Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Meaning of Life: A Provisional Assessment

People can't really mean what they say when they ask for the meaning of life. Words have meanings in relation to the objects to which they refer, and we already know what the thing is that corresponds to "life" -- well, I don't know -- but definitions can probably be found in the scientific literature. Or maybe not; maybe that's a false, if intuitive, understanding of how words and objects interact, but to complete that thought would require some passage about Wittgenstein and the early chapters of Augustine's Confessions, and I haven't thought my way through that question in a long time, if I ever did. And I've gotten lazier about pursuing that kind of digression since I turned twenty-five and my brain stopped developing (which happened a little less than two years into this blog's existence, for whatever that's worth). At any rate, there's no way that people who ask about the meaning of life are trying to gesture toward some intellectual finger-trap of this sort -- what they are really asking is: How can life be made enjoyable? How can it be something that hurts less?; something that is appreciated rather than just got through?

It would be presumptuous to say I have the answer, but I have noticed that my life became a lot more enjoyable to me about two years ago (perhaps corresponding to that end of brain development mentioned above), and that I now enjoy almost every day of it. And while some of this is due no doubt to the success of very particular concrete strategies (such as learning how not purely and simply to resent set-backs and grievances, but also to save them up for later to be ground into poetry like sausage), it is also due to some changes in intellectual understanding that could theoretically be conveyed to others. We can, at any rate, all benefit from the comparison between my less happy past and more happy current self. Or maybe not -- maybe it's always just our outward and inward circumstances (like, again, brain development) that adjust or conspire to make us more or less happy than we were before, and out intellects come up with post facto justifications for it. Maybe I'll be unhappy again in another two years and all of this will ring like the hollowest advice from one who didn't know how good he had it. But even in that case I guess I'd rather have some monument to happier times to refer to than not.

Anyway, I think the main reason I'm happy now is because I stopped trying to be happy, and instead poured my energy and effort into a series of projects that can never possibly be completed to my satisfaction, because they are infinite.

That's it. That's all the advice I have to offer. Of course, like every other insight, it is no sooner arrived at than you start to see that everyone else has thought of it already and written it down, and the best one can do not to seem like a johnny-come-lately is at least to show that you realize everyone has already come up with it and to fill the rest of the blog post with quotations attesting to that fact, even though you've already stated your thesis and probably are not likely to make it any more convincing to those who aren't prepared to accept it by the end of this paragraph.

Our first exhibit, from the beginning of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals:
"If we think of [life] as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top. We see a top, but when we finally reach it, the overcast rises and we find ourselves merely on a bluff. The mountain continues on up. Now we see the "real" top ahead of us, and strive for it, only to find we've reached another bluff, the top still above us. And so it goes on, interminably. [....] Unlike the chore of the mythic Sisyphis, this challenge is not an endless pushing up of a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back again, the chore to be repeated eternally. It is pushing the boulder up an endless mountain, but, unlike Sisyphis, we are always going further upward. [...] Simply, this is the very nature of life — that it is a climb — and that the resolution of each issue in turn creates other issues, born of plights which are unimaginable today. The pursuit of happiness is  never-ending; happiness lies in the pursuit."
It is both dismaying and validating at once to see one's own hard-won conclusion has already been known for a long time by others. But there it is. Alinsky has made all the most important points, and done it much more quickly than I will in the remainder of this post.

If I may un-summarize: the thing about life is that there is no mountain peak that one can actually attain. There is no final resting place, no stasis of equanimity, in which one will finally sit on one's laurels and "be happy." There is no goal that will finally satisfy one's thirst and hunger. You can't be satisfied. You can't be sated. Anything we seek to possess will not actually be so great once we have it, and there are many things beside that we won't ever get. This is all old Omar Khayyam (slash Edward FitzGerald) was getting at --

"The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon 
  Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,  
  Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone."

That's all the wisdom that Schopenhauer and the Buddha and Childe Harold knew. A reward once gained turns strangely sour; life is a constant alternation between pain and malaise; when you are experiencing genuine misery, all you can pray for is relief; when you are busy, you dream of having "free time" -- but as soon as either comes you suddenly find that you "have nothing to do with yourself." In short, you become bored out of your skin. "But long ere scarce a third of his [life] passed by,/ Worse than adversity the Childe befell;/He felt the fulness of satiety," as the poet says. 

Once one has read something like that as a young person, one grasps instantly that it is true, but also begins casting about for some argument to defeat it. Because if it is true, then doesn't it make a mockery of all the aspirations one was told to have, of human life in general, and of one's own moral and political ideals? How will we obtain a world of general happiness and equality if people are no sooner placed into a social democratic paradise than they begin to gnaw off their arms with ennui? Quoth Orwell, in one of those foundational insights that spoiled my whole projected career as an untroubled left-wing ideologist before it had even begun (Orwell had many of them): "happiness derives mainly from contrast. [...] happiness [in fiction] is convincing just because it is described as incomplete. All efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures[...] The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem."

It's a truth that goes down easier in a compassionate English voice like Orwell's than in certain others, but stripped to its core it is no different from what can be found in, say, Strindberg's despotically Continental preface to Miss Julie. And even the quality of indubitable English-ness doesn't wash out the wound left by William Blake's unsettling line: "Mercy no more could be,/ If all were as happy as we[.]"

Bitter pills, bitter pills, and so a great deal of one's undergraduate and post-adolescent years, intellectually speaking, is spent trying to cough them up again. But this effort is futile and eventually has to be abandoned. As is the case with pretty much any insight, if you find yourself combatting it so  stridently, it is probably because it has some truth. And in that case, you aren't going to get rid of it, and anyway you shouldn't try. There is no such thing as a useful delusion, and any "comforting lie" can only comfort you so long as you haven't yet realized it's a lie. Any truth, meanwhile, however astringent, will ultimately serve you well -- better, at any rate, than any corresponding falsehood, which can only trip you up in a world that is, rather definitionally, governed by reality.

But now, wasn't this post supposed to be about how I got to be happier than I was before, rather than sadder? Yes, well, I had to pass through the valley first and all that.

Perhaps I have not yet sufficiently conveyed the point by means of examples that a false conception of the meaning of life, even if it is one of the "comforting" ones -- is not actually going to make anyone happier. The ways in which this particular false belief -- namely, that life has a "meaning"-- usually envisioned as a destination or goal-- rather than being an infinite process -- leads people astray are legion. Even though so many people waste countless years, tears, and read dull French novellas pondering on how miserable they have become now that they've realized their once-sought ambitions are neither attainable nor worth attaining, they should actually be singing hallelujahs that they were liberated so early on. Some people make it all the way to a comfortable and lucrative medical practice before they realize that being a doctor hasn't solved all their problems and they actually don't have the absolute financial security they always assumed. Some people make it as far as the suburbs before they realize both that it is boring to rest content with what they have and that they can't rest anyways, since their sense of self is now bound up with something external, which therefore cannot be depended on with certainty. None of this is a problem -- any more than any human life is full of the primary problem we are discussing in this post -- so long as they are motivated by underlying ideals -- to seek the flawless practice of medicine, say-- but if they are not, if they hate their careers and did it for the house, they will find themselves in serious emotional trouble.

Far better to have one's existential crisis as soon as possible. Like the chicken pox, it must be gone through, but one can draw comfort from the fact that afterward one will be inoculated for life. Also like the pox, it ought almost to be thrust upon people in their youth if they haven't already caught it, because as a disease it becomes far more dangerous and even fatal as one ages. Take a dollop of Nietzsche in college, or whomever one will find risqué enough to be convincing, and watch how the fever comes with a fury, but then just as quickly subsides. To miss it when one is young and still at one's peak capacity for manufacturing intellectual antibodies is to risk the fate in age of the tragic protagonist of one of Louis MacNeice's poems -- the man who realized too late that his life had been spent in a "flowery maze/ through which he had wandered deliciously till he stumbled/ Suddenly finally conscious of all he lacked[.]"

This is the thing he lacked -- I know because every human being who ever lived has lacked it: a goal which, once obtained, will bring him full and final peace of mind. Organizing one's life around such a goal can only lead to defeat and nihilism.

But suppose you organize your life instead around something that you know you will not attain, and cannot attain, but which you can strive toward by stages, trusting that neither you nor anyone else will reach it, but that you are all -- somehow, by degrees -- getting closer? This we can call the "infinite goal." It is the ever-receding mountain top of Alinsky's imagery above.

Already I hear the cries of "self-contradiction!" The poets have thought a step ahead of my argument in this case, and they are ready for it with a further counsel of despair. They always are, since poetry has always been a vehicle for thoughts too dangerous or depressing to be voiced straightforwardly or without rhyme, from the days of satirical couplets about the royal family on. ("Sweet verse embalms the spirit of sour misanthropy; but woe betide the ignoble prose-writer who should thus dare to compare notes with the world," as Hazlitt once lamented the strictures of his profession.)

The rejoinder to the argument in this case is, in brief: how are we to know that any progress is being made toward the impossible goal, if it is impossible? And if the goal is truly infinite, what can it mean to say we are moving toward it? Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her poem-parable of "The Tree and the Leaf," suggests something like the hope I was envisioning in the previous paragraph -- namely, the thought that though each small one of us (a "leaf") must die, we are ultimately going to make up a great and lasting human community -- a "tree" -- by our individual efforts. But Millay also spots the fatal canker in this idea: that trees too must perish, however much time has gone into their making. "Here, I think, is the heart's grief:/ The tree, though mightier than the leaf, [...] in the end comes down," and "The fluttering thoughts a leaf can think/That heard the wind and waits its turn,/ Have taught it all a tree can learn." To our point here, then, how can we say that the leaf is really building anything larger than itself, if it is just one iteration of a process of life and death that cycles infinitely-- never changing and getting nowhere.

Well, that is a difficult one (and perhaps half one's heart will always be with Millay on this one). The problem raises questions about infinity (for in order to be sufficiently unattainable, the impossible goals we set ourselves must in some sense be infinite, or near enough to count) and about whether it makes any sense at all to speak of moving closer to or farther from the infinite. I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say, however, that a thousand is a larger number than ten, even if the question of which if any is "closer" to infinity is a bit more recondite. So too, if one's impossible goal is to "know everything," say, it is certain that the aspiration is infinite, or near enough to keep you going for many a human lifetime -- yet it is just as clear that it is possible to know more than one did the day before, and more that day than the one before that, etc.


Perhaps one of the hidden advantages of those who have labored their whole lives with some sort of obsessional disorder -- at whatever stage of diagnosis -- is that they realize pretty quickly that they need to find such infinite aspirations, because if their obsessions become focused on any goal that is finite, then they will quickly obtain it and realize that it was not worth the effort. "Fulfillment's desolate attic," as Philip Larkin once dubbed the condition. Or else the goal of their obsessions, though finite and this-wordly (let's say it is a throne, or a job, or an acceptance letter, or the romantic affection of a particular other person), is denied to them, in which case those obsessions can become positively dangerous. More on that below.

Other people, whose energies in life are more diffuse, can probably make it for a long time before deciding that a particular goal is not all it's cracked up to be -- and moreover, they will probably have more than one goal going at any time, being diffuse and all, so they can always divert to an alternative one if their chief path forward is stymied. This is all a good thing for them -- it's why obsession is considered a disorder -- but the downside of it is perhaps that it takes such people longer to figure out a truth that obsessives discover early -- the truth we have been examining in this post, the truth known by all the great pessimists from Qoholeth on, that "all is vanity, vanity," etc.

In my own case, I feel that much of my unhappiness in my younger years was due to my obsessions becoming fixated on a series of goals that I was actually more or less able to achieve -- getting into a particular college, finding a job and a career, etc.  But worse than that -- these were things that, while attainable, I could not attain immediately, and by my own mental effort. They were all the time both tantalizingly, maddeningly possible, even imminent, but also not graspable through private struggles, independent of the vagaries of other people's decisions and external circumstances. This left me in a state of constant suspense and tension. I have to "become a writer," I told myself-- then I will finally be happy! I have to "make a living from my writing." I have to "be an intellectual," then at last I can rest. But a writer is one who writes -- it is only possible in motion. An intellectual is one who thinks -- it, likewise, implies the passage of time, not the imagined stasis in which time stops and I simply "am" one or the other of these things henceforth.

The crucial step was when I discovered that it was possible to transfer each of these aspirations away from an imagined state of being, and toward an infinite series of actions that could never be completed, but that were all heading in the same direction. I would "read all the books," for example (No, I wouldn't really, but I could try, and read a few more of them each year than I had the one before.) That's one of my currently going infinite projects. Another would be the effort of this blog -- which aims, I suppose, at the impossible ideal of one day "gleaning my teeming brain" -- Which I actually hope it won't do, since I don't want to find myself at the end of it with an empty brain, but which is also maddening to pursue because it is impossible.

It is thus with every great infinite life project that keeps a person happy. It is tortuous to know that one can never reach one's destination. But one has chosen this destination -- and it is a workable one for the maintenance of happiness -- precisely because it cannot be reached. This accounts for that strange duality of human life that has so often been noted before. Our joy is inseparable from our pain. We should not wish away sorrow because we would also be wishing away happiness. And the greatest and most sublime pleasures of life are always half-mixed with suffering -- which Eric Gill once observed was as true of the state of the artist as of the stations of the cross: "The man crucified may be supposed to suffer phy­sical & mental anguish, but he suffers also intense happiness and joy. [...] the artist is often as a man nailed to a cross"-- especially, we may add, when he is pursuing his bottomless obsessions.

And it is valuable, via Gill, to bring this round at last to religion, since that is what we are really talking about here. The great advantage of the notion of God, heaven, the afterlife, the Millennium, perfect equality, the world that lives by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the socialist utopia, the communist paradise, the "beloved community" toward which we strain in my UU tradition -- the great advantage, I repeat, is that they all represent conceptions of infinity. One cannot, by definition, reach them, but one can feel that one is making strides (however minuscule). We are not about to achieve perfect justice, and probably cannot even do so at a conceptual level, given Blake's paradox quoted above and similar hard truths about the definitional limits of human altruism; but we can achieve greater degrees of justice than we have seen in the past, and we can keep moving forever in the direction of justice-- for the goal will always recede from us and be eternally far off.

Likewise, we cannot meet God, but perhaps we can move toward it -- which probably accounts for why so much mystical literature is focused on "ascent" rather than arrival, and why George Harrison declares "I really want to see you, Lord![...] but it takes so long." in "My Sweet Lord," -- not that he has already seen it, whatever it is. Likewise as well, a person I know (who would probably prefer not to be named in this context) was talking to me about all this and decided that K-Pop must be her religion, because it checked all the boxes of this scheme. The essential appeal of the K-Pop obsession lay in the fact that the idols in the music groups were always impossibly far off and idealized. One would never be able to actually sleep with them, or marry them, or whatever it was that one theoretically wanted to do with them. But by memorizing the unending details of their wardrobe, dance steps, social media presence... you can somehow sense that you are drawing closer.

The great danger, however, comes when people make the mistake of believing that these things actually exist, and more -- that they are accessible to us in this plane of reality and consciousness. By so doing, they have turned on its head the very value of religious conceptions. They have tried to make finite what is infinite. They think, to return to Alinksy's image, that we actually will one day reach the mountain top. They believe that the Prophet's Umma is not some hypothetical ideal, but something that historically existed and can be made to live again on Earth. They believe that the worker's paradise is close upon us, and that if we can only purge the few remaining saboteurs we will reach its gates. They believe that the Kingdom is at hand, and that some of you standing here will live to see it. Even in the world of K-Pop, my informant was telling me, the dangerous fans are always the ones who have managed to confuse the impossible aspiration with the finite goals of daily living. They are the fans who think they actually will marry the K-Pop idol, and soon!

The more "spiritualized" theists will perhaps agree with me so far, and add that this is all the more reason why idolatrous confusions between the sacred and the profane -- and between spiritual and temporal government -- must be avoided; and why these confusions always seem to lead to such murderous regimes, from ISIS to the Khmer Rouge. But the belief that God and heaven really exist, i.e. can be understood and experienced within human conceptions of reality, has shown itself to be nearly or just as deadly. This belief, however quintessentially "orthodox," is a form of idolatry itself, that seeks to make the infinite ideal into a finite reality. If it is accepted that God is something that is truly infinite -- that by definition therefore cannot be known by human minds, even if it is something toward which humanity must aspire -- then one will be spared the savage perils of dogmatism and Inquisition. But go far enough down this line and the distinction between believer and atheist begins to break down, and even to disappear. The believer must admit that she does not know what God is, to which the atheist can assent. So too, if heaven cannot be conceived, but is a mental device for framing the direction in which we would like human life to proceed, it is a valuable ideal, though here again, the Feuerbachian humanist and the spiritualized theist come to look quite alike. And if someone believes it is a place, and that they know how to get there, dangers ensue.

It is quite possible, indeed, that all the great problems of life stem from an excess of literalness. We saw at the beginning of this post how most of our emotional confusions while young come from being over-literal about happiness, and taking a little too seriously the advice of our elders. We were perhaps told at some point that we need to "work hard" if we want to do well in life. And later on, having worked hard, we discover that we are still not happy. The solution to this problem is one that no one could have told us or explained to us, because it would have sounded too improbable or cynical (hence there is no real purpose in my writing this post, except to amuse those who already possess this knowledge): it is that we can't set happiness as our goal; rather happiness will proceed -- by what bizarre mechanism who can say -- from our setting ourselves a goal of working even harder -- working infinitely, toward something we can never reach. What self-respecting young person would ever believe something so absurd? I certainly didn't. It happens to be true, however.

The problems of literalness in society at large have been alluded to as well. It is possible that this is the source of every trahison des clercs, every wave of bizarre scandal and witch-hunting mania in which the scholars play a role. Intellectuals are always more literal than the general public, and hence always more dangerous. Most people in this world hold their beliefs with some degree of vagueness, which is the only thing that saves any of us and allows society to continue. People may "believe in" God, heaven, hell, the eternal watchfulness of Kim Il Sung, etc. but they also recognize at an unconscious level that God and Allah are called supernatural for a reason-- if they exist, it is not in the nature we know. They may "believe," or say they believe, that the pains of hell are eternal. But they don't base their lives around this knowledge. Intellectuals, however, often do, because intellectuals "take ideas seriously" by trade, and most of them have noticed that if hell really does exist, then it must be the worst thing imaginable, and all one's effort, every hour of every day, must be devoted to escaping it! If the Great Leader really is "with us always," then we'd better watch what we say -- and be sure we keep all the others in line as well!

Intellectuals are not going to be able to think their way back into the beatific vagueness of the rest of humanity. They will bear the mark of Cain all their lives. The only way to happiness and redemption for them, therefore, will be somehow to arrive at non-literalness by a route they can find intellectually satisfying and internally coherent. But how is it to be achieved?

It seems odd that someone would write an entire novel about one man's journey to non-literalness, but this is exactly what Samuel Butler did in his Way of All Flesh. Rather than recapitulate everything in the novel here, I will simply recommend it as a guide, and give away the conclusion.

I hope that by the end of this post I have suggested adequately why Butler's choice of theme is not really so odd after all. It is possible now to see that the struggle against literalness is the great drama of human life, and the emergence from it the great sign of maturity. The travails of the protagonist, Ernest Pontifex, can't help but remind me of my own long quest to liberate myself from my literalness about life, politics, morality, and religion. From his college days on, Ernest is plagued by "the habit of [...] following everything out to the bitter end, no matter how preposterous," and it leads him though various morasses of evangelicalism and radicalism alike.

His salvation comes at last from following this out so far that he actually arrives back where everyone else started -- the place of gentle ideological vagueness, occupied by all those who don't follow things out with such relentless purpose. These are people who seem to grasp the important truths about life unconsciously, without needing to have first cycled by means of obsessive compulsion through all the available alternatives. Such as them he, Ernest, can never be, he concludes. But "there must [also] be hewers of wood and drawers of water," he observes: "men in fact through whom conscious knowledge must pass before it can reach those who can apply it gracefully and instinctively[.]" He thus appreciated the truth his godfather tries to tell him earlier in the novel: "You are trying to make people resume consciousness about things, which, with sensible men, have already passed into the unconscious stage.  The men whom you would disturb are in front of you, and not, as you fancy, behind you; it is you who are the lagger, not they."

Later on, our narrator weighs in on the lessons Ernest has learned, and I think it can serve well enough as a summation of all I have suggested above:
"Then he saw also that it matters little what profession, whether of religion or irreligion, a man may make, provided only he follows it out with charitable inconsistency[.] It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies. [...] 'no man’s opinions,' he sometimes says, 'can be worth holding unless he knows how to deny them easily and gracefully upon occasion in the cause of charity.'"

1 comment:

  1. I have some pretty strong disagreements with this post, but you can probably guess most of them and I doubt they would be very fruitful to pursue. There is one point, though, where I'm not sure I understand your argument: the claim that "the belief that God and heaven really exist, i.e. can be understood and experienced within human conceptions of reality, has shown itself to be nearly or just as deadly" as the sort of religious belief that has motivated people like the medieval Inquisition or ISIS, and that any move away from the sort of belief that motivates people to do such horrible things will reach a point where "the Feuerbachian humanist and the spiritualized theist come to look quite alike." This dichotomy seems to leave out the possibility that we can genuinely know some truths about God while falling so far short of total comprehension that we can only have fleeting encounters with Him in this life (through prayer, sacraments, and other paths He makes available to us). Someone who believes that she does know and interact with God, but in a way that she knows to be radically incomplete, will have reason (because of the incompleteness) not to wrong others in order to do what she takes to be His will. (I don't want to go into detail about the Abraham-Isaac story and similar Old Testament stories here, but I think they can be read in ways that support this claim.) Also, because such believers recognize that their understanding of God is radically incomplete and will remain so throughout their lives, they can receive the psychological benefits of an unattainable goal which are your main focus. You might think that simply taking, say, the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexual conduct literally is a way of wronging people; however, if wronging people in the name of one's infinite ideal is interpreted that broadly, then I could say that a pro-choice activist who sees legal abortion as a partial step toward a social ideal that will never be realized is doing the same.

    Sorry if the above is overly tendentious or if I've misinterpreted you, but I found this part of the post genuinely hard to understand (rather than just disagreeing with it), and would love to hear more about what you were trying to say if you have the time and inclination.