One semester, when Nick and I were 18, we left it too late to complete our course options and, once again, found ourselves picking through the leftover courses that no one else wanted. With one course still remaining we didn’t have much choice so we signed up for something called Existentialism in Literature. Now I had read a fair bit and had a natural interest in philosophy. For Nick, however, reading served a purely utilitarian function. The only books I’d ever noticed in his bedroom were “How to improve your golf swing in ten easy lessons” and “Making the Perfect Beer.” Still, there was no choice and so we set off for new horizons.
The lecturer, Ms Berksen, was a very animated woman with big glasses, hairy arms and a moustache. She was very happy to have us in her class and referred to us as “My gentlemen.” The same could not be said of the other eight students, all of them girls with fat arms, cardigans and the faint scent of acne cream. They rightly gazed at us with suspicion and only barely disguised contempt.
When she read excerpts from a book, Ms Berksen, insisted on creating a new voice for each character, the effect of which became somewhat distracting as we ploughed through, for example, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” For effect she would stop suddenly and gaze with glistening eye over the top of the page. It was like kindergarten for intellectuals.
Nick, for his part, displayed a great animal instinct for survival. He said little and listened less. Along the way he inadvertently learned about symbolism and was quite impressed to discover that a sun was not necessarily a sun or a river, merely a river. Everything, he learned to his confusion, could be imbued with meanings about which he had been blissfully ignorant.
When silence was not possible, he would sometimes relate obscure anecdotes that he believed illustrated a point at hand. I only vaguely remember one of these, in relation to the theatre of the absurd, which involved a one legged Aboriginal high jumper. “A very interesting interpretation, Mr Palmer,” coughed Ms Berksen after a slight pause.
Eventually, his cover was blown, of course. One wet winter’s afternoon, sitting by a window in a beam of sunlight, warmed by lilting tone of Ms Berksen’s rendition of an excerpt from Sartre’s “Nausea”, Nick fell asleep. Eventually the eyes of Ms Berksen gleamed maniacally over the pages of the book as she reached one of her inexplicable climaxes. The room was hushed.
“And what do you think of that, Mr Palmer?” she asked. Nick jerked into consciousness. Instinctively he asked, “Pardon?” The lecturer asked her question again and we all watched with bated breath as his mind raced through all the possible answers that, with sufficient ambiguity, might get him off the hook. Nick was no coward; once settled on his lifeline he threw it with the instant conviction of the great optimist.
“I agree with what you just said, Ms Berksen.”
We all sat there silently blushing. Nick’s brief days as an intellectual were over.
(Cartoon from http://www.cartoonstock.com/lowres/hsc0552l.jpg)