CHAPTER ONE: In which the new Philosophy Instructor explores the impossibility of the existence of the ‘self’.
The sight from this mountain top is one to be remembered while life lasts.… Looking across this grand valley westward the dark blue line of the Cascade Range of Mountains appears a forest-clad and impassable wall, out of which arise two immense white cones called, as I subsequently learned, Mount Hood and Mount Adams.
–John Minto, 1844
Picture a Philosopher. No, not that smug man in tweeds, smoking a pipe with his wrinkled eyes closed, rocking in an armchair. Nor that solid man striding through the neighborhood like Immanuel Kant on his constitutional, with woolen socks and sandals. Nor the toothy grin of Soren Kierkegaard, or that wispy long haired Cartesian sitting by his fireplace, coughing up a storm. No, not that dour, Germanic, deterministic grim mouth or the furrowed brows of a Bertrand Russell.
That young man there, with an over bite, hair all mussy, childish looking… there that one—with the defensive gestures, over exaggerated…. He doesn’t look like a philosopher, granted, with his blue-green eyes, dreamy face, olive skin—there’s Italian blood in there somewhere, I’m sure. And his hands are soft, artist’s hands, hands every woman would love to feel on their skin. But he’s shy, doesn’t look people in the eye. He’s insecure, soft spoken as if he doesn’t believe anyone wants to hear what he’s got to say. His parents never listened to him, his peers didn’t, so he cloaked himself in silence in contemplation, in…Philosophy. He’s layered himself, and hides deep within folds of himself, skins, masks. But even through all those disguises you can see the fire in his eyes. Every movement smolders. He can never keep still—his restless energy burns through him. That’s the one I’m talking about—the Philosopher.
Picture a small town—they call small towns cities here, give them mayors, city halls, Roman pillars, even though they are only a grid of streets and a spread of families—they even call them great cities—this cleft in the dustbowl of the Umatilla valley could be any town in the Pacific North West–isolated, forgotten, dry–but I will for argument’s sake call it Pendleton—the Great City of Pendleton, seat of Umatilla County.
Now imagine a Community College perched on a bald hill in the blowing dust of this great city of Pendleton. A fictitious college, naturally, in an equally fictitious city, in a fictitious Oregon, not the real one we all know and love, but a mean government grey college built by practical, sensible, non-artists. Great grey concrete walls house seriously sensible, practical knowledge. As opposed to a university, with its liberal, liberating expanse of free air, this is a community college, where everyone is equal, where access to diluted knowledge is everyone’s right.
And in the Philosophy classroom, this lecture theater, or in the words of the New Administration, a Student Learning Environment, picture a group of thirty five or so young students squeezed into morally upright, uncomfortable seats designed to keep you awake in class, created in neutral colors—grey and merde—to keep you from all distractions; no windows, except for that one… high up, the climate control unit throbbing a constant white noise. Look: thirty five minds straining unused muscles–bright minds, lazy minds, open minds, closed minds, minds with great storage facilities, shallow minds, simple minds… all waiting for what The Philosopher has to say.
Enter the Philosopher stage left, now leaning on the podium up front, a Cowboy hat perched on his head. Picture a Hawaiian shirt, Wranglers, Converse high tops, and Zulu bangles jangling on his right wrist. Oh, and his zipper is undone, but he does not know this yet. So whatever effect he wants to create is lost…
This isn’t who they are expecting. They are expecting Kant, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Russell, not this thirty something year old with blue eyes, soft hands, dancing form foot to foot on the podium, swallowing his words, waiting for the clock to click to the hour. That’s the first thing they notice: a lightness in the air, not that dour philosophy smell. Wait, he’s opening the blinds. Wrestling with the windows. They should tell him they never open—this is a climate controlled SLE.
And he’s clearing his throat. Soft spoken when he talks, but when he begins lecturing, he projects, uses another voice, and…he has an accent.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals, polysexuals, asexuals, and all those in between, welcome to Philosophy 101.’
Corny, yes, gimmicky, yes, but they like it. He’s reaching out, he has…miracle of miracles…. a sense of humor. A Philosopher with a sense of humor; now that’s something.
But no one can guess the accent. Australian? British?
He’s a hybrid, let me tell you up front, a nomad, with a clipped accent which has been modified by his many travels across the USA, Australia, Africa, New Zealand, UK; it has slowly broadened, brawled, slovened, trailed and weighted. ‘Utter madness’ becomes ‘udder midness’.
The classroom is shoulder to shoulder with bright-eyed freshmen. Uncomfortable. Aching butt muscles. Some dying to get out of here the minute they arrive. The claustrophobic restlessness of teens. Some passively bovine, resigned to their fate, and in the back, a line of what can only be described as pseudo Cowboys. (Real cowboys would be out chewing tobacco and herding up cows, wouldn’t they?). These Pseudo-cowboys wear their ten gallon hats in class, hitch up their tight Wrangler jeans ($14.99 in Wal-Mart), sport leather boots and circus-bright shirts.
Other students jam the bay windows facing the Blue Mountains, and they jimmy the doorway, two deep. They have all come to see The Philosopher. Or to take Philosophy 101. Amazing. The least popular class in the college last year. But it’s the poster what gottem.
The first slide on the PowerPoint is one simple sentence, black on white:
THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING
‘Socrates says this over two thousand years ago, at the beginning of what was the beginning of a great awakening of consciousness. What did he mean?’
Nothing radical… yet. This is standard, conventional Foolosophy for Dummies, which always starts with Socrates. Very Western, very boring, very dry. Shaken not stirred.
But they are not used to answering questions: they are used to sitting back, arms folded, watching the instructor sweat it out. But this instructor, they can see, is not going to sweat it out. That madness about his eyes, that restless intensity in the way he works his fingers tells them, should tell them, that he is not going to allow complacency to settle anywhere near him. No superficial gliding over the present. No glib truths. No one, in short, is going to get away with anything. He is arrogant, yes, but there is a gleam in his eye, a warmth about him that tells them he does not take himself too seriously… or them. The insecurity shows too, that can be mistaken for humility, but is often masked by arrogance. He has rapport–to match their insecurity, their ignorance masked as arrogance and bravado, and his insecurity smoothed over with Philosophy. An ideal mask of arrogance, a way of being in the world. A false confidence. They pick up all innuendoes, as does he… this is a symbiotic relationship–unhealthy maybe but fruitful. He wants to be loved. So do they.
He points to a student in the act of raising a Coke can to his mouth.
The philosopher’s eyes flicker to the sign NO EATING OR DRINKING. ‘Don’t think too much about it, just speak. Whatever comes into your head. What did he mean?’
Travis takes another slow swallow of Coke, smiles slyly. ‘Er… Anyone who doesn’t take philosophy may as well commit suicide?’
‘Not bad, not bad. How about you? Your name?’
‘Lisa B. Earlley.’
His sizes up the woman on Travis’s left. She has gecko-white skin, jet-black hair and heavily black lined eyes. She wears a trim black vest, black stove pipe Levi’s, and has painted her fingernails in heavy black. Her black tennis shoes look much too small for her feet. He ponders her name, thinks for a moment hat she is having him on, but then finds it on the register. Two l’s ? The pun on her second initial? He could make fun of it, make a quick joke on tardiness, but thinks better of it, seeing the severity of her mouth. She takes herself way too seriously.
‘What do you think, Lisa B. Earlley?’
She bites her fingernails. Says nothing. You have to prove yourself to me before I give you anything, her eyes say. He can see she does not like his eyes on her, assessing her.
But her neighbor—a young woman with dirty blonde, bright eyes, eager to please—to suck up as they say around here–raises her hand, even waves to get his attention. ‘Don’t follow the unquestioned assumptions of our culture,’ she recites from the script in her brain. ‘Our education system is designed to make us fit in, to conform, but we have to question everything.’
Her neighbors glower. She smiles sweetly.
‘Excellent. And you are?’
He likes the cadence of those syllables but not the pretentiousness of the double ‘e’.
Ashlee Adams is wearing, quite unashamedly, a bright green jacket, oversize trainers, and baggy gray Wal-Mart tracksuit pants. She looks no older than twelve. The Philosopher (he has no name to them yet) paces the length of the front row, a tiger in a cage, calls each student in turn, matches them to the register, and scrutinizes each face. After long winters of pale fog, their skins are translucent with blue veins; their eyes are all circled with dark rings; and their hunched bodies are shrouded in loose, heavy clothing. But if they all look like ghosts to him, what, he wonders, does he look to them with his dark skin, Antipodean tan and restless energy?
All eyes on him. Waiting for him to pounce again.
Except the three Cowboys at the back who have demarcated their territory, who have pronounced by their myth making dress, by arms folded, boots up on the desks in front of them, have constructed their barrier of double negatives of posture already—you ain’t gonna teach me nothin’.
We’ll see. We’ll see.
You can’t teach us cowboys Foolosophy, hocus pocus, all your smokes and mirrors. He can hear their thoughts.
Why then are you here, he wants to ask? But there will be time for all that.
‘Philosophy,’ he begins, ‘means the love of wisdom. Philo– love of… as in pedophile, necrophile. Sophos– wisdom, as in sophistry, sophisticated….. In this class, we are going to learn to love wisdom. All of us. Even me. Would anyone like to offer a definition of wisdom?’
The students, safe in numbers, sit stolid and silent, as his gaze rests on them bow their heads, not making eye contact in case he picks on one of them. Even Ashlee who unashamedly stares at him, volunteers nothing here.
‘Good, good, very wise. Silence is often mistaken for wisdom. Excellent.’
He clicks the remote to present the next power point slide:
The willingness to answer all questions is the sign of infallible stupidity.
‘What does this mean? Any comments? Clive Bell?’
He chooses the one who the class has obviously already written off as the nerd, Clive Bell, a young man behind enormous glasses. But even this boy (again he looks twelve years old, but must be in his early twenties) is articulate. Wry, sly, even. The Philosopher must not underestimate these Pendletonians. ‘If we answer your questions, then we’re stupid?’
‘Sharp. You guys are sharp. I like you already. This may grow into love, or at least deep affection. Pendletonophilia even.’
No mouths lifts into smiles; no heavy eyebrows relax. They are not going to give him anything. Not yet. It’s a game of seduction here. Or Philosophical Poker.
‘But no, I mean the opposite. I’m talking about myself here. I’m not going to answer your questions. I am not going to lecture you. You are going to come up with the answers, which you already know.’
Travis takes another cautious swig of his Coke. ‘We do?’
‘Socrates believed you were born with knowledge you have forgotten, and I’m going to help you remember it again. This is called the Socratic method.’
Ashlee writes the words down in her yellow notebook. ‘S-e-c-r-e-t-i-c M-i-t-h-e-d.’ Is that how he sounds to them, is she mocking him, or is it just that she just can’t spell for shit?
‘And don’t think some smart-arsed wise old Philosophy instructor at the front is going to teach you to be wise. Wisdom comes from you. I’m just as ignorant; in fact, I’m much more ignorant than you. I’m a fool; I know nothing. You’re here to teach me.’
They are listening, he suspects, to his accent rather than his words. Arse, he says, arse, instead of ass. Fuul instead of fool. And of course they don’t believe him A fool? He looks like a fool, he acts like a fool with his zipper undone, they must be thinking, but his eyes tell a different story. Maybe the game is Cat and mouse.
Then a caveat, the bait that will hook them: ‘This course is not for the faint hearted. We are going to question every belief we hold sacred, every foundation we stand on. We will examine every aspect of our lives, we will drill, deconstruct, take apart, analyze, uncover, demythologize…. everything. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is taboo. All walls will be smashed down.’
Now their eyes are wide—Ashlee’s and Clive’s at least. The others are cautious, listening but masking their curiosity with cool attitude.
‘So please consider very carefully. If you don’t want to do these things, I would advise you to drop the course as soon as possible. If you stay to the end, you will automatically get an A.’
The silence still does not break, but he can see the hostility begin to seep from the faces at the back.
‘But it’s going to be no easy credit. Think of it as a boot camp, as ten weeks of assault courses, field trips, parade grounds, drill instruction. We will go places you never even knew existed, push way beyond your mental limits, develop your psychological stamina. At the end you will reach heights you never dreamed of, gain wisdom, free yourself from the slave patterns of ordinary life.’
‘So are you with me? Hot? Cold? Lukewarm?’
If it is meant to put them off, it has the opposite effect. Never before has a class been so receptive. Cell phones are silent. IPods are nowhere to be seen. Only the AC fans above dare swish. No one moves. No one says anything. Their eyes are waiting. His magic is beginning to work—he hopes. He has them.
‘I know it’s a student’s right in all colleges across the USA to be lukewarm, passive and indifferent. You need heavy ironic layers of protection to get through all the bullshit we call higher education, which has now become as mandatory as wiping your arse after you go for a number two. I know too that you need to feign ignorance. You can’t be seen to be too eager or intelligent, or too willing to learn, too ahead of the pack. But this class is going to be different.’
A few giggles. He said bullshit. He said ‘arse’ again. Aas, writes Ashlee, doodling.
‘So here is my hidden agenda: I want to sweep away all the rubbish in your minds. Burn the fields and forest and dead undergrowth, and let new grass grow. The renaissance philosopher Descartes in his day did the same thing—swept away the debris of his civilization. We’re going to do the same. OK?’
Frowns. Folded arms.
‘I’ll take that as a yes. So let’s begin.’