The Philosopher, circa 2001

What would Plato say about "rave" culture? Ask Ben Thomassen, a first-rate student at St. Mary's and a thinker extraordinaire

May 17, 2001|By Larry Bingham | By Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S - If a class here at St. Mary's College were to study Ben Thomassen, to learn how he did what no other student has done, the class would examine a few key scenes from Ben's college career.

The first would serve as an introduction to Ben, and for that purpose, any glimpse would do.

Take this one, from a recent day on campus.

The 21-year-old is sitting at a Smith & Hawken table on the courtyard outside the student center. There's a Starbucks in the lounge behind him, a library nearby. If Ben were to look straight ahead, through his yellow-tinted, rectangle-shaped sunglasses, he would see the tidy whitecaps of St. Mary's River.

In this scene, Ben is surrounded by fellow students, each making a personal statement. The shaggy hair. The cigarettes. The toe rings.

Yet even in this environment, even at a table where someone has scrawled the word "revolution" into the wood with blue ink, Ben stands out.

He's the graduating senior with Elvis sideburns and a "soul patch" triangle of hair on his chin. He's the philosophy major in billowy pants, shoes with two-inch heels, sparkly plastic bracelets on his wrist.

Ben Thomassen is also the Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a 3.93 GPA; the high school salutatorian who spikes up his shoe-polish black hair; the guy who threw a party on this liberal arts campus - in a way no other student has done.

To study him, to understand what happened on a Thursday night last month, the class would be wise to look beyond his appearance.

As Ben writes in his senior project: "I'm awash with an image that mainstream culture has stereotyped and formed opinions about; I hate having to give reasons to my professors why I dress the way I do. I hate being told I will never land a real job (as opposed to one in college) with hair like mine."

To understand Ben, his academic adviser, Michel Taber, offers this scene of Ben in class:

"He's quiet, very unassuming and humble. He's not the most vocal student. He's not a shrinking violet. ... The quietness is a camouflage for a very active mind that reveals itself very clearly."

One morning two years ago, the mind struggled to reveal itself clearly as Ben confronted the question all college students eventually must face: What next?

It was 2 a.m. and Ben was in the vegetarian co-operative on campus. He was studying for finals with students from his Modern Philosophy class, when the discussion turned deep and personal, about him.

The grandson of academics - a college dean on one branch of the family tree, a math professor on the other - Ben was the kind of student to whom every course came easily. He went through his first years of college as a biology major, on the path of least resistance, living on the assumption he'd go to graduate school and become a scientist like his father.

But after that night in the vegetarian co-op, the young man from Middletown set out on a different path.

Professor Taber describes the scene in his office the next day:

"When Ben came to me and decided, OK, it's going to be philosophy ... he gave me a very persuasive account of why he wanted not simply to discuss others' ideas, but to formulate his own. Philosophy was his path to do that."

After that, the scenes speed by.

Ben changes majors, tells his father, goes to Australia to study and dives into a "rave/club scene" in Sydney that he will come to call "the apex of human activity and creativity."

Here is Ben writing in his senior project about an early "rave" experience:

"I danced for hours without pause. I sweated more than I ever had in my life. I found myself a part of something greater than myself. I, who had never danced, who had never had any passion for music, who was trying to control my nervous shakes, was dancing. I felt ecstatic. A sleeping part of myself was reawakened and reunited with this massive orgy on the dance floor. I was hooked."

He took up "spinning," became a disc jockey, and with his roommates, cleared the largest room in their townhouse of furniture, to make room for "raves."

"The rave, basic ingredients," as defined by Ben in his project: "loud sound system; strobe lights, lasers, Christmas lights, multicolored bulbs in funky little lamps; other sensual frills, including but not limited to, bubble/smoke machines, tinfoiled walls, digital projections; enough clear space to accommodate lots of dancers; enough comfy space to accommodate lots of tired dancers."

Going to raves became a Friday night ritual.

Four or five of his friends pile into Ben's 1998 Toyota Corolla. They drive to downtown Washington, arrive at the club "Buzz" before 11 p.m. to save $4 off admission, then "chill" until the rave begins at midnight.

According to Ben, in his project: "Acceptable music for raves includes, but is not limited to, house (progressive, funky, acid, tech, etc.) trance (progressive, deep, sophisto, etc.) drum and bass, breaks, techno, or any musical genre which directly lends itself to and facilitates dance."

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