Strangers in the Hall

WHAT is atomism?

Atomism is that phenomenon which causes us never to become friendly with individuals we regularly see. We do, however, from opinions of them and in fact judge their worth, based on at most several syllables of information in our minds.

Rather than knowing each other, we bump into each other like hot atoms, say "hi," think something, and move on. This phenomenon is said to occur in office buildings, apartment complexes, and houses at Harvard.

What do we know about the people down the hall? Hardly anything. But I don't believe our College is falling apart because I don't know half the people who live on my floor. It is not as though some God of Friendliness has told me to find in my House 35 new people, 35 open-faced, ready-to-be-met, friendly people, and then 25, then 15...

THERE is a feeling of sometimes-isolation many of us feel, which may come from the unconscious bent of some (myself included) whose memory cannot reliably be entrusted with names. A roommate once asked me why I couldn't just make the facebook picture-name-concentration connection like everyone else. My excuse was that there are so many of them and only one of me. That is, it's hard to keep them all straight.


This disorder may sound like a mere coldness of temperament. It's not, although it seems to be one of the frostiest rules of society: to care to a certain extent about various individuals around you, you have to distance yourself from the chatterboxes who would have you know every curious thing, and memorize every curious conclusion, about every other human in your hallway. These same petty details, unfortunately, are what often pass for social contact.

So, again, what do we know about our local geography and its inhabitants? I know, for instance, of one unhappy room down the hall which recently, in its capacity as Hole #12 in an all-hall tourney of 18-hole Beer Golf, played host to a circle of drunken funsters. One of these revellers, from another school no less, temporarily transformed into an outright hooligan by the sauce, relieved himself against the wall of my hallmates' common room.

But what does this tell me? That the room's inhabitants live a generally dissolute life because of the parties they throw? I doubt it. And what remains from such incidents? Mather House's famous concrete preserves no stains, and everything is always better in the morning.

STILL, we get atomized by giving too much importance to the peculiarities of others. Minor personal characteristics may be quite important aesthetically--you couldn't have a description without the details--but surely they overstep their purpose when they become a basis for moral judgement. Instead of looking at people, we often sniff out characteristics, representatives of certain stereotypes (usually bad ones).

The dining hall and grill abound with people you know from a sentence or two. One fellow is sombre because his roommates for some reason surround him on excursions to dinner like agents of the Secret Service. A woman new to the house is beautiful but, in various senses, supposedly inaccessible. A couple virtually makes love, drily, near the pinball machine. Should one decide that they are, in fact, in love, or are they just taking advantage of each other?

We all see each other in the dining hall, some at their best and calmest and others at their caffeinated worst. Often we dress uniformly (sweats), and we always sit in groups. What can we infer about each other, personally, morally, or whatever, from these observations? It would be optimistic to say nothing; still, I hope nothing is the answer. I can never tell by looking who is writing a novel and who is composing a string quartet; people continue their efforts nonetheless, and they continue to surprise.

After all, there is always one more thing to learn about the soul next door that not only renders that soul more distinctive, but also more worthy of our consideration. To paraphrase a certain cautious novelist: "Actually, with a little perspicacity, one might learn many curious things about [one's neighbors], things that made them so different from one another that [the generalized Neighbor], except as a cartoonist's transient character, could not be said to exist... No, the average vessels are not as simple as they appear: it is a conjuror's set and nobody, not even the enchanter himself, really knows what and how much they hold."