In art history class this past semester, my section leader made us do one of those fake pedagogical exercises where we bring in a piece of clothing or an object and talk about why it’s an emblem of our identity. Most of the girls brought pieces of jewelry; one guy brought a shirt he received when he won a crew race. Since I forgot to bring an actual thing—I would have brought my skateboard (just kidding)—I had to talk about the enormous headphones that happened to be sitting on my neck. Suddenly they were going to be my identity.
This was deeply embarrassing for a lot of reasons, mostly because it threw me into the role of the artsy misanthrope—really into music and secluded on purpose from the rest of the world—but also because in the minutes leading up to my turn at show and tell, it forced me to acknowledge, inwardly, that I knew how clearly everyone around me can hear what I’m listening to whenever I walk around with the volume up. That every once in a while I consciously turn the sound up too high, especially in the shuttle and the elevator in Currier House, because I want the bleed-through, and I hope, despicably, that someone will recognize a beat or a tune and think one thing or another as I walk by.
Leaving the Peabody Museum, I realized that this was bad; worse, or at least more “emblematic,” than a closet full of band T-shirts, worse even than monkeying with the playlist at a party, or browsing for BAPE hoodies on eBay, or posting cruelties to open lists, or leaving gratuitous et ceteras at the end of every sentence.
My blockmates and I worry about this a lot, probably because we all commit the same crimes. One thing we came up with is an idea about cultural taxonomy that splits everyone along one line: some people are geniuses and all the rest are critics. Geniuses do great things without trying to, while critics think and wonder and reflect, sorting out their function in relation to context/zeitgeist/the intellectual situation so that they can be sure that their projects are good/relevant/revelatory.
Writing in his blog, my friend Shane K. Wilson ’07 quotes Pound Professor of Law Roberto M. Unger: “To gain freedom of insight and action in a more remote context, often at the price of ineptitude in an immediate one, is a definition of genius.” Without geniuses there would be no intellectual situation to speak of, only hollow feedback, the sound of measuring tapes flapping and brows furrowing. Genius versus critic is Lil’ Wayne v. Kanye West; Bush v. Cheney; Twin Towers v. Freedom Tower; Sal Paradise v. Dean Moriarty (maybe); early Eminem v. late Eminem.
To be a critic is to trade transcendence in for self-awareness and proficiency—which is not to say that geniuses don’t know what they’re doing, because Lil’ Wayne does, or that critics aren’t competent. The point is just that genius involves a sort of freefall, brave, bold and fluent, that most of us aren’t capable of. I am a critic because of why I do the headphones thing; like all critics, I wish I were a genius, a.k.a. someone who pumps the music up just because that’s what feels right.
All of which brings me back to my post-headphones-revelation. What do I do right now? I listen to Blink 182, quietly, meekly, filling my head with adolescence and trying to figure out if anything has changed in the past four years. Was I always a critic or was there some as yet unspoiled moment when I still had a chance? That headphone business—it’s some shameful stuff, and as I stood there thinking about it in section, I wondered if anything could be done in the way of repair. It’s a tough spot, this graduation business! The moment should be heavy with some hope, or at least hopefulness—some indication that disfigurements have been corrected and some problems solved.
Instead the sense of loss is overwhelming, and even though the future is objectively bright, the past is hard to look at. There was that band (“I can make any man cry,” right) and that blog (hi, Lawrence) and that debate article (“mountains of coke,” ahem) and all those books I was supposed to read for class but didn’t. There was that time I drew 9/11 planes all over the posters in the Gilbert elevator and e-mailed Currierwire asking who was responsible for the vandalism. I know I keep saying this but, like, what’s my age again? What do I do now, having reached the end of education and all but exhausted my chances for getting better? Kanye West dropped out of college—maybe I should have done the same. How to cut losses now and yet retain some motive to keep going?
In Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” there’s a big line about halfway through in which the main character tries to decide “to be content with something less grandiose than self-banishment.” In so doing he is overwhelmed by the smallness of that which he’s agreeing to, and he realizes how hard it will be “to live with one’s failure in a modest fashion.” How truly shabby it will be to lead life as a man who is “if unyielding, unyielding quietly.” A man who leaves his headphones at four, possibly? I guess maybe that is growing up? Which is to say: We wanted to be geniuses—pure, cool, more read about than read—but here we are, instead, anxious, unrealistic, and destined forever to be secondary sources. Is it us or the times? Probably both! The key, maybe, is that you just have to like what you’re listening to, and keep it at a reasonable volume.
Leon Neyfakh ’07 is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House. He was editor-at-large of Fifteen Minutes Magazine in 2006.