§1. Syllogisms fail more often than not, Sarah posited in her undergrad Introduction to Logic discussion session, due to faulty premises. If A likes B, and B hangs out with A without complaint, then B should, by all means, like A back. If A breaks up earth, pushing past hardened mounds of soil-crumb to find the core of her, rooting it up and laying it at B’s feet, B is not hard of seeing and therefore can see that momentous effort, then at least B should reciprocate. If A, just to flesh out a hypothetical, sits with B and talks to him about earthquakes in Lisbon, fragmented speech, the function of a horse, why the graduate student union is pushing things too far, desserts, just deserts, the potential founding violence of the American state, octogenarian professors who should give up tenure, virtue ethics against virtue signaling, colonialism, post-postmodernism, a pin drop in a forest soon to be decapacitated in full (here she folded her arms and leaned back against the chair), and B agrees yes, she surely is a sparkling conversationalist, and invites her to a Goddamn concert, if all a relationship really ought to be is a symposium in the classical Greek sense, of wine and points well-made while reclining, of the mind as the source of the erotic, then B really has no other logical reason to reject A. But you see, she said to her scribbling wards, heads bunkered down in reverence to their notebooks, premises can be proven false.
Are all falsifiable statements wrong then, asked a future Accenture consultant, not knowing that her letter of recommendation has no pull.
What’s a symposium, an anxious freshman volunteered from the far corner of the table.
Sarah unfolded herself. There was much to discuss.
§2. It had occurred to Ermioni, who was actually Greek (“J. K. Rowling ruined middle school for me,” she had said by way of introducing herself to the rest of their cohort) but was working on Nietzsche and Buddhist eschatology (in that order) and had little interest in the Greco-Roman tradition otherwise, that it would be fun to host a mixer for all the different dinky cohorts across the humanities. Cross-pollination, she called it. You mean a symposium, Sarah offered, a term she thought was more befitting for the occasion.1 You know, like Plato?2 Seems more low pressure than a mixer. My beer pong days are over, she allowed a little laugh, despite the fact that those days had never begun.
A low-stakes apartment party with some German Studies weirdos might be good, Mark said. Maybe some English people too. Not the Victorianists, probably.
§3. Graduate students—especially those underfunded by their institutions and left to subsist on nominal stipends and the spoils of workshops and job talks by desperate postdocs vying for mythical “tenure-track” professorships (which, in the case of Sarah’s department, meant sandwiches, carrots and hummus, a rarity in her field and when judiciously apportioned, could last her a couple of days)—are lonely fucks.
§4. Here is a syllogism featuring falsifiable yet true premises: graduate students are lonely; loneliness entails desperation and/or pining for the warmth of a body turned pale by the fluorescent lamplights of the library, i.e. horniness; therefore, graduate students are horny. The premises and therefore the conclusion, as they say, check out.
§5. The apartment party-cum-symposium-cum-mixer between second-year German Studies, English and philosophy Ph.D. students was at Andrew Cox’s house, which he shared with an ABD Slavic Studies person, a postdoc teaching classes that none of the tenured professors wanted (most likely introductory courses for anxious, overachieving undergrads) and, for some reason, a public-policy professional two years out of college who still wanted to live on campus. It was the only house they had access to that proffered a small backyard with modest horticultural ambitions. Ever the gracious host, Andrew had filled a trough planter to the brim with ice and bottles of wine, amassing several charcuterie arrangements, a couple of dusty-looking decanters of liquor, a glass bong as long (as tall?) as Sarah’s forearm and what he boasted was a “quarter” in a Ziploc bag, all splayed on a white Ikea coffee table that had been brought out for the occasion.
Over a Sonos speaker blasting Nicki Minaj, Ermioni beckoned for Sarah to add to the party’s Spotify playlist. There were many entries that clearly were supposed to get the nerds dancing: “Hotline Bling,” “American Boy,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” some Justin Bieber songs. Never one to not think on her feet, Sarah added the entirety of Channel Orange to the mix. I wish he’d release Boys Don’t Cry soon, she said, saccharine, meeting Ermioni’s disbelieving gaze as more unfamiliar faces swept past them to the drinks table, he’s such a great artist.
§6. Seneca once cautioned, in a letter to a friend whose contributions to the Roman Empire have since been erased from history save for his name, an invocation throughout the collection of moral epistles (Seneca greets his Lucilius!), all 124 of them,3 that crowds are to be especially avoided, lest they render us susceptible or even willing accomplices to vice (7.2). The original example involved the ancient practice of pitting convicted criminals against one another in death matches for equestrians to watch on their lunch break, but Sarah counted dancing at wannabe ragers as part and parcel of the mob mentality Seneca took issue with. He, of course, followed it up with a letter recommending complete submission to Philosophy, which would allow the willing practitioner to be dismissed to freedom (8.7). To be dismissed to freedom! A young philosopher, who cannot be rescued from the talons of the mob, must also herself avoid spectating upon the dancing throng. One can imagine an essay entitled “Notes Toward the Kitchen as Sanctuary (at a Party).”
§7. Sarah recounted §6 to a boy with short permed hair as he poured himself a glass of water, who laughed at the kitchen as sanctuary joke. So you’re in a doctoral program, huh, he winked, I truly wouldn’t have known. His eyes crinkled at the edges whenever he smiled, amused half-moons. A mole graced the curvature of his chin. The words ANTI SOCIAL SOCIAL CLUB were emblazoned on the back of his hoodie. I’m Sarah, she said to the man who was now facing the sink, should have introduced myself first before blathering about Seneca, I’m sorry. She discreetly adjusted her bra strap, slipped off her denim jacket, a hand covering her rainbow philosopHer pin.4 He wasn’t wearing shoes inside the house either, plain white crew socks, the edges of which were hidden underneath cropped jeans.
I’m Jungwoon, he said, a hand reaching out to touch her bare shoulder, his fingers like feathers on her skin. Nice to meet you, how’s the semester treating ya?
Not bad! she said, realizing to her chagrin that he had retrieved his hand and deposited it in the pocket-folds of his hoodie. You’re in German Studies?
A guffaw. More half-moons. Of course not, I’m in English. The stuff I’m interested in might as well be another language though. You read Latin?
And a bit of ancient Greek, and planning on maybe picking up some French too, seems important, she recited, leaning against the fridge. A magnet got knocked off by the disturbance but neither of them noticed it. What do you mean by another language, are you doing seventeenth-century stuff?
No, he said, running a hand through his hair, I just want to convince people that a reparative reading of James Joyce—Ulysses in particular—might offer us a salve or way out of the impasse of the numbed realism of modern-day literature. Ideally I’d be writing Cruel Optimism but with, like, actionable steps! An affect beyond stuckness. We don’t have that many affect theorists in the department but my advisor is really supportive.
Cruel optimism? Sounds Panglossian. (Her voice, she noted, had taken on a softness or dreaminess, vowels lingering in the air like dense clouds.)
Do you want to head back out? He was stepping back into the corridor and gesturing with a pack of yellow American Spirits in his hands. Frank Ocean continued to mist in through the kitchen window. Her plastic cup felt very light. Let’s, she said, wishing she had worn something tighter-fitting than her tank top and paisley harem pants.
§8. As laid out in §1, the average undergraduate mind is neither compelling nor particularly retentive; if they really were sponges, as supposedly they are, they’d have failed all the relevant quality-assurance tests (see footnote 3). Grad students in turn certainly overestimate themselves, but to her credit, Sarah could make dead Italian men5 sound interesting to the right person, she was genuinely interested in Stoicism and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, she could not understand why anyone else wouldn’t be.6 The last man she had dated (“dated”) would read Cicero to her in the original Latin to soothe her pre-acceptance blues and then plead, please could she consider getting cat ears or say to him, in as low and charming and sweet of a voice possible, to tell him (and his erect pen) ganbatte? We all have our things we get off to. I know you’re not Japanese, sure, but it would really motivate me to work. She sucked him off instead of adopting the catgirl look. They stopped talking (“dating”) when she got into grad school and he didn’t. She had never read a lick of James Joyce but she wanted to now.
§9. Sarah accrued the following information over the course of the night: Jungwoon renounced his citizenship in lieu of enlisting after college, he went to Berkeley for undergrad, he didn’t mind wine but preferred something harder, he actually didn’t hate PBR, he wanted to do more reading about decolonial praxis, something about the Korean War, he wanted to study Ulysses with the preeminent Joyce scholar, that’s why he’s here, fair enough that Sarah wanted to do her diss on dead white men,7 he respects that she just went for it, for the dead language and dead civilization, he wished he cared about anything before the year 1917, he did find her bringing up Pangloss interesting, he hadn’t heard much about Candide in his corner of the universe, it is true that philosophy needs literature and vice versa, neither of his parents understood his interest in the humanities, he was glad that her parents were understanding, he’d like to get a beer some other time, this was his number, he would get a copy of Candide and meet her at the school pub next next Thursday at nine. (See §3, §4.)
§10. Next next Thursday felt as if it wouldn’t come. Sarah made it a point to see Jungwoon as much as she could, in the main library’s coffee shop where he held his office hours, in the English building where she sheepishly accosted the preeminent Joyce scholar before he did,8 in the Comparative Methods in Literary Studies seminar she switched into, where he sported a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, a hand in his hair obscuring the curve of his neck. The professor found her insistence on Seneca’s letters as a form of early fiction thought-provoking. Jungwoon would meet her eyes across the cramped room and flash a smile whenever an underprepared undergrad mumbled something characteristically absurd. She held his gaze steadily.
At the union meeting he was in the faction of younger doctoral students who argued for a strike. Apparently an ABD biology student had taken to living in his car, showering in the multimillion-dollar gym the administration used to lure in student athletes, and stored his belongings in a locker at the main library until someone in his cohort offered him their couch for the semester. Twenty-six thousand dollars with no summer pay9 is not enough to live on here, Jungwoon said, and it’s absurd that so many of us pick up more classes just so we can afford the shitty health insurance they give us. We’re doing a disservice to our students too.
Sarah nodded along, and when Andrew Cox confronted her afterwards, she pointed out that his apartment was paid for, not everyone had the luxury of rich, forgiving parents.10 She took care not to mention that her parents had been throwing her a couple hundred bucks every now and then to defray the costs of living in the heartland, little envelopes with cash and a card featuring either we’re so proud of you or we miss you ϑ on the front and exhortations to go treat herself to a nice meal or a massage, she was working herself to the bone, maybe she should consider flying back and visit her parents for a weekend.
§11. Hey, this is Jungwoon 🙂
I don’t think I can make it tomorrow, the semester is getting so crazy, the union vote is next week so
but I wanna make it up to ya!
there’s a Girlpool show at Ritchie’s next Saturday
you wanna come? I’ll get yr tix
fig (a): an invitation (see §3, §4)
§12. Jungwoon was slouching in his chair, a feat made all the more impressive given that he had somehow swung a foot onto the coffee table across from him, the embossed Nike logo almost touching an abandoned saucer. He was annotating some book with what looked like a Pilot G-2, dispensing criticism in black ink, as was Sarah’s preference; she took their shared predilection as a sign of compatibility. Every now and then his hand would ruffle his hair, tousling his curls before stretching his arm out. Sarah found herself wondering if she should lurk by the condiments corner and let Jungwoon’s thrown-out arm hit her midriff at the next opportune moment. It would, if nothing else, make for a conversation starter. What could she say to him anyway, besides making oblique references to the readings they were doing in class or something about the union vote? “Excited to go see Girlpool”? She wasn’t even a huge fan. He should at least come over and say hi, she fumed to herself. After all, she had already done so much to pursue him,11 going so far as to put up GSU posters in the graduate student lounge, which were almost torn down by Cox et al. until Ermioni pointed out how the act would violate one of the most important preconditions for good philosophy—the free marketplace of ideas. What good philosopher couldn’t even tolerate the mere suggestion of a vote on the right to strike? Which, Sarah supposed, would be a good anecdote to kick off a short but sweet conversation with Jungwoon before she really had to hurry to class, but she was loath to come off as desperate.
You really are just everywhere, aren’t you, Jungwoon finally said on his way out, barely looking at her. Dark circles, she realized, had materialized under his eyes.
What do you mean? Sarah flipped her hair out of her face.
Feel like I see you all the time even if we don’t really talk! It’s kind of funny.
Campus isn’t really all that big, I guess.12 How’s the union stuff going?
It’s not looking good. I don’t think we’re going to get enough votes. A peculiar terseness had entered his voice. Which would mean that we’re back to square one. I’m actually going to talk to a couple of East Asian Studies people right now to get them onside for the strike.
Why not, Sarah wanted to ask, but opted for helpfulness instead. I’ll talk to my cohort and make them see some sense?13
Finally, some semblance of crinkly half-moons. That’d be great. Thanks, Sarah.
Thanks, Sarah. All day she held the memory of him pronouncing her name to her chest.
§13. The natural inclination of the philosopher, though weeded out by the time she gets to grad school through well-meaning educational hazing and/or existing chest-deep in the peat of modernity, tends toward finding neat explanations for discrete sections of the world. She wants to know why things are; whether action can be wedded to thought; if we are truly alone in the universe, unmoored from time or meaning or consequence; if there is something known as veracity; what beauty is; where one’s place ought to be; how one should act in relation to another. To ask that natural language statements be conformable to only two truth values, true or false, is an act borne out of desperation, closing the door on the unknowable or the inarticulable. Not a philosopher of language, Sarah found herself mapping the truth value of the proposition “Jungwoon likes her” in preparation for Logic 110, a class she was woefully underprepared to teach. There can only be two values assigned, P v ¬P, it is true that Jungwoon likes her, or it is false that Jungwoon likes her. Truth tables are dead ends, she knew, but Seneca’s letters to
Lucilius Sarah contained very little regarding the romantic pursuit of other people either.
§14. Seneca famously invoked Hecato—“If you would be loved, love”—in a letter on the pleasures of friendship and how one might go about achieving it (self-sufficiency is always the answer). Love, he said in an aside, can be considered friendship run mad (9.11); he did not elaborate further, instead counseling the wayward reader to reject friendships based on utility, and to cultivate such relationships without any expectation of reciprocity. One must not lose oneself to the very human impulse to seek out companionship. “Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man?” Seneca wrote. A shiver went down Sarah’s spine. She pressed her hands to her cheeks, which had become inflamed.
§15. i can’t believe it lmfao Christ
fuck andrew Cox. and also fuck everyone
can fill you in on Saturday
at least we have Girlpool ffs
fig (b): an admission of defeat (see §10, §12)
§16. P v ¬P: Jungwoon likes her, or Jungwoon doesn’t.14 Ermioni, ever the Nietzschean, rejected Sarah’s speculation on the matter. If he likes you, he will tell you, she offered, tapping flower grounds into the bowl, if he doesn’t, what’s the matter, there are so many fish in the sea, there are so many seas and oceans, even,15 take a hit now and just go to the show and don’t worry too much about it, my God. Here, have some wine.
§17. Theologians and philosophers across civilizations and time sought a unified theory of knowledge; if modern-day philosophers were honest, they’d own up to it too. But modality is not in cahoots with desire. The Stoics had their theory of bodily humors as an explanation for emotion, and therefore the possibility of its regulation; Leibniz, to reconcile suffering with the presence and the omnipresence/-benevolence/-potence of God, posited that ours must already be the best of all possible worlds. Where logic fails, the poets sing.
§18. Jungwoon stalked into the pub, his perm this late in the semester a crown of thorns, and barely acknowledged Sarah’s anxious selection of a pint of Lagunitas for him. Cool, thanks, I’ll drink whatever. A long gulp. Head tilted back, muscles in his exposed throat flexing. She drowned her thoughts of licking his neck in her glass of wine, which had been finished quicker than she had previously imagined.
It’s been really rough. A snort with no mirth. My advisor called me in yesterday to talk.
Oh, God. Sarah scooted closer to him on the rickety bench. What happened?
First off, Jungwoon slung his head into his hands before continuing, she began our meeting by asking if I was already trying to take up organizing professionally as an alt-ac career (here Sarah let out a horrified gasp), and then she proceeded to tell me, and I shit you not, that even though she wanted to hold space for the thought processes and life experiences that had brought me, quote-unquote, to this forceful articulation of my political beliefs, and that she wouldn’t normally tell her students this, I would be much more competitive on the job market than most of my peers if I just diverted my energy instead into preparing for comps or revising my paper for the MLA panel she’s proposing.
Sarah motioned for another glass of wine to the bartender. I’m so sorry. What did you say after that?
I didn’t really say anything. It’s not like she made me promise not to do union stuff, just that I should reconsider the use of my time. That’s what she said, “reconsider”—his fingers hooking air quotes before raking through his hair—especially given that whatever I want for graduate workers isn’t actually reflective or “representative of the popular will” apparently.16
Mmm. Sarah fished a lock of her hair out of her glass. Well, I guess she has a point? She absentmindedly sucked at the wet split-ends.
Jungwoon finally met her eyes. What?
It’s not your job to convince people to do the right thing. Maybe this is a good time to just focus on work, I don’t know. Or have a go at Candide! You could hang out with me, even. She gave him a mock toast, wine sloshing up the sides.
Look. His half-full pint glass set back onto the coaster. Whether it’s a morally good thing or not is irrelevant. It’s about self-interest. I don’t get it. A pause. I can’t believe my advisor said that to me.17
For whatever it’s worth, she’s thinking about your interests, you know? Sarah took another sip of her wine. Her vantage point is different, that’s all.
If all her vantage point allows her to see is how there’s no problem with me looking into getting a loan for the summer, then I want absolutely none of it.
Imagine me telling my mom that I should just go home and work at the laundromat because I’d make more money than I would staying here. It’d break her heart.18
Jungwoon, I think things will work out by themselves! I’m sure there are a bunch of fellowships you can apply for. She patted his hand, then downed her glass.
There’s something so perverse about the notion of me applying for a minimum-wage fellowship with a project about, I don’t know, thinking about modes of disclosure other than the confessional in Joyce’s work. His laughs were strained and hinted at a bitterness Sarah didn’t know how to parse. Maybe it’s time to actually start reading Marx.
§19. By the time they dug into Leibniz and Candide on the train she was already long gone, lost to the fumes of drunkenness—she said, out loud, that she wished she could drink the dregs of wine like her Grecian precursors—but also drunk on their sprawling potential future. They’d be at each other’s defenses, walk hand in hand and escort each other to their classrooms, they’d settle in a nice one-bedroom apartment and maybe have a pet, depending on how he felt about animals, spousal hires weren’t uncommon. So close to a unified theory of the universe, one with assured knowledge! If this wasn’t the best of all possible worlds, what could be? Here were two Asians in extremely white fields, she found herself speaking with her hands, who found each other despite being from the two coasts! There’s so few of us and yet (her head found a resting hold on Jungwoon’s shoulder) I found you. In Asian America we trust.
Jungwoon lightly pried her head off. Are you sure you still want to go see Girlpool? You seem kind of tired.
I just want to hang with you, Sarah said, her hair a mess cascading down her face. A concert sounds fun. I wanna be the Paquette to your Pangloss—I mean, the Leibniz to your Voltaire. Paquette gave the good professor Pangloss syphilis and was basically, she knocked the hair out of her eyes, assaulted by her priest, IIRC, I don’t have any kind of sexually transmitted disease, just so you know.
Pangloss thought it made sense in the greater scheme of things for him to get syphilis, and I’m assuming Leibniz would think so too, Jungwoon said. I don’t think either of us map onto the dichotomy—is it a dichotomy?—you’re trying to set up here. You can be the Tucker to my Tividad?
It was a figure of speech, you should know this right, as an English person. She was slurring, resting her head on Jungwoon’s shoulder again. I didn’t know Girlpool is a couple-band.
I’m not sure if we’d be admitted into the venue, he said. He had a firm grip on her shoulders. His hands suffused her cold limbs with warmth. I think we should get you home. I’ll call an Uber.
I guess, she said, a hand on his cheek. He was wearing paper-clip earrings; another hand of hers traced the cold metal. I want to be indispensable. To you, she lurched forward as the train slotted into the station, only you, Jungwoon.
This is our stop, he said, clasping her to him and hobbling them out. We’ll get there very soon, just get into the car, please.
§20. The next thing she remembered was being lugged up what seemed to be her apartment building stairs. Where’s your keys, Sarah, Jungwoon’s voice floated above her. A hand that wasn’t hers slipped into her back pocket and fumbled in the small space next to her ass before clasping onto her carabiner. She felt herself stumble into bed. So soon? she thought to herself. I don’t have condoms, she said out loud, eyes closed.
§21. When she woke up she hurled into the wastebasket that had somehow found its way to the edge of her bed. Her head was erupting; she was still in her going-out clothes, shoes on. No texts. She texted him: I hope we had fun, I don’t really remember the show. No response.
§22. See §1.
§23. The more Sarah thought about it, the more certain she was that theodicy was not her interest. He had withdrawn from her, he had been too chicken to complete the union, seize her as a man would. She laid in her bed, counted the words out like coins at a laundromat. She knew what she had to say.
Art credit: Sally Kindberg. Supper At Last, oil on canvas, 150 x 260 cm, private collection, 2021. Perfect Day, oil on canvas, 66 x 86.5 cm, private collection, 2021. All images courtesy of the artist.