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Much as I admire the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who turned his horrific experience at Auschwitz into clinical insights, the notion of “man’s search for meaning” seems inadequate. Just what about man qualifies him to search for meaning, whatever that might be?
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht warned us against the practice in The Threepenny Opera:
Ja, renne nach dem Gluck
Doch renne nicht zu sehr
Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
Das Gluck lauft hinterher.
(Sure, run after happiness, but don’t run too hard, because while everybody’s running after happiness, it moseys along somewhere behind them).
Brecht (1898-1956) was the kind of character who gave Nihilism a bad name, to be sure, but he had a point. There is something perverse in searching for the meaning of life. It implies that we don’t like our lives and want to discover something different. If we don’t like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.
Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Soren Kierkegaard portrayed his Knight of Faith as the sort of fellow who enjoyed a pot roast on Sunday afternoon. If that sort of thing doesn’t satisfy us (feel free to substitute something else than eating), just what is it that we had in mind?
People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw – that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn’t go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear – the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.
These examples trivialize the problem, of course. If we search in earnest for the meaning of life, then we might make heroic efforts to invent our own identity. That is the great pastime of the past century’s intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man’s existence precedes his essence, and therefore can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.
Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our “being” really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: “The meaning of life is that it ends.”) Heidegger (1889-1976) thought that to be “authentic” mean to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn’t work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste.
Few of us actually read Sartre (and most of us who do regret it), and even fewer read the impenetrable Heidegger, whom I have tried to make more accessible by glossing his thought in Ebonics (The secret that Leo Strauss never revealed, Asia Times Online, May 13, 2003.) But most of us remain the intellectual slaves of 20th century existentialism notwithstanding. We want to invent our own identities, which implies doing something unique.
This has had cataclysmic consequences in the arts. To be special, an artist must create a unique style, which means that there will be as many styles as artists. It used to be that artists were trained within a culture, so that thousands of artists and musicians painted church altar pieces and composed music for Sunday services for the edification of ordinary church-goers.
Out of such cultures came one or two artists like Raphael or Bach. Today’s serious artists write for a miniscule coterie of aficionados in order to validate their own self-invention, and get university jobs if they are lucky, inflicting the same sort of misery on their students. By the time they reach middle age, most artists of this ilk come to understand that they have not found the meaning of life. In fact, they don’t even like what they are doing, but as they lack professional credentials to do anything else, they keep doing it.
The high art of the Renaissance or Baroque, centered in the churches or the serious theater, has disappeared. Ordinary people can’t be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to). The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture. That is not the worst sort of outcome. One of my teachers observes that the classical style of composition never will disappear, because the movies need it; it is the only sort of music that can tell a story.
Most people who make heroic efforts at originality learn eventually that they are destined for no such thing. If they are lucky, they content themselves with Kierkegaard’s pot roast on Sunday afternoon and other small joys, for example tenure at a university. But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.
He recalls the rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.
The only thing worse than searching in vain for the meaning of life within the terms of the 20th century is to find it, for it can only be a meaning understood by the searcher alone, who by virtue of the discovery is cut off from future as well as past. That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view, like J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. The aging rebel is in the position of Diana’s priest who sleeps with sword in hand and one eye open, awaiting the challenger who will do to him what he did to the last fellow to hold the job.
Most of us have no ambitions to become the next Jackson Pollack or Damien Hirst. Instead of Heidegger’s being-unto-death, we acknowledge being-unto-cosmetic surgery, along with exercise, Botox and anti-oxidants. We attempt to stay young indefinitely. Michael Jackson, I argued in a July 2009 obituary, became a national hero because more than any other American he devoted his life to the goal of remaining an adolescent. His body lies moldering in the grave (in fact, it was moldering long before it reached the grave) but his spirit soars above an America that proposes to deal with the problem of mortality by fleeing from it. (See Blame Michael Jackson Asia Times Online, July 14, 2009.)
A recent book by the sociologist Eric Kaufmann (Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?) makes the now-common observation that secular people have stopped having children. As a secular writer, he bewails this turn of events, but concedes that it has occurred for a reason: “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.”
Traditional society had to confront infant mortality as well as death by hunger, disease and war. That shouldn’t be too troubling, however: “We may not be able to duck death completely, but it becomes so infrequent that we can easily forget about it.”
That is a Freudian slip for the record books. Contrary to what Professor Kaufmann seems to be saying, the mortality rate for human beings remains at 100%, where it always was. But that is not how we think about it. We understand the concept of death, just not as it might apply to us.
If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example of set in showing contempt to our own parents.
That is why humanity has found no other way to perpetuate itself than by the continuity of tradition. A life that is worthwhile is one that is worthwhile in all its phases, from youth to old age. Of what use are the elderly? In a viable culture they are the transmitters of the accumulated wisdom of the generations. We will take the trouble to have children of our own only when we anticipate that they will respect us in our declining years, not merely because they tolerate us, but because we will have something yet to offer to the young.
In that case, we do not discover the meaning of life. We accept it, rather, as it is handed down to us. Tradition by itself is no guarantee of cultural viability. Half of the world’s 6,700 languages today are spoken by small tribes in New Guinea, whose rate of extinction is frightful. Traditions perfected over centuries of isolated existence in Neolithic society can disappear in a few years in the clash with modernity. But there are some traditions in the West that have survived for millennia and have every hope of enduring for millennia still.
For those of you who still are searching for the meaning of life, the sooner you figure out that the search itself is the problem, the better off you will be. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh in the third millennium BC, our search has not been for meaning, but for immortality. And as the gods told Gilgamesh, you can’t find immortality by looking for it. Better to find a recipe for pot roast.