From the first page of A Second Chance at Dancing, we get the sense that Michael, the first-person narrator, is about to open up an inner emotional landscape that’s been long hidden. Too old for “coming of age” and too young for a “mid-life crisis,” Michael nonetheless occupies one of those transitional moments where all values seem up for grabs as he comes to terms with the existentialist meaning of life (or lack thereof). While the existentialist musings give an intellectual scaffold to A Second Chance at Dancing, the emotional weight is also full and authentic. If you want a conventional plot with good guys and bad guys and a ticking clock, this might not be for you. If you want something that leaves you thinking and feeling more deeply about human characters and the human condition, this book does that very, very well.
If you look at clips of hippies from the Summer of Love or Woodstock or their post-60s communes, you see, the sexual liberation of the times aside, lots of non-sexual touching and hugging. In the hippie zeitgeist, human touch was one of the primary glues of communal oneness. Physical touch was not just symbolic of healing and unity. It was the physical joy of human connection itself. It not only symbolized but manifested oneness with our fellow beings on the level of all the sheaths of identity (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). You could feel the bonds. Besides the cosmic, hippyish explanation, this may simply be evolution. For millions of years, grooming and snuggling and other forms of touch have defined primate behavior.But as with so many things in the hippie spring of the 1960s, the reinvestment in physical touch was part of a social vision, a push toward a society that was less materialistic but richer in human contact.
Nowadays, the focus on sexual harassment has brought shame to many who long deserved it, but has also raised a question for us hippie sympathizers: Was there a utopian naivete about the hippie zeitgeist on touch? Can it be exploited by those who would sexually harass? That is certainly a risk, and the anti-harassment movement we see today is a corrective to that risk. But I fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Along with those who are justly punished, there seems a sense building that any touch on the shoulder or forearm, is a blip on a gradient that ends in rape. We have moved from seeing “human touch” as one of the great healing and redemptive powers at our disposal to seeing it as something intrinsically dark.
I don’t want to overstate my case. I understand that no one is proposing that all human touch be marked negative. But is that becoming the new default setting? In our eagerness to right wrongs, is “potentially toxic” becoming the first thing we think of when one human being touches another? Come to think of it, a lot of default settings seem to be moving the needle to “toxic.” Masculinity is increasing portrayed as toxic in itself, invested in violence and power and subjugation; heterosexual sex is seen as vaguely toxic, and even women with straight heterosexual desire should feel a little guilty for being complicit in the heteronormative patriarchy. Such are the times, at least as they are being engineered by the theories coming out of academic identity departments.
But touch, I hate to see touch go. Whereas the push in the 60s was for a society richer in physical human contact, the push now would seem to presage a society that valorizes a decrease in physical human contact. Granted the naivete of the hippie zeitgeist had a vulnerability that could be exploited, I just worry about the pendulum swinging too far. I am uneasy about the demise of that hippie optimism about human nature and human connection. I worry that the beauty of human touch will be lost in a new age of puritanism. I worry that this new idea we have of the integrity of the isolated individual – some would say an idea that really only emerged 100 years ago with the existentialist philosophers – that this idea puts us at odds with millions of years of evolution, in which identity formed as part of a group, with constant tactile confirmation giving “wholeness” to that identity.
A society depleted of that tactile confirmation may indeed make individuals safer,and there is an absolute value there that gives pause to my own thesis. That value alone makes today’s anti-harassment movement potentially a great positive in our effort to “form a more perfect union.” But great positives can become negatives without moderating voices, just as the heady liberation of the French Revolution (1789) morphed into the Reign of Terror (1793). Without a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, the passion of protest can turn unprofitably violent. And if Facebook posts are any indication, there are certainly some cultural warriors out there harboring a little of the Robespierre bloodthirst. So yes, I am all for the increased safety that might result from the anti-harassment movement, but be aware that a lack of moderation always comes with its own risks. The risk in this case is a more general fear of human contact. People may slowly become more isolated, alone, bereft of the redemptive power that has always saved us from our fragmentary, individual lives and given us a pathway to fulfillment that only comes viscerally, through abundance of human contact.
Photo credit: Peter Simon (http://www.petersimon.com/)
What do we do with evil bastards in literature? Not every work of literature includes them, but those that do seem to gain a particular purchase on the reader’s attention. Writers love to dream up evil bastards, and we love to enter the dream. But why are we drawn to representations of evil? Maybe because consciousness evolved as a practical adaptation, a problem-solving mechanism. If there’s a small flaw on a large canvas, we tend to zero in on the flaw. If twenty kids are playing nicely in a playground and one is misbehaving, all attention turns to the miscreant. Where there is no problem, consciousness relaxes; where there is a problem, consciousness engages in an urge to explain, to determine, to get our arms around the problem for future reference.
Whether you buy that intro or not, you might find it interesting to explore how fictional evil occurs as a problem we urgently want to explain, to learn from, to pin down for further reference. Below are a few templates for how to explain evil in its fictional deployments.
I might also call this the “materialist template”, and it is big in the age of realism. Evil is a result of historical conditions. Dickens novels might best exemplify this on the literary side, Marx on the philosophy side – human nature is neither good nor evil, but social conditions make it so.
Evil is part of the great cosmic struggle that is larger than any human life, an absolute that must be faced on its own terms. This model dominates not only overtly religious stories like Paradise Lost, but also heavily symbolic ones like Melville’s Billy Budd, where the human struggle of good and evil seems a shadow cast by some larger eternal archetypal or cosmic struggle.
Evil results from a deformation in the individual psyche, some repressed psychological trauma from the personal past that emerges in a destructive form. Poe’s psychopaths, for example: Montresor’s evil in “The Cask of Amontillado” is that of a mentally ill individual. There are no signs of poor social conditions or interventions of spiritual entities from some religious outer frame. There is just the nameless “injury” in Montresor’s personal past that rearranged his mind into that of a monster. (Note: If I were to separate a Psychoanalytic/Jungian version, I would fold it back into the metaphysical/religious. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, e.g., is essentially a Jungian/archteypal quest, and any good and evil Milkman encounters along the way are not just realistic details in the life of a man but plot points in an archetypal struggle. Again, the Jungian/archetypal model is my metaphysical/religious model recast into the language of psychoanalysis.)
Here, evil is irreducibly inexplicable, absurd, too arbitrary to be explained via any diagnostic metric. When Meursault kills the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger, we might call this evil in its existentialist aspect. Indeed, it is so inexplicable that we can hardly call it evil. It may be that the existentialist world view, following Nietzsche, is better relegated to the territory “beyond good and evil.” Let’s try Shakespeare’s Iago. He seems to represent a version of evil that is unmotivated, unexplained by a bad childhood or poor social conditions or metaphysical/religious interference or any other rational explanation. He just expresses evil as a random and fundamental force. Of course, his evil is recontained in Shakespeare’s world – not before harm is done, but the moral framing in Othello is not existentialist in tone. There is a moral order to the universe that we can glean from the tragedy. So perhaps Iago shows evil in its absurd or irrational aspect as something that can be recontained in a moral universe, whereas Meursault shows evil in the same aspect but with little or no moral framing.
I could probably think of more, but that is enough to chew on for one day. Feedback welcome.
The way I read the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1923), he offers a humanist variant of/alternative to existentialism. Where Sartre might say, “Existence precedes essence,” Buber might say, “Relationship precedes essence.” In contrast to the stark “thrownness” of the existentialist, who finds himself alone in an indifferent universe, Buber finds identity itself to be a by-product of the “I-Thou” relation (connections both to fellow humankind and to Being itself). Having shuffled off the existentialist’s burden of aloneness, however, Buber is not exactly the Walmart greeter to Happy Valley. Like the existentialist, he is weighed down with responsibility. For now he carries forever — past, present, and future – the built-in burden of all that connection, the “exalted melancholy of our fate” (16).
Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”
Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him , nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once ). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station ). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.
If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.
Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago). And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?
Director Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Great Beauty (Italian: La grande bellezza), is a lovely mix of Mediterranean joie de vivre and Nordic existentialism that leaves the audience drenched in beauty and medium-heavy with melancholia. The main character, Jep (Toni Servillo), is a man of deep feeling, immersed in the timeless splendor of Roman imagery. But this is Rome at its most existential — no bustling crowds, only Jep walking the pre-dawn streets past cafes and squares eerily empty of people. The only crowds we see float above the streets — insulated rooftop parties of desperate and lonely jetsetters jamming into train dances to techno-pop music. This is Jep’s socialite crowd, which oddly elicits in the audience both heart-felt contempt and heart-felt sympathy.
The setting reinforces the painful doubleness of Jep and his circle. The grand architecture, the magnificent sculpture and gardens, the sublime soundtrack, Jep’s Roman world is filled with mind-boggling aesthetic beauty at every turn, and yet it strangely lacks — except in fits and starts — the beauty of human contact, human meaning. The film’s continuing sideshow of performance artists grabs at this lack ever more obsessively as it fails to generate the human warmth it seeks.
As he looks back over his life on his 65th birthday, Jep himself seems intermittently attuned to all this, as scenes of heartrending poignancy pop up arbitrarily and just as arbitrarily fade into the arc of the narrative. Jep has no regrets for the socialite life he’s lived, despite an awareness of its general emptiness. In his particular case, the emptiness is symbolized by the fact that he could never get back to his second novel. One could argue that the turning point for Jep – and the film is ambiguous about this as it is about everything – is the entrance of the Santa (Giusi Merli), an old woman destined for Catholic sainthood. She is frankly an old blubbering mess and her adoration a satire on church idiocy. And yet she is more than that. Everything she says can be taken two ways. Is it senile inanity or profound genius? The best example is when she tries to tell Jep why she lives on bitter roots. “Because,” she stutters, half-comatose, as if she can’t get her brain around the simplest question. And she seems to relinquish the effort with a dismissive remark that “roots are important.” It seems a throwaway line. And yet she does painstakingly climb the Spanish Steps on her knees, however ridiculous that task might seem, in contrast to Jep’s decades-long inability to start his second novel. And then Jep does return to his roots, at least in the space of imagination. He re-imagines his sexual awakening with a teenage girl on the beach, re-imagines a world so naïve, so absurd, that full, rich human contact was possible. And that, we are led to believe amidst the lyrical beauty of the film’s final images, is the beginning of his second novel.
Another path from classical to romantic to existential…
The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.
Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:
…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.
If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.
Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness
I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.
The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.
So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.
A friend with whom I’ve had long and beautiful talks about romantic versus classical ideals led me into a discussion recently of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which reminded me of a third pole that in my mind is equidistant from the other two: the existentialist pole. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is clearly not classical in sensibility, as there is nothing rational or tranquil about her relationship to the world. But nor does she represent a romantic world view. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, for example, represents a romantic world view. Dracula has an all-devouring passion that transgresses all limits – religious, rational, moral – all boundaries shatter before his excessive passion. This is romanticism in its Byronic/Blakean form but with additional attention to the moral dangers that Byron and especially Blake downplayed. The existentialist is in a way the opposite. The world seems drained of meaning, of passion, of emotion, of any kind of authentic sentimental connection to others. Justine’s existentialist mindset (not that she chose this mindset but she expresses it) would find Coppola’s Dracula a bit ridiculous for putting so much frenzied importance on an emotional bond to a woman. Dracula’s attitude implies that there can be enormous meaning in the world, that enormous passion is justified. Justine’s problem is the opposite.
Justine’s foil in Von Trier’s film, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), shows that even our new tripolar model – classical, romantic, existentialist – falls short. Claire indeed represents a value system that stands in primary conflict to Justine’s, but Claire’s world view is neither classical, romantic, nor existentialist; it is a fourth pole, best labeled as the “sentimental world view” – where all human values hover back to the sensible, sentimental, domestic forms of bonding that hold families together.
So Justine and Claire force me into this final sweep on the broad strokes of Western cultural history. If we generally think of the classical ideal as symmetrical, rational, stoical, poised, and the romantic ideal as passionate, excessive, overwrought, suprarational, one can hypothesize a pendulum swing through periods of European cultural history, from classical Greece and Rome to the romantic tendencies of the Medieval era, to the classical Renaissance, romantic Baroque, then neo-classical/Enlightenment, then Romanticism-proper in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With 19th-century realism, something changes. The ideal that centers the symbolic economy of great Victorian novels by Dickens and others is neither classical nor romantic but sentimental, and it traces back to an underrepresented moment in cultural history, the “Cult of Sensibility” that emerged in 1760s England and Scotland. The Cult of Sensibility sprouted up alongside Romanticism as a reaction against the rational symmetries of the neoclassical aesthetic. But whereas Romanticism-proper favored excessive passion and a power of imagination that stretched beyond all rational boundaries, the Cult of Sensibility favored the tender emotions that could bond people together in the domesticated bliss of their own little gardens. So although Romantics and Sensibility writers shared a rejection of stoical reason as a touchstone of human values, they produced quite different kinds of heroes. Romanticism would produce powerfully ambiguous heroes from Byron’s own Manfred and Childe Harold to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and Coppola’s Dracula (and one might even reclaim Milton’s Satan as Romantic hero, as Blake and Percy Shelley did quite explicitly). Sensibility would produce the tender domestic heroes of 18th-century writers like Sarah Fielding and Henry Mackenzie, who were laying the groundwork for the sentimental novels of Dickens and others.
With those four poles, we at least have a more complete heuristic model for cultural analysis. E.g., in Coppola’s Dracula, Mina struggles between romantic (Dracula) and sentimental (Jonathan) options. The symbolic economy of Von Trier’s Melancholia is energized by the conflict between existentialist (Justine) and sentimental (Claire) world views. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein shakes the model in its own way, with Victor Frankenstein representing a compound of romantic and classical, evincing not only the excess passion and overwrought idealism of the romantic but also a more classical trust in reason and science as his methodology; Elizabeth in that novel, on the other hand, represents the sentimental ideal of tender domestic emotions (and the arc of the plot would seem to validate Elizabeth’s point of view).
But I believe I’ve exceeded the reasonable limits of the blog entry format, so I’ll end with a simple solicitation. If anyone has read this far without becoming overly resentful, please remind me to write a sequel on the following topic: Romantic and Existentialist — Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness. (Sequel is here.)