Chin: Fraternities and Sublimity

Finding alternative social spaces within fraternities themselves is vital.

by Clara Chin | 5/26/17 12:30am

“A sad voluptuousness, a despondent intoxication make up the humdrum backdrop against which our ideals and euphorias oft stand out...” In “Black Sun,” Julia Kristeva connected the euphoric sublime to Sigmund Freud’s notion of melancholia, elaborating upon two theories to understand how our environment and the people around us translate into effects immortalized in our memories. Sublimity was first defined by Immanuel Kant and later Edmund Burke as the greatness of man and co-opted by gothic and romantic writers to evoke grandeur and joyous exaltation of emotions in towering gothic mountains and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s scenes of nature. In contrast, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” describes melancholia as a depressive effect that occurs due to an irreconcilable loss. By intertwining the melancholy with the sublime, Kristeva demonstrated the complexity of various aesthetic experiences, whether it be in the case of art or social interactions.

A landscape painting or a commercial movie like “Beauty and the Beast” might be lush and beautiful. But staring at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” watching Pina Bausch’s terrifying depiction of murderous rituals in “The Rite of Spring” or viewing the strangely elegant cannibalistic scenes in Julia Ducorneau’s film “Raw” create an atypical and contradictory form of beauty and pleasure.

At Dartmouth, we are surrounded by stereotypical images of sublimity — lush forests, towering mountains, an expansive clear sky — that have since become trite. While we can always find beauty in nature, there exists a more ephemeral and unexpected site of the melancholy beauty of which Kristeva writes — found in the fraternities and sororities on our campus.

From the Alpha Delta-inspired movie “Animal House” to Andrew Lohse ’12’s infamous article in Rolling Stone, the media portrays fraternities as places where young people get excessively drunk and become emotionally numb. While this may sometimes be true, the media exaggerates students’ often mundane, low-key experiences. Even those who go to frats to party hard will eventually undertake a tone of nostalgia instead of numbness in their long term memory of their escapades.

In the past, I have critiqued Greek letter organizations for their social and political implications. While I stand by my previous comments and maintain that Greek life can perpetuate a sexually and racially normative culture that remains exclusive to many, I do not think that Greek life is monolithically bad. In fact, the ambiguous aesthetic qualities of fraternities add insight to sublimity in the modern age, while the theory of sublimity can help us understand fraternities as complex social spaces that can be both critiqued and enjoyed.

A trend in literary and aesthetic theory right now is breaking down the dichotomy of high and low culture. We saw this in Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win for literature for his bardic music, with the Harvard University student who submitted an honors thesis in the form of a rap album and in art movements like dadaism and abstract expressionism. Kristeva may not have pictured sticky pong tables or literal intoxication when she wrote on sublimity, but beauty, loss and nostalgia can be found not only in lightness but in darker corners such as the poorly lit ones in Theta Delta Chi.

An important quality of the sublime is ephemerality, accounting for its extreme joy as well and inevitable sense of loss. We can always return to Dartmouth and tour the library, walk down Main Street or watch the Homecoming bonfire. But returning to the frat basements for a game of pong is an experience harder to come by and one especially prone to making alumni yearn for their youth.

Fraternities and sororities also seem timeless and spaceless, a contradiction that aligns with the duality of the sublime. Some fraternities decorate their basements with street signs, evoking the sense of being in a fragmented city in the middle of a forest. Others don eccentric, mysterious décor, like a picture of a face made with beige masking tape or quotes from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” painted in red. In addition to shaping the unique identity of each fraternity, these decorations create juxtaposition and unexpectedness. At TDX, it is not unusual to hear “Come On Eileen” followed by “Gas Pedal,” “Toxic” and a remix of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — a strange mix of music that makes sure to evoke nostalgia for anyone, no matter their taste in music.

This hodgepodge environment creates a mixture of familiarity and novelty, which enables one to engage in conversation with strangers and enjoy other unexpected, sublime moments. The key aesthetic potential of fraternities lies in the unique ways individuals enjoy fraternities. While fraternities are dominant social spaces, there are ways to find alternative social spaces within the fraternities themselves. My own favorite memory consists of the night when I sat with a small number of brothers and friends in my favorite fraternity, peeling oranges and listening to my favorite jazz album by Chick Corea — almost like a chapter out of a Haruki Murakami novel. At fraternities, you might play a game of pong with a mysterious person that you will never see again, dance uninhibitedly under cover of the dark lights and presence of strangers or share an intimate yet eccentric moment with someone you love.

As Theodor Adorno said, beauty is not something definable, and by defining it with formal standards, we forget about the tensions and discomfort that create the best, most complex kind of beauty. Beauty and pleasure are not simple; rather, beauty allows one to reconcile their inner tensions and feelings of duality. For me, part of this discomfort is the knowledge that I enjoy a social space that can sometimes be problematic. We should realize, however, that many of the social issues often linked to fraternities are not particular to the Greek system but are microcosmic problems of society. Adorno wrote, “Mountains are sublime not when they crush the human being, but when they evoke images of a space that does not fetter or hem in its occupants and when they invite the viewer to become part of their space.” Fraternities may not be mountains, but students who spend a night in a fraternity become part of a space full of tensions, contradictions and what Adorno calls radical negativity, forming memories that we will look back on with both sorrow and joy.