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They had fun too

They had fun too

At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell
At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell

A fine book, and timely. It provokes much thought, about how we live our lives, how we can better see the world and our own place within it. Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existential Cafe is a group biography, in a sense, about several individuals, a movement, a few key countries, and one city, especially: Paris. She gives us the philosophical background, places her main characters in proper context, shows how they lived and loved, together and apart.

Some of them had fun, despite the talk of anxiety, nothingness and the absurd. Perhaps because of that talk. They drank the night away. Often. Some danced and danced well. They didn’t seem to sleep much at all, especially Sartre who we learn took too many drugs to wake up and fall asleep. And, for a time, they shook things up and all kinds of people wanted to know what the big deal was, especially in America. Many wanted to be existentialists, or dress like them, or think they dressed like them. Because cross-cultural ties were crossing back and forth, and the French and German existentialists often wanted to emulate certain aspects of American life, while Americans wanted to emulate the existentialists. It was all the rage in the late 1940s and 1950s and still haunts our culture, though we no longer really see it or acknowledge it. In our movies, especially, when the subject turns to authenticity, nonconformity, the absurdity of life, existentialism is likely there.

The book builds. It’s fairly short, given the subject matter, at roughly 327 pages before notes and such. At least it seems short. Too short, for me. I wanted to spend more time with my old friends, and I really liked that the author and I first learned about most of these characters at roughly the same time, give or take a few years. The 1980s. A time, ironically, that seemed like the anti-existentialist decade par excellence, and still does. The decade of Reagan, New Wave music, John Hughes and Wall Street. It was a rebellion against the rebellion of the 1960s, and the dazed and confused 1970s. It was a running away from all things noir, “authentic,” too deep, into an embrace of masks and the future, aliens and weird science and the beginnings of the mass computer age. It was an embrace of “nerds” who were different from their classmates, but the same as their peers. It was, like all decades, a bit dazed and confused too.

But I digress. Sarah Bakewell’s book isn’t about all of that. It’s not a review of the 1980s. It’s mostly a story of Dasein, Heidegger’s Being, and how his work sprang in part from Husserl’s phenomenology, and how Husserl’s work sprang in part from Brentano’s, and how Heidegger influenced Sartre and so on, and how Heidegger’s Dasein fell out of favor, for a host of reasons, but the chief being his time as a Nazi. And it’s about the opposite part of the political spectrum from that, too, the left. How Sartre and Camus, both leftists, broke over political issues, and how Sartre and Merleau-Ponty also broke over leftist politics. But it’s also about one of the most unfairly neglected philosophers of that time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her most important contributions, her life with Sartre and others, her fierce loyalties. She deserves a renaissance all her own.

Existentialism itself does too. It’s about Time.


The Field of Being

The Field of Being

Georges de La Tour’s Magdelen and the Smoking Flame. 1640

William Barrett, in his Irrational Man, introduces us to Existentialism and summarizes the development of Western Thought in the process. The book came out in 1958, but can be read fruitfully and applied productively to the problems we face today.

In the section on Heidegger, whom I haven’t read in years but should return to, Barrett discusses Heidegger’s Field Theory of Being, and places it in historical context.

The Greeks were the first to remove objects from their surroundings, their background, their context, so they could study them in isolation. In a sense, atomize them. This was necessary for the creation of Science. But the Greeks still lived in Nature, not in opposition to it, so this process wasn’t truly disruptive, much less fatal. Fast forward to Descartes, and we are sundered from Nature and our minds are split from our bodies. Subject and object. Mind and matter. Doubting all things but the source of doubt and working back from there. This made the conquest of Nature the next natural step in our development. We saw things, not Beings in time, so conquest and suppression were easier. Things lack a sense of autonomy, when the subject/object split is in place. I would add that this also made it easier for humans to see each other in that light, or that darkness. Subject and object. Me versus the things around me. Opposition, rather than the recognition of mutual autonomy or subjectivity.

Heidegger counters this with his concept of Being in the world, and our existence in the form of a field. Barrett, through Heidegger, provokes much thought, when he adds that our field is like light, and truth (aletheia) is revelation. Our field is light, our light a field, and as we move forward in the darkness of time and space we experience revelation, because we make what was hidden to us unhidden. We gain truth to the degree that we shine our light field on more of the world.

Humans look forward to the future, which we face in various moods. Not mentioned in the discussion is the obvious fact of our biology. Humans, like most animals, look forward, not backward. We stand facing not only our future, but see in one direction at a time.

Where our field is not, is untruth. We carry untruth within us as well as truth, and time passed can become untruth, as the light leaves one place and moves on to the next. Darkness returns in our absence. It fills in the space we depart from — the boat and its wake. Heidegger, like most of the Existentialists, believes we also carry our deaths within us. Within our Being is non-Being, and it is from the realization of our finiteness in space and time that we become truly whole. Without an authentic encounter with our mortality, we never fully achieve the human and remain mere fragments of Being.

Nietzsche crossed over (from Existentialism) into essentialism when he tried to reduce our fundamental drives to one: The Will to Power. Our most basic drive is to radically expand our field of power and influence, not just survive, according to the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Evolutionary biologists have come to similar conclusions, though with more complexities and ambiguities thrown in, but the debate rages on. Our genes don’t just want to continue through time; they want to increase and expand their influence.

Heidegger’s philosophy presents the potential for an end to this will to power for power’s sake. Though he didn’t take heed of the obvious implications of his own views, when it came to his political affiliations, he did present to the world a beautiful, poetic way out of that dead end. There is no need to conquer and subdue our surroundings to extend and expand our fields of light. In fact, the destruction of our surroundings sends things back into darkness and untruth. The implications for this philosophy are clear, at least to me:

Discovery is truth. The embrace of one’s own mortality is truth. The recognition and acknowledgment of the radical subjectivity of all things is truth, and we can’t know anything until we understand this. Understanding is impossible as long as we objectify our surroundings and impose our subjectivity on all things, keeping those things from their (their own) natural autonomy as Beings in the world. If we keep the wall between ourselves and the rest of the world, stay within the mind/matter duality, we can never understand the world, find truth, or become real selves.

Let it be. Or as Wallace Stevens wrote, Let be be the finale of seem.


Project for the Self

Project for the Self

Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin. 1887

What has it? What brings it? What gives meaning to our existence in the here and now? The afterlife? Paradoxes aside, the search for meaning has meaning itself, above and beyond any cleverness in the equation. To express that meaning, however, has become problematic in our late date — our cynical, jaded, post-post-guileless world. Post-guileless in the sense that we no longer can stop self-referencing or self-consciousness enough to just be. Enough to let be be the finale of seem, to borrow a brilliant phrase from Wallace Stevens.

It’s hip to search for meaning without letting others really know. It’s hep to mock the attempt. It’s cool to stand above the silly masses striving to do the right thing . . . Believe, believe in what they do, accept that life really does have a purpose in the here and now, beyond the here and now!

Perhaps those who stand above find meaning in standing above, mocking. Perhaps those who judge them find meaning in their own accusations. And so on, layer upon layer, meta meta, world without end.

Does the work have meaning, the place and time? Does a painting on the wall have meaning outside that wall? A tree, a rock, a bird, a mountain? A roar in the jungle, gulls on the shore? Does it mean something to see a beautiful girl, up on the shoulders of her mate, singing along with the band on the stage, her arms forming a joyous V? The crowd going wild, the girl transfixed?

Sean Howard examines, in brilliant fashion, more than one kind of search for meaning, or process, or project in the wake of Lev Tolstoy. Because of Lev Tolstoy. Below.



The Script, Context, and Lit Crit

The Script, Context, and Lit Crit

El Greco’s View of Toledo. 1596-1600. The Met, NYC.

Context is everything and nothing. But mostly always everything when we think. Its importance is critical, when it comes to utilizing the past as prologue, or avoiding that entirely. Without examining context, in full, rationally, holistically, we will stumble about in the dark, without a view of anything. We will fail to see crossroads and convergences. We will fail to see crosscurrents and cross purposes. We will fail.

When studying literature, I like to concentrate on aesthetics, on expressive properties, on the quality of prose. I like to study the characters, their stories and interaction. The dynamics on display. How it all comes together. I prefer that to digging into political subtext and subjective analyses of times we know little about. Unless, of course, we do. Unless we really do know about a time and place, and how that impacts the writer, artist, musician, etc. Because it often adds a certain kind of indirect depth to studies and informs us about certain worlds as they were then. Or guides us closer to. That helps us know the characters a bit better, their world, their time and place.

Of course, there is a marked difference between the study of literature and the arts and trying to pattern our life on ancient texts, on the way of life in those texts. There is a marked difference that is often forgotten when it should be emphasized. One thing can aid the other. One thing can open our eyes and ears to the other. The study of context can help us realize certain things about those ancient scripts and why we should always pause. Long and hard. Pause long and hard. Look carefully at the world we might wish to parrot, to copy, to live again, because of.

In 2008, in the West, our living conditions are superior in most every way to those found on this earth, 2000-3000 years ago. We live much longer, healthier lives. Our levels of education place us in an entirely different world, light years ahead of those who lived in ancient times. Women and minorities have the kinds of opportunities, rights and legal protections unheard of even a century ago. While we still have a long way to go to make this a truly fair and open society, if we compare context with context, no one should wish a return to those ancient scripts for a way of life. No one. Though some do. Some wish to pattern their lives along the lines of ancient worlds. Seen through a modern prism, of course. Seen through a distorted lens, out of context. Doubly mistaken. Doubly distorted. Perhaps more than just doubly.

Following a script, instead of the observation of now, today, here. Following a received script, rather than discovering the world for oneself. Living in the ancient past, instead of the here and now. Living in the ancient past, without thinking, really, what that means . . .

One of the core ideas of Existentialism, that non-school school, is to throw away every received convention, all received conventional wisdom and hand-me-down knowledge. Start your life from scratch to the degree possible. Observe, learn, form your life’s project anew. Make your own script, in short. If this is done in conjunction with the study of known history, the arts, the sciences, philosophy (a part of that project), we can make the good life and make rational policies today, now, here. We can make it make sense, in harmony with our own context and possibilities. Why long for an ancient world so at odds with the one we’ve created over time, so far removed from that desert, so far removed from that type of society, its slavery, its misogyny, its fear of the other? We should be thrilled to have made the journey we’ve made, hopeful of further change, hopeful of putting even more distance between ourselves and that ancient, tragic, misunderstood and romanticized mother of all deserts.


Tremendismo Y Existentialism

Tremendismo Y Existentialism

Nada, by Carmen Laforet

Finished Nada, by Carmen Laforet. A brilliant novel, especially for one so young. Set in Barcelona, it’s the story of Andrea’s 18th year, which she lives with her uncles, aunt, grandmother, and assorted other members of her extended family. A very eccentric, at times dangerous family.
The novel starts slowly, almost as if the author, like her main character Andrea, were feeling out the surroundings, taking tentative, uncertain steps. But it soon picks up steam, the prose becomes more assured and vibrant, and before long, the reader is thoroughly involved in the story, the setting, and hoping for the best, though the signs are often dark and more than sordid.
I especially like the relationship that developed between Andrea and Ena, the beautiful, blond, almost princess-like character who constantly surprises both the reader and Andrea. Surprises us because she breaks the stereotypes she should adhere to. Breaks them because she seems to have a will of her own that is contrary, perhaps, even to the wishes of her author.

Which leads me to the strongest impression I have of this book. It evolves. It does not read like a formula. It does not do the things that lesser novels often do. As Harold Bloom often remarked about Shakespeare’s plays, the characters within grow, change, throw curve balls our way. They are not “types”.

For such a young author–Nada was published when she was only 24 — the book shows a wisdom beyond her years and characters who live, evolve, surprise, and anger us. That she wrote a novel with echoes from her own life makes it even more poignant for this reader, this new admirer of the artistry of Carmen Laforet.

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