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The Philosopher, circa 2001


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."

Then they dance until 4 or 5 a.m., eat at 7-Eleven, and return to campus as the sun is coming up.

Here, again, from Ben's project: " ... It's come to be one of the most important parts of my quasi-adult life. Going to events fills me with anticipation and energy; dancing at clubs/raves refreshes my human spirit. The value I take away from the culture seems more honest to my human nature than most anything else I've experienced in life."

Which is a roundabout way of bringing our class to the most important scene of all.

But first, let's hear from Professor Taber to understand how what happened happened, and why.

"For most, the academic career for any student is you watch, you read, you learn in that way, and the direct experience is mostly around the edges ... Whereas the rave culture by its nature is very participatory and experiential, it's one of the aspects of these two strands of Ben's life - how Ben can't help participating in the rave scene and also thinking about it."

It was 8 p.m. Thursday, April 19. At the courtyard adjacent to the library, with students and philosophy professors looking on.

Ben danced.

It was not the first rave on campus, but it was the first time a student threw a rave to present his senior project, known here as the "St. Mary's Project," or the SMP.

It was not the first time a college senior had examined popular culture, but as far as anyone here knows, it was the first time a student grounded the rave culture in philosophy.

Professor Taber: "What would Plato say about a rave? This is a question that would not have occurred to me before this year."

Ben's friend, fellow graduate Julia Oldham: "I think it's the first time I've really seen rave culture approached in an intelligent and analytical way. I think most people have these immediate associations which are kind of negative - drugs and people being out of control and illegal events - but Ben really broke down the scene."

In his St. Mary's Project, Ben writes:

"I intend to outlay and describe a genre that takes the Dionysian energy by the reins and rides it from dusk to dawn. The rave/club scene affirms the rapturous state described by Nietzsche and justifies itself."

As for the drugs, Ben acknowledges in the section titled "Chemical Refreshment" that they are part and parcel of rave culture. He says they're bad, but he also says some illegal drugs can be used, and have been used historically, to a philosophical good: to free an inhibited mind.

Ben writes: "The stuff that happens at the rave runs contrary to everything my parents, family physician and state government would approve of. These facts help one realize that one is experiencing something that normal society, by-and-large, frowns upon. Thus, one is immediately separated from society, and one opens up to alternative forms of existence."

To study the young man behind these words, to understand the St. Mary's scholar, the Dean's List student, the editor of the philosophy journal on campus, the senior awarded the William James Prize "to recognize superior understanding and written expression of philosophical discourse," the class needs a final scene.

Something that sums things up, but leaves room for contemplation and further discussion.

The fitting final scene is perhaps the one that has yet to be seen: the what next.

Ben plans to move to Washington, share an apartment with his friend Julia, find a coffee house job, go to raves and think about his next step. Graduate school is likely.

But if his college career is an indication, there's no telling what Ben will do.

Most seniors take two semesters to do a St. Mary's Project. Ben did his in one.

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