“Man is the sole creature who refuses to be what he is.”
– Albert Camus, The Rebel
Lately my mind has been wandering… squirming like a fish out of water that slowly grows more rigid and numb. I am trying to locate my stream of consciousness, but where did I leave it? Then I remember, and, collecting my thoughts, find myself once more immersed in a rivulet of thought. Before I got my job, my mind was a beam of light refracting off shards of glass. At the speed of light there is a certain clarity to one’s thoughts. Like rays of light dancing on a window-sill, thoughts intermingle, merge and evolve with an effortless glow. Whatever their fate, their source remains constant, precise. And wherever aimed, the light retains its power to sever the darkness.
As of late, though, my mind is like a fish. It moves – for it refuses to stop – but feels heavy and shiftless. Like a fish swimming on pure instinct, it goes but does not know where it is going. My thoughts drift, float, sputter but their source is not clear, nor their purpose. But they continue, moving in and out, like the passage of breath in the lungs or blood in the heart. Because one has to think; there is no more choice in this than the will to live itself. To think is to choose to live. But how one chooses to live is another question altogether. So we are left with a question: how do you choose to live; that is, how do you choose to think?
It is not an easy question. In some ways, it is an uncomfortable question. Our consciousness – our awareness of our thoughts, our being – reminds us of our contingent nature. We may choose the direction of our thoughts and actions, but, to an alarming degree, we do not control the paths that we travel. The paths which we consider, the paths which we refuse, are paths all the same: they are traveled, arrived at, measured – seldom constructed. For the most part, one cannot see what lies ahead; most of these paths are ones we did not make. But our thoughts weave through them all the same – or perhaps, swim down them. Because, again, there is little choice in this besides the one choice that covers all: the will to live.
And if all thoughts are contingent, requiring a point of reference, a motive, they may be thought of as trail-markers, crumbs strewn along a dusty path. So where have my thoughts been wandering? Where am I going?
It seems to me that people love to think but seldom think about the things that matter most. Love, life, death, hope, these are all subjects that most people agree are “important,” but in practice are ones which are usually avoided at all cost. To a significant degree, learning, and most every other form of action, is a defense mechanism. People think to forget. They become so preoccupied with one subject or pursuit – work, money, sex, etc. – that they have very little time to think of anything else. And this is intentional.
In Sartre’s novel Nausea, the protagonist Antoine watches other people in a café and realizes that “It’s a farce!” Everyone is distracted – in a newspaper, meal, or the eyes of their lover – for the sake of being distracted. They do not want to come to terms with the fact of their existence, so they put on a charade, denying it by avoiding it, even while living out this undeniable truth. Or as Antoine writes in his journal, “They each have their little, personal impediment that prevents them from perceiving that they exist”.
Sartre penned this scene to suggest that in order to cope with the debilitating tension that arises from living in a world without transcendent meaning, people choose to deny their existence altogether. They refuse to face the truth that life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. In effect, they spend their lives trying to dissociate themselves from reality, numbing themselves to their mortality and the futility that embraces them. The absurdity of this course is evoked by Antoine when he writes in his journal that “Mr. Rollebon,” a figure in a book he is writing, “is my friend: he needs me in order to be, and I need him in order to not sense my being.”
Sartre is almost certainly right in claiming that humanity in general tries to circumvent the fact of their existence. The problem, however, is not that they inoculate themselves to its absurdity, but, rather, that they refuse to consider the significance of their actions, their thoughts; the fact of their being. Contrary to the findings of Sartre, the denial of existence is carried out not because existence lacks intrinsic value, but because the significance of existence is so great that its denial seems preferable to its recognition.
This denial, carried to its logical extreme, makes for a life in which each activity is carried out as part of an ongoing process of negation. In order to dull the chaos, the tension of life – and deny its significance – opiates are sought out. The human existent’s engagement with the world comes to be mediated by a series of screens and defense mechanisms.
Today the scenario looks something like this: A single male adult works hard not just to pay his bills but also to wear-out his mind, to keep it from entertaining probing questions. When his mind wanders, when he is alone, such an eventuality becomes more likely and dangerous. To counter this tendency, he drafts an elaborate set of contingency plans for such eventualities. He drinks until he cannot feel or drowns his thoughts with the television, by seeking out large crowds, or finding other white noise to fill his idle hours. With ear-buds, blue-tooth or cell-phone installed next to his brain, he forges his own world. It is he who selects the soundtrack to his life, he who chooses what he sees or hears, and he who decides what parameters of discussion are to be set. He is always clean but never comfortable; his comments are correct but always guarded; his smile is wide but plastic. And the books he reads – when he reads – are sometimes intelligent, but usually part of an accepted canon, selection, or bestseller list.
When the actions, choices and allegiances of these people are weighed, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that their lives amount to a battle of attrition against life itself. Who will be the first to surrender, to give up the charade – the human existent or the reality which they deny? For them, life is not a positive process of creation, but, rather a perpetual reaction against that which is; that which must be denied. It is an ongoing process of negation.
Current conceptions of love and sexuality attest to the holding power of this nihilism. Love, for example, is often spoken of as a reaction, rather than a positive force in its own right, one that transcends the limitations of individual pride, preferences and convenience. Instead, love is described in fanciful terms which have no verisimilitude to the world in which love is supposed to take place. Red roses, passionate embraces and eternal spring are worn-out tropes which most people are quick to dismiss. But, in practice, few people have an operative understanding of love that goes beyond these fictive boundaries.
The result is predictable. People seek out an Other, a person through whom they can dissolve their insecurities, and upon whom they project their hopes and dreams. Bound in the tension of existence, living out a series of reactions against this very fact, they seek the solution to their woes in a symbol: the Other. Lovers, the ultimate Other, embody the solution: they are strength where there is weakness; warmth where there is cold; affection where there is pain; succor where there is suffering. In the eyes of their companion, they are minor gods: all that they need is in their arms; all knowledge and hope can be found in their eyes. They embody a positive value only insofar as it is the solution to their lovers’ woes; the negation of their problems. Simone de Beauvoir described this process best, writing in The Second Sex that, “In woman is incarnated in positive form the lack that the existent carries in his heart, and it is in seeking to be made whole through her that man hopes to attain self-realization.”
But all castles of sand fall into the sea eventually. The Other inevitably fails to live up to the impossible, fictive standard to which he or she is measured, leading to confusion, anger and eventually separation. Simone de Beauvoir thus writes that: “as the Other, she is other than herself, other than what is expected of her. Being all, she is never quite this which she should be; she is everlasting deception, the very deception of that existence which is never successfully attained nor fully reconciled with the totality of existents” (original italics). And “here lies the reason why woman incarnates no stable concept; through her is made unceasingly the passage from hope to frustration, from hate to love, from good to evil, from evil to good. Under whatever aspect we may consider her, it is this ambivalence that strikes us first.”
One might suggest that it is precisely this “ambivalence” that makes common conceptions of love so vapid, fanciful or contradictory. Having entered a set of intimate relations as a response to the terror of existence, the lovers consequently find themselves reacting to the failure of their reactionary expectations – the failure of a reactionary, yet ever-persistent worldview.
True love, however, is not merely reactive since it is not a means of hiding from the world, but rather, a means of engaging it. Love embodies radical, positive action, compelling its practitioners to move beyond the confines of their prejudices, narcissism and short-sighted desires. To love is to practice compassion towards the needy, the vulnerable, and the despised through practical action: through friendship, the giving of aid, and expenditure of time for the benefit of real people. Above all, love is a verb that denotes transcendental action: to transcend hate by choosing to love one’s enemies; to transcend apathy and fear by living alongside those who dwell within one's sphere of existence. The practitioner of love does this not because love is the solution to their problems, but because love is the reason – the solution – to the manmade problem of existence. If humanity cursed itself by denying the parameters of its existence, then only love can salvage humanity by empowering people to transcend the parameters within which they have imprisoned themselves.
In terms of its romantic expression, love is not a fleeting feeling or a glorified form of mutual exploitation, as most people imply. Mature romantic love cannot develop in relationships where each lover sees the Other as the solution to their extraneous problems. Instead, their relationship to the Other teaches them how to further transcend themselves by looking out for the good of, yes, others. Love then is not an easy “solution” to any problem. To the contrary, it inevitably engenders its own problems and challenges. However, it is the only means by which humans ever really transcend themselves and find real meaning; and through this peace.
There are a few practical implications for romantic love which should be noted. Firstly, any two lovers should be stable human-beings, that is, not regard each other a solution to their problems. For people to say that intercourse is “making love” or the “consummation” of love is, besides hokey, very misleading. It would make much more sense to say that the resolution of a serious conflict – in which lovers have to transcend their narcissism – is the “consummation” of love. De Beauvoir states this beautifully when she writes that, “the curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength – each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving.”
Secondly, a healthy romantic relationship can only take place between equals, otherwise the relationship inevitably digresses to that between master and slave. Every relationship implies a power-relation. Naturally if the power-relation is tilted towards one side then reciprocal relations, the most enduring and meaningful form of relations, are impossible. And lastly, romantic love should be rooted in a deep, general love for others that is practically expressed in the everyday. There is nothing more annoying, and few things as venomous, as a clingy couple. Love for a partner should be informed by, and inspire, a love for people in general – not only the Other.
But one will say that this is foolish. After all, how can someone love a distant neighbor or perfect stranger? Is this expectation any more practical than talk of red roses or moonlit walks on white sand beaches? This is a wrong-minded question. Unless one transcends themselves through a love for their community and neighbors – even their enemies – their love for their partner will be partial and ill-developed at best. Can a “love” which only loves those who are close or who love them in return be said to be a transcendent love? Can is really be said to be love at all?
I suppose most readers will be grinning and shaking their head at this point. If there is one thing that makes people human, it is to be set in one’s beliefs. Yet I know that to err is human too, and so will not be too surprised if I should learn that I have once again missed the mark.
At the beginning of his book The Rebel, Albert Camus writes that “Man is the sole creature who refuses to be what he is.” Camus goes on to outline how humankind has rebelled against its mortal condition for the past 150 years. The results were disastrous: revolution, hatred, fear and two world wars. Today, humanity finds itself in much the same place, as war continues to stain the earth red with blood, the poor continue to be oppressed, and fear – of emptiness, of the unknown, of death – continues to gnaw at the heart of man.
It is time, as it has long been, for people to acknowledge the fear that holds their souls captive, to stop denying the self-evident fact of their existence. To do so, humanity must accept that just as God is God, humanity is indeed human. And the only force that can transcend these fears, these doubts, is love.