AN AIR OF SOLITUDE hangs around the practice of philosophy; dispelling this aura, or its reputation, seemed perhaps the point of last week’s Night of Philosophy. Organized by, among others, the French Embassy (bien sur), the event gathered the secular monks of episteme, Francophones, and looky-loos from 7 PM to 7 AM, Friday night to Saturday morning, in two adjacent, shabby-regal buildings on Fifth Avenue a few hops from the Met. Sixty-two twenty-minute lectures by luminaries including Kwame Anthony Appiah, Barbara Cassin, Simon Critchley, and Monique Canto-Sperber (whose appearance on the topic of free speech roused some controversy) would be accompanied by a dozen performances, a video program, a complete reading of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir for the cuddlebugs in the crowd, tractati for sale, a cash bar, free coffee, the odd disbursement of charcuterie, and, of course, a DJ: a life-of-the-mind mini-Lollapalooza. And if you hung around all night, you got a T-shirt.
By 8 PM, lines outside both the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Ukrainian Institute stretched five blocks. People were waiting three hours or more. It was chilly, and every so often the wind burst out of Central Park and down the streets, but the crowd seemed to relish the chance to display their dedication, and have something to complain about. A kid even played an acoustic guitar and led a singalong. It was cold but it was spring, after all: hope. Inside, those standing tight-lipped (and tight-legged) in the proportionately long lines for the toilets were enjoying their wait less.
The first speaker I caught was Appiah. He gave a somber talk on honor and shame, which touched on Gitmo and “honor killing” in contemporary Pakistan. The photo of a woman face down in a pool of blood, murdered for wanting a divorce, didn’t exactly fit the festival atmosphere. “Is a Thought Experiment a Real Experiment?” seemed more comfortably abstruse, but the murmuring of naysayers (it’s a trite subject, allegedly) led me to explore. Volunteers flurried all over, working hard, but everywhere capacities were stretched. The coffee machines kept running dry or breaking. When a gratis cocktail crept up on the schedule, people mobbed the serving station fifteen minutes early. Numb waiting became a hallmark of the evening, though the dance floor in the bookshop—its sole, chic illumination a neon sign saying HORIZON—had ample room whenever I checked.
I stuck my head in on a talk tracing parallels between certain passages in Rousseau and Kieslowski’s Red and found myself in familiar surroundings: In fall 2012 Petzel et al. had thrown a party at the Ukrainian Institute for Wade Guyton’s Whitney show. Here, in the Library Room, on fishy pink morphine tablets, I had watched Mitt Romney wax a grumpy Barack Obama in the second presidential debate, not long after an ex-friend introduced me to Laura Owens and added, “She’s a painter,” as if I had been an art critic for fifteen years and didn’t fucking know who Laura Owens was; as if I were a child and my frame of reference was smearing around primary colors with my fingers.
All in all, the memory brought back nausea, which led me across the hall for a drink in the Chandelier Room. In the corner a group of a dozen very young adults argued about, I shit you not, solipsism. Such kids and many less annoying members of their cohort made up a plurality of the crowd. In addition to the expected 10–15 percent of randos and senior citizens (my identity lying somewhere between), there was also a high percentage of earnest young professionals, the ones pleasantly surprised with the selection of microbrews—but have another, at this hour? No, I shouldn’t; the ones who told me they had come to the event with philosophy groups or meet-ups but now seemed to be drifting alone; the ones wearing plaid casual Friday button-downs or chunky black heels that transition from office to lounge without too much embarrassment. I got the sense that these people had maybe minored in philosophy in college, or had fond memories of an intro class, or for other reasons related to elapsing youth and evaporating idealism clung to the idea of the intellect as something higher and greater beyond their jobs in PR or IT, something that those who surrounded them on the day-to-day failed to understand, and that if they could only find a lover or friend who understood this as well, then they might be happy.
You would think, then, that there would be a hot pickup scene going on. If so, it was too coded for me to detect. Plus people never got very drunk, though the college kids had an occasional excited glaze. I checked out Philosophy in the Boudoir on a live feed in a (highly unnecessary) crowd-overflow room, just in time for some observations on sodomizing a seven-year-old, and tried to download dating apps. My reception was lousy, though, and wifi was not one of the giveaways. In the end, I got on neither Tinder nor Grindr, and I didn’t see anybody make out all night.
Clifford Owens took over a second-floor lobby at 3 AM. He performed a few scores, the first of which, by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, resulted in his requesting asylum from the French government: Technically he was on French territory, and as a black man in America, he was a political prisoner and lived in imminent danger. The request seemed maybe not rhetorical and discomfited the crowd. But the performance continued without the ambassador being summoned. Another score, by Jacolby Satterwhite, required that Owens find a black male artist in the crowd who would agree to spend the next twenty-four hours with him collaborating on a body of work. When Owens mentioned that he lived in Queens, the ranks of prospects noticeably thinned.
Critchley had the most rock ’n’ roll slot, 4:30 AM, and balls-out topic, suicide. I had packed a razor blade for the occasion. When the time came, clad in all black, he preambled to the throng that he had just come from the pub (he did look ruddy), then launched into a discussion of self-slaughter. He read from E. M. Cioran, and Virginia Woolf’s death note, then To the Lighthouse—at which point the talk seemed to pivot toward the life affirming. Critchley read a passage to the effect that it was the little things that made life worth living: “Always, Mrs. Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end,” it began, and ended “It is enough! It is enough!” Personally I felt deflated; but the crowd ate it up. Plausibly impromptu, Critchley tried to raise a chant of “It is enough!” which made it through maybe four weak iterations. Pro to the end, he knew when to quit.
After the only talk that could have fit one of those Dis bills at the New Museum Triennial, “Metaphysical Daring as a Post-human Survival Strategy,” I went downstairs and waited for the 5:30 AM free croissants. I gave up on them at 5:45. Over at the Ukrainian Institute, a talk on the concept of exodus was going on. I found a piece of floor at the back of the room and kept my head down to avoid the clammy blue tendrils of dawn reaching through the windows. Happily my neighbors turned out to be the only people on drugs at the entire event, two young women between high school and college age. Their collective wardrobe included combats, tights with images of whirling galaxies, a thrift-store animal-print coat, and a head covering that I swear (though I was bleary) comprised a bunch of fake stoles clumsily stitched together, some still with eyes. The pair were curled up on each other reading Julio Cortazár in Spanish; one of them traced and retraced an intricate linear abstraction on a mostly blank page. They warily offered me language instruction, which I declined and regretted declining immediately. But what’s the point of staying up all night if you don’t end up with regrets?
There was a music act at 6, back in the Chandelier Room, and whoever wrote the program had dropped a Deleuze quote in the blurb. But it was just a guy with an acoustic guitar—unbelievably, the ex of one of my exes, reterritorialized. So I went and waited stoically for my T-shirt. The consolations of philosophy seem limited when you’re going home alone at 7 in the morning, no matter where you’ve been.