Tag Archives: Sartre

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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Do No Harm

[W]hy not take the view that the fundamental rule is that of evil, and that any happy event throws itself into question? Is it not true optimism to consider the world a fundamentally negative event, with many happy exceptions? By contrast, does not true pessimism consist in viewing the world as fundamentally good, leaving the slightest accident, to make us despair of that vision? (Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories III, 1997, p. 138)

After last week’s mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s hard to discount Baudrillard’s emphasis on the presence of evil throughout the world. Baudrillard might sound like a wounded Romantic, but there’s no denying we spend a great deal of our lives either in the midst of tragedy or recovering from it.

The pain and suffering caused by the gunman, twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof, reminds me of another French philosopher. Jean-Paul Sartre, a firm believer in the free will of the individual, wrote that when a person makes a choice he chooses for himself, but he also chooses for mankind. My choices affect other people and their choices. This is Sartre’s ethics, his caution against acting always in one’s self-interest.

Roof acted alone, but we are complicit as a nation, with our tolerance for hatred and history of institutional racism. Still, the nine lives he took are his burden now. Evil speaks to some more than others, but it touches us all. It’s a crime that Roof ignored a very important lesson: “If you can’t help others, at least do no harm.”

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Filed under Culture, Philosophy, Politics

Destined To Be Free

“We do not know what we want, and yet we are responsible for what we are.” –Sartre

“Freedom of choice
Is what you’ve got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want”
—Devo

A brief sketch of Sartre’s basic assumptions regarding human reality, as found in Ashley Woodward’s Nihilism in Postmodernity (Aurora: The Davies Group, 2009):

We are each of us lack. The fact that we desire proves that human reality is lack.

We create existential projects in an attempt to overcome this lack.

We want security and freedom. We want to be free to make choices, but we also want to be a secure foundation for those choices.

“God is a self-consciousness and the necessary foundation of himself.” We, however, did not create our being.

Man is that being whose project is to be God. Man fundamentally is the desire to be God.

But the desire to be God is futile; it cannot be realized.

Thus all of our projects are futile: “It amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.”

A possible path to overcoming nihilism: Sartre’s outline of “existential psychoanalysis.”

Human beings are motivated by the desire to be God when they are in unreflective or impure reflective states of consciousness.

At some point, in an unreflective or impure reflective state, we each make a choice regarding our specific project—but this choice is essentially the desire to be God and is thus futile.

We must create our own values, and freedom is the criterion that guides the creation of values. There is no God. There is no human nature. There is you choosing your life for yourself on your own terms.

Nihilism must be confronted in the personal life of the individual.

To be free, to be authentic, is to act, not simply think. Freedom is freedom only when it is exercised.

***

What interests me here is Sartre’s concept of the specific project. What is my specific project? As a child I wanted to be like my father, a high school English teacher. But I can’t handle the thought of teaching high school, mostly due to my severe depression and anxiety. My father was depressed. Did he teach me to be depressed? Was I bound to inherit my illness and thus not as free as Sartre imagines?

If I set out to be a teacher and then got sick, does this mean that my depression prevailed over the pursuit of my specific project? Can I create a new project? Is my life somehow doubly futile because I feel incapable of fulfilling my original futile project?

Is my project simply thinking about my project, the role of human suffering, the indifference of the universe, the fullness of my Lack? Am I not destined to write, to wonder, to philosophize?

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If Sartre Married A Kardashian

Way back in the twentieth century Sartre famously declared: “Existence precedes essence.” You exist first, Sartre said, then you build a life. You are nothing more—or less—than the choices you make. As a condemned-to-be-free consumer in the Digital Age, I’ve discovered new ways of applying Sartre’s catchphrase.

Facebook precedes friendship

I’m not friends with someone unless we’re on the same page: Facebook. Before Mark Zuckerberg stole from those dopey twins and set the social media world on fire, people connected on a personal level. Facebook eliminates the need for genuine communication. And yet we’re socializing more than ever. Without accepting my friend request you’re just another stranger. Even if we’re twins.

Google precedes memory

Don’t know what I mean? Here let me Google that for you. Eons ago when elders passed down stories via word of mouth, memory played a vital role. Today our myths assume database form, milliseconds from our fingertips. It’s a far cry from oral history. But if you’re at work don’t Google anything with “oral” in it.

Twitter precedes mourning

People used to die in peace, away from cameras and smartphones—and smartphone cameras. Die today as a celebrity and the world will tweet its condolences. There are no private ceremonies anymore. Everyone’s an eloquent eulogist exalting your character in one-hundred-and-forty characters or less.

Instagram precedes eating

Enjoy your chicken enchiladas after capturing the essence of the dish in a shot creatively captioned: “Best lunch ever!”

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