PHIL385 – Existentialism
This was one of my courses this semester that, as you could probably tell from the course title, dealt with existentialism. The prompt for this essay was “What is the self?” In the end, the feedback I received was that I hadn’t quite answered the question, but that it was a good essay to read.
In my creative writing class last year, we were told, “Write what you know.” I’m not convinced that that’s not a load of crap. It takes a lot of gall to write as if you know anything about anything, because you’re making the treacherous assumption that you know anything at all. What happens when you wake up at three in the morning with the dreadful realization that you know absolutely nothing? Because isn’t that the reality of humanness – that we think we know things to some degree of certainty until we are humbled by the fact that to know anything takes hubris and pride that we ought not to have?
Being asked to write about who you are is the same journey of profound internal conflict of having to reproduce my Self on paper as I know it. It’s asking me to write about what I think I know at this point in time with the point I am in my menstrual cycle with the amount of caffeine I’ve had and how decidedly irritated I am with the world. We’re also asked to apply the lens of some dead white men’s thinking – in other words, philosophy – to what we think of our Selves. How much more obscured can this vision of my Self be then!
Nonetheless, I suppose I am getting ahead of myself. This paper will be my attempt at explaining who I am whilst considering and relating to the philosophy of existential thinkers – I have selected Pascal and Dostoevsky. I will first look at Pascal’s misery-diversion paradox and how it plays a role in my life. Then I turn to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man to demonstrate misery, and to lead into my exploration of an existential crisis. In casual conversation, “having an existential crisis” has become almost a joke among my peers. It’s not uncommon, I have found, to hear university students say that they are having existential crises and that they don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. I know this because I, myself, have made this joke, too. What, then, does it mean to have an existential crisis as a modern day student and how does that influence who I am? In other words, what is an existential crisis in today’s context, how does the Self experience it, and through this experience, how is it shaped by it? I will synthesize Pascal and Dostoevsky’s concepts, then, to argue that what makes up this juvenile existential crisis is the same stuff as the misery-diversion paradox and the deep frustrations and pleasures of suffering. I will say, by the end, that all things considered – none of it is all that bad. I should begin, then, with myself as a specimen of a Self.
I will admit from the start that I have a shopping problem. I just really like buying things, and owning things, and as a result I have not only racked up too many pairs of shoes and a bursting wardrobe but also shame and debt. It would be easy to chalk my penchant for shopping to poor budgeting skills – and perhaps it is part of the problem – but I must reflect on why it is I derive such pleasure from owning material things. Truly, it is strange being a “shopaholic”. I am aware of my problem and so the feeling of dread and guilt plagues me every time I’m in the stores, flipping through racks of clothes I don’t need. It’s as if I feel the regret before I even hand over my money, and yet I proceed to make those purchases, feeling satisfaction but in a sick way, in a masochistic way. Under Pascal’s analysis, I would be partaking in a paradox of misery and diversion: in being faced with my own mortality and flawed existence, I seek temporary joys to escape self-reflection. As he wrote in Pensées, “…diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death” (aphorism 171). (As a sidebar, I find this line fascinating, particular in the word “unconsciously” – it can be read that the Self is unaware of the fact that diversion is leading us to death or that the Self is literally unconscious and unfeeling of its own misery. Both apply, I suppose.) In this way of understanding the Self, my compulsive shopping is simply a way for me to distract myself from myself. And yet, Pascal would say that the reason I can never simply have enough is because “we never seek things for themselves, but for the search” (aphorism 135). This I can interpret in two ways in regards to shopping – one is that I do not shop for the item itself, but for the experience of shopping; two is that I do not shop for the sake of shopping, but because it satiates my need for comfort. Pascal’s interpretation seems hopeless, because of the fact that if my method of escape were not shopping, it would be something else – be it alcohol, or sex, or even just work and academics. There is no way to escape escapism, unless I decide to face my miseries. Misery, as Pascal describes, arises from a single fact: “that they cannot stay quietly in their own chambers”. We are in a naturally wretched and unhappy condition, but the fact that people seek to divert their attention away from ruminating about it, only serves to exacerbate our misery. What does this mean for the Self? Are we simply doomed to be stuck in this hapless loop until death or are we saved if only we sat in our rooms and thought about things? Certainly if I spent more time sitting around and thinking about things, I wouldn’t be spending it at the mall. But does it do me any better to simply wallow in my naturally wretched condition as a human being? If I shopped, at least I would be wallowing in my naturally wretched condition with nice clothes.
I turn, then, to Dostoevsky and the Underground Man. A self-proclaimed sick, spiteful man, he is a prime example of wallowing in suffering and enjoying it. Despair and the misery of the human condition, to the Underground Man, “has its moments of intense pleasure, intense delight, especially if you happen to be acutely conscious of the hopelessness of your position” (Dostoevsky 199). He later gives the example of the pleasure in groaning when you have a toothache – “They are groans mixed with malice. And it is the malice here that matters. By these groans the sufferer expresses his pleasure. If he did not feel any pleasure, he would not groan” (204). What a liberating position it must be to feel pleasure in suffering. Certainly if it were the case that suffering alone may not be as hopeless as Pascal made it out to be, then it may not be so bad to have an existential crisis. Of course, it can also be taken back to my question of being obsessed with shopping – the sick pleasure I take in spite of the knowledge of my impending guilt for not saving my money. Or perhaps it is the sick pleasure I take because of the knowledge of my impending guilt. As the Underground Man seems to find pleasure in groaning at his toothache out of spite and malice, perhaps it is the case that I find satisfaction in self sabotage, simply because I can. Why? Maybe because I am bored, “confoundly bored” as the Underground Man put it (207). Indeed, the monotony of everyday life leaves me feeling nothing out of the ordinary, so why not spice it up with self-induced guilt and shame? Or perhaps I partake in consumerism simply because I can – or, as Dostoevsky writes, “just because [I want] to have the right to desire for [my]self even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible” (218). It would be reasonable to save money and it is expected of me to not spend frivolously. It is a virtue, after all, to be frugal. But I have the luxury and privilege of being able to buy a new dress. So I buy the dress now and worry about existentialism later. To hell with reason and virtues.
But what does this all mean? If it is the case that I am stuck in a loop of misery and diversion, but that suffering can be pleasurable or actually funny, then what is the point of all of it? Is my shopping problem really a problem if it’s a matter of constant diversion? If I am aware of my misery, then is it really that bad? It seems to me that these questions have to do with the Self – my Self to be specific. You will see in that first question above that I’ve combined Pascal and Dostoevsky, which is what I am interested in exploring for the remainder of my paper, especially in a context of an existential crisis. I will try to create a picture of an existential crisis by synthesizing their concepts.
As I was conducting research for secondary sources, plugging “existential crisis” into the academic articles database returned all sorts of papers. The term seems to have filtered into every discipline, ranging from medicine to politics to business. But what does it mean, exactly? Obviously it stems from the philosophical school of thought that is existentialism, which is a study of the individual’s existence (to put it ineloquently). An existential crisis then is an internal crisis regarding existence. I have always found the term puzzling, because crises are usually loud and dramatic – so to reflect that inwardly must be something profound and affecting. Questions of identity and the purpose of the Self all only scratch the surface of the crisis – because to have an existential crisis is to experience the feelings of anxiety and lost-ness that comes with bearing the weight of life. Kierkegaard seems to sum this up: “…to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession, given to man, but it is also eternity’s claim upon him” (50). This jarring realization, compounded with the misery-diversion paradox and the reality of suffering, can produce a crisis – one in which the Self becomes acutely aware of the fact that they are doing everything for the purpose of diverting their attention from their mortality and being-a-Self, whilst continuing their diversion behavior because it’s pleasurable and nothing really matters anyway. I see this in myself, with my compulsive shopping. I see this in some of my peers, who would prefer to drink themselves into oblivion than to deal with the burden of reality. I see this in the media and in politics, where it is preferable to inflate egos and to produce realities that are temporary and ultimately mean nothing. As I sit in this library trying to finish this paper, I am aware of the other students here, some meandering around, others staring blankly at laptop screens and textbooks they paid too much for. But it also occurred that others in this room have probably also experienced similar realizations of each other. This internal crisis of the Self becomes a shared experience amongst all Selves. Does it then become something to be valued? If we are all aware of our mortality and of our miserable natures, then is it really that miserable? Especially in the case of being aware of the meaninglessness of life and being okay, that despite Pascal’s seemingly devastating outlook on misery, that even though being conscious in itself shocks the Self, the ensuing existential crisis may in fact be beneficial in creating a Self that is deeply upset but one that is not alone in its misery.
In closing this essay, I realize that I still have not quite answered the question of who I am as a Self. I have thought about this extensively, but yet keep returning to the question I started this paper with: why should I know? I realized that it is paradoxical in that, if the Self doesn’t know the Self, then no one else does. Somehow, I’m okay with that. I accept that I don’t know and that maybe tomorrow, I will be completely different simply because I can be and am at liberty to be. What I do think I know at this point in time with the point I am in my menstrual cycle with the amount of caffeine I’ve had and how decidedly irritated I am with the world, is that if we are all having existential crises and we are all aware that nothing matters, then it’s probably okay for me to buy a new pair of shoes.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. From Notes from the Underground. 1992. Basic Writings of Existentialism. Comp. Gordon Daniel Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. From The Sickness Unto Death. 1980. Basic Writings of Existentialism. Comp. Gordon Daniel Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. Ed. John Hagerson, L.N. Yaddanapudi, and Juliet Sutherland. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 27 Apr. 2006. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.