It is the critic's task to make the reader look at life afresh, to provoke what Edmund Wilson cribbed from Herman Melville to call "the shock of recognition." This is not just a literary vocation. It is a way of life, to be carried with one always. This is why I amuse audiences by drinking red wine vinegar, chasing it with bicarbonate of soda, and burping tremendously. This is why I watch Marx Brothers movies with friends and weep. Every situation and every place demands the shock of new forms of slapstick self-ironizing.
Columbia's biggest critical-humorous tradition is in the balance, now that the administration has been pushing around the Marching Band again. Orgo Night, the grand festival of heckling the studious in Butler Library with anti-establishment school spirit, is among Columbia's longest-lived rituals; with three decades of history, it competes with the Columbia Yule Log for longevity and beats it hands down for musicality. The administration now threatens Orgo Night with expulsion from Butler for having drawn crowds of hundreds larger than the fire code maximums. Continuing the tradition in Butler is impossible, they say.
The administration has a legitimate responsibility to maintain safety around campus. But the whole ethos of Orgo Night is to force harried students to give up their books the night before the organic chem exam, relax, and enjoy some laughs. The Marching Band is one of the most articulate, and certainly the most entertaining, critic of the way Columbia is run. The Administration's pushing it out of Butler without so much as a proper apology, or better yet a compensatory budget boost, smells of muzzling. It seems consistent with years of Administrative harassment of the Marching Band, one of Columbia's few great lasting institutions.
CUMB is an astounding group of people; "the cleverest band in the world" is Columbia's ambassador to prove her superiority over Harvard, Princeton and Yale. (Their claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the highest form of flattery comes from the Brown marching band, which is a carbon copy--not quite as good, but highly entertaining--of ours.) And for the ingenious lyrics, the logic-redefining arrangements for brass band, their stalwart stewardship of Columbia's rousing standards like "Roar, Lion, Roar" and "Who Owns New York?", CUMB has been rewarded at every step of the way by Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis, who has worked to reorganize the Marching Band to have less freedom and less funding.
The Band deserves better than this. Criticism of Columbia, by Columbia students, within the setting of Columbia--like Gaudeamuses and libations of fine New Jersey vodka--is intimately tied to the sweetness of college days. Poking fun at Columbia is a question of what should best be said where. If I call Dean Yatrakis "a contemptible, escargot-sniffing goose-stepping Brooklynite Xanthippe" in these pages, this is engagement with campus life. It is, indeed, school spirit. If I, however, so much as call her poorly groomed in the New York Times, I am a disgrace as a Columbian. Almost three years ago, I inaugurated my tenure at this paper with a polemic against Columbia's food. It was, I think it fair to say, a column of withering brilliance. Moreover, I kept it within the family.
But when sloe-eyed Hollywood wench Julia Stiles made the same complaints to millions on late-night television, that was another matter. She even called the work-study John Jay serving staff "mole people," something I, having empathy for those of us whose wardrobe is not photographed for InStyle magazine and whose tuition is not paid by Twentieth Century Fox, never did. The whole grotesque business can most charitably be described as morally suspect. Colleges, like genitals, are most prudently exposed to public scrutiny with a delicate sense of context.
Butler Library and the inspired Columbia Marching Band--this is an ideal context for pointed fun at the expense of the distant, sometimes autocratic Columbia Administration. Dean Yatrakis and her running dogs would do well to reread Roland Barthes' essay, "Operation Margarine," on the power of self-criticism to promote inferior merchandise. If margarine ads admit that margarine is objectively worse than butter, but that nobody really cares, it inoculates consumers against the cheapening of their lives through margarine. Without the gentle, healing humor of the Marching Band, we could well have a new full-scale student uprising soon underway. Why 1968? Too much high-hat Admin--not enough Orgo Night!
The only sensible thing to do for an Administration that values their jobs and their institution to do is to go back to the Marching Band, the brightest star in the constellation of campus humorists who do so much to make life here bearable, with their hats in their hands and tails between their legs. Tell the Marching Band that the fire safety codes must be met, even if Columbia has been known to operate condemned buildings for years at a time, and supplicate them to find a solution. Offer as much money and resources as it takes. Broadcasts on WKCR, expanded space in the main reading room, or complimentary fire extinguishers for the whole crowd! Otherwise, in the words of Saint-Pierre, Tout le monde s'ecria--Voila l'ouragan!
Post scriptum: I do not want to seem uncharitable to Dean Yatrakis, who has brought to her job a professionalism and an intensity of purpose little seen since Juan de Torquemada. Let me extend a hearty mazel tov to her daughter Catherine, who only last summer wed Alistair Economakis in happy nuptials shamefully neglected by the Spectator, but, fortunately, not by America's Newspaper of Record. Mrs. Economakis is a successful young urbanite who, according to the Times, previously worked as a vice president at Yanni International Management Corporation, "which represents Yanni, the musical entertainer." Uh oh. Oh no. Shock of recognition! Shock of recognition!