French Existentialism and the Theatre of the Absurd

by Juliet Sorensen on March 3, 2015

(Author’s Note: this following was published in the “Tales Out of School” column of the Winter 2015 edition of Andover Magazine. I thought the Crooked Timber community might find it of interest, as well.)

We weren’t walking like animals with horns.

“Rappelez-vous, vous êtes des rhinocéros!” exhorted Mr. Sturges, swinging his own head ponderously back and forth in the approximation of a rhino’s.  And so we moved, on all fours in a chilly classroom in Sam Phil, trying for all the world to embody the humans in Ionesco’s play who find themselves transformed into prehistoric animals.   Back in our seats, having resumed our student forms, we had a new appreciation for Rhinocéros, a play about conformity and existentialism in the context of the absurd.

Hale Sturges didn’t just teach French literature; he lived it. He sat on his desk; he paced around the room; he jumped up and down, his corduroy blazer flapping. He believed that the oral tradition was essential to understand literature, so we took turns reading Camus’ The Stranger aloud to better appreciate the alienation of the protagonist, Meursault.

A class was not a monolith to Mr. Sturges. Rather, students were individuals whom he evaluated, coached, and supported in their pursuit of mastering French language and culture. On one occasion, we were tasked with independent research and an oral presentation on one aspect of the art history of France. Decades before PowerPoint, daunted by the prospect of an audiovisual presentation, I managed a few clumsy slides on the Impressionists.

After class, Mr. Sturges gestured for me to stay behind. He told me gently that my presentation had been mediocre. He went on to say that he was taking the time to speak with me about it because he knew that I was capable of much more.  I squirmed and fought back tears of embarrassment during his critique; I knew he was right.

French has enhanced my life in ways I barely imagined in high school.  I’ve studied and worked in France, Morocco, Benin and Mali, the language opening doors that would be otherwise impenetrable to an American. I’ve always been grateful to Mr. Sturges for giving me the confidence and the desire to immerse myself in France’s language, literature and culture.

When I read the call for submissions to Tales Out of School asking for reflections on especially innovative teachers, I thought immediately of Mr. Sturges.  I was stunned and saddened to learn that he had passed away just a few weeks earlier.

But his legacy endures. Next year, my own children will have the opportunity to experience French language and culture firsthand when we live in Paris while I spend a month as a visiting scholar at Sciences Po.

Thanks to Mr. Sturges, I can’t wait to play rhinoceros with them.



Eszter Hargittai 03.03.15 at 4:18 pm

Very nice reflections! A couple of thoughts inspired by this.

I don’t like teaching evaluations (not that we had them in high school), because important lessons from some of our best teachers won’t be obvious to us (if at all) until much later in life. You may have already appreciated Mr. Sturges back then, but you obviously grew to appreciate him significantly later.

I studied French in high school, because it came down to that or Latin and I saw no point in the latter. (This was in Hungary in the late 80s/early 90s. We also had Russian, which was required unless you placed out of it, and English as well as German. I was fluent in English already and had already had quite a bit of German so I was left with French or Latin.) I didn’t much care for it back then. When I got to college in the US (Smith), I realized that I could study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland if I continued with French so I did. Then when I studied in Geneva, it hit me hard that French was quite helpful for international relations given the UN in Geneva and various EU agencies in Brussels and Luxembourg. I also realized that French was helpful for speaking to people from various corners of Africa. Where am I going with this? I think French gets undersold in schools. It is helpful for so much more than to connect with the literature and people of France (not that that cannot itself be reason enough to study it). I was glad I stuck it out long enough to realize that.


rea 03.03.15 at 4:53 pm

Rhinoceroses aren’t prehistoric animals.


Plume 03.03.15 at 6:07 pm

Thank you for that post.

I was crazy into Existentialism when I was in college, especially the second go round, and a good bit afterward. I took an excellent course on French Existentialism and the Literature of Alienation, which covered the authors you mentioned and then some. It was kinda surreal, too, that I became homeless at that time. I “identified” with many of the characters in the stories and novels under discussion. The absurdity of my life matched theirs.

Reading William Barrett’s Irrational Man also sent me into further explorations of Existentialism, as did the writings of Walter Kaufmann. And the Random House anthology of Modern French Lit, with an intro by Paul Auster, pretty much changed the way I thought of poetry for good. And the way I make it.


William Berry 03.03.15 at 6:35 pm

“Rhinoceroses aren’t prehistoric animals.”

Well, yes, they aren’t.

But they most definitely were.


hix 03.03.15 at 9:32 pm

Oh well, so many uplifiting French stories. Let me tell you an absurd one. I cant take lower level college French courses because i have a barely passed French one and a half decade ago at high school. Now im offically regarded as too good. However i cant take the higher level courses that would be way over my head either because those do require a certification of ones French level that is less than 2 years old.


Belle Waring 03.04.15 at 6:08 am

Lovely reflections. Happily I got to do French and Latin in high school. I also had to pass an exam in reading scholarly articles in French for my PhD (German as well) but I have never been a speaker. Well, I could talk to the granddaughters of my grandmother’s friends when they came, so I was decent enough in high school. My grandmother adored France and all things French, and I remember when I was six she went to Paris (where she had lived for a few years) and she brought me back a little white mink coat and muff, and a tiny hard-sided red suitcase with a white satin lining. I thought Paris had to obviously be the most glamorous place in the entire world. Oh, and perfume. She brought me back a tiny bottle of Shalimar. I have only ever been to Paris very briefly, due always to airplane mishaps and strikes in Rome. I would love the chance to live somewhere where it is spoken; I’m confident that with a little time I could become a good speaker. I don’t know that I ever will; don’t you worry sometimes if you think your life is far enough along that you’re not going to live in Paris for a while?

I like Ionesco, but I LOVE Alfred Jarry. I have been intending for a long time to post on him…


Belle Waring 03.04.15 at 6:09 am

Sorry hix; that seems lame and Catch-22-ish.


adam.smith 03.04.15 at 6:17 am

This is a great story. I often wonder, though, whether the “great teacher that inspired me” narrative, especially pervasive in the US, isn’t a problem.
I have some fond memories of teachers, but I don’t think I have any teacher I would look back to as having inspired me in life-altering ways. What I did have was a large number of highly competent teachers, who taught us a lot of things, generally cared about us learning and, in many cases, about us as individuals.
I feel we need to celebrate these “ordinary” good teachers, who make up a successful school system a lot more than the inspiring superheroes.


Phil 03.04.15 at 9:16 am

I don’t know. When you’re teaching at higher levels – Master’s and above – it’s inspire or bust: you’re taking students & turning them into independent learners (or meeting independent learners and helping them turn into researchers) and communicating the wonder of the subject, the unsuspected oceans of fascinating stuff behind the door, is a big part of that process.

School is by definition too early to get that kind of message, so perhaps we should be celebrating everyone who did the groundwork, teaching us how to define a halogen or the difference between a metaphor and a simile. But I do have very fond memories of the history teacher who told us about what the Soviet Ambassador had said to him when he’d asked whether they were ever going to get to communism over there*, and in so doing inadvertently converted me and my friend to being true-believing Communists (for a couple of years). Particularly because, when some other kids asked in shocked tones if he was happy having Communists in his class, he said he was – people tended to move to the Right as they got older, after all, so it was much better to be a Communist at 14 than a young Conservative. (The message the young Conservatives relayed back to me was “Sir says you’ll grow out of it”. Hey ho.)

*”Not in my lifetime. I have a young daughter, and I am afraid that communism will not be achieved in her lifetime either. But perhaps in her children’s lifetime.” Inspiring stuff, eh kids? Well, it worked for me.


Phil 03.04.15 at 9:19 am

School is by definition too early to get that kind of message,

This is the BritEng ‘school’ – compulsory under-17 education, as distinct from university.


Phil 03.04.15 at 9:38 am

Another stray thought – one of the most inspiring teachers I had as a postgrad was a guy who patently had better things to do with his Tuesday evenings and even seemed rather bored with the subject. But he knew his stuff, and if you kept up with what he was saying and asked the right questions he could really open up the subject for you. (I remember him telling us how the first commander of Dachau took the post after being released from a mental hospital, then musing “So he was no stranger to severity, endured or inflicted.” The SS as an institution where the brutalisation endured by mental patients could be elevated to a principle – very Sadean.) He set us homework, as well – I’d never dream of doing that with my postgrads (I’m not sure I’d even be allowed). When I got the feedback for one piece of work he told me it was the best thing he’d seen on that module in several years, and the last person who’d done a piece of work of that quality had gone on to do a doctorate & become a lecturer. He gave it 69.

So there you’ve got a lecturer who makes no attempt to engage with his students or put them at their ease, but teaches the subject entirely on his own (sometimes fairly idiosyncratic) terms – and he’s a stingy marker. I shudder to think what his NSS score would look like these days. Brilliant teacher, though, precisely because he made you work. Or can you only pull this off at postgrad level?


Salem 03.04.15 at 11:47 am

I too had to study Ionesco in high school – in my case, Tueur Sans Gages. It made me think I was terrible at French because I couldn’t understand it. Only at the end of the term, on reading an English translation, did I realise that my French was fine – it was the play that made no sense.

Like adam.smith, I worry about the “inspirational teacher” meme. Many of the teachers I liked best and got the most out of were hated by some of my classmates. There is no one-size-fits-all – your inspirational teacher is the next student’s disheartening bore. What matters much more is competence and caring.


Dave 03.04.15 at 3:47 pm

The Chairs is better.


John Emerson 03.04.15 at 8:41 pm

I am in favor of French, but turning into rhinoceri isn’t a good thing. The existentialist disdainfully or dispairingly watches everyone else turn into rhinoceri.


John Garrett 03.04.15 at 9:10 pm

In high school, at least, the one constant I hear when I talk to friends about the teachers that mattered to them is (as in the post) “you can do better.” I first got that in 10th grade story writing (as usual, I had taken as little time as possible to charm with words) and was first angry, then sad, then stunned, then determined. And (fortunately for me) it happened with several more teachers thereafter.


Shirley0401 03.04.15 at 9:59 pm

Great post.
Not that it has much to do with the post, but I’m with adam.smith, Salem, and others. The Magic Teacher In Love With The Subject is wonderful. (I have my own — a certain Fr. Kuchera, who taught me a lot about history that I’ve forgotten, but also convinced me that sometimes trying harder was not something of which I was completely incapable.) But I think it can be a dangerous standard to expect the day-in/day-out laborers who populate most classrooms to reach. I work in a school, where most of the employees want to do a good job and still have time/energy for their kids/spouses (or, hell, death metal bands, for all I care).
That said, I think *everyone* should have the option of going to work, doing their job, and going home. In the conversation about educators, the assumption is generally that they’re some special kind of work-shirker who needs more supervision than your average educated adult. This, not surprisingly (to me, at least) leads to all sorts of things, from low morale to high turnover, that isn’t much good to anyone other than “reformers.”
Anyway. Glad to have another CT contributor whose posts I can I look forward to reading.


BrendanH 03.05.15 at 11:36 am

“You can do better” — A kinder version of throwing a cymbal at your head.


Yama 03.06.15 at 3:52 pm

I had a pair of eccentric French teachers way back in high school. They made a the whole thing a lot of fun.

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