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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, September 19, 2012

 

Students are overeducated. For the amount of input we cram into our heads every day, we produce very little output. Much of our cerebral energy and struggle seems to fall out of the back of our heads once a new exam pops up or we take off on fall break. It’s foolish and wasteful. It’s like dumping water all over the place in the hopes of hitting some grass. Our contemplation, analysis, exposure and culture run off in excess. What good does knowledge do when it’s lying around in puddles?

One of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde, was the epitome of the overeducated youth. His parents were Class A intellectuals in Dublin and he studied classics at Trinity College and Oxford. Once he had established himself in European society as a purebred dandy, he made a living traveling around America lecturing about beauty and pleasure. He was mostly popular for his ridiculously long hair and strange wardrobe choices. 

His only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” is about a handsome youth, Dorian, whose new portrait has a shocking mystical property: the painting shows signs of wear and tear instead of his own body. After realizing his youth and beauty will never fade, Dorian indulges in every 19th-century man’s dream: pretentious social circles, opium-induced hallucinations, beautiful women with low self-esteem, lush rugs and exotic perfumes. 

Dorian’s luxurious lifestyle, however, takes a toll on his portrait. Even though Wilde’s writing is lovingly laden with beautiful diction and flowery syntax, Dorian’s character sours. He takes the philosophy of pleasure and beauty to the extreme of hedonism, and the effects are fatal. 

But Dorian’s fictional philosophy was not too far from Wilde’s every day reality. He lived to talk about art and beauty and pleasure. Dorian could be the incarnation of Wilde’s self-doubt and self-criticism. Perhaps Wilde had existential crises while traveling from lecture hall to lecture hall, wondering what was the point of it all. And at the end of “Dorian Gray,” that finishing point looks pretty empty and bleak.

Students could very well find themselves in the same predicament: totally overwhelmed with heady philosophy, complex mathematics, outmoded languages and nowhere to put them. Admittedly, the exercise of intellectual engagement and interdisciplinary analysis are essential to our development as thinkers. But that’s just it – we’re just thinkers. Too often our parents, now stuck at their 9-to-5 jobs, or, more likely, 5-to-9 jobs, say wistfully, “You have the world at your fingertips.” And it’s true. We have the world at our fingertips, but right now we’re just using the world for finger-stretching exercises.

The solution? Take a page out of Wilde’s book. Write. I’m not talking about an academic paper – those are restrained by discipline or audience. American writer William Zinsser said, “Writing is thinking on paper.” Write about everything: the doubts, thrills, indulgences, surprises, fears, failures, random tidbits, connections and absurdities we learn about every day. I suspect Wilde wrote “Dorian Gray” in part to sort out the deluge of aesthetic and moral analysis he had clanking around in his mind. 

We write to make sense of things, to see if what is jumbling about in our heads is actually important, or if it falls flat once applied to paper. As we continue to culture and develop ourselves, it is essential that we test out our philosophies, question our instincts and demonstrate our logic.

 

Contact  Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu 

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 

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The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

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Know Thy Shelf

Meghan Thomassen | Wednesday, September 5, 2012

“I grew up on Ayn Rand,” vice president hopeful Paul Ryan told an audience in 2005. “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” While singing the praises of an Objectivist author might not have been the safest move, Ryan definitely won points in my arbitrary little book of standards.
“The Fountainhead” was Ayn Rand’s first major literary success. I read it over the summer on the train to Penn Station – Manhattan’s skyline made the perfect backdrop. Set in the 1920s, Rand delves into the lesser-known architectural scene of New York City.
While the romantic plotline between the protagonist, Howard Roark, and his love interest, Dominique Francon, is addictive (think the masochistic electricity of “Twilight” fused with the sophisticated banter of “The Great Gatsby”), Rand mostly strives to deify the individual.
The book reads like an extended allegory. All the characters exhibited physical attributes to match their role in the book. This is a transparent device; the good guys are tall, sharp and athletic, and the bad ones are mousy, wrinkled or sickly. The dialogue mimics Plato’s “The Republic,” and drags on for just as long.
“The Fountainhead,” and “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s other infamous philosophical novel, are indulgent, but at least she compels readers to stay with her. The profound imagery and melodramatic plot twists made me catch my breath at times. In a word, “The Fountainhead” is empowered. The main character, Howard Roark, is a messianic character, who adheres to his architectural integrity at all costs. He fails out of architecture school because he refuses to adhere to conventional architectural styles.
Roark doesn’t build to please the crowds. He builds to gratify himself. He also detests self-promotion, and does nothing to stop the greedy, untalented Peter Keating, a fellow student, who plagiarizes his beautiful work.
Fueled by his self-confidence, independence, design genius and gallons of coffee, Roark breaks from the “mainstream” and begins anew. His projects are few and far between, but he presses on with heartbreaking diligence. He is cold to the pull of fame and fortune that Keating enjoys at the best firm in New York. Only inspired design sustains him; each new design hits him like a revelation, like a shot of cocaine.
Roark is one of the most intimidating and inspiring characters I have encountered in literature. His work ethic puts to shame the most devout architects in the city and his style is unapologetic and brilliant.
Although the readers can’t see his ingenious New York City skyscrapers, Rand humanizes the blueprints with emotion. I sensed how his buildings vaulted to the sky and how the spaces he created curved to embrace the awestruck characters with intimacy and intuition.
Rand’s unabashed egoism enthralls as it comes blazing through “The Fountainhead.” To all architecture students or just students out there looking for a little motivation: you absolutely must read this book, whether you agree with Ryan’s or Rand’s politics or not.
Few will contest her point of view is extreme, so no one will blame you (or me) for reveling in her strange, angular and self-obsessed world.
Contact Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu
The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.