January 2013

Existence unplugged

Written by Tom McGuire

There’s something about the word ‘existentialism’ that conjures up the image of serious-looking Frenchmen in a dimly lit cafe, discussing the absurdity of life and the inevitability of death in between slow inhalations of tobacco. They carry coffee-stained notepads from which they earnestly recite poetry on the human condition, and (for the more serious listener) their philosophical musings.

Freedom is the cause celebre of the modern age. For existentialists, though, the full acceptance of human freedom seems to place an almost terrifying weight upon our shoulders. We are, as Sartre puts it, condemned to be free – forced to make choices – and so freedom becomes paradoxically a source of angst. Part of this angst surely has to do with the overwhelming number of possible lives available to us, and hence the virtually infinite number of selves we might become, from which we have to forge our actual state of being. Failure to choose is not an option, for a living human being cannot fail to participate in life. Who have you chosen to become and why?

Children are exposed to angst early on by the adult world when presented with the expectation of making a ‘career choice’, of deciding on and following a particular path towards creation of a future self, and thereby closing off other options. Commitment to one path closes off countless possibilities and thus condemns numerous future selves to an aborted death – no wonder there is angst associated with such a defining process.

Existentialists are concerned about authenticity, and the person who identifies too closely with the role they play, rather than their inherently free selfhood, may be an inauthentic human being. Perhaps it is only children who are truly capable of leading authentic lives. Their imaginations allow them to play with a seemingly endless variety of possibilities, absorbing themselves in particular identities through role play then discarding them like a used toy. If left to their own devices, they tend to act in a remarkably spontaneous way – to ‘be themselves’ which means, in an existentialist sense, freely creating themselves at will.

Though subtle or overt promptings by teachers, by Career Expos that visit the school, and by the whole adult atmosphere around them, children are encouraged or even commanded to assume particularly defined roles and identities; to decide who they want to become, or what they want to do. The notion that one has to adhere to a fixed role must be perplexing for a child (it certainly was for me), as they are used to being authentic; which means, bound by none of their assumed roles. Of course, children often claim that they know who they want to be when they grow up (a firefighter, dentist etc.) but this projection of a future self can change from day to day.

It is often presumed that despair, and even suicidal tendencies must follow from existentialist thought. The problem for Sartre is how to find meaning in a universe that, he believes, is without any divine agency. He believes that values like right and wrong originate from human consciousness, not God. Yet Kierkegaard, usually considered to be an existentialist, was a devout Christian. Both philosophers held a radical notion of human freedom, in which every little choice counts – either because this is our one and only life, or because we are being judged on our worthiness for eternal life. Both religious and antireligious conceptions of life are capable of generating despair. If Sartre’s philosophy is a recipe for unhappiness, is that because of its atheism or because of the general existentialist focus on absurdity and suffering? That is a question with no easy answer.

Novels can be a great way of bringing philosophical viewpoints to a wider audience (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is a prime example), and in this issue Michael Rockler explains why a famous detective novel is also an existentialist classic (p.4). Jean Paul-Sartre, existentialism’s most lucid exponent, was a fascinating character and his contributions to human culture immense. Benedict O’Donohue explains ‘why Sartre matters’ (p.12). Sartre’s longtime partner, Simone de Beauvoir, herself became an icon of the feminist movement when she wrote The Second Sex. You are invited to take a closer look at this often misunderstood manifesto of women’s rights (p.11).

We can probably all remember having had at least one traumatic experience, even if we are unfamiliar with existential angst. Trauma, as an individual and social condition, is a blossoming field of research and some recent books on the subject are reviewed inside (p.17). Trauma is one way to explain destructive or anomalous behaviour. Those who have experienced extreme trauma (e.g. refugees from warzones) may sometimes do bizarre and dangerous things to others. A victimized ethnic group may become the victimizer next time around. Since traumatic events in a person’s life can often be linked to present behaviour, it is tempting to search for a similar reason why malfunctioning societies act the way they do. A cultural anthropologist of Western society could see signs of trauma, real and imagined, almost everywhere: in TV’s obsession with conflict and dysfunction, in movies about the destruction of the world (e.g. 2012) or the onslaught of zombie flicks representing the complete breakdown of rational society.

Trauma is also something that is increasingly used to try and shift moral responsibility for actions away from oneself. The battered wife who poisons her husband can claim to have a traumatic stress disorder in order to make herself less culpable. This is a tricky situation for the existentialist, who wants to uphold the human freedom to choose in every situation while recognising ‘facticity’, the physical and social limits which make our free will less capable of being expressed. Some people are, of course, more hemmed in by facticity than others.

If you’re angst-prone, try not to feel too bad after reading this issue. Look at the plus side: you are more in charge of your life than you may have realised. And the less attached you are to the superficial, roleplaying aspects of your ‘self ’, the more real your experience of life is going to get. Now, back to that coffee.