I promised bleakness and existentialism last time, but suffered a metaphysical crisis in trying to deliver. But why not let my past self do the work? I did not, after all, suffer a tri-weekly dose of breakdown-inducing philosophy in my junior year for nothing! So here for your (possible) amusement I’ve decided to post my Existential Philosophy term paper from way back when–which is to say, when I was 21, which sadly is starting to feel like ‘way back when’. Looking back, most of my undergraduate essays are pretty grim, and I can only imagine how bad the rest of the papers must have been for mine to receive ‘A’s. Actually, I was a teaching assistant, so I know exactly how bad they were. One might expect that most college sophomores would be capable of forming grammatically correct, economical, and globally comprehensible sentences at least some of the time. Unfortunately, one would be in for a surprise…
But I digress. I think I mentioned it a couple posts ago, but the story behind this paper is that I was getting dangerously close to C student territory in my existential philo class after I failed to read most of the assigned texts (I was having a lot of difficulty concentrating—we were actually assigned really interesting stuff, I just didn’t have the presence of mind to appreciate it at the time). So I decided I could probably get away with a pretty facile term paper if I could find some way to make it superficially amusing, and obviously fiction is the way to go. So somehow I convinced the professor to let me write this in lieu of the academic final:
Philosophy 336 Term Paper
Existentialism in its pure, intended form is liberating and beautiful…one lives simultaneously with conviction and with abandon: if nothing matters we are eternally free. Unfortunately, this insouciance is nearly impossible in a state of nature, and it all turns to giant cockroaches and visions of hell very quickly. The people who are drawn to existentialism are, with little exception, the ones most likely to be driven mad by it. To put it politely, they are slightly neurotic individuals, uncommonly bright but with a tendency to shred any tissue or bit of stray paper they are holding, to snappishly entreat people to define their terms in arguments.
Let us conjure a hypothetical existentialist: a college student, because the vast majority of those to whom existentialism appeals are that age; beyond then, one does not really want to pay such microscopic attention to one’s own mind and the body it inhabits…both become increasingly unpleasant. Physically, we might imagine him (although it could just as easily be a her) as a slightly twitchy ectomorph, wearing stylishly unstylish glasses with chunky black frames, who neither washes nor cuts his hair quite often enough for comfort. To seal this image, he owns both a beret and a stocking cap, and wears one or the other of these regardless of the weather.
Although he reads philosophy, probably too much philosophy to be entirely healthy, this existentialist has no ambitions to be a philosopher, to create something new from the substratum. After all, 4.6 billion years of evolution have only been sufficient to produce one Kierkegaard. For a while he thought maybe he would just be a writer, that by writing beautifully he could make up for knowing nothing, but language itself became a series of problems. The most fundamental, of course, being the unproven nature of signifiers.
How do I know that red is red and blue is blue?
Maybe red is blue for me, and blue is red for you.
How do I know that I am me, and you are you?
Maybe we are illusions in a sucking vortex of eternal emptiness
And none of this is true.
But this is an elementary dilemma, a Philosophy 101 dilemma. It bores him that he finds it so compelling, and it sickens him that he is bored with a perfectly good paradox. At these times he often feels like biting something, so he eats. Because philosophy is psychology he knows that the veal cutlet is metaphorically his own skin, but then again, the baby cow and the man may not be ontologically distinct. No one can reduce themselves to a fetal ball of contradictions faster than an ailing philosopher, and our existentialist is sinking.
But he has a hope: pragmatism. It even considers itself philosophy, so it’s not a total cop-out. Pragmatism assures him that he can put down Being and Time and go have a beer without turning into Nietzsche’s pathetic Cheetoh-crunching, Jerry-Springer-watching Last Man. Relinquishing himself to his fallenness, to being-in-the-world, our existentialist decides to leave the problem of mind and prepare a quiche for dinner. Being a philosophy student, it logically follows that his refrigerator is empty, so we will meet up with him at Whole Foods, where he stands holding a list in front of a dazzling array of grocery products with only the simple missive ‘eggs’ to guide him. What does Kierkegaard have to say that might ease him through this dilemma? Surprisingly little, for someone who has produced many volumes of erudite prose. Existentialism tells us precious little about how to exist, but mostly takes perverse pleasure in telling us why we can’t with any degree of tranquility. What use can philosophy be in helping a hungry existentialist choose the freshest eggs for his quiche? Now he understands why his father wanted him to be something useful like a mechanic or an electrician. These people might not be able to elucidate the Euthyphro dilemma, but they know how to survive.
And yet, how do you set it aside and say it doesn’t matter? Doesn’t one need to commit to one’s philosophy? Among two millennia of eloquence there has been much talk of means-not-ends and philosopher kings, but our existentialist has found that philosophy is rather awkward anywhere but on paper or in minds. If all of philosophy is simply a series of parlor tricks for the woefully clever, why do we pretend it matters? Because pragmatism is a cop-out, he decides. He must find a way to make the elegant treatises he admires mean something in the world. But he is slightly afraid to even try to fuse Kierkegaard or Camus with egg selection; he uneasily remembers a prior shopping trip during his ethics seminar, when he was unable to decide between the organic and the conventional eggs, the one being more economical and the other more environmentally sound. He tried to apply the Categorical Imperative to this situation, uncertain of the potential ramifications of minimum-wage egg factory employees losing their jobs if no one bought conventional eggs. He tried to imagine a world where people only bought organic food, but he got confused somewhere along the way and ended up imagining himself as a giant talking chicken, which really freaked him out, and he decided that ethics had never been his strong suit. But he instinctively feels that animals should be treated respectfully if we’re going to use their flesh and byproducts to sustain us, and that’s enough for him.
If only all his cognitions were so effortless. He lacks instincts about the strangest things…sometimes he is like a kitten whose whiskers have been cut, leaving him bumping into mental walls that most people would avoid without thought. Now, for instance, people around him are plucking eggs unproblematically from the shelves, but there are at least a hundred individual cartons our existentialist could choose from. And if he opens himself to the possibility of a different supper entirely…the world is ablur with a riot of meat and vegetables vying for his attention. Suddenly his awareness of his own freedom is crushing, emetic. This phenomenon is so terrifying it has spawned its own pervasive form of angst, the kind associated with people exactly like him (at least three-quarters of whom also wear glasses with chunky black frames, irrespective of whether they need them). And still he has not chosen a carton of eggs. Maybe he should just skip the eggs altogether, and sup on milk from the carton and flour from the bag. Maybe he should just starve to death because he is too neurotic to live.
Dasein, Dasein, he chants internally to calm himself. Be cool. Be Dasein. His private mantra, which brings him peace. Actually, he is not quite sure what Dasein consists in, because it’s one of those multifarious German words that doesn’t translate well, but he remains careful to say ‘consists in’ rather than ‘consists of’, because this, along with the glasses, makes him seem like a real philosopher or at least a grad student.
Dasein. Why must he analyze everything to the bone? He wants so much to just be, to exist without introspection, to live the mindless, mercurial moment-to-moment life of the unexamined soul.
Perhaps he will buy some refreshing green tea to soothe his nerves. On the back of the box, he notices a Chinese proverb: ‘Give thanks to the pot, for it gives up its emptiness for the tea.’ Would but he could! In Eastern philosophy, emptiness is sacred. To achieve Nirvana is to extinguish, to lose the self forever. Yet how many of us can identify with that? In the Western world, emptiness is a dark void that fills us with unspeakable terror, which we try to fill with food and shoes and wireless technology commodities, and cling close to other people for comfort. Afraid that he is going to cry, and not wishing to do so in public, the existentialist hastily sets down the tea box and fumbles toward the dairy cooler. Steeling himself, he forces his eyes shut and gropes blindly until milk, eggs, cheese, and flour find their way into his cart. And then he stops at the bakery for some scones, because one can’t be in a black existential quagmire for every second of every day.
And now comes a little relief for our tragic hero, because it’s time to check out and he plays this game well. He carefully installs himself the checkout lane beside that of a lovely flaxen-haired young doe, so that when the lane closes, as he could see was imminent, he appears to be thrust into her presence by mere happenstance. Her gaze is calm and unperturbed as she scans the eggs, the milk, the flour…she knows nothing of the machinations that swirl around her innocent splendor. Bend a little lower over that bag of scones, dulcet minx…our existentialist has deliberately failed to label the bag with the corresponding bakery item code. As she rings up his purchase, the existentialist allows his eyes to make smoldering contact before flickering casually away to the magazine rack—but no, his eyes have landed on ‘Home and Garden’. Now she will either assume he is gay or realize that his indifference is a façade. He manages to save the situation by grabbing a candy bar off a lower rack and pretending it was the attentional object all along. The candy bar has walnuts in it, which he hates, but the sweet sisters fate have made it right in the end, because the checkout girl’s hand brushes his as she takes the candy bar to scan it. An electric thrill runs through his being as the tips of their fingers meet, and the girl’s eyes flash momentarily up to his. He withdraws his hand quickly, the first of the two to retreat from contact, and utters a cool, polite “Thank you,” just suggestive enough that she must later wonder if the tacit compliment was only in her imagination. Overcome as he reaches the door, our existentialist closes his eyes and loses himself to the aesthetic until people begin to look at him askance. He hastens out of the store, secretly smiling that this encounter has played out to perfection, and will sustain him for years to come.
Yet a scant hour later the bloom has faded from the rose. The world is open to him, chains of latent potentials leading to presidencies, riches, Nobel prizes…and yet he is eating a rather unsuccessful quiche alone in his apartment, and he does not delude himself into believing this will change, regardless of whether it can. He finds himself bitterly wishing he had sneered at the checkout girl, maybe made her self-conscious about her lowly position in society and slightly frizzy hair, which come to think of it looked like she dyed it anyway. He turns to the candy bar for solace, then remembers the walnuts…in addition to finding their taste unpleasant, they make his mouth itch. Sometimes, hypochondriacally, he wonders whether if he ate enough of them he would stop breathing. He toys with the idea in his darker moments. But for now, he merely stuffs some congealing quiche into his mouth and mutters aloud his ubiquitous though slightly borrowed catchphrase for all of life’s failures, its cautionary gloom for all successes. “It doesn’t matter”, he tells himself, but he is not quite sure he believes it.
This might be unbearably sad, but we owe it to our existentialist to return to him twenty years later, to see him through to the end. Imagine him a little grayer but similarly attired, slouching into the Chestnut Tree Café, his habitual haunt at the outskirts of the university where he now resides as an eccentric faculty member whom the students quietly try to avoid.
“Afternoon, Winston,” he murmurs to a hunched figure in the corner as he enters.
Taking his traditional seat, alone and mostly obscured from sight by a large potted plant, he sits quietly and broods in his search. Outside, idealistic liberal-arts majors chant for freedom in some impoverished country that everyone secretly wishes would just go away altogether. The students, and ones like them in bygones eras, have fought so hard for freedom, for the right to publicly declaim and disseminate their mindless mantra, and now they want to inflict the same liberty on others. Don’t they know that men are happier as causal prisoners?
The students chant relentlessly on. Freedom, freedom, freedom! Our existentialist looks on with a tolerant, sickly smile. The silly students chase it like well-fed housecats enamored with a bright bird. On the off chance a claw catches in the feathers and brings the quarry down, they will be awed and frozen. When you have your freedom, what do you do with it? This is not part of the game. They will drop it and poke it gently with a puzzled paw, hoping it will fly away and the world will be right again. When the bird does not move, they will look guiltily around, hoping no one has witnessed them strike down teleology, then turn and slink away unsettled.
A waitress comes and asks our existentialist what she can bring him. Oh, cruel Pandora, you couldn’t just have brought him a black coffee? How can you expect an existentialist to choose a dessert? The choice paralysis is astounding. In selecting the apple tart he may allow an orchard-keeper’s daughter to attend college and in turn discover a cure for a disease that would have decimated the population…but perhaps this posited girl has darker ambitions, perhaps she will rise to political power and enact a regime that makes Red China look like Walden Two. Perhaps the orchard-keeper has no daughter, and apples are all grown in some kind of sterile facility these days. Maybe one pie bought or sold makes no difference to anyone’s future, and then what is the point of eating it, save a sorry hedon or two for his personal satiety?
He could just as easily choose the coffee cake, but maybe it will contain traces of peanuts that will send him into sudden anaphylaxis. And perhaps if this occurs a lovely and talented young EMT will intubate him just in time, and he will find love at last. But this probability is slim at best, and the existentialist finds coffee cake to be rather dry and tasteless in general. He would suffer it for true love, but the chances of this are a barest fraction, and if he orders the chocolate pudding, which varies little from day to day, he will certainly be cozily sugar-sated for the rest of the afternoon…really, these momentary pleasures are all he can count on. On the other hand, he who lives without risk dies without glory…
Faced with the swirling, taunting, overwhelming possibilities, the existentialist will inevitably avert his eyes, point to something in blind panic, and end up choosing something he hates…probably something with walnuts or licorice. Over the years he has eaten many walnuts in similar straits. Perhaps this has been his undoing, along with the nights spent with heavy books perched on his solar plexus, with the choices examined to disintegration yet willed to be spontaneous. In the wrong hands, philosophy can make one very ill. The mind becomes diseased and scoliotic, head bowed and cervical vertebrae fused to direct a lidless, staring eye to the navel.
This is the fate befallen our poor existentialist, powerless to surrender his freedom. Either he will take up yoga, find a good chiropractor, and discover the many benefits of Eastern philosophy and/or anxiolytic drugs, or he will continue to skulk in dimly lit cafes, mumbling incoherently about the will to power and occasionally scribbling something in a notebook: an unreadably scholarly treatise, or a free-verse poem that fairly sears the page with incisive yet minimalist metaphor…the kind critics will love and no one will ever read. When the waitress brings his dessert, which in a truly sadistic exercise of culinary potentials contains both licorice and walnuts, the lonely existentialist can scarcely summon the energy to lift the sugary treat to his mouth. Utterly sick of his mind, he can hardly bear to nourish it through his body.
Freedom corrupts nearly as much as power, he reflects with an erudition that makes him want to smack himself upside the head…or rather, it corrodes, because human beings are contrary by nature; the very mind that leads us to the value of ‘mere’ existence will never allow us to live it in full. While the rest of the world seeks freedom, the existentialist seeks its cure. He has come to learn, as most agile-minded persons do, that consciousness is a disease, an itis of soul. As of yet, he has found no remedy, but he awaits death with interest.
And enlightenment spreads. As a contagion, it is more virulent than even panic or boy bands; sheer stupidity is the only known vaccine, but who would choose it? I tell you this as gently and decorously as I can, aware that you, reader, are free as well. The fourth wall cannot save you…it is too late to hastily set this down and pretend you were instead reading an interesting article on giraffes in National Geographic. If you have not already, you will soon realize that the whole world is choice, that every moment is a riot of potentialities to which we must blind ourselves. When some new paper in speculative astrophysics or applied neuroscience announces a certain proof of a closed causal chain, complete materialist determinism and the death of free will, you will read it with trembling anticipation, but in the end, you will realize it says nothing a few mental gymnastics cannot refute. Syllogism only works when you accept the singular if that leads to the unconditional then. But for the existentialist, the if is always surrounded by a million more, a swarm of tiny ant-like possibilities that together reduce a tree or a life to pulp in dismayingly short order. Freedom is one of those horrorfilm villains that never dies. In the unfortunate event that you stumble across it while cutting through some graveyard at night or wading too deeply into some arcane text, you will never be rid of it. And like the last attractive young person standing at the end, the obligatory lone survivor who knows the murdering masked marauder can never truly die, you will go insane. Only if you choose to go insane, of course. But you will.
We have closed this out with dismal style, but the story isn’t over. The great philosopher lived for years in a walled asylum after setting his last cogent thoughts to paper. Any final fevered revelations were mumbled only to brisk, patronizing nurses or the flowers of a restful sanitarium garden. How much of our finest thought has been lost in the whispers of madmen?
Our existentialist has sunk into a similar entropy. Like Nietzsche, he has gone insane, but without having brought anything beautiful to the world. Indeed, he has begun to read the self-proclaimed Antichrist with a new appreciation, a rekindled willingness to look beneath the pomp and arrogance to find a man with answers instead of only questions. Someone who tells us we needn’t disown life, however badly it abuses us. Beneath his stern mustache, his unwilling asceticism, his untimely psychosis, Nietzsche was a surprisingly hopeful sort of fellow, and our existentialist often seeks comfort in his prose at night. The futile grace of eternal recurrence alone is enough to bring meaning to a shattered world.
Send me your demon, Nietzsche! our existentialist prays in the dark, let me live every torturous moment of this finite world again. European to the core, he could not bear to extinguish in Nirvana. Should the blessed demon come and tell him his life will play out a billion billion times again without recollection, without a chance to learn from his mistakes, the existentialist will fall to his knees and cry thank you, thank you, divine creature. This is the beautiful taste in the bitterness, the redemption of the antihero. Life is unmeaning, which leaves us free to form it into anything we want…it exculpates us if we are not quite as successful as we had hoped, and humbles us if we are.
After all these years the existentialist still doesn’t quite know what existentialism consists in, but he suspects he is closer to its center than he has ever been. We are bound by our circumstances and gagged by our genetics, and only our poor understanding of probability allows us to think we are special. And yet beneath this we are free, even to keep our eyes open or closed as the guillotine falls. Nothing you haven’t said more beautifully, Sartre, nothing. The existentialist calls this aloud, although he has long ago realized the uselessness of passing ideas to others when all they do is make them their own. He will only ever stand in the shadows of great men, but this revelation belongs entirely to him, and again he cries aloud for the whole café or world to hear: I will take the suffering, I will take the angst. I will take the sleepless nights, the impenetrable prose, the walnuts in my cake. I am here and I am alive. I have been created, and that is enough.