I had lost my shoes; I had to leave immediately, my students were waiting; my assistant already had the exams in their hands; class started at 9:00 and, I saw on my alarm clock, it was 9:15, now 9:16.
BY CLANCY MARTIN
ILLUSTRATION BY JIM KREWSON
ovelist and memoirist Clancy Martin (please read How to Sell, the novel he released last year with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and “Lisa,” his deeply sad remembrance of his sister in our recent Catastrophes Issue) is a vital member of today’s philosophy community. He is a repeat translator of Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 2006 and an upcoming edition of Beyond Good and Evil) and he serves as Department of Philosophy chair at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. He’s also authored, coauthored, or edited multiple volumes of philosophy. For this issue, we asked Clancy to take a quick stab at existentialism and what it is, or was, or still is, or should be.
Since it’s usually bandied about by the most pretentious, clove-cigarette-smoking, beret-wearing students in your local high school, existentialism has become a subset of 20th-century philosophy that is much maligned and even more misunderstood. That’s a shame, because it’s actually very useful. So here we go, reclaiming existentialism from the hands of the dilettantes and detractors who’ve so callously abused it.
(Pssst, click here to hear the essay read by a philosophy major after drinking two bottles of wine and smoking some weed.)
I had lost my shoes; I had to leave immediately, my students were waiting; my assistant already had the exams in their hands; class started at 9:00 and, I saw on my alarm clock, it was 9:15, now 9:16 (the black numbers seemed to frown at me like menacing graffiti painted in an alleyway, a warning that only escalated, that necessarily multiplied, because the minutes were ticking past); then I observed that it was not just my shoes: My clothes were gone, someone had taken the bed, I couldn’t even retreat beneath the covers; and still my students were watching the clock, which I realized was in fact my own alarm clock, on my bed stand at home; yes, it was true, I was there in the classroom, my assistant was there too, frowning at me—where were my clothes? I called myself a professor of philosophy? Wasn’t I chair of my department? Had I become a senile old man?—and she did not hurry to cover me with her great blue coat, on the contrary, she began to laugh, then the students joined in, waving their green and orange Scantron forms in the air, and I caught sight of myself in the mirror—for suddenly a mirror appeared in the dream—and I was not a 43-year-old professor, I was myself at 16 or 18, naked and robust, but cringing, unprepared, I was not the professor at all, I was there to take the exam, and the woman I had thought was my assistant was in fact the professor, she had brought me in front of the class and stripped me of my clothes to show everyone how I had failed. I sat up in my sweaty bed.
Perhaps the greatest existentialist of the 20th century, Franz Kafka, wrote a story called “A Country Doctor” (he thought it was his best story) attempting to express the connection—often experienced by us in dreams—between our feeling of being inadequate and our everyday experience of worry and anxiety. If you haven’t read the story (or read it recently) you ought to, as soon as you get the chance. It will feel alarming—even threatening—and very, very familiar. Jean-Paul Sartre, another must-have for our Greatest Hits of the Existentialists album, wrote toward the end of his career that he “did not truly know what people meant about anxiety and dread and the rest of that, it was just the way we talked at the time: I never experienced angst.” This from a man who regularly stayed up all night drinking and taking speed so that he could give his college lectures the following morning (if taking speed all night so that you can lecture in the morning with a hangover doesn’t give you anxiety, I suppose nothing will). But Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher who first identified the concept of anxiety (and wrote two books about it), argued that the feeling of being out of place and the circling, dizzying, sickening sort of thinking we associate with worry (and worry taken to its further reaches in anxiety and dread) are intimately and importantly connected. Kierkegaard thought that to be fully alive was to be anxious.
There is an old view of human life that argues that human beings have a particular purpose to fulfill. You find this in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition: We are fulfilling the law (Judaism) or embracing the love that is Christ (Christianity) or living the righteous life (Islam). In all three varieties of what is fundamentally one tradition, the goal is fulfilled when we reach the next life. Similarly, the ancient Greeks thought that human life had a purpose. For Plato this was self-knowledge, for Aristotle, perfecting our function as rational beings: In both cases, this would lead us to the natural goal of virtue (and happiness). In the Hindu tradition, we are to fulfill the cycle of reincarnation, determined by karma, so that we can eventually become one with the Godhead; in Buddhism, we are to see through the veil of illusion created by attachment, so that we can escape suffering. Purpose, purpose, purpose. You aren’t who or where you are supposed to be; you have to get from point A to point B; you are engaged in a fundamental struggle that takes place in this (generally speaking, refractory and painful) life on earth in order to escape it or somehow reconcile yourself with it.
But suppose we are animals, as most of us believe. Does it make sense to suggest that animals—nonhuman animals, that is—have a distinct purpose? In the Old Testament they do, of course—their purpose is to feed and work for humans. But most of us don’t buy that view these days. Do we really think that all good dogs go to heaven? Good marlins, too? How about good tree slugs? Well-behaved bacteria? Moral mice? Ethical ear mites? We don’t expect moral progress from nonhuman animals—it would be silly to say that your pet dog is engaged in the ongoing project of becoming a better dog, and how much more silly to say the same of, for example, the clever octopus—so why on earth should human beings get the special exception, which in fact looks like a special burden?
Sisyphus’s drag alter-ego Sissy Fuss, as drawn by Jim Krewson.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who, due to one of those unhappy historical accidents, went crazy only a few months before he planned to begin his study of Kierkegaard, argued that our human need to be something other than what we are—that feeling, so familiar to all of us, that we are inadequate, that we must somehow justify ourselves, that we have an unfulfilled purpose that will relieve us upon its fulfillment—is merely an expression of our frustrated drive to be cruel. Very briefly, here’s how it works: Before we were joined together in large societies, we could satisfy our drive to be cruel—which is just like the drive to have sex or to eat or to have friends or any other number of natural drives—by expressing that drive upon the members of other human groups. There were battles, “festivals of cruelty” as he calls them, even increasingly ritual and stylized expressions of cruelty (think of the public-torture carnival days and auto-da-fé of the Middle Ages and the Spanish Inquisition, for example). But as it becomes more and more difficult to express our drive to cruelty upon others, the drive does not go away; rather, it turns back upon itself, it inflicts pain on the mind of the individual experiencing the drive. That pain—which comes to be called bad conscience and eventually guilt and is formalized in the myth, so Nietzsche thought, of original sin—is your mind attacking itself, expressing the drive to cruelty inward because it cannot find an outward expression. So, for example, George W. Bush may have had a lot of fun pulling the wings off flies and blowing up frogs with firecrackers when he was a kid, but then he got in trouble for it and the drive was suppressed—although he may not be the best case, as it looks as though he found other ways to release his pent-up aggression in later life.
Now we start to worry. And it’s not just ordinary worry, as when I’m worried that my checking account is getting low, so I transfer some over from savings, and the worry goes away. It’s that free-flowing worry that transfers itself from one object to the next; when I stop worrying about money I start worrying about my love life; but no, that’s not it, it’s my career, it’s my work; and yet, that’s not it either, it’s my friends, they seem to be excluding me… You know the drill. The mind spins. If the spin accelerates, you get a vertiginous feeling, as though you are looking into a chasm, and the chasm is you. A friend asked me recently: “Hey, Clancy, you seem down. That interior monologue driving you crazy today?” So: the drug Miltown, made famous by the Rolling Stones as “mother’s little helper”; next, Librium, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan; plus, SSRIs: Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, take your pick. Ropes that hold us above the abyss; or parachutes that carry us safely down; or blinders that keep us from seeing it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing in favor of unhappiness or against drugs to treat anxiety and depression; rather, I’m trying to figure out whether and why anxiety is just something to be avoided (it looks like it may be, on Nietzsche’s account), or if there is some good in it, if it tells us something important about ourselves. Nietzsche, to be fair, offered a way out of the pain of anxiety: In his last book, the masterpiece Ecce Homo, he teaches us “how to become who you are.” You must recognize that you have no further purpose, you are not supposed to be anything else, you must accept even suffering—in fact, you must embrace all of life, you must affirm suffering as much as you affirm pleasure, you must affirm failure with the same enthusiasm with which you affirm victory—and then you can live the best human life. That may sound like yet another “getting from A to B”: a purpose disguised as a nonpurpose. But for Nietzsche, you already are that person: You simply have to let yourself accept the fact. You will not be someone else tomorrow. You’re not even supposed to be. All that you are is all that you’re meant to be: And that happens right now.
It’s a hard notion to wrap your head around. Albert Camus, the best friend and then best enemy of Jean-Paul Sartre, tried to explain it in his discussion of the myth of Sisyphus. Imagine poor old Sisyphus, he says, condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a boulder up a mountainside—slipping in the mud and gravel, nearly breaking his back with the struggle, every sinew quivering—only to watch, when he reaches the summit, the boulder roll down the mountainside again. What is Sisyphus thinking as he walks back down into the valley? It is his purpose to bear up this rock—but it is a purpose without a purpose, a striving without any meaning—and he will do it for eternity. That’s what it’s like to be us, Camus says; and for years, even centuries, perhaps, Sisyphus is in anguish, he is frustrated, he dreads the moment when the boulder will roll down again. But at last he beats the gods. How? By recognizing that there is nothing else but his struggle. He can either roll the boulder up for the gods or he can do it for himself. When he says, “I will roll this boulder,” his anxiety vanishes. He does not dread the task, because he chooses it. He does not seek any further meaning, because he embraces the fact that there is none. Maybe Sartre had already accomplished this, and that’s why he didn’t experience anxiety; or maybe he was on enough different drugs that he simply didn’t notice (Kierkegaard thought that the worst thing that could happen to a human is that he or she would fail to experience anxiety, because that meant failing to experience yourself—but I think it’s a fair question to ask whether we want to experience ourselves).
So what does the existentialist say to me about my dream? He tells me that so long as I am letting myself be my own victim—so long as I interpret my worry as an unfulfilled purpose, as something that’s wrong about me or my life (so long as I am goaded, Nietzsche might say, in the wrong direction by the pain of my frustrated drive)—I will continue to have my night sweats. The fundamental way to make sense of life is to acknowledge that I am wholly responsible in this one: responsible not to some other life that I ought to be leading, but for this present one I am actually living, where I choose to be where I am, what I am, who I am. “Anxiety is freedom’s possibility,” Kierkegaard wrote in 1844 (in The Concept of Anxiety). For him, the mental pain that Nietzsche identified is a reminder that we are the ones in the driver’s seat. Anxiety, then, is not the reflection of our inadequacy, but rather the knee-jerk response to our misguided, self-defeating, and logically doomed efforts to be someone other than who we are. The reason we feel inadequate is that we wonder if we’re up to the task—when the task has already been accomplished, is always already being accomplished, by each of us. So should I sit here in a maelstrom of worry? Or do I have what it takes to be free? Which is only another way of saying, do I have what it takes to be me?