends with benefits.” Incidentally, can I have a job?