Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sartre, poetry, itchy side burns


There are those of us who constantly wonder what the worth of it all is, the struggle,the tears,the aging, aching muscle and bone, until we happen a bit of beauty that makes having senses, feelings a wondrous thing indeed. Music, literature, all of it that makes one for a moment transcendent of their earthbound obligations and variegated sadnesses , has a value more important than "cash value" or practical application. The sounds of things and what they suggest to us rather than what they say to us get us in that rare state we can think more intensely, more creatively on our options. I think that beauty, in whatever guise, is the means through which we commit again to conduct ourselves creatively.

This reminds me of the most useful exertion of Sartre's peculiar blend of existentialism and phenomenology, that we have to acknowledge that reality, such as it is, is solid in its existence independent of our senses and fluid in how it pulses to laws that defies our subtle demands and expectations, and only when we realize this and bring ourselves to a "creative commitment" to live fully with the terms and consequences of our own actions can we , at least as Westerners, gain something like freedom or the chance to be happy (which is not to say contented). Meaning is personal, intimate, a creation culled from language and an aesthetic systematization of the senses, but it is not arrived at, willy nilly, from whole cloth; the particular desires for a form that gives us pleasure, brings us joy, and furnishes us with inspirations --spiritual, artistic, mechanistic-- to rise from an ever percolating vat of despondency and bring value to daily existence are unfeasible and practices of a short circuiting bad faith unless the world, as is, separate from our desires to control and command it like God(s), is cold to our desires , dreams and religious longings. That much we bring to the terrain.

Sartre is peculiar and appropriate because of the way he mixes what he likes from the philosophies he came under the sway of, and because his intuitively arrived and difficult to surmise views are fairly much in line with the poet's (or the true artist's) faculty to formalize their imaginings in what we can call , perhaps grievously, a "product" ( a poem, painting, a song, a novel, a film, et al) and hence add to existence a texture that makes prevents life from being merely something we survive. I am taken with his break from the theological existentialist who plied their trade before him, taking from them the notion that it is the act of faith, the action of belief, that has meaning alone, along with the willingness to live with and take responsibility for the consequences (or rewards) of one's decisions. Kierkegaard, Jaspers, et al, of course, were varied in their approaches, but there was God behind their theories, and what intriguing about Sartre was his idea that one had to live authentically in the absence of extra material guarantees of coherence,purpose, or final destination.

Heidegger was a phenomenologist, who had no interest or use in intricate systems of knowledge and who instead insisted that the meaning of existence can only be known through felt experience. Sartre's extension of Heidegger's framework, that existence has meaning only within the activity of participants, included an all important distinction, a continuous set of inquiries of the quality and style of choices one makes in a world bereft of institutional surety. Sartre, of course, took from religious existentialists like Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Paul Tillich, but the revolution in Sartre's thinking was to ponder the ethics of our choices in the absence of a God to micromanage our moral center.This atheism is not unexpected given that Europe had dragged itself through two World Wars that undermined , usurped and disrupted all universal claims as to how the World Spirit operates in a slow, deliberate, inevitable end of History. Sartre, though, wasn't entirely cynical, even if he was a little thick to read; meaning, hope, reason, joy were possible provided we realized the true freedom we always have and practice a creative commitment to the life we're are lucky enough to have; we make our decisions in good faith, take the steps to bring them into being, and we take full responsibility for our undertakings.

Why is Sartre trying to reassure us that feelings are possible without believing in God?Sartre would maintain that feelings, emotions are there regardless of whether one believes in God or not. The over all feeling of aloneness, isolation, he'd maintain, is one that is at the core of our awareness of existence, and what he would advise is grappling with that feeling of dis-empowering solitude, recognizing the source of the despair and (sigh) angst and construct a meaningful existence built around healthy choices about how one defines themselves. Not a quick fix, not a panacea, but it is about an authentic existence where we live in true freedom because our choices are own and we are truly responsible for them.

Is he acting like some kind of infomercial for existentialism?

I'd say no; rather he was a provocative intelligence who posed questions about authenticity, truth, and ethics after a world war where most commonly held assumptions about the Higher Purpose and Meaning of Life were undermined.

Aren't there other ways of finding commonality if there's no God for God's sake?

Sure, whether through art, politics. Sartre himself was his own particular species of humanist, which maintains that the qualities we ascribe exclusively to God are rather erring projections of virtues already latent in us "mere" mortals. He had a hunch, if an abstrusely expressed, that humans would find commonality sans a dictating Deity; far from each man being a lone agent enacting their lives oblivious to others , men would rather spontaneously find that there are enough similarities between the varied arrays of "creative commitment" to form a community, a government, a structure of government both rational and true to an otherwise misty conception of freedom.

Didn't Sartre pimp for Totalitarianism? Sad, yes, that philosophers whose aim is to free men from false constructs fall prey to tortured states of hero worship; where once these fellows might have sussed through matters as to what an individual can do to lead a principled, ethical and creative life now give themselves over to charismatic leaders who seem to them the sole possibility of human redemption and transcendence. Ezra Pound, hardly a friend of capitalism, found much to like in Mussolini's ideas of the Corporate State, with all the attending anti-Semitism and obfuscated racism retained, and erstwhile sophist Ayn Rand, for all her heckling about how the State shackles men and enslaves them to mediocrity, is seduced by the notion of powerful men of genius who will rise above conventional morality and blaze a new destiny for all humanity.

Note, please, that Rand's fantasy approximates the standard misreading Nietzsche received when his work was used as a philosophical argument for the inevitability of Nazi imperialism. The problem for these writers is not the state of human freedom but rather with the most effective, potent and correct use of Power that would rid the slate of man made complications. It's the moral authority of power that is at issue, not the worry that the common people aren't achieving greater levels of political and artistic expressiveness.

The tendency seems to be to convince readers, members of the literate population, to give up their quest and find solace, purpose and place in powers, forces, ideas that are greater than themselves--frustrations coming from, I don't doubt, from a recurring and systemic disgust with the stupidity of human doings, at the failure to learn the lessons of history. Diagnosis doesn't equal cure , though, and the brightest thoughts of of our most brilliant thinkers wind up eschewing the whole idea of personal freedom and responsibility and concentrate instead on ways to make the contentious noise of debate stop .It is fairly clear to me that even though he might have been clearer with his ideas--he was often a muddled writer, repetitious with his insulated definitions of particular words--his efforts were towards having human beings use their imaginations more fully, unencumbered by systems and dogmas that limit and destroy individual potential, places him in the center of the central ethical debate of the last half of the 20th century, which grappled with the problems of power, control, and the use of the imagination to make a world that is meaningful in terms we create, and are free to change given new evidence.

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