Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Every day a little death

This is a really interesting piece on existentialism and conservatism. It opened up a whole intellectual community that I didn't know existed, and it was the first piece on or of existentialism that gave me some sense of what that philosophy (or, as he would have it, critique of philosophy) might really be about.

The author would probably say that I just haven't thought far down enough, but I still think it's a bit of a crock. To me, this is really what the God Gene (which, of course, does not exist as a matter of science--I'm using it as a shorthand for a kind of personal predisposition or need) is all about. Either the sheer experienced fact, objectively real or not, meaningful or not, of one's existence is enough, or it is not. For existentialists (at least of this stripe), it is not; the screaming abyss of unmeaning is pain and chaos, and the starting point for either a way out or a way to live with it. From the essay:

Am I living in personal despair? No. No, I'm not. Things are pretty great, actually. That's the other reason. For all my clever criticisms of Karras, and Dreher, and the pomocons, I don't live my despair the way pure intellect perhaps insists I should. That's the laurel that my pragmatic approach to human life has rewarded to Karras and her inconsistent, but humane, refusal to live in the mind. She will, I suppose, have this last laugh. This is also, by the way, why the intellectual love of my life will always be Simone de Beauvoir, who crafted a livable existentialism, far thorougher and more compassionate than anything approached by Sartre and Heidegger. She recognized the existential death at the heart of living life too seriously.

What The God Gene means to me is this: some people ask a kind of existential question. They may answer it with religion, with conservative tradition, with community, even with genetics (The Selfish Gene, anyone), or with existentialism, but it is fundamentally the same yearning for a meaning, an explanation. Some people may not have an explicit answer so much as a certainty.

I'm an atheist who can't stand conventional atheism. And it's for this reason: only God can rescue human life from meaninglessness, if not me, if not the ego and the I. Atheists love to say that most religious people actually think like atheists. I think most atheists think like the religious, because they have not yet begun to imagine the wasteland of meaning that the death of God has left us in. (I think of Bill Maher and his stupid sneering face, and I see a man who wields the truth the way a chimpanzee holds a gun.)

But some people don't ask. I am one of these. If there is an explanation, I'll admit to being fundamentally skeptical of it, but I will allow as to how it may well be--because if there is one, I am immovably convinced that it is far too big to see. But I am 100% fine and dandy with either not knowing what it is, or, far more likely in my opinion, simply not having one. We are born. We live. We die and then we rot. These things are simple objective truths, in my view, and they are...neutral.

I was going to say "They are enough," but that would be false. "Enough" implies a need to be filled or a standard to be met. I have no such measure. These happenings of existence can never be too little, enough, or too much--too much for what? They are. What can be too little or too much, and what we bear responsibility for, is what we do in between. No, I don't know what "enough" is, or what the standard is; I mean only that these things can be evaluated, while the above neutralities cannot.

The beauty of this divide, to me, is that it ultimately doesn't matter. Whether we're living an existence pasted over a painful abyss of nothing, an existence granted us by a God, or just existing (does this make me a nihilist? I wish I had time to just sit around and read everything), we all tend to come out in the same place--buying groceries. Getting on with things. It's the nutjobs at both ends who get us in trouble.

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