Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

Rick Borstelman 2003

Rick Borstelman 2003

Existentialism was all the rage in the 60’s and ‘70’s when I intermittently attended classes in high school and college. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus must have hit its peak then, because the authorities allowed students to smoke — in high school in certain outdoor designated areas, and in college, right there in class. If existentialism is about anything, it’s about the rights of the individual, as we shall see.

kierkSøren Kierkegaard

Where I went to college each desk in the Humanities Building had a disposable cardboard ashtray. Students bogarted their Marlboros as they took notes, scrawling as best they could the professor’s explanation of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the Abraham and Isaac story, scrawling (in my case, illegibly) observations like

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox…

The fact that you couldn’t follow the argument, that you couldn’t figure out what the fuck the subject of the third “is” was wasn’t* important because professors didn’t test you on the material; they had you write essays just as unintelligible as the texts you couldn’t understand, which represented a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity because who has the authority to tell an individual that his reading of the text is incorrect. That would have been so fascistic.

For example, here might be my undergraduate explanation of the passage I quoted above:

See, the individual smoker who is superior to the rest of the class who doesn’t smoke gets to smoke because the smoker’s subjective universe is paradoxically the only universe because if it weren’t for him, the individual smoker, there would be no universe, the way there was no universe as far as he was concerned in 1492 because he was not as yet a sentient being who possessed the autonomy to light up a Marlboro, despite that the individual who sits behind him, who, once again, would not exist for him if not for his being able to perceive her, or, in this case not perceive her, as she suffers an asthma attack because of the smoke that would not exist except for him.

You got A’s for this type of shit — at least I did.

Meanwhile, next door, in the poetry class you might have students reading this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Now, this poem, despite its implicit criticism of the All Mighty, poses dangers for the existentialist because it doesn’t exactly offer a multitude of defensible readings. The poem rather obviously suggests that Abraham agreed to kill his beloved son Isaac because Abraham was afraid God was going to sic a big ferocious dog on his ass.

These were the types of classes existentialists should avoid because the professors tended to dismiss the right of the individual to spell words whichever way he wanted. These fascist bastards took off points when you spelled “p-a-i-d” “p-a-y-ed.”

*Verbs of being rule in existentialism; the fact that I strung three in a row suggests I get it.

new-nietzscheFredrich Nietzsche

In the progression of existential philosophers, Nietzsche comes next chronologically, and back in 1973, he was a lot easier and more fun to read than Kierkegaard. Plus, Nietzsche was quotable, the king of the aphorism. You’d even heard of some of his sayings before, like

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

All things are subject to interpretation.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

God is dead.

The problem with Nietzsche, though, is that these killer quotable quotes are imbedded in long, rambling essays that lack structure and sometimes seem to contradict themselves, so by the time you get to the end, you’re not sure what his main point is.

Once you got to Nietzsche in your 1973 existential survey, all that was necessary is that you kept your mouth shut if you were a Christian and not try to exercise your first amendment freedom-of-speech right because chances are your professor was an atheist who would rip you to shreds because, after all, the universe would not exist except for him.

In other words, he’d sic his rhetorical Mastiff on you.

Jean Paul Sartre

sartre-jp-728x485Although Sartre’s masterpiece On Being and Nothingness makes Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling read like a Hemingway story in comparison, the ideas themselves are not that hard to understand.

What you got is a consciousness and whatever the consciousness is perceiving, and because this consciousness has a negative power of nothingness that can create a lack of self-identity, you, the individual, need to exercise your freedom by bringing into being and acting upon your individual spontaneous choices, and if you fail to do so, if, say, you decide not to run off to Best Buy and purchase a TV monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen and instead grade those sophomore essays, you have committed “bad faith,” which leads to “nausea,” which is really stupid of you because life is meaningless, and you’ll be dead in no time and therefore kiss good-bye the universe that only exists because you perceive it be.

On on that happy note, it’s DVD time.

One thought on “Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

  1. I am enlighten now. I thought Sputnic, the Russian satellite, was the reason behind all the freedom of thought…the next great frontier. I wanted to dig out of this style education being a shy teenage girl. I have found comfort in reading manuals in the last . 45 years!

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