The Wrongs of Spring

Those men and women consigned to drudge through their lives within the constraints imposed by an insular environment have often taken refuge in the palliative image of the voyage. The literature of Britain, for example, is lush with attempts by writers to flee the island's wave-beaten shores on the wings of poesy. Joseph Conrad's Jim leaves Victorian propriety behind him to become a brutal lord among primitive East Indies tribesmen. D.H. Lawrence's characters trek to all parts of the globe in search of a primeval energy lacking in Edwardian drawing rooms. Malcolm Lowry's consul seeks to escape from the gentility of Georgian society by drinking himself into a stupor under the volcanoes of Mexico.

Harvard, too, is an insular community, and its limited ambit is no less confining despite the fact that its boundaries are self-imposed rather than natural. Pummelled by the waters of Brattle Street, buffeted by the roaring English Channel winds of Memorial Drive, isolated by the icy North Sea depths of Quincy Street, Harvard suffocates the adventuresome with the dull academic chatter of the senior common room and the unchanging faces of the dining hall. Like their insulated Old World counterparts, Harvard students conjure up their own voyage imagery, succulent with their peculiar symbols of exotic retreats and flaming foreign splendors to help them escape from the tedium of life in an academic atoll.

In the time of spring's approach, as the sap runs not only in the trees but also in the body, the imagination of the would-be traveller soars to its most vertiginous heights and the intransigent pulse of wanderlust surges relentlessly through the veins. Like Shelley we yearn to be done with frozen leaves and turbulent skies and shout forth a panegyric to the incipient balmy days of a more gentle season. But alas, the streets bear the scars of the ravages of snowstorms, the trees scream in their gnarled bareness, the clouds continue to obscure the fulgent sunshine. Cambridge does not easily shake the remnants of its most brutal season. We become like Gide's immoralist, neglecting our careers, our families, and our lovers in a hedonistic hearkening to a brighter clime and sunnier shore, where mind and body can relax and regenerate.

In the days and weeks before spring vacation the images become unbearable in their vividness and unruly in their allure. The tolling of the Mem Church bell at the end of a lecture becomes the age-old ring of a village steeple in Italy, calling the peasants from the surrounding fields to the Sunday service. The blue cover of the exam book in front of us becomes the alluring azure of an Algerian afternoon sky. The steam from a dining hall cup of coffee becomes the aromatic wisp from a demitasse of espresso sipped in a sidewalk cafe on Paris Left Bank. As March matures into April, as the countdown progresses from seven to five to three days before we can board our planes and trains for the outside world, the symbols deepen into a mythology both rapturous in its promise of pleasure and malicious in its threat of disillusion.

The myth and the reality take on many forms. The classic case--fated to frustration, needless to say--is the lovesick student who hopes that his heart can flame forth anew after the fire of a once-torrid affair has been snuffed out in the frigid winter. As women fill the streets of Cambridge in their low-cut pastel dresses, as men walk by in their tight-fitting T-shirts, this unattached youth sighs in paralysis at the endless possibilities passing by Sadly the student pauses in the reading of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy to dream of the distant beach or nightclub where a future mate languishes. The vacation arrives and it's off to Miami or Sunset Strip and the hip scene of the fast and fancy. There the lonely voyager falters in the thick of pursuit, worried over how much of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy yet remains to be read.

Then there is the myth of the homesick. While typing out a 20-page paper in the sterile gloomth of his monastic room, with its poster less walls and chill dampness, this student becomes lost in visions of refrigerators crammed with roast beef and coke, cupboards overflowing with Oreo cookies and cinnamon buns, trays filled with chocolate candies and salted peanuts (and perhaps marmalade candies if it's Passover). A late night movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy is on the living room television as the student fixes himself a salami and cheese sandwich with a pickle on the side (Mom and Dad have gone to sleep an hour ago). A high school friend stops by to smoke cigarettes and reminisce about old escapades. Vacation finally rolls around, and it's off to home. There are only Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies showing on the tube, Mom has bought American rather than Swiss cheese, and Dad decides to take off a few days from work so that he can catch up on what kids are thinking these days at Harvard. While the family rides over to visit Aunt Ethel and Uncle Herb, the student wonders what's playing at the Brattle that week.

Certain students at Harvard, for the most part residents of one of the nation's largest cities and tending to have a rather bloated sense of the importance of their home metropolis, very often succumb to the myth of The Big City. Charmed but piqued by the limited offering of activities and cultural events in the greater Boston area, this student, while on his way to Lamont to renew The History of Art for the fifth time that day, lapses into reveries of world-premier movies, a new production of La Traviata, and cocktail parties at which members of both the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books will be present. And, oh, he thinks as he asks "When does this book circulate for the vacation?" there is to be a showing of rarely-seen Durer prints at a nearby museum (considered by most to be one of the finest in the world). Finally the last lecture comes and goes and it's off to the airport and a short plane ride to the city that many compare to a rather large apple. Getting out of a taxi of the door of his 25-story apartment building, the student steps into a pile of shit deposited by an uncurbed dog and he curses the day he ever left the comparatively unsullied streets of Cambridge.

Finally there are those who, chafing at the bit of tepid local escapes and unrestrained by mundane financial considerations, make the most pronounced effort to realize their mythical oasis by spending the week skiing in St. Moritz or soaking up the sun in the Bahamas. These are the true inheritors of Conrad and Lawrence and Lowry, as they sail away to the Acapulcan heart of darkness, to the primitive rituals of the Monte Carlo gaming tables, to the menacing volcanoes towering over Waikiki Beach. Do they, then, these voyagers inspired by visions of icy glasses of rum-and-coke, by images of deep-bronze sun tans, by dreams of discreetly wicked samba music, actually realize those hopes and aspirations that so many of their fellow students find frustrated? Perhaps they do, and the old adage that money buys happiness has more truth than many would be willing to admit. But, alas, the pleasure of these sun-bathing souls must remain transient, and as they trickle back from the ski-slopes and the beaches, from the volcanoes and the jungles, the ecstasy of the fleeting week shrinks to the melancholy memory of a moment and expands into the imagery of a new mythology--the mythology of summer. As April lengthens into May, as Cambridge boils and perspires and the shores of the island once again prove cloister like in their immutability, these globetrotters are more easily prey to a new, but no less powerful, set of images of worlds not realized. And within a few weeks, a month at most, the disillusioned ranks of the lovesick, the homesick, and the big city buffs will succumb to new illusions of journey and escape. Has anyone seen my sunglasses?