January 10, 2013 | by Ariel Djanikian
In the spring of 2002, I signed up for a night class in existentialism. The choice was an emotional one. College was off to a rocky start. My education had no clear purpose; my friends were more like acquaintances; the whole country was careening toward an abyss. Meaning, in other words, was elusive, and I wanted to hear from the people who’d explained its elusiveness best.
The instructor was Tom Meyer, only a lowly University of Pennsylvania graduate student, though I didn’t know it at the time. We arrived at the first class to find him sitting at a conference table, folding and unfolding a paperclip. To my immense satisfaction, he looked just like I thought an existentialist should: gaunt, pasty-faced. Black hair standing up from his skull. His clothing ratty at the collar and cuffs. For a first-day icebreaker, he had us go around the room and say our name, the name of an actor, and a type of deli meat.
I soon realized that Tom was a cult hero on campus. A person worthy of shouted conversations at parties. “You have Tom Meyer? Oh man, I’m obsessed with that guy!” There was no shortage of anecdotes. The paperclip, for instance, turned out to be a fixture, and the icebreaker game, though we numbered only fifteen in the class, continued with variations the entire semester: say your name and the name of a department store; say your name and a kind of road kill.
Once he paused discussion to tell us how he’d stayed up all night rearranging his furniture, so that now his couch, chairs, and bookshelves faced into the walls. When, the next week, someone followed up, he said that he’d switched the furniture back, but couldn’t quite reproduce the original placements, resulting in the apartment feeling strangely off.
Of course he knew his philosophy, and he delivered on all the big players: Sartre, de Beauvoir, lots of Nietzsche. I believed it all, gobbled it up, and allowed the readings—accompanied by Tom’s insights—to weigh me down with heavy ideas. Existence precedes essence. Zarathustra descended from the mountaintop in vain.
On my walk home after class through West Philadelphia, I used to call my mother: our conversations inevitably derailing to the subject of my despair.
Finally, she was on to me.
“It’s that existentialism class!” she said. “I want you to drop that class!”
In part, my mother was right. Though I was by no means a naturally cheerful person, the shaky uncertainty that kept me from sleeping those Tuesday nights, that made my e-mails, textbooks, and instant messages blanks, was also unlike me. I needed a change, and the end of the semester, the warm, pink May, came as a relief.
I still have the course books. They’re lined up on a shelf over my desk. In ten years I’ve barely touched them, though I’d think about the class now and then. This summer, five weeks after our daughter was born, my husband asked, out of the blue, “What was the name of that existentialism teacher you had?”
A fellow Penn alum had linked to an article. Tom Meyer, an assistant professor at Temple University, had killed himself on August 6. I was shocked.
“But it was an act,” I protested. “I could have sworn it was an act.”
I meant the class, his idiosyncrasies, his artful embodiment of existential clichés. Bizarrely, my first thought upon hearing the news was something akin to, Now this is taking it too far.
I couldn’t read the obituary right away. Not while still unsteady with childbirth hormones. Not (superstitiously) with the baby in my arms. But one night I looked. He had jumped out the window of his fourth-story apartment. Rumors circulated that he’d lost his job, then later rumors said he hadn’t. A friend wrote eloquently of her disbelief. Only four stories. That stuck in my mind. It didn’t seem high enough to guarantee a painless death—if that was indeed his intention.
We watched one movie in Tom’s class, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. In it, the philosopher character commits suicide by choosing, one day, to drop out the window. Tom hinted at seeing himself in the role, and asked us to brainstorm reasons why he shouldn’t kill himself. Our knowing smiles flashed around the room. It was the height of teacherly performance, another intellectual exercise. I ventured, “Because something is better than nothing,” which wasn’t quite it. A student from the Wharton school, who Tom used to quiz on the definitions of outlandish concepts like “mutual funds,” said, “Because when you’re alive you have choices. And when you’re dead, it’s the state of no choice.”
“I like that,” Tom said. “Evoking the concept of choices. That’s good.”
Class recessed, and we scattered on our separate ways. Until next week.
Ariel Djanikian is the author of The Office of Mercy. A Philly native, she currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.