Ben Nathan ’15 is one of the most engaging people I’m fortunate enough to call myself friends with at the College. On any given day, he can be found doing anything from browsing for opera tapes in Sawyer basement to chilling with friends on Stone Hill. Though he shares the common, painful bond of Mets fandom with me personally, Ben’s wit and intellectual fervor have reached a much larger swath of campus, particularly through his latest project, Non-Humans of Williams.
What did you get up to this weekend?
I actually went down to New Haven to visit my brother to watch the Met [Metropolitan Opera] broadcast of Cosi fan tutte. It was excellent. In my opinion, it’s Mozart’s greatest opera.
You really like opera, then.
It’s something that’s really crept up on me at college. I finally got past the feeling of “this is the weirdest thing ever.” The thing about opera is I don’t play an instrument, and by no means do I sing – I’m just a consumer of it. But I enjoy it in a way that I don’t enjoy any other kind of music.
I’ve noticed that when you like something you seem to really get into it: the New York Mets, opera, Indonesia … you jump headfirst into these pursuits.
That’s a good way of phrasing it. If there’s something I really like, I go all out, you know, enjoying it. People like to say that it’s good to be a dilettante so you can hold your own at cocktail parties, but as someone who finds cocktail parties really boring…
What kind of parties do you prefer?
My ideal kind of party is a small group of my friends in a closed environment just going into depth about things; that matters a lot more to me than going from person to person exercising charm. And also, it’s like an “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” type of thing. I know that I really like watching baseball and the Mets – I’m not going to start watching curling just to expand my horizon. Occasionally I make a big adventurous leap, like going to Indonesia [last summer and fall] without speaking the language. But I tend to make those leaps all at once.
Is your twin brother like that?
I mean, my twin brother just spent half a year inside a Latin-speaking colony outside of Rome. Maybe my urge to go deep into things comes out of my competitive urge with my brother. My brother, two years ago, didn’t know any Latin, and had only a cursory understanding of European religion. And he’s now arguably an expert on both of those things.
[Laughs.] Well, you spent half a year in Indonesia in a relatively similar situation.
Right, I look at my brother and think, Wow, I have some catching up to do. So I immerse myself in my own worlds.
So were you doing a study-abroad program?
For the first two months I was there with the State Department program where they were just drilling us in the language, and then after that all my English-speaking friends went home. So then I was doing a program in which I was the only participant. I didn’t make a lot of American friends out of that, but I made lots of Indonesian friends, which I think is more important.
Did you step back at any point and think, “What am I even doing here?”
I’d say that was a daily occurrence. [Laughs.] But I’ve always had this fantasy of being that guy tearing through the jungle, machete in the teeth, covered in mud, escaping tigers. WThat wasn’t quite my experience, but it was probably the closest I’ll ever come. But what complemented the incredible adventure was the formation of a lot of real human connections.
But you grew up in the urban jungle of New York, and you are a die-hardMets fan … As a Mets fan myself, it can certainly be hard sometimes.
One day we’ll rise up and take over … those Yankees. I feel uncomfortable sharing an affinity with Yankees fans.
Do you feel close to any Yankees fans?
I would say I feel close to my barber. My barber on Spring Street, Roger. But I do like to think I’ve mellowed out recently.
[Laughs.] And you’re one of the creators of Non-Humans of Williams, yes? Can you talk about how that came about?
Well I don’t want to take too much credit for that; it’s a collaboration with my good friend James Hitchcock [’15] and a bunch of his frosh. It was originally conceived as a reaction to Humans of Williams, but I think it has blossomed into something that has a meaning of its own. It started in my mind as an absurdist parody of admissions propaganda. But it’s become this place where we ask ourselves really meaningful questions, like what would it be like to be Sawyer Library and always be contemplating your imminent demise? That’s a window into the souls of the elderly that no human of Williams can provide, because everyone is coltishly young here.
Yeah, it’s surprising how well you guys have actually explored the human condition through non-human objects.
I guess that says something really bleak about Williams students in general – that we need to talk to toasters in order to get to some semblance of humanity. Now we just need to figure out a way to cash in.
Perhaps you could collect all the objects into some sort of merchandising endeavor, or exhibit or something.
Yeah, we could put them in MASS MoCA and it would be indistinguishable from the other stuff they have in there. [Laughs.] I guess now would be a good opportunity to talk about my classical tastes in art. But I guess we already covered that with the opera. Anything post-1900 is not my style.
So you’re less of a Guggenheim guy and more of a Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] guy?
Both Mets. Actually, there are three “Mets” in that sense: the New York Mets, Metropolitan Opera and Metropolitan Museum of Art. You know, I like to think in my family I’m somewhat of a progressive. I won’t listen to anything after 1900, but my brother won’t listen to anything after 1800! I’m burning my draft card as far as he’s concerned.
Now the interview devolves into a parade of witticisms, right?
Right, this is the really quotable part. What else are you involved in at Williams?
My Williams experience – and this is advice for all freshmen – has very much been the story of stacking on commitments and then gradually paring them back. Mainly just because stacking them on was out of concern for really involving myself in things, for all kinds of deep anxieties I might have had as a freshman. But now my interests are all things I can satisfy through the regular curriculum at Williams, or just through conversations with my friends. I hate covering a lot of my genuine urges in red tape. I don’t tie my intellectual life to bureaucracy and I think I’m so much happier for it. Then again, to all the Williams students out there: if you want to talk about opera, topics in the secular world, or the New York Mets, write me a note.
I’m glad this interview has become a platform for you.
This is really a cry for help, is what you’re saying. I’d say that’s a generally accurate description.
To nominate someone for One in 2000, email Molly Bodurtha at mib1 or Zoe Harvan at zeh1 briefly explaining why you think he or she should be featured.