The following is most of what I wrote in Professor Kyle Simmons’ Intro to Existentialism class at TMCC, Spring 2016.
Dostoevsky – Notes from Underground – Hurts So Good
I cannot help but find references to other ideas when reading this work by Dostoevsky (Dostoevsky). Very often I see reflections of the Tao Te Ching and modes of thought out of Buddhism, although they may not always be perfectly parallel. I see a struggle with the balance of things that come from exploring opposite extremes. Dostoevsky proposes limitations to the idea that reason and rational inquiry will necessarily lead to an objectively positive result for humanity. In fact, asserting individualism despite obvious harm to the self or society is recognized as a sort of pleasurable, positive experience in and of itself. He begins by pointing out the pleasure that can be derived from acting in spite, and from the “illness” which results from holding in the opposite impulses which arise in himself. This illness also manifests as a bitter ennui, an inability to take a strong course of action. To become anything, even an insect, is foolish and absurd. Kafka’s Gregor can definitely relate. Consciousness itself is a disease, an affliction that the character imagines is diminished in more ignorant men. This brought to mind Ecclesiastes: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (BibleHub).
The Enlightened ideal that through action utopia is possible is ridiculed as not being borne out by the evidence of man’s true nature. This reminded me of the Tao: “Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done. The world is sacred. It can’t be improved. If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it. If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it. There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind; a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest…” (Lao-tzu). This passage itself is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, which is at least passingly interesting. That man can be perfected through the steadfast pursuit of his own interests and advantage reminds me of the assertions of the Invisible Hand of the market and Social Darwinism, and I am pleased to see some push back against what I believe to be a dangerous way of looking at mankind. Dostoevsky argues through his character that there is a beneficial quality to the chaos that man introduces in rebellion against his own reason while promoting his own improbable, distinct, lonely individualism. Free Will encompasses both reason and desire, he posits. I would counter that to simply admire Free Will is childish. Tearing down the world out of boredom may have some redeeming qualities, but that does not make it good. I want a middle way.
Must we have horror to justify bliss? It seems that is a shallow rationalization, perhaps amoral and criminal. I do not propose that we have merely bliss with no toothache, nothing to stand as a contrast to joy and happiness; how boring, indeed. I have heard one justification for the absurd wealth of a few is that even if it is not by their merit (though it is supposed that it is), those so fortunate have happened upon a most ecstatic existence, and we should have such a reality in the world, such an experience in human consciousness, even if it is not our own. To that end, I see the energy drained from whole swaths of human effort; multiple small confidences, swindles, and untruths subjecting people to avoidable suffering. Not just unease, but horror and war. It is not that I would banish all joy as the necessary price of diminishing suffering. I believe that the depth of the valleys could be made shallower without significantly lopping of the tops of the peaks. A smoother wave would be perceived as more like music and less like static and jarring dissonant distortion.
Nature’s truth, Dostoevsky’s stone wall, reminds me of the absurd, unavoidable finality of death. We all face that wall, that affront to our reason and our silly desires. Whether it brings us ultimately to despair or to some greater aspiration of our existence is perhaps the most divine expression of our freedom of choice. We may never actually arrive at utopia, but it’s the journey that counts, right?
Nietzsche – All is False
In “Live Dangerously,” Nietzsche tells us that men are inclined to laziness. It is easier to conform to the pressures of society than it is to find one’s own explanation for the world. The dangers, therefore, which face the philosopher are loneliness or isolation from others, which causes suffering since we all yearn for companionship and praise, and despair of the truth. We cannot tell whether the truth is universal or subjective, and if it should be subjective, then it is as mortal as we are. Nietzsche commends Schopenhauer for approaching a philosophy that considers the whole of life, rather than the scientist’s method of breaking it into smaller parts. Unlike the inductive, where small observations infer a larger truth, or even the deductive, where general principles point to specific truths, here we have the subjective, where truth just is (or isn’t) expressed through the individual. The individual turns inward, improving himself for the good of the world. “Through oneself for all.” An application of reason removed from the individual becomes ridiculous and meaningless.
It is interesting that Nietzsche sees man as having killed God through reason, through science, and also that the “end of Christianity” has come at the “hands of its own morality.” Churches have become tombs, and now we must invent “new sacred games.” The belief in God was formed out of man’s inclination to laziness. God filled an emotional niche that through diligent use of reason has been dispelled. The moral sense that we must steadfastly seek the truth, which started with “God is Truth,” has necessarily led us through inquiry to “All is False.” Nietzsche supposes that had Jesus lived to old age, his wisdom surely would have led him to recant his teachings, and I imagine he meant specifically those that embraced weakness and treasured modesty. Christ himself was immodest, bold, took risks. If you really look at scripture, Christ was cocky. The Council of Nicaea struck out the gospels that depicted the Christ in ways that did not suit their purposes. Remnants still remain in the younger Christ, the one who took leave from his parents and deigned to preach to his elders, and the angry Christ who upset the tables of the money changers. We are mostly presented with the Christ who willingly allows himself to be crucified, who won’t even talk back to Pilate. How can someone who sees himself as divine, knows himself to be divine, really become so humble? There is a paradox here. It is almost as if the Council at Nicaea was looking to take sacred truths and use them to subjugate people through their instinct for laziness, rather than empower them to their own Christlike individual nature.
In the portion from Ecce Homo, Nietzsche puts forth that the übermensch he imagined should be half genius, half saint. I appreciate this, because the people who imagine the nature of man to be basically evil frighten me. It is like they want to excuse the bad they see around them and succumb to laziness; “it is just how man is,” they tell themselves. I think Nietzsche sees a deeply positive moral being at the height of man’s potential. I don’t think the overman is a hero, per se, because that would represent an ideal that has been realized, whereas the reality is we are always becoming. Even if we were to become gods, then we would have to become something more. I had a feverish dream once when I was a teenager in which I felt that I was the sphere whose circumference was nowhere and center was everywhere, and that that was the nature of existence. Nietzsche helps me to better grasp this idea.
Karl Jaspers – Existenz and Encompassing
I struggle to put my own words to this idea of Encompassing. I try to use the concepts I have from Eastern philosophy, such as “the Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.” This seems to somehow fall short, but starts to get at it. It is not an object of our consciousness, although to give it a name makes it seem to be. It is more like the stuff from which all observation and Being is made. “It is that in which all other things appear to us” (Kaufmann 213). I do understand that a finite being is by definition unable to perceive the infinite, just as in Flatland, a two dimensional being cannot hold the idea of a sphere in its mind. The rational is understood, and the non-rational becomes Deity or faith. I also fell that I understand that all philosophy is prologue and becomes real in our perception of it, in the communication of it to a living human being. All human beings in the world share a common heritage and a common fate, and paradoxically are the same in our uniqueness.
I found it interesting that Jaspers considers the progress of modern science and the fruits of rational inquiry to have put Kant at a distinct disadvantage to modern thinkers. We could say the same about everyone who has come before. I appreciate that Jaspers praises a multidisciplinary approach to the sciences. I have found inspiration for my thinking in philosophy from cellular and molecular biology, astronomy and physics, and even accounting. Like Jaspers suggests, I see the sciences as a tool of philosophy and a way to further contemplate my own concept of Being, reality, and self. I have felt the loneliness that stems from sophisticated thought… although in this moment I realize the word “sophisticated” has “sophist” embedded in it, and wonder whether the thinking I regarded as advanced and noteworthy is instead shallow and deceptive. There is the rabbit hole vortex of too much self- reflection. The meaning of words themselves are called into question. I almost certainly will never be regarded as a Kierkegaard or a Nietzsche, whereas they both knew they were great and eschewed their own greatness. I suppose I can aspire to my own greatness and be satisfied with that to whatever degree I am capable.
I understand that Kierkegaard’s view of happiness is as a negative value– the absence of suffering. I also agree that Christianity does not, unfortunately, actually mean that adherents act as Jesus Christ would. Even when Jesus directed his followers to pray in their own private, unique way to God, they refused to let him off the hook without providing an example. Unthinking mobs have been reciting his example as “The Lord’s prayer” all these centuries since. I am glad that I am absolved of guilt for not following what I have always perceived as a dishonest reflection of divinity in the human experience. I have sought my own understanding of Transcendence, with a healthy dose of actual experience. And, I understand the importance of scientific inquiry without feeling the need to come to a succinct conclusion about the nature of existence and reality. It’s enough that I can continue to act in a world full of other Beings and communicate with them , as perfectly as I can muster, as a means to better get to know them and myself.
Existential Themes in the film Brazil
Existentialism is a philosophy for the modern age. In “Existentialism for Beginners,” David Cogswell credits Karl Jaspers for defining existentialism as being concerned with “the struggle of modern man to lead an authentic and genuine life in spite of the modern drift toward mass, standardized society” (13). It only takes a moment of contemplation to realize that there are many works of dystopian fiction in the modern era, and that these numerous films and novels are expressions born of existentialism. Of the many dystopian films that have been made, the 1985 film Brazil by Terry Gilliam stands out as one of my favorites. A large amount of literature has at its core the friction between man and society, but existentialism introduces an aspect of chaos and absurdity into this conflict. It dispels the notion of finding transcendence and immortality by surrendering to the rational order and hierarchy of society and seeks enlightenment through the unique individual characteristics of the mortal individual. It demotes reason as the ultimate human characteristic and sets it alongside the more mundane qualities of passion and intuition. Where Hegel embraced idealism and utopia, existential philosophers like Schopenhauer embrace realism and dystopia. Brazil presents us with a dystopian, standardized society in which the struggles of the protagonist, Sam Lowry, illustrate many of the tenets from the broad philosophical genre of existentialism.
As the film opens, we are flying through clouds in blue skies while the cheerful samba “Brazil” is playing at 8:49 pm “somewhere in the 20th century” (Gilliam). This is not the future; this is now. Before very long, we are watching a television with a slight bit of static in a shop window, adorned with Christmas ornaments, while a man from Central Services extols the values of modern ducts “to suit your individual tastes” (Gilliam). Then, the TV shop explodes. We zoom in to a smoldering television playing an interview with the deputy minister Helpmann, who attributes recent terrorist activities to bad sportsmanship. “If these people would just play the game, they would get a lot more out of life” (Gilliam). Within the first two minutes, we have been given a concise summary of the themes of the film. Technology promises to serve our individuality, but consistently falls short and serves to make us conform. We are promised a more fulfilling life if we will only conform, but behind the absurd façade of order and comfort lies chaos and violence, and our own mortality.
We continue to hear Helpmann talk about value for money and people paying for the costs of their own incarceration as we move into an austere office room with parallel white ducts. A mousy man in a lab coat is watching the program, tapping at his screen. He becomes disturbed by a fly and, precariously climbing atop a file cabinet, smacks it, letting it fall into the printing machinery. The corporeal remains of the fly appear next to a typographic error which changes the name Tuttle to Buttle. This is a not-too-subtle foreboding of things to come. In the next scene, Stormtroopers burst into the modest family flat of Mr. Buttle, dropping through the ceiling just as his little girl laments that Santa won’t be able to drop in without a chimney. He is “invited to assist… with certain inquiries” and taken away, while his wife is left with a receipt, a broken home, and frantic children (Gilliam). The Central Services men show up to plug the hole in the ceiling through which the debt collectors have entered, assuring the woman upstairs that they don’t make mistakes, then watch their plug fall through the hole to the flat below. Gilliam has introduced us to the horrors of the modern world. It should be evident that the family man Buttle is not a dangerous criminal. The status quo considers itself infallible despite glaring evidence to the contrary; the rational fails to encompass the human. As Dostoyevsky writes in Notes from Underground, man has “such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his own logic” (Cogswell 30). Language itself is bent to the needs of authority, as a violent kidnapping is euphemistically termed an “invitation.” Small human foibles are amplified by blind adherence to authority to cause profound human misery. The forces of reason and science are indifferent to Buttle’s individual fate, and create a trap from which the common man cannot escape and to which he is compelled to conform against his will.
When we meet our protagonist, Sam Lowry, he is flying through a cloudscape similar to that at the beginning of the film. He is a bold, beautiful winged creature soaring effortlessly, and there is a gorgeous blond woman floating in the air, beckoning to him. He swoops down to kiss her, a gossamer fabric between them, and flies in a loop as the grating alarm wakes him from his dreaming slumber. This dream version of Sam, whom we revisit throughout the film, is quite clearly Nietzsche’s überman. He is the idealized expression of Sam’s most developed self—handsome, independent, powerful, and free. Sam’s waking life is bound within mundane responsibility and malfunctioning technology. As he arrives late to work at the Department of Records, we see a winged statue with a kneeling woman in the foyer and the inscription “Knowledge Will Make You Free.” This is an allusion to the Book of John, in which it is knowledge of God that frees the soul of man, but is ironic in this setting since the sum of knowledge in the Department of Records has just been employed to kidnap and imprison an innocent man (The King James Bible Online). Knowledge of one’s self is what makes one free in existentialism, and as Sam talks with his friend, Jack, in the foyer, we learn that he does not desire promotion and would prefer to stay in his current position. Sam has rejected the pressure to seek further promotion within the system while he struggles with his unexpressed but omnipresent base desires. We see this reinforced a bit later when Sam’s politically-connected mother pressures him to “grow up” and accept the promotion. She questions whether he has any dreams, which triggers another dream sequence where columns of stone erupt from the ground to box in the überSam—conformity prevents him from becoming his truer, better self.
Back at his flat, Sam calls Central Services to repair his air conditioning and hears nothing back but an impersonal message that assures him “this is not a recording.” After sleeping with his head in the icebox, he wakes to meet Archibald “Harry” Tuttle, the renegade, free-lance heating engineer. Tuttle has renounced the status quo and the old philosophy—as Schopenhauer commands—to discover the freedom and joy of independence. While Tuttle begins a work-around repair, two menacing men from Central Services arrive at the door, insistent on performing a repair. Sam is able to make them leave by demanding the necessary 27B/6 form, cleverly using the tools of conformity as a defense. Ultimately, however, this tactic only creates more hardship when the Central Services men return with the proper form and leave his flat in shambles, with ducts strewn akimbo. We can think of the duct work as education, with both words stemming from the Latin root “ducere” meaning “to lead.” An education is required to comfortably exist within the framework of society, and there are capricious boundaries set to make it difficult to attain. Simply pursuing knowledge does not produce a sense of ease regarding our individual existence, a sense that we crave. If we go outside the approved methods of learning, we are chastised by society and made to feel even more uncomfortable. The gurus and revolutionaries who try to break our minds free from the chains of formal knowledge are hunted as criminals, and the exceptional people become enemies. There is even a dream sequence where the überSam battles a giant Central Services man who literally clips his wings. When he defeats the giant and pulls away the mask, he sees his own face.
At the Division of Records, Sam is able to determine that the original error has resulted in Buttle’s death by torture, and thus a refund check is due to his wife, Mrs. Buttle. The boss, Mr. Kreutzmann (“short man” in German), is very concerned that there is no protocol for depositing the check, and Sam offers to simply deliver it, again going outside of the boundaries of permissible activity. Kreutzmann praises Sam for the solution, but allows Sam to process the paperwork, insulating himself from liability while simultaneously bemoaning his own pathetic abdication. Sam drives out to deliver the check, we see it dawn on him how destructive the error has been to the family, and he is unable to provide closure to the despondent widow. He catches a glimpse of the woman of his dreams in a piece of broken mirror, and chases her down to the street from the flat above, where he learns from Buttle’s pitiful daughter that her name is Jill Layton. Desperate to find her, he accepts the promotion in order to raise his security clearance. Abusing the powers afforded him through conformity to pursue his individual passion will have dire consequences. He learns that Jill has come to the notice of the authorities through her Buttle inquiries, and manages to use his position to remove her from danger. He mistakenly suspects that a package Jill has received is a terrorist bomb, when in fact it is a bribe to try to learn about Buttle’s fate. Sam is beginning to doubt his own desires and dreams, and is unsure of what he wants. He is beginning to run up against the powerful forces of authority that he has usurped for his own purposes. Sam is finally able to get Jill alone in his mother’s luxurious flat, and imagines that he can cleverly save her from the authorities by deleting her existence in the records. He apparently does not notice his own image printing out on the equipment as he does this. When he returns to her, she has become his ideal, and they consummate their relationship in a room without ducts. The next morning, Stormtroopers burst in. They kill Jill and arrest Sam.
In the final analysis, Sam finds his life and happiness completely ruined by the inescapable forces of authority, stemming from his unwillingness to play by the rules of society and his stubborn pursuit of his own best self by his own means. In trying to follow through and do the right thing by Mrs. Buttle and Mr. Kurtzmann, he is instead implicated in the inexcusable crime of not following protocol. He is the terrorist that everyone has been talking about. In a final fantasy, he escapes custody, climbing a pile of ducts to a secret door which opens into a little house with a picket fence, driven away by Jill to a bucolic spot far away from the cruel, abusive world. In fact, Sam has lost his mind, and we see him in the final scene grinning mindlessly in the torturer’s chair, humming the cheery samba tune, “Brazil.” His fate is absurd, as is our own mortality that we struggle to understand in some larger context. Indeed, there are many more instances of absurdity throughout the film. A shoe for a hat on Sam’s mother’s head. Sam singing a reply to a singing telegram. A secretary transcribing the screams of torture. Stormtroopers singing Christmas carols. These instances stand simultaneously as a bitter contrast to the suffering of human beings and as blackly humorous emphasis of the indifference of the universe to our existence.
Heidegger: Individual and Society
Heidegger is rife with hypocrisies. He becries man’s separation from his individuality, yet aligned himself with the Nazis, who demanded conformity in the extreme. He writes about how a scientific approach to a subject is limited because of its own mechanisms and can never fully describe what it means to be a human being, but then goes about his philosophy with a dense, methodical, scientific approach. In his stereotypical German way, he sets about finding the definitive answers, where other existentialists might delight in the unresolved open question. Where Dostoevsky is aware of the silliness of his divisions, Heidegger is less joyful in his analysis. Let’s face it: mulling over our eventual demise and finding in it the soft, maternal core of the individual human condition in contrast to the scientific, paternalistic conformity of pure reason is not for cowards. Heidegger believes that by embracing in a conscious, meaningful way our own mortality it will lead to an authentic existence by allowing each of us to retain our own individuality in the face of pressure to become just “one” among many. Here again rises this idea of the enormous and inhuman machinery of society swallowing us up and making us into a mere unit of humanity instead of a human being.
Of all the writers we have read so far, Heidegger reminds me the most of the Tao Te Ching. I suppose it is because of all his talk of nothingness. When he writes, “Calculative thought… has no notion that in calculation everything calculable is already a whole… whose unity naturally belongs to the incalculable which… ever eludes the clutches of calculation” (Kaufmann 262), it reads to me like the German translation of “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao” (Mitchell 1). Furthermore, the endurance required to be an existing Being seems to me a reflection of the Four Noble Truths, where mindfulness of dukkha and its causes provide relief from suffering. Lao tze writes: “The Master makes use of (solitude), embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe” (Lao-tzu 42). Similarly, Heidegger urges us to use the natural dread of our solitude, made most profound by our individual, private experience with death, to overcome the tendency to act as if there is no death, thereby leading an inauthentic existence that is less than our human potential.
It is remarkable that for all his contemplation of the authentic individual human existence, Heidegger became caught up in the philosophy of the Nazis. I think part of the problem with embracing the individual is the potential for disconnection from the larger society. Heidegger was blind to the degree that he was a product of his own society, and was a “one” within it. Where most Masters exhibit humility, his ego became inflamed and his nationalism aroused. It is as if embracing Aryanism was his way of becoming an authentic individual, because his German identity became indistinguishable from his own. When he uses the racist word Verjüdung (Jewification) in a private letter to describe the threat of Jews taking over German culture, it is as if they became representative of the threat of conformity that he encouraged the individual to resist (Simon Chu). Considering that Jewish intellectuals were tied with Marxism and collectivism, this makes some sense. Jews became the sub-human üntermensch to counter balance Nietzsche’s übermensch, which in this context became the individual superior German rather than each human being’s ultimate potential. This points out an irony that I have seen in existentialism generally. When a person embraces their individuality and experiences a kind of ego boost from discarding God and embracing their inner übermensch, there is the potential to give in to that pleasure and to be manipulated by people who are good at exploitation. Nowadays, even mindfulness training has become an industry which exploits people seeking a shortcut to nirvana as if it were a destination holiday. The “rugged individual” idea in America and the “precious snowflake” phenomenon are both examples of the exaltation of individual value that are skewed from reality. A Being cannot completely dissociate their value from that of the herd, as that is a critical characteristic of being human. In this way, philosophy begins to touch on the power of the state and the rights of the individual.
Language itself becomes unnecessary in the extreme case of ultimate solitude, since its only value is in reaching out to connect to another human being. Heidegger’s facility with language and his understanding of its use to construct what we perceive as reality is a part of his legacy. I also have a love of language, and an awareness of its shortcomings. When Heidegger is being introduced in the BBC video, he is remembered as the “smallest, weakest, and loudest” (Simon Chu). The German word translated as “loudest” is in fact unruhigste. This word is used in the opening sentence of The Metamorphosis to describe Gregor’s dreams, and in this context is usually translated as “troubled” or, in the translation we read, “anxious” (Kafka 3). Perhaps the best definition to bridge both is “restless.” I am now redoubled in my desire to attain a higher mastery of the German language so that I can read these philosophers in their original language and perceive the subtleties of meaning that are embedded in their works.
Sartre: Existence and Freedom
I have been raising some objection to a tenet of Existentialism as described by Sartre which identifies individual freedom as a primary force in human existence. Some of my misgivings are addressed in Existentialism is a Humanism, in which Sartre addressed his contemporary critics. My concern has been that whenever the capabilities of an individual are trumpeted, it ignores the real limitations confronted by individuals and diminishes the effects of social, financial, and governmental restraints. You can believe you are as free as you like, but if you are stored in a dark box behind concrete walls with no access to people, that sense of freedom is useless. In those cases, the very sense of individuality is undermined, and people lose their sanity. Although this is an extreme case, I believe that people are trapped in psychological and social prisons as well. I now see that what Sartre is getting at is that even taking society as a whole, it is made up of the aggregate of individuals. When each individual understands that he is the owner of his own life, that he is a Becoming or Being as a verb, that understanding allows him to be free to make choices that then become a model to others facing similar circumstances. Sartre’s Existentialism is a means to escape those figurative prisons. Sartre writes that man “cannot be anything… unless others recognize him as such” (Kaufmann 361). It does not mean that there are not groups who have made choices that have had poor effects for some groups over others. In ethics class, we talked about two ways to promote one’s conception of right and wrong: one is by persuasion, and the other is by force. Ultimately, we would like to believe that the persuasive strategy wins out.
Sartre echoes Kant’s concept of universality in promoting Existentialism. He writes that a person who takes charge of his own existence: “[I]n choosing for himself he chooses for all men” and “What would happen if everyone did so?” (Kaufmann 350 – 351). It is an important characteristic to connect the individual to society at large. It also presents an interesting conception of how men came to be self-aware. It is as if we willed ourselves into existence. I can imagine how our simian forefathers exercised their intellect to overcome problems related to survival, or even how groups of molecules found utility in becoming proteins, tissues, and complementary organs. I do wonder whether it is also true that other forms of life propel themselves into the future. We have a vision of the Earth and its life as separate from us, just as we have a sense of our intellect as separate from our body. If you consider the Earth as one interlinked organism, then we are merely representative of one segment of it, and cannot dismiss so easily our animal brothers any more than we can dismiss the “lower” functions of our own bodies. We are constantly in a flux of being outside of ourselves and returning to ourselves, and I believe there is peril in dwelling too long in the ether of intellectual reflection without some consideration of the rest of our bodies and our planet.
It pleases me that Sartre claims kinship with Marx. I especially like the distinction he draws between Existentialists and Marxists when he writes, “[We] take the statements of Engels and Garaudy as guiding principles, as indications of jobs to be done, as problems—not as concrete truths” (Kaufmann 374). That would also make me more existentialist than Marxist. Both philosophies underscore the importance of the individual in the context of broader society. The consequence of not accepting one’s individual freedom and autonomy is subjugation; it surrenders an aspect of humanity to a type of mob rule.
Simone de Beauvoir – Gender, Ethics, and Existentialism
Simone de Beauvoir is a much clearer writer than Sartre, although it is apparent that she is standing on his shoulders. This is ironic, given that she writes somewhat accusatorily about women as being defined in society by men, and then uses the work of a strong man in her life to give shape and form to her ideas. Even so, she does good work in getting at how women have long been infantilized and treated as a means rather than ends in the overarching patriarchal construct of philosophy. She mirrors the woman’s struggle to have her own being realized with that of a child finally accepting his or her maturity and mortality and taking charge of life. Her work immediately reminded me of Feminist Ethics and Alison Jaggar, who argues that the philosophy of ethics in particular has been dominated by men and emphasizes a male perspective at the expense of the female (Tong). It is interesting to look at this as not literally the denial of the humanity of half the population of human beings, which certainly has been an issue, but instead as the denial of the feminine within ourselves. Jaggar identifies “transcendence” as a masculine trait and “interdependence” as a feminine trait (Tong). As Existentialism tries to become a humanistic philosophy, perhaps it tends back towards the feminine and the corporeal and away from the strictly intellectual, classically labelled as masculine. If we truly define ourselves by our actions and through a creative tension with our limitations, then the differences between men and women must result in two very different beings. If values do not emerge from the “impersonal universal man” but instead from the “plurality of concrete – particular men” (and, presumably, women), then existentialist ethics and feminist ethics necessarily become a humanist ethics (de Beauvoir 8).
De Beauvoir also looks at Marxist dialectical materialism as opposed to Existentialism because it casts the individual as a passive subject instead as an active decision maker in the events of his or her life (de Beauvoir 10). She then immediately discounts this, saying that in practice Marxism “does not always deny freedom” (de Beauvoir 10). If dialectical materialism means that events rise from conflict of social forces caused by needs, that would seem to adhere to her earlier pronouncement that those needs in society are defined by the “plurality” of men AND women acting on each other. There seems always to be a difficulty within Existentialism and philosophy in general in vacillating between the experience of an individual human being and the way that experience is translated when seen in the aggregate of the whole human society. How can something be both individual and universal? I think back to the analogy of water. An individual water molecule has its properties, and the whole body has separate properties that are related to and contingent upon the properties of the molecule.
I also found interesting the idea that a will to negation in nihilism is paradoxical in that to think of nothingness is itself something. That is similar to how the tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. Being is that which is not Nothing, but to be authentic we must embrace the eventual extinction of our individual Being and take responsibility for our own actions, and also the degree to which those actions inter-are with other Beings. That last part for me is very crucial. Somewhere I recently read that to commit suicide is not to extinguish pain but to pass it along to someone else. We must not exalt in or be anguished by merely our own existence, we need to do so for everyone else’s, as well.
Camus’ The Stranger – Death Looms
Camus points out that human beings go to great lengths to reject our own individual demise. After Meursalt is arrested, there are many indications of this. When in Part2, Chapter 1, Mersault says “At first, I didn’t take him seriously,” it is as if he is not taking his own fate seriously (63). After this, there are a few instances of Mersault talking about beginnings, when he is nearer to the end. “It was only after Marie’s first and last visit that it all started” (72). “And the things I’ve never liked talking about began” (76). In the last paragraph, he says that he understands why his Maman took a fiancé toward the end of her life, “why she had played at beginning again…. So close to death, Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again” (122). Only knowing life, we push our deaths away from us, including the deaths of others, until it forces recognition, and then we want to be alive more than ever. This is why people get horny at funerals, and why Mersault fixates on Marie while he is in prison. We need to learn how to be alive while we are alive, and create meaning in our lives. Sometimes that meaning takes the form of pleasure in one another, especially the sexual outlet that perpetuates human existence, though not our own. How tragic would it be if Mersault walked to the ground-level guillotine only to find a few disinterested bystanders, and not the passionate crowd screaming hatred. It would be as if he never existed. It is interesting that there is almost no mention of Mersault’s father. We only learn of his revulsion of executions. For all of his supposed indifference to his mother, we hear about her quite often.
The trial serves more as an indictment of the human condition than a punishment for a specific crime. The crime is that we have ever lived, and the punishment is our eventual death. It is not enough that Mersault wishes his Maman never died. He wishes it for selfish reasons. In truth, he was finished with their relationship, and even though her existence had been meaningful for a while, it was not anymore. This is similar to the fate of all of us. We will die, the memory of our existence will fade in others, an infinite oblivion. The characters around Mersault want him to remember Maman, to continue having an emotional connection to her in deference to her role in his existence, but he cannot force such feelings from himself. “I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything” (65). Mersault similarly rejects the imposition of religious meaning into his life. He says about the magistrate, “As far as I could see, it didn’t have anything to do with me, and I told him so” (69). Regardless of whether or not God exists, it does not make an impact on our concrete existence. It may assuage certain people psychologically, but so does a teddy bear. There is also some mention of luck and chance, such as when Raymond declares “The way I see it, it’s bad luck,” or when the prosecutor “retorted that chance already had a lot of misdeeds on its conscience in this case” (92, 95). To defer to luck as a culprit is as shallow as an appeal to God. The only concrete things in existence are our own choices, and we should not begrudgingly take responsibility for them, we should own them and exalt in them, for they are all that is, they are what we will become when we no longer exist—the sum total of our future being. Mersault seems to get hot every time passions arise in him, or at least there is a coincidence of these things, and the closest he gets to defining a true culprit is when he “blurted out that it was because of the sun” (103). He may be literally correct, since we surely would not exist if it were not for the sun, and if existence is indeed the crime, one could make that case. At least the evidence for the sun existing carries much more weight than the evidence for God.
Slaughterhouse Five – Time and Will
There are two concepts in Slaughterhouse Five which interest me the most, free will and the perception of time, and these two are linked. If our perception of time is the limiting factor, it is possible that events have ‘already transpired’ and the perception of choice is illusory. When Billy is on Tralfamadore, he uses a version of Plato’s cave analogy to describe life from an Earthling’s perspective as being seen through a long pipe affixed to a helmet worn by the perceiver (115). The thing about this thought experiment is that by so limiting the perspective of the sentient being, it could also be possible that free will does exist, and that conscious choices do have an effect on time and reality, just that it is not possible to tell that choices have had an effect. This reminds me of the novella Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, in which two-dimensional beings interact with three-dimensional beings and are unable to grasp the reality from the more advanced perspective. Vonnegut further embellishes his idea by claiming that there are indeed seven sexes that produce offspring among humans, but we only perceive two (114). Such fantastical thinking is entertaining, but also somewhat meaningless. Nearly every event was statistically highly improbable until it happened, and then became arguably concrete and unchangeable afterward, albeit subject to different interpretations. Our reality is created by our senses and our limited faculties to interpret them, and to suggest that we are merely the dream of a butterfly, for example, does nothing to change our base condition. Sartre explains to us that even the lack of making a choice is itself a type of choice, and so what is left for us is to discern what choices are preferable, or even whether this such a thing as a superior and inferior choice. The choices we make ultimately aim to diminish suffering, either in ourselves or for a larger group of beings. Billy is somewhat ambivalent in describing his choice to marry Veronica, but it evokes great happiness from her, financial stability for him, and facilitates the existence of their children. Seen another way, however, Veronica’s attachment to Billy causes her to lose her composure when he is injured, and she inadvertently kills herself rushing to be with him.
It is interesting that Billy is able to transcend his limitations and perceives time in the same way that Tralfamadorians do. It suggests to us that we can perhaps transcend our limited perceptions of reality and acquire some version of enlightenment. This enlightenment in Billy comes across as a somewhat detached ambivalence. “So it goes.” This ambivalence is not uncaring. It is more a realization that caring or not ultimately has no impact on death. We are all temporal beings, at least in our perception, and accepting that truth is essential to living authentically. This sentiment is inherent in the “Serenity Prayer” offered in the book (209). The courage required in life is not merely to accept death, but to accept that we are capable of making choices in life and can act in a meaningful way. Wisdom is in understanding that some things will always be outside of our influence and control, and to expend to much energy on those things is inefficient and harmful. It is said that our lives flash before us at the moments before death. In fact, our lives are flashing before us all the time. At a quantum level, we have learned that the simple act of observing an event impacts its outcome. Photons had to bounce off of it, hit our eye, engage our brain. We have created instruments to detect gravity waves over vast fields of space and time, based on conjecture of the state of reality by human beings who just thought about it real hard. How do we know that their thinking didn’t create the waves themselves? Are we a self-fulfilling prophecy of ourselves? In grasping for that term “self-fulfilling prophecy,” I typed “self conclusion” into Google, and learned that the latter term is a synonym for suicide. That is a more succinct and fortuitous irony than I might have expected.
Pink Floyd The Wall: Existentialist Themes
The Wall reflects some existentialist themes, largely around a crisis of identity in the main character. The identity of ‘Pink’ has been formed in part by the absence of his father, who was killed in action late in World War 2. Just as his father is clutching for a telephone in the final moments of his life, Pink is repeatedly reaching out to communicate via telephone, and his efforts fall short. A desire to know his father parallels a search for an authentic person in himself. Pink marvels at the letter sent to confirm his father’s death, and how in giving thanks for the sacrifice of his “ordinary” life, the king affixed a rubber stamped signature. War brings our mortality into sharp relief, and the person that is so important to some is insignificant to others. There are interesting similarities to Sartre’s wall which his character imagines sinking into to escape the firing squad, or Camus’ condemned man who fantasizes about breaking free from prison. In these cases, the protagonist feels trapped by impending death. In fact, we have an aversion to the pain of life just as we have an aversion to death. At least we imagine that death brings an end to our pain.
Even though he is an accomplished rock musician, he is increasingly withdrawn from human relationships. Another potent figure in creating his identity is his mother. In the song “Mother,” Pink asks his mother a series of questions about what he will become and what decisions he should make. Mother responds by referring to him as “baby” and offering to protect him from whatever harm may come to him, paradoxically making “all of his nightmares come true.” The implication is that by taking the sharp edges out of life, you are left with no life at all. We are often defined more by our pain than our triumphs. It is only by facing the difficulties and absurd realities of life that we can live authentically and create some meaning out of our fragile human existence. Pink tries to imbue his music with meaning, but he ends up becoming the fascist authoritarian figure that he decries. As a child, he imagines his schoolmates rebelling against the established mores of the classroom to break down the walls and exert their individuality. Existentialism also has rejected the comfortable traditional thinking of the past and declared the individual as the primary unit of humanity, but this new view comes with its own horrors. If ethics is unbound from classical thinking, bound by nothing but individual whim, the result can be chaos and mass human suffering. We are left with a horrible choice: crushing loneliness and subjective morality on the one hand, and oppressive collectivism and mind-controlling groupthink on the other. The relationship with his wife, and later the groupie, also reflect Pink’s tenuous connection to human compassion and beauty. When he has his beautiful, committed wife right in front of him, all he wants to do is watch TV. When she is reaching out to him sitting at the piano, he cannot seem to break out of his spell. The dance of the flowers suggests that even the pleasure of sex is actually just a means of committing violence to another person. Then, when he brings the groupie to his room as a cheap substitute, he goes wild, throwing a tantrum. No matter what he chooses, Pink cannot escape the reality of his limited human existence, and he is struggling to find meaning out of all the pain. Ultimately, he is tried before a judge who is a worm, representing looming death, and sentenced to be exposed before his peers. He is held responsible as the cause of pain in those that he would be closest to, his wife and mother. Breaking down the wall is analogous to being your authentic self. Society compels us to be inauthentic, to conform to expectations of our family and, obey authority, and even to think the way we are supposed to. We build walls to protect the tender, beautiful individual within us from the indignities of those demands.
Star Trek: The Next Generation and Existentialism
The imaginary world of Star Trek has always been known for its intellectual themes and is widely regarded as providing commentary and reflection on modern society. Gene Roddenberry, the creator and producer of the franchise, was a pilot in World War 2 and considered himself a humanist. In these traits he has something in common with Kurt Vonnegut, and they were of similar age. The spirit of introspection that began with the original television series was carried into the subsequent series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and one episode in particular stands out in its expression of themes found in the collection of prominent philosophical works which comprise existentialism. That episode, “I, Borg,” deals with issues of identity, conformity, annihilation, authenticity, and essence that are interesting to explore.
The episode begins with a small statement by the ship’s counselor, Troi, an ‘empath’ who can read people’s emotions and often serves as a nurturing figure. While looking at an alien sun, she remarks, “It is beautiful, but frightening at the same time.” The remark could be easily overlooked in the action to follow, but it also struck me as a way to view life stripped of Kierkegaard’s cozy “sentimental illusions” (The School of Life). How beautiful and terrifying it is to embrace one’s own existence and accept responsibility for defining its meaning. Suddenly, the android Data reports that a signal has been detected on a nearby moon. A team goes to investigate, and discovers a crashed Borg ship with 5 casualties, one of whom is still alive. The Borg are a collective made up of organic beings fitted with technological implants (cyborgs) which the Enterprise and Captain Picard have encountered before. They represent the ideal of conformity, with a huge cubical ship which scours the universe for species to assimilate into themselves, destroying their individual characteristics in the ultimate act of leveling. One of the Borg’s regular pronouncements upon meeting a new civilization is to warn them that their “biological and technological distinctiveness” will be added to their own. Their covetousness of alien civilizations manifests as Kierkegaard describes in The Present Age: “envy is the negative-unifying principle…. Envy constitutes the principle of characterlessness…. The envy of characterlessness never understands that distinction is really a distinction… but rather reduces it so that it is no longer distinction” (Kierkegaard). The Borg are Kierkegaard’s “public,” which “becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing…” (Kierkegaard).
In their previous encounter, the Borg nearly destroyed Earth and briefly assimilated Captain Picard, who was rescued and brought back to normal health. Picard’s immediate reaction is to withdraw, but Dr. Beverly Crusher has pity on the adolescent male life form beneath the technological trappings. She says, “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness, I don’t see a hive. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and who needs our help.” Worf, the Klingon security chief, suggests killing it and erasing all evidence of their interference. These two voices are much like aspects of one person, with a desire for caring and empathy on the one hand and fear and defensiveness on the other. The fact that it is an individual Borg, something of an oxymoron, also suggests a unique situation. The vulnerable being has been, as Heidegger wrote in Sein und Zeit, “thrown into the world,” and its fate is not of its own choosing at this moment. In fact, its essence has been assumed by the crew as following from its existence. Since it is not yet conscious, it has yet to make any expression of its individual being, but this is assumed by Picard and the crew to be outside the capability of the survivor. Even so, Picard decides to bring it aboard with necessary security precautions. In order to save the life of the survivor, it is necessary for Geordi, the ship’s engineer, to refabricate some of its essential internal components. Picard instructs him to devise a way to introduce a destructive program that will infect the Borg collective when it is re-assimilated with them. What was at first a humanitarian action has now become a bid to annihilate the entire Borg species. Kant would say they are proposing to treat the Borg survivor as a means not an end. Dr. Crusher expresses some ethical outrage at this. It seems that she alone remembers the observation of Dostoevsky, who wrote in Notes from The Underground “that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar” (Kaufmann 75). Just because it has outwardly succumbed to the unbearable pressures of conformity subjected upon it by the Borg collective, underneath there may still be a Being worthy of respect and capable of dignity. Picard says that, faced with an enemy that means to destroy us, we are justified in doing whatever is necessary to survive. To follow the analogy, he is saying that an individual is justified in doing whatever is necessary to resist conformity and assert his or her existence. Of course, that may be taking things too far, and sounds like a license for terrorism. Still, Nietzsche did say that asserting individuality might require hurting people.
Soon, the Borg survivor has been resuscitated, and it is beginning to respond to its environment. It seems visibly anxious, and the crew members presume that it is seeking to connect to the collective. The crew has blocked its transmissions, so essentially it is walled off from the greater world, trapped in introspection. Where Heidegger posits that people get anxious and feel trapped when they are stuck in an urban, heavily populated environment, the opposite would seem to be the case for this inadvertent individual (Simon Chu). When Geordi enters the detainment cell to install a power coupling for it to feed itself, the Borg survivor asserts its standard salutation, “We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” In the context of his present vulnerability, these boasts have lost their bite. Geordi asks its name, and it responds, “Third of Five.” Its identity is caught up in its relationship to the whole, much as our identities are caught up in titles like mother, doctor, student, worker, or even “I.” Geordi states to Dr. Crusher that he is rationing the energy to Third of Five based on his cooperation. This limit to its freedom is similar to the way Sartre viewed capitalism. His position was that “the institutions of bourgeois capitalism seek effectively to eliminate… freedom by the reduction of individuals to atomized and alienated units of an objectified mass” (Alexander). The Enterprise crew are treating Third of Five as an alienated unit, and indeed it has yet to become an enlightened individual like themselves. The designation it offers for itself, Third of Five, does not sit well with the crew members, and it asks, “Do I have a name?” This is the first time he has referred to himself as an individual instead of “we.” Dr. Crusher says, “I am Beverly, and you….” She trails off. Geordi seizes on this and names him the homophonous “Hugh.” As the writer George Steiner says in the BBC documentary about Heidegger, “As this soap powder [mass-market, consumerist conformity] spreads over the planet, over the universe, it will be almost impossible for you to be you, and not just one” (Simon Chu). Hugh has begun the transformation from a unit of Borg, or even of the entirety of organic living things, into a free individual. He still replies, “We are Hugh,” and the crew members laugh at the absurdity of that.
Subsequently, Hugh is given a series of tests involving processing visual images through his prosthetic eyepiece. The crew determines that he has extraordinary perceptive abilities. It is interesting that Hugh would possess superior qualities of perception, yet only recently was he able to become aware of his own authentic individual existence. Of course, as Heidegger would point out, being is becoming, and Hugh has only recently been “born.” Hugh tells the crew members that when they are assimilated, they will have a similar prosthetic. The crew members explain that they do not wish to be assimilated, since they treasure their individuality more than existence itself. Again, I am reminded of how Dostoevsky explains that a man will act irresponsibly if only to prove that he has free will. Another crew member whose society barely survived Borg assimilation informs Hugh that resistance is in fact not futile. Hugh not only picks up on the correction of his previous, firmly-held view of reality, he also deduces that she must feel the absence of those others. He makes a connection between her craving for others and the way that he misses the voices of the collective that normally would be in his head all the time, even as he slept, like Heidegger’s “chatter.” Hugh is, as Nietzsche would say, self-overcoming. He is challenging the values that the conformity-driven Borg consciousness forced upon him even as he laments the loneliness of being detached from the herd. As Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “You that are lonely today, you that are withdrawing, you shall one day be the people; out of you who have chosen yourselves, there shall grow a chosen people—and out of them, the Übermensch.”
By this time, Hugh’s childlike innocence and willingness to embrace his existence has begun to convince the crew that the plan to use him as a weapon to destroy the Borg collective is inappropriate and unethical. Geordi has developed the means by which they hope to infect the Borg computer systems and cause a fatal failure in their core systems—an anomalous, paradoxical shape that cannot exist in real time and space. Each step of analysis creates another anomaly, and these anomalies interact with each other, “linking together to form an endless and unsolvable puzzle.” This is just what happens when we contemplate our individual existence. We are presented with unending questions, but reality is imperfect and unreliable when viewed purely analytically. The anomalous shape requires intuition to embrace in our consciousness, and that is a quality the Borg lack. Because they are not individuals who consider their own mortality, they lack the intuition necessary to assess something so abstract, and ironically this would bring about their death. Geordi advises Picard that he is uncomfortable with the plan, and Picard tells him that he should detach his emotions from the Borg as scientists in the 20th Century did from laboratory animals. This sentiment is shocking coming from Picard, and demonstrates that he still fears and resents the Borg for having previously stolen his own free will and identity. When others in the crew try to reason with him, he loses his temper, exclaiming that “It’s not a person, damn it, it’s a Borg!” Picard has rejected the humanity of Hugh, and in so doing, has lost a bit of his own humanity. The crew is insistent with Picard, however, and he begrudgingly agrees to meet Hugh.
In the meeting, Hugh recognizes Picard as “Locutus of Borg,” which was his designation when he was assimilated into the Borg collective previously. Picard plays along, demanding that Hugh identify himself with his Borg designation, and insisting that Hugh assist him in assimilating the crew of the Enterprise. Hugh refuses, saying “I will not.” When Picard tells him he must because he is Borg, Hugh replies, “I am Hugh.” He has now fully rejected the conformity that had been impressed upon him by the collective and taken responsibility for the choices he makes in life. Sartre would be proud. Hugh is no longer languishing in the bad faith of rote Borg-like behavior. What’s more, Hugh is able to not only think of himself, he is able to think of the welfare of others. Picard realizes that to compel this individual to be the agent of destruction to his community would be unethical, but considers that the new sense of individuality that Hugh has attained may ultimately have the same effect as the unsolvable riddle. He asks Hugh if he would like to return to the collective, since the Enterprise has detected a Borg ship about to arrive. Hugh realizes that his absence would put his new friend Geordi and the others in danger, and so decides to return for their sake. In the last moment, we see Hugh turn and nod at Geordi as he is recovered by his Borg comrades.
The world of the Star Trek: The Next Generation in the 24th Century is an extension of the Age of Enlightenment from which existentialism was born. Scientific advances have brought about incredible technological achievements, and aside from the occasional cultural exception, there is no religion. A culture who can dematerialize and reconstruct people, beaming them over large distances at the speed of light, would seem likely to have a more nuanced sense of being. As Jaspers wrote in Existenzphilosophie, “Above all, the sciences are to be employed as a tool of philosophy… Philosophy is the thinking by which I become aware of Being itself through inner action” (Kaufmann 172). Technology can be used to exalt humanity, but can also be used to subject humanity to control and conformity. Aside from a few hiccups attributable to fear, Picard and his crew are ideally existentialist. Hugh undergoes a transformation within himself in which he rejects the conformity and cold logic that previously constrained and defined him, with the help and guidance of the Enterprise crew. He has achieved consciousness through the suffering of his ship’s crash and his disconnection from the collective. Although Hugh has come to this new philosophy by having a brush with death, we do not see him struggle with his own mortality. He does, however, struggle with the concept of being free to choose, and ultimately becomes remarkably adept at taking responsibility and making moral choices. He has walked the tightrope on the way to his own highest purpose, which the crew of the Enterprise hope may be the destruction of conformity itself.