Next Stop Wonderland


Two excellent movies about fantastical little worlds that exist just below the surface of our reality will be playing simultaneously in theaters this weekend. Monsters, Inc. the new movie by the Pixar computer animation studio, is about a colony of monsters who teleport themselves into children’s closets and use their screams for energy—a sort of primal, New Economy Where the Wild Things Are. And of course, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which opens Friday, is about an 11-year-old who discovers his magical heritage and ships off to a school for wizards that resembles an English “public school” in its grammar—but has an enchanting meter all its own. These works follow in the tradition of youth-skewed authors like Susan Cooper, John Bellairs, Phillip Pullman, C.S. Lewis and the maestro of macabre gentility, Roald Dahl.

There is a magical world of mystery and whimsy tucked into the gritty folds of our everyday lives, too. You occasionally wander through this mystical realm, though you are so inured to it that you probably don’t even notice it. The inhabitants of this world look just like you and me, but if you observe closely, you may be able to pick them out—they glance about furtively, they obey the Walk-signals, they are amazed by all that brick (sidewalks even!).

They are first-years and their world is the Yard. If on a night you bisect the Yard, you can feel their emotional inquisitiveness, their gnawing celibacy, their sense of discovery. Upperclass students remember (here the music comes up and the screen goes wavy) that long-lost time when academic competition was in abeyance and you watched a dawn from the Weld Observatory after a delirious all-night discussion of “the pros and cons of long-distance relationships.”

This is perhaps an overly glowing view of the Yard that gains some magic in the dim, generous light of our memory. But if we stretch “magical” a bit to mean “exotic and different,” aren’t there innumerable pockets of magic tucked into Harvard’s social fabric? Harvard’s large size, so often used to denigrate it, in fact provides a virtually infinite number of niche groups. For instance, there’s a group that goes to the IHOP on Soldier’s Field Road every Sunday night for a recap of the week’s events. Or the casts from Loeb Mainstage productions who derive endless “reunion dinners” from their brief flings with theatrical performance (and one another). Or even at The Crimson, which is now going a bizarre sociological exercise called “The Schmooze” whereby prospective editors spend literally hours a day hamming it up with the people who will decide their fates—the position of their names in the upper left corner of the page you’re reading.

These are wonderful little subworlds and I am always pleasantly surprised when I come across another one—like Harry’s wonder at Track nine-and-three-quarters in Sorcerer’s Stone. But this is criticism by way of praise. In fact, wonderful and diverse though they may be, Harvard social groups are pretty calcified. Harvard students, with that strange brew of insecurity and determination, rarely hop from niche group to niche group. The exception may be the Yard, where social life is more liquid, constantly forming and re-forming until it congeals into blocking groups by mid-March. But after your first spring at Harvard, you have your friends and you cling to them fiercely.

This, I think, is why those institutions of the shimmering statusphere, final clubs and women’s social clubs, seem to gall us—besides the fact that they’re so secretive and self-indulgent. They are social niches unfairly come by. Their membership is not based on the normal social system of elective affinities but by virtue of having been chosen by its predecessors (this is the kind of circular logic that Yogi Berra would’ve loved—“It’s not a social nice until we say it’s a social niche!”). And they are virtually impenetrable to anyone except first-year women—who are right to assimilate with upperclass students but wrong in the way that they are doing it.

Monsters, Inc. derives its clever narrative engine not just from the exploration of the monsters’ magical world, but from its clash with another world: A little girl whom the filmmakers’ wittily name “Boo” stumbles into Monsters, Inc. Magical mayhem ensues.

Isn’t it the unlikely clashes of these worlds that makes life so interesting? It may be too ambitious to ask Harvard students to branch out socially and to create the kind of porous magical world that the Yard and Monsters, Inc. present. This is not the kind of risky, working-without-a-net that they’re fond of (how many times have you recognized but not said “hi” to a sectionmate?).

But there might be a way to institutionalize social fluidity. For one thing, how ’bout a program that matches up every senior (those jaded unmagical Muggle types) with an entering first-years with similar interests, a sort of one-on-one Prefect program? Aside from the attendant social fluidity, both parties would derive benefit—the first-years from the senior’s experience, and the senior from the first-year’s starry-eyed wonderment. And, if we seniors want to kick-start our own narrative engines, why not pair each of us up with an alums with similar professional interests? Certainly there are enough alums to go around. And they all inhabit magical little worlds of their own—ones that might even persuade Harry, Boo, Matilda and the Narnia kids to grow up.

Couper Samuelson ’02 is a history and literature and French studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.