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The Philosophy Club: A Short Story
I am sitting here in the dark-stained oak or mahogany paneled, I suppose (I'm never sure about such things), recreation room of The Philosophy Club. The club is simply called that, The Philosophy Club, in Mackville, New Jersey. It's not named after anyone.
The founder, Harvey Longstaff (no snide comments please) is over there playing ping pong (excuse me, table tennis, la di da -- Harvey's sensitive about that. He thinks it demeans the pursuit to call the silly game 'ping pong') with one of his eleven other soul mates, a man named Smithwick Guinness...
"Hey, I didn't know we were using aliases around here," Josephson blurted out, one night four years agao, when Mr. Guinness introduced himself to our little order.
Amused jitters from the group.
"And such a full-bodied and deliciious one at that," another member added.
Jitters became truyly nerdy giggling.
Mr. Guinness assured us that he was not having us all on. I ended the controversy by demanding three forms of identification from him on the spot. He prouced them and that ended that. The unspoken fear in back of our initial amusement had been the apprehension that this man with the name of the famous Irish ales was some kind of anti-intellectual mole or agent provacateur, I believe is the word.
His mission? His half supposed mission, I should say? Why, to harangue and mock us. To ruthlessly browbeat us into submission. To shame us by calling into question our masculinity. To get us back to talking about acceptable red-blooded American male approved topics of conversation, of course. Namely: cars, sports, pornography, beer, and ugh, let's see, the American flag, and so forth. Don't get me started. After the surreal, queasy feeling I had on Election Day 2000 and the disbelief of 2004, I refuse to even mention the name the name of the current occupant of the White House.
I am lounging on a very comfortable reclining chair, smoking a Dinobili cigar and drinking something called cognac, from a glass I would describe as a goblet. Over there are a number of our members gathered around a wide, flat-screen television watching the chess match. It's between the first ranked in the world, the brilliant American enfant terrible, the John McEnroe of the game, and a great Cuban grandmaster. The guys are watching with ferocious concentration. Julian has taken it upon himself to provide running commentary, in the hushed tones used by golf competitors. He rambled on about inventive variations on the Sicilian society and so forth.
They actually have a board set up. Nobody's playing a game of chess. They are duplicating the moves by the players on T.V. I glance over at them and momentarily offer them my attention. I can tell that their sympathies have rather treasonously coalesced around the Cuban player. Good Heavens!
You know, in my everyday life I don't smoke. Not even a little. And I barely drink. But every third Thursday of the month I have myself a cigar or two and drink cognac. They offer other kinds of refreshments. I don't have to drink and I don't have to smoke. But I do so gloriously. I do so gladly, laughingly, mockingly at the risk of cirrhosis of the liver and mouth or throat cancer, I don't even care. Well, I care but not as much as the feeling of belonging I have here at The Philosophy Club. I am complete here along with others who share my interests and intellectual, psychological, and metaphysical preoccupations.
One of our members is a priest. Father Charles Mann. It was he who'd first offered me a cigar when I joined the club eight years ago. We sat next to each other in the dining hall, a small but elegant enclosure. I accepted it without thinking and thanked him kindly. I watched him carefully to see how one smoked a cigar. I mimicked him perfectly and did not embarass myself. We peremptorily exchanged the usual vital statistics.
Then I said something to the effect that I thought a Catholic priest would have had all the intellectual stimulation he needed, surrounded by other deeply learned men in theology and often other subjects as well, for all his working life. Father Mann remarked dryly that he did not, in fact, have a lot of intellectual companionship in his vocation, and that this age was a far cry from the days of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
"With the election of 'That Man,' he'd said, "I can almost feel the intellectual caliber of the nation plummeting, especially religious matters."
By the end of the year the pope had died, and we, Father Mann and I, watched the ceremony of the approval and installation of his replacement in Rome, on direct satellite television. He came over to where I was sitting and brought me one of those goblets of what turned out to be cognac, without my having even asked. I accepted it from his hand without a question, as he sat down beside me. He had a cognac too and I surrendipitously observed him again for the proper technique for consuming fine liquor.
We have people of many faiths in the club, ambiguous faith, and no faith. We have a couple of Hindus, a Sikh, a Buddhist, two atheists, a Muslin, a Catholic, of course a Sephardic Jew, an agnostic, a pagan, and I make twelve. I follow no formally prescribed faith. I don't know what I am when it comes to faith. I am not an atheist. I don't fit comfortably into the agnostic camp either, as I see it. But we'll get on more about that later, if there's time.
Father Mann, a thoroughly sophisticated, lettered, enviably educated man, is a man, who to my silent exasperation, claims, in this day and age, not to accept the theory of evolution as the most probable explanation for man's origins. He is always getting into vituperative arguments with Julian about this and related metaphysical subjects.One Thursday evening at the banquet table, Julian, his mouth full of Yorkshire pudding, his eyes full of curiously apostolic fury, said to Father Mann, "Are you sitting there, seriously proposing to believe that the 'world' was created in six days, the earth is six thousand years old, and that mankind was basically slap-dashed together out of nothing more than a little dirt and the breath of God?"
"It's no more fantastic to me," Father Mann said, "than your insistence that man is the progeny of apes."
Now, you and I both know that such is not quite what the theory of evolution has ever claimed, though that is a popular misconception. The idea is that man and apes are descended from a common ancestor, a creature that seems to have possessed both 'apelike' and 'human' characteristics, and so forth. The so-called 'missing link' and all that. But that would have been a distinction without a difference in Father Mann's mind, so I did not say anything. In fact I kept my counsel to myself on that occasion.
I did not speak until my opinion was asked for. My skeptical sympathies lay with Julian. But I do not like Julian personally. I could not agree with Father Mann's position but I like and respect him very much. At times like this I feel like the young man who was asked to judge the beauty contest of the goddesses Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. I would bring down enmity no matter whom I gave the apple to.
But realistically, what could an old priest and a dog groomer do to me? Or to Troy? Or to Athens? Still, I showed even less courage than Paris, who chose Aphrodite. I tried to suggest that they both have a point by mentioning the name Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and archeologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who believed that God worked his will and revealed his love through evolution, continually upgrading his creation, to make us ever more capable of comprehending and receiving His love, don't you know.
"Why does there have to be one without the other?" I said, sounding like one of those insufferable political fluffies calling for "bipartisanship" in Washington. My attempts to elaborate on this theme were invariably shouted down, most vociferously of all by Fathe Mann and Julian. Ironically, among an informal group dedicated to free-range inquiry, I have something of a reputation for being a waffler, exaperatingly unwilling to be pinned down on specific positions, and unwilling or unable to take sides in a philosophical argument.
The discussion ended with neither man having convinced the other of his views, though this is never our aim. The next month on the third Thursday, Father Mann and I sat together watching Harvey Longstaff getting beat badly by Mr. Guinness at table tennis. Smithwich was being an ass about it and Harvey kept making complaints about alleged infractions of the rules his opponent was making.
Smithwick swung a wicked forehand stroke. The ball got past Harvey.
"Point," Smithwick said.
"What point?" Harvey asked.
"I just made an ace," Smithwick said. "The ball hit."
Harvey put his hands on his hips. "If ever a man's pants could catch on fire for lying... The ball flew over the edge without touching it."
"Come on, Harvey, you heard it."
"That sound was of you whacking the edge of the table with your racket, you cheater."
"The problem with you, Harvey, is that you're not in my league in this game. Deep down you know it. That fact is what causes you to act like a spoil sport."
"You hit the edge of the table with your racket," Harvey said.
"You're seeing things, Harvey. It's your conspiratorial mind working over time."
"They're like children," Father Mann said, turning back to me.
"And not in a good way," I said.
The priest gave me a sad smile. "We gave you a hard time last month. I apologize, my son."
I shrugged. "It's an important subject. If we don't have souls, what are we?"
Father Mann leaned forward. "That is exactly right, my son. If we don't have souls, what are we?"
I swirled the cognac in my glass. The priest lit a cigar.
"I've been meaning to ask you directly," Father Mann said, "I don't believe we ever established it. Do you believe in God?"
I scratched my head, made inarticulate stalling sounds. My eyes darted swiftly. My facia tick got going. It comes over me when I feel put on the spot.
Fortunately, I was saved by the bell. It was time for dinner in the banquet hall and the group's main discussion. The topic on the table was this: Is the so-called Neanderthal remains of old, found to have existed contemporaneously with the so-called modern man, us, indicative that said so-called Neanderthal represented a separate species having existed side by side with our alleged ancestors, that is genetically modern man? Does the so-called Neanderthal represent a different species of humanity or a subspecies?
This was an awkward topic for Father Mann for obvious reasons. But the old priest had no choice. Club members are required to participate in all general discussions and debates. Our club leader, Harvey Longstaff (no snide comments please), a plumber by the way, had instructed Laurence Schaumberg, a microbiologist, to draw up a short bibliography for each of us to read in preparation for this debate.
I had devoured the books and was eager to jump into the fray. I took the position that the so-called Neanderthal was not indeed a separate species. I went further, and in my highly authoritative capacity as a front desk clerk at a medium-sized hotel, I asserted that the very classification itself had been erroneous and invalid.
I won't go into all that here, but the issue has become a hobby horse for me. Anyway, the only other person to join my side was Tony Singh. His professsion is.... don't laugh now... I mean it, wipe that smirk off your face... He's a ghost hunter, a professional ghost hunter. Seriously.
Everyone else took the position that the so-called Neanderthal were a separate or offshoot subspecies of humanity, that had led nowhere. "If it'd make you feel better," Julian said, "you can think of Fred Flintstone as the prototype and us as the sleek, finished, perfected outcome of natural selection."
That suggested outlook did not make me feel any better. I couldn't hold off the mob alone but I didn't go down without a fight. Father Mann, I must say, disappointed me by slyly suggesting that the so-called Neanderthal, if there indeed had ever been such misshapen creatures walking the earth, might well have been the original demons comprisings Satan's hellish hosts, or perhaps the sons of fallen angels and mortal women of biblical legend.
I love the philosophy club. We talk about things we don't have the chance or conversational partners, with whom to talk about these things, in our daily lives. Nothing is off the table.
Had there been a second shooter somewhere out there on the grassy knoll?
What is a grassy knoll, anyway?
The morality and implications of stem cell research.
If a tree falls and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The odds of the existence of extraterrestial life.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Has extraterrestial life ever visited the Earth?
The reincarnation and transmigration of souls. Is the phenomena real?
Can a more humane social and economic system ever be devised?
The future of computers, space flight, and nanotechnology.
The death penalty.
The nature of the human psyche.
The validity of Jungian vs. Freudian theories today.
The prospects of viable third parties in American politics in the next twenty years.
India and Pakistan.
Each and every aspect of the Iraq situation.
Iran and nuclear technology.
Terrorists and nuclear technology.
North Korea and nuclear technology.
Pakistan and nuclear technology.
The U.S. and nuclear technology - for weapons and for its use as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Prospects for the development of alternative energy sources.
The Internet and privacy.
And what ever happened to that guy who could shoot a jet stream of water from his eyeballs? I love that guy!
You know, you'd be surprised how difficult it is to work in the line, "Do you think the so-called Neanderthal was a separate species of humanity from the so-called 'modern' humans, us?" into casual conversation in the outside world? I'm currently experimenting with "Do you think we have souls?" I conduct my research in bars all over the tri-state area.
I know what you're thinking: I thought you said you didn't drink. What I said was that I barely drink. Pay attention. Now, I have to tell you my research is not going well at all.
The next month I was holding court, as it were, in a corner of the rec room with two or three others. I can't say that I remember what the discussion was about. But I left my audience mesmerized, spellbound, and enlightened I'm sure. When I had to go to the bathroom, I passed beyond the door and saw Julian leaning against the sink, being kissed full on the mouth by Father Charles Mann.
I immediately backed out, turned on my heel, and tried to tip toe away.
"Hold it," Father Mann said behind me, barking my name as well.
I held it as he commanded. I turned around to face him only after he ordered me to do so.
"What's the matter with you?" he said.
"Nothing," I said.
He let out a breath and his expression softened. "You saw us, didn't you?"
He came forward and put a hand on my shoulder. "It's alright, my son."
If I had been ignorant, I think I might have wondered if either Father Mann would succeed in bringing Julian to the lord and helping raise his soul to Heaven, or if Julian would manage to turn the priest to the Devil and drag his soul down into Hell. There is one thing I know for sure. It would be an awfully dull four weeks before the next meeting of The Philosophy Club.