This is the story of a young and lonely Harvard student, one Horatio Hawkins, who once had the idea of a madman.
It was in the winter of 1936, shortly after one of Professor Winterbottom's unendurable classes on Dialectic Materialism, that he first put his idea into practice. When all of the attending students had left the classroom, Horatio decided to stay in his chair, vacantly staring at the blackboard. No one noticed his singular move; he was, after all, a shy and insular individual, prone to being unnoticed by everyone around him. Incidentally, he was also the only one sitting at the back row, where he remained for a few hours until, at nine-thirty in the evening, the faculty's janitor burst into the classroom. Upon seeing Hawkins in his chair, stoically still and gazing frontwards with stone-cold eyes, he told him, 'Boy, the faculty's closed for the night. You can't be here'. Hawkins, however, said nothing in return; indeed, he did not even bother to look at the newcomer. Rather, he remained as still as a statue. The janitor approached him and looked at him quizzically, as if he had just discovered a new species. He said, 'Son, you gotta go. I'm locking the doors in five minutes. Just what on earth are you doing, anyway?' To which Hawkins replied, barely moving, 'I am being'. And thus, timidly and silently, the first cornerstone of what would come to be known as Modern Quietism was laid – with an ordinary janitor as its sole witness.
But being is no easy task, and the janitor, armed with a handful of patience – and a menacing broom – slowly but surely managed to persuade him to leave the classroom. Crestfallen, Hawkins walked out of campus grounds and to his house where, once in his cramped room, he got in bed and laid there, staring at the ceiling. For the coming weeks, he did not leave his bed save for a few times, in order to eat and to relieve his bodily functions. Despite Hawkins' generalized unpopularity, it did not take long for his fellow classmates to notice his absence in Philosophy classes; soon everyone wondered why one of the more inspired students had stopped attending. Rumors began to surface; some assured that he had replaced his Philosophy classes for English Literature ('He probably thinks philosophy's dead; I don't blame him, to be honest', said Edwin Willoughby to the faculty's newspaper); some thought that he had fallen victim to some strange mental illness; while some others (perhaps out of unconscious wishful thinking) assured he had been killed by a truck in a hit and run. Professor Huntington Sr., who taught Greek Philosophy with the rigidity of a Kantian, mourned his absence more than the rest, lamenting that no one in class could elaborate on Plato’s Republic like Horatio Hawkins did.
Hawkins' decision quickly garnered media attention from out of campus. Shortly after spring break, journalists from the Boston Globe and intrusive passersby started to swarm Hawkins’ house every morning. From the calmness of his bed, where he lay unmoving for days on end (doing nothing but simply being) he looked out of the window and watched his front yard filled to the brim with unwelcome cameras, microphones and relentless scribbling on notepads. When asked why he had decided to do as he did, Horatio said 'I do not see why I should give an explanation. It is just a personal decision, not an act of protest or defiance. All I want is privacy’. But his words, as expected, had the opposite effect. Soon after, an Economics student named Nicholas Pickwick somehow managed to enter his room and, without saying a word, lay on the floor next to Hawkins’ bed. Horatio, in turn, looked at Nicholas and said, 'Welcome. I see you see the world as I do'. And so they both lay in silence and mutual comprehension looking at the ceiling in wonder as one might do at the stars in the sky. The fortuitous meeting of these two thus helped to further strengthen the foundations upon which Modern Quietism came to rest.
A week later Hawkins’ room was packed full of fellow Harvardians who shared his odd worldview. Whether his new apprentices mimicked his position out of real existential ennui or were simply jumping on the bandwagon was not easily discernible. In any case, the situation was getting out of hand (up to ninety-six people accompanied Hawkins in his house) – what was clear to Hawkins, however, was that this new philosophy would not be confined by physical space. Even if it was rooted in non-movement, Modern Quietism was nonetheless an undeniably metaphysical position. Consequently, Hawkins, along with his newly found apprentices, decided to go to a decrepit abandoned building at the outskirts of town and occupied its large empty rooms. It was that very night of September 14, 1936, that the Modern Quietism manifesto was written and signed by Hawkins and his neophytes. All they would do from then on was to quietly lie on their beds, whether awake or asleep, in absolute contemplation of everything and nothing.
In a rare interview with the Boston Herald in the fall of 1936, Hawkins somewhat defined Modern Quietism as follows: ‘There is not much to it, really: being does not require movement and movement does not necessarily imply action. I only move to go to eat and to the bathroom - and in very few other cases. My position, however, is not a response to the absurdity of existence but a mere consequence of the realization that the world can, in fact, go on perfectly well without us. It is in reality a very humble philosophical angle, although I mean to be no role model to anyone’.
Curiously enough, although somewhat unsurprisingly, what was initially a sole person’s particular stance became an unexpected worldwide phenomenon. Americans became intrigued by Hawkins’ prospects, and word of mouth spread like wildfire. In many parts of the nation, people (mostly disillusioned teens) would emulate Hawkins’ position. For some, it was a matter of national concern; for others, a triumph of the individual will. Classes on ‘Modern Quietism’ began to be taught in Cambridge University in the course of 1937-1938 by the likes of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, and from then on, after a series of linked events, Horatio Hawkins became a household name both in and out of his mother country, faster than a speeding bullet.
Needless to say, Hawkins had his fair share of detractors. One of his more fervent critics (Richard Hayman, one of the more outspokenly conservative columnists in the nation) called his so-called philosophy a ‘wretched, ill-conceived exercise in nihilism’ – much against Horatio Hawkins’ will, who insisted time and again that, initially, it was only meant to beH a personal stance and not a public one. In 1939, the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, William Henry O'Connell, issued a statement in which he condemned Modern Quietism and threatened to have him excommunicated, even though Hawkins’ atheist views were more than well-known since his teenage years. Individualists, anarchists and existentialists all around the world championed his cause, while some others tore Hawkins’ philosophy to shreds in fits of unabashed fury. It is also said that in some European circles they considered him to be this generation’s Descartes – the by now clichéd ‘I think, therefore I am’ had gone on to become ‘I am, therefore let me be’. Other minor sectors, however, likened him to a more modern version of Kierkegaard.
Hawkins’ expressionless face started appearing on the covers of Time, Newsweek and countless other magazines and newspapers at the beginning of the 1940s. In its January 10, 1943 number, the New York Times ran a six-page feature on his philosophy, under the title of ‘Quiet Is the New Loud’ in which they concluded that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – this, of course, only helped to further boost his notoriety nationwide. In the end, it was clear to many that Hawkins was used and misused by whomever believed he could fit his purposes, be they political, ideological or economic. The quietist view (it would be indecent to call it a ‘movement’) was misinterpreted, twisted and abused in so many different, contradictory ways that Hawkins himself sometimes regretted even having started anything (some unofficial biographies claim he even considered suicide, though reliability of the source is scarce).
Such was the repercussion of Hawkins’ stance that it was not long before books and studies on the subject started appearing in bookstores everywhere. Treatises and analyses on Modern Quietism went on to become worldwide bestsellers, such as Gilbert J. Abramski’s Stillness Is The Move: Horatio Hawkins and the Absurdity of Existence and Dr. Rupert Rupert’s Non-Movement and Infinity. Others, like Montgomery Watkins’ notorious Tractatus Logico-Quietus, while initially less successful, proved overtime to be more serious, veracious studies of said philosophy (and decidedly less sensationalistic). Somewhat provokingly, the author of the latter claimed that Hawkins’ stance was nothing but a consequence of the latent dehumanization of the individual in the 20th century, while also citing his philosophy as being ‘the most influential in all of the Western philosophical canon, more so than all of Nietzsche’s and Kant’s combined’ – a rather daring statement, as the book was written a mere six years after Hawkins began his own static pilgrimage.
In any case, it was undeniable then that Hawkins had become a reluctant spokesman of his generation (though he seldom actually uttered a word) and an unwilling, tremendous influence on the modern world (even if he barely moved a muscle). For better and worse, people were either awed or sickened by him – as far as Hawkins’ stance was concerned, there was hardly any middle ground. All the while, as the times changed all around him, Hawkins simply lay on his bed day and night in the company of his loyal followers.
But Hawkins’ position was not built to last, and it would eventually crumple under the weight of its own pretensions, just as it was destined to be. It was in 1946 when the town council granted the demolition order for the building in which Hawkins and his people resided. The quietists’ decaying headquarters were by now so deteriorated that the building looked like it could fall upon itself at any given moment, thus endangering adjacent buildings. As such, the town council had decided to demolish it – and build a fifteen-story mall instead.
The news reached Horatio Hawkins almost immediately. He deemed it a cruel offense against his philosophical views, but he declined to offer any public statements. Debates were held among the new quietists from the still comfort of their beds, and everyone seemed at the beginning to be in agreement: they would not leave the building, for doing otherwise would be contrary to everything they stood for. Some, however, sensing an imminent eviction, proposed leaving peacefully. Heated arguments thus ensued between the practitioners, until a group of twenty-three people decided to stealthily leave at night by climbing down the building’s drainpipes with whichever few possessions they had. Horatio Hawkins, watching his safe world disintegrate, stubbornly remained in his bed, begging his fellows not to leave in frenzies of anxiety.
A couple of weeks later everyone had left but him, and so in the silent emptiness of his room he remained, abandoned and betrayed. The demolition was only a week away and the ongoing hullaballoo outside of the building was tremendous. An inspection of the building’s interior was carried out once the columns and walls had been wrapped in detonating cord, but Hawkins was nowhere to be found – he had hidden himself underneath the hollow floorboards of one of the rooms, where he silently awaited his imminent death with a wry smile. Everyone thought he had left to some faraway place – indeed, one of the curious onlookers proclaimed ‘Hawkins has moved; Modern Quietism is dead!’ and the crowd laughed and clapped jokingly in response. In the morning of November 23, 1946, the building was destroyed by implosion. Thousands of people intently watched from afar as the building collapsed down to its footprint. Unbeknownst to everyone, Hawkins succumbed with it, victim and martyr to his own convictions. The last laugh had been his. Had he been given a proper burial, the epitaph would have probably read as follows:
A MAN OF PRINCIPLE