For about ten years Jane had been coming with her husband to the classes I taught in the evenings, at a local school, and then for a couple of years after that continued coming though he was too ill to attend. The class kept her mind off things she would say, or keep her mind at least on other things. She said she would talk to him about the classes he was missing and they would relive elements of them, some of the topics we discussed, and the mild arguments that occasionally ensued. I couldn't see them arguing too much; there was in Jim's demeanour a disposition for laughter that suggested no amount of seriousness could undermine the humorous perspective that made up his world. Yet at the same time, he was never frivolous with an idea, and he could run with it for an hour if you wanted to do so. His humour was often absurd, ironic and even cynical, but it was never deflective. He had no interest in the cheap laugh and nor did Jane. Anyway, they both always enjoyed the stimulation the class gave them, even if there was a period of time (about a year I think) where they didn't come at all. I taught philosophy and each week assigned the students a short text by a well-known philosopher. Over the year I've taught anything from Ethics in Ancient Philosophy to Morality and the Enlightenment, Aesthetic Theory to the Age of Idealism, as well as numerous political theory classes and many on epistemological questions. About the only topic I tend to avoid is pure logic.
I knew Jim and Jane well enough yet never socialised with them beyond regular drinks after the class, and knew they lived a few miles from Edinburgh but I had never visited the village let alone them. When Jim died I didn't even know about the funeral it happened during the summer holidays and Jane said that she didn't want to disturb me; that no doubt I was enjoying the break and the last thing I wanted to do was attend someone's burial. It is true I wouldn't likely have interrupted the holiday to return for a funeral, though it had coincided with the day I got back. I flew in from Grenada and was in Edinburgh before lunchtime. The funeral was in the early afternoon and logistically I could have made it. The village was only a mile beyond the airport. Jane told me a couple of days after it took place and I was saddened that I missed it. But at the same time I never really knew Jane that well, and Jim seemed already to have disappeared, an occasional presence as Jane would invoke him but otherwise somehow already dead long before he passed away.
And yet after he died, as Jane continued coming to the classes alone, and registering within her a loneliness that was absent while he was unable to attend, but now present, I came to know her quite well. As we all continued going often for drinks after the class, so I noticed that Jane was less frivolous than before, less keen to joke and laugh, and more interested in engaging one person in conversation for the entirety of the evening. On several occasions that happened to me, and on one of them recently she told me about a very strange thing that had happened a couple of months earlier.
At least once a week she went to the nearby cemetery to place new flowers on the grave. However this time she found not only had they been removed but that others had usurped them. Her violets, tulips and lilies had been replaced by around half a dozen red roses. Her flowers looked especially pathetic lying next to the grave, a few days old while it looked like the roses had been put there that very day. She wondered who it might be and it didn't take long for her to decide that it must have been Jim's ex-lover, a woman he was seeing for some time around ten years earlier, shortly before Jim and Jane got married. I was surprised: I had always assumed they had been married for many years and certainly for a long time before they started attending my classes, only to now realise that for much of their marriage the classes had accompanied it. They had both been divorcees and met a year after Jane had finally divorced her husband and a good few years after Jim had broken up with his wife. Not long after his divorce, Jim saw Evelyn for quite a number of years but she could never justify leaving her husband and Jim thought perhaps she shouldn't she had two kids with him and why break up a family? And yet Jane thought Evelyn never quite got over the rejection and thus suspected it was Evelyn (a woman she had never known, never seen) who had replaced the flowers.
We didn't have the chance to talk much more about it after that; a round was bought, the conversation became briefly collective and then we turned to other things, to other people. Someone asked me a question about the class: whether I thought it was important in principle to tell a patient that they are dying. It was one of the topics we were going to discuss in a couple of weeks' time and I said I wouldn't want to wish to give her insider knowledge to which the other students didn't have access. She said what if she were the one to provide insider information. She offered it with irony but also with authority, as if to say don't turn a serious subject into a trivial matter before you know what I am about to say. It was Martha's first course with me and I had noticed that during the topics we had discussed thus far in the term (whether corporal punishment is wrong, the issue of abortion rights, the question of sectioning someone deemed of unfit mental health), she always appeared to take the topics personally. While the others saw the subject as a debate, Martha saw it as an argument. When someone proposed that they could understand that a teacher with an unruly group of children might wish to temper that unruliness with the aid of a long, heavy belt, Martha looked at the man twice her age and almost twice her size and said that he could try that with her and it might be an issue of capital punishment. The man laughed lightly to dispel the tension but the tension didn't only remain, it cast over the class a seriousness that each week wouldn't quite go away as Martha insisted taking the subjects we were discussing seriously indeed. For example, when she talked about the idea of belting a child, she vividly imagined the fear of the kid, the shock of the belt as the teacher hit the child's hand, and the aftermath that left the sting so strong that the boy or girl wouldn't be able to hold their pencil. She would argue not only passionately but even melodramatically, her thick, very dark but not quite black hair swept up in a bun one minute, cascading down the next, her charcoal eyes with mascara making them look even darker, giving her a demanding countenance. That evening was the first that term where we had gone for drinks and I was a little surprised that she came and probably hoped she wouldn't.
But there she was, asking me a question pertinent to a fortnight's time, and there I was feeling trivial next to her enquiry as she told me precisely why she was asking. Two years earlier, she said, her father died of Leukemia and her mother and older sister decided they wouldn't tell him he was dying. Martha wanted him to be told and said if he believed in God she might have agreed not to tell him. But he had always railed against false belief and as a practically-minded engineer he insisted his children saw the world as it was and not how they wished it to be. He was a man who had told his children that there was no such thing as Santa Claus or the tooth fairy at an age when their friends at school still received a gift under their pillows, and would write to Father Christmas. He was a man who always wanted her to do a practical degree, trying to persuade her that the imagination is all very well but it was vastly inferior to proper knowledge. How could such a man then be left to die in ignorance Martha insisted? She offered all this to me surprisingly quickly, though not so surprising given the intensity she had manifested in the classroom, and I'd like to think I received it with a degree of human consideration I usually try and keep out of the classroom. When a student invokes their own experience I try as much as possible to depersonalize it. It is after all very hard to have an ethical debate between two people on the issue of abortion if one person insists on telling others about her experience of it and another reckons that the foetus is a living thing that must be respected. In such circumstances, one student has accused the other of murder. My job is often to try to get the students to see the logic of their positions even if I have no interest in pure logic itself. I've always described this as the necessary level of reason for disinterest to take place, finding many a political argument lacks that level of disinterest thus problems aren't solved because emotions are too involved.
And yet I have always admired people and artists who can argue from a position that is very much their own however untenable it might appear to be objectively. I could see Martha had an aspect of this quality, as she had argued in the class for what she called human rights but made this common enough phrase her own. When someone proposed that it might be in society's interests that a person be institutionalised she said that a false equivalence was being drawn between society (an abstraction) and a person (a living thing). What dehumanizes society she insisted was when the abstraction is given paramount status over the individual as she said while she understood angry violence and revenge, she didn't understand corporal or capital punishment. If the teacher is so angry that the student must be belted, then so be it, she said. If someone loses a loved one because they have been murdered, then why shouldn't they take revenge? The atrocity would reside in the state then executing the vengeful person, who was acting out of feeling while the state was merely acting out of obligation. Of course, some of the students insisted her position was 'silly, 'irrational' but I knew that she had gone a lot further in examining the presuppositions of the debate than the others: wasn't there a logic within her apparently irrational position?
Yet there she was that night talking directly about her father's death. So often she would dream about telling him that he was to die, she said, and her father hugging her saying that he wanted love and consideration to his dying day but he also wanted to hear the truth too. She would then wake up and burst into tears. I asked her if she thought telling him would have been better for him or for her; had she been in danger of telling herself he wanted to know because she didn't want to lie to him? I said that many people like the idea of truth in most contexts but death might have been an exception even to her father. Martha believed that she didn't know; what she did reckon however was that her father and his daughter were two people alienated by an imperative and an abstraction: that one ought not to tell someone they are soon to die.
I am not sure whether in previous years Jane would have been so responsive to Martha as she happened to be that term, as though Jim's death had turned many of the topics that we discussed into pressing concerns rather than just debates. I think when Jim was alive (and even when he could no longer come to the classes) that what she liked most was the discussion, she knew that it gave her something to talk about in the class and also something for Jim and Jane to discuss over dinner, on the drive home, the next day as they worked in the garden. She once announced to me they were an argumentative couple, however humorously: the courses helped them turn their arguments away from themselves.
Yet that term while she wouldn't construct arguments as Martha did, Jane seemed much more sympathetic to Martha's positions than anybody else, as if she could see in all these questions we would ask, in all the issues we raised, underlying them an importance that she had never before quite countenanced. That evening when I talked to her, before speaking to Martha, she said, I had never before seen, despite that class she said she vaguely remembered on one of the Ancients, that philosophy was about consolation.
I went away that night thinking of the difference between consolation and conciliation, seeing my purpose as a teacher to seek conciliation, to get students to see other sides to an argument and to try and reconcile opposing perspectives without regarding one over another. When we discussed abortion I did not assume the mother has rights and the fetus does not; I didn't assume that the pregnant woman had the right to abort without any say from the person who impregnated her. I had no problem with someone claiming that if the woman has a right to decide whether to have the child or not, then should the person who would be the father of the child be obliged to pay maintenance if she chooses to have it against his wishes? My attitude as a teacher was that the more perspective available on an issue the better; the more debate was generated and the more engaged the students tended to be.
I sometimes believed I taught night classes as a means by which to escape having a position of my own as a means by which to avoid becoming a philosopher. I did an undergraduate degree and a Master's in Glasgow fifteen years ago and, while in the early stages of my PhD, the individual who had been teaching some of the evening classes for years died suddenly halfway through the term; they needed a replacement quickly and asked around the philosophy department. I was the only one with time available, took over and was offered similar work the following year in a college in this Highland town, and have remained ever since, never completing my doctorate. I discovered instantly that I liked teaching adults, and knew that though I didn't earn very much money there were no obligations at all placed on me to publish. To publish I believed meant having something to say, a position to hold, and I really didn't have one. Maybe this is true of many people publishing papers in academia, for how many of those in philosophy departments can really claim for themselves the term philosopher? But that is what I believed I needed to become if I were to publish at all. Adult education gave me the opportunity to attend to the philosophical without the need to become a philosopher and it allowed me a limbo status I suppose can also be found in other aspects of my life too.
That evening arriving home around ten thirty, I fed the cat, ate a bowl of cereal, made some tea and went to bed. I had another class the next afternoon and couldn't quite concentrate on the paper I was reading and knew that I wouldn't easily fall asleep either. I was thinking about Martha's position, because that was exactly what she possessed, and she didn't feel obliged to have an academic post in which to express it. It made me think perhaps for the first time that a position was a human stance and not a published declaration, which wasn't the same thing as saying that I needed one to teach adult education. If Martha was mildly troublesome for some of the other students it rested on having conviction while others wanted stimulation. The latter was after all the word Jane had sometimes used. But if anybody asked me what I thought about slavery, abortion, the death penalty or adultery my position would have been thoughtfully predictable. I could argue my way through why I thought they were wrong to support a particular position, but I knew all the counter-arguments I might offer for why they were right would be much weaker, and consequently my argument for why they were wrong never felt very strong, merely acceptable. I had the sense Martha could argue assertively enough for why the death penalty has value that the counter argument would have to be very strong indeed to defeat it. But I sensed too that she believed this countering would be necessary. She wouldn't agree that the death penalty was wrong as though no argument needed to take place; she'd insist that the premises upon which such a claim was being made was just too flimsy and needed to be strengthened. I guessed this based on how she argued for other issues in the first three weeks, and knew that such a determination to see both sides of the argument deeply, provocatively, might cause students a few problems, and perhaps I was especially worried because of Jane that Martha would present arguments that Jane might have been able to laugh off or engage with a couple of years earlier, but now, in her own way, was taking as seriously as Martha. Indeed, about the only issue upon which they disagreed was whether it is best to keep information from others even if it concerns them. Martha, of course, thought that the person should be told; that they had a right to the truth, Jane reckoned that there are certain truths that are cruel rather than kind, and revealing them can sometimes be an act of ruthlessness.
Over the next few weeks of the course, Martha argued strenuously for antithetical positions: insisting that the death penalty was wrong but personal vengeance was right, and that the problem with the state killing someone was that it generalised the vengeful into the national. She thought that anyone who killed someone who had murdered their son or daughter was acting vengefully and should receive a short sentence (that vengeance should be seen as a minor crime worth no more than a couple of years), which would be much healthier than the state taking the law into its own hands and executing the initial murderer. This made the state barbaric and the grieving impotent. Could we not learn something from cultures that recognised honour killings; making it clear they weren't acceptable but neither were they incomprehensible? By offering a short sentence to the parent who murders their child's killer, the state is giving the parent back some autonomy without entirely condoning the act. Similarly, provocative arguments were made when we came to euthanasia, a basic income for all and war. I won't go into these arguments now; just to say that in most of them the only person who seemed sympathetic to Martha's position happened to be Jane, and yet I wasn't sure if she would have been so before Jim's death. When we talked again in the pub a couple of weeks after the previous occasion, she said that while she had enjoyed coming to the classes over the years, there never seemed to be too much urgency to the ideas for her and it seemed for most of the other students but since her husband's death, many of the issues appeared urgent. How could she not have taken them more seriously? Perhaps the only thing she should have taken less seriously was her husband.
I asked her what she meant as a way I suppose of asking her if she had found out any more about the situation with the flowers. She asked me if I remembered what I had told her a couple of weeks earlier; I said of course and she added that the following week she placed flowers on the grave and returned the next day, spending the entire morning and most of the afternoon sitting on a bench that looked down over the graveyard that she said was built on a hill. She had with her a pair of binoculars. Wasn't she cold was my first question? It was now the end of October and the weather had been only a few degrees above zero in the last ten days. She said she had been but she was also determined and practical. She had worn several layers of clothing and found all the flasks she had in the house (five), and filled two with hot tea and the others with hot water. She had a hot water bottle on her lap that she would top up, and it stopped her from freezing. At around 3 in the afternoon, a woman got out of a car with a bunch of flowers and moved towards the grave. She looked around Jane's age, and looked around her furtively before she placed her own flowers at the graveside and pushed the others away. She stood there for five minutes, looking at the grave, and thus giving Jane enough time to pack up her things, to make her way down the hill which was still wooded enough to provide the necessary camouflage, and got into her car not far from the main entrance of the cemetery. There were only two exit points and she thought the woman would be unlikely to turn the car around and leave through the other gate, and sure enough the car exited near where Jane waited, and so she started following the other car. She took note of the number plate just in case she lost sight of the vehicle but found she could follow her all the way home without it seemed the other woman knowing. She pulled into a modern, private housing estate, and parked the car in the driveway. As she opened the front door a collie dog yelped at her and the woman bustled past, stroking the dog with her one free hand.
Over the next few days, she followed the woman around some more, and worked out that she lived alone, was probably in her late sixties, worked voluntarily in a charity shop and if she had children she suspected they lived in another town. She supposed the woman was the person Jim had been seeing before he married Jane but what she didn't know for sure was whether Jim had continued seeing her in some capacity or another after they were married. Well over a decade would appear a very long time to remain besotted by a man you haven't seen or had any contact with she admitted, and I was surprised that she was so openly acknowledging Jim might have been having an ongoing affair during their time together.
Jane then asked me if I could recall a period of time when they didn't come to my classes. I said I did and it must have been several years after they had started coming because their absence was conspicuous I had got used to seeing them in the class. Well, the reason they didn't come was because on the first day of the course that year they came towards the classroom and saw standing outside it none other than this woman. Or rather Jim noticed her, pulled Jane to one side and said that he was sure it was Evelyn standing there in the distance. She asked if I could recall that their names were actually on the register; that they had signed up for the course. I cast my mind back but couldn't remember, and she said perhaps that is not so very important, yet maybe I would remember the woman who was there and she was the reason for their absence. She went on to describe her that evening and, though I possessed only the vaguest of recollections, as I put my mind to it over the next couple of weeks she came more prominently to my thoughts, and especially, and oddly, came to them through the presence of Martha.
As I've suggested, the classes rely on intelligent, well-adjusted and content people discussing ideas that interest them but hardly preoccupy them. They are made up of people of various ages, and while the classes I teach in the afternoon are full mainly of retirees, the evening classes probably have an average age of forty. Most seem happy enough in their life but sometimes lacking in a social circle: new to the town, out of a relationship, kids having left home and so on. They appear at most mildly discontented with their lives. And then very occasionally there are students like Martha who are not only more than mildly discontented with their lives, but discontented with life itself, as though they aren't just looking at ways in which to see it, but searching for an underpinning meaning to it. The class appeared like an opportunity to engage with a group of people ideas that in other circumstances might well have just gone round and round in her head. It was when looking and listening to Martha that the woman slowly came back to my mind as I recalled an unhappy woman from a few years earlier who insisted on taking many of the ideas we discussed personally, and even occasionally got into heated exchanges with others. She must have been around fifty then and I didn't know anything about her personal life at all; perhaps one reason she hadn't immediately come to mind was that she never came for drinks to the pub afterwards. This seemed to some of the others especially arrogant: there she was speaking forcefully and passionately about various topics but as soon as the class was over she was the first to leave. But when I started thinking about her, several things came to my mind. I remember her olive complexion and her white teeth. I wouldn't quite say her smile, since she would reveal it rarely but the teeth often. She grimaced as though in irritation or frustration, determined less to win a point than to make one, but in a manner that indicated the other person nevertheless needed to be defeated. I could say that she was angry but that wouldn't quite be fair. It was more that she wanted the world to be different from the way it was and she appeared distressed that other people didn't seem to want this as well.
The following week (the ninth week of term) after Jane had mentioned this woman who went by the name of Evelyn (though I had no memory of the name myself), I couldn't but see in Martha similarities to this other woman, unsure whether I was doing so because of some vague associations based on trying to find the image of one woman in the presence of a much younger one who resembled her, or because the associations were really quite concrete. In the class, we were discussing legally sanctioned assisted deaths. While most could see that people had the right to die, they were also very worried that it was a right that could be perverted without much difficulty. One student mentioned reading a lengthy article in a newspaper a few months earlier that a Dutch doctor who believed in its legalization had now stopped performing Euthanasia. He said that the previous winter a doctor friend of his had been told by an elderly patient that he wanted to die that very week. The temperature was far into the minuses and the doctor could see less someone who wanted to have his death assisted than some else take responsibility for his demise. "Take a bottle of whisky and sit in your garden and we will find you tomorrow", the doctor said, "because I cannot accept that you make me responsible for your own suicide." Martha said she could see the problem but saw a much bigger one, and wondered whether in time we would see our resistance to Euthanasia as absurd as our refusal many years before to accept people taking their own lives. She gave an example from a book partly about Sylvia Plath's death. In it, the writer relates a story related by another writer one from the newspapers in around 1860. It is about someone getting hanged because he had attempted suicide by slitting his throat. Doctors had warned the executioners it was impossible to hang the man; the throat would open up again and the condemned man would be able to breathe through the gap. They hanged him anyway, making sure the wound was stitched up just enough so he wouldn't be able to breathe as the rope tightened around his neck.
The story understandably silenced the class and I sensed that several of them were offended, or worse that they felt Martha deliberately wanted to offend them. Perhaps she did, and perhaps that is what such classes should do. Sometimes in them I would show clips from a television show which would interview various contemporary philosophers like John Searle, Anthony Kenny, A J Ayer and Martha Nussbaum. I remember in one of them the interviewer reckoned that philosophy was in some ways an offensive discipline: that it set out undermine many of our presuppositions about the world. I am not sure if my classes ever did that, but occasionally there would very occasionally be figures like Martha and Evelyn who would do that for me. I asked the class if they had anything to add to Martha's story, if they thought that we might see Euthanasia in the future as we now see suicide, which, I noted, was still illegal in the United Kingdom until 1961. This fact shocked people in quite a different way from Martha's story, but shocked them nevertheless. Jane said that maybe philosophy benefits from the stories that sit behind the theory that we discuss, and thanked her for telling us about the horrific hanging. But she also wondered if there are some ethical conundrums best left in the abstract. When I pushed her for an example she couldn't find one, though I suspected this was less because she didn't have any, but that she had one she couldn't easily divulge - proving her point, perhaps, as she couldn't make it.
The next week after the end of the class, and the end of the term, most of the students joined me for drinks in the pub. Initially, I talked to Jane, asked how she was feeling, asked if she had found out any more about the person who had moved her flowers from the grave. She said yes but didn't quite feel it was appropriate to say more, and what she thought she knew was still in the realm of speculation. Is this what she was talking about in the class the previous week, the example she had that she couldn't reveal? She supposed it was. It was while later talking to Martha that I had a sense of what that secret might have consisted of.
Some of the students had drifted off, and there were five of us left. Jane was talking to a man who never said much in the class but took notes studiously, and though I never got the chance to talk to him in the pub, he usually brought up subjects that we had discussed and obviously wished to pursue them further with the other students. The third person was a young man not much older than Martha, who often looked at her in the class with an admiration that may have indicated feelings of desire but at the very least suggested that he wished he shared her confidence. I was about to suggest Martha and I, who had been talking for about fifteen minutes on our own, join their conversation, but I also wanted to ask her a question. I asked her what made her take the class and she did indeed tell me that her mother had done one of the courses a few years before and recommended that she should do the one she did some day too. Now seemed the appropriate time, she said, adding that she was twenty-one and could understand some of the ideas better than when she was eighteen, but also when her father died, and nobody wanted to tell him, Martha found that moral questions and personal feelings became all hopelessly entangled; she thought a class might help disentangle them. She didn't know, but she at least now knew what she wanted to go off and study, that she was finally ready to leave the town, as if somehow no longer needing to visit regularly her father's grave. She was applying for the philosophy degree at Glasgow University and hoped I might be one of her referees. She said it with a cheekiness that I hadn't seen at all during the prior ten weeks. In that look, I saw nothing less than features that suddenly reminded me in some indistinct way of Jim. I looked across at Jane and wondered if she had noticed too, and if this had anything at all to do with the example she couldn't provide. Perhaps my ruminating had now gone too far, but as I sat there trying to work out how long Jim and Jane had been married, for how many years before that he may have been seeing Evelyn, I also couldn't help but see in the young woman in front of me an amalgam of this older woman who I could barely recall, and Jim whose image became once again vivid to me. I also wondered, in such speculation, if Martha had a sense that just as she was forced to keep a secret from her father, that a secret too had for many years been kept from her, and found myself musing also if in such a story philosophy gave way to narration, and that was what I was seeking all along.
© Tony McKibbin