Philosophy 412 — Special Topics in Philosophy — met in Sackett Building. Professor Alphonso Lingis, awkwardly jammed into a chair/desk combo, looked painfully out of place in the drab classroom. Like his beloved birds, Lingus was born to color and flight, not to blackboards and fluorescent lighting. From his bright orange hair (natural or enhanced, I never knew) to his lanky frame and paisley shirts, Lingus looked better prepared for a night on the town than a day giving lectures. Philosophers, however, have little choice when it comes to earning their living. Abstract Ideas might be their passion, but the concrete walls of the classroom provide their bread and butter…and vino, and plane tickets to Buenos Aires.
Lingis didn’t bring a syllabus on the first day. He simply informed us that the topic for this semester was philosopher Jorges Bataille and that we should read “books by Bataille”. We would have one assignment: a paper due at the end of the term. The paper was to be “on anything”: literally anything we wanted — no length guidelines, no format instructions, no topic suggestions. Several students composed lengthy research reports on Existential philosophers, complete with footnotes. I laughed at them. Clearly, this class called for something unconventional. Ultimately, I wrote a story about a common NYC pigeon who was mistaken for a dove and hailed as a beacon of peace. Lingus claimed to love it and gave me an A in the course. I believe, however, that he gave everyone As.
Lingis conducted class by reading aloud from his own journals. By October, he was regaling us with tales of his latest trip to Rio, replete with details on the cocktails he consumed and the women with whom he made love. Occasionally, he strove to relate these stories to larger theories and concepts. Slowly, I began to piece together a basic sense of his life philosophy. He loved animals. Animals, like people, and even some objects, were capable of extending ethical imperatives. Lingis also seemed to perceive life on earth as a series of self-contained microcosmic worlds. These discreet worlds shaped the perceptions and experiences of those within them so that the universe was not as interconnected and holistic as was implied by the phenomenological philosophers (I had to make a quick visit to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of these ideas — of course, in the nineties, we did not have Wikipedia, we just had to figure out what he was saying).
One fall day, Lingis stopped reading from his journals a few moments before class was scheduled to conclude. He looked around as if awakening from a nap and took a deep breath. “I am holding an event at my home this Friday night and you are all invited”, he announced. In what appeared to be an afterthought he urged us to “wear your most fabulous clothes”. The philosophy majors looked as if their eyes might literally jump out of their heads. Their anticipation was palpable. I was simply intrigued that a professor had invited me to his home.
I convinced my sorority-sister, room-mate, best-friend, and partner-in-crime — Gretchen — to attend the party with me. We had to miss a sorority social, but this event at Lingis’ home promised to be worth the “sacrifice”. We selected our most fabulous clothes. Roughly translated into sorority-girl speak, these were cocktail dresses, deemed appropriate for “semi-formal” events.
Lingis lived in an older neighborhood adjacent to campus. When he came to the door, my understanding of “fabulous clothes” was forever transformed. Lingis sported a sparkling silver sort of space suit; a glittering affair that melded itself to his body. His face was painted white with extreme eye make-up (think KISS, the band). His hair was gelled and moused into a series of points. “Welcome”, Lingis exclaimed, followed by the magic words, “wine is in the kitchen”. Several goblets later, Gretchen and I were enjoying a tour of Lingis’ home. Never before had I so wished for a small, discreet camera…perhaps one attached to a calculator or even a phone. But, alas, I am left only with memories.
The largest and most significant space in the house was the aviary. Exotic birds of all shapes and sizes flew freely around a glassed-in realm. Trees, fountains, and perches provided a hospitable environment for them. The birds gathered on Lingis head, shoulders, and arms the moment he entered the room. Some spoke, “parroting” Lingis’ running commentary about his feathered friends. Like the aviary, the master bedroom was shaped by Lingis’ distinctive tastes. A giant, round bed topped a pedestal and an equally large mirror was affixed to the ceiling directly above. Silken, black sheets and lava lamps added to the impression that Lingis spent a lot of time enjoying his bedroom.
As always happens at parties, nature eventually called and we found ourselves in line for the restroom. Lingis had invited everyone to enjoy the “master bath”. By the time it was my turn, I was pleasantly tipsy. Upon my entrance to the room, this turned to tipped over. My perspective lurched as I looked into infinity. Mirrored surface refracted light from other mirrored surfaces to concoct a miasma of light and reflection such that all sense of spatial proportion fell away. I was shocked to open the toilet and find that the mirrors continued within.
Gretchen and I were gasping with laughter and amazement as we discussed the evening thus far, when we slowly started to acknowledge the presence of other guests. Most of these guests were 1990s philosophy majors. Their most fabulous clothes were basically black, all black — black turtlenecks, jeans, Doc Martins, and dog collars. They spent much of the party chain smoking and looking bored. But then, around midnight, things got interesting. Lingis pranced through the house exclaiming that several graduate students were staging a “happening” in the yard. As Gretchen and I stepped onto the back patio, we heard the cracking of a whip and caught site of a “ringmaster” circling a black leather clad (barely clad) couple. The woman held a lit candle several inches above her male lover’s back, dripping the molten wax along his body as he moaned/screamed in ecstasy/pain. The wax drizzled down his back and he began to turn over…
We had seen enough for one night. Gretchen and I left a cheering and chanting crowd of would be dominatrixes, checked our watches and realized that there was a good hour and a half left before last call downtown. We headed to the G-man where the girls in our sorority were continuing to party with the fraternity boys who had hosted our social. “Dudes”, yelled two SAEs upon our arrival, “you so missed a radical eighties theme night!” “Angel in the Centerfold” erupted from the jukebox as I was swept up in the arms of a “brother” and we twirled joyfully up and down the aisles. Slightly dizzy, I was, nonetheless, keenly aware that I had just traversed worlds. Lingis was right. Miniature worlds were whirling around and among each other and we were frequent travelers.