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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Everything Means Nothing: My Existentialist Journey

Critical Narrative has started a exploration of the much touted, but rarely understood philosophy of existentialism. Being a former disciple of existentialism for many years, though one who really had no deep understanding of it, I thought I'd tell my story about it, though unlike Yukio's series, I can pretty much tell mine in one post of moderate length.

The first time I got wind of existentialism was in the audio commentary of Joss Whedon's excellent space western Firefly. In the episode "Objects in Space", Joss gives a superficial view of existentialism through the character of Jubal Early, a bounty hunter, and River Tam, his eccentric target. The episode starts with River walking through the ship Serenity, observing the crew and, from what we're supposed to understand, see the "truth" of their words and interactions. At the end of her walk, she finds herself in the cargobay and it's covered in leaves with a stick in the center. She picks up the stick and says, "It's just an object. Doesn't mean what you think." Suddenly, the real world returns and she is holding a gun. Throughout the episode, the other existentialist, Early, talks about objects and their meaning. He questions if River's bedroom is still a room if she isn't in it. The episode goes so far as to have River "become" the ship, which takes Jubal's view into absurd territory (though, of course, River never actually became the ship).

In the commentary for the episode, Joss talks about his existentialist and absurdist views and recites his philosophical history. According to Joss, after having some kind of epiphany during a viewing of the special edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which he realized that "real life was happening" and that he began to think about things and their meaning. Telling this to a friend, the friend gave him Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. The book, Whedon says, pretty much described exactly what he was thinking about. After hearing this, I went out and borrowed the book from the library. I read it, but unlike Whedon I had a prejudged view in my head divorced from actual teachings of the book, and that played much into how my first reading never really implanted into my head.

What did stick from my reading of Nausea, and from countless hours of reading websites and borrowing other books on Sartre and his views, was the idea that reality is simply our perception, that humanity imbued reality with its views. This was a major influence in my views on the world and was integral to my views as an anarchist. What better way to justify the tearing down of the world than the idea that the world meant nothing, other than the actions of those who participate? The idea that everything meant nothing and that what we do means everything was propaganda of the deed in its purest form. Later on, as an anarcho-primitivist, the base theory would become a full ideology for me. The realization that this philosophically and socially justified nihilism wasn't all it was cracked up to be wouldn't dawn on me until years later.

Out of all the things that I became during my existentialist times, a pseudo-intellectual was the most prominent. I would buy philosophy books, mostly ones by Sartre, but never really read them. As Yukio points out, it became a religion. I didn't really have to know it to believe in it. I didn't really have to read it to advocate it. Simply having the books on my shelf meant I was smarter than you, or so I thought. I would spend too much money on books I would never read. I actually still have those books, but they're now stuffed away in a storage closet with extra pillows, blankets and objects my wife and I never use anymore.

Existentialism is an attractive philosophy for the young because it says you can pretty much do anything you want because the world has no meaning and anything you do imbues meaning, and therefore good. While that is a superficial summary of the entire existentialist system, its what I keep coming across from those who do believe in it and those who promote it without knowing it. Like the politics of meaning that drives the left, the ability to find meaning in a world drives many, and blinds them to the dangers of such thought. A meaningless world is a world that can be molded to any form. The flaw in that judgment is that it excludes human nature, which had given us natural emotional meaning to things we see, hear, feel and do.

I am an atheist, but I do not hold that the world is without meaning because I do not believe in a supernatural power. As stated, our human nature gives us inherent emotional meaning to things and actions. Before civilization, our ancestors gave meaning to family, to children, to home, to territory, way before the thoughts progressed into much more complex things like citizen or nation. We have in ourselves a common ability to extract meaning from the world, and as much as an existentialist would protest that it's still a subjective matter, I would contend that the amount of common meaning we put into things and actions cannot be stripped down to subective-ness alone. There is a deeper, more natural (more scientific) reason for why most adore small animals, or a single flower on a spring day, or the stars in the night.

I know Yukio will corrected me on some of my views on existentialism, and I welcome it, since I ended my journey with existentialism with pretty much the knowledge as I had when I went in.

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