Since water still flows, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way satisfy our cravings,
Let us loosen our hair tomorrow and go fishing.
‘‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
We are alone on a great rock spinning through infinite space.
No matter how close we draw in our siblings, children, lovers, friends, parents and so on, we are still completely alone on a great rock spinning through infinite space. We project our angst at this fact in relationship. Sure, relationship can also be sacred…it is one of the main reasons we are here ~ to relate. But it is also, to varying degrees, a projection of existential angst. A fear of being all alone on a great rock spinning through infinite space.
I read a quote this week by Julian Barnes, the English novelist…
“Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t…”
The import is that ”story” has meaning ~ well, unless it’s some modernist anti-story it generally seeks to ‘make sense of’ a narrative unfolding, to suggest that there is an unseen director who orders the scenes. All art, philosophy, religion, myth, pseudo-science, even science to some degree, is a story we are telling ourselves to make sense of an apparently meaningless existence.
”Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.”
We exist. We just happen to be male, female, white, black, poor, rich, well, unwell, Indian, American, Irish, scientist, musician, Buddhist, Christian etc. These happenstances, both those chosen and those inherently existing, do not give a specific meaning to our lives. That is up to our inner awareness, our choices, our WILL.
”And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.”
And yes, to a large extent these stories do help make sense of being alone spinning on a great rock through infinite space, The aesthetics of love, truth and beauty do give some sense of order or meaning or passion to the living of a human life. We exist therefore we seek meaning for this fact is what the existentialist says….not that there is an a priori meaning that brings us into an automatically purposeful existence.
And we do not define ourselves by what we think. Thinking is an unreliable device, in my opinion. It consists of knowledge, misinformation, conditioning, imagination, nostalgia, too many subjectives among the objective. Nor are we defined by how we talk (write). This too is cheap and subject to disguises. Instead we are defined, existentially, by how we ACT.
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
“”Tell me the story of your life.”
“The story of my life? But who told you there was such a story? I’m afraid they’re isn’t any.”
“But how did you manage to live, if there is no story?””
A good friend of mine, a writer, gave me this advice once, which is wholly existential. He said ”Absurd things make us suffer.” (And to remember that when inventing stories 🙂 ) We look for meaning in our sufferings, because more often than not they seem random, meaningless, absurd. And perhaps they are. We could pause there and be satisfied with that. But generally we are not. We construct a story…”She did this because...’‘ This is very human. But the ‘because’ may not be the truth. There may be no ‘because’…
“The desire for a strong faith is not the proof of a strong faith, rather the opposite. If one has it one may permit oneself the beautiful luxury of skepticism: one is secure enough, fixed enough for it.”
In the philosophy of existentialism we are also confined by the fact of our limited bodies and limited life span. Inside we are dreaming. We are soaring. We are going to the gods. But in fact our bodies are puny parcels of temporal flesh, unlikely to live many of our dreams. It is when our dreams meet reality that there is angst. And the great challenge is to still find meaning, to not fall into nihilism, in spite of these limitations. That struggle, that noble search, is what makes us ‘authentic’. Void above me, void below me, void to the left, void to the right, void within, void without, and yet still we go on. Beckett’s famous line comes to mind…
“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The existentialist says above all ”Enquire”. Who are you? What is the meaning of life? What is death? Why are you here? What is attractive about existentialism is that it encourages us to give free rein to all sides of our inner selves in the search for truth. Not simply the rational, provable theses. But the poetic, the mystical, the artistic, the wild believer…for it truly boils down only to the individual self to have defined the meaning of their individual life. And in this enquiry, free will is a given. It does not even have to be argued about. We are alone. But we are free in our aloneness. We are utterly free.
(Blog note: As ever these are simply explorations in the moment, liable to change and misinterpretation, including, indeed especially, my own.)