Professor Tells All: I Was an Existentialist!
I write this to celebrate our Theatre Program and its young actors and writers at OCCC. My hat’s off to Professor Russell and all the students in Theatre Program who bring so much to our OCCC family. I have always loved having those theatre students in my classes.
This spring’s theatre production (and hope you don’t miss out on it!), Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, is a very close first cousin to existentialism. This play deals with the role of language in our relationships and how we listen-if we do listen at all! Professor Russell and I disagree on the beauty of another theatre of the Absurd staple, Sam Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I, a fan, Professor Russell not so much, but both plays place us in the existential position of being human and living in an ambiguous reality at best.
In Godot, one question resonates as “Where do we place our trust in any given moment of reality?” Things like questioning trust, the what and the how of relationships, the nature of communication/miscommunication in language, and always the comedy/tragedy/happy of being human are part of existentialism and the existential dilemma.
The world of existentialism and its close-knit family of the Theatre of the Absurd were my favorite haunts as a college student. To give fair warning to you, college student and others, if you become so inclined toward existentialism, there probably will be some fun to miss out on that non-existentialists take for granted.
Maybe that is where the fun of theatre comes in: it projects that comedy/tragedy/happy so that we can laugh at ourselves a bit.
I will not use my usual metaphor of sunlight and shadow with existentialism but rather life’s play of comedy/tragedy/happy. The happy is mine. I will never say not to be happy in life!
What a wonder word, existentialism! And we indeed can wonder what it means. Basics 101: “existence precedes essence” as JP Sartre best described it. To wonder about what that even means is a start for you. For me, existentialism is this: I am here in a big world, SURPRISE! Do I take my cue from others like family, friends, teachers, and society, or darn it, do I have to start from scratch every moment? From scratch can be scary, lonely, and alienating, so where is the fun in that?! But for the existentialist, from scratch it is. And what does that even look like?
Maybe I want to go to a party instead of studying. What does “from scratch” tell me to do? (By the way, the doing part is the only part that existentialists see as true and real and meaningful. What I do is me. And no do-overs!) Party or study becomes an existential crisis for me.
As your teacher and colleague, I better say I will study, but was that my true existential decision? And can I even know my own true decision after decades of social conditioning? See what I mean about losing out on some fun? When do the questions ever stop for an existentialist? Only in the doing and the action of my own life.
However, there is one aspect here we can all learn from: existentialism is a no excuse life. No excuses can be made for my actions. I own them. They are me. And if well-being and growth are part of a good life, existential or not, we know taking ownership of feelings and actions is a plus for moving forward in our lives, so GO EXISTENTIALISM! Just kidding. I have yet to meet a cheerleading squad for existentialism.
The ending to Ionesco’s Bald Soprano is a case in point of the on-going comedy/tragedy/happy of an existential’ s life: the play’s end is the play’s beginning. The characters exchange each other’s lines and go on as if nothing has happened. What absurdity is this? Well, it is the absurdity of a good education. We learn to question things as they are through others’ perspectives and life’s ambiguities.
That is the fun! Just think where that fun could lead us? To questioning big things in our lives like our relationship to racism or to love or to how we treat others or to prejudices that we take-on from others without even knowing it or to partying and studying. If the “from scratch” is who you are and what you do, maybe some on-going questioning of self plays more than an absurd or existential part to our lives.
My title says that I was an existentialist. Am I now? I am not telling. But I will do a good job teaching for you, just as so many of my colleagues do. I will listen well because I know communication has its existential problems. I will learn with you because I know learning from others’ perspectives cushions me from things like racism and prejudice. If there is any wrench in the wheel of my existentialism, in one word, it is Aristotle and Confucius-well, more than one word. These two guys had to be existentialists at some point in their lives as they said so many good things “from scratch” in their own times and lived such courageous lives for the sake of learning and doing. And gottcha Professor Thurston-Aristotle, Aristotle, Aristotle!
I do have a particular irritation with the word existentialism right now. The news media has in the past year or so picked up the term existential. As in the existential threat of epidemic or climate change or war. I question their reflectiveness of their use of the term, but if they are using it correctly in relation to plague, climate disaster, and war, it is the Heideggerian sense of “being-unto-death”. This sense of being-unto-death is another significant point in understanding existentialism. Fun sense? No, but it has its place in knowing thyself if we each begin to take more care and more thoughtfulness and more responsibility for how we relate to our world.
I leave you with Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Albert Camus: To be or not to be? That is the question. After the question comes for me my fav play, Waiting for Godot. How to be? All life moments are waiting up until the moment of doing. In all their absurdity and comedy and tragedy and happy. In education, we get to wait in a wonderful place! Take a deep breath, smile, and dig into your self-knowledge and into your studies, ready at-the-moment to make good decisions and to stand on the side of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
Some existential wisdom:
- Be in nature (it could care less if you are an existentialist or not!)
- Care for yourself, inner and outer
- Care for others
- Tie critical thinking and responsibility together
- Make your responsibilities happy ones
- Know thyself
Would love to hear from you! [email protected]
Professor Sartre Morrow
To be an existentialist, there is a scale for it (not really, but an existentialist can say so anyway). On one side, there is an experience of nothing or nothingness. Nothing matters (if you cogitate on this for just a bit, you will see something that makes you an automatic member of the existentialist club).