If Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage,” then are life and love at Yale just part of one big Greek tragedy?
Last week, I went to see the School of Drama’s production of Racine’s Phèdre. It’s a story that not so many are familiar with, save a small handful of classicists and Francophiles. Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, becomes consumed with passion for her stepson Hippolytus. When she learns of husband’s death, Phaedra spills the beans and confesses her undying love to the dashing young prince. Then Theseus mysteriously returns from the Underworld, and Phaedra, scared Hippolytus will betray her to her husband, concocts a plan to tell Theseus that Hippolytus tried to take her by force. In a fit of rage, Theseus invokes the god Neptune to avenge his honor by killing his son. Peripeteia, anagnorisis, catharsis etc. etc. Hippolytus dies; Phaedra kills herself. The end.
Now what does any of this have to do with Yale, Yalies, our relationships or illicit encounters? Well, let’s look at the story another way. Eliana McBulldog finds herself bound to a pretty intense junior history seminar. She comes across a spirited young fellow member of the class, and becomes helplessly drawn to his incisive comments and immaculate posture in class. But then, all of a sudden, the class rebounds in its force with a 15-page paper in the next couple of weeks. McBulldog, scared her affections for this dear young chap might hinder her scholarly faculties, contrives a plan to dissociate herself as much as she can from his graces. Classes and the powers that be swear to cast down their almighty power on the hapless young paramour. Peripeteia, anagnorisis, catharsis etc. etc. Mr. Gallant finds himself totally out of the picture. Eliana kills herself. Well, not quite — but close enough.
So are Eliana and Phaedra the quintessential Yale heroines? Have the almighty powers of the gods, the relentless strictures of Mother Yale, become the death-wishers of even the most earnest attractions, relationships and even love itself? Why do our amorous adventures, whether illicit by the gods, or unfeasible by our Olympian Yale schedules, always end in “tragedy”? Is Yale the stage on which relationships are doomed to certain death?
I don’t quite want to say yes. A macabre picture of Yale as the Underworld of relationships past would hardly be realistic — except perhaps for Grove Street Cemetery, and Morse and Stiles. But the curricular- and often extra-curricularization of relationships at Yale is not exactly something new: things determined by the precious time of our sacred schedules, reduced to intermittent hourly slots among our classes, activities, lunches, dinners, meetings and yes, eventually our lives. Perhaps the prevailing one-night stand culture is less because we’re all a bunch of lecherous predators than because, well, it’s what people have time for.
It’s interesting that in an institution that promotes holistic learning and life experience through a range of courses and requirements has neglected the most important one: life. Isn’t it sad that “Life” at Yale has been reduced to Philosophy 179? What has become of an establishment that now offers a class, promotes a curriculum on life itself? Life needn’t be taught but lived. I know that sounds stupid, obvious, lame, what have you. But so often the most obvious things that stare us in the face are the most bitterly neglected. First love becomes curricularized and scheduled, then relationships and now life itself. Love, life and everything in between are hardly things that can be reduced to one’s own office hours — optional time one devotes to oneself for a little bit each week.
Ironically, things ostensibly extra-curricular, designed to contribute to life beyond the classroom, have now become quite curricular themselves, part and parcel of Yale’s academic life. And worst of all, what has taken its place is the little bit of time outside our schedule that we just call life: love, relationships, experience, the lot. We needn’t all be like Phaedra; we don’t have to kill ourselves over this. Despite our seemingly Herculean struggles at this place we mustn’t forget that we’re not gods, we’re just humans, people. So fear not the machinations of the gods, the twists and turns of the Yale schedule, and go look for Hippolytus. He’ll probably end up teaching you a lot more than Shelly Kagan.
Gabriel Perlman is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.