It was a dark and stormy night when we received the late-night call that every parent of a college student dreads.
“Dad,” my son said, struggling to present a brave front in the face of the disaster that had befallen him, “I've become an existentialist.”
Jean-Paul Sartre: “L'existentialisme est un babe magnet!”
Existentialism, like mononucleosis, is a wasting disease that afflicts college students across America almost as soon as they unpack their computers and iPod docking stations. It is a lethal cocktail of philosophy and attitude that transforms ordinary, garden-variety adolescent slackers into arrogant and pretentious post-adolescent slackers. There is no known cure, other than a job and a landlord knocking at your door for his rent check once you move out of a dorm paid for by mom and dad.
Albert Camus: Gauloise cigarette comes standard.
The central tenet of existentialism is that individuals create the essence and meaning of their lives—not exactly an earth-shattering proposition, or one that will provoke a lot of debate, at this late date. It is the execution of this doctrine in one's daily life that distinguishes existentialism from other fraternal orders such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows or the Moose Lodge. Here is a typical interaction between parent and child before the onset of this crippling disease:
PARENT: Go clean up your room.
OFFSPRING: In a minute, I want to check Facebook.
Now, the same conversation, post-existentialisme.
PARENT: Go clean up your room.
OFFSPRING: Why would I do that? It is not a part of who I am, and it contributes nothing to who I want to become.
Nietzsche: Using your magnet, you can move the iron filings from his lip to his forehead.
I am a recovering existentialist, and am thankfully in a position to help the youth of today avoid the swamp of despair that one becomes mired in after reading too much Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche. The trick is to inoculate one's self with a minute dose of the streptococci of existentialism—like a vaccination—before the fever sets in.
Kierkegaard: Note rare double letter, like “Exxon”
I have accordingly created the Existentialist Starter Kit, which you can apply to your-college bound child this summer, allowing him or her to develop the immunities needed to make it through all-night college bull sessions that lower the resistance and allow the virus to gain the upper hand.
Black turtleneck and/or beret. If you want to be an existentialist, you have to look the part, and one of these items of clothing should be worn at all times. Fashion tip: If you select the black turtleneck, use Head & Shoulders Dry Scalp Shampoo.
Paperback copy of L'etre et Neant (Being and Nothingness): This work by Jean-Paul Sartre is widely considered to be the touchstone of existentialism by many people who have bought it and read the introduction, or at least the back cover. To achieve that well-worn look, fill a sink with warm water, add a teabag and soak your copy until the pages turn a light yellow. When it dries, it'll look like you read the whole thing!
Name hyphen: Are you concerned that your daughter Veneta Sue could be seduced by the siren melody of a Top 40 hit of existentialism such as Kierkegaards' Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de philosophiske Smuler? Give her a name hyphen this summer so that she becomes Veneta-Sue, and she'll stick to her declared major of Animal Husbandry.
Gauloise cigarettes: Favorite source of oral gratification of French existentialists. Don't worry about lung cancer—it's mainly a fashion accessory to dangle from one's lips, and need not be lit to achieve its desired effect.
If your high school graduate faithfully uses the tools in this kit over the summer, by the time freshman orientation begins sufficient antibodies will have been built up so that when asked “Have you read any Sartre?” he or she can reply with chilly disdain—"Existentialism? I've progressed beyond that.”
Which, if said with just the right mixture of indifference and arrogance, sounds really existential.
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection "Let's Get Philosophical!"