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Killed in the Context

Looking Up

By Katie Disalvo

Have you ever tried to read in the Thompson Room? More formal in feel than Ticknor Lounge, this room on the first floor of the Barker Center is perhaps the most plush and lush location where one can study in the College. I brought my work there a few weeks ago. It was largely that luxury that kept me from getting anything done.

At the end of the room is an old oversized fireplace from the days this building was the Freshman Union, and this room part of their dining hall. Sitting on the mantle is a bust of “John Harvard” fashioned after the same model that posed for the statue in the yard, and on the mantle itself is an engraved quote.

It was this quote, and its plush context, that kept me from my tutorial work. From the depths of my wonderful chair I had looked up to read that, “A good name is rather to be chosen/than great riches/and loving favour/rather than silver and gold.” The quote’s cliché, I thought, and worse, it’s repetitious.

I tried to continue reading. I had to finish multiple books of The Bodhicharyavatara, a central text of Mahayana Buddhism, for my tutorial that afternoon. It’s the guide to being a bodhisattva, one who has dedicated oneself not just to attaining enlightenment, but also to saving “all beings from suffering.” “All beings” includes flies. Someone who has taken the bodhisattva vows has dedicated himself or herself to eons of work while remaining in the cycle of samsara—the cycle of death and rebirth characterized by attachment, hatred, ignorance, and endless suffering. Such vows require an incredible degree of deep, all encompassing compassion. For Mahayana Buddhists, the calling to be a bodhisattva is simply the highest calling one can have.

This message was so strong, while the message from the mantel and the room itself was so muddled. Perhaps it was that contrast that made me put the book down and re-examine where I was.

The Thompson Room is large, with a high ceiling. It is cloaked in portraits, and the rug is thick and colorful. Many of the wooden wall panels are carved with the names of famous and familiar alumni—Lowell, Emerson, Longfellow, Adams… There is a towering grandfather clock in one corner, a statue of Kronos in another. Most noticeable is the furniture, which has always reminded me of Dr. Seuss illustrations with its curvy playfulness. The exceedingly comfortable chairs and couches vary in color and shape, but most are rounded and velvety, oddly proportioned and/or large enough to make one wonderfully aware that they were built for enjoyment more than utility. The end tables and lamps are beautifully crafted and of impeccable quality. Such care has been taken with the ambiance of this room that the ornate fake candelabras on the wall have fake plastic wax running down the fake paper candles.

The quote on the mantel just didn’t seem to fit such a context. I was first struck with the tension John Harvard himself presented. Why was he on top of this quote? John Harvard as a beneficiary, as a mascot of sorts, sure, but who thinks of him as a role model? Had he ever chosen a good name over great riches, or love over wealth? His one claim to fame—mysterious, nondescript historical figure that he is—seems to be that he accumulated wealth over his lifetime and decided to donate a large portion of that wealth to Harvard upon his death.

Yeah John, I thought, your gift lacks a certain idealistic flair. You never decide to further learning and help students while you’re alive. You wait and donate half your wealth and all of your books for their edification only after you’re too dead to enjoy it all yourself!

I gave up trying to read and walked around the room, reading the copper dedications hung on the wall. Turns out the room was “named with gratitude for the generosity” of William F. Thompson and Juliana W. Thompson. The grandfather clock was dedicated by “the Class of ’78” and even the lectern is emblazoned with “1905.” The carpet I stood on was donated in honor of a recent graduate; all the paintings had been donated by various, presumably wealthy, individuals.

All this highlighted how “A good name is rather to be chosen/than great riches/and loving favour/rather than silver and gold” is somewhat ambiguous. This quote could mean that morality and love are inherently in conflict with wealth and that one cannot avoid choosing sides. Or it could be saying that one needs to choose morality and love over wealth if and only if and a choice presents itself. If the latter is (dubiously) the case, then the evidence of riches all throughout the Thompson Room does not disprove their donors’ having chosen to be moral.

But even this understanding of the quote, which should be more compatible with the room it sits in—even this qualified emphasis on morality and love—just seemed drowned. It was overpowered by the gentle ticking of the grandfather clock and the hushing lull of the incredible chairs.

Katie DiSalvo ’05 is a religion concentrator in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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