Thursday, 17 July 2014

Existentialism and choice

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Colin Wilson c1956 - England's home-grown beatnik existentialist

The era of Existentialism, in the years following the 1939-45 World War, was the last time that atheists did any serious thinking about the human condition. Since then things have slipped back into shallowness, sloganeering, and sophomoric sniping.

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My interest in existentialism goes back to a TV interview in the Men of Ideas series, in which presenter Bryan Magee spoke to the expert William Barrett - who authored Irrational Man. Or perhaps this was preceded by my finding the work of Colin Wilson - especially The Outsider.

 I grabbed onto existentialism exactly because it was 1. atheist; and 2. serious - tackling the most profound issues of life. In fact, I never much cared for any of the canonical existentialists except Nietzsche - I was (and still am) unable to get anything out of Kierkegaard), was bored and repelled by Sartre (who seemed dishonest), very interested by Heidegger but unable to plough through the turgid tedium of his prose (although I read dozens of books about him) - but nonetheless, I probably saw myself as an existentialist of some kind - gleaning bits and pieces here and there from novels, plays, poems, pictures...

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The existentialist attitude to Christianity is hostile or bored. Nietzsche regards Christianity oxymoronically; as a powerful-powerlessness, a cancer of the will, puny yet able to bring-down civilizations and individuals - but this complex vision fell into two opposite, alternating assertions:

Christianity was merely the fairy-tale, wishful thinking of feeble-minded people who avoided confronting existential reality by escaping into daydreams;

and/or Christianity was a tyrannical, oppressive force of social authority and control, that crushed freedom and happiness.

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But the 1950s existentialists seemed mostly to be bored by Christianity, and the assumption was that (perhaps for world historical reasons) it just didn't work anymore; therefore something new and stronger was needed.

But the existentialists were honest enough to perceive that in eliminating God, they had eliminated objectivity - and that therefore LIFE boiled down to a subjective choice - which was not regarded as The Truth, was therefore not binding on anyone else, and could not serve as a socially cohesive force.

What was the choice between?

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The human condition falls into the good bits - happiness, insight, fulfilment, a sense of meaning and purpose...

And the bad bits where it is miserable, boring, painful, meaningless and pointless. The question was - which was real and which was the illusion?


Most existentialists chose to believe that the bad bits were underlying reality, and the good bits were temporary illusions; Colin Wilson chose to believe the opposite - which was why I found him a valuable author.

But the fact was that it was all down to choice, individual choice, subjective choice, contingent choice, impermanent choice: the whole weight of existence hinged upon this choice...

So, in the end, existentialism does tend towards despair - since sooner or later even the most pride-crazed mind (I am thinking of Nietzsche) becomes filled with terror at supporting the whole weight of existence by a mere act of impermanent, fragile choice - a choice which must be sustained at all times, through thick and thin, sickness and heath, youth and age, good times and bad...

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