At the risk of sounding like a pretentious tool, here’s a thought I had recently:
Greek life is kind of like War and Peace.
I know, I know. What could possibly be worse than a college student talking about an esoteric book he certainly doesn’t have all that profound opinions about (and may or may not have also only read half of so far) combined with his derivative takes on Duke’s social scene? But just bear with me, I promise I’ll try to keep this fun.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s seminal 19th century novel, follows the events of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia through eyes of Russia’s political and military elite. It’s long. There’s a lot of characters. There’s some war bits, a ton of dinner parties and even more philosophical diatribes. I’m currently reading it for a Tolstoy class I’m in and in addition to it making me feel very intellectual and fancy, it’s also surprised me as to how similar the Duke I know is to 19th century Russian society.
To start there’s a comparable amount of vodka, although I assume Dolokhov isn’t taking pulls from plastic Aristocrat handles.
There’s also a similar constant stream of parties, attended by the same people you see at every other party of the same variety. And just like how a dinner party or salon is deemed a success if enough Bolkonsys, Bezukhovs or other noteworthy families are there, the success of a frat party is judged by how many girls from certain sororities you can convince to make the trek out to The Barn.
The primary conflict of the novel may be against Napoleon and the French army, but many members of the Russian elite seem much more concerned with their societal status and making sure their posterity remains wealthy and relevant for generations to come. Many Greek Duke students also have a tendency to at times prioritize things like social status or the arbitrary ranking of their group over things like genuine friendship or schoolwork. Just as an aristocratic family falls into misfortune with a bad economic year or ineffective generation of heirs, a Greek organization falls down the social ladder by wielding a “bad” pledge class (whatever that means) or going on social probation. Conversely, a member of a lesser or declining family can increase his or her social capital by marrying up, just like so many Duke Greek members decide to hook up with someone primarily based off of the letters with which they’re associated.
My favorite scene in the novel so far would have to be Natasha and Prince Andrei’s first dance. It’s an elegantly picturesque start to a budding romance (ignoring the fact that Natasha is sixteen and Andrei is 31). The giddy Natasha waits patiently at her first grand ball for someone to ask her to dance, and just as she is about to lose hope the handsome and beloved Prince Andrei sweeps her off her feet as the two glide gracefully over the ballroom floor.
Reading this I was reminded of a similar scene I had witnessed at Shooters three months prior.
It was a Thursday. I had intended to go to Devines but didn’t realize that a sorority event had switched it to a Shooters night. My friends and I should have turned back then, but we didn’t and now I found myself sitting on the balcony staring out over a sparsely populated dance floor. I was just about to call it a night when a magnificent occurrence began to unfold before my eyes.
Two lone wolves lock eyes, twenty feet or so between them. It’s not nearly crowded enough for either to claim they had lost their friends, so they had either come alone or decided to stay longer after their friends had left in order to pick up the post 1 am scraps. You can see in their eyes neither one is the others first choice, but it was late. “I guess this will have to do,” they thought to themselves.
They begin to close the gap, slowly advancing while simultaneously dancing awkwardly to Stacy’s Mom playing in the background. The world around them is loud and hectic, but to these two strangers all that matters in this moment is one another. The gap narrows. Just as they’re about to make contact, the girl does a 180, backs up to the boy’s crotch and begins to sway. This continues for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Suddenly boy makes his move. The ole’ Shooters neck twist, where the girl remains facing away from the guy, grinding on him but contorting her head around so they can kiss. This lasts about a minute or so, the two aggressively going at it on a now almost entirely empty dance floor, when finally, they exchange words and exit the building hand-in-hand, defeated and disappointed.
Two lovers alone at Shooters on a Thursday night. Prince Andrei finds his Natasha. But alas it is not meant to be. Natasha has fallen in love before and she will fall in love again.
Tomorrow Duke’s aristocratic families will be on full display in Perkins occupying their respective floors. They will talk about who has been invited to which ball as Natasha and Prince Andrei avoid making eye contact as they pass by one another. All the while the common enemy in Chapel Hill grows closer and closer.
Sami Kirkpatrick is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "worms in space," runs on alternate Fridays.
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Sami Kirkpatrick is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "worms in space," runs on alternate Wednesdays.