To Xavier Zubiri, Much Obliged
by Ace Boggess
What's philosophy for if not to help a young man get laid? Existence and essence? Ethics and rhetoric? They're all divisions of the same great quest for the light within enlightenment: the pragmatics of sliding a hand up under a skirt to entice a purely determined sigh.
Hell, it worked for Sartre, that old bugger. Possibly the ugliest man ever to roam the earth actually able to count to ten without the aid of his fingers, and yet, he captured the heart and mind, or more precisely the body, of a certain devout feminist just because he knew what it meant to be or not to be. Or what it meant to be while realizing how insignificant being actually was, and how much it made him sick, not to mention how quick of wit he had to be in such a hopeless, affectless situation. Even his love must have been plagued by the futility of his forthcoming nothingness. Oh, but the chicks could really dig that. Even after he found his ideal companion, he still managed to bury his ugly head between any pair of warm, perfumed breasts he pleased. And Simone de Beauvoir, the woman of his nihilistic dreams, accepted him, encouraged him, and gave him a hell of a good time because, as she put it, he was the only man to whom she ever felt intellectually inferior.
If philosophy did that for Sartre, what could it do for Jesse Cherbury? Eh? That's all I want to know.
And Sartre wasn't the only brilliant lecher. Even Socrates took a quick turnabout when it came to the ladies. For a man that once reveled in the fact that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, Socrates sure changed his tune when he declared for all the world that love was a subject he fully understood. Of course, to be fair, there were many near misses. Best not even to mention Kierkegaard, after all. Old Sören was a bit off balance from the start.
I didn't understand it at first either, but as I opened my eyes to the possibilities, I saw just how far philosophy could take me. And no, I'm not talking about making a play for your average perky blonde business major hanging out at the bar. Don't need philosophy for that. Wouldn't want to waste all that great knowledge when a couple of beers would suffice. I mean young sophisticates like Candy Vaughn with her dark hair short and neatly trimmed, her eyes always somewhere else, the corners of her smile rarely arcing past ten and two. True's true, before I started chasing Candy, I was touching bottom in my sophomore philosophy class. The big F stared me straight in the face like a slobbering mutt on a cold night. I learned more walking in her wake than in the other five and a half long years of my extended college career.
Now Candy wasn't the kind of girl to fall for a one-liner, however clever and profound it might appear. I couldn't just walk up to her and say, "Hey, Candy. I really need to get in your pants. It's a Categorical Imperative." That would be a mistake from the first.
While she might not slap me, which is always good, she'd certainly pause to consider my words and then correct me for my social blunder, much more than a minor misstatement. "Kant's Categorical Imperative," she'd explain, "isn't a matter of need but of necessity. You're saying you need me categorically and imperatively. That'd make Kant's ghost haunt you in your sleep. What Kant meant was that one necessarily should act in a way that'd be right if everyone everywhere acted the same. Like I'm sure your mother used to say, 'Would you jump off a bridge just because your best friend did?' Kant would say yes, but only if it'd be good for everyone to jump off a bridge. Don't you see? By terming it a Categorical Imperative that you, as you put it, get in my pants, you're really saying that it'd be a good thing for everyone in the world to get in my pants. And you know, while some might find that flattering, I'm just a bit offended."
Then I, by way of response, would theoretically turn bright red from overwhelming embarrassment, apologize like a clumsy dancer having stepped on her feet, and then slowly back away, bumping into other students eager to get to class. And I say theoretically, of course, not so much because I imagine this being her inevitable response but in order to hide the fact that it actually was.
At least she knew me after that. While she didn't find me all that swift of logic, I think she accepted the quirkiness of my effortwhat Camus might call my Sisyphean ridiculous beginning destined to someday grow into a great deed. What does that mean exactly? It means she encouraged me to try again. She nodded whenever she saw me, and sometimes she even flashed half a smile. She approved of the use of logic, even when coming from a dim-witted slacker like me.
Unfortunately, my next attempt proved just as unsuccessful. However, it was at least more philosophically sound. She was studying Aristotle in class, and I was studying her, taking note of her flowing brown skirt that parted at the bottom to reveal just a hint of naked ankle, her blue sweater soft as kittens and calling out to be stroked from across the room. I wanted to stretch out a hand and offer my caress, but I doubt she would've been as receptive as she looked.
Instead, I watcher her. I saw her face flushed and her eyes almost seeming to glitter as they centered on the slow movements of the professor's lips.
"Not too long and not too short," Professor Riehl explained. "That's the key to perfection." He was a low-watt bulb in a dark room, that's for sure. He offered little in the way of vision, and after being around him enough one had no trouble drifting off to sleep. His voice whined in staccato rhythms like the droning of an airplane and his hands almost never left the pockets of his off-white slacks, the ones he wore nearly every day, even in the harshest snows of a West Virginia winter.
I listened without really listening until the right words came along.
"Aristotle said a poem can't be too short to convey an appropriate message, but it also can't be too long to be read in a single setting. That's the beauty of poetry. It has to be just the right length: a custom fit."
As I watched Candy from across the room, she turned to me and flashed her brightest smile. It lasted only a curious moment, like seeing a familiar face forming in a cloud. Even so, I recognized my invitation. I went to work composing a poem for her, one that was long enough to say what I intended but short enough to recite without losing her attention. It was an easier job than one might think as I traced squiggly lines on a scrap of paper, using the professor's voice as a metronome to provide a cadence for the piece.
". . .burning like a sunset," I narrated as I caught up to her after class, "if only you'd descend a little closer than the horizon so that I could burn my hands upon the flames."
She giggled, the one response I never expected, though the one I'd receive most often in the months ahead. Then as she paused to catch her breath, she whispered so that no one else could hear: "A love poem? After last time, I expected a little bit more from you."
That was the opening I needed. "Weren't you listening?" I asked. "It was an Aristotelian gift. That's what the professor said. A poem's perfect if it's neither too long nor too short. That's what I gave you. It's fourteen lines, just perfect for the message I wanted you to have."
She continued to giggle, not at all an encouraging sign. Then a silence passed between us like that at a dinner party after one of the guests has expelled a hideous belch, just before the sincerest "Excuse me" inevitably to follow. "That's true," she agreed. Then she hesitated before adding that infamous word: "But. . . ."
"Well, it's not that simple."
"He said that though. Right?"
"Professor Riehl did say that. Or rather, Aristotle said it. But I'm afraid you were the one that wasn't listening. If you'd been paying attention, you'd have heard him go on to explain that length is only a part of the equation. Diction also matters. As Aristotle said, the key is to be clear without being commonplace. I hate to say it, but your sonnet's a little trite."
That hurt. If Candy weren't so seemingly sympathetic, I might have lapsed into melancholy. I felt like Buridan's assthat is, if Buridan's ass were a colloquialism like it sounded instead of a thinking mule torn between bales of hay. My pride wounded, my spirit dimmed, I apologized and turned to walk away.
"That's all right," she said, though I didn't look back to see the soft pink of her lips as they absolved me. "I appreciate the effort. Keep trying and maybe next time you'll find the words."
The logical seduction proved more difficult than I could've contemplated. Time and again, I came to her with questions, comments, offers, all of them filled with the knowledge I'd acquired. And while I began to understand the keys, somehow it seems I never got past the gate. I read philosophy texts as if they were comic books, scratching my head as Sartreman conquered the beast of bad faith, biting my nails as the Incredible Spinoza searched for the split psyche connecting both thought and thing, and laughing at Nietzsche's pompous Superman as he struggled to overcome whatever terrible stuff he found that seemed to need overcoming. Couldn't handle the Mighty Heidegger, however. The evildoers must have won with him. His battles just didn't make sense.
In any case, I hit the books hard. I studied more than I ever had, even in the seventh grade when I had to do everything except cheat to keep from failing a science class. I needed the perfect doctrine to sway Candy's overwhelming mind.
But she knew far too much.
I walked up to Candy in the cafeteria, a slab of pseudo-steak congealing on my tray, and whispered, "According to Unamuno, it's the tragic sense of life that makes us suffer. That's the anxiety, the all-too-human awareness we have of our own condition. There's this tension that builds up inside us between faith that there's something beyond this life and reason which seems to tell us that there's not."
She giggled in manic frenzy, tried to hide the fresh mustard blotch on her flower-print blouse, and said, "Go on."
"Well, because of that, we have agony, we have passion, and we have struggle."
"I'm aware," she chided. "But what does that have to do with you and me?"
"Don't you see? We're doomed to our agonies, our struggles, and especially our passions. Man is a passionate animal. What better way to release that passion, to relieve the tension, than to share it in a moment of beautiful interpersonal bliss?"
And of course, her giggling turned into derisive laughter as she countered my hypothesis. "Unamuno's too depressing. You expect him to solve your romantic problems? Giving me Unamuno for a gift is like sending a heart-shaped box filled with chocolate grasshoppers. Sure they might be hip just now to image-conscious teens, but when you think about it, they're still grasshoppers. It's really kind of revolting. Besides, remember that Tillich said you can counter the tragic sense of life with the courage to be." She paused. "You know what you need now."
"The courage to eat."
"The courage to eat?"
"Yeah. That's what counters the tragic sense of meat."
Another time I whispered sweet nothings in the form of John Stuart Mills, preaching the utilitarian functions of a single moment of clarity in bed. "We must act to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number," I explained. We were in the lounge of our dormitory, shooting a game of pool. "That's a basic argument, but a good one."
"Right. So?" She looked away, making me feel as if I had the advantage.
While her head was turned, I stole a quick glimpse of her breasts hovering beneath the university logo on her furry blue sweatshirt. She caught me looking, however, and I had to shrug as I went on with my argument. "Well, if you say no, only one person benefits: you. And even that is arguable. Believe me, I'd love to disprove at least that theory of yours. Still, how many people benefit if you come up to my room?"
She leaned over the table and sank a stripe with a loud smack like Nietzsche's Superman crashing into a tree, silly red cape and all. Though perhaps that's not a good analogy since I don't recall actually reading about the red cape. "One," she said. "Only one. And even that's arguable, though I have no desire to prove you wrong."
"Ah, but you see, that's where you're mistaken. If you agree, I'll take you out for a nice dinner first. That benefits the restaurant, the waiter if he gets a good tip, the ranchers that produce the meat, the farmers who make the vegetables, the city by collecting taxes, and then, through the theories of supply and demand, every living soul in seemingly all the world. So you see, it's a utilitarian requirement that you sleep with me."
She laughed, proudly but defiantly like Hera waving off another of her husband's many affairs. "You've put a lot of thought into this, haven't you? I can tell." She leaned over and casually displaced another ball with a smooth stroke of the cue.
She didn't reply. Instead she responded to the argument. "In any case, you're wrong," she explained.
"I'm not wrong."
"Okay," I said. "How?"
"The principle is the greatest good for the greatest number. The part about the greatest number is only part of the equation."
"So," she chided, leaning over once again to sink the eight ball and win the battle if not the war, "the blessing you impart on a hapless waiter and a bunch of clowns in city government is minuscule when compared to the one I get by not sleeping with you." She paused to receive my handshake, that single seductive caress I cherished every time she won. "And don't forget, you benefit as well."
"No I don't."
"You do. This way, you have to try harder, learn more, and come back for another amusing game."
As scornful as Candy came across from time to time, I knew I was getting to her. That is to say I was getting through. She enjoyed our games. They made us both think, and that is after all philosophy's other function. One time she even challenged me. She saw me coming out of a bar and, when I asked if I could buy her a drink, she declined. Instead, she let me walk her to her car as she inquired, "What about William James?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do you know anything about William James?"
"Oh, well, he was that American guy."
"So what was his philosophy?" she queried further, sounding somewhat under the influence herself, though her cheeks weren't flushed and I hadn't actually seen her inside the bar.
"Good. You're passing the quiz. Now what would he have argued?"
I knew this could be my moment of truth, so to speak. It was just a matter of reading between the lines. "Well, it's getting from here to there. We need to act in the way that gets from here to there as quickly and easily as possible."
"Yes, that's pragmatism in general," she sighed, "but what about William James? How would he help you win your argument?"
Sadly, I recognized defeat even from a distance. While I thought I understood the universal pragmatist, I'd overlooked specifics on this particular one.
Leaning up toward me, Candy placed a delicate kiss upon my cold cheek, though I was too disappointed to receive it in anything more than sympathy. "The will to believe," she said, as she slid into the driver's seat of her lime green Ford. "You have the right to believe beyond the evidence. Remember that. You can make the world in any way you want it to be so long as you believe."
I thought about this for several long moments, nodding in the thick December cold. But I said nothing. She had me once again. Or rather, I could not have her.
Finally, just before she closed the door and drove off into the night, she sighed one final time. "Keep believing, Jesse," she said. "Maybe someday you'll find the words."
As I watched her car drive off, I couldn't help but wonder why she hadn't offered me a lift. But of course I knew. I simply hadn't allowed myself to believe. "The will to the believe," I said to no one. "I'll keep that mind. I believe. I really do believe." Then I took a deep, forceful breath and shouted at the night, "The will to believe! Thank you, William James! You son of a bitch!"
To find the answer, I struggled. I spent so much time in the library that the janitor had to run me off every night. The old guy probably figured me for a homeless wino with no place else to go.
My friends must have thought I was searching for the meaning of life, the way I kept reading philosophy books even while we were sitting around the table at a local dive, a pitcher of beer in front of me and a couple of friendly college girls to my side. "Experience comes from impressions and ideas," I tried to explain, summarizing Hume. "I need to think. I need to experience. Oh, how I need to experience."
But they didn't buy it. They poured me another glass and pleaded with me to relax. "Experience the bottom of the cup," one said, while the rest just sat around and laughed. And it wasn't understanding laugher. I had only Candy for that.
So I kept reading, kept trying, kept believing. I knew I had to beat her at her own game, to find that piece of wisdom even she had somehow overlooked. I went through all kinds of assorted nonsense: monists and dualists, logical positivists, nominalists, nihilists, behaviorists, and sophists. There were people with crazy and unfamiliar names: Hermann Minkowski who deemed time the fourth dimension; Favorinus, the first eclectic philosopher; and Stephen Pepper who sought to explain philosophy itself by breaking each type of philosophy down to its root metaphor. Nothing seemed to work. It was all worthless, none of it offering a single clue to invite the female form. Because of this, I grew more and more detached from the seduction of Candy Vaughn and slowly became seduced by the texts themselves.
I was sitting in the library late one Friday night while all my friends were off dousing themselves with kamikazes, long island iced teas, and sexes on the beach. The library looked stagnant, almost like a murky pond in which, by chance, one might see the snarling face of a carp. This evening, my impromptu discovery, my foul-smelling fish, was a book called Nature, History, God, by the Spanish existentialist Xavier Zubiri. I'd never heard of the man or his books, but during a confusing search for a book by Nicolas Berdyaev, I stumbled across this lone volume buried in the corner at the very bottom of the last shelf in the last row of the entire library. What the hell, I thought. A philosophy book at the very end must be the be-all end-all.
Zubiri's book hypothesized that human beings are imposed upon the world, or perhaps that the world is imposed upon them. Furthermore, every person has a driving motivation, a sort of mystical callingwhat romantics might refer to as destiny. Therefore, according to Zubiri, our lives are put into context in two ways: where we come from and where we're headed. Where we come from, he calls 'religation,' a take-off on the word 'religion.' It's our desire to explain and perhaps rediscover the past. The other concept, the driving force behind where we're headed, he calls 'obligation': a certain need that, while not predetermined, is nonetheless a motivater helping in our desire to define ourselves.
A month before, I would've been obliged to relegate this nonsense to the philosophical dung heap. Where do we come from? I would've said. I just came from bed. I guess I've religated the mattress. Now I feel obliged to go back and lie down for a nap. But I'd gotten myself caught up in the quest for truth between a certain woman's legs. It had changed me somehow. As I read Zubiri's book, I almost felt relieved that someone could explain my situation. I almost didn't believe it was possible.
"Haven't seen you around much," a soft voice said, calling from the shadows of another stack. It startled me. I'd thought I was alone. "And I certainly didn't expect to find you here."
I looked up and saw a transparent form approaching, almost seeming to glide across the floor. Just a trick of light, though. After a moment, my perceptions cleared and I recognized Candy in a white cotton dress. "Oh," I said, "it's you."
"You don't sound quite so happy to see me."
I shook my head calmly. "It's not that. You startled me."
She floated across the floor and sat in a chair directly across the table. "So what are we reading tonight?"
I showed her the cover of the book.
"Zubiri. I'm not familiar with that one."
A light should've gone off in my head, an enlightening beacon of sorts directing me into Candy's arms. It didn't happen. Instead, I returned my attention to the text, finding out more about my obligations.
"Well? Aren't you going to tell me about it?"
"What?" I said, shaking myself to withdraw from my mind-numbing philosophical stupor. "I'm sorry?"
"The book. Why don't you tell me about it?"
"Oh," I grumbled.
She laughed but said nothing else, waiting for me to begin.
With neither a careful script nor a clever approach, I told Candy about this rare collage of existential imagery. But after all, if there's one thing I've learned from existentialism, it's that you can't control the moment. You merely follow it along, making the important choices as you go.
Candy listened intently, as if I were boring old Professor Riehl preaching Aristotle to kids more suited to quoting Fred Flintstone and Kurt Cobain. Her eyes twitched softly, seductively, as my voice changed in pitch or direction. For once I knew something she didn't, and as I passed this along, I had her completely under the spell, as obliged to listen as I was to tell. "Very intriguing," she said once I'd finished. "So we have this spiritual sense that makes us look to the past religiously and to the future as if by design?"
"Not by design," I countered. "That implies predetermination. There's nothing in Zubiri's obligation to say that we can't choose. It's more like a push in the back to get us started. Whether or not we fulfill our intrinsic longings, that's entirely up to us. It's a lot like Sartre in that way, don't you see?"
She nodded but said nothing. Her eyes were focused on the shadows that must have hidden my own.
"What?" I said after a long, uncomfortable moment.
"Nothing," she replied. "I'm just waiting for your argument."
This time, I laughed. "I don't have one," I explained. "I've been too busy with the moment's obligations."
"Is that so?" she said. "In that case, allow me to make one for you."
"If you're so obliged."
She hesitated, searching for the right words to convey her intended meaning. "Obligation is sort of a magnet that's pulling us in one direction or another."
"Right. So if I felt a compulsion toward an embrace, say, with you?"
"Then you'd probably act in a way that took you closer toward that embrace."
"Like this," she said, sliding around the table toward another chair at my right.
"And if that didn't satisfy the compulsion?"
"It only eased it a bit."
"Then I'd still have this overwhelming desire. . ."
". . .to move forward once again."
And before I could say another word, we were caught up in a void of religation and obligation: kissing, holding, caressing. We slid back into the shadows of the stacks, satisfying our obligations and continuing our shared quest for knowledge in this unexplored terrain, building a monument to our documents as old Foucault undoubtedly would declare.
Thus my conclusion: philosophy is an aphrodisiac. That's all there is to say. What could turn a woman on more than a firm, throbbing thought or a hard body of knowledge pressed between her shapely dissertations?
I understand so much just now. More than I ever could've imagined. If only I could teach all that I've learned. . . .
Ah, but perhaps I'm only rationalizing. It's possible, I admit. When Candy sighed, "Oh, Jesse," from the darkness in the stacks, it could've been a climactic pause brought on by too much unrelieved tension. I doubt it, though. I think we both were merely obliged to act.
Editor's Note: This piece was first published in March, 1998, in Satire, and later nominated by the editors for a Pushcart Prize.