Sunday, January 30, 2011

Living (I Presume)

"Life.  Don't talk to me about life."  - Marvin, the "Paranoid Android" from Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

There's a place between our theoretical ideas about existence and the reality.  The amazing thing is, no matter how stone-cold practical we are, no matter how tough, no matter how wise, no matter how brilliant, there's still that gap, and we still inhabit it.  What do I mean, exactly?  Oh, but this is one of those posts, one of those times when What I Mean is too tied up in What Does It All Mean to be clear.  Nevertheless, we write on, we live on.

It strikes me that we're so obsessed with life (and the universe, and everything) that we forget living.  Or is it the other way around?  Are we so obsessed with living that we forget life?  The latter is closer to one of T.S. Eliot's more grim lines, anyway: "Where is the life we lost in living." I guess it depends upon which word we use to signal which place in our minds.  Is life the place we inhabit, or is living?  Or, worse, do we inhabit neither, operating as mere automatons in some great celestial or spiritual machinery?

Between theoretical ideas about existence and the reality...  What are our theoretical ideas, and what is the reality?  Well, that's easy enough to say.  Everything we believe is theoretical, and the reality something we can't really access, limited as we are by our senses and, above all, by the inexorable march of time.  Philosophers throughout history, it seems to me, have argued about exactly how impossible it is to get to reality given our limited capacities for thought and perception - granting, of course, that our capacities far exceed those of other animals - ranging in conclusion from thought is reality to perception is reality to there is no reality at all to it doesn't matter because God will save and/or destroy us anyway to let's play backgammon instead of thinking about this anymore.  Maybe the last of these is the most wise, after all, not because it is true, or right, but because to absorb oneself in a game might be the best way to inhabit our mysterious existence joyfully.

Then again, it might not be.  The irony of being counter-cultural is that you need a culture to counter.  Since all humans are a part of some culture or another, it stands to reason that we're never without opportunity to follow or break cultural mores.  It is still the case, however, that breaking the rules is irrelevant once you become invisible: consider the trouble-making student who is only relevant because he is so numerous; the individual who sneaks out of class doesn't really effect anything - including himself - all that much.

That is what it means to be obsessed with life.  We are so concerned with a troublemaker, with what happens to him, with whether he is caught, with how disruptive his actions are.  We take our cultural belief systems and apply them to the situations we see around us, heaping praise and scandal on the people who stand out (often the counter-cultural ones) because we think it matters so much.  But does it, really?  Why are we so concerned?  Why do we insist, with so much vehemence, that people do what we think is right?  The origin of imperialism is in this Christian sense of Life, and with it comes a much more profound death: a death of the spirit, of ingenuity, of love.  And, of course, of all of the non-Christians.

Of course, I'm essentially quoting Nietzsche here.  And don't get me wrong; just because we're the children of Puritan forefathers doesn't mean that we're alone.  The obsession with Life - the need to pry into other people's business, indeed, the need to see that others believe and act and do unto in the same way that you do unto - is hardly unique to Christianity, or indeed to the West.  Social creatures, it turns out, find it impossible not to meddle with other social creatures.

All of which is neither here nor there, as the saying goes.  The real point is that we don't inhabit either of those spaces: much as we are obsessed with life, we don't really understand - can't afford to understand, as David Hume might have it - that our beliefs are all predicated not on illusions, per se, but upon extremely limited information.  We are so obsessed and so certain precisely because we are so uncertain, because no amount of research or prayer can ever get us closer to really knowing what is right.  And, what's worse, we start to suspect that maybe there isn't some universal, timeless, "what's right" to begin with.  We start to think that, maybe, words are just that, words, and the whole problem with trying to understand life is that, as a human, we are forced into "trying to understand life," a series of sounds (or symbols) that only have meaning thanks to an accident of evolution (brains capable of rendering meaning out of sounds) and their cultural situation.

Which isn't to say that words aren't useful, or that there's some problem with being alive.  Far from it.  Living is wonderful, replete with joy, friendship and love, eating, thinking, writing, playing games, and countless other good things.  On the other hand, it's also full of pain, disappointment, unemployment, and frustration.  Of course, even those are a part of the joy of living, because they not only can be set against the good things, but indeed can mingle with the good things to produce a more interesting tapestry.  How many people love the feeling of completing a marathon, for example, not despite the pain, but because the pain makes it more sweet?  Isn't it the case that the difference between a romance novel and a pornographic story is mostly a matter of how disappointed the protagonist is for the balance of the narrative?

Sometimes, however, we get so caught up in life that we forget living all together.  Not that, again, we should ignore philosophies and theories and ideals.  Far from it, those things can be a part of the pleasure and pain of living.  But to inhabit them, to live only for life or - as Nietzsche might point out, for death - strikes me as the heart of silliness.

Ah, the irony here is too ripe.  "Not that we should..." is exactly what I'm writing against, no?  That's not a rhetorical question; it's a real one.  You see, I'm just as trapped as everyone else, inhabiting some place between life and living, between human and animal, between good and evil.  That I recognize it gives me no special benefit.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the real lesson.

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