I was in the JE library the other night, trudging through Spenser’s “Mutabilitie Cantos,” when a girl sitting at the table across from me decided it was a good time for a phone conversation. From the sound of it, the person on the other end of the line was hard of hearing. The girl had to repeat everything she said three or four times. She was asking about soup.
“Do they have soup?”
“Do they have soup?”
“Do they have soup?”
Something strange happens when a sentence is repeated more than, say, three times. The phonemes blend together and begin to sound alien, the words lose their meaning, the sentence becomes just a series of sounds. When “Do they have soup?” inevitably became “DoothayavSOOP?” I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. It was if I were staring at the dank, muddy underbelly of existence: Language was artificial; meaning, a construction. It was not unlike the feeling I had had just a week before when, while taking a quiz on “The Library of Babel” in my class on Borges, I was asked to translate the phrase “hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö” into Spanish.
I have always been terrified by lapses in meaning. I remember the first time I had alphabet soup. I must have been about seven. I was at a friend’s house, and it was getting to be lunchtime. My friend asked me if I was hungry. I told him sure. He scampered off to the kitchen, where his mom was watching a soap opera on a tiny TV set. “Oliver says he wants you to make us lunch!” he yawped. Letting out a terrific sigh, his mom slid down from her stool, pulled a can of Chef Boyardee alphabet soup from the shelf and dumped it into a pot.
I was ecstatic. My mother had all but banished canned foods from our household, fearing that we’d all die of botulism or something. I, being a kid, mythologized what I couldn’t have — alphabet soup in particular. After blatantly misreading a scene in “A Goofy Movie,” I had come to believe that the little pasta letters actually formed words on their own, that secret messages from Chef Boyardee or God or the wind or the ghost of a Cockney street urchin would bubble up from the broth as I ate. So, when my friend’s mom slung the lukewarm bowl of red slop in front of me, I was a bit disappointed. “What the hell?” I thought. “This doesn’t say anything! This doesn’t say anything at all!”
I suspect that I’m not the only Yalie who has peered into a bowl of alphabet soup expecting to find a message. Maybe I just tell myself that so I can feel better about how much of an idiot I was at age seven, but I think it’s probably true. As chronic, incurable thinkers, we are constantly churning the soup that is existence, probing it with our spoons in search of meaning. Everything has to say something. It can be exhausting. It can cause a crippling fear of gibberish and Jorge Luis Borges. It can also be dishonest.
It’s easy to forget that a large, perhaps overwhelming portion of existence consists of tedium, of white noise. Plato may have said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he, like everyone else who has ever existed, spent about three years of his life on the toilet. Confronting this fact is essential for the intellectual’s survival, but it can be hard. It can take courage to just exist. To watch “Toddlers and Tiaras” without irony. To stand in the absurdly long line at Durfee’s and let the crackle of “Billy Jean” wash over you. To see that falling yellow leaf not as a symbol for the ruin that lurks within all things (as Shakespeare notes in “Sonnet 73”) but as just that, a yellow leaf, a yellow leaf with some flecks of green, drifting slowly down — a stated fact.
Back at the library, the girl had finally hung up. After a few minutes of silence, a boy came in bearing a bowl of soup from the dining hall. He sat down next to the girl, who thanked him and began to slurp the soup happily. I kept my eyes fixed on Spenser, absorbing none of it. I sat there for a while, not moving, not thinking, just listening to the human sounds: the girl slurping, the boy shifting in his chair and flipping pages. I then decided to put down “The Faerie Queene” in favor of a nap. I walked back through the cold and stubbed my toe on my desk and flopped onto my bed and let myself sink into the inky senselessness of sleep.