A White Room (Or An Allegory of Grad School?)

(Friday, March 17, 2006, 3:35 p.m.)

copied from Myspace blog

Imagine a room with white walls. No decorations, and only some white fluorescent lights maybe above to fully illuminate the room. The floor is white carpet. There no doors and no windows, so no-one leaves or enters, and there is no sound coming from outside, no-one knocking, no voices. It's as if nothing and no-one exists beyond the room.

This room we speak of has one living occupant who owns but two possessions: a wooden chair, not too painfully uncomfortable, but could be better, and a gramophone. (Imagine an old Edison-style gramophone with the conch-shaped bell and the turn-table and needle which, because of the sound quality, gives a little of an archaic, tinny cast to whatever it plays.) Maybe I lied when I said the occupant, who we'll say is a thoughtful-looking man approaching middle age, only has two possessions. He also has a quite a collection of records, or perhaps a single magic record that can play whatever he wants to hear. (If he thinks Beethoven's Ninth, it is played in his favorite interpretation. Or his favorite opera or recited poem or whatever he wants to hear, it is played.) This occupant's sole active life consists of sitting in his chair and listening to his records. When not doing this, he reflects. And reflects. Sometimes he sleeps and dreams. Then he wakes up, and puts on more music.

So how would you describe the state of mind of the man? Is he depressed? Yes, sometimes, but perhaps not as often as you would imagine. Is he content? Sometimes surprisingly so. (He is a true music-lover and he can listen to anything he wants, so he has all the world's music to choose from, past and present, and there is a lot of good music that has been written.) Is he lonely? Of course, terribly so. The music can't help him much there, though without it, he would surely perish. If he's lonely, why doesn't he get up and leave the room? Well, duh… There are no doors or windows. At least none that are apparent to the man. Just four imposing bare white walls and a white roof and white carpeted floor. Who put up the walls? Well, it must be admitted the man had something to do with it, but the world didn't seem to mind and seemed content to help him put the walls up and let him keep to himself.

So what's to become of the man? I can't say I know. Perhaps one day, he'll be sitting in the room listening to Wagner when a wrecking ball will come crashing into the room and a mob will rush in with much noise and drag the man off to actually do something productive for society at large. And the man may be better for it or worse. (I'm inclined to think better, actually.) Or maybe the world will simply let him continue to sit and listen to music until he dies of old age or a broken heart. But, in my heart of hearts, I suspect the first option is the most likely. My only worry for the man, in that case, is that when the world takes him away, they may only put him in another white room alone, maybe even one without a gramophone and they'll make him spend his time counting grains of sand or putting stamps on envelopes or (closer to home) writing grant proposals no-one funds. I have hopes for the man, but I often fear for him also.

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