Saturday, July 01, 2006

Academia Blues, Part 2

While in the shower, I had this sudden image in my head of me, thirteen years ago, sitting down to my final degree exam in Twentieth Century French Literature.

This was my favourite of all subjects. I'd been revising for months. I'd read four books by Sartre, two by Camus and one by top nutter Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I knew them more or less off by heart. I'd even found a handwritten letter from Robbe-Grillet inside one of his books in the library, which no one had ever taken out. I figured that because I was the only person who'd bothered to read the book, I was somehow entitled to own this letter. So I stole it, and promptly lost it.

I had no money, and I hadn't eaten for four days. In the exam I had to write three essays out of seven given questions. There was one question covering the entire oeuvre of Camus and Sartre. There were no questions about Robbe-Grillet. There were five questions about books I hadn't read. And there was a seventh question which is still etched on my mind, thirteen years later. It went:

Nothing is simply one thing. Discuss.

I got up and walked out of the exam without writing anything.

UPDATE: I have a nasty feeling that someone is going to come along and tell me that *was* the question about Robbe-Grillet.

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The Blind Flaneur said...

I'm sure there's a sensationally clever way of answering this question in one sentence. Not being sensationally clever, I can't for the life of me think of what that sentence might be. But since it's sure to preoccupy my thoughts on a weekend that should be about football, and not French existentialism, I shall have a crack.

'Nothing is simply an anagram of one thing without the e.'

patroclus said...

Nice work, Flaneur! That question still bothers me immensely. I can't work out if they mean 'nothing' as in the entity, nothing, or 'nothing' as in 'everything is more than one thing'. It's like when you try to imagine infinity, or nothingness. Makes my head hurt.

Dave again said...

"The true writer has nothing to say. What counts is the way he says it"

That is a quote from your hero (although I admit he may have said it in French).

Perhaps the question isn't a quotation at all (certainly Google doesn't think so - mind you, I haven't tried translating it and then asking Google).

patroclus said...

Ah yeah, that Robbe-Grillet, he was a card. Always trying to write the definitive 'novel about nothing'. As I recall, in Dans le Labyrinthe, someone is forever driving around featureless streets in a nameless town in search of a box which may or may not be important or have something important in it.

Actually that sounds like quite a good read. Might give it another whirl - after I've finished this biog of top nutter Philip K Dick I've just bought.

I don't think it was a quotation, otherwise it would have had quotation marks. God only knows what it was all about.

patroclus said...

Plus, as you say, it would have been in French.

The Blind Flaneur said...

It's the kind of question that leaves on craving a wet towel and darkened room. Suffice to say there's a rootin-tootin paradox at core of nothingness, which is to intellectually complex for my pea brain. Sorry, Patroclus, but I can't help lay those demons to rest.

Good quote, Dave, but it's tosh, is it not?

Terri Nixon said...

Oh how I wish I was a clever bod and understood all this stuff. All I can do is sympathise, and then skip back to your previous post and say it had me rolling in the aisles. Except, of course, I live in a humble 2 bed terrace and the only aisles I ever come across are the ones at Tesco.

But one night, in the wee small hours you'll sit bolt upright and finally understand what that question was about, know the answer, and wish you'd let it lie because, frankly, there's bog all you can do about it now. It'd be like thinking of the perfect comeback half an hour after an argument.

Billy said...

When I first read that I thought you did your degree AGED thirteen rather than 13 years AGO. God, I'm stupid.

As for French literature, I know next to nothing. I read The Plague when I went to reading. I quite like Satre's plays. Erm... that's it.

Interpreter Pavlov said...

You could argue convincingly - I believe Lewis Carroll (never to be underestimated as a philosopher of the absurd) comes close - that the only valid response to this statement is to distance yourself from it.

If you had somersaulted, pogo-sticked or summoned a palanquin to escort you forthwith from the exam hall (see Dave's first comment about style), you would undoubtedly have got a first.

[Half-time: back to the footie]

chuffy! said...

Surely you answered the question with the action of walking out? Doing nothing by doing one thing, and simultaneously illustrating both concepts? If you left the hall with a couple of swirls in an interprative dance then so much the better.

Hope you got a first.

patroclus said...

Terri: Why thank you. It doesn't bother me an awful lot now; there are other things that keep me awake more. But just occasionally it surfaces, and it's actually quite comforting to realise that I *still* don't understand it.

Billy: 'I know next to nothing about French literature' is admirably cancelled out by 'I quite like Sartre's plays'. I've never read/seen any of his plays, but I do like Nausea, and the Age of Reason. And The Plague was the book that turned me into an atheist. (Sorry Dave, again.)

IP: The most stylish exit I ever made from an exam hall was to run out of one in bare feet to catch the last flight to Madrid. Does that count? I got a distinction.

Chuffy!: I wish I'd thought of that at the time, dammit. That must be why I only got a 2:1.

Anonymous said...

honestly, that is the most ridiculous question i have ever heard of.
and you're scaring me because my exams are starting in about two weeks.

cello said...

All I remember about Robbe-Grillet from my one year of French at uni, is that he was the antidote to Sartre and an anti-existentialist. So I don't think that question can have been about him...

Though, like politicians do, I guess you could have turned the question on its head, and drawn on R-G to refute the assertion.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

Never having studied any of these dudes, my answer to the final question would have been a refusal:


Then if they didn't give me a distinction I would have argued that i did answer the question, the word "no" being one thing which represents nothing, then i would have bitched and moaned till they gave me a fucking disticntion.