Think beyond the white noise

The meaning of Spartan life

Jacob Martin

I read a great book over winter break called “White Noise” by Don Delillo about an interesting family living in a college town. Amid an airborne toxic event, a death-defying drug called dylar and a Hitler studies department, one of the best characters I’ve ever encountered in literature, is Murray. Filled with cultural and philosophical musings, I analyzed my life in reaction to his words.

Near the end of the book, Murray says, “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.”

Spring 2015 is my last semester at Case Western Reserve University. As my last first week of college classes comes to an end I can’t help but get a little nostalgic. I wonder, am I dissatisfied and in a pent-up rage? Is my present situation becoming infused with and subsequently satisfied with my past? Am I becoming violent? Am I somehow on the verge of war with CWRU?

Overall, I have none of Murray’s nostalgic attributes, but I think his words are relevant because they make me think about my experiences at CWRU. Nostalgia is a fascinating phenomenon. Perhaps it can bring one to violence, but it can also guide one to a heightened awareness of one’s present consciousness.

As I listen to the stories of students returned from Decembers of skiing, working a crappy job, lazily sitting at home and a whole battery of other break-time festivities, I cannot help but think about the typical college semester.

In the beginning, stories and catching up is normal. The obligatory “how was your break?” is asked, and an even more obligatory “Blah, blah, blah… how was yours?” is returned. Everyone makes it to class on time and the seemingly abundant free time is spent in frantic anticipation of the impending lack of it.

By week three the library starts to hit its operating stride as students unsuspectingly traipse in for long nights at tables with friends and classmates. The first round of sickness makes its way around each residence hall and complaints about the meal plan resume. Complaints about homework also resume.

By midterms everyone is in shock the semester is half over. Eight weeks go by quickly. Spring Break plans are mused and dreamt about until they are fulfilled, and when classes resume the inevitability of the “how was your break?” exchange ensues before we settle back into our routines.

As finals approach the stress pushes out everything that isn’t directly related to studying, SpringFest, Greek Week and travel plans home. We take exams and all the hoopla of camaraderie and fellowship that we feel at the beginning and throughout a semester is nowhere to be found. Oftentimes it feels like a semester leaves you alone and confused at what just happened.

Maybe what I am describing is the manifestation of Murray’s nostalgic anger, violence and war. Maybe each semester is anti-cathartic.

On Monday, President Barbara R. Snyder sent the entire CWRU community an email with “Looking Forward, and Back” in the subject line. She talked about how the fall semester was “unlike any other in recent memory,” and she affirmed our collective purpose. It was, essentially, a touching gesture of solidarity and community building—a gesture offered with the announcement of the release of “Think Beyond,” the university’s annual report.

I looked at “Think Beyond” and—just as Snyder alludes—there are inspiring stories within that may subvert “devastating developments or one-too-many mundane distractions,” but humdrum routines are what we must have. Without paradoxically blocking out and simultaneously embedding oneself in the trivialities of everyday existence, students might not be as successful as they are.

However, that is not a case for apathy. We students should be discussing immediate issues like university administration transparency and tuition, as well as hot ticketed world issues like ISIS, CIA questioning and torture tactics, and the ethics of creating a movie in which the assassination of a currently living person is depicted. These issues slip through the cracks somewhere around the three week mark and no required public relations brochure will detract from our egoism.

Delillo’s book is littered with purposely out-of-place one-liners: after a long interior monologue about death, the single word “Panasonic;” after another about the presence of mountains in any given state the radio interrupts, “Excesses of salt, phosphorous, magnesium;” constantly intruding between dialogue the television interjects, “Meanwhile here is a quick and attractive lemon garnish suitable for any seafood,” and “In the four-hundred-thousand-dollar Nabisco Dinah Shore.”

These absurdities give the novel its title: “White Noise.” I’d like to think we overcome the aberration of white noise around us every day, and that’s the point, isn’t it, to overcoming the unavoidable triviality of our daily existence and establish a meaningful purpose in life?

Perhaps Snyder is right. “Think Beyond” might be an uplifting phrase, one which possesses the power to rejuvenate the soul. But one could argue the university’s annual report is no different than an intrusive one-liner issued from a TV set. (Enter the paradox of blocking out and embedding oneself in the mundane.)

Pink Floyd said, “Breathe, breathe in the air. Don’t be afraid to care.” However you spend your time this semester, be aware of the white noise: sense it, own it, accept it, reject it, live with it. When you feel challenged, breathe, care and just be you.

Welcome back.

Jacob Martin is still waiting for the green scaffolding to come down around Clark Hall. Why do we erect new buildings in the face of neglected existing ones?