No one asked you if you wanted to be born: a little nothing thrown into existence already crowded and crowding 'round to slather you with labels, spoon-fed with expectations …
“To live signifies to believe and hope—to lie and to lie to oneself.” –E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay.
… and so you are catapulted into a race ... soon strangers seem fans shouting encouragements of agency and authenticity smoothing your stumbling paces to loping strides carrying you ever closer to victory … b u t w h a t i s t h i s v i c t o r y … ?
“and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 12.
… the finish line looms ... now reveals its true face: death a death self-inexperienceable, (not even granted a so pathetic and macabre consolation prize as experience)
“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” –Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, 133.
… & so at this moment —death loomed, life lived only a few strides long, smooth & confident steps so few-- anxiety rips apart the ground beneath you (it once felt so secure), paralyzes you (atop this yawning abyss), stripped bare but for a flush of shame brought on by being face to face with your own utter meaninglessness … (oh, but once, once, your meaninglessness was felt at once with a lil' flare of rebellion, that belief and hope, but, oh, now that babe's fight only makes the feeling so much more tormenting …)
“How important can it be that I suffer and think? My presence in this world will disturb a few tranquil lives and will unsettle the unconscious and pleasant naiveté of others. Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history —greater than the fall of empires-- I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.” –E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair.
… make a choice:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” –Woody Allen, Side Effects, 81.
Abide the command born from Socrates’ assertion --“the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology)-- probe meaning's deepest fundamentals, risk asking the existential question … but what is the question? ... by which path is it pursued?
One Path: explores the meaninglessness of life so as to found an ethic of utter self-responsibility beginning with accepting the burden of radical freedom so to make life worth living. Everything works against us in this choice. Freedom: terrifying & absurd (… so easy is it to fall prey to inauthenticity; so nice it would be, so much more comforting to simply follow the crowd, do as you are told!). But in genuine recognition of the self’s sheer nothingness, the only noble act is to trek through despair & utter hopelessness, face the abyss, make a defiant choice, albeit in absurdity—and thereby make the self meaningful (hopefully).
The Other: explores, too, life’s meaninglessness to found an ethic of utter self-responsibility beginning in radical freedom’s burdensome acceptance to make life worth living. Here, too, all works against us: inauthenticity beguiles, freedom terrifies just as much … and more, freedom bears a new weight & its noble trek never ends. The responsible self, brave in choice, who becomes meaningful, is yet & still no self at all--the self is only ever as it is of & before the other; only ever is as much as it is nothing: the authentic self finds the self’s own extinction.
These paths represent the two currents of existentialism—the radical philosophical & literary study into the nature of lived human existence; born from contemporary Continental phenomenology, becoming a WWII-era European movement of philosophers, authors, artists, public intellectuals, & thereafter influencing all our major philosophic trends. The paths both run parallel & are “Two roads diverged” (Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken”) (over hope’s depth at their singular end); both fair, neither truly positive.
In both: the fact and horror of radical subjectivity, the state of being condemned to freedom, which is the absurd, that is the radical freedom and necessity to choose, the anxiety that is generated from such freedom, the desire for and difficulty of authenticity, the meaninglessness of it all, the anguish of our being alone, stripped bare of any pregiven meaning or value …
“I live by tangible experience and not by logical explanation.” –Georges Bataille, “The Torment,” Inner Experience, 31.
Bataille here captures the perceptual disposition of the existentialist. The existentialist’s stance is always already in the world, fully, sensuously, passionately. Logic divorces us from lived experience; lived experience reveals to us how much of meaning, of meaningfulness, of reality is absurd.
But, of these paths, the “one less travelled by” is the one more horrifying (Frost, Op. Cit.). Such an existentialist is necessarily attuned to and by the world; s/he is open to it—open to being torn to pieces by it, stripped and shredded by it, as the everyday gives us our inauthentic cloaks to wear and our consciences yank us from them, turn us around, paralyzed by anxiety, to faces ourselves. Logic’s cool steadfastness would be the warmer embrace, for tangible experience leads us to nothingness …
“I enter into a dead end. There all possibilities are exhausted; the ‘possible’ slips away and the impossible prevails. To face the impossible —exorbitant, indubitable-- when nothing is possible any longer is in my eyes to have an experience of the divine; it is analogous to a torment.” –Georges Bataille, “The Torment,” 31.
Torment is not the truly authentic life, but a gentle step in that direction. The authentic life is the existentialism goal and, most likely, its Shangri-La. It is the result of thinking Socrates’ dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” through to its end (Plato, Apology). Its receipt can only come when one has come to grasp the meaning of Being; but Being is always already and ever not-yet. We are nothing outside of our embeddedness in the world and with others, but we are also always in solitary confinement.
“In reality, the fact of being is what is most private; existence is the sole thing I cannot communicate; I can tell about it, but I cannot share my existence. Solitude thus appears here as the isolation which marks the very event of being. The social is beyond ontology.” –Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 57-8.
Alone, solus ipse, face to face with our own nothingness. Looking down both entangled paths, yet treading the more difficult, more Frostian “one less travelled by.” But, together, always, necessary so. And so, together, we will face the question:
“Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?” –E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints.