|by Darwin Leon – stolen painting|
|by Darwin Leon – stolen painting|
THE GROTESQUE GOD AND THE TASTE OF SHIT
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Our frustrated realist, Gustave Flaubert, a romantic at heart, bitterly said that reality, meaning the way things really were from his perspective, tasted like shit. He contrived an imaginary reality to escape from his distasteful perception, a construction that Jean Paul Sartre, in his voluminous psychoanalysis of Flaubert,The Family Idiot, analyzed according to his Psychology of the Imaginary.
An artist’s job, as jazz-dance master Luigi Facciuto once averred (may he rest in peace although his motto was Never Stop Moving) is to make shit smell good: “This shit just came to me out of nowhere,” he told his dancers after he moved, “and now it’s our job to make it smell good.” Still, given the materials employed, the result has scatological implications to critics with an acute sense of smell.
Flaubert’s Imaginary was ‘romantic’ to the extent that his flight from stinking, excremental reality was an heroic adventure into another, mysterious realm of his own fashion, a monstrous, grotesque realm. There was no room for Love in that kingdom; mystery vanished accordingly, for Love a secret does not abhor. He was haunted by the odor of the ordure in his sandbox, thus was motivated to leave his sense of taste and smell behind if not the substance itself, and embrace nothing, which he idolized as Nothing.
Nothing is absolute freedom: Nothing is freer than the freedom at the bottom of Sartre’s Existence, for freedom is always freedom from something or the other. Sartre, however, would leave us a shred of something to cling to, bare existence, while Flaubert would be free of everything altogether, in the perfect Form of forms: absolute vacancy.
Sartre pointed out that Flaubert attempted to believe in and therefore feel love by neurotic or “pithiatic” means: auto-suggestion. He asks, “Is there not, however, in the very act of composition a still unreal but more immediate gratification? Yes: a gratification of the desire to desire.”
He quotes Flaubert’s letter dated February 8, 1841: “I wrote love letters for the purpose of writing, not because I love. Yet I would like to delude myself that I do: I love, I believe while writing.”
“At stake for Gustave is the credibility of language: in what form will discourse—his own discourse—be most likely to engage the pithiatic adherence of the boy? His answer is precise: writing. The reasons for this are apparent: writing seems like a passage to action, like an extemalization as well as a composition. It is not a matter of copying ‘I love you’ a hundred times; that would be a schoolboy’s punishment. You must invent love, do something original, come up with passionately authentic phrases, put yourself in the position to recognize them from the inside. This means you must imagine you are in love…. Of course, on the surface the pithiatic aspect of the enterprise is undeniable: it isn’t only a game (it is also a game), it is a successful attempt, at least as far as his pen is concerned, at autosuggestion.”
A difference between lust and love is asserted. Sublime love is a cultivated emotion, a synthesis of feeling and judgment. It is a suggestion from without, introjected and reinforced within by imitative auto-suggestion.
Flaubert was hardly devoid of passion in his youth. We think he feared for his sanity when the Sibyl raved within him at Hecate’s crossroad. He resorted to Reason—which god-fearing religious scholars have identified with Being or Logos—to quash the hysterical passion he suffered, obsessively endeavoring to restrain the Dionysian dragoness with Apollonian virtue, compelled to do so until she was incinerated and there was nothing left but the restraint itself, the blinding light said to be the mystic source of wisdom for Teiresias, Apollo’s proverbially blind sage.
The vanishing point of Flaubert’s Imaginary was death, beyond which is infinity. Flaubert named his devil Yuk, who was the living end, the licentious god of the grotesque who exposes the human world as it really is: cursed by shit and rotting corpses. Satan loved God so much that he hated man and tempted him with the finite world, which is the death of man because everything finite must have an end. The factual world is evil; in fact, there can be no truth, beauty and goodness in fact. There is not enough antiseptic in the putrid world to rid it of its rottenness. So let the facts of science be damned if its facts taken alone would damn the human spirit. Prosperity is a help but is no utopia.
A psychoanalyst characteristically takes pause to examine not only the familial details of an analysand’s biography, but he would also carefully scrutinize the character of his patient’s relationships with friends during his impressionable youth. After all, a boy’s best friend is likely to leave a lifelong impression.
Young Gustave Flaubert’s best friend happened to be Alfred Le Poittevin (1816-1848), a pessimistic philosopher and poet who lived in Rouen, who was, incidentally, Guy de Maupassant’s nephew. Their mothers were also best friends.
Alfred and Gustave, together with their friend Ernest Chevalier, shared pipes and conversation on Sundays and Thursdays, and on school holidays, they practically saw each other every day in Rouen, where they loitered in cafes, swam, rowed, and played billiards. Flaubert eventually followed Alfred to Paris to study law. In his correspondence he wrote that he and Albert sometimes conversed for six hours at a time, discussing hothouse ideals to break the boredom. The young fellows were most profoundly influenced by the Romantic reaction to materialism, with its Gothic, aristocratic, and evolutionary predilections, the philosophical movement being neo-Kantian. Alfred, already a published poet and infatuated with Goethe and Spinoza, loved poetic impersonality, which elaborates historical ideals to which the poet surrenders his personality, becoming a literary channel for traditional development.
Gustave shared many of those ideals with Alfred; for example, the traditional idea of Satan expressed in Alfred’s romantic-revolt poem by that name. Indeed, Flaubert had been fascinated by Satan ever since he had discovered Byron, who with Shelley led the so-called Satanic School; the school was credited with an attitude somewhat like that of the Goths of our day, of impious, imperious pride, unduly preoccupied with the grotesque, with monstrous horrors and lewd subject matter, a decadent demeanor that psychiatrists would soon diagnose as evidence of evolutionary degeneracy, a sort moral insanity brought to the fore by crowded civilization’s foul air and other poisons, especially alcohol—absinthe concocted from wormwood was the devil’s favorite hallucinogenic drink in France.
Ah, rebellious youth! Flaubert was imbued with the attitude that a reconciliation of reality with ideality was impossible. Ultimately, the ugliness of reality presided over by Yuk wins out, an attitude in contrast to that of the Zoroastrians, whose god representing Good runs slightly ahead of its twin god representing Evil to extinguish the negating factor in the final moment.
Alfred, intrigued by the exotic Orient, penned ‘L’Orient,’ depicting a youth weary of “the black vapors of civilization.” In ‘Heure d’ angoisse,’ a poet crushed by despair in a faithless world doubts the reality of immortality and providence. ‘Ahasverus’ embodies a longing for death and annihilation. In ‘La foi,’ the loss of faith is regretted.
Flaubert would correspond in 1851 about his gang of “young rascals,” recounting how they inhabited a “strange world” of insanity and suicide. He said hopeless love and vain philosophy had rendered him gloomy. The boys created a grotesque character which they used to satirize conventional beliefs; not only materialism but romanticism as well. In one play a boy says, “Gothic architecture is fine, it’s so inspiring!” Garcon replies, “Yes, it is fine, and the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, too, and the Draggonades, and the Edict of Nantes too!”
He expressed his disdain for the bourgeois or town merchants in his 1839 school essay, ‘Les arts et le commerce,’ pleading for art set free from bourgeois ideology. “Has not the soul, too, its needs?” The commercial obsession of historical Carthage in particular seemed “monstrous and ferocious” to him. Even art for the sake of art he thought was vain at the time.
Flaubert conceived a nihilistic mystery play in 1838 where one would come face-to-face with the infinite: ‘Smahr—an Old Mystery Play.’ The play is obviously indebted to Goethe’s Faust, not to mention the literature of Byron and Quinet.
Smahr, an anchorite, is tempted by Satan, dressed as doctor of theology. They mount winged steeds to survey the world. Satan, demonstrating the nothingness of everything that is known, summoned Flaubert’s newly created god of the grotesque, Yuk, to explain life to him along the way. Yuk was disguised as a beautiful woman, an allegory for Truth. Smahr fell in love with her, but Satan loved her too. She turned out to be Yuk, who then preoccupied himself for awhile with persuading a married woman to give herself to every comer.
Yuk demonstrated to Smahr that life is a period filled with horrors such as bodies being devoured, blood raining down, orgies and the like. Smahr naturally craves power to preside over the world as it is for his own good, but his longing fills the world with death and destruction; alas, his desire is in vain because the power he wants has destroyed the very thing he longs for.
Yuk had initially been proud of his bravery, even joyful, but his plunge into the abysmal eventually made him feel fatally crushed in his finiteness by infinitude. All his knowledge, based on doubt, had been proved false and vain, empty. Yuk, emblematic of ressentiment embodied by the living No, then cries out that he alone is eternal, not even death can defeat him:
“I am reality, I am eternity, I am the power of ridicule, the grotesque, the ugly; I am what is, what has been and what shall be…. I am a whole eternity in myself….”
As the Sun sets on the dying universe, an angel would redeem Smahr, but Satan snatches the angel away. Yuk seizes the angel and rolls with her into the abyss, literally fucking her to death.
Graphic Credit: Darwin Leon
ON PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
A seemingly novel kind of hysteria is ‘Doctor’ Jean Paul Sartre’s diagnosis after his multivolume analysis of Gustave Flaubert in The Family Idiot. It is not the vulgar, convulsive or paralytic, demonstrative sort of hysteria, but rather a facile, evasive hysteria due solely to capitalistic cultural persuasion and auto-suggestion; something called ‘pithiatism.’
The pithiatism he alludes to in this case is a rather metaphorical hysteria. But is not the “illness” of “mental illness,” absent a physical disease, metaphorical as well? Sartre resorts to concealing his moral disapprobation by resort to a psychoanalytic myth, letting the great realist off the hook while castigating him to no end to raise his own prestige.
We consult psychiatrist Thomas Szasz on the nature of the psychiatric demoralizing strategy: The mental illness Jean-Paul Sartre attributed Flaubert would be utterly fictitious according to his perspective laid out in ‘The Myth of Mental Illness,’ a short paper and a book by the same name. He reasserted the theme that “mental illness” does not exist except as metaphor in a later article entitled ‘Mental illness is still a myth,’ stating that:
“My critique of psychiatry is two-pronged, partly conceptual, partly moral and political. At the core of my conceptual critique lies the distinction between the literal and metaphorical use of language—with mental illness as a metaphor. At the core of my moral-political critique lies the distinction between relating to grown persons as responsible adults and as irresponsible insane persons (quasi-infants or idiots)—the former possessing free will, the latter lacking this moral attribute because of being “possessed” by mental illness. Instead of addressing these issues, my critics have concentrated on analyzing my motives and defending psychiatric slavery as benefiting the “slaves” and society alike. The reason for this impasse is that psychiatrists regard their own claims as the truths of medical science, and the claims of mental patients as the manifestations of mental diseases; whereas I regard both sets of claims as unwarranted justifications for imposing the claimants’ beliefs and behavior on others.”
“Why do we make diagnoses?” he asks.
“There are several reasons: 1) Scientific—to identify the organs or tissues affected and perhaps the cause of the illness; 2) Professional—to enlarge the scope, and thus the power and prestige, of a state-protected medical monopoly and the income of its practitioners; 3) Legal—to justify state-sanctioned coercive interventions outside of the criminal justice system; 4) Political-economic—to justify enacting and enforcing measures aimed at promoting public health and providing funds for research and treatment on projects classified as medical; 5) Personal—to enlist the support of public opinion, the media, and the legal system for bestowing special privileges (and impose special hardships) on persons diagnosed as (mentally) ill.”
Everyone has noticed the growth in the number of purportedly abnormal behaviors to be treated by the mental health monopoly over recent years, and the fact that there are always newer or better psychotropic drugs to be prescribed for the classified mental illnesses. In fact the classifications are often designed to match the specifications of the funding sources; to suit the insurance industry and the government regulators. All in all, if we examine the developing nosology set forth in the diagnostic manuals, and take note of the proliferation of subjective diagnoses made with objective pretense, and the relationship of the classifications with a developing moral code—for example, the morbid tendency of slaves to flee; neurasthenia due to the stress of industrialization; purportedly immoral homosexuality and masturbation, included and then excluded from the manuals or dismembered and tucked away in other classifications—the diagnostic manuals appear to be indexes to a fiction novel encompassing all aspects of modern life.
To wit: civilization is an incurable disease, but its symptoms can be alleviated with a proper regimen of psychotropic drug treatment and methodic counseling by licensed doctors. Further, any intelligent and sane person patient enough to study the development and current plot of this living novel (everybody is sick and needs doctors to help them) cannot help but conclude that it is not being written by scientists.
Indeed, the very proliferation of diagnoses from a few to hundreds, right down to the malingerer, the wandering fuguist with jet lag and coffee nerves destined to forget everything that occurred during his fugue, and the shy boy diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a vague position on the autism spectrum, is evidence that the good doctors do not have a scientific theory nor a clear conception of sanity. Once all the kids and adults are sorted into their respective disorders, a normal person, other than a total madman, cannot be found, but the classifications will be milked for hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
That, however, is not to say that the well intentioned therapists are not as helpful as priests or lay practitioners or witch doctors, provided that the afflicted persons believe in the psychotherapy cults. If the patients themselves are faithless, then sane people, or people who cannot tolerate misbehavior, can put disorderly people out of the way in institutions for the mentally ill.
Szasz’ critique of his profession was certainly not appreciated by his peers for it was a direct attack, questioning the motives of everyone involved in the mental illness racket, excepting perhaps, the neurologists who were looking for a causative organic link to mental anomalies. But then the “disease” would not be “mental.” “Mental illness,” on the one hand, is an euphemism intended to relieve misbehaving people from blame for their condition; on the other hand, it may deemed an insult to the dignity of the human being, whose essential difference from other animals is the ability to think.
No doubt many psychiatrists have the best of intentions; they care for their patients and would like to see them behave normally, at least to make the adjustments necessary to lead a “productive” life; that is, one that adds to the gross national product at least to the extent that others do not have to support them. But mandatory “adjustment” to the status quo disturbs people who do not want to conform or who want the status quo to change. Yes, one of the main categories in the Diagnostic Standards Manual is “adjustment disorders.”
Everyone has encountered mentally disturbed or deranged individuals; “mental illness” may be a myth, but there is definitely something wrong with them, with their behavior. They do not fit into our culture, the “irresponsible insane persons (quasi-infants or idiots),” and especially adults “possessing free will” who therefore deliberately misbehave.
In any case, “behavior” is the key word. Is the misbehavior simply immoral, a moral issue rather than a question of neurological malfunction?
“As for psychiatry, it ought to be clear that, except for the diagnoses of neurological diseases (treated by neurologists), no psychiatric diagnosis is, or can be, pathology-driven. Instead, all such diagnoses are driven by non-medical, that is, economic, personal, legal, political, or social considerations and incentives. Hence, psychiatric diagnoses point neither to anatomical or physiological lesions, nor to disease-causative agents, but allude to human behaviors and human problems.”
A critical mind, kind enough to acquit psychiatry of bad intentions, might even say the psychotherapy profession is a symptom of the sick society it wants to cure, but lacks the means to alleviate the basic anxiety terribly aggravated when philosophy, the queen of the hard and soft sciences, was reduced to positivist psychology after the so-called Supreme Being was assassinated.
So it appears that our frustrated psychiatrist, ‘Doctor’ Sartre, steeped as he was in atheistic leftist propaganda, disapproved of Flaubert’s bourgeoisie misbehavior. Poor Gustave, as it were, had been possessed, as if in Delphi, by a hysterical, Cretan pythia, a dragoness against whose viselike grip the hapless romantic struggles in bad faith for a realistic rationale. His faith is bad because he knows he cannot know himself from within or without; his ‘I’ is nothing; the reality he pursues is a negation; lacking an objective, he is condemned to fiction, to art for the sake of art.
We envision him according to Sartre’s analysis as psychically conflicted and traumatized by his dispassionate father in his passionate childhood, sitting masochistically for hours on end, hunched virtually immobile over his desk, knuckles bloodless from gripping his pen ever so rigidly, agonizingly finding just the right and fit words which will leave no evidence of his own existence behind, thus he appears to be entirely unsympathetic towards his subjects, meaning the objects he painstakingly details; and, above all, he is truthful, that is to say, cynical. The result: Madame Bovary, one of the finest novels every written, the virtual incarnation of himself, an example mimicked by many masters thereafter—such is the persuasive power of masterful suggestion.
Flaubert deserves credit for his individual willpower, which is in fact the principle concern of French Existentialism in its obedience to the ancient command Know Thyself.
Socrates has turned from stargazing to introspection back in the day, but he observed that, whatever the Truth is, it matters not whether one proceeds with the investigation from subject or object, within or without. The wisdom Socrates found was that he alone knew he was ignorant. But that is saying much for knowledge, for ignorance is not the stupidity that Flaubert gave as a prerequisite of happiness providing health and selfishness concur with stupidity. No wonder Flaubert’s reality tasted, as he said, like shit.
No wonder Socrates thought philosophy is the preparation for death. Consciousness cannot know the knower. The knower is essentially nothing; Reality is indefinite; Being is nothingness; how depressing!
Flaubert, disenchanted with the imaginative monstrosities of his youth, turned from subject to object, from the romantic vagaries or python within to the objective clarities without. He was not the social-utopia activist Sartre would have liked him to be, but he was a realistic activist in the sense that thinking and writing is symbolic activity; and his cynical depiction of bourgeois society, cynical because his depiction happened to be true, was just as liberating as Sartre’s self-involved or romantic existentialism, which was essentially a furthering of French Spiritualism or Voluntarism; not to mention Sartre’s intentional fiction wherein he was hardly loath to exhibit moral degeneracy for sake of drawing attention to scandals that everyone is “born in sin,” i.e. as an individual necessarily varying from the Good of the Whole, naturally finds fascinating.
Again it appears to us that Sartre’s psychoanalysis of Flaubert’s preoccupation amounts to a thoroughly moral condemnation of his patient, who is all too patient of a patient because he is already dead.
Sartre knew a sinner when he saw one; are we not all sinners to an extent? Sartre’s sin is in his existential individualism, of being born an individual in the first place, and then flaunting his individualism in opposition to the summum bonum or Good that society and/or its god is, ad infinitum in writing.
Flaubert tried to disappear in a fugue, to render his own pathetic existence invisible while describing the falsifications or illusions of the others. Still, the sin here, and Sartre knew this very well from existentialism’s progenitor, Soren Kierkegaard, was in being, not in existence per se; it was in being false to existence. It is the sin of being an artist who places himself beyond good and evil rather than to make a choice and live with it.
The morbid, morose, moribund person, we recall from our etymology, is morally diseased, is immoral in his deadly contradiction to the force that urges him to live forever in his differentiation by paradoxically merging with the bustling crowd, instead of falling back into the womb, which represents his own death although others may emerge from his tomb if he is not reborn.
The writer’s despairing retreat can be a very lonely one if his ego is subject to Kierkegaard’s “fatal disease.” Kierkegaard referred to the sinful existence of the artist’s existence—we would rather call it the sin of his being or form of existence instead of his existence per se, which in its contradictory individuality happens to be the original “Christian” sin, the crux from whence the twin fears, of life and death, plague humankind with anxiety.
However that may be, Kierkegaard stated: “From a Christian point of view, any poet’s existence, with his whole aesthetic existence, is a sin; the sin of writing poetry instead of living, of connecting himself with the good and evil instead of being the good and evil, that is essentially aspiring to become all these.”
The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis celebrated the Christian sin of pride with this description of a writer’s workshop: “The fourth day I jumped out of the bed, I took the pen and I started writing… I was writing and I was so proud; I was a God who was doing what he wanted, was changing the reality, shaping it the way he wanted, mixing the truth and the lie; but it was no longer the truth and the lie, it was a soft dough that I was shaping according to my own imagination, without asking for anyone’s permission.”
In the final analysis Sartre’s novel psychoanalysis is hardly objective inasmuch as it is deliberately prejudiced by a hackneyed Marxist criticism of so-called bourgeois society, a society that Flaubert also despised and was fain to bitterly criticize, although he simulated bourgeois life for the sake of convenience, using it as a foundation for freedom.
“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” was Flaubert’s maxim.
Sartre had also been cultivated by the bourgeois culture. Indeed, he identified himself as a member of the bourgeoisie through his resistance to it.
Who would we be without those we oppose?
THE NORMAL UNHAPPINESS OF THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Jean Paul Sartre’s five-volume The Family Idiot portrays Gustave Flaubert, the romantic founder of French literary realism, as a victim of circumstantial suggestion and auto-suggestion living in the clutches of a figurative sort of conversion hysteria; namely, pithiatism.
In the first paragraph of Chapter Eight, ‘The Imaginary Child,’ Sartre alludes to the characteristic of pithiatism, a sort of hysteria determined by suggestion, in respect to his family idiot:
“This is Gustave as he has been constituted. Of course, any determination imprinted in an existing being is surpassed by the way he lives. In the child Flaubert, passive activity and gliding are his way living this constituted passivity; resentment is his way of living the situation assigned to him in the Flaubert family. In other words, the structures of this family are internalized as attitudes and re-externalized as actions by which the child makes himself into what others made him. Conversely, we shall find in him no behavior, as complex and elaborate as it might seem, that is not originally the surpassing of an internalized determination.”
According to Sartre’s psychoanalysis, Gustave’s being was not wholly defined by circumstances; he would have no self of his own as a mere victim of circumstances devoid of existential independence and freedom. He would be in effect a zombie or a machine unconscious of his own existence; if someone were to act like a machine we would naturally deem him psychotic not neurotic.
Naturally every human being by necessity introjects his social identity from others and projects what he has learned. Nevertheless, the individual, by virtue of its independent will to exist forever without impedance if it could, is bound to put up some resistance to the imposition of conformity, as we can see in every squalling child, and he will invariably get away with what he can get away with while accepting influences that serve his purpose. Thus he becomes his own person; a person being, to some extent, a unique composite of individual existence and social being. Every particular is a coincidence of universal qualities, no two coincidences being identical; hence the individual is somewhat unique.
As far as Sartre, a former member of the French Resistance during the war, was concerned, Flaubert did not actively affirm his existential self in the world. He just did not want to make the effort and thus in part be defined by its resistance thereto. He had what we might call a weak will—at one juncture he reflected that he was cowardly in his youth. He did not seem to know who he really was because he had not looked within; he had not conducted a painful regressive analysis of his self; instead, he avoided himself, using his literary art to paint himself out of the picture.
French Existentialism, with its struggle for freedom through individual responsibility, hails back to the introspective discovery of the self as will; that is, to French Voluntarism, for which Maine De Biran was an introspective pioneer. Biran confessed that, “Even from infancy I remember that I marveled at the sense of my existence. I was already led by instinct to look within myself in order to know how it was possible that I could be alive and be myself.”
Sartre, mentioning Flaubert’s resentment as a chosen way of living, does give young Flaubert a will of his own in his choice of style; negation or resistance to external influence constitutes the will of the individual, made manifest to us in his behavioral style. And that would leave Flaubert morally culpable for his way of life, at least as a liar.
Mind you that the pithiatic hysteric is a liar who believes in the lie; but this belief represses an otherwise nagging doubt to the so-called unconscious sector of the psyche. The forgetting of the doubt is imaginary; the belief is make-believe or bad faith inasmuch as it is not blind faith. It is a commanding hysterical performance of the kind that has made fools out of many psychoanalysts.
Sartre’s Flaubert was a paralytic writer whose acting career had been thwarted by his father, and who was self-blinded to his own existence and suitable self. That is, his neurosis prevented from being himself; that is, a comic actor instead of the serious writer he wound up being.
You see, Flaubert as a boy loved to stage little plays, and fancied himself as a playwright. Sartre, again and again, affords Flaubert’s father the brunt of the blame for Flaubert’s bad faith or inauthentic personhood; for it was his unappreciative father, whose affection he craved, who constituted the comical would-be actor as a self-contemptible family idiot who would isolate himself, withdrawing himself from his prospective audience to entertain them from afar, passively, in writing, instead of actively or directly, in person.
Otto Rank’s conclusion to his lecture, ‘The Play within Hamlet – Toward an Analysis and Dynamic Understanding of the Work,’ sheds some light on the psychology of playacting distinguished from playwriting:
“I shall attempt to pursue Shakespeare’s personal relationship to the material and to its treatment in somewhat greater depth than has previously been achieved. There can be no doubt that the great significance given in Hamlet to the dramatic art and to actors relates to Shakespeare’s professional interests and his artistic ambitions. As is well known, he also worked as an actor, sometimes playing roles he wrote. I have tried to explain this psychologically in claiming that acting is a fully valued psychic act and a more basic release for psychic states than the activity of the playwright. It is actually the actor who must complete the drama, who must do what the playwright wishes to do but, owing to psychic defenses, cannot achieve. The actor ‘experiences’ what the playwright can only ‘dream.’ If we compare this psychological formula to insights derived from the analysis of the play within the play, we find that there, too, Shakespeare has supplied an unconscious admission of how drama offered him a substitute for many things he had to renounce in life, just as for Hamlet the play replaces acts he cannot carry out due to powerful inhibitions. From the nature of drama itself, it is clear which psychic mechanism allows an actor the release, forbidden to the playwright, of blocked emotions that cannot otherwise be overcome. This is identification, taken as far as the temporary suspension of one’s own personality. In Hamlet, of course, broad use is made of identification, and in the interpretation of this drama I have often had occasion to make recourse to it.21 Our investigation shows how such identification functions as a significant component in dramatic talent; it also shows us a motive for selecting an acting career — a motive not to be underestimated. In the child’s relationship to the parents, as shown in the analysis of Hamlet, there arise certain forces that can push a personality with talent for identification, that universal artistic ability, directly into an acting career: the wish to be grown up, the wish to enact and imitate the father, to put oneself in his place — all based on the observations the child has made, though he slyly attempts to conceal this from his parents. The actor’s favorite roles offer him the opportunity truly to enact these tendencies and to allow himself to be overheard by the spectators, who have essentially become the precondition for his (portrayed) ability to carry out actions. This is the reverse of the childhood situation, which he has partially retained, while partially overcoming it through identification with the father. Thus this brief analysis of the “play within the play” extends to the entire drama Hamlet, which I believe I have made somewhat more comprehensible in its dynamic significance for the inner life of actor and spectator alike.”
Sartre cast Flaubert as an idiot and moron. Mind you that those terms may be employed without intent to insult people with mental incapacities due to neurological abnormalities and injuries. The popular word ‘idiot,’ derived from idios, meaning “one’s own,” in common parlance used to refer to a “private person” or one withdrawn from public affairs, a person or simpleton or “imbecile,” or an ignorant country bumpkin, so to speak.
As Mark Twain insultingly said, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.”
And Linnaeus, as we learn from our etymological dictionary, used the term ‘morisis’ for idiocy in the sense of mental deficiency. An idiot might be a ‘moron,’ a term derived from moros, a fool. We notice that ‘morose,’ meaning gloomy, peevish, fastidious, has a similar root. A morose person is immoral, has bad manners in contrast to moral in the sense of good mores or habits.
In fine, we believe Sartre was in effect calling his favorite neurotic, Gustave Flaubert, stupid in five volumes. A neurotic is stupid inasmuch as their defensive patterns are inappropriate no matter how useful they may be.
Since “neurotic” is no longer included in the official diagnostic manual, should we insert “stupid” in its stead?
In fact, we see that “stupidity” was a word used by French alienists to indicate the form of insanity usually known as “melancholia with stupor,” and was defined by Wilhelm Griesinger, in Mental Pathology and Therapeutics (1867) as melancholia in which the patient is lost in self-contemplation.
Neurotic people have a sort of blind spot, or rather a cataract partially obstructing their cognition; they keep doing the same, useless thing over and over again, thus revealing their partiality, or insanity if they are seriously impaired. They appear to be stupid, at least in that respect. According to Sartre, Flaubert’s stupidity was in not knowing himself, of being stupid to his bona fide existence and the nature of the being that would accord with his native or existential disposition.
Flaubert himself identified stupidity with happiness: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.”
He was indeed unhappy yet not unsophisticated, unintelligent, or stupid in the usual sense. Perhaps we might opine that Gustave became one of the fools he had played as a child, becoming stupid to his genuine existence in the process.
But that is not clever enough for Sartre’s convoluted reflections. He claims that Gustave consumed himself.
“It would be inadequate to say that he plays the fool, that in the unreal world he becomes the imbecile he would be if he were actually afflicted with imbecility; in order to produce the analogue of the persona he represents, he becomes the fool he is. This obscure mass of agitation, terrorized incomprehension, fear, stubbornness, bad faith, and ignorance, which under the name of stupidity is the index of everyone’s alienation, is awakened and stirred up by the actor so that he might be unrealized through it as a magnificent idiot. What is he doing other than what he has always done, since a bad relationship constituted him laughable? To be sure, a dialectic operates between the character and the interpreter: the actor transforms the character to the precise extent that he is transformed by it. But these are relations between images. The role serves as an alibi: the actor sheds his persona, he believes he is evading himself in the character. But this is futile: in his befuddled alacrity to be nothing but a strange image, there is a distinct malaise and a deep antipathy, which encourages him to revile himself so that others may triumph. He is conscious, in fact, of choosing this or that disguise in order to make others laugh at him as he has always done.”
If we do not understand this, we are probably stupid idiots and damned fools ourselves at the feet of this great analyst—an admirer at Sartre’s funeral procession was quoted as saying that he did not understand what Sartre said, but he knew he was a great philosopher, and that was enough.
“Since his sincerity,” wrote Sartre, “such as it is, is rejected, and since he does not recognize his own right to feel anything until adults have given their consent, he is condemned by his father’s capricious mistrust never to determine whether he is feeling or just imagining his feelings. The deeper meaning of this personalizing revolution is that the child no longer knows whether he exists or is just pretending to exist. Given this option, Gustave unconsciously chooses anti-Cartesianism and, more obscurely, irrationality. If he manages only to produce images, isn’t he an image himself?”
So Flaubert does not exist or behave in the way Sartre wants him to exist, according to Sartre’s universal definition of existence, which is really a mode of being, a being responsible for oneself according to a Marxist psychologist’s desire. Flaubert, then, cannot help the way he is not himself, which unbeknown to him is a radical self; he is a phony, a victim of capitalist society. Therefore Flaubert is subject to a pithiatic form of neurosis.
A neurotic person is an unduly nervous one, a person who is anxious and emotional as the result of some invisible injury. He suffers from a psychic conflict between alternates, neither of which he wants to choose; say, between his ideal self, which others have propped up for him, and his real self, which he consequently despises when he falls short of the ideal. He is trapped between two hard rocks, and, in self-defense, works out an impractical compromise that condemns him to drag his cross around for the rest of his life.
Neurotic behavior seems to be an ineffective or inefficient or even absurd way of doing things to the observer; however, from the subject’s perspective, it may be a somewhat effective adaptation strategy inasmuch as it may allay his fears, for example, and make him feel that he has the world under control, or at least his behavior may manipulate others to react in a manner beneficial to him—unfortunately, it often makes matters worse, reinforcing, paradoxically, the neurosis. Still, the neurotic person is purportedly unaware of the true nature of his mental disorder.
Indeed, Sartre appears to have believed that Flaubert was neurotic, not figuratively speaking, but in the sense of mental illness, that he was mentally sickened by a sick i.e. bourgeois society. Disgusted with the self he was being, because he was unaware of his existential self, which should have been a radical self manning the barricades against the stupid bourgeoisie, Flaubert withdrew from society, isolating himself to agonizingly write Madame Bovary, featuring the fictional Emma Bovary, a haplessly romantic, hysterical woman who was incapable of loving any man; no man was perfect, leaving every candidate to fall short of her ideal. Her author would confess that “she is me.” He is the hysteric; she is his projection. She will die in the novel; he will wind up with the glory.
According to Sartre’s family idiot myth, Flaubert had not quite arrived at the state of neurosis at an early stage in his adolescence, although he was well on his way: “Looking at these passages [from Flaubert’s biographic writing],” Sartre reflects, “we are forced to acknowledge that Gustave does not intend to describe to us the tame, continually interrupted reveries of a “well-adjusted” adolescent; rather, he depicts an almost neurotic state, intentional, certainly, but outstripping his clear intention and yet suffered to the same degree that it is produced.”
Again the family patriarch is blamed for the neurosis with which Flaubert will be entailed:
“As the undisputed and shrewd head of the family, Achille-Cleophas contributed to maintaining the young man in a neurotic state that gave him a reason to sequester himself at Rouen and end his studies; in this sense, the father’s death certainly had the effect, if not of curing Gustave, at least of causing a remission of his illness. But the fundamental and archaic relationship of the child to the father (to convince him of his eminent value) was not altered; hence the remission was accompanied by a profound frustration.”
Sartre attributes neurotic behavior to mental rather than physical causes. His rhetoric explicating the mechanics of the inner conflict and its outward results differs somewhat from that of the early masters, but that is of little consequence since the mechanical hypotheses cannot be falsified; strictly speaking, psychoanalysis is not hard science but a soft art if not witchcraft.
When a patient is not able to dredge up something pertinent to her mental disorder from the unconscious, claiming that nothing is there, the doctor may assume that there is something invisible there, and a force called resistance to maintain the repression, and do his best to torture the truth out of her somehow. Who can prove that that the unconscious, that repression, that resistance and so on do not exist? It is easier to come up with something for the doctor to analyze, perhaps a random recitation of ideas from which the Delphic priest may divine the hypostatical associations suitable to his theoretical framework.
Sartre became all too familiar with war hysteria and totalitarian regimes during the war. He said that unwelcome feelings which cannot be assimilated are externalized so that a global defense can be set up against them—a total war for a final solution, a war to end all wars.
We may attribute our faults to others, the enemies, who then are subhuman enough to justify slaughtering them. (Freudians would say that repressed content is unconsciously projected onto or transferred to others).
“Stress is the name we shall give to this unity of the nonassimilable element and the global defense that the totalizing process develops against it, infected precisely to the degree that it tries to neutralize the nonassimilable. In this case, neurosis is stress as much as character disorder. Of course, this totalizing effort to defuse the contradictions or to isolate them achieves its aim only at the price of dangerous divergences, which alter the totalized whole.”
The problem with Sartre’s voluminous ideologically biased analysis of the great author whom he never knew is that Flaubert was not stupid but wise, and wisdom was at the root of his unhappiness, a wisdom that we all have an intuitive albeit inadmissible inkling of in our own “normal unhappiness,” as Freud called it. Sartre was well aware of that, so he himself was playing the fool and at great length. What else is there to do?
Bitterness over the critical truth about my pointless life leads me from artistic arrogance to submissive submission.
Here I go again, leading the pointless life of an underground man! I should have trashed my sCrAwLiNgS fRoM LiMbO manuscript a long time ago. I thought I was cured of those dark days in paradise, so I filed the manuscript away, thinking I might sell it someday.
In fact, sCrAwLiNgS was accepted by a publisher a couple of years thereafter, but I blew the deal. I wanted to rewrite the book because the grammar was sloppy and structure was virtually non-existent; but the publisher insisted that the strongest appeal of my confessional scrawling was in its defects, so I withdrew it to save me the embarassment. I should have known that I was addicted to my own trash, so much so that I could not let anyone else read it. But I was too vain back then to realize that a recovering libertine is never fully cured of his craving for liberty.
I put a check mark by the my sCrAwLiNgS file last week. I hesitated as my finger hovered over the Delete button. Why not take another look at the manuscript? I asked myself. Maybe I can sell it. All right, then. But first I must do some editing to save face.
And that’s what sucked me into the boring black hole again, into nothing, and nothing is long enough. I resisted for a while, telling myself that the whole thing was trash, only worthy of deleting forthwith. I stalled again, thinking I might as well ask a few writers what they thought of the piece.
“Is this boring or not? Should I trash it?” read my query.
My fellow writers were supportive, but I was in a mood for punishment, having read sCrAwLiNgS again. Meaning that anything positive said must be flattery. After all, real criticism is always negative, is it not? Honesty is when people are mean, right? If they are not really mean, they seem mean when they are right. Rarely are critics actually invited to give their honest criticism, and then some of them do so with a vengeance. Until then, one never hears from them. I was fortunate that all my critics were polite and helpful. Of course I was not surprised to hear that my sCrAwLiNgS were insignificant, inconsequential, puerile, pointless, meaningless, without purpose, pretentious. But only one reader said the work was boring, and he said sCrAwLiNgS should not be thrown away. Not one person recommended that I trash my trash. But what is trash for?
Again, I agreed with the harshest criticism. But I was disappointed, for it did not go far enough, to the heart of the matter, to a pointed attack on my very person. For sCrAwLiNgS is autobiographical. If it is pointless, so am I. Or at least I was at the time. The more I mulled the whole thing over, the more I became the lowly person that I was when I first scrawled down my thoughts. And that was not low enough to exceed the depths plumbed by the first underground man: the clerk who read too much German romantic philosophy; did not want to bond with the cubic Borg of his day; then he took notes of the degradation he suffered as an outsider, that he might not be assimilated by mechanical matters. His critics called him a narcissistic, paranoid, compulsive, repressed, borderline psychotic; to wit: he was normal, but he was the anti-heroic archetype of modern normality.
If only I were a prestigious arche! I told myself as I walked across town to the library – a good place for nobodies to hide. The point is the principle of the line, I thought, and I am pointless! At least I know it. Ah, but how painful it is to be lucid when everyone else has their points buried in the sand!
“You look like Sherlock Holmes,” a young man said as I strode across the library floor in my rain coat. My bold stride, derived from my dancing days, deceives people into thinking that I am somebody who knows exactly where he is going. Although desperately unemployed, people often approach me and ask me for a job.
“If I could only make a few brilliant deductions, I might be somebody, but I am unable to deduce anything because I have no general principles to begin with. My life has no axis or axiom. It is pointless,” I quipped.
“Ah, come on, now, that isn’t right,” said the handsome young fellow, a casually dressed, tall African man, with one of those elongated heads, shaved and gleaming with oil. “It can’t be so bad.”
“It’s bad enough for me to head in that direction without having the slightest idea of where I am going or why,” I paused to explain. “I asked my colleagues to criticize my autobiography, and they said it is pointless and meaningless. They’re right. My life has no purpose to it at all. Even worse, someone said my book is boring. It is boring, very boring.”
“Nah, it can’t be that boring. What are you going to do with it?”
“I submitted it to an editor, just out of spite. It was not easy to give up my artistic arrogance for submissive submission, but the truth about my pointless endeavor embittered me just enough to act. Excuse me, son, for laying this on you. I’d better get on with my inconsequential life,” I said, and continued on my way.
“Hey, good luck, man.” He stared after me, wide-eyed.
I headed for the nearest stack and pulled out a book at random, into which I figured I would escape from the pointless proceedings of the day. It happened to be Ivan Illych’s Toward a History of Needs. I knew the book, having read it some time ago. I opened it to the first chapter, ‘Useful Unemployment and it’s Professional Enemies’. Good grief! Yet another coincidence in Magic City. I just cannot seem to avoid undergrounders. Okay, at least I will paraphrase the chapter for old time’s sake.
Yes, here we go, again, the difference between market-values and use-values. Our affluent society suffers from an overabundance of commodities, paralyzing the autonomous creation of use-values. We cannot make the things we need anymore but must worship commodities and their god, Money. And to get our shares we must depend on the market priests who control the mechanical Holy Commodity Cow. They will create crises, which they can solve for our benefit pending the next crisis. If it were not for the experts, the nicely packaged teats would be ripped right out of our mouths and we would bawl for awhile then wither up and die with ribs sticking out and flies buzzing all around. But the real crisis is our dependence on the commodity machine. The only choice we have inside of our supermarket is consume this or consume that. In other words, consume or consume.
Consumers cannot make anything that is sold inside of the supermarket for themselves, hence “the supermarket (is) a structure different only in name from a ward of idiots.” In the good old days, peoples were self-determined because they were creative and inventive, but today self-determination is just a means of uniform defense. In the good old days, bad times were measured by how much food the community had to buy elsewhere, but now most of the food comes from elsewhere, so times are bad and getting worse. Urban people used to grow lots of food inside their cities. As for housing, the day housing became a commodity in Venezuela, “three-quarters of all families found that their self-built dwellings were thereby degraded to the status of hovels.” Furthermore, once poor natives are brought into the “free” market system, they stop fishing and hunting and their poverty is modernized, meaning they get the dregs of production.
In fine, people, deluded by experts who drive the economic baggage train to eventual global disaster, believe that “useful activities by which people both express and satisfy their needs can be replaced indefinitely by standardized goods or services.” Illych is right: economists like other experts have been blinded by their training. They really do not know where the economy is heading; they tend to huddle together like cattle, hence their predictions conform to the prejudices of their masters. I think monkeys might make better economists. In any case, the professionals refuse to look at reality, just as the inquisitors refused to look into the new-fangled telescope.
The solution? “The generation of nonmarketable use-values must inevitably occupy the center of any culture that provides a program for satisfactory life to a majority of its members.”
I’m for a program that suits that end, as long as I can practice my art. I’m for the twenty-hour work week; guaranteed minimum income regardless of performance; commonwealth parks without rents and building codes, and of course with ample space for gardening activities. It is a shame that most people have to pay rent nowadays, and can’t set up tents or shacks to live in. All that will be optional, of course, and with the expectation that most people will pursue mindless material happiness as usual. Those who opt out should stay clear of electric appliances. I recall that Thomas Merton took up the monastic life, did a lot of hard work in the garden, but he was electrocuted to death in a hotel, I think while plugging in a lamp.
Still, I do not care for camping. Or gardening for that matter. My stepmother abandoned me on a farm when I was a little boy. I did not mind because I had always hoped someone would adopt me so I could get away from parenting. But my dad was awfully mad when he found out, because he had promised my mother to take care of me when she died. All in all, a few months on the farm was good for me, but I would not do it again. Picking strawberries was not my thing, what with the mosquitoes and all. I was paid a penny a bale for baling hay: I was glad I got ten dollars in a single day, but I was too beat to spend it. The manure and rock fights were challenging. The chunky milk was not very appetizing in my opinion. Most fun of all was driving the fast Ford tractor and smoking corn silk. I did learn something useful on that farm: I learned how to type! Maybe I can trade my manuscripts for food and shelter!
Toward a History of Needs brought those farming days to mind again – I had almost forgotten them. I was glad I had gotten lost in the library again. When I exited the library, I saw the young man who had spoken to me. He waved and walked across the plaza towards me.
“Where are you going, sir?”
“To get my head sharpened.”
“To get my head sharpened into a point so I can lead a pointed life from here on out, have some sort of purpose in life. Do you have a good job?”
“I had a good job but I am not working right now,” he responded.
“Do you have food, a pot to piss in, a place to sleep?”
“Oh, yes, that is no problem. I have that.”
“Do you write?”
“Yes, I write some. But I’m bored.”
“Bored? That’s no problem. I might write boring stuff, but I am never bored doing it. There is no reason to be bored. Just walk into the library, pick a subject, any subject, study it, write about it, one thing leads to another, and if you live long enough, you’ll circle the world. That’s not boring.”
“Oh, I already have something to write about.”
“You!” he exclaimed, and excused himself – his friends were calling him to join them.
Egads, I should keep my mouth shut. Yet another writer is going to write about me, get his work published, and my sCrAwLiNgS will probably be rejected as too boring to present to the general public. That fellow Dennis in New York, for one, really fooled me. He knew where all the cheap pitchers of beer could be had in the Village. He took me into one of the saloons every couple of days or so, for two months. Little did I know that he was writing a book about me. I suppose it is out there somewhere, as fiction no doubt. For there really is no such thing as an inconsequential life in this world.
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
Having concluded that life in Kansas City as reported is absurd, I suppose I might learn to live an absurd life in Downtown Kansas City pursuant to the absurd doctrines of Absurdism that I am creating as I write, notwithstanding the fact that creative cosmopolitan critics are unwelcome downtown, especially in the Compassion Zone around City Hall.
Yet here I go again, like Sisyphus with his Stone. I shall take advantage of a modern convenience, the escalator, at least as long as security will permit my continuous up and downs. I am taking a shortcut, really. Why bother with the in-betweens when one is just going to go up or down the escalator again? Now the expression you see on my face is not a grimace – it is a free smile, a smile for nothing – and the sound you hear is not a grunt – it is a free laugh, a laugh for nothing.
A businessman on the United Missouri Bank escalator gave me the most hateful look yesterday when I smiled at him and laughed as we passed. He was walking up the ascending side; I was standing still on my side, simply enjoying the descent. He must have thought that he looked absurd. He might just as well have smiled, hence I thought I would do a good deed: I turned around and ran up my descending side. But he did not smile. He reported me to security; I was asked to leave – my demand to shake the hand of Rufus Crosby Kemper, Jr., chairman of the bank’s board of directors, was rejected out of hand.
No problem. I went over to the Town Pavilion escalators to continue my futile task, for the sheer absurdity of it. Who knows? some day some one might join me in my rebellion against the in-betweens, and in that solidarity we shall be friends. Again, what is wanted are certain tenets or doctrines of Absurdism that one might live by. As I traveled up and down the escalators, I jotted down the following thoughts:
Since the outcomes of our moral actions are often unpredictable and absurd, let those actions or means be ends in themselves. Wherefore we fly from love to love for Love’s sake. We act as we choose, in the illogical, absurd present, or in the Now, or in Nothing if there is no Now.
Instead of worrying about nothing and belaboring the fact that no-thing is eternal, we might have faith in Nothing and choose to be Nothing, for Nothing is Perfect and Nothing is Impossible. Sisyphus labored willingly and laughed at the gods who sentenced him to futility. But we laugh at ourselves as we rebel against every definition of god or gods, knowing full well that our rebellion against the one-god or the many-gods is futile, that even a mocking victory is absurd. Yet we are given to struggle even though we are aware that our passion to exhaust the given and the imagined is ultimately useless – indeed, in our very inutility do we rebel and revel.
We put our whole effort into the absurd, ambiguous struggle. We seduce to love. We act to live. We make to create. We imagine to be. Above all, in the stones on our shoulders, we would be perfectly clear, or, as Camus put it, lucid. We would pierce the veils, including the veil of the money-god. Although creative cosmopolitans are not welcome in Metropolitan Kansas City, where editors have their heads buried in the military-industrial sand, we would know the cosmos without illusion, no matter how painful insight into the Absurd might be – indeed, it is mostly funny, and that is why we wallow in the Absurd. Who are we? I don’t know. Me and my shadowy reflection of you if you please.
Speaking for myself, whom I do not know, I see that my absurd art of living at present is literary. Camus had his down to earth, everyday moral actions, his humane deeds to do, but what does an alienated writer without a cosmos to know do in Downtown Kansas City? Boost the power elite’s real estate projects? no matter how absurd they may be? Become a reporter who does not know the difference between news and advertising? sniff around City Hall? jump onto the mayor’s lap and write tail-wagging reports about her toilet? Maybe. Maybe live and let live.
I have become aware of the platitudes, of the fact that, whomever we might be, we live a few cliches over and over and over, and that even the devices we use to cloak or style the recurrent themes are themselves variations of a small set of themes. Art expresses in certain ways the monotonous repetition death-life-death or life-death-life, nothing-something-nothing or something-nothing-something, so on and so forth ad infinitum. Everyone wants an escape from the blind path, but there is no escape but into Nothing.
Give me liberty or death? Well, now, absolute liberty or omnipotence is death to us all as individuals. Methinks we mostly prevaricate: we want more to belong than to be free. We are alienated the moment we are born, hence we cry for our mamas and would return to the womb rather than be independent. But we cannot go home again until death doth part us from our unwilling independence. We exchange mother’s milk for mother’s words and weave one illusion after another to avoid the outcome we instinctively still want; some of us go much farther, and try to escape our fate in hot air balloons. But our destination is the same, the beginning is the end and vice versa. How absurd! Shall the truth shall set us free from the illusion that we are free? Well, now, the truth is that we are imprisoned and there is no escape – every means of escape is in turn another form of prison. “That is a fact,” my friend Joseph says of his libertarian tenets, “so just accept it.”
Well, then, why complain when one can live and laugh? Never mind the fools who do not know they are fools. Do not ridicule, criticize, condemn, or complain except under a pen name; otherwise, go along, smile at the absurdities but refrain from laughing out loud in public, especially when looking in someone’s direction. Above all, remember to have faith in Nothing, for Nothing is Perfect.
Still the mind repudiates itself and tries to cloak Nothing with something. What must be done? What must I do? A doctrine of Absurdism is needed. Now that the Absurd has leaped out at me from the incongruous, ambiguous media in a moment of lucidity, it appears that my own futile task is to belay preaching like a fool for one side of some inherently ambiguous principle, for one side of a contradiction or the other, and to simply express the Absurd without critical, editorial commentary, even if that means that I have said Nothing, that I have slipped into the void, have become submerged in the Absurd. That is to say, just paint the Absurd, period.
I would then be just another bulging-belly member of the bourgeoisie but for the fact of my lucidity. I would then appear to everyone else on the bus to be just another apparently stupid man without a car, while knowing that I am in fact quite smart yet just another fool going nowhere.