Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The So-Called Soul

As I work through my tedious list of end of semester evaluations, I am reminded of the central tenant of my friend and former colleague Michael Hunting’s view: humankind, above all else, must be stripped of its pretensions.

Who am I to judge these young men and women, my precious students, my apprentice philosophers? Who am I to judge Alex Reynolds, the current favorite son of the department and intimate disciple of Michael’s? I should assign them all A’s, or else, I should assign them all F’s. Or perhaps all C’s. Or C+s. I am considering a random lottery. I will put each of their names in a hat and select the A’s, B’s, and C’s (we don’t grade lower than C here at Bloomsbury). That I am uniquely qualified to judge the philosophical merits of any person is a mere affectation of mine. One that pays my bills, and one that I’ve paid for with years of study, hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition and interest on my loans — education in America is a racket! — an undergraduate degree in English from Princeton, a Phd in Philosophy from Columbia, a graduate thesis on Kurt Gödel, a slim, midlisting volume on metaphysical enigmas of the ages, and a decade of teaching Philosophy 101 — a course in which I encountered the sheer stupidity of the American youth, the sheer shallow nature of its collective mind, the sheer unthinkingness of a culture.

When I asked a freshman class to respond to the inaugural reading, Plato’s Phaedo, when I asked, “Before we discuss whether we believe the soul is immortal or not, let us begin by asking, Who here believes in the so-called soul at all?,” I witnessed, again, the sheer unthinkingness of a culture, the vapidity of a generation of minds raised on materialism. When I raised the question, “Who believes in the soul?,” two of twenty-five raised their hands in the affirmative, five raised their hands in negation, the remaining eighteen students — students with eyes and ears and fingers and tongues and noses — students with minds! — and with the shimmer in said eyes that at least suggested the presence of a soul-like entity therein, if not the soul itself, a term, Michael, disgraced and mad Michael, would argue, had been over-sheened by purists and dreamers and poets, by men whose fatal flaw was a lack of precision, a lack of realism, for Michael was a hyperrealist, if not quite anything else categorical, if not quite a Transcendentalist, or an evolutionary teleologist, or a mystic; a hyperrealist, yes, to be sure. Eighteen children confessed to me that fine burgundy fall morning, on the first day of precepts, eighteen children confessed to me that they had never before considered the question, never before wondered whether or not such an entity as the soul existed, whether or not such a word so entrenched in our lexicon, so dominant in our collective imagination, so crucial to our culture of individualism, whether or not such a word in fact referred to anything in our shared reality, whether or not such a thing as the soul — whether the individual, indivisible, irreducible soul existed — and if in fact it did, where it was located, what it looked like, what it was composed of, and, most importantly, what normative consequences such a belief might entail.

In the end, I failed nine of those eighteen students, not because of their failure to have reflected on the existence of the soul before attending my class, but because of their continued failure to exercise their critical faculties during my class, and especially while writing papers in their squalid homes, which I imagined, with an admitted degree of prejudice, were fetid, mindless, TV-dominated dorms. So I achieved a reputation as a “hard grader,” a cursed title at Bloomsbury, but a reputation that earned me the respect of Michael, who came to see me as a kind of friend and fellow-traveler, and ultimately, an earpiece for his most obscure esoterica (and erotica). Attendance in my courses the next semester dropped thirty percent; not that I cared — I had tenure. Former, failed students scowled at me as we passed beneath the arches, and I grew to relish the feelings of mutual contempt that swam between us, not that I desired to feel so, but, in a phrasing I have only recently come to respect: it was what it was. Students wrote scathing satires of me in the university’s weekly humor magazine. They said I would be practicing philosophy in the sand when the enemy struck and murdered me from behind. They laughed at me, poked fun at my personality. All this punishment merely because I had decided to cure my despair at the sheer and unfathomable unthinkingness of a culture by failing a few privileged fools who thought that Philosophy 101 would be easy.

Soul-purging, self-overcoming, self-letting go. Some of my students can perceive this imperative; others cannot, or will not, or are not yet ready. Instead of giving them grades, I should predict at what point in the future they might be ready for the teachings. That would be more fair. All judgments are judgments of timing.

I learned much from my students that year. I learned how to fish. To sit by the river. That is my sole desire. The pale, reflecting river, the mirror on our fluctuations of consciousness, the window onto our inner scintillation. A teacher is a fisherman and a fisherman is patient, alert, and kind. Not a grader of men, not an evaluator of minds — a fisherman of so-called souls.

No comments: