I teach existentialism every term. I usually love it, but this semester has been harder than most.
My hope is always to show my students how these European thinkers – from Nietzsche to Sartre and de Beauvoir – can help us understand the present day. Usually they fight me tooth and nail (which is, I admit, half the fun). They struggle to understand a movement that came of age in the 1940s as a counterpoint to senseless violence, ethnic cleansing and the rise of fascism. The disjointedness, the almost-surreal fracturing, the struggle with the absurd: it is all out of sync with their normal American lives, and part of the joy of the class is to acquaint them with something radically other.
But, this time around, these visceral literary responses to an inhuman and profoundly irrational world have hit too close to home, and I have come close to crying on several occasions in the midst of students I have the obligation to teach.
The day after Donald Trump’s election victory in November, I tried to read them Franz Kafka’s Resolutions. Written in 1911, this very short story begins with the observation that “to lift yourself out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy”. But Kafka then notes that “one single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process”.
He continues: “So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step: to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.”
He concludes with the observation that “a characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows”.
The buoyancy of teenage students is usually irrepressible; they typically can’t grasp the virtue of resignation. In the years of Barack Obama’s “yes we can” mentality, one of my students couldn’t contain her disgust for Kafka’s fatalism: “He’s a pessimistic idiot,” she blurted. “He should just go kill himself.” But something changed immediately after the election: even my most cheery students were ready – or at least understood the impulse – to throttle down whatever “ghostly life” remained in them. Kafka was, finally, a sympathetic figure. They understood the story, and I should have been happy.
But I wasn’t. Teaching Kafka was never supposed to be this easy. I couldn’t finish reading the story, cutting off somewhere in the last sentence.
Resolutions is a story of facades – the cover-ups that tend to only partially mask true despair. Eventually, in Kafka’s words, the “false face” slips away. This is simply the nature of resolutions – they are, at best, stopgap measures. Maybe, Kafka suggests, it is better to simply experience rock bottom: to come to close quarters with the nausea of utter despondency.
That is certainly a tempting thought as we contemplate the imminent prospect of Trump’s inauguration. It is certainly how most of my class felt in the immediate aftermath of his victory. They looked at me blankly, quietly, and blinked. One of my best students – a talkative young woman who wants to go into social work – sat in perfect silence. She took her little finger and ran it slowly across her eyebrows. I was going to be sick. I told my students to take a break, and ran to the bathroom.
When I returned to finish the three-hour seminar, the group was still enjoying the peace of the graveyard. No one moved. No one talked. No one even texted.
“Let’s read something else,” I croaked, doing my best to smile.
I dug around my bag until I found The Notebooks of Martin Laurids Brigge, Ranier Marie Rilke’s only novel, published in 1910. Brigge, a totally average man, sits in his dingy little loft and contemplates the possibility that the world as he knows it is completely meaningless. This is not unlike the position that Kafka assumes repeatedly in his writings. Is it possible that our culture, our education, our political institutions, our deepest values have really just been a massive farce, Brigge asks. “Is it possible that we have had thousands of years to look, meditate and record and that we have let these thousands of years slip away like recess at school, where there is just enough time to eat your sandwich and an apple?” Yes, it is possible.
But if this is possible, Brigge concludes, “then surely, for the sake of everything in the world, something must be done.” And here is the pivotal difference between Kafka’s Resolutions and Rilke’s call to action: “The first comer,” Brigge continues, “the one who has had these alarming thoughts, must begin to do some of the things that have been neglected; even though he is just anyone, and certainly not the most suitable person.”
There are times when we lose all hope, lose our grip on reality – or, rather, reality loses its grip on us. Being untethered is unsettling, but there might be something redemptive in the disruption. We may not be the first-comers when it comes to entertaining grave fears over what the next four years hold for the academy, the nation and the world, but we still have the responsibility – and the freedom – to do whatever we can to limit the damage.
John Kaag is professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.