A reader by the name of “nikhil” posed the following question on one of my recent posts. After devoting much thought to his/her inquiry, I opted to respond in a separate post. This is in part due to the fact that I feel as though this is a sufficiently interesting topic on its own to deserve its own separate post; and second, because there is no straightforward way of handling a question of this nature.
I have a question, how do you continue to do what you’re doing, living, in spite of knowing how utterly pointless existence is, the burden to create meaning when the very notion of meaning is just another piece of human fabrication.
I’d like to first respond on a purely personal/biographical level; second, I’d like to give a rough philosophic response – not only to that which the question speaks – but also to the very asking of the question as such.
For me personally, there’s no over-arching answer as to how or why I continue to live in the face of a meaningless existence. Most of the time I find myself comfortably acclimated to the absence of any grand meta-narrative for human life. The presence of absence is, I think, what it means to experience human finitude in its most radical form – that subtle call that reminds us of our own individual finitude, but also what makes possible individuation at all. It’s the possibility that comes with the dread – a possibility of finding one-self through the cluttered curiosity and idle-talk of the average everyday experience of being-human.
What’s more problematic for me are those times when my own meaningful relations to my world seem to break down; that is, when the things that show up as meaningful to me seem to lose all meaning (for me). I don’t have any answer to these situations, which it must be conceded I find myself in more often than I’d otherwise care to admit. I regularly feel disconnected from the world around me, and there are even more severe moments where the most basic meaningful engagements seem nearly impossible. I also am constantly besieged by my own melancholic moods, which precipitates my withdrawal from the world and into myself – which in turn makes it almost impossible to go back.
In those moments, I try to remind myself that I mustn’t take things so seriously; that the opening up of the abyss that always seems to haunt me is, at the same time, a reminder that no matter how absolutizing the void feels, there’s always an element of absurd humor that belongs to it; a kind of playfulness that always brings you back to the contingency of yourself and the multiplicity of worlds in which you’re involved. It’s here that I find myself able to have a real dialogue with myself and actually take notice of myself. It affords me the possibility of being-alone, of entering a solitary mode of being-with-others that allows for the possibility of selfhood – but at the same time it also brings with it the danger of loneliness (which I take is a deficient mode of being-with-others subsumed in loss). I enjoy solitude, but I’m constantly at a loss in my loneliness. I find a certain pleasure in the meaninglessness as possibility, but often find it too difficult to return to average-everyday coping in the world. These moments of existential crisis are cathartic; but they are also what reminds us that we are responsible (response-able) for our own existence; that our being matters to us, and it is our choice to own-up to our finitude and become a genuine/authentic self.
I don’t think the average person reflects too heavily on questions of meaning. They’re able to go about their lives, either completely ignorant or un-concerned with the questions you’ve raised; or, if they do encounter them, then it’s perhaps more from the perspective of some type of regional crisis; one that takes on more ontical features (I no longer am able to relate to my wife, my job no longer has meaning for me, etc.). That we’re so easily capable of losing ourselves to the “they,” and to flee the anxious dread of our own contingency and finitude, is what allows most people to go through their lives largely in a detached and abstracted way. The comfort of everyday existence is certainly easier; but also has its deficiencies. In some odd ways, the confrontation with nullity is not exclusively a negative experiences; that’s not to underestimate the tension and turmoil that one can experience in these moments; but rather, it is the possibility of experiencing the pure catharsis of our being. Otherwise put, I think it’s the ground for the possibility of the encounter with something that both truly belongs to the type of beings we are, but yet remains unspeakable. This is something that invigorates and at the same time besieges me; it enables me to re-think and re-interpret a lot of the ways in which I find myself in the world; and, perhaps I’m worse off for it, but it has allowed me to engage my melancholy on a more personal and concrete level.
The second part of your question that I’d like to address is with respect to the point you’ve made regarding meaning as human fabrication. I agree that meaning is not something “out there” that human being must uncover; but nor do I think that meaning is something we consciously impose on the world through intentional acts. I think it belongs to human-being to interpret its world as meaningful, at the very least in the equipmental way that Heidegger refers to as “ready-to-hand.” We don’t “impose” or “fabricate” meaning, as in the way we might if we were trying to determine the use or meaning of a cultural relic from some ancient or foreign civilization. For the most part, except perhaps when one adopts the scientific world-view or else experiences a crisis, we don’t generally view entities in the world in such a present-to-hand way. The very essence of our thrown-ness is that the world always-already appears in some (shared) meaningful fashion.
But I also think that our primary mode of experiencing our being-in-the-world takes the form of narrative. Not to dwell too much in this literary analogy, but I think the way we experience ourselves and our being-in-the-world as interpretive beings means that we do encounter other beings in our world as if part of a meaningful narrative. For most people, I think this narrative is mediated by das Man or the Crowd; in other words, meaning or significance is completely divorced or abstracted from the individual, and is sourced outside of itself through historic-culturally determined “roles” that one passively takes on. But in moments of crisis, we are called back to ourselves (dread, despair, etc.), and reminded of the radical finitude and contingency of our being, and thus must either choose whether to own up to our responsibility to become an individuated, genuine self as anxious being-toward death; or flee back into the comfort and security of the Crowd.
I think the very asking of the question epitomizes the un-homeliness of human-being; but it also shows the desolating effects of the culmination of metaphysics, which stands for the bifurcation of subject from its world. It seems as though the question itself recognizes this homelessness – but also backs away from it, into a type of humanistic thinking that dwells within the subjectivism of the metaphysical tradition.
Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?
~ Pensees, 72, Sec. II The Misery of Man Without God
This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid[Pg 20] ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
Let us therefore not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.
~ Pensees, 72, Sec. II The Misery of Man Without God
Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.
~ Pensees, 172, Sec. II The Misery of Man Without God
Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.
~ Pensees, 199, Sec. III On the Necessity of the Wager
To the extent that a typology of sorts may be constructed as regards to pessimism – in which distinctive categories of varying manifestations of pessimism may be delineated and defined, existential pessimism represents the Twentieth Century’s unique contribution to this young and largely unnoticed body of thought.
The horrors and disappointments of the Twentieth Century gave rise to a more thorough, complete, and chaotic brand of pessimism unlike its cultural, metaphysical, and romantic predecessors. It is not so much a “system of thought” in the line of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical pessimism of the Will; but rather, a fragmentary and destructive response to modern man and his alienating condition.
Generally speaking, existential pessimism is a thorough-going byproduct of Nietzsche’s destruction of metaphysical systems. In fact, Nietzsche’s own brand of Dionysian pessimism is indeed a precursor to existential pessimism, and it’s in Nietzsche’s progeny that existential pessimism finds its greatest voices. At bottom, existential pessimism reflects Nietzsche’s conclusion that all transcendental sources of meaning are themselves meaningless – staking out its claim that there is absolutely no meaning to existence period.
Moreover, existential pessimism is, and likewise understands itself as, a concrete expression of man’s anxiety and despair with respect to the pointlessness of his being in the world – a pointlessness that has become all the more impossible to ignore in the absence of all meaningful metanarratives. Accordingly, existential pessimism exemplifies the crisis of being generally: how the individual is to cope with the loss of meaning in his own being.
Existential pessimism can be further distinguished on account of its focus on the existential-problematic of the subjective individual. Unlike the grandeur of metaphysical pessimism, which attempts to account for an overarching account of the negativity of the universe, existential pessimism explores the negativity of the universe from the perspective of existences — beginning with the given, concrete individual self. It follows that existential pessimistic inquiry is fundamentally concerned with confronting and describing the structural unsettledness of being generally, and the various responses available to the individual in light of the latter.
It would be impossible to reduce existential pessimism to a mere platform of axioms or principles. Not only would such an approach fail to do justice to the myriad ideas that could potentially be attributed to existential pessimist thought; but such crude reductionism almost seems antithetical to the spirit of existential pessimism and its strong distaste for such overgeneralizations.
That being said, in what follows I will attempt to articulate a few key areas and questions central to existential pessimism.
- All hope is an illusion — a faulty meta-narrative that human history has constructed for itself. But the meta-narrative has suffered an irreversible breakdown – and modern man, to the extent he reflects on his condition at all, is utterly hopeless. The epic failure of the great ideologies of hope (liberalism and Marxism) has left post-modern man thoroughly jaded; and, as a result, he has become petty, cynical, and altogether decayed in his nature.
- Consciousness is a disease. Self-consciousness enables reflection and introversion; but at the same time, it provides us access to temporality. Time itself, understood as consciousness of existential (rather than objective or clock) time, is the source of man’s desires, but also his frustration, disappointment, and ultimate annihilation.
- There never were transcendental “truths” – and even if there had been, they’re no longer accessible to us now. What we have left is the unenviable task of looking straight into the oblivion without anyone, thing, or entity to guide us. Man is completely lost in a vast, infinite universe in which he must resign himself to his cosmic uselessness.
- The onset of digital technologies, especially the widespread adoption of the internet, has replaced traditional modes of inter-relations with and among entities, and consequently, has had a tremendous limiting effect on the development of self. Technology has uprooted man to the point that he is utterly homeless in the world. The massive overflow of information and constant stimulation have left man with nothing but superficial means to fight off average everyday boredom, but nothing that can sooth his existential ennui.
- Technology, too, has provided modern man with a radical new means to perpetuate his absurd desire for immortality – both literally in the form of modern Western medicine and its emphasis on extending human life, as well as metaphorically through reproductive technologies that allow people unable to conceive naturally to continue on through their progeny. At the same time, man cannot escape his journey, no matter what, ends in death and decay.
- Genuine cultural expression has been replaced by consumer satisfaction. The reflective and introspective self has been replaced by the “immediate” or “last man” – who cares nothing for his responsibility to become his own self, but instead spends the entirety of his existence seeking out new ways to feel good in order to distract him from his boredom and despair.
- Mass society and the domination of the Crowd over the individual self has rendered individuation all but impossible. Individuality, insofar as that term refers to the genuine task of becoming a self, has been replaced by crass egotism and selfishness.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. And naturally, as heir to an impressive tradition that boasts such thinkers as Heraclitus, Hegesias, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Leopardi, Zappfe, Camus, Foucault, Unamuno and many others, existential pessimism touches on many of the issues central to pessimism generally.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus implores his readers to acknowledge and accept the “Absurdity” of the contradiction between human rationality and the irrationality of the world. In his attempt to explain why we shouldn’t just kill ourselves once becoming conscious of the Absurd, Camus’ comes up with a seemingly unsatisfactory response: if we are to embrace the Absurdity of our existence, then we cannot commit suicide, because to do so would take a fundamental and necessary component of the paradox of the Absurd out of the equation: namely, ourselves. One must remember that for Camus, it is not existence itself that is Absurd, but the contradiction between the demands of human rationality, including its exceeding demand for conceptual ordering and structure, in a fundamentally and primordially irrational, chaotic world. Thus, if one is to truly confront the Absurd, the paradox of Absurdity must be lived but without the imposition of our false expectations and rational ordering.
While I certainly can appreciate Camus’ analysis of Absurdity, as well as his originality, I cannot share his conclusions with respect to physical suicide. It seems as though the only way to authentically embrace and confront Absurdity would be to retreat into what is, insofar as the rational-conscious component of our being is concerned, most irrational of all: the voluntary taking of one’s own life. Thus, rather than representing an attempt to escape absurdity, suicide would appear to take absurdity to its penultimate gloomy conclusion.
Why do we mourn death and celebrate life? Surely it should be the other way around…
What is life other than a never-ending series of disappointments culminating in the final regret of a life better off having never been before slipping away into the eternal nothingness?
Was Schopenhauer not essentially correct when he identified life as that unprofitable episode interrupting the infinite nothingness of non-existence?
If being itself were to be articulated in a musical score, it would be a cacophony.
It’s not death, but dying that terrifies us; and this is so only insofar as we perceive ourselves as individuals on the horizon of existence
Dying is angst-inducing because it necessarily entails an existing Self confronting his own nothingness; it is in this sense that, one who truly exists, is also already at the same time “dying.” For only “mortals die,” and we become mortal only when be become beings-toward-death. In this sense authentic dying is a catharsis; a purgation of the excessive taint of inauthentic “fear” of death.
Death of course always takes place after the fact, and thus is never experienced by a living Self. This affords death the highest tranquility known to man. We can only anticipate, but never perceive, what it means “to be” dead; but this has never stopped us from the anticipatory alleviation and wonder of becoming reunited with all that is concrete and universal; temporal and eternal; finite and infinite.
Unlike sadness, there is an inner beautification that takes place when you find yourself plunged into the depths of a deep melancholic state. It’s the feeling of being swept away into a terrible dreamscape, an aesthetic experience where one, from the heights of despair, looks upon life with contempt and self-relates to the perpetual gloominess of one’s own being.
Whereas sadness is far too acute, far too focused and concrete to be aesthetic — melancholy is the feeling of being swept away in the creative destruction of a new horizon within the Self. To be sure, one undeniably suffers, while at the same time, one cannot resist the temptation to identify and relate to oneself through merciless and infinte despondency.
Heavyhearted joylessness creates and destroys — robbing the world and everything in it of meaning, but yet at the same time producing something altogether new, and capturing the essence of both the beautiful and grotesque.
Melancholy, for all its dispiriting effects, enables one to become reflective — a deliverance from lower to higher immediacy…a head-first dive into the interiority of the Self; the catalyst for the renunciation and rejection of the entirety of the external world precipitating the fall into self-creation and self-annihilation.
This is why so many melancholic personalities excel in the creative and artistic fields; and why they are so little understood by everyone else.
Of all the asinine things that people tend to do, the habit of discounting suffering, my suffering, as if there were an objective standard of measurement by which one’s own suffering may be compared to — is the most asinine of all.
Experiential suffering always and only exists in actuality in the internal contradictions of the consciousness of the Self. In this sense, suffering is first and foremost beyond the reach of the objectifying tendencies of empirical knowledge.
To the “Others,” it may only become “knowable” through existence. That is, the Self exists in the world through his suffering. In such a way, the suffering is transfigured from subjectivity to objectivity. There is no “correspondence” between my sensation of suffering and the outside world; nothing by which it may be compared to — and thus no hierarchy upon which my own suffering may placed in comparison to the suffering of others.
It is in this sense that my suffering is absolute for me. It is my subjective truth — dwelling far within the depths of my being where the illusion of “objective knowledge” is wholly inadequate.