Sartre was an egghead, anyway

I was going to leave this post a cryptic image, but then I realized that only a handful of my regular readers would have any idea what it was about. And because I write not only for that handful, but for everyone, even the young man or woman that happened upon Krapp’s Last Blog yesterday by entering ‘gay crucifixion’ into their search engine, it seemed more congenial to elaborate.

A few months ago, I applied to the International Selection concours (the French application process is literally a ‘contest’) at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I was having dinner with one of my professors, an associate faculty member at the school, and he suggested that I make a dossier. He would write my letter of recommendation. High on his encouragement, I did some research when I got to my apartment and found out that my application needed to be postmarked that very night. The documents were no longer available on-line, so the next day I went down to the ENS campus and virtually begged for a copy of the document; I might have even used the verb, ‘supplier.’

As a foreigner, you can apply to the École Normale Supérieure once in your life, at the very end of your undergraduate studies. They take fifteen students, the pick of the international academic litter, pay them a stipend of 1200 euros a month (housing included), and then groom them to become the world’s future elite. This is not Harvard. This is not Princeton. You might get a superior education at one of those schools, but you will not get a Supérieure education. For academic posts, it’s not often what you did but where you did it, and few institutions match the ENS for prestige. They don’t even operate in the same diploma system as the rest of the country. It won’t compromise your career, though: who needs a Master’s when you were a normalien?

You might think that university secretaries in the United States are unaccommodating, but the French will bust your balls; I once had to retrieve a document from the university secretary because the self-addressed envelope I had included was written in pencil. (Couldn’t you have just traced it with a pen?) The ENS secretaries were sympathetic but stubborn: I was too late and too old, having turned twenty-three in December while the cut-off was in January. I managed to get through to their supervisor, who informed me that the deadline had been postponed by two days. Also, I could write a plea asking the president of the jury to excuse my age.

Readers who have studied with me or who have ever witnessed my study habits will have already written on the wall: what the fuck were you doing applying to the École Normale? I can’t explain my affinity for the elite; I have always had little doubt in believing that the best of the best was always so for a reason. Fortunately for my ego, I have few delusions about my abilities. My pursuits in life (academic, romantic) are often tailored to the perceived likelihood of success, and I have rarely been disappointed because of it. I allow myself to covet and care about the things I can readily achieve, and I dismiss with no ambivalence those things that I cannot. It was uncharacteristically audacious of me to apply to the Sorbonne last year. I invested a lot emotionally in the outcome. (And practically–I had already moved to Paris). Luckily, I was accepted. I don’t think that was a fluke– I feel qualified to be where I am– but without that confidence, coupled with this professor’s encouragement, I never would have started to fill out my ENS application that evening.

I worked for two sleepless nights, gathering documents, making emergency requests abroad for transcripts and birth certificates, and poring over the short answer questions, four hand-written essays, and a list of ten works of art (relevant to my studies) that I would be willing to discuss with the selection committee were I to make it to the next stage. (This last part took the most time and delicacy. My choices had to be diverse, tasteful, and familiar enough to defend, in French, for half an hour. My final list included works by Lovecraft, Beckett, Hume, Honegger, Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Paul Valéry, Chris Marker and Edmund Gettier.) I chose to send the package first-class, figuring that it would be easier to reject on grounds of tardiness were I to deliver it in person.

I think that only myself and my two college advisors (I was a double major) realize how close I was to not graduating last year. One of the iconic moments of my academic career occurred right after I ostensibly graduated from college. I learned a few days before the commencement that the only thing I would be commencing that season was summer school, and even then it would be close. My family was already coming to New York, however, and I’d already ordered the gown, so I went ahead and sat in Washington Square Park with 4,000 genuine graduates and listened to Wynton Marsalis play a few inspirational commencement tunes. I ran into my theatre adviser after the ceremony and introduced him to my parents. As we leaned together to pose for a picture, he whispered, ‘…Congratulations?’

After I verified that the École Normale had received my application and that they would consider it despite its late arrival, I read over the drafts of my essays. Pretty good, I thought; charismatic, perhaps a bit too revealing, but I was unquestionably passionate about everything I had written, and I could see how the unsuspecting reader could mistake my Devil’s hour mania for a sort of tortured brilliance. Besides, I was surely a more attractive candidate (with my eclectic dabblings) than these three hundred other mono-disciplined squares from some foreign GPA factory.

Stupid people like to list all of the geniuses in history that did poorly in school. Einstein is a favorite. ‘Did you know that Einstein failed his math class? Albert Einstein.’ That’s not actually true (he just had to drop out of school because his family relocated to Italy), but there have been successful men and women who at times struggled in the very subject they would later revolutionize. Still, for every ironic inspirational poster displayed, I think they should hang another one next to it, or at least give it a conspicuous footnote with the unsurprising truth: that, while at school, thousands of others who went on to to lead full, accomplished lives excelled in every subject, set the curve on every test and argued their ideas, spiritedly, convincingly, every opportunity they were given; they turned in every paper on time, began every paper on time, and when the professor handed a paper back, the grade wasn’t just a coefficient to plug into their graduation calculator, but a telling, considered evaluation by a seasoned confidant, and they took it to heart.

Many of them attended the École Normale Supérieure. Many of them will attend in the next academic year. Forget the rebel genius; she is the exception. Graduate school has taught an old dog a few new tricks, but I don’t remember not starting a paper two days after the due date since sophomore year. And even among the papers I managed to finish, only a small fraction required me to do more than a minimal reading of the texts. I learned a lot in college, but it had little to do with my assignments. For the serious scholar, the proof is in the pudding, and my college transcript had a big fat F, a D, seven C‘s, and I deserved much, much worse. As for my application essays, Marc Anthony could have orated them from the purple, smoking steps of the Roman forum and the jury still wouldn’t have swallowed it. They saw my grades and they were damn right.

So, I didn’t get in. It probably wasn’t even close. And all I want to say is this: good job, M. President of the Jury: your vigilance just saved you and your faculty from three years of excuses, of utter exegetic excrement; three years of ire, indolence and inferiority; I tried my best, but you warmed by waxy wings, smelled me out, one of the most undeserving academic parasites in the history of the Latin Quarter.

Don’t worry, though: I’m happy where I am. And I started my term paper today. It’s due in a week. I think that’s a new record.

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~ by ohkrapp on May 22, 2008.

4 Responses to “Sartre was an egghead, anyway”

  1. bravo Krapp!

  2. By the way, Beckett went as a lector to the ENS. Then he returned to the Trinity College of Dublin … and quitted to become a writer. What would be this “society of knowledge” Europe wants to develop in order to maintain an illusion of some power without poets to reflect the deepest aspirations and emotions of our lost generations? Krapp’s tape shouldn’t be the last one…

  3. google tells me that someone found this post by searching: ‘How to pronounce Ecole Normale Superieure.’ fyi:

    Ae (‘May’)
    Kohl (Somewhere between ‘cull’ and ‘mole’)
    Nor (‘or’ with a breathy end)
    Mal (as in the name ‘al’)
    Soo (‘Sue’ with lips pursed)
    Pair (but kind of airy)
    Ee
    Uhr (like ‘her’ but a subtle H)

  4. […] Sartre Was An Egghead, Anyway […]

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