EXISTENTIALISM IS NO LONGER IN VOGUE
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Existentialism is no longer in vogue. It has been adjudged a dead end, a boring monologue about nothing in particular, an empty, selfish, subjective nothingness made obsolete by the objective particulars of consumer progress.
What began as an optimistic expression of personal freedom and responsibility is now viewed as a negative nothing. It was originally optimistic because of a confidence in the ability of human beings as individuals to face the horrors of world war in its aftermath, to build a new world without world wars, and to do so without the previous rationales, the religions and theologies, the parties and ideologies, which men love to hate each other with and engage in mutual mass-murders over. It was in the existentialist revolt against all such systems that each man would dissolve the fractious collective fantasies and realize his radical root in existence. That total revolt alone would bring individuals into solidarity despite their superficial differences. Thus the revolt was irrational because it was contrary to systematic thinking; for example, the pseudo-scientific thinking, the classical-liberal or unregulated free-market rationalizations that resulted in global economic chaos; and the systematic reaction that led alienated individuals from anarchy and chaos into the psychotic solidarity of fascism.
Existentialism was really no system at all; there was no such ism. “Existentialist” was a word casually spoken to a reporter in a Paris jazz cellar, perhaps by Juliette Greco, and then spread all over the world by the press. Those thinkers associated in the media with existentialism, black jazz, and carousing, tried to fight off the appellation to little avail, and then they turned the designation to their respective advantages. Most of them, because of their first-hand experience of the very horrors rational thinking had led to, believed that thinking had been terribly over-rated, and they wrote intensely rational tomes saying so–that is what thinkers do, even those who like to get stoned in pubs. That style of rationalization is the vestige of existentialism remaining today; it is not very popular because it has lost its guts.
People no longer want to read confessional novels or see plays exposing the anguish at the very heart of human existence: Most of us prefer to avoid the miserable subject and go directly to sensational objectives such as murder, rape, adultery, armed robbery, drug-dealing, and so on, when not engaged in the mass production and consumption of waste. The subject is miserable because he knows he could and should be doing something else, something much better. He knows that he is free and that he is acting irresponsibly with his innate freedom. He attributes his suffering to his freedom, then makes another mistake trying to avoid it altogether by burying himself alive in the natural or supernatural world. Therefore the vicious cycle continues.
No, ma’am, hardly anyone today wants to hear the subjective moaning and groaning of an existentialist who thinks therefore he suffers, no matter how brilliant his expressions might be; for in this age of abundance, such suffering is more symbolic than physical, notwithstanding a few dreadful hangovers.
Again, modern existentialism arose as emotional and intellectual expressions of post-war anxiety. World War II was the second dreadful interruption in just a few years of what was supposed to be inevitable peaceful progress fashioned by the intellect, an intelligence that soon ran amok with efficient killing machines. Scientific and technological advances alone do not curb bloodshed, but serve rather to compound the death and destruction when men flee from existence. The quasi-sciences of social science are also of little avail without radical reform. We recall here that just prior to the Great War (WW I), experts declared economic society had advanced to the stage where great wars would not occur because nations were too inextricably linked in organized greed for war to be profitable.
But that is old hat. Who cares about great wars and their terrible aftermaths and such reactions as surrealism, existentialism, the avante garde and the absurd, now that almost everyone who shared the suffering is dead? What do a few rebellious old fogeys and disaffected aging war babies know? Besides, thanks to the technological developments that won the war for the real master race, namely us, we have nothing further to fear but fear itself. Have no fear, now that the political-economic machine provides almost everything a good producer-consumer needs, now that information technology is advancing us to utopia. Abandon liberal studies for technology; who needs the liberal arts when we have already been freed? Yes, existentialism, if that has anything to with existence, is obsolete today. Or, if existentialism has for its subject the sort of mere existence that precedes essence, why be bothered by the steak when everything is sizzling and glittering?
Moreover for good measure, as long as we adjust to the machine, as long as we welcome change, progress is inevitable, meaning existence is assured, so why question it?
Because an unquestioned existence is not a fully human existence, without which a man is dead, and mankind will soon follow if the ignorance spreads too far. Beware, the Blob is at all of our gates at this very moment, for the Blob is us, a colossal slime mold or myxomycete which, when challenged the next time, will have no place for its constituents to pack up and fly to.
To not question one’s own existence as a man is not to think for oneself. It is to become merely a welcome mat for somebody else’s change because he says “do not fear change” as he tries to steal your existence because he feels no existence in himself. It is to leave the door wide open for the corporate totalitarians. It is to swallow whatever is spooned into the mouth. It is to accept whatever program is supplied, to vote for one of the candidates supplied by the machine. It is to cease to exist as a man: for the essential activity of a man who is not merely an animal is to think for himself.
Yet again we arrive at the seeming self-contradiction of existentialism: that it is a rationalization of the irrational. Have not the existentialists warned us about thinking? Yes they have, and very thoughtfully. At least they have warned us about placing too much emphasis on thinking to the detriment of feeling and doing. But that was then and now is now, a present where extreme emphasis is being placed on yet another factor of that existential complex we call the human being. We might say that a man has a body, a mind, and a soul; whatever the quantity and quality of the divisions, they are really a unity in their diversity. In any event, the categories we perceive or conceive should be construed for our convenience. When one is taken to an extreme, the integrity of existenz, which is the all-encompassing unity of all modes of existence, is sure to suffer and might even be destroyed.
If we observe, for example, the arguments over the Christian Trinity in this context, we will learn that they were not so silly after all, but were a continuation of the perennial struggle for harmony and balance. Or, for a more concrete illustration, take the Nuclear Family, and the great summation, “In the Name of the Father, the Mother, and the Child, as One Family.” Obviously, the dialectic of the parents lives in the child, and no life would be possible as human are sexually divided without all three familial terms. Taken to an extreme, the monistic or unitarian emphasis to the exclusion of diversity is fatal.
Rather than carry this child too far, I shall soon close this brief essay with a quotation from the existentialist Karl Jaspers. For Jaspers, Being-for-us, which is one of three modes of Encompassing, namely the encompassing which we are, is itself a trinity comprising what the ancients called body, mind, and spirit. The three are apparent in our modes of communicating truth: empirical, mental, and spiritual. The presence of all three relations is necessary for man as man. The empirical aspect appertains to the actual, the world, the other; the empirical mode of communication is required for the pragmatic endurance of man, who is dependent on the majority understanding of the herd instinct. The mental aspect, or consciousness as such, appertains to the fact that nothing exists for us except in relation to our consciousness of it; the mental mode of communication is required for the recognition of cogent evidence presented by disinterested arguments, so that we may have a shared conscious objectiveness. The spiritual aspect appertains to the comprehensive reality of thought, feeling, and action, in its relation to Pure Being or God; the spiritual mode of communicating is required for the full conviction that pushes to the whole, to the totality of personality.
Now then, I have previously expressed my opinion that our present culture shall soon advance on a dangerous course from subjective individuality to an extreme objective conclusion in a collective. If I were about to join a party today,I would join genuine existentialists. But there is no such part. Existentialism is out of vogue today. That is why I believe we had better meditate on Karl Jaspers’ warning:
“The confidence in nature, whose origin is a metaphysical confidence in the grounds of Being, is changed into a confidence in those insufficient, known, yet always questionable, regularities which scientific investigation wrings out of experience…The essence of man is lost in this blind reliance on nature, where his existence seems identical with nature, and nature identical with known regularities…Thus, in the helpless confusion of his empirical existence which ensues, his thought and spiritual possibilities vanish into a thoughtless obedience to incomprehensible forces, above and below him, simply in order to exist here and now…It would be possible for man to relapse into an animal-like existence which preserved a technical apparatus like ants…What was once incorporated and proven in the struggle of existence for existence to be useful for the preservation and expansion of existence would now have become instinct. In all the chaos of natural existence, it could last a long time like other forms of life until, with a thorough change in the living conditions on the face of the earth, final catastrophe would also come to the species.”(1)
(1) Karl Jaspers, REASON AND EXISTENCE, Transl. William Earle, New York: Noonday Press, 1957