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God and Bladderball At Yale

By James Gleick

Yale is of two minds about itself. Some people, with persuasive sincerity, maintain that Yale is on the whole normal--different from other prestigious Ivy League colleges in degree but not in kind. Others, with no less vigor, hold that Yale has a special, feverish intensity that sets it apart from its brethren--and Yale's intensity, some say, shades over into sickness and depravity.

Everybody, including the most earnest believers in the normalcy theory, agrees on one thing, however. There is an absolute consensus, a collective obsession with the idea that Yale students work harder--harder than students at other colleges, harder than ever before, harder especially than their comrades at Harvard. Harder, certainly, than most of them want to; and harder than some consider healthy.

You hear it everywhere. Yale students talk about "academic pressure" with all the fatalism and glibness of theologians discussing the Last Judgment. "The Work" is a bottomless, ever-popular topic of conversation in the dining halls--the only topic, really, aside from occasional digressions on sexual tension and the quality of the food. "How's the work coming?" people say, and if you cannot claim at least a knotty problem set or a stubbornly complex research paper you might as well sit back and devote yourself to your stewage. Advertisements on Yale bulletin boards ask smugly, "IS THE WORK TOO MUCH?", already knowing the answer. Typists have special rates ($1.25 per page) for all-nighters. A line forms in front of Cross Campus Library at 9 o'clock Sunday morning, with hung-over students jockeying for the choicest seats; by late afternoon, places are difficult to come by. Faculty members muse publicly, as A. Bartlett Giametti did last week on the New York Times Op-Ed page, about a "relentless, pervasive tension about work." Yale students claim to work as much as 50 or 60 hours a week outside of classes. The Yale Daily News recently conducted a telephone survey of Yale and Harvard students in order to determine who worked harder. The outcome was preordained--what the News found interesting, and somewhat irritating, was the leisurely, complacent attitude of the Cantabrigians toward their work.

The disagreement about whether Yale is normal or abnormal, healthy or depraved, seems to depend on two different notions of work. On the side of healthy are people like Griffin, associate dean of Yale College, who believe it is neither surprising nor regrettable that Yale students--bright, eager and ambitious people, after all--spend a considerable amount of time doing academic work and talking about it. Griffin says that Yale students work hard these days, probably harder than students at other colleges and probably harder than past Yale students. He suspects some Yale students let their work interfere with other pursuits, some of which might themselves be worthwhile. But on the whole, he feels that most Yale students enjoy what they are doing.

Griffin analyzes academic pressure the same way everyone else does, in terms of the economic situation and the competition for admission to professional schools. He also perceives a kind of self-generated, self-perpetuating pressure to succeed, to excel. The situation he sees is one that exists everywhere these days, and he cannot explain, really, why things are so much more intense at Yale, except to say that Yale students tend to be vigorous and enthusiastic and that "it's a terrific time here."

For Griffin, the Yale work ethic is a new and constructive channeling of energies that used to be spent elsewhere. Not too long ago, he points out, people used to talk a lot about relevance and commitment, terms that "referred to political and social issues, but implied psychologically that you were implicated in what you were doing." His theory is that Yale students are still committed; it is just that they are seeking relevance in pre-med and pre-law courses.

So Griffin, like Yale administrators and faculty in general, is committed to the normalcy theory. He denies that his students are depraved--he laughs at the idea, in fact. Maybe they are anxious sometimes: "Obviously there is a lot anxiety in anything you are deeply involved in--but there is also a considerable amount of enjoyment. I have to say that it doesn't seem to affect their cheerfulness or sense of balance."

Few Yale students accept Griffin's analysis; most belong in one way or another to the abnormality school. In particular, there is a nearly unanimous sense among Yale students that they are somehow cheerless and ill-balanced--the way Harvard students feel during exam period, they feel all the time. "Actually, most people are pretty grim," one senior said last week.

"Very few people have any sense of balance at all," he went on, "Very few people are even willing to look up from the ground and recognize human presence around them."

In a perverse way, some of the academically oppressed are at their most cheerful when they are describing their lot. But if they revel in their despondency, if they take cheer from the perpetual exam-period pallor that hovers over the Yale campus, many students worry also that Yale is going to leave them less than whole.

The feeling is that there must be a trade-off somewhere. Every hour devoted to learning something academic--and Yale students do believe they learn a certain amount--is an hour during which one loses sight of another side of life. Students say they are "crippled" emotionally; they never learn to deal with other people. Some say the constant, overbearing compulsion to work leaves scars, scars that do not always show. A few talk of leaving Yale as "eunuchs."

It seems to be true that a certain amount of sexual activity is sacrificed in propitiation of the academic gods. Yale has a normal portion of conversation about the possibilities of romantic love, but it also has a certain amount of cynicism about a social life centered in an underground library. Most people take for granted a connection between celibacy and scholarship--a routine refrain as students leave the dining room is, "Well, I'm off to sublimate."

Whether sublimation gives way to repression and release gives way to depravity is another question. Many Yale students, especially underclassmen, agree with Dean Griffin that depravity is rare. Nevertheless, there are signs.

The bladderball game, for example. This is a form of sport in which three or four thousand Yalies lock themselves inside the Old Campus with a huge canvas ball. There appears to be no object to it except to immerse oneself in a surging tide of flesh, heaving violently in one direction after another in pursuit of the ball. The specter of academic pressure seems to preside over this activity, as it does over every activity at Yale. Last year the bladderball was removed to Kingman Brewster's lawn and, while the president of Yale stood on his porch, drink in hand, the nearly spent bladderballers chanted "Thirty-Two! Thirty-Two! Thirty-Two!..." They were referring to the number of courses they would like to be required to take instead of the present minimum of thirty-six. After fumbling for an appropriate response, President Brewster raised his glass in wordless salute and returned inside.

This year, a contingent from Jonathan Edwards College accidently punctured the bladderball during an attempt to seize it with a grappling hook. Later they brought it down to Cross Campus Library, where they tried to put it on closed reserve. (They Yale Spelunking Club subsequently retaliated by temporarily cutting the power in Jonathan Edwards at 3 a.m., thus causing JE residents with electric alarm clocks to be a half hour late for their morning classes.)

At some places, it would be difficult to raise a quorum for a game like bladderball, with its deranged, inchoate release of energy and its attendant pranks. At Harvard, it is unusual for 3000 people to participate in anything at all, let alone dangerous forms of institutionalized madness, but at Yale things like bladderball come to seem quite natural, an organic part of life there, a phase in a universally felt, all-consuming cycle of tension and release.

Dean Griffin describes the ordinary Yale student as "a quite straightforward, cheerful type of person." An upperclassman who leans more toward the abnormality theory of life at Yale puts it differently: "Your average Joe Blow student fucks around in the library for four hours pretending to study and then goes to a bar and gets drunk."

His theory of the personality is supported by a complex account of Yale decadence. There are the less important elements, such as "preppie decadence," which takes place in secret societies, and there are more widespread but still comparatively innocent varieties.

"Yale," our friend says, "has a very well-defined, academic kind of decadence--you know, a blow-out party, kegs of beer, people throwing up. Just standard collegiate stuff." A local phenomenon called "gatoring" seems to fit this category; gatoring is a kind of dance, usually performed by two or more males, that involves the prominent display of genitalia. But the dance is only a subcategory of a larger practice the Yale Daily News Magazine calls "sloaning (attracting public attention to ones genitals)."

"The more serious decadence," this upperclassman says significantly, "is off campus." It is difficult for a visitor to Yale to understand what this can mean, beyond the usual serious drug use; and it is here, too, that the imaginations of the believers in normalcy reach their limit. One example of the extent of depravity at Yale is a group of about ten seniors called the Buttfucks, most of whom live together off campus.

One Buttfuck spokesman, who plans to join Charles Reich in California after he gets his degree this February, said last week that the group began a few years ago as a "severe, organized counterreaction" to academic pressure. At first the Buttfucks limited their activities to a sort of "nameless, roving aggression," along the lines of stealing parking meters, destroying bathrooms, that sort of thing. Two years ago they elected a parking meter named Pancho Valdez to a post in student government. (For months afterwards, "Free Pancho Valdez" graffiti could be seen all over the Yale campus.) But their major foray into public depravity on a grand scale, an event every Yale upperclassman remembers, was something called BUTTFUCK '74.

As reconstructed from the accounts of Buttfucks who were present, the affair seems to have been a kind of spiritual occasion. It was heavily advertised in advance by posters bearing the words "BUTTFUCK '74" and a picture of Yo Mo Dobro Jo, billed as a 19 year-old perfect asshole; beneath Yo Mo Dobro Jo, who was seated in something like a lotus position, was the inscription "Hum Tits to Yo Mo Dobro Jo." The poster aroused the ire of local residents and administrators but, a Buttfuck says, "we persuaded them that it would only be a nice, fun, kinky party."

What actually happened in the Ezra Stiles College dining room on that evening last year is difficult to say with any certainly, partly because virtually all of the witnesses perceived the event with the assistance of psychedelic drugs. A few things are clear: that Yo Mo Dobro Jo was borne in upon a toilet seat clutching aloft in his right hand a dildo, and in his left some other spiritual object; that beer and spumoni were served, as symbols of the blood and body of the guest of honor; that after the intonation of some godly words, symbolic meatballs were cut away from a jockstrap and eaten; that residents of the Yale-New Haven Mental Hospital, on evening leave, presented the guest of honor with a painting entitled The Criminal Penis Entering the Mouth of the Nun; and that the "Scriptures of the Holy Rectum," or excerpts therefrom, were read aloud to the assembled body.

That was the high point of the Buttfucks' public depravity. Yale has freshmen now who have never heard of the group. Even Pancho Valdez is gone now, "sort of stolen back by the police this summer." Graduation looms for the Buttfucks, who say they have settled into "a quiet, domestic depravity." They are not particularly concerned about academic pressure, although Yo Mo Dobro Jo himself talks about a continuing sexual tension at Yale; "the sexual scene basically just isn't very cool," he says.

The Buttfucks, no less than people who have their noses more firmly on the grindstone, feel there is something lacking in their education. Yale's children enter the real world less than whole, or believe they do--in the way they deal with other people, for example, they feel somehow narrow, somehow deformed. In some ways this feeling is related to a complaint that can be heard elsewhere in the Ivy League these days, that colleges are like sausage factories, stuffing narrow, repressed professional casings. The Buttfucks, who have a perspective on this, say that the people who cannot bend with the pressure become burned-out candle-makers in Sausalito.

Faculty, administrators and other promulgators of normalcy, all question the breadth of vision of the Buttfucks and their sympathizers. Sausalito just does not have that large a population of ex-Yalies. To normalists, the depravity theory is a symptom of youthful short-sightedness: things are not really so painful as they seem, and perhaps a little pain is a healthy, natural part of growing up. From their point of view you cannot argue with results--most products of the Yale environment turn out to be as vigorous, capable, diligent and even happy in their real-world occupations as they were at Yale--sometimes, perhaps, even more so.

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