No Excuses: Lectures 4-6, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall

The idea that death makes life absurd is an idea that goes all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. What makes Sisyphus even more absurd is that he doesn’t die. He does the same thing over and over and over again. In Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, we are told that it is the vanity of vanities to expect our lives to add up to something in the end. All of our joys and achievements come to nothing in the end. So this idea of the absurd is also a Biblical notion.

It is natural for rational beings to ask “why”? But the problem is that when you provide an answer, there is another “why” waiting. The justification eventually runs out as does science. Our rational demands in an indifferent universe shows us that reason has problems. Also, reflection poisons experience.

We are supposed to imagine Sisyphus as an absurd hero because he takes on his task and maintains meaning through scorn and resentment. It’s a rebellion. A refusal to accept absurdity.

But there is a problem here. On the one hand, Camus says that life is worth living for life itself. But the reactive gesture and rejection is at odds with the idea of living life for life itself. It’s based on anger that the universe doesn’t meet our demands of it. Really, what Sisyphus’ passion amounts to is a desperation. It is true that in so far as you are wholly engaged in your life and you taste the experience that you have, that is the meaning. But once you elevate yourself to a philosophical level and start asking what is life’s meaning, there is no answer. It’s meaningless.

Sisyphus’ work gives him meaning, but he resents the gods who put him there – he resents his place in life. Nietzsche claims this way of giving meaning to life ultimately destroys itself.

Solomon asks: “What is the role of reason and reflection? How should we live if what we are supposed to do is somehow take philosophical charge of our lives? Can we be like Mersault in The Stranger where we simply throw ourselves back into our lives and resign ourselves to our fate?”

The Existentialists say “no”. That’s far too simple. Solomon says Camus realizes this is far too simple, too so comes at it in a totally different way in The Plague where he says we have to face the absurd together. How do we face the idea of death together? The idea becomes, “I rebel, therefore we all exist.” What we are rebelling from, primarily, is suicide and nihilism – especially philosophical suicide which is an attempt to deny the absurd by appealing to a God or an afterlife, or in defense of cruelty in the name of a future utopia.

Clamence in The Fall represents a really good man. He was a lawyer who willingly took on cases of indigent people who would not be able to pay him back. He was kind, courteous. He’s a lawyer which puts him in the middle of the justice system. As a lawyer, he is neither the judge nor the accused. But he comes to live in Amsterdam and calls himself a judge-penitent. Amsterdam is a city constructed of circles that could be said to resemble the circles of Hell and Clamence lives in the very center.

But how did he go from being an upstanding citizen to a judge-penitent? He turns all of his “good”actions around and sees them in terms of guilt. For instance, he helps a blind man cross the street and then doffs his hat to the man. He describes this gesture as selfish because the blind man can’t see it so really what he’s doing it for is to look good to those who can see it. But why would this be described as his primary motivation? If you have been doffing your hat all your life, it could easily be just a habitual action.

What Camus is trying to show is how easily we can undermine our own conceptions of ourselves. We can think too much about what it is we’ve done or haven’t done and that can be a huge problem. Clamence can’t accept himself. He can’t just say, “that’s the way I am”. All of his thinking lead to misery and guilt. It is often said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But is the examined life worth living? Clamence is very rational, but in a way, he is likewise irrational because he makes himself unhappy. He is proud which is the worst of the seven deadly sins. In Clamence, this pride is hubris because it is an arrogant pride. And wounded pride is the worst sort of self-righteousness.

In a way, what Clamence is doing is holding a mirror up for us. If this character can come to the conclusion that he is guilty, what does that say about us? The idea is that we are guilty by being human. We all find ourselves in a world of injustice and suffering and it makes us feel like we should do something about it but we know there is so much suffering and injustice that we can never possibly do enough.

There are some solutions to this. We could be like Mother Teresa who said she never thinks except in terms of the one person she is dealing with at the time. We can also turn away. What difference is my $1000 going to make anyway? People for a while overwhelmingly chose the later. What difference can I make? What Camus wanted to show is that this “compassion burnout” has been created by pride conflated with Christian self-righteousness.

Solomon says that Camus had intended to go to India to study Buddhism. He recognized the dichotomy he presents is too harsh. Buddhism teaches that reflection on your personal life will always inevitably break down, but the focus remains on a happy, compassionate life. The dichotomy doesn’t exist in Buddhism in the same way it does in the West.

The problem is, there are very few experiences that are just experience and very few reflections that aren’t about our experience. What do we do with this idea that there is experience on the one hand and lived experience on the other? The idea that somehow reflection vs. experience divides the world in a very harsh way. Is this division necessary?

Much of this thinking came about in the 18th Century through Rousseau (1712-1778). He presented the idea of the Noble Savage. People are basically good but society corrupts them. As they become more sophisticated and learn the language of good and evil, they become different -they become superficial, vain, and merely social beings. This is the transition from Mersault to Clamence. Mersault is not corrupted by society, but as soon as it gets its hands on him, Mersault is forced to rebel against the role they want to assign him. Clamence, on the other hand, totally takes on the role and this creates his “fall”.

So what do we do with this split? Is it necessary? And isn’t it kind of interesting that the West had completely ignored Buddhism up until Schopenhauer (1778 – 1860) presented his overly pessimistic views? Solomon says it was Herman Hesse in the 1900s who first started showing how Buddhist ideas could potentially resolve the split.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

I recently watched the movie “Steppenwolf” which presented the novel, Steppenwolf, as one long drug trip after another and perhaps that is what it was. But if Hesse had been involved in Buddhist meditation and Jungian dream interpretation (he knew Carl Jung personally), I’m not sure it is completely accurate to conclude the book is about a drug trip even though some of our best literary works come to us via the drug trips of authors.

In the intro. to my copy of the book, Hesse says Steppenwolf has been more misunderstood than any of his other novels. In fact, he says it has been violently misunderstood by those who are most enthusiastic about it – especially his younger readers. He wrote this book about his problems when he was 50 and the younger individuals who read it tend to completely misunderstand it. And as for those of us who are his age now when he wrote the book, he wants us to know it is not about a man despairing, but a man believing. “May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary – to healing.”

It’s like a dark night of the soul, like in Martin Scorcese’s After Hours. The imagination is heightened in our dark nights. But dark nights are always cleansing if we allow them to be.

The person who introduces the story Haller left to him says, “I have no doubt that they are for the most part fictitious, not, however, in the sense of arbitrary invention. They are rather the deeply lived spiritual events which he has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experience.” He goes on, “I see them as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but a sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.”

Haller said, “Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage would in our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone doesn’t feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.”

The rest of the book is Harry Haller’s records which doesn’t play out as a formula. It isn’t 2+2=4. It’s the realization that the self is comprised of onion layers, not a Cartesian split self between lived experience and rational understanding (wolf and man). Rather, the self is comprised of an infinity of selves which is the same as saying there is “no-self”. Instead of thinking in terms of Cartesian dualism, he comes to understand himself in terms of an onion where layer after layer can be pealed away until at last there is nothing (or everything).

Nietzsche in 90 Minutes

Nietzsche in 90 Minutes was so much more informative than Nietzsche for Beginners (and quicker to get through, too).

Items worth remembering:

  • The Birth of Tragedy. This brilliant and highly original analysis of Greek culture contrasts the clear-cut Apollonian element of classical restraint with the darker, instinctual Dionysian forces. According to Nietzsche, the great art of Greek tragedy came from a fusion of these two elements, which was eventually destroyed by the shallow rationalism of Socrates. This was the first time the darker element of Greek culture had been emphasized, and Nietzsche’s characterization of it as fundamental proved highly controversial.
  • Even more controversial was Nietzsche’s frequent use of Wagner and his “music of the future” to illustrate his philosophical arguments.
  • No longer could he condone Schopenhauer’s “Buddhist negation of the Will.” Instead he pitted this Dionysian element against the Christian elements that he considered to have weakened civilization.
  • In his view Christianity started from the negative. It had taken hold in the Roman Empire as the religion of the oppressed and slaves. This was everywhere evident in its attitude to life. It constantly sought to overcome our more powerful positive instincts. This negation was both conscious (in the espousal of asceticism and self-denial) and unconscious (with regard to meekness, which he saw as an unconscious expression of resentment, and inversion of aggression by the weak.)
  • Likewise Nietzsche attacked compassion, the repression of true feelings and the sublimation of desire involved in Christianity, in favor of a stronger ethic closer to the origins of our feelings.
  • The superman made his appearance in Thus Spake Zarathustra, a long “dithyrambic” poem of almost unbearable bombast and earnestness, whose utter humorlessness is unrelieved by its author’s attempts at “irony” and leaden “lightness.” Like Dostoevsky and Hesse, it’s unreadable unless you’re a teenager – but the experience of this work at such an age can often “change your life.” And not always for the worse.
  • When Nietzsche lost his sanity, his mother took care of him first and his sister Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, took over which was a problem. She began doctoring her brother’s unpublished notebooks, inserting anti-Semitic ideas and flattering remarks about herself. These notebooks were published as The Will to Power which has since been purged of this rubbish by the great Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann, to produce what is arguably Nietzsche’s greatest work.
  • At the outset of Will to Power, Nietzsche states the condition of the coming age: “Skepticism about morality is what is decisive. The ending of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some metaphysical beyond, leads to nihilism. ‘Everything lacks meaning’ (the untenability of [the Christian] interpretation of the world, upon which such a huge amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false).”
  • He goes on to show what our knowledge is: “All our organs of knowledge and our senses are developed only as a means of preservation and growth. Trust in reason and its categories, in dialectic, therefore the valuation of logic, proves only their usefulness for life, proved by experience – not that something is true.”
  • Which leads to the dangerous insights: “Pleasure appears where there is the feeling of power. Happiness lies in the triumphant consciousness of power and victory. Progress lies in the strengthening of the type, the aptitude for strong use of the will. Everything else is a dangerous misunderstanding.”
  • The list of major twentieth-century figures Nietzsche influenced includes Yeats, Strindberg, O’Neill, Shaw, Rilke, Mann, Conrad, and Freud.
  • Lots of people read just bits of Nietzsche. Such ideas as the Will to Power and the Superman became commonplace and widely misused. Nietzsche’s superman was hijacked by the racist lobby. Anti-Semites, then fascists, began lifting remarks from Nietzsche’s work, regardless of the context. The very looseness of Nietzsche’s philosophy became its undoing. As a result of grotesque misuse during the first half of the twentieth century, Nietzsche’s philosophy was badly discredited. Yet it is worth remembering that Nietzsche made his views on racism, anti-Semitism, and related attitudes perfectly plain. As he clearly states: “The homogenizing of European man is the greatest process that cannot be obstructed: one should even hasten it.” When the Nazis attempted to take him on board as their official philosopher, and Hitler kissed Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s hand outside the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, it was the Nazis who entered the realm of higher lunacy, not Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The Will to Power

  • The Will to Power is the major concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy. He developed it from two main sources: Schopenhauer and the ancient Greeks. Schopenhauer had adopted the oriental idea that the universe was driven by a vast blind will. Nietzsche recognized the force of this idea and adapted it to human terms. In the course of Nietzsche’s studies of the ancient Greeks, he concluded that the driving force of their civilization had been the search for power rather than anything useful or immediately beneficial. Nietzsche concluded that humanity was driven by a Will to Power. The basic impulse for all our acts could be traced back to this one source.
  • But Nietzsche failed to answer two main objections. If the Will to Power was the only yardstick, how could actions that appeared not to follow its immediate dictates be other than degenerate or perverted? Second, Nietzsche’s notion of the Will to Power was circular: if our attempt to understand the universe was inspired by the Will to Power, surely the concept of the Will to Power was inspired by Nietzsche’s attempt to understand the universe.
  • Nietzsche wrote: “The manner of this lust for power has changed through the centuries, but its source is still the same volcano…What we once did ‘for the sake of God’ we now do for the sake of money….This is what at present gives the highest feeling of power. 

Eternal Recurrence

  • According to Nietzsche, we should act as if the life we are living will go on recurring forever. Each moment we have lived through we will have to relive again and again for eternity… This supreme and impossibly romantic stress on the importance of the moment is intended as an exhortation to live our lives to the full. As a passing poetic idea, it has some force. As a philosophical or moral idea, it is essentially superficial.

The Superman

  • The prototype for Nietzsche’s superman was his Zarathustra. The tale of Zarathustra was intended as a parable of behavior. The parables that Christ preached in the Sermon on the Mount appear childishly simple – but on reflection are neither childish nor simple. They are profound. The parable of Zarathustra is childishly simple, and on reflection remains so. Yet its message is profound, despite this. Nietzsche preaches nothing less than the overthrow of Christian values: each individual must take absolute responsibility for his own actions in a godless world.

Interesting Quotes from Nietzsche

  • The “thing-in-itself” is a nonsensical concept. If I remove all the relationships, all the “properties,” all the “activities” of a thing, nothing remains. Thingness has only been invented by us to fit the requirements of logic. In other words, with the aim of defining, of communication. (In order to bind together the multiplicity of relationships, properties, and activities.) [Will to Power]
  • “Truth”: according to my way of thinking, this doesn’t necessarily mean the antithesis of error but in the more fundamental cases only the posture of various errors in relation to one another. Perhas one is older, more profound than another, even ineradicable, in so far as the organic entity of our species could not live without it. Other errors do not tyrannize us as conditions of life in quite this way, but on the contrary when compared with such “tyrants” can be set aside and “refuted.” An assumption that is irrefutable – why should it for that reason be “true”? This proposition may well outrage logicians, who posit their limitations as the limitations of things. But long ago I declared war on this optimism of logicians. [Will to Power]

Demian by Hermann Hesse

Demian by Hermann Hesse is not on my reading list. But it was a quick read and quite satisfying as far as novels go.

Hesse wrote this book in 1917 just after WWI. Being a German and a pacifist, he got himself into all kinds of trouble with this novel because of the nationalistic sentiments in Germany that eventually gave rise to Hitler.

In Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller makes use of Demian several times using Emil Sinclair as an excellent example of a child raised by narcissists. With my recent interest in narcissism I’ve been wanting to read Demian ever since reading Miller’s thoughts on it several months ago.

In Drama of the Gifted Child, Miller quotes Hesse (from Demian):

“Like most parents, mine were no help with new problems of puberty, to which no reference was made. All they did was take endless trouble in supporting my hopeless attempts to deny reality and to continue dwelling in a childhood world that was becoming more and more unreal. I have no idea whether parents can be of help, and I do not blame mine. It was my own affair to come to terms with myself and to find my own way, and like most well-brought up children, I managed it badly.”

Demian is somewhat autobiographical. Hesse’s parents were Pietist missionaries. The parents of Emil create a so-called “world of light” and moral order. When the child disobeys this moral order, through something like a fib for instance, the child is made to see himself as “bad”. The parents need to create such a “pure” and orderly household is the result of denying their own “depravity”, likely due to growing up in the same sort of household as they have created. This creates narcissism because all the parent can see is the “goodness” or “badness” of the child’s behavior rather than the child himself. If the child continues to deny his “badness” as his parents have taught him to do, he is likely to become narcissistic, too. The only way out of the narcissistic vicious circle is a willingness to quit denying the “badness” and to recognize it as part of oneself.

The story of Demian is Emil’s struggle to break away from this parental pattern. Abraxas, the God of both good and evil his first step out of the pattern: the first attempt to integrate both good and evil into one entity rather than maintaining a dualism. But this is very difficult to do because there is a strong tendency to want to go back to the “purity” of childhood (mom and apple pie)- the denial of what is bad – rather than recognizing it as part of oneself and ones family (or society).

Hesse rightfully felt that if his society was not able to break out of this pattern, a horrific event would make it necessary. Germany was suffering a cultural decline and a depression – both brought on in part by the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Hitler comes along and is easily able to find a scapegoat for these conditions because German society was still caught up in Lutheran ideas of dualistic piety. Hitler promises to lead Germany back into a “pure” state of being by getting rid of what is “bad”.

I’ve heard people compare the conditions of pre-Hitler Germany to what is going on in the U.S. When you think of all of the groups being demonized by the fundamentalist right, it really does seem similar. And that’s just plain scary.

But I earnestly think this “pious” group is much smaller than what existed in Germany in 1917 when Hesse wrote this book. There are millions of Republicans that do not support this fundamentalist right piety. I live in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S. and more and more people around here believe Bush is getting way off base. I noticed that Republican Senator Hagel from Nebraska reprimanded Bush for not meeting with Sheehan. More than 1/2 of all Americans do not believe the war has made us safer.

But this could all be wishful thinking on my part. Many Americans refuse to recognize that America is not always as pious as “mom and apple pie”. They continue to believe the “evil is out there” and hold onto the old view that good must overcome evil. (The continued denial of evil.)

As Max Demian tells Emil, the situation will take care of itself: “Perhaps it will be a very big war, a war on a gigantic scale. But that, too, will only be the beginning. The new world has begun and the new world will be terrible for those clinging to the old.”

The actual war lies within us, not “out there”. Until we recognize and seek to resolve the inner struggle, we will continue to seek out wars.