Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The absurdity of society, the absurdity of the teacher, and the madness of the self
While mainly teaching english and creative writing at Seneca College, I was Shanghaied one March break, when most of the other profs were gone, to teach something called existential philosophy.
What did I know about existentialism?.
The regular philosophy prof seemed to hear me.
Yes, she said. "It's absurd!
"But I really need my March break (At Seneca,we were teaching trimester)...And you, as an untenured prof, need the money, I'm sure.
"You're sort of a dramatist, aren't you? I had been giving them the facts of the philosophy. I'm positive you could supply the drama. I mean, look at you, You're theatrical as hell, and I'm sure in my all-woman class will be intrigued."
The first class went rather well, though I heard one lady exclaim, "He's drunk!" which, of course, I was. Doesn't everybody?...Well, no, not really. Not every teacher needs a drink to get the wind up, but some do.
I had begun with Nietzsche and his observation that people leave marks on each other,manipulate each other, damage each other. ...uck each other up!
There was a pigtail pulled by a lady siting behind another lady. There was some giggling.
I posited that the attitude known as existentialism had been around for a long time.
I made references to Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hemingway....There was no glazing of eyes. Everybody seemed to get my references.
I suddenly realized that this was a bright class, they knew of those authors, and I decided, as I started to sober up, I'd better give them their money's worth. I had earlier joked to the class that the college had hired me "becaue they never saw a drunk before", and I hoped they didn't take self-deprecation for information, though I surely must have given them a bouquet of vodka across the lectern platform.
I went into teaching mode.
How would you define existentialism? I asked. Hands went up.
"It is a literature of extreme situations," said Polly.
"It is an encounter with the absurdity of life," said another woman.
A third had shown to me how good the other prof had been. She had taught them well.
"It is I , in answer to your THOU"...Hell, she had read Martin Buber!
"It's absurd for sure," smiled a fourth.
"Yes, yes," I agreed. " Jean-Paul Sartre would describe it as 'the absurdity of society and the madness of the self.'"
I added a bit of silliness.
"And some would say, "Neetchee is peachy, but Sarter is smarter.'"
This brought up a groan, but here and there a giggle.
They looked up at me up there, on my lectern, needing a haircut, half drunk, baggy Polack pants, looking like TV funnyman Professor Irwin Cory of old. Seems all I needed was a yo-yo.
Somebody whispered, "Ivan's crazy."
But I was building up to my lecture, the core of it, and since I was crazy, I would quote from no other authority than MAD Magazine on the topic of existentialim.
Fifty bucks an hour, is fifty bucks an hour. I had to give them their money's worth, event if it was drama, entertainment...The truth is often couched in humour. At least I hoped it was.
The absurdity of society, and the madness of the self. Well, better no other "text" than one from that scholarly journal, MAD Magazine, issue #2
I introduced the class to the plight of the Jewish intellectual in America just before and after the Second World War. Life in comparatively illiterate America, for the Eropean immigrant with an education, seemed pure hell.... And then McCarthy came and fired any director or actor worth his salt. And the immigrant may have turned nihilist, having barely escaped the hell of the holocaust left behind. It may have led to madness, and even crime. In one comic book instance, it led to a character named Melvin Mole, this strange little apparition out of William Gaines' Humour in a Jugular Vein--Melvin Mole, file-toothed, rat-faced, pimply, whose sole (perhaps only) talent consisted of his ability to burrow underneath all obstacles. The undergraound man, burrowing like a mole, accompanying himself with obsessional mutterings: DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!
The underground man. And when burrowing underwater, the talk balloons would have bubbles attached. GLIG! GLIG! HAH! GLIG! GLIG! GLIG!
Melvin tries to rob The Last National Bank, but the onmiscient police had placed guards there. hE avoids guards by incredible cunning and digging, but surfacing by accident at the Policeman's Ball. He is eschered, caught, at one point pulling out an automatic, which he discharges in all directions, yelling JOHN LAW! JOHN LAW! HAH! HEEH! HAH!....YOU'LL NEVER GET MELVIN MOLE...NEIN! NICHT! NEVER! Eventually, Melvin is dungeoned, and after many escapes (DIG! DIG! HAH! DIG! DIG! DIG!). He is finally dungeoned, escapes, and is redungeoned
Te finaly INdissoluble antinomy had been reached for Melvin Mole. For him, there is the electric chair. Says the jailer, "HAVE A SEAT, MOLE!"
Yes, certainly Orwell, Dostoevsky, Kafka.
How was it that a generation of brilliant luminaries in Europe, was suddenly reduced to being subhuman, cockroach And even mole.
And in America, for a long time, these Displaced Persons
were held as such. Maybe all displaced persons, "furriners" until they became acclimatized.
Melvin Mole never became acclimatized. Like Al Capone, he chose an underground role, but literally. Nihilism. Anarchy. A throwback to another time of Prince Kropotkin and Bakunin. Undermine everything! A life of crime.
And so, DIG! DIG! DIG! HUH! DIG! DIG! DIG!
Would Melvin Mole every become fully human? Would he ever find love?...Perhaps an anarchist potato!
At this they began to titter.
The monkey professor was in.