Category Archives: Existentialism

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

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Dealing with Reality

Human race is addicted to illusions. I guess, at a very early stage of the evolution of human society, it became clear to man that what they termed as reality was too painful to accept as it was. Therefore, man created a pseudo ‘reality’ in the name of god, eternity, afterlife, heaven, hell and what not – this was man’s survival instincts at its creative best. When society needed order, man created god as an eternal punisher; when time became his existential limit, eternity of the soul was discovered. And probably boredom combined the two and created mythologies.

Despite all the attempts, none of this could prevent glimpses of reality in human society. Even the blind-by-choice could catch these glimpses, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually it became clear that belief in Krishna or Jesus could be desirable but disbelief in Hitler and the two world wars, however desirable, was difficult to attain. Illusions are impermanent shield and there remains no choice but to deal with reality.

The search for ‘truth’, a poetic synonym of reality, has apparently been on since the Greek ages. However, the most relevant of such inquiries have only taken place in the last couple of centuries[1]. It started when man finally decided to question his abilities and acknowledge his limitations. The first undeniable truth that came to be known by this process was that even if there is an absolute truth (or reality), man can never know it. Man is only capable of knowing what is within the limits of his five senses. Beyond that, all knowledge at best are calculated guesses. It took over three centuries and an Einstein to figure out that Newton was wrong. It was only after his theory of relativity that the idea that time need not always be a constant was brought from the realm of science fiction to a scientific theory. As absurd as it may sound, there is a very thin line of distinction between fact and fiction – the line of human capacity to see.

Therefore, in order to ensure that we live our lives true to our reality, it is necessary first to acknowledge that our reality itself is limited. Man must accept man as man – with all his failings, with all his limitations. Any attempt to surpass the limitations of the reality knowable to us is an attempt to deny the limitations of human existence. A warning for the romantics – do not misread deny as defy. Living in denial is shameful, living in defiance of reality is quixotically impossible.

It is this limited and undeniable reality of human life that Sartre[2] calls ‘human condition’. Like all existentialists, Sartre paints a dismal picture of human condition[3]. But then, is not most reality dismal? Which is more real – the happy picture of Jesus turning water to wine or Hitler turning Jews to ashes, methodically?

Franz Kafka wrote that man lives like man but dies like a dog. Sartre said that man is a useless passion. Camus said that man is condemned to a Sisyphean pointless labour. Are you shouting, “Stop it! Do you have a point?” Well, this precisely is my point. Time and again the reality of man’s futility hits him in the face. All the illusions that he has comfortably wrapped himself in, can not protect but only suffocate him in the face of reality. His situation is like someone who has sewn himself in a permanent warm overcoat in winter completely negating the fact that summer inevitably shall follow. And once summer arrives – then what? Two choices – suffocate in the coat until death or tear it open.

One may ask why paint such a dismal picture of human limitations and tragedies? Isn’t it life negating? If calling apple an apple is negating apple, then it is. Otherwise, it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality that is. And why is it necessary? Because a man living in denial of his disease always fails to take medication. A gory picture of human condition is precisely what the doctor prescribed for the human race – a race wrapped in illusions. How does this prescription help? By eliminating unfounded fears, liberating man to uninhibited and innumerable choices that had been kept away from him in the fake promise of the possibility of attaining heroic ends.

If we acknowledge human condition as it is, with all the disturbing details, what then? It is only on the acknowledgement and consciousness of the true human condition that we can truly venture into attainment of any value. When Camus talks of being aware of the absurd[4], in simple terms, he asks man to accept all the givens and not struggle into despair trying to change it. It is only when we identify the given can we concentrate our efforts on constructing the rest of our ‘conditions’ by choice. Unfortunately, most of our efforts are wasted in defying the given. A very crude example could be the time, energy, and money spent in the name of religion and prediction of the future (astrology, numerology, etc.) when every man knows within, the futility of it.

It has been said repeatedly and with an irritating conviction that desire is the root of all human miseries. I beg to differ. Desire is a given human condition and any theory that labels it as evil labels our very being as evil. And because it is not possible to change this given, it leads to false frustrations and miseries. Result – in the attempt of killing all desires, we now have added frustrations and miseries of failure alongwith the desires which, obviously, cannot be eliminated.

To see one’s life beyond the futility of daily chores – beyond aspirations, beyond achievements, beyond ‘success’ – that should be the purpose of any human inquiry. For, what are success, achievement, and aspiration beyond life? We trouble ourselves to no end in an attempt to define us, to find a purpose. We fail to see the obvious – that our existence comes predefined; the definition being ‘life’. However, our purpose on the other hand is not pre-destined. We need to realize that our purpose exists not in a pre-defined fate but only retrospectively authored by us by our choices, our actions. For, as Camus says, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Consciousness and rejection of the comfort of illusions are the only tools one needs to acquire the ability to scorn fate. The choice is simple and clear – either we deal with our reality or die within the life of illusions. As Albert Camus says:

If it (human mind) must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid – polar light, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.


[1] This article is based on my personal understanding of what is commonly known as existentialism. I owe the development of these thoughts to the ideas I have read amongst the works of Albert Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, and others. Without justification to the theory, I can best explain existentialism as a philosophy which asserts that man exists first, without any meaning. He dies without any purpose. The realm of man is only that small part between his being and nothingness. Man is free to fill that void entirely at his discretion with complete freedom; whether he recognizes that freedom or not. Existentialism rejects all moral foundations and philosophies built on presumptions of tradition or after-life.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre was a 20th century philosopher, most notably known as the chief exponent of the philosophy of existentialism. His epic work, where he expounds his philosophy in great detail is Being and Nothingness. One of his most popular work of fiction is Nausea

[3] However, it may be noted that Sartre’s philosophy itself is not gloomy. Like Camus and many other ‘existentialists’, Sartre believes that man is the author of himself. In his work Nausea he shoes that glimpse of possible human victory at the conclusion, despite the entire book being set in a tone of despair and anguish.

[4] ‘Absurd’ is central to Camus’s philosophy. What Camus calls absurd is the existence of two irreconcilable eternal truths – the randomness and unreasonable world on one hand and the insatiable desire for order, logic, and happiness in man on the other hand. Camus discusses this in his work The Myth of Sisyphus and shows how it is essential for man to maintain the absurd and not defy it.

Doubting Kierkegaard

I have been re-reading Michael Watt’s book on Kierkegaard and have been wondering whether Kierkegaard was actually close to Sartre’s and Camus’s thoughts (as far as the whole ‘existentialism’ tag goes). It has been a doubt earlier and reading him in context to his life and personality, the doubt seems to grow to confirm itself.

The question of god is irrelevant to the inquiry as to how best must one live life. In face of empirical data, I agree with Camus and Sartre that even if a ‘unifying absolute truth’ (what we may universally term as ‘God’) exists, it is unknowable and therefore irrelevant for ‘earthly life’. In face of that, how does one reconcile the ‘leap of faith’ of Kierkegaard as an existential solution?

It is a common interpretation that Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is a solution offered by him to solve the empirical deadlocks that man generally hits. I consider such interpretations fallacious and biased. In my opinion, leap of faith was never a solution offered by Kierkegaard but a presumption with which he approached life and philosophy in general. It is true that most empirical data that came to be recognized as existential truths later on, had been acknowledged in some form or the other by Kierkegaard. But, it is not true to say that Kierkegaard solved these ‘existential truths’ with the leap of faith. He only stuck to his faith despite acknowledging existential truths.

Time and again Kierkegaard has expressed that his authorship was primarily ‘religious’ and his inquiry was ‘being Christian’. It is very obvious and apparent in his various writings that faith came to Kierkegaard before he embarked on any kind of inquiry whatsoever. Unlike Camus’s inquiry, Kierkegaard started with a presumption and arranged all empirical data collected by him around that presumption. Despite all his attempts, this arrangement could not lead to any logical pattern despite his brilliant penmanship. And therefore, faith took a leap.

A Useless Passion, Condemned to be Free – Sartre’s Definition of Man

Jean Paul Sartre has said a lot. So much so that I do not know if I will ever be able to read him enough. However, in bits and piees every now and then, his words have enough power to attract you, defying gravity. Under those laws of attraction, there are two sentenes of his whih have stuck to me and I have had a tough time figuring out their meaning for myself. This post is an attempt to share those two of his most qouted statements and my perception of them.

The first one is “Man is condemned to be free“. Reading without context, these words are open to a thousand interpretations. I have never read it in the exat ontext as Sartre used it. However, in light of Sartre’s philosophy in general, I have come to understand it as this – It is human nature that man desires transcendence. Transendence, even if not rejected as a fiction, is not an achievable goal in this form of human existene. That’s why he is condemned to immanence. However, within immanent reality (meaning to remain within the boundaries of possible experience), man has endless possibilities, unlimited choices – complete freedom. Combining the two – Man is condemned to be free.

The second one is “Man is a useless passion“. This is a phrase that Sartre uses in a very difficult passage in Being and Nothingness (which I have not yet been able to read completely). This also emanates from man’s passion with transcendental goals and the impossibility of the fulfillment of that passion. To conclude, in Sartre’s own words:

It is as if the world, man, and man-in-the-world express an abortive attempt to become God. It is as if the in-itself and the for-itself reveal themselves in a state of disintegration with respect to an ideal synthesis. Not that the integration has ever taken place, but precisely on the contrary because it is permanently suggested and permanently impossible. … the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain: man is a useless passion.

The Myth of Absurdity – In Defence of Albert Camus

At the risk of sounding repetitive and hero-worshiping, this post is in response to the discussion on Camus and his primary work The Myth of Sisyphus (used as “The Myth” from here on) in my previous post. It serves two purposes – firstly, a self-centric purpose of making me understand better what I have already come to believe of Camus’s theory and secondly, if possible, to explain Camus in a positive light. For, it has been my experience that this understanding can let one see life in a very different way. And in my experience – in a very real and positive way.

‘Absurd’ is a theme running through most of the thinkers who have been branded as ‘existentialists’. Now, it is well known that the tag of an existentialist has been a bit controversial and many thinker in their lifetime had not liked it, as I had touched upon in a previous post. The one man who was most comfortable with the tag and made the use of this term with great passion was Sartre. However, it does not sound sensible to therefore exclude any thinker from the categorization if he differs in certain methods and conclusions from Sartre. In any case, these are matters of definition and as Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name, would smell as sweet.

What we are essentially concerned here with is Camus’s thoughts. What Kierkegaard may have considered absurd is definitely different from what Camus defines it as in The Myth. Camus, though briefly, discusses Kierkegaard and rejects his leap of faith. I say he rejects ‘leap’ and not ‘faith’ in itself. Faith is a collateral damage, rejected purely because it makes one leap. In the absolute, whether Camus successfully rejects Kierkegaard’s leap or not is a question that can only be mooted. But it is clear from the very beginning that the path with Camus treads has rejected all leaps, whether it be faith or ‘the absolute reason’. The very purpose of The Myth is to inquire whether man can cross the path that is ‘life’ without any leap whatsoever. I say he answers in the positive – emphatically and convincingly. Before analyzing the various leaps that thinkers have chosen time and again, Camus writes:

Now, to limit myself to existential philosophies, I see that all of them without exception suggest escape. Through an odd reasoning starting out from the absurd over the ruins of reason, in a closed universe limited to the human, they deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them. It deserves attention.

It has been argued that the ‘presumption’ by Camus that this world is random and without order is his “leap of faith”. It has been argued that it is not an empirical truth. I say it is, if we go by our experiences. However, if we go by experimental proof, there is none. By nature, it cannot be experimented upon. Do I deny the possibility that the world might have a meaning? No. Like a missing chapter from a very logical text can make it nonsensical, this world might be so. However, empirically, i.e. whatever I know of my experiences, I do not require a leap to conclude that the world lacks any unifying principles and at best is random.

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” This passage has been quoted to suggest that Camus considers passion as opposed to reality. This is what he writes just before the quoted passage – “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much trough his passions as through his torture.” Therefore, Camus suggests on the contrary that passion is worth any torture – even the possibility of an after-life underworld, hell, or whatever – passion is worth it. There is no suggestion that passion is opposed to reality. On the contrary, a sum total of Camus’s theory has made me conclude that passion is the only value available to man. Even Sartre’s Nausea has confirmed this for me. There is no guilt in the philosophy of either of them, maintaining it is not an option.

There is objection to the ‘dropping of God’ on the assertion that the idea is so deep rooted that in any analysis, we can not ‘just drop it’. I agree but differ that Camus has ‘just dropped it’. He has mostly chosen to stay away from the debate. In the analysis in The Myth he drops it for the simple reason that The Myth is an inquiry based entirely on experiences and possibilities of life within the limits of those experiences; and in that light there is no choice but to drop it. I understand Camus’s position on God as this – I have not experienced it. I do not deny the possibility. In all probability, my choices in this lifetime will not depend on which way the answer goes. Therefore, I chose to live life without seeking to answer that question in black or white.

The randomness of the world is painful and torturous has never been Camus’s conclusion. He asserts that it is human nature to unceasingly desire a unifying principle and order in his setting. That is unavailable. This interaction of the two contradictions is painful only in the absence of its consciousness. “The random nature of the world and universe as best we can describe it or measure it also gives it its perceived smoothness, like the strands of sand that fall in a random nature and appear smooth in our hands”, by the very consciousness of the absurd. Man is in constant wonderment of life, in the consciousness of the absurd and in his passion for life itself. The one contradiction that threatened to change that wonderment into futility, Camus solves it by the seemingly paradoxical theory of the absurd.

Albert Camus – The Absurd Hero

I have found Camus’s philosophy to be the most easy to live with, without trying to escape anything. It also allows me ‘intellectual honesty’ in Dostoevskian terms. Anyone who allows himself the luxury to think about the basic questions of life, comes to a point where he asks himself – “What the hell am I doing in life? What is the meaning of all this and what is my purpose? I am a XYZ, is that what I should be? Maybe I am meant to be a writer? Or maybe a philosopher, professor, blah, blah…” I have, like many, faced a similar crisis at one point in my life and (probably) salvaged myself from it. It took some time and the understanding of existentialism to recover from that crisis. And Albert Camus happened to be one of the most important of all authors that I read. His The Myth of Sisyphus gave me the essential understanding to view this world as it is and let go all inhibitions, speculation, and illusions.

In the last one year, I have read too often that Camus was a good author but not much of a philosopher. I have also at times read the comparison where more people agree than differ that Sartre was a better philosopher than Camus. I do not intend to counter that as I think it is naive and irrelevant to compare thinkers like this. All a thinker deserves is a little contemplation from our side on ideas propounded by them. I write this post, therefore, to charter out as an introduction, my understanding of Camus’s thoughts which I have found to be a rare clan as it requires no leaps to understand.

Camus is known as the propounder of the theory of absurd. Absurdism is a often repeated theme in existentialism, however, Camus’s proposition is distinct from all of them. In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus undertakes an inquiry into whether this life is worth the trouble if we accept our experiences as the limit of reality for our purposes. He says that man knows two things as certain – first, the fact that man desires order, logic, and happiness; second, the fact that this world is random, illogical, and indifferent. This constant tension or divorce between the actor (man) and his setting (the world) is the absurd. What is essential to know is that irrationality of the world is not the absurd. Absurdity contains man’s rationality in itself. It is precisely the constant co-existence of these two irrefutable realities that create the absurd.

Camus concludes that it is essential for man to maintain the absurd. To attain that man needs to keep intact his contribution to the absurd, i.e. his desire for rationality, order, and happiness. This is the only choice, as changing the given world, man’s setting, is quixotically impossible. Only in light of this can we understand the true import of Camus’s words the end of his famous novel, The Stranger

It was as if the great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

The indifference of this world is indeed benign for that is what makes man free. For, what freedom lies in living out a fate that is pre-determined by some unknowable force? It is a mere consciousness of our reality, of the absurd, that gives man all the understanding needed to scorn fate.

Links to some interesting discussion on Camus I entered elsewhere:

The Magic of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence-even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!‘”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

This is the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return’ as introduced by Nietzsche. Though the idea is not an innovation of Nietzsche and was probably first introduced in Greek philosophy by one of the Pythagoreans, its history is irrelevant for the purpose of this post. Also, its scientific validity or its validity as a plausible philosophy is not intended to be debated. Let’s presume for this purpose that it is only a plausible concept with no scientific validity or proof. (Like all mythology or the very concept of God, if I might say so.)

The most obvious and disturbing import of this concept is the weight that it adds to every moment of life. As most succinctly summarized by Milan Kundera in his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being – “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.

In existential terms, the idea raises the responsibility of every choice that man makes by infinity. In Sartre’s philosophy, Man is condemned to be free. In Nietzsche’s, I guess, he is condemned for eternity.

Man’s greatest limitation, in my opinion, is time. Therefore, the birth of the idea of eternity – of god, afterlife, heaven, hell, devil and what not. Our race has had a history of building its self-image in illusions. If death limits – immortality. If time limits – eternity. We have had infinite resources.

If Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is read in context, it is clear that his idea of eternal recurrence was never offered by him to be believed as a factual truth. Neither does he deny the possibility of its factual validity. He introduces it as if from thin air and dwells on it never in detail. No arguments, no explanations – not even an attempt. Probably, this is the reason why the idea has perplexed one and all for ages (I was almost tempted to say ‘eternity’).

On deliberating on it for sometime now, I have concluded that probably Nietzsche left the idea vague only to give it more strength. Paradoxical as it may sound, I am convinced that any attempt to dwell into the truism of an idea as fictitious as this would only serve as suicidal.

It is my opinion that Nietzsche, very cunningly, used eternal return as a tool to serve the rest of his system of ideas. It has been suggested, by none other that Dostoevsky, that if God was dead, everything would be permissible. There would be chaos and confusion and human society would be orderless. Probably as a solution to this, Nietzsche proposed this idea. I guess its true import should be that man must live his life as a first in a cycle of eternal recurrence so that man is compelled to be responsible and careful about every action, each moment. That the failure to act now would be a failure to be faced eternally. In one stroke of the pen, Nietzsche not only made man responsible beyond time but also turned its own illusion of eternity to weigh him down to the ground. He, probably, understood too well the unbearable lightness of being.