Existentialism by Steven Schrader

I started college at sixteen, which was too young, especially for me, since I was naive and forgetful to begin with.  I did things like write down exam room numbers on a scrap of paper which I invariably lost and then would have to track down another student from class to find out where the exam was to be given.  I lived at home--everybody at New York University lived at home then--and Iím sure that reinforced my immaturity.  My mother expected me to join her every night for dinner.  She believed that the food in restaurants wasnít clean and that Iíd be poisoned.

N.Y.U. was sort of a second rate college at the time.  It let almost everyone in, not like City College, which required Regents Exams.  But N.Y.U. was actually an interesting place then, with evening undergraduate courses for older students who worked.  My classmates included Korean War veterans and people like Mrs. Shine, a forty year old mother of two, who sat next to me in Freshman English and had read all of Freud, whom Iíd never even heard of until we discussed a selection by him from our freshman literature anthology.

Often I wandered around the Village by myself.  In the evening residents left their lights on and their shades open, which made it possible to look at their apartmentsí high ceilings, antique furniture, and crammed bookshelves, and I dreamed of getting to know someone who lived in the vicinity.  I browsed in the 8th Street Bookstore frequently, while cool-looking customers stood around and talked to one another as if they were at a party.  All the clerks looked like writers and made private jokes all the time.  I felt like I was the ultimate outsider, but I went there often enough to become familiar with the names of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Ted Joans, whose small press books were displayed.

One day I bought a couple of paperbacks about existentialism, which I was studying in a philosophy course given by William Barrett, an editor at The Partisan Review.  He seemed very hip in those days--he told the class that heíd named his son Bird for Charlie Parker or maybe it was Satchmo for Louis Armstrong.  Later, during Nixonís presidency, he became a neo-conservative.  One of the books I bought that day was Nietzscheís Beyond Good and Evil.  Another was an anthology called Existentialism, edited by a well-known philosophy professor from Princeton, Walter Kauffman.  Both books were published by Anchor, which was started by Jason Epstein, at the time considered the young genius of publishing.  Twenty years later he ignored me and looked around for someone more important to talk to when we were introduced at a party.  But at the time I bought his books I knew nothing of him or, for that matter, existentialism, except that it was all the rage and that it was a way for me to become cultured and thus escape my familyís bourgeois background.  At home I would close the door to my room and listen to field recordings of blues singers and to Beethoven string quartets, hoping to improve my mind.

I left the 8th Street Bookstore with my bag of books about existentialism and walked back for my next class to the Main Building, which faced Washington Square Park.  I had to use the bathroom and before closing the door to the stall I left my new books outside on the windowsill.  I felt I ought to be able to trust anyone who came in not to take them.  After all, they were about existentialism, and anyone who took books of such a nature would be doomed to feel guilty for the rest of his life.

I heard the door to the menís room open, a urinal flush, and the door swing open again.  When I came out the books were gone.  I was shocked.  How could someone stoop so low, I thought.  But there was nothing I could do, except curse myself for my simple-minded innocence.  I found it hard to concentrate during the class.  When it was over I rushed back to the 8th Street Bookstore to buy new copies of the books that had been stolen.  Anchor books were around ninety-five cents at the time and I knew I could ask my mother for extra money if my allowance ran out before the end of the week.  I was relieved that the young woman at the cash register didnít seem to notice that I had bought the same books less than two hours before.

In the end I never read any of them or, for that matter, really got to understand existentialism, except that it had something to do with taking responsibility for oneís actions.  I didnít have the kind of mind to grasp abstract philosophical thoughts.  Every time I started reading Beyond Good and Evil I fell asleep.  But I still liked to look at it on my desk.




© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Back to Archives

Steven Schrader