Existential Literature

[from Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism]

Part of me might actually enjoy existentialist literature better than more complex philosophical treatises and whatnot (though those can be fun too). I think anytime ideas are placed within a narrative structure or focused on the thought flow of a particular mind, they strike harder and more deeply, force the reader/listener to consider himself through that narrative.

My favorite part of the expert from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge was his dealing with death. In looking at how one used to die in a place of few beds whereas now “one dies [factory fashion] in 559 beds,” he deplores the extent to which people no longer make the effort to die well, to have a death of one’s own. “A little while yet, and it will be as rare as a life of one’s own. God, it’s all there. One comes along, one finds a life, ready-made, one only has to put it on. One wants to go or is forced to go: well, no trouble at all: voilà votre mort, monsieur. One dies at random; one dies whatever death belongs to the disease one happens to have: for since one knows all the diseases, one also knows that the different lethal conclusions belong to the disease and not to the human beings; and the sick person, as it were, doesn’t have anything to do. In hospitals…one dies a death prepared by the institution.” The focal point becomes the disease rather than the person, the human being is a passive receptacle for disease and cure in the hands of the institution. Cast off the shamen, the medicine men, and the like for a prescription and an insurance bill.

I also liked Rilke’s assessment of the “ghost of a third person” [god], to whom people turn because he is easy to deal with, the rules are already laid out; it’s too difficult to deal with the two human beings “who made things hard for each other,” the two who matter. “He is one of the pretexts of nature who is always intent on diverting men’s attention from her deepest mysteries….He is the noise at the entrance to the voiceless silence of a real conflict.”

As I consider my thoughts on Rilke, I notice it might seem contradictory to value the role of ceremony and community in healing and death and at the same time to denounce the belief in god (i.e. using the unimaginative crutch that is dogmatic theology). There are qualitative differences between “religion” and “spirituality” that erase this apparent contradiction. I think the understandings and histories surrounding traditional practices or mysticisms (e.g. Sufism), generally speaking, do much more to honor the dignity, complexity, and agency of the human being than do dogmatic interpretations of a divine being somehow both in control of and disengaged from the human world. In the former, the responsibility falls on the individual and the community to work out truth, to be active in producing and shaping ethics, meaning, etc. As the West characterizes their ceremony and spirituality as “religion,” it is in fact an inseparable element of practical, everyday life; it is grounded in experience and practice. For the latter, all is imagined to be pre-determined and it is man’s job to fall in line. No thinking required.

Kaufmann’s final excerpt from José Ortega y Gasset I loved – he writes beautifully. Anyone with a beautiful command of language and metaphor (and beauty as tied to truth and distinguished from rhetoric!) is immediately fantastic in my book. Getting back to the notion of god, he touches on the old idea that man possesses an essence, and because there exists an essence there must also exist a divine being in the mind of whom that essence must have been determined. Thus, man’s self is nothing but that devised program which must be carried out in his life. Ortega offers the argument against this idea that “although the project of being a great financier has to be conceived of in an idea, ‘being’ the project is different from holding the idea. In fact, I find no difficulty in thinking this idea but I am very far from being this project.” In other words, if an omnipotent being conceived of some idea of what a human should/must be, that does not mean that a human being IS that idea; in order to make some idea true in existence, it must be enacted. (But of course, many have the all too convenient excuse that man was also given “free will,” thus relieving themselves of the logical consequences of their first argument.)

In another excerpt, Ortega points out, “It is too often forgotten that man is impossible without imagination, without the capacity to invent for himself a conception of life, to ‘ideate’ the character he is going to be.” As far as I can see, it’s likely that it is precisely because we possess imagination, because the human mind is so malleable even in old age, that human beings must be undefined in the existential sense. Of course we are limited by our biology as it has evolved to this point in time, but there is still enormous potential and variety within that framework. Ortega goes on to say that man’s authentic being lies in history, in the totality of all that has happened to him and all he has done “that constitutes a relentless trajectory of experiences that he carries on his back as the vagabond his bundle of all he possesses. Man is a substantial emigrant on a pilgrimage of being.” Now this is true if one thinks of the process of evolution and how its shaped human nature and adaptation, it is true at the micro level of individual human lives, and it is true collectively in terms of forming cultural identity. For indigenous peoples, as for all peoples, their various experiences (environmental, social, historical, emotional, etc.) shape their culture and determine its evolution over time. Colonialism, most notably, is an experience that influenced and continues to influence how indigenous people re-work and (re)define themselves within and outside of their communities, they are constantly evolving, narratives are constantly being re-imagined, and new possibilities are created. Being is localized in history.


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