Art & Sartre

Hayden Carruth’s  introduction to Nausea inspired some web surfing and and further reading of his writing. It seems as though he came to some of the same conclusions Sartre did about art in his later years. At one point, he thought art (his poetry and writing) could help people, but now he realizes it can’t. In Suicides and Jazzers, he writes that artists yearn to be connected through their art, but eventually will discover their defeat.

People say that a society which neglects its arts and artists will be impoverished, but this society is so impoverished already–and from hundreds of quiet other causes–that the neglect of art can’t make the situation any worse. Artists know this. They know that if they work simply for themselves, or even for some abstract ideal of Art, they and their work will become attenuated and parched. They yearn to be connected. But they can’t be, and they are defeated, they are in a condition of unending degradation.

But doesn’t this sort of thinking reject the idea of freedom Sartre purports? If you are going to make demands on others (that they be helped by your art, for instance), then you are seeking to limit their freedom. So of course you are going to end up feeling degraded. We are connected. We don’t have to demand connection. To make that demand is to reject the freedom “we have been condemned to”.

Yes, in one sense, we are utterly alone and everything is meaningless, including our attempts to help others and everything we’ve ever held “sacred”. If we can accept this, then we can realize we are never alone and that nothing is ever meaningless. That’s the paradox and I don’t think it requires believing in God or an Absolute to realize it although perhaps it does require a sort of Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”. But that leap of faith need be nothing more than a willingness to imagine beyond the limits of our current perceptual biases. I don’t mean hoping for anything in specific like wanting the world to conform to what it is we want it to be. But hope in the more general sense – that we can never step into the same river or universe twice because it is undergoing constant change and there is no way we can possibly imagine where that change may take us. If we insist on the reality of our circumstances, we are likely to stay stuck in the same old circumstances.  Our circumstances do not exist in reality because reality is forever in flux.

Hayden Carruth on Existentialism

Hayden Carruth’s introduction to Nausea was exciting! 

He writes:

It is nothing new. William Barrett, in his excellent book Irrational Man (1958), has shown that what we now call the Existentialist impulse is coeval with the myths of Abraham and Job; it is evident in the pre-Socratic philosophies of Greece, in the dreams of Aeschylus and Euripedes, and in the later Greek and Byzantine culture of mystery; and it is a thread that winds, seldom dominant but always present, through the central European tradition: The Church Fathers, Augustine, the Gnostics, Abelard, Thomas, and then the extraordinary Pascal and the Romantic tradition that took up his standard a century later. And in the Orient, concurrently, the entire development of religious and philosophical attitudes, particularly in the Buddhist and Taoist writings, seem to us now to have been frequently closer to the actual existence of mankind than the rationalist discourses of the West.

…Thus what we call Existentialism today, in all its philosophical, religious and artistic manifestations, springs with remarkable directness from three figures of the last century. Two were philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche….They shared the same experience of loneliness, anguish, and doubt, and the same profound concern for the fate of the individual person. These were the driving forces too in the work of the third great originator, the novelist Dostoevsky, from whose writings, especially The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground, springs virtually the whole flowering of Existentialist sensibility in literature.

…Simply because Existentialism is not a produce of antecedent intellectual determinations, but a free transmutation of living experience, it cannot be defined. Nevertheless the important tendencies are evident enough.

In the first place, Existentialism is a recoil from rationalism. Not that Existentialists deny the role of reason; they merely insist that its limits be acknowledged….In particular, Existentialism is opposed to the entire rationalist tradition deriving from the Renaissance and culminating, a hundred-odd years ago, in the “cosmic rationalism” of Hegel…

The Existentialist knows that the self is not submerged, it is present, here and now, a suffering existent, and any system of thought that overrides this suffering is tyrannical. “A crowd is untruth,” Kierkegaard repeats with choric insistence. Only in the self can the drama of truth occur.

Yet when the Existentalist looks inside himself, what does he find? nothing. Looking back beyond birth or forward beyond death, he sees the void; looking into his own center, thrusting aside all knowledge, all memory, all sensation, he sees the chasm of the ego, formless and inconceivable, like the nucleus of an electron. And he is led to ask, as philosphers throughout history have asked: why is there anything instead of nothing, why the world, the universe, rather than a void? By concentrating all attention on this nothing within himself and underlying the objective surface of reality, he gradually transforms nothing into the concept of Nothingness, one of the truly great accomplishments of human sensibility. Nothingness as a force, a ground, a reality – in a certain sense the reality. From this comes man’s despair, but also, if he has courage, his existential integrity.

From this comes, too, the Existentialist’s opposition to humanism. Not that he is inhumane; quite the contrary, his entire preocuppation is with the sanity and efficacy of the individual person. But he insists that men must confront Nothingness. In a universe grounded in Nothingness, the anthropocentric vision of reality that characterized rational humanism from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century is clearly untenable. Mankind, instead of being the central figure on the stage of reality, the rational creature for whom the nonrational world exists, is actually an accident, a late and adventitious newcomer whose life is governed by contingency; and the proof, paradoxically, comes from rationalism itself, from the Darwinian idea of evolution.

A few thoughts: Any “proof” requires an either/or mentality. From a Buddhist perspective, Darwinianism isn’t false. A Buddhist would have no reason to deny evolution – in fact Buddhist philosophies tend to lend themselves to Evolution (unlike Christian theology). If empirical data proves our evolution, then at the level of our rational/material existence, we are evolving. But, it remains a myth because it is a means by which we try and explain the world to ourselves. Any explanation, at the level of actual reality, is necessarily meaningless because it’s “proof” is based on past experience. Therefore, the explanation is only meaningful at the level of perceived reality. We are evolving, yet we are not.

According to Existentalists, the only way to recognize Nothingness is through a willingness to suffer – which is probably true for those of us in the west who have been so heavily brainwashed by belief in rational absolutes. We have to be willing to acknowledge our illusory beliefs as illusory. We have to be willing to confront meaninglessness. I’m not sure the Buddhists would agree that we have to suffer but they certainly don’t deny suffering. Any denial or attempt to evade suffering is nothing more than a means to evade reality – an attempt to “exist” in illusion which of course is an impossibility.

I’m finding all of this incredibly fascinating and extremely helpful!