Saturday, April 08, 2006

Essay Topic: Existentialism

Intro - I believe this was my final essay in my Existentialism course. We were given a certain section from Sartre's Being and Nothingness. I think I then had to weave Sartre's meaning in with the existentialists we had studied previously, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Nietzsche. For the record, I got 19/20 on this essay.

The Origin of Nothingness

Sartre himself asks two important questions in this section: “Where does Nothingess come from?” (318) to which the answer is man, and “What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingess may come into being?” (320). In his answers, Sartre reveals the core ideas of existentialism: that existence precedes essence and thus the world is essentially meaningless apart from the meanings we as humans give it. We will examine Sartre’s answers to the two previously noted questions in light of what the other existentialists have said.
1) Where does nothingness come from?
Sartre points out that Nothingness cannot come from being (-in-itself) since being can only produce being. Everything that is already existent it subject to causal determination: “A real cause, in fact, produces a real effect and the caused being is wholly engaged by the cause in positivity; to the extent that its being depends on the cause, it cannot have within itself the tiniest germ of nothingness” (319). Thus, whatever means by which nothingness comes to the world must be able to withdraw itself from being in such a way as to allow for nothingness to arise. This is done by human consciousness when it poses a question: it creates the possibility of non-being (a negative answer) in the heart of being.
2) What must man be in his being in order that through him nothingness may come to being?
In the act of disengaging from being to ask a question, consciousness is showing that it is “not subject to the causal order of the world” (319). That is, Sartre says, if the question was already determined by the causation of being, it would no longer make any sense. Since we have already seen that everything that is a part of the totality of Being is trapped in the cycle of cause and effect, human consciousness must then be non-being or nothingness. This is why Sartre says that consciousness is “its own Nothingness” (319). In addition, because man is not subject to the causal order, he is free.
This freedom is not a property of consciousness, but is the condition of the being of consciousness – “there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free” (321). Therefore, freedom is not part of the essence of consciousness but the form of its very existence. “Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible” (321). Thus Sartre has shown one of the core ideas of existentialism: existence precedes essence. He goes on to describe freedom as the condition of spontaneous acts of consciousness which can lead to anguish. In his vertigo example, he shows that because I am in every moment free, nothing I do at this particular moment can determine what I will do in the next. My conscious acts, being outside of the causal order, are not subject to determination – “what separates prior from subsequent is exactly nothing” (324). Thus, I cannot control my future acts from where I am standing in the present, and there is always the possibility that I will make the “ultimate choice” and throw myself over the cliff. This anguish is distinguished from fear in that it is anguish over oneself, rather than fear of something in the world.
Consciousness as freedom creates meaning by the ways in which it brings nothingness to the world. In fact, Sartre says, we are always involved in meaning-giving activity – doing so is the only thing we do not have a choice about: man is “condemned to be free” (352). Sartre demonstrates how we give meaning by showing that objects do not in-themselves have the meaning that we imbue them with: “the book with the well-read pages is not by itself a book of which Pierre has turned the pages” (322). Consciousness must posit Pierre (as absent or non-being) for this meaning to occur – without consciousness, the world is meaningless.
The meaning-giving activity by which consciousness brings nothingness to the world is much like Heidegger’s description of Dasein as a “clearing” or “lighting”. Sartre describes man’s intentionality or expectations (i.e. the questions he asks) as decisive in causing what he comes across in the world (320). Similarly, for Heidegger, Dasein’s projects determine the meaning of what shows up for it in the context of significance that is the world. Nietzsche also felt that we shape reality ourselves: “creating new names and assessments and apparent truths is eventually enough to create new ‘things’” (133); and that there are an infinite number of perspectives available for us to do so.
For Heidegger and Sartre, human beings are being for which their own being is in question. Kierkegaard says as much when he states that “the self is a relation which relates itself to its own self” (78). It is this self-awareness of freedom that causes anxiety, anguish and despair (respectively). According to Kierkegaard, despair is elicited by a freedom that means one is unable, by one’s own power, to be the self that is determined by another (God), even though one already is this other-determined self. In Sartre, this amounts to “consciousness of being my own future, in the mode of not-being” (328). Freedom is that which interrupts the temporal contiguity of the self by introducing a nothing between the present and the future. In addition, Heidegger’s anxiety results from being faced with one’s own death, which distinguishes for Dasein its separation from the “they” (249). Only in anxiety can Dasein realize itself as a self-creating agent whose identity has been overwhelmingly influenced by society. Paradoxically, then despair, anguish and anxiety, while experienced in alienation, result from the apprehension of dependence – the self’s dependence on God (Kierkegaard), on the self it will be (Sartre), or on the “they” (Heidegger) – as a condition of freedom.
The ability to despair, be in anguish or have anxiety about oneself shows that, as Sartre demonstrates, existence precedes essence. Heidegger states, “the ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence” (220). For Nietzsche, this freedom to create oneself is an invitation to craft one’s life as a meaningful unity by “ ‘[g]iving style’ to one’s character” (144). Heidegger sees Dasein’s ‘historicality” as making this possible. For Sartre, it endows us with a grave responsibility to own everything that we do, since we are what we do.
A third major idea of existentialism, which Sartre does not treat directly in the assigned chapter, is that of authenticity. What Sartre has to say about it elsewhere is consistent with the views of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard. To be authentic is to avoid fleeing into Sartre’s bad faith, Heidegger’s fallenness, or Kierkegaard’s improper form of despair. Authenticity entails being aware of our freedom to transcend our facticity or thrownness. It is understanding ourselves as more than the roles we play, instead of becoming them, as Nietzsche points out (162). Authenticity means recognizing ourselves as being both the transcendent and the in-itself; having, like the Knight of Faith, one foot in the infinite and the other in the particular.

much deep and profound brain things inside my head #1 I am sure there will be more (as there always have been)

"Any life that is not inherently contradictory and/or paradoxical is not a human life; certainly not a free one."

Related ideas from the scholar-vault (a.k.a. things I learned in school):

Sartre's vertigo, bad faith, & existentialism in general (Wikipedia entries: Sartre and Bad Faith; Existentialism; no entry on Sartre's version of vertigo, which is interesting since it was one of the things that stuck in my head. Maybe it's just an example of something else. Basically, as far as I can remember, Sartre's vertigo was about the fact that you always have the freedom to throw yourself off a cliff, and that you can never, in the present moment, be certain that you will not throw yourself off the cliff in the next moment. Of course, when he describes it, it's much more nausea-inducing. )

Buddhism: for example, that you can be both enlightened and unenlightened at the same time. Actually I wrote a university paper that somehow explained this paradox. I was quite surprised myself at the time. And that paper also referenced T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, specifically, these famous lines (which I still understand to be spiritually true and powerful besides):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Now that I read them again, it occurs to me they describe particularly well a loop in the perpetual spiral I keep going on about. Huh.)

And to my horror, I do not seem to have a copy of this famous essay that I wrote, that nearly drove me mad in the process. It may very well be that I thought I'd never be able to read or understand it ever again. Or that it had tortured me so much that I deleted it. My only hope is that I have it on a floppy disk somewhere, which I can't access from my DVD-ROM'd laptop.

Anyway, I can post a paper I wrote on Existentialism. I could potentially post all the essays I've got, but I think I'll do them only as they are semi-relevant.

On the Origins of Nothingness

First Post

So here's the rest of my blog description, which turned into a lifemission-statement longer than the alloted 500 characters: "It matters not what I am learning, it could be how to play a new game, learning a new science idea, or even just how to breathe properly. The lowest form of this process is often my attempts to improve my so-called "self"; paradoxically the highest form has often been organic, transformational, experiences of surrender, acceptance, emptiness, "the now", or what I often call "that still point" inside me."

I also said something about doubting if a blog could ever entirely replace the gratification of hand-writing in a paper journal. I probably could have gone on forever, but I got distracted by the fact that I was going on too long. My brain tends to explode exponentially with ideas at times, which is rather inconveniently ill-suited to the linearality (is that a word?) of writing sentences. Yet, I am considered a good writer. Not so good conversationally, since the aforementioned exponentiality (word?) lends itself to skipping connecting ideas. My friends are often confounded and ignore me, and I don't blame them.

Anyway, I started this blog today because I was following an interesting idea across the internet, which began with an article archived in Psychology Today, called: "A Taste of Genius", in particular, this excerpt (with my text italics and highlights, and a lame extended metaphor removed):

"A healthy [brain] cell in its prime has a supple membrane that allows important molecules to cross unimpeded... As a cell ages, though, the materials in the membrane stiffen and make it less pliable ...receptors on the surface of the membrane don't collect as many incoming signals from message-carrying neurotransmitters as they should. You might feel such effects as sluggishness in learning the new and recalling the old, poor sleep, lowered pain threshold. Impaired body-temperature regulation could make you uncomfortable in ordinary settings.
"The neuronal membrane is made up primarily of fats, ...[hence] the foods you eat influence the character of your cell membranes. Cholesterol and saturated fats harden membranes, while essential polyunsaturated fatty acids -- omega-3s and omega-6s -- render them supple. A healthy mix of essential fatty acids seems to enhance learning by facilitating the smooth passage of signals through neuronal membranes.
"... the typical American diet lacks sufficient omega-3s, notes David I. Mostofsky, a neuroscientist at Boston University. Within days after you add omega-3s to your diet, membranes are rejuvenated in composition."

The symptoms I've highlighted in red, italicized and bolded ('cuz they a-spoke to me) are symptoms I experience presumably due to fibromyalgia, one of a plethora of mostly out-dated, mostly psychiatric, diagnoses to be found in my medical file. Fibromyalgia is one of those "invisible" diseases, which some people think are entirely ficticious because it's really just a bunch of patient-reported - and untestable -complaints, that seem to happen together a lot, so they gave it a name. There are plenty of theories about where it comes from, if it is the same as or different than Chronic Fatigue Syndrome etc. etc. Basically it's a good thing to have if you want to feel crazy, fall through the cracks, and lose faith in your GP and the Western medical system in general. Here's how I am presently dealing: compensating for poor sleep by getting lots of it (possibly sour grapes about the state of waking consciousness?), learning myself yoga (too socially anxious/competitive to go to a class, especially a class of something that is supposed to relieve anxiety and definitively non-competitive), trying to laugh more (mostly through self-administered doses of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), conscious relaxation, conscious breathing, and a small prescription of amitriptyline. I tried to go without it for a month last summer and, well, it wasn't pretty.

I digress. The idea that sparked the beginning of a net-adventure [which didn't get very far because I wanted to document it, so created a blog and have subsequently discovered that writing for a non-existent audience who could, in theory (since they are fictional), understand the tongue-in-cheek character blogging seems to have inspired in my writing (in comparison to the woe-is-me, so-hard-done-by, why-god-why tone that infuses the above-mentioned manual journalling that I - too infrequently for my superego - sometimes engage in) is making me surprisingly long-winded and stricken with a case of hyphen-philia (for those non-etymologically-inclined non-existent readers, read: "lover of hyphens").] is that perchance my crusty neuronal membranes are causing the bulk of my fibromyalgical (now that, I know, is definitely not a word) issues, and perhaps I should take an omega-3 supplement. So then I Googled: fibromyalgia omega 3 fatty acid and eventually found my way to this article: Relationship between Chest Expansion and Respiratory Muscle Strength in Patients with Primary Fibromyalgia at SpringerLink, which has nothing to do with fatty acids but everything to do with the idea of why I am trying to teach myself to breath properly (see above lifemission-statement) and my suspicions that my breathing problems cause/exacerbate/contribute to the-group-of-symptoms-I-commonly-attribute-to-fibromyagia (henceforth to be called "my fibromyalgia" because I suspect I am getting seriously tedious now). Unfortunately, I am not having much luck with the breath-training-undertaking, since life requires I do more (but not much more) than just sit on my ass and practice breathing. This is to say, through repeated scientific inquiry, or what I call "noticing", I have discovered that unless I am actively belly breathing, I am invariably holding my breath, and somehow surviving this seemingly fatal activity by taking tiny "sips" of air into my already mostly-full (of stale air) lungs. If I had to guess I'd say I'm using about 2% of my lung capacity for bringing in new air and releasing it back out. Now I'm no doctor, but I'm thinking this: my body is perpetually oxygen-starved. And when you hold your breath, you tell your body it is under stress, so I've got the stress-response going on all the time too: too much cortisol, adrenal-over-activity, tense muscles, grinding my teeth...

So really, I should put learning to breathe somewhere near the top of my priority list. Ya think?

It may have become clear that I am a little obsessed with my health. To that I say, that is only one way of looking at it. What I am obsessed about is my life and trying to make it live up to Ghandi, Buddha, Mother Theresa, Einstein, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Homer-ic, -ian, iad, standards. I've got this weird idea that I'm supposed to be perfect, healthy, know everything, and change the world, and should have done it yesterday. My logical mind knows that I am a human being, and thus relieved of duty to be perfect (though perhaps not of duty to strive for it). My buddhist beliefs paradoxically remind me that I am integral to the universe, but in an infinitely miniscule way. Oh and also that I am already perfectly enlightened, and so is my dog (or is she?) Daily I wrestle with these...things. And it seems somehow to be both the best (read: noble?) way to go about life, and the only way I can go about life without wanting it to be seriously over (read: snuffed out by any means necessary). So yes, I cause myself such misery. 95% of the time I am exasperated, frustrated, confused, crushed, up-in-arms, or some other shade of what-the-fuck? But (and here's the snag that keeps me un-snuffed-out), during that other 5%, I know - I know - that it is all worth it. As I get "older" - scratch that, as I gain more experience - and especially with yoga - that balance (if you can call 95:5 a balance) is starting to shift in a - let's call it - more homeostatic direction.

Spiritual learning really is remembering. And forgetting, and remembering again in a new light, new level, depth, profundity...This blog's real mission is to facilitate that, to shorten the period between rememberings, to be a space where I can re-visit past epiphanies, insights and ideas, learning them anew in relevance always to the present. These things have a way of jumping out at me, or sliding back into obscurity, depending on needs dictated not by my own will, but some deeper wisdom. That pristine singularity, whatever it is, is what I want to learn to identify with, to eventually heed more clearly than the "I want, I want" voice that is so hypnotic and soul-withering, so that when I say "my own will", I mean the divine will for this existence I call "mine".

Tongue-in-cheek has apparently checked out in favour of "melo-inspirational". I have no idea what this kind of stuff sounds like to anyone else. To me it sounds like the truth, but I can imagine it sounding "new age-y" (for which I have at least as much distain as any responsible skeptic) to anyone who doesn't resonate with that truth. For the record, then, my "goals", as they express themselves, come from a sincere place, and despite my sardonic nature I actually do have faith in the process described above. I'm often as surprised as anyone about my level of conviction that there really is a path, and that I'm really on it. But there you have it.

'Nuff said. Now I am too tired to follow through the net-adventure today. But I think I found yet another addiction. Pretending an audience...


I sometimes write things that I don't really mean or believe. These are not to be taken literally, nor as definitive statements about me or my beliefs. Thoughts and emotions are transient, and I reserve the right to change my mind, generalize, exaggerate, give strong opinions, or write other possibly offensive statements. I don't lie, but I may say something that's not true to check whether I believe it or not, or to make a point. Call it creative license. This is my blog, and do have the right to say what I want. I'm using it in creatively therapeutic ways. Whatever the reader may think of me and my words, please believe that my core intentions are always good and I never willingly hurt anyone.