Sunday, September 07, 2008

Wake Up!

I'm teaching a course on "Existentialism" this semester, which is not only one of my favorite philosophical movements, but also one of my favorite things to teach. As I've said to my colleagues many times before, existentialism is the one philosophy that seems to have been created for 18- to 25-year-olds. The list of existentialist themes and tropes read like a "Greatest Hits" of philosophy. Freedom. Death. Angst. Identity. Alienation. Authenticity. Teaching existentialism to undergraduates is like handing out candy to babies. It's probably not that good for their (mental) health, but it's so, so very tasty and delicious.

For a lot of us, there came a point in our educational journey when we learned that existentialism was passé, and we were encouraged to quickly dispatch with it if we intended to do "serious" philosophical work. It's difficult for me to explain exactly why or how this happens... even in my own case. I suspect that it has something to do with the reductive and cartoon-y version of existentialism that is hocked in a lot of philosophy classrooms (and conferences), which tends to (mis)represent existentialism as a school of naive beliefs in "the subject" and his or her "absolute freedom." Or it may be a result of existentialism's undeniable "popular" appeal, which is always a black spot in the opinion of The Academy. Or maybe it's because existentialism, strictly speaking, was one of the most short-lived philosophical "movements" in history. (If you mark existentialism's beginning with Jaspers and Heidegger in the 30's and it's end with the "death of the subject" in the late 60's... well, that's only about 3 decades, if you're being generous!) Whatever the real reasons for its dismissal are, I find myself seriously questioning them whenever I teach existentialism again.

Last week, we were covering Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in my class, a text which almost always reveals something new to me whenever I re-read it. This time around, I was struck by Kierkegaard's account of the churchgoer who, upon hearing his or her preacher's sermon on Abraham's binding of Isaac, falls asleep. Kierkegaard lambasts any version of watered-down Christianity that transforms the horrible and horrifying story of Abraham and Isaac, in which the "father of faith" can only be "understood" as a murderer or a madman, into some easily digestible morality tale. Kierkagaard asks what should be the obvious questions: how can Abraham serve as the Christian model of faith? And, if he is the model of faith, how can we (Christians) not be shocked and horrified by that implied imperative? And, more importantly, why in the world does this story not keep us up at night?!!

I suppose there's a sense in which I want to ask the same questions about existentialism that Kierkegaard asks about Christianity. When did those texts and thinkers get so "watered-down" and hackneyed that we practically fall asleep when reading them (or induce sleep when teaching them)? This query is not unrelated to my last post, in which I suggested that we should not give up on the possibility that college courses can be life-changing. But nobody's life gets changed if they're asleep, or bored, or so busy with skills-aquisition that they can't muster the energy for serious self-reflection. Kierkegaard is right, I think, to argue that the only catalyst for "being more" (or, at the very least, "being differently") is to be shocked out of complacency. For some students, the texts themselves will bring about that transformation... but for the rest, we teachers must wake them up and keep them awake.

And that means that we have to be awake first.


Booga Face said...

Ah, this takes me back to my angst-ridden teenage days when I really thought Sartre's novel Nausea was all about me and my white suburban life, and when I thought existentialist philosophy justified a more self-centered egotistic habit of being. Boy, did I get it wrong, but I loved it, just as you say.

In retrospect, a part of me wishes my existentialism teachers had the guts to move me from my solipsistic angst and to the social consciousness that Sartre and Camus were really striving towards. For instance, I totally agree with you that a book such as Sartre's Nausea is totally "passe" for most scholars today, but his thoughts about colonialism and race are still relevant and still being discussed.

So why did my existentialism teacher never expose me to any women or black writers? The idea that existence precedes essence never meant a thing to me, until years later I read Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex. "Oh, one is not born a woman; one becomes one... now I get it!!!" And I'm sure you can guess what inspired me to pick up Second Sex. Yes, that's right--Gender Trouble, in which Judith Butler pretty much comes out and admits, "yah, basically, I'm just repeating what Simone said."

emma b. said...

I basically identify as an existentialist (there are no essences to hide behind, because we are RESPONSIBLE at every moment for our participation in the world), so I appreciate this post a lot.

I just want to say, on falling asleep. I fall asleep OFTEN when reading amazing ideas, and - more embarrassingly - when in amazing talks. It's nothing to do with boredom... it's more like a response to going into something like intellectual overwhelm. I do appreciate the injunction to stay awake though - thanks.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'm teaching Existentialism this semester too, and it's always a fun class to teach . . . I think the connection to candy is right on. . .

This semester I have the added bonus of having an elderly couple in the class whose last name is (and I'm not making this up) Suess, another underrated pleasure from childhood...

But the thing that I always find odd about when I teach Existentialism is the ambivalent feelings I have towards all the wannabe Nietzsche-Heidegger disciples . . . Like I'm happy when the kids like the same peeps as me, but I want to make sure they love them for the right reasons.