Jean-Paul Sartre is another one of those hip, nihilistic-type novelists than whiney, depressive young men read in-between bouts of binge-drinking and scrawling poetry on the backs of cigarette packets. I, being very much one of that type of young man back when I was a young man, somehow managed to miss out Sartre. I read Kerouac and Camus and Beckett and Hemingway and mooched around cities feeling low and feeling that feeling low and drinking too much coffee were a man’s rights, dammit, and the only suitable place for any man with ideas or a love of the written word. I missed out Sartre when I was the age to be wowed by him, and have only read his first novel, Nausea, now, once I am become adult.
I’ll be honest, though, a lot of the existentialist notions I consumed as a younger man have stuck with me. I do believe – because it’s imperatively true – that life has no purpose, that existence itself is arbitrary and pointless and empty, but I don’t really see this as a constructive mode of thought or the route to happiness. There is no great meaning, all is futile – there is no true good or bad, evil does not exist, love does not exist, all that is real is the body, all actions and notions of morality rooted in misunderstandings of the base urges of a manifest collection of cells and hormones (to be scientific). We impose rules upon ourselves and our society because we have to, to get along, not because we should, not because it is right. There is no inherent truth in ideas of human rights – there is no higher authority to appease, everything, everything, is dust.
Writers like Camus and Beckett and, here, Sartre believe that the above paragraph is interesting enough to write book length texts about. It’s not.
I spent years being unhappy because I felt that I wasn’t achieving as much as I should, et cetera, but I realised eventually that NONE OF IT MATTERS. The future is not dependent on me, and even if a descendent of mine, or someone I saved from a fire or whatever turned out to invent the rocket that transported humanity off the earth and into eternity as a wandering species, even if that happened, I still wouldn’t matter, because that doesn’t matter. It’s all pointless (you get this?): there is no grand plan, no destiny – each life and the life of the species is a game, but one without an ending, and one that doesn’t even have many rules.
The problem with this ideology is that most people who think like this tend to dwell on it. They tend to use it as an excuse to do fuck all, to justify cruel or selfish behaviour. This is bollocks, in my opinion. The knowledge of everything’s meaninglessness shouldn’t trap one in fear resultant from awareness of ones smallness, it should instead free the mind and allow it to realise that it doesn’t matter what you do – be that bad or good. Your actions, honourable or terrible, hold no greater significance than how they impact directly and absolutely on your own life. And, from my experience, being nice and generous and kind and sympathetic makes one feel far more satisfied and happy than does wild, hedonistic abandon.
I have accepted the emptiness of my existence and use it as a springboard to try to achieve the things I want, which is much easier to do when the fear of failure is lifted.
Now that I don’t really mind if my novel gets published, it is far easier to try to get it published. Now that I’m not worrying about how other people judge what I do for a living, I’ve managed to find a job/career that doesn’t make me hate every working hour*. Not being bothered if my friends are not friends with each other, that’s another one.
None of it matters. Life doesn’t matter. But that isn’t a reason to not give a fuck, it’s a reason to discover what is important to you as an individual and strive for that. Yes, we live within a society, not out in the wilderness, so there are sacrifices that must be made: Would you rather grow everything you eat yourself, or live in a society with a system of money-based exchange? Would you rather have no electricity and running water or no utility companies? It’s not ideal, life isn’t perfect, but it is all, in its empty glory, everything anyone has.
That’s my philosophy, anyway. And I’m amazed it stretched to 700 words.
I just don’t feel that there is much value in discussing ideas such as this. What is life? What is it for? Why do we feel? Nausea, Sartre’s philosophical first novel, is all about this. Is life about the pursuit of food? Sex? Love? Money? Knowledge? For me, this isn’t interesting.
The protagonist is a flaneur-type who wanders around a provincial French city, doing little, living off free money. Yawn. It’s dry, it’s uninspiring, it’s over-intellectualising something that I, with the philosophical qualifications of a goose, can sum up and subvert.
Maybe my ideas sound confused, but so do Sartre’s. If life is so pointless, why did he bother to write the book? Because it didn’t matter either way if he did or not, but writing is fun, and hurts no one else.
Nausea does have some good scenes, interesting details, entertaining descriptions of a specific society at a specific time, a nice section where the narrator looks at portraits of dead luminaries… But it’s all underscored by the idea that questioning the meaning of life is a valid and worthwhile exercise. It’s not.
Life is pointless, but that is a liberating notion. It is something that one must learn, accept and move on from.
Don’t dwell on it, because it’s very easy to rush-write a thousand words on the topic that has little to no literary value, and every minute I’ve spent on this has been a minute I haven’t been reading the new Knausgaard.
Life is empty, but the new Knausgaard is about to give me days of divine literary pleasure. And that doesn’t matter to the world, but it will make me happy and hurt no one else.
That, if there must be one, is the purpose of life. Be excellent to each other.
And, as a purpose for myself, stop reading existentialist books from the mid-20th-century: I don’t like any of them any more. What a fucking liberation.
* See the nascent tone of blogposts such as ‘On killing oneself in the office’ from two years ago.
Not to sound like an eager audience member of self-help guru, clapping and wildly salivating, but I really needed to read this review today. I think you may have just helped alleviate a block I’ve had for ages. So thanks for the 700 word philosophy
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No way; hate to say it but the future does include you.
Your life on this planet has an effect regardless of your perspective.
How you spend money today does have an impact.
If you choose to give life or take away life does have an impact.
Meaning and identity is the problem.. I pray you find it!
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Eight years on from writing that post I still haven’t found meaningful meaning or a solid sense of personal identity, tho I absolutely do agree with the realities of what you mention re wider impacts of personal choices, I wouldn’t disagree with that now! (I have since that time been diagnosed with a personality disorder, tho, so I struggle to find a sense of identity to a clinically significant level. Whoops!) Thanks for engaging with the post, tho and best wishes!