I don’t know how you tear a building down. Maybe it involves explosives, charges shaped in such a way that the whole structure collapses nicely in on itself. Or perhaps it has something to do with wrecking balls and bulldozers. Or could it really be tearing, a giant hand from the sky ripping it in half like a sheet of paper? I really couldn’t say. And then, afterwards, what happens to the pile of rubble? Is it thrown out? Repurposed? Sold for scrap? My ignorance is as vast as a landfill.
It’s Saturday. Thomas and I climb the stairwell to the third floor of Papazian Hall. The building, I remark, is one of the last on campus that feels classically collegiate. Its exterior is unpretentiously imposing, pale brown pillars against grayish brick, with a large brown, unfriendly wooden door guarding its main entrance. Inside it is plain, also largely wooden, both in its walls and its furnishing. It is indifferent to its occupants’ feelings; it does not shine; there is no brightly lit imposition of happiness. Thomas agrees with me, mock-lamenting the lack of chrome paint crusting the walls. The air in the hallway, I further note, is thick, musty, and humid, and, I add, with a characteristically pretentious turn of phrase, it tastes like philosophy. Thomas, mercifully, does not comment.
We set up in the seminar room. Our books, secondary commentaries on Wittgenstein, Hegel, and Kant, are spread out across the table like so much discarded laundry. The table, long and wooden and boring, has been the subject of many obnoxious philosophical thought experiments in the three honors seminars Thomas and I have taken together – what is the nature of the table? we’ve asked; does it have real existence in of itself?; is its presence just a very useful linguistic convention upon which we’ve all agreed? These questions are of only minute interest now, as we kvetch about the imminent honor and struggle in vain against the urge to check Facebook.
(The summer before freshman year, I went to my eye doctor to get a new lens prescription. The doctor, after he had finished shooting air at my pupils, asked me about my plans for college. Three years later, I will have read Noam Chomsky, who, in his less political moments, marvels at the human brain’s ability to generate an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences. If I’d been aware of Chomsky’s work then, in that For Eyes basement, I’d have had good reason to doubt his thesis; the scope of adult-late adolescent conversation had seemed for the last several months to be decidedly finite, focused more or less exclusively on the question of The Future. “Swarthmore,” I tell him, after a significant pause. “I’ll be going to Swarthmore.” He looked as if in pain for a moment, and then began to smirk. “The old Kremlin on the Crum, is that right?” he asked. Here was the rare Philadelphia Republican, in all his glory. I muttered a laugh, which failed to placate him. “At least tell me you’re not going to major in philosophy,” he said, without a hint of humor.
Philosophy AND economics, I insisted. The econ would make it okay. The econ would get me a job. The econ would make me not just another cloyingly annoying liberal arts majors pursuing a worthless degree at a worthless institution. Never mind that deciphering a demand curve makes my brain feel as if it’s bleeding lightly.)
I’m listening to “Once in a Lifetime” while reading about Wittgenstein, who claims that all meaning is in use. If we want to understand what a sentence means, we shouldn’t look for what’s happening in the mind of the people who say it or hear it; we should just describe in what contexts people use it, what it accomplishes. This idea scared me when I first encountered it; it seemed to suck every thought out of the human brain, leaving the body just a chattering husk. But now it begins to seem sensible, obvious even. Wittgenstein, perhaps, was right: philosophy builds up deep-sounding explanations for why things are this way or that, when really all we need are descriptions of the different ways the world hangs together. God, I hope he wasn’t right.
“It’s funny,” Thomas says, looking up from his notebook. “You could just write one very long paper for all three of the honors prompts. It’s like there’s one big narrative connecting everything we’ve read.”
I agree with Thomas. I often suspect that he’s got some secret insight into the world that I lack; I base this suspicion on the fact that he’s read Deleuze. That’s what I thought I would get from philosophy, when I started studying it as a freshman—some insight into how the world is. Okay, I expected more than “some”; I expected Truth, to be able to find a certain and final ground for everything. It wasn’t until junior year that more practically minded professor—Richard Eldridge, Tamsin Lorraine—disabused me of this metaphysical dreaming. So what has four years of studying left me with, if not a blueprint of the nature of existence? I am, I hope, a clearer and more persuasive writer (though I suspect this particular column belies that claim); I can speak somewhat articulately about how human self-consciousness works, and how we use language; I have more thoughts, still scrambled, on justice, ethics, and morality; I can claim, with the requisite smugness, that Derrida is, occasionally, quite readable. But mostly, I have become more acutely aware of my own insufficiencies as a thinker, and, more broadly, the insufficiencies of thought with which our entire species is damned.
Thomas and I leave the seminar room after a few hours, both having made less progress than we had hoped we would. As we gather our things, I take one last look around the room, in its uninteresting brownness. For all I know, I might never come back to this spot. There’s something terribly, cloyingly poetic about the fact that this room, in a year, will not exist anymore. That Papazian, which helped birth the atom bomb in its basement, will be itself pulverized into nothingness. It must mean something. But for the life of me, I can’t figure it out.
As is probably abundantly clear, I am trying to say goodbye, very badly, very incoherently, to a time in my life. I am trying to say goodbye to Papazian Hall, a building that I’ve never particularly liked, but which, like any patient on his deathbed, deserves consolation. I am trying to say goodbye to philosophy, a discipline that I will almost certainly never again formally study, a discipline that Wittgenstein, mistakenly, thought he had killed. But more than that, I am trying to say goodbye to moments, which are dotted across the time-space geography of the whole college. Moments: discovering that the Crum Henge at 2am feels like the site of an imminent UFO landing; standing up to leave a seminar dinner at a professor’s house only to realize that I am wine-drunk; watching another professor’s face contort in weird shapes as she tries to conceal her annoyance at the fact that there are three students dressed as ninjas fighting a lightsaber duel in her classroom; in the moonlight walking the path from Mertz to Clothier hand in hand with my freshman year girlfriend, wanting, wanting, wanting to say, with freshman year earnestness, “I love you,” but not yet finding the words. There are more— there will always be more—exploding into mind like shells across the sky, for that one moment real and terrible and immediate, and then fading just as quickly, not even fading, just instant dissipation into the night. I want to make sense of them, I want to steal them from the night sky and trap them all in memory, but memory is a broken hourglass, sand sprinkling the floor around it. No goodbye, however poorly put, can change that.