“He is always becoming, and if it were not for the contingency of death, he would never end.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
What is it about French Intellectuals?
When I read even a random sentence of JP Sartre’s I am filled with a particular expansive thrilled feeling only he can bring. I don’t know why this should be, but I will hazard a guess.
I was young, but not very very young, when my deeper intellect was first awakened. I was 18 and I was in Salt Lake City, attending college at U of U, University of Utah, where already, many hitherto unknown feelings, thoughts and vistas were arising and blossoming inside of me.
Philosophy wasn’t something I’d learned about in my earlier education. My earlier education lacked intellectuality and it pretty much also lacked education altogether. Public school, unintelligent teachers, excruciating boredom in class. My education came from my own personal reading; I devoured fiction. In high school, among many many others, I loved Taylor Caldwell’s books, historical fiction, and I read them all. I loved all kinds of fiction, but even from a young age, I liked horror stories… I liked to lie outside (at the tennis club, where my mother forced us to spend our entire summer) on clear blue, sunshiny summer days; the kind of day when the world seems perfectly well-adjusted and reasonable, children splashing and screaming in the pool, parents in their tennis whites, still behaving like teenagers with their flirtations and cocktails, and immerse myself in Alfred Hitchcock’s, “Stories to Read Late at Night”, and, later, Stephen King novels. Possibly my only thrilling memory from elementary school, is sitting in the corner of the school library, hidden, reading and looking at Roald Dahl’s “The Magic Finger”, which I came back for time and again. I’ll never forget lying upstairs in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house, reading Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Yes, my best childhood memories were the one’s elicited by and shared with, the book in my hands.
I digress, but who cares? I certainly don’t.
Spring quarter of my freshman year at U of U, I found myself in a philosophy class called, “Existentialism”. I signed up for this class because there was a boy at U of U, who I’d happened to meet my very first night in Salt Lake City, at a house party. This boy inspired the deepest feelings of love and longing in me. He was totally unlike any boy I’d ever even imagined, much less met. He seemed radically free. He was breathtakingly beautiful. His eyes, which were clear and green, steady and unique, expressed human beauty and wisdom. His walk was unlike anybody else’s; he walked smoothly and gracefully — like a deer somehow. He recited his own poetry to me. He lived outside, in the foothills — among the deer. He loved philosophy. He was from Boston. He didn’t pay for school. The intellectual teachers liked him so much, they always welcomed him. He helped himself to food from the dorm cafeteria; nobody seemed to mind that either.
I met many other kids from all over the country. But there was nobody like David Collins. By spring quarter I’d signed up for Existentialism because I’d heard that David had a particularly close relationship with a frighteningly intellectual professor named Dr. Hagen and frequently sat in on his classes.
I had taken an Intro. to Philosophy class the previous quarter, but I’d been confused by the lofty unfamiliar material, by the theories, the complexity. What did make an impression on me in ‘Intro. to Philosophy’, was a curly-haired fair-skinned fiercely intelligent boy who seemed familiar with, and interested in, the works and thinkers we discussed and who was the first boy I’d ever known who often prefaced his contributions to classroom discussions with the word,”perhaps”.
I’d heard that, beyond being Intellectual, Professor Hagen was Frightening. My first day in Existentialism class marked the first day of a new era of my life. Up until that day, almost all of the adults in my life were unremarkable to me, including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, my parents’ friends and all of my teachers. Adults, simply put, were boring, fake, didn’t really like children or teens and were very threatened. The thing that seemed most threatening of all to adults was young people; teenagers, with their burgeoning, deep sexuality, their free-spiritedness, their wild longings and impulsions, their unlimited creativity, their willingness and desire to explore expanded consciousness and their dissatisfaction with the status quo. I had no desire to become an adult, in fact, I didn’t truly believe that that was the fate that lay in store for me. Only one teacher in my entire childhood stood out, not for his brilliance, but because he was the only one (I believe) who cared deeply about people, children and others. He was an active member of Amnesty International. He made all the children in his high school geography class feel likeable and liked. He had a genuinely warm smile and was kind and funny. Although my parents were very social, only one couple of all their friends stood out to me as ‘real’; a Jewish couple. Marion was an artist and she gave me a gift one time. She had made the wrapping paper herself and the gift was a book about dinosaurs. I don’t remember my parents ever giving me educational things or taking me on educational outings. These were my dad’s as opposed to my mom’s friends. They lived in Chicago, as opposed to the suburbs, and were my parents’ only Jewish friends. Irwin worked with my dad at Argonne National Laboratories. He was a physicist who later became a doctor. They were the only friends of my parents whom we called by their first names, Irwin and Marion.
Professor Hagen made an immediate strong vital impression. He was middle-aged, wearing a purple velvet blazer. He was smoking a long thin dark cigarette whose ash was impossibly long and surely about to drop onto the floor. In firmly enunciated and punctuated words he told us that we were allowed to smoke in class. This was a surprising first. It felt as if we were considered grown-up. There was passion in his manner of speaking, passion and ferocity. He was imperious and commanding and informed us, and we were a small group of maybe 10, that although we could smoke, we could not walk in late, even by a minute. If we were going to walk in late and interrupt his lecture…. well just don’t do it or else. A tall blond ordinary-looking boy raised his hand and Professor Hagen glanced his way with a hint of contempt. Professor Hagen continued to dictate his expectations ignoring the boy. Finally, he acknowledged him.
“I have a job and I have to hurry across town to get over here on time for class. I’m concerned that I might be a little late sometimes. Can you make an exception for me?”
Professor Hagen gave him a withering look. His lip seemed to curl in a snarl. ”No.”
David Collins, behind me and to the right was lolling in a very relaxed, incredibly natural and perfectly at-ease position. Even in the discomfort of a cramped classroom desk and in the tension of the first day of class, he looked uniquely at home in the universe. Only a few minutes into Existentialism class, I had already perceived a natural division of humanity. The blond boy, who’d raised his hand impertinently, it seemed, to ask a bumbling personal favor after Dr. Hagen had made a definite point about his demands and expectations fell into one category of humanity, ‘most of them’ — David, David’s friend Jim, glorious-looking, but blatantly human in comparison to David, and Dr. Hagen, already represented a much higher strata of humanity; Intellectuals.