Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Let me first explain. I got this book because I’m doing a writing project that I thought I should read some Sartre for. Plus, I’ve always assumed that I was more or less an existentialist, without actually having read enough existentialism to back that up; so there was this whole curiosity/guilt thing going. (I’ve read Sartre before, but it was a long long time ago in college and I was probably pretty stoned at the time, so I don’t remember it that well.) Anyway, I was looking for some Sartre that wouldn’t make me want to tear my hair out, and I read somewhere (probably in the Amazon customer reviews) that this was the most accessible Sartre book. Sartre Lite, if you will.
Which it may well be. But if it is, it isn’t saying much. It’s sort of like saying that the bank vault at my downtown branch is more accessible than Fort Knox. It may well be, but I’m still not getting inside.
I’m going to be fair for a minute here. The first chapter of this book is actually both readable and interesting. An excerpt from another book (this entire book is excerpts from other books), it defends existentialism against an assortment of charges that have been leveled against it — that it’s a passive philosophy, that it’s isolating, that it’s unethical or amoral, that it dwells on the negative, etc. etc. In explaining what existentialism isn’t, this first chapter does a good, clear job of explaining what it is.
Which none of the rest of the book does. At all.
What is it about modern philosophy that makes it so goddamn impenetrable? Look, I’m a smart person. I’m a thoughtful person. I’m even a pretty well-educated person, with a college degree and everything. And I couldn’t make head or tail out of huge amounts of this thing. It’s not that the ideas are hard, or hard to follow; I’ve read enough “science and math for the layperson” to know when I’m not grasping an idea because it’s simply over my head. It’s that the ideas don’t seem to make sense. Literally. They read like gibberish, or like surrealism. I can parse the literal meaning of the words and the syntax (usually), but it doesn’t seem to be getting at anything, or at anything important, or at anything that makes sense and has meaning.
Example: “On the contrary, it is a matter of rediscovering under the partial and incomplete aspects of the subject the veritable concreteness which can be only the totality of his impulse toward being, his original relation to himself, to the world, and to the Other.” (p. 61)
Or: “In empirical desire I can discern a symbolization of a fundamental concrete desire which is the person himself and which represents the mode in which he has decided that being would be in question in his being.” (p. 64)
Maybe I’m being too utilitarian or something. But it seems to me that the purpose of philosophy is to offer some understanding of the universe and our place in it; to give some shape to our lives and our choices about how we live them. This isn’t that. This is just intellectual embroidery, or thumb-twiddling, or puzzle-playing. (I’d call it intellectual masturbation, but I think far too highly of masturbation to do that.) Or maybe it’s just unbelievably bad writing.
It’s deeply weird that, as our culture over the centuries has become more egalitarian, our philosophy has become less so. My memory of 18th and 19th century philosophy, and of classical philosophy for that matter, is that the writing was mostly accessible to anyone with a fair degree of literacy and education (which, admittedly, was a small elite group), and that the ideas, while complex, were comprehensible if you followed them closely. But ironically, now that more people are becoming educated and could have access to philosophy, it seems as if philosophy has become out of reach to anyone without a philosophy degree. (The deconstructionists are even worse; I’m not convinced that even *they* know what they’re talking about.)
It’s as if impenetrability has become equated with seriousness. It’s as if the very fact of being understood and valued by largish numbers of people somehow tainted an idea, making it boorish and unoriginal and obvious. It’s as if being comprehensible to the layperson — or to anyone other than a small band of colleagues — means your ideas couldn’t really be all that smart or interesting. After all, if people of only average intelligence can understand you, how smart could you be? It’s a weird logical fallacy — the belief that because many important and intelligent ideas are difficult to follow, therefore being difficult to follow makes an idea important and intelligent. It’s the attitude that’s made “accessible” a dirty word; the attitude that’s made calling a wine “drinkable” an insult.
And fuck that.
Now, to be fair again. Some of the problem here may be that existentialism has become *too* influential, *too* ingrained in our way of thinking — so much so that it just seems obvious. If you’re a more or less secular person, the basic tenets of the philosophy — that we are who we choose to be, that we’re responsible for our own decisions, that there’s no meaning to life except whatever meaning we create — don’t seem at all like radical ideas that someone had to make up and convince people of. They just seem like a given. It’s easy to focus in the impenetrable frills, because the foundation is so solid as to be invisible.
(Although my friend Tim hit the nail on the head, I thought, when he said “Okay, they believe life has no external objective meaning, only the meaning that we create — but for some reason they think that’s a bad thing.” Touche. Sartre does beat his breast an awful lot over the anguish and despair of all this existential freedom, to the point where all I could think was “God, what a wuss.” And whenever he was gassing on about how perfectly free we all are to 100% choose our own natures, I kept thinking that he desperately needed some basic training in genetics, not to mention neurobiology and social science.) Still — a pretty damn solid foundation, for the most part.
And to be fair yet again: Not all modern philosophy is like this. The philosophy of science, for instance, is mostly pretty comprehensible (what I’ve read of it, anyway). You may or may not agree with any or all of their points, but you can usually figure out what those points are. And the same is true for ethics.
Anyway. Blah, blah, blah; rant, rant, rant. I don’t know if I have any real conclusion here. Good thing this is a blog entry and not an essay; if it was an essay, I’d be tearing my hair out trying to come up with some half-assed conclusion, maybe along the lines of “But one thing is true: Life goes on.” I don’t know. I don’t have any conclusion. It just bugs me, is all.
Books I’m currently still in the middle of:
“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn
“Essays” by Michel de Montaigne
“Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment” by Judith Kay Nelson