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.


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.



eric1313 said...


Great work you have here, Ivan.

Reminds me of subing for creative writing, though I was not drunk and I did not lecture. I wrote a prompt, let people read as much as they want to (I wrote and read as well), and afterward we talked about the literature and authors we felt most influenced us.

Then let them all go a little early just to stay hip.

Since then I've been undermining... mostly myself, I think, but it's something to do.

Charles Gramlich said...

The absurdity of life. Life is certainly existentialist then. My own life illustrates it well it seems.

ivan said...

Must have been nice to be a T.A ,Eric. Kinda jumps you up, donnit?
...The tricky problem of identity.
Mona has read my latest tome and she thinks the character therein, including the heroine, were both seeking their identity...My hero was 47, she a decade younger.
...Do people ever find it?
And is there finally a time when we stop undermining ourselves, fighting ourselves. Gail Sheehy says it happens at fifty, after the "changes", but I'm not so sure.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

You're in good company, Charles.

One of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell taught philosophy all right. But he didn' seem too sure of the way.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks,

Drive-by Saviours got its first real review in Sunday's Chronicle Herald. The dish they served up may be too rich for my fat ego, but it feels good nonetheless. Check it out:

"Drive-By Saviours is one of the finest first narratives to emerge from Atlantic Canada in recent memory" http://thechronicleherald.ca/Books/1202666.html

(From Chris Benjamin, "Benjibopper" blog

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

I'll be there for your book signing in Toronto, Monday, Chris.

As you suggest in email, I would love to swap books.

Anonymous said...

Chris Benjamin sent a message to the members of Drive-by Saviours Toronto Launch Party.

Chris BenjaminSeptember 30, 2010 at 11:45pm
Subject: Reminder - Drive-by Saviours Book Launch Party Oct 4 at Lula Lounge
Hi all,

Just a reminder that this Monday, Oct 4, 7:30 pm I'll be launching my novel, Drive-by Saviours, in Toronto, at the Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West).

We've got two great musical acts - Charms (the gorgeous sounding and looking duet of Gabe Levine and Jessica Moore) and Sarah Kenvyn. Spoken word artist Kevin Fortnum will also be slamming. And Another Story Bookshop will be on hand selling the novel.

Hope to see you there!

Chris Benjamin

ivan said...

Spoken word artist Kevin Fortnum will also be slamming.


Slam poetry.

Too bad Mark Durfee, The Walking Man is all the way over in Detroit.

....I'm not sure if Mark does slam poetry, but he slams it out pretty good, sometime on these pages.

JR's Thumbprints said...

So, let me get this right -- I need to tunnel deeper in order to let myself go? It's against every policy directive and operating procedure I've had to follow.

ivan@creativewritintg.ca said...


No, your training and experience trumps what I have to say.

I am talking abot the philosophicall-cultural attitude known as nihilism, certainly more in your wards than yourself.
In nihililsm, the joy of life is absent altogether. It is truly nothingness. In old Russian nihilism, you want to throw a bomb, destroying both society and yourself. The nihilist is a degenerate, like Melvin Mole.
You are not an inmate, not Melvin Mole. You, as a free person still possess what the Greeks called Laeticia, sweetness and light.
You are after all the teacher, the man with the lamp.
Of course, in your surrounding they might just steal your lamp. :)

My own way of teaching that day was to tell them a story, make that lecture a kind of drama in itself to convey a sense of the philosophy, the drama, say, in existentialism, to enter an elevator, as in a 911 scenario, and find that it will not work, as the towers were collapsing, while a taped voice urged you to "remain calm"--a truly existential situation.

Basically, the key to my teaching method was to tell a story. They will be relieved to have a class with no rote learning, to be told a story that is so much like their story, or at least a story they can be interested in.
Shucks. Tell them the story of Melvin Mole to take up 45 minutes of one day. The full verbal text is in my archives somewhere, and th comic book version is in MAD #2, which by now is probably worth its weight in gold, as a classic number.
In a word,no, don't go inside yourself, tunnel into yourself.
Tell them a story. Tell them about Melvin Mole. They know, as nihilists, about tunnelling. They must tunnel into themselves every night, alone and aware of their awful selves.

JR's Thumbprints said...

It's never easy shedding light on a subject when my students are so damn confident in their abilities that they throw a monkey-wrench into whatever I have to teach. Not only do they steal the lamp, they deflect the light, shining it back at authority.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Ah, they might want to bandy words with you--if they had the words to bandy.

Sometimes the truth is revealed in humour, even if it's a bit off.

Like the Newfoundlander who tells a slower Newfie,

"You're such a dumb nut you'd ..ck up the lord's prayer--if you knew it!?

the walking man said...

I will exist because there is no other way. Inside and outside the being within is a product of the former. To the society and culture I am nothing, I do not exist beyond a mere number and to the latter I exist to wipe away the former, the algorithm or number within the latter.

Everything I have learned is wrong taught by a society that has been in a perpetual state of error since long before my birth.

And then when the board is erased and washed and the erasers clapped and even the dust of them is settled and swept away and I become a blank board the process starts anew towards the old for I can only know that which surrounds me. It is a futile circle with no conclusion available on the wall.

The Nihilism of Existentialism.

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...


I forget where I read it, but somebody somewhere said, "Life is not the way they tell you it is."

I am a pocket nihilist?

Nah. I still try to keep writing. You too.

eric1313 said...


Ummmm... got me into some trouble in my personal life with that comment... What was that about anyway? Please don't do that!

I have no idea why you would do that...

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...


You mean today, Sunday, Oct 10?

I should have deleted that comment.

Five a.m. madness. Not a good time to write anything.

If I caused you any grief with that comment early this mornin, I'm sorry.