To Be Human

by Kalleah [Reviews - 7]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Character, Study, Introspection, Vignette

Author's Notes:
For purposes of fiction, I've invented Thomas Vaughn Voight, the supposed existentialist expert, but Anita Brookner and the quotation cited from her that are real. I've studied a lot of existentialist literature in my time and recently reread Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism. It seems to me that most of the common perception of existentialism is wrapped up with the idea of despair (per Albert Camus) but frankly I see Sartre as much more optimistic and liberating than that. As I watch more Doctor Who, it occurs to me how much the philosophy fits the Doctor. As to the discussion of the presence of God, I won't take a stand on that, but I think it's clear where the Doctor stands, and this seems reasonable to me for Rose's perspective.

The Doctor slid his glasses back and forth along the bridge of his nose over and over until Rose harrumphed at him. He stopped and put the book he was reading down on his lap, looking at her expectantly.

"Whatcha readin'?" she asked.

He quirked one eyebrow and waved the volume at her. "Collected Works of Twentieth Century Existentialists, edited by a fellow called Thomas Vaughn Voight. Born about eighty years after you were. You'd have gotten along well with him, actually -- loved chips. And arguments."

"Existentialism," she said. "Isn't that about believing in nothing?"

He warmed immediately (and quite predictably, she thought) to his subject. "No, no, no, no, no. Not at all. It's about believing in yourself more than anything or anyone else. Recognizing that there is no set of rules beyond what each person sets for himself -- or herself. Taking responsibility for everyone's actions by making your own actions."

"Like you, every day."

He smiled back. "Yes, rather. Thomas and I got along famously."

She gestured at the book. "You knew him?"

He nodded. "I took him to meet Sartre once. Quite a threesome." She gave him a look that made him sniff haughtily. "An intellectual threesome, thank you very much, Ms. Tyler. We debated philosophy."

She rolled her eyes heavenward and hopped up to take the book away from him. She opened it to a random page and read. Existentialism is about being a saint without God; being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society. She skimmed further down and found the name of the author cited by Voight. "Did you know Anita Brookner too?"

"Haven't had the pleasure yet."

She strummed one finger along the page, looking down at him in his cushioned armchair, the image of a young professor working toward tenure. "Are you a saint, then?"

A flash went across his eyes that she could not put a name to. "No, Rose, I think you know that." He sighed and took the glasses off, setting them on the end table next to the chair. "And you say I'm rude. When have I interrupted someone who's reading and taken his book away?" She sat down on the arm of his chair and handed the book back to him without comment. He flipped through a few pages. "And worst yet, not marking his place."

"You know exactly where you were," she protested.

"Still rude."

She didn't have a defense for that. "What did she mean?"

"Brookner? That the whole point of life is knowing that there is no God, no divine judgement, but that you live your life as if there were. What makes a sentient being special -- well, she would have said human -- is the knowledge that there is ultimately no meaning to life but what we hack out ourselves. It ends with me, with you, for each person out there. We make our rules, and our morality, and our ethics, and that's what existentialism is. To know there is no divine and yet to act as if there was. To carve meaning from nothing. "

"You don't believe in God?"

"No," he said, shortly. "We're it. Do you, after all you have seen?"

"I don't know," she said, thoughtfully. "I've seen so much. But someone, or something, has to have made all this, yeah?"

"Do they?"

She considered this gravely for a few moments, rolling the thought around in her head. "Yes," she said finally. "I do believe that. You said to me once that there was more out there than you could ever imagine, and I can't believe that we're it. I would never have believed in you, or the TARDIS, before," she made a wild gesture around them. "I can't rule anything out."

"Glass half full, glass half empty."

"You say 'potato' --"

"I say 'chips,'" he said, standing up and dropping the book on the floor with a decisive thump.

Rose sank down into the chair he had just vacated. He ran one hand through his hair, causing it to stand on end, assuming what she affectionately thought of as his "lecture face."

"Jean-Paul Sartre. Born in Paris, France in 1905, died also in Paris, 1980. Turned down the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964."

"Turned it down?"

"Absolument. They gave it to him anyway, of course, but the prize money reverted to the fund. Quite a scandal."

"I can imagine."

"Thomas Vaughn Voight, born 2068 in Grant, Alabama, United States -- an unlikely place for an existentialist scholar, mind you -- died 2151 in Paris. Poetic justice, that. He would rather have liked it. Never turned down a Nobel Prize, but then again no one ever offered him one. Undergrad at Harvard, graduate work at Oxford."

"How did you meet him?"

"I went looking for him," said the Doctor with a grin.

"On purpose?"

"Yes, on purpose," he said, wide-eyed as if he always hit his mark when traveling. "He had published an article on Sartre that I ran across when -- oh, never mind when -- and he got it all wrong. So, I popped back in when he was reading poetry at an open mic night back at Harvard, and we went back to meet the Man Himself. Thomas got much better at writing after that."

Rose looked down at the book. "Is that cheating?" she asked, cautiously.

"Of course not! It's always a good idea to consult primary sources when writing literary criticism. Having tea with someone is as 'primary' as it gets. Want to go meet him?"

"Thomas?"

"Sartre."

She wasn't sure if anything sounded less appealing at the moment and consoled herself with the thought that if she said yes, he was unlikely to steer them to the right time and place anyway. He seemed to understand. "Rose, you know you're brilliant, just brilliant, don't you?" He flashed her the very white at the top of his eyes. "A-levels don't count. University. Whatever. You're brilliant and amazing and more than a match for anyone we meet." He reached down and chucked her affectionately on the chin. "If you want to go, just say so. Otherwise, I mentioned chips earlier and we could do that, too."

"Chips or philosophy?"

"Chips or philosophy. Or chips and philosophy. Whatever you like."

"Chips then, please," she replied. He nodded several times and bounced out of the room to go bang around on the TARDIS until they arrived somewhere.

Rose stared after him for a while after he had disappeared. His mercurial moods perplexed her after all this time and she found herself more often than not trying to read his mind. That was, she laughed to herself, not likely to happen. She reached down and picked up the discarded book, opening it to the inside cover. Written in a clear hand was an inscription.

For the Doctor.
Whether or not my free will is a curse, I embrace it more fully for having seen the emptiness around me. I act and define myself in the time I have allotted to me. May you always find meaning in your actions and love in their power.
Thomas.


She pondered the words on the page for a moment, letting one finger trace the faintest indentation of the script on the paper. This man had known her Doctor, had learned from him, and changed his life because of what he had learned.

She turned the first page and began to read.