Friday, April 29, 2016
Existence, Futility, and Freedom
Frank W. Dremel
Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? This discussion question appealed to me as I have been in love with books since before birth. Which book to choose, I thought. The answer was as obvious as it was new. Yesterday, I might have chosen Hitchhiker’s Guide or Atlas Shrugged or even Harry Potter.
However because of this philosophy class, I’d recently been compelled to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. I’m not sure whether I can say it changed my mind, but beyond that, it affirmed quite spectacularly something which had always been on the periphery of my brain, almost teasing me with its unassailability. The Truth is I exist. Moreover, my existence is inescapable to the point of nausea.
In Nausea, from the very first page, Monsieur Roquentin is almost bombarded by several inexorable instances of confronting his increasing awareness. Awareness of what, you may ask. The short answer is Awareness of everything. But there is more, so much more, he reveals. He is caught between the seemingly dull routine of his life and the sickeningly fascinating realization of his own existence, of the existence of objects around him, of the existence of the absence of objects, of the essence of Existence. As he notices every day common place objects – a man’s suspenders, a cup, his own hand, a bench – those objects become simultaneously real and very unreal. The reality of their existence, of his own existence, becomes an ugly, sickening fullness, swallowed up in emptiness. He doesn’t even intend to look or study an object, yet when he looks at it, he can’t escape it. Objects change while he’s looking at them, yet they remain the same. Once he was staring at rows of books, all alphabetical. Yet that day they seemed to dissolve and fade on each side.
For Roquentin as well as myself, this increasing self-discovery culminates in his interaction one day with a simple tree root, reaching up out of the ground with its “black, knotty hands”. Yet when he stops himself to examine both the root and himself, he realizes the root isn’t black. It is black, but it isn’t. Is it more than black or somehow less? It was a colour, yet it wasn’t. Suddenly he, or was it I, felt “in the way”.
And not temporarily in the way, but for all eternity.
Then it happened to him – and somehow to me: the nausea that comes with knowing you are in the way for eternity, for an unimaginable, unmeasurable, unending amount of time. And as he had observed earlier, he hadn’t asked to be here. I felt so clearly, almost as looking down at myself, like the fly in the spider’s web. The fly is us. We are all thrust into this thing called Life, through no conscious decision of our own. And we are trapped here forever.
I began to contemplate the meaning of “forever”. No matter what one calls it: forever, infinity, perpetuity, till the end of time --- what does that even mean? The “end” of time doesn’t exist. It’s the only Actor in our Play that truly doesn’t exist. For if one considers time as a “scientist” such as Einstein or Max Planck, whether it is linear or circular or otherwise, time itself doesn’t end. It could theoretically only change.
So whether I believe in life after death or not, the reality is that I either exist forever, however morphed my existence may become, or I cease to exist forever, in which case the very fact that I once existed means my existence doesn’t end, it still just alters. Now, as Roquentin, I am completely engulfed in the realization of my own existence.
Roquentin early on chooses to overcome, or at the very least be content with, his despair by listening to jazz. The complex simplicity of the music, or perhaps the simple complexity, is enough at first to combat his warring emotions. He can temporarily lose himself in the jazz, whether it is that he is distancing himself or merely finding a musical substitute. But after his experience with the root and his decision to leave his woman-friend Anny and his surroundings, he can’t even bear to have the record played. For him initially, jazz was perhaps the definition of his existential experience – acknowledgement, freedom, and transcendence. As Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” And, “I am responsible for everything … except for my very responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world … in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do,
to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
It all comes back to the fly in the spider web. We are here, we are free, it’s forever. Either one exists forever, or one ceases to exist forever. To borrow from Kierkegaard, you will regret it either way.