June 07, 2006

Dr. Phil and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Café Flor

The hypothesis is that the absence of meaning in life presents problems of motivation, daily function, and overall maintenance of mood. To an extent, the concept of existential psychoanalysis is a response to this phenomenon, an avant-garde recognition that the pervasive anomie of modern times (I use this term in the classic sense of a collapse of social structures governing life in a given society, with full credit to Emile Durkheim; I mean, mais non) has not been credited to the source where credit is due. An expanding chasm divides our philosophical thinking from the demands of modern life; our belated recognition of the origin of the ensuing crisis is perhaps attributable to Hot Trends in Absurdist Thinking: it was only recently that Meaninglessness went Mainstream.

Two reactionary impulses have been excited by this societal movement. The first is the deplorable resurgence of Old Time Religion, a desperate attempt to subdue nihilism and moral anarchy through the Faith of Our Fathers. This will not work; the genie is too far out of the bottle now and atheism has achieved a general currency which defies easy relapse into mythology. There is no going back to belief systems primarily based on a preexisting ignorance about life origins. The other is the Soothing Wall approach of the motivational industry. The italicized term is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and is Fyodor’s admittedly derisive term for “men of action,” those misguided fools who are forever mistaking intermediate causes for ultimate ends, who do not realize that in their vain attempts to wrest some meaning for life, or some compensation for their pain, they are beating their heads against the wall.

The late-stage and decadent manifestation, or modern prototype, of the Soothing Wall was the New Age Movement, which borrowed many of the trappings and assumptions of old style religion (souls, spirits, karmic principles) while slyly avoiding contextual questions. It was the context of Old Time Religion which was vaguely embarrassing to New Age adherents, namely, the belief systems described in the Bible, Torah, or Koran, Sunday services, the quasi-psychotic practice of talking out loud to an unseen presence (prayer), but also including the huge capital investment in the mythology industry, running a varied gamut from the Vatican to the cathedral at Chartres to the simplest whitewashed and steepled Baptist Church in Pascagoula. Then, too, the sheer malevolent power of irrational, mythological thinking is deeply troubling to those who want to carry on religion under a different disguise and for gentler, pro-human purposes, who seek to dissociate themselves from the Crusades, or crucifixions, or large office buildings collapsing in a cloud of dust in lower Manhattan. New Age religion allowed the soul to live on; it allowed the spirit a kind of reincarnation as a feel-good ghost seeking to go with the flow.

I’m trying to imagine what would happen if Jean-Paul Sartre had looked up from his demi-tasse one fine morning in late spring, the Parisian heat held in abeyance for the moment by the dewy coolness along the Boulevard St. Germain, there at Le Maître’s favorite table at Café Flor, and saw the beetle-browed mass of Dr. Phil McGraw leaning toward him from the adjacent bentwood chair. Dr. Phil, with his perpetual look of bemused superiority, would first cast a few disapproving looks at the spiraling gray smoke from Sartre’s Galois, then wonder (still silently) at the Frenchman’s persistent need for caffeine stimulation, evidenced by the litter of drained cups on the round table. What’s worse: sweetened with sugar.

Who, I wonder, has the superior philosophical context? Granted, Sartre came around to the idea of something soul-like in his construction of the Engaged Man, although that always struck me as a disappointing, if understandable, cop-out. You know you’re right, Jean-Paul, I wanted to tell him. Don’t dress things up with this life-purpose bullshit. Still, Existentialism can seem a little sterile after a while without it (the essential problem with all philosophies constructed on Absurdity), and your philosophical arch-enemy Camus dealt with the first problem, the silent indifference of the Universe to Man’s quest for meaning, in the lapidary The Myth of Sisyphus. And you had to go him one better because otherwise that pushy little Algerian with the clumsy writing style wins out.

But now, through the vagaries of time travel, Simone is across the river in the Marais, and you’ve got this hulking American fixing you with his penetrating stare, declining, with a dismissive wave of his big paw, your ridiculous offer to purchase him a café-au-lait et brioche. He doesn’t need the first because he’s already “excited about his life,” and the second is contrary to his dietary principles regarding refined sugar and saturated fat. Sartre wants to mention that, nevertheless, the treats taste and feel good, as does the buzz from the stinky cigarette, and since we’re all on an express train to oblivion, why not enjoy them?

Thus the encounter between the Existentialist and New Age is fully joined. Dr. Phil has made a fortune by pathologizing the commonplace and pretending that life can be elevated to a plain it can never achieve, and where it doesn’t actually belong. Jean-Paul scratched out a basic living writing the truth about life, which is that it doesn’t actually mean anything and is little more than a string of incidents occurring on a more or less aleatory basis, upon which we impose a narrative we call our “life story,” but it’s essentially the same story as the rhododendron in the backyard or the banana slug crawling through the forest primeval. No doubt Fyodor would find Dr. Phil his ultimate Action Figure, a personality so tedious he would find himself missing the wet snows of St. Petersburg.

I conclude that Dr. Phil would fail in his earnest, or at least smug, efforts to get Jean-Paul “excited about votre vie,” and that the motivational mandarin’s aphoristic metaphors, such as “you don’t need a whisk broom to clean the sawdust from the Persian cat,” would be even more incomprehensible when translated into French. At Dr. Phil’s insistence that Jean-Paul “be honest with him,” Le Maître would assure the Texas huckster that there is nothing contrived or “defensive” about the Yawning Void of Meaningless in life, and that all of McGraw’s interim measures for debt relief, for getting damaged relationships up out of the ditch and on the road again, for going from a size 24 to a size 6 in twelve months, nevertheless meet the same inevitable fate as Beckett’s two gentlemen waiting interminably by the side of the road: nothing really leads anywhere.

Then turning the small café table on Dr. Phil, Sartre might, in this strange revenge fantasy, point out, dialectically and with great penetration, that Dr. Phil’s manic desire to get everyone to live like one Texas cornball possessed by narcissistic certainties was itself an extraordinarily elaborate defense mechanism against deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and pending mortality, but that it ultimately would not work, neither against Death nor against the virtually certain cancellation of McGraw’s syndicated talk show. With this, Sartre, with an elaborate formality thinly disguising the hauteur and arrogance just beneath the surface, would have resumed reading Le Monde.

June 06, 2006

We need a Defense of Sanity Constitutional Amendment

I must say something about Bush's defense of marriage constitutional amendment. I have read the proposed language; I have listened to a few minutes of Sam Brownback (R,Kans) on the Senate floor; I have fought off a wave of nausea. Brownback, a loyal White House ally on most obsessions of the loony right, spent his time talking about the relative superiority of two-parent households versue one-parent households. Income levels, emotional stability, iPods per capita -- all better in the intact family. Children seem to thrive, for the most part. Well, not entirely, Sam admitted. There are problems everywhere. But even Sam was forced to admit that his dazzling array of three-color charts and bar graphs seemed oddly wide of the mark. We are talking, after all, about homosexual marriage. The relative fortunes of children living in heterosexual marriages in various stages of disarray does not seem...what would Sam the lawyer say? Dispositive?

But it is, you see. More charts about what's going on in the Netherlands, where those relentless social experimenters have smoked themselves into such a state that just talking about the legality of same sex marriage has had a disastrous effect on the marriage rate. The Dutch aren't getting hitched, they're living in casual, Bohemian arrangements, and their kids - well, he didn't say anything about Dutch kids. Nor did he mention that the social phenomenon he was describing which is so different from, well - Kansas, is actually increasingly prevalent in European countries in general, France, for example, or in Italy, which is in some danger of becoming entirely unpopulated as the result of plummeting birthrates.

But Brownback's argument is a two-stepper which requires a mind as nimble, or at least as weird, as Senator Sam's. The Dutch experience proves that once you let gays get married, straights don't want to do it anymore. It's just, I don't know, ruined for them. And if they (Americans, now, try to follow along) continue to have kids while not marrying, it must follow that increasing numbers of American children will fall into chasms of poverty, despair, and emotional trauma.

This is what passes for argument on the floor of the Senate these days. We've got to ban gay marriage to avoid the Dutch Dilemma of Dissolution, a bacchanal of pot-smokin' and non-marryin' Netherlands Nihilism.

I prefer this argument to the polemic of reductio ad absurdum trotted out last time, that failing to "define" marriage will result in Equal Protection lawsuits contending that Americans must be free to marry their pet salamander, or that Fido should be allowed into the intensive care unit when his beloved wife-human is in extremis. The loss of interest argument is superior to those positions. Still very, very stupid, but better. There might, after all, be other reasons that Western Civilization (which would exclude Kansas, of course, and most of America) is fast losing interest in marriage. Indeed, there may be no way to legislate it back into existence. The Senate may not know that, but as the Pond-Dweller pointed out once before, the Senate is not exactly hip to current social trends. They may not have noticed that fewer than 25% of all Americans currently live in a traditional nuclear family. The nukular family, indeed, has undergone a sustained fission reaction. Americans may not share their obsession about gay marriage because Americans aren't that interested in marriage in general, particularly the young. In fact, that youthful cohort, America's future, would probably be indifferent even to salamander-human marriages. I mean, if you think it can work. Maybe that's what we need: The Give It A Shot Amendment.