The Syllabus, Sisyphus and Us,” by Robert Zaretsky

Nov 16th, 2022 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Existentialism 301
Fall 2022
T/Th 11:30 PM-1:00 AM

Class Requirements:

Black turtleneck. Hair pomade. Pack of Gauloises (or, in a pinch, Camel non-filters). Espresso-stained copy of Être et rien (and you will regette rien by rrroolling those r’s).

Class Schedule:

Seriously? During the occupation of their country, Jean-Paul Sartre observed, the French were never freer. So too for you during our occupation of the windowless (but, finally, asbestos-less) basement room. By abandoning a formal schedule, we acknowledge the random and arbitrary nature of the cosmos (mirrored in the sorting of room assignments.) Not only are we condemned to freedom, but we are also condemned to going to the bathroom when we choose to do so. (Should you find scrawled on the stall door “God is dead—Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead—God,” I did not do it.)

Class Grading Policy:  

Just as there is no objective standard for moral values under the tender indifference of the skies, there is no objective standard for grade values under the tender indifference of your professor. As grades are subjective and intersubjective, we are condemned to accept the grades each of you chooses as you embrace your radical freedom and prepare your applications for law school.

Class Goals:

One is not born an existentialist; one becomes an existentialist. By semester’s end, you will have become existentialists by:

—Learning to gaze into the middle distance while wreathing yourselves in cigarette smoke.

—Learning to imagine yourselves happy in all your failed projects, as we must imagine Sisyphus happy after yet another failed effort at rolling his boulder to the mountaintop. (Of course, it’s another question whether we must imagine his—or your—parents happy.)

—Learning to identify the variety of ennui, ranging from the divine boredom that led to humankind’s creation (Kierkegaard), through the claim that, at the end of all our projects, we will find only boredom (Schopenhauer), to the nihilistic boredom brought on by seeing one’s students gazing at their smart phones during lecture (Zaretsky).

Frequently Asked Questions in Class:

What is existentialism?

Don’t ask me. I spend weekends at Lowes, unable to choose a mulch, yet knowing that I cannot ask the elderly man with a Lowe’s vest limply hanging over his skeletal frame to choose one for me. And don’t ask an existentialist thinker. In 1947, a meeting between French and German existentialists took place in Strasbourg to write aa joint statement on existentialism. When the door to the conference room was opened several hours later, the organizers found bloodied berets, shredded lederhosen and, well, I can’t go on even if, apologies to Beckett, I must go on.

What is angst?

I dread this question. Please don’t ask it again.

What is phenomenology? 

It is a way to make philosophical puzzles disappear by describing (and describing some more) the phenomena we experience in our everyday lives. Edmund Husserl did this with a cup of coffee, Jean-Paul Sartre did it with a chestnut tree and Sam Blumenthal did it with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. While his description of the traffic did not make philosophical riddles disappear, it did make me disappear during our weekly visits to my grandparents’ apartment in the Bronx. (If you have five minutes, let me describe my grandfather to you.)

What is the meaning to life?

I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it is not 42.


Robert Zaretsky teaches at the Honors College, University of Houston. The pretentiousness of his latest book, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving at a Time of Plague, might get a laugh or two.

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