Monday, November 27, 2006

Collegiate pastoral

The images of college life found in collegiate promotional materials offer an abiding version of the pastoral in our world. Therein it's always spring; a small group of shepherds and shepherdesses (i.e., students) sit on the grass. There is always grass. The grass is lush and green, so it must have rained, but not so recently as to make the ground unpleasant to sit upon. (Hey, it's pastoral.) The students are speaking to one another, not into cell phones. They may well be speaking in iambic pentameter and rhyme.

Such scenes, minus meter and rhyme, can on occasion be found in reality of course. What photographs of such scenes fail to suggest is how noisy even the most pastoral collegiate moment is likely to be. One student with powerful speakers and open windows can pollute the emptiest, greenest quad with noise. Loud music also comes from official sources: it's increasingly common for athletic teams to practice -- even during final-exam week -- with music blasting from a PA system. A skateboard might be grinding away just beyond the edge of the picture. Not long ago I heard for the first time a minibike going up and down a sidewalk in the middle of campus, the whine of its engine bouncing off the walls of four buildings. (Yes, the minibike was traveling up and down, for sport, not transport.) And at times nothing more than an occasional shout might break the pastoral mood: "Hey, faggot!" I heard one student hail a friend a while back, at a distance of perhaps thirty yards. Some version of pastoral!¹

¹ This last sentence is a tip of the hat to William Empson's critical study Some Versions of Pastoral (1935).

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