Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

The examined Stanford life

Writer’s Note: I am graduating in a couple of days. Tradition dictates that I leave with a pompous column imparting sage advice to those students who remain here for another year or three. However, I am no wise sage; I am simply a little less of a dumbass than I was as a freshman. Granted, I know a lot more about American weirdness, second-order partial differential equations, and the role of science in shaping a healthy political discourse and globalization in the pre-modern era than I did four years ago, but I still eat dino nuggets three times a week and occasionally chug acrid bagged wine. So take this column with a pinch of salt; there’s no single or perfect way to make the most of your Stanford career or your life, but one day you too can tell your peers how to be a little less of a dumbass.

Not many people know it, but the origin of the craziness that defined the 1960s and everything that came subsequently is a little place up on Sand Hill Road called Perry Lane. Today, Google calls it Perry Avenue and it’s merely an embodiment of suburban perfection, like what you would find in the rest of green and brown Silicon Valley. But 60 years ago, this is where a young Ken Kesey, having recently enrolled in Stanford’s graduate creative writing program, moved in with a group of beatniks and proceeded to disrupt their carefully curated lifestyle of wine and orgies. As a broke grad student, he volunteered at the Menlo Park VA’s psychiatric ward, where he was injected with multiple unpleasant drugs, until he was injected with an unusually pleasant drug called LSD, which he then took back with him to his band of beatniks. The young ones loved it and called themselves the Merry Pranksters; the old ones thought they were crazy, and the landlord soon evicted them all. Thus began the era of free love, Deadheads and annoying white people with flowers in their hair.

I discovered Kesey’s hallucination-inducing story through an equally hallucination-inducing book by journalist Tom Wolfe, appropriately titled the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” toward the end of my sophomore year. Any romanticism that I might have had about the era of gentle people and the Vietnam War was simultaneously reinforced and burnt down with napalm. It was truly an amazing time, where young people could take psychedelics, drive a repurposed school bus across the entire U.S. and return to a home in the Santa Cruz mountains to party with the Beatles and do even more psychedelics. To my sophomore-slumped socially awkward brain that was still adjusting to life in a foreign country and smarting from the blows dealt to it by the Math 50 series, this sounded like heaven.

But it was also a time of selfish and destructive nihilism. Nothing displayed this better than a scene from the book where Kesey and his band of pranksters were invited to an anti-war rally in Berkeley, ostensibly to preach against the evil and unjust nature of America’s foray into Vietnam. Instead, Kesey pranked the entire crowd — first by saying that war had been around forever and nothing was going to change, then by making fun of the protest leaders by comparing one of them to Mussolini and finally by playing a harmonica solo, telling the crowd to turn their backs on everything and loudly saying ‘fuck it.’ It didn’t matter, argued Kesey, that the anti-war crowd and the warmongers in Washington had vastly different values; they both believed in the same underlying system. Turn on, tune in, drop out and the whole school would come crumbling down.

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At the same time that I discovered the Day-Glo prose of Wolfe, I discovered something slightly more somber. Inspired by the writings of Sartre and other existentialists that I read for SLE, I picked up the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Children of the Alley.” Set over four generations in the same fictional alley of Cairo, the novel aims to retell the stories of the fall of man, the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the coming of modernity to the Middle East. At the center of the novel is the mysterious Gebelawi, the wealthy owner of the large mansion at the end of the alley, and the various factions that each lay claim to some fraction of his enormous inheritance. Each section of the book follows a hauntingly similar template: A group of the neighborhood residents, dissatisfied by the way the strongmen of the alley continue to mistreat them, rally around a leader who gets a revelation from Gebelawi or one of his close servants, telling him that he is the leader of the chosen people. As each group gains rights and a claim to a share of his estate, they proceed to form a new oppressive leadership and mistreat new entrants to the alley, restarting the cycle again.

In the very last section of the novel, the people of the alley grow tired and weary of being mistreated by the alley’s strongmen, cynically wondering if Gebelawi cares for them or is even alive anymore. Within this stultifying atmosphere of resignation enters Arafa, a magician and tinkerer with enough explosive tricks to make the strongmen’s lives hell. Convinced that Gebelawi is either dead or indifferent to his people’s suffering, Arafa tries to uncover his estate’s secrets, unwittingly killing him in a manner analogous to the Nietzschean death of God.

Predictably, Arafa is caught by the Chief Strongman, who blackmails him into using his magic to make the strongmen unquestioned dictators of the entire alley. The novel thus ends on an extremely bleak note — Arafa has disappeared, the strongmen rein supreme, Gebelawi is dead, and the people suffer no less than they did before. Modernity, with all its promises, did not leave much behind.

Mahfouz originally wrote this novel in 1959, at the height of Pan-Arabism and the rise of secular dictators in the Middle East, and at the same time that Kesey and his pranksters were beginning to discover LSD. Were he to write it today, I am sure he would add several more sections on the rise of Salafism, globalization, the religious Right and the democratization of technology. But at the same time, I doubt that the underlying mood of the novel would have been any different; for all the social and technological progress that has been made since the 1950s, much is still the same. No matter how values may have shifted, the underlying system hasn’t changed substantially. Thus, in many ways, Mahfouz provides a searing vindication of Kesey’s loud declaration at Berkeley. There is no point in bringing change without tearing down what everyone buys into — whether that is the promise of Gebelawi’s wealth or the promise of American exceptionalism.

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When I read these books, I felt a tremendous feeling of cynical inadequacy. At Stanford — the university equivalent of Disneyland on Adderall — we’re constantly fed the narrative that we are the next generation of movers and shakers. We’re here to use our education to further the public good, make the world a better place and build successful lives. Yet, here I was, confronted by this realization that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Even the relentless optimism of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the other luminaries who cast long shadows on the engineering quad seemed undercut by the dark side of what technology brought us — whether that was the rise of the Alt-Right, the easy spread of terrorism or just a general sense of oversaturated exhaustion with everything horrible going on in the world. The attraction of simply saying ‘fuck it’ and moving to a farm grew stronger and stronger.

But there was something about Stanford that I found undercut all of that cynicism — the same way that at the end of Mahfouz’s novel, Arafa’s apprentice finds his book of magic spells in the trash, giving him renewed hope about freeing the alley from its tormentors.

Stanford is an incredibly hopeful place, filled with incredibly hopeful people — all writing their own books of magic spells. I’m not sure what Mr. Arrillaga has been putting in the water, but it’s good stuff. It’s the kind of stuff that made me want to chug the electric kool-aid that seems to permeate everything in the Bay Area — this notion of constantly wanting to make the world a better place. And it’s absolutely inspiring to be around people who genuinely believe it — whether they are future activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, public servants, historians, or artists.

This is my final column as an undergraduate for the Daily. I’ll be back next year as a graduate student, ready to drink more of the electric kool-aid. It’s been my greatest privilege to call this little slice of California home — and I hope it continues to inspire me to say ‘fuck it’ less and less.

Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.