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The Signification of the Omphalos

There is a tall twisty sculpture called the Omphalos right in the middle of Harvard Square, flanked by CVS, Johnston Gate, Charles Sumner, and the T. Do you know it? Because it will probably be gone very soon.

What is the Omphalos? In Greek mythology, the Omphalos was the “navel,” or center of the world. This point was often marked by a sacred stone. Archeologists and historians have recovered instances of this special baetylus from Delphi to Jerusalem. And now Cambridge.

Again: What is the Omphalos? A quartet of titanic tourists standing together by Out of Town News, pointing, gawking, and trying to get their bearings. An abstract foreigner in Cubist fashion, exchanging somber stares across the street with Sumner. An ungainly plant with four stalks, sprouting from the concrete near the Pit and attempting to blend in with the rest of the urban foliage. For its 20 feet of stature, it’s actually done a fine job at being discreet; I doubt that many students know it by name. The greater celebrity has surely gone to the Harvard Bixi, the phallic stele still standing between Boylston and Widener.

As the legend goes, the Omphalos was commissioned in 1978 as part of a program to “humanize subway stations.” Enter artist and Harvard professor Dmitri Hadzi, who shrewdly realized that there’s nothing as humanizing as a giant bellybutton. His sculpture is a dedication to the highest profile place in the city, a historic locus of arrival and exchange, adventure and absurdity. The Omphalos in Wonderland. For more than three decades, a monstrous Jabberwock to us slithy toves.

But not for much longer.  Atlas shrugged—an overhead slab broke off of one of the sections a couple of years ago, requiring the introduction of protective metal barricades. Look on my works, ye Mighty! The necessary repairs could cost up to $500,000, which is more drachmae than the MBTA can spare. There is some talk of relocating, but the prophecy promises little hope of its endurance in the Square. These two tons of granite across four colossal columns are fearsome but regrettably unsustainable. You might say, “pride goeth before the Omphalos,” if you enjoy bad forced puns as much as I do.

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Fortune favors the bored. Last winter break I was online researching Brutalist architecture for some hopeless reason. One thing led to another, and before long I was observing—via Wikipedia—a sculpture that had stoically saluted me every day for the past two years. It was an incredible and disarming moment. My cyberspace meanderings brought me, inevitably, right back to campus. It’s just as in the myth: Two eagles trace a course around the earth, meeting firmly in its center to mark the Omphalos.

The sculpture is leaving, but this campus has plenty of other nuances for those who will look. The strange apocalyptic symbolism of the upward-facing spine in the older version of the College’s shield. The hidden details in Annenberg’s stained glass. Quentin Compson’s commemoration on Anderson Bridge. Those unaccountable shoes hanging over the telephone line on Dunster Street. Like many places, these grounds are rife—positively haunted—with the ghosts of culture and personality through the centuries. “A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the Yard,” remarked the late Seamus Heaney in his “Villanelle for an Anniversary.” As of last week, it is now Professor Heaney too who walks the Yard. Have you seen the autographed poster he gifted to Adams House after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995? You should check it out.

Friends, I encourage you to make a pilgrimage to the Omphalos before it’s gone. Gaze deeply into the metaphorical navel—you’ll find plenty of introspection in your four years here and beyond. Reflect on these crossroads, for you join a long tradition of exchange. Ancient Greeks sought counsel from the Oracle at Delphi; in keeping with its namesake, I encourage you to consult the new Oracle at the Red Line while it lasts. Weren’t we told before that the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls?

Go be jaded later. For now, keep your third eye open, an ear to the ground, and a finger on the pulse. While you’re in that ridiculous posture, consider this campus an evolving text with semantic meaning in every detail of architecture and landscape. What you take out of it is limited only by your own efforts at philology and imagination. Notwithstanding our Gutenberg Bible’s protective casing or the brief lockdown during Occupy Harvard, this place remains—even more than we may realize—a site where “the books stand open and the gates unbarred.” So carpe diem and all that.

David R. Grieder ’14 is a literature concentrator in Eliot House.

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