At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell is a satisfying exposition of the philosophies and methods of Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and others, but part of me kept saying to myself as she described their troubles and battles, “Why bother? Just get on with living.” The philosophic impulses she documents felt like such a waste of time, not only for the individuals baking the philosophy but also for the intense wrestling they did with each other over their points of view. Only De Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty say anything of interest because they both anchor their thoughts in the actual bodies of people. Heidegger and Husserl – so full of themselves. Jaspers comes off as decent. I wanted more about Camus. But such a fuss they all made.
I suppose it’s necessary for humans to do this, to find systems to confront and then explain the ambiguity at the heart of human life – otherwise, what else would they do to fill the conflicted timespan of their lives? (Our cats nap and don’t fret; not an option for Bakewell’s agitated dynamos.) Their oeuvres don’t resolve anything, don’t really explain anything (in the sense of “for once and for all, we have a solution to this problem!”), but the truth of the matter is that none of their bodies of work can bring the calm that comes from knowing, which lies in the provinces of faith and theology – and none of them would want that because a problem solved is boring, like the dog chasing the car actually catching the car: What is to be done?
What does come through is that outside of the truth content of what they create, their feeling of doing something meaningful and living meaningful lives comes from making language. In one sense, their are-ness, their being-ness comes from word-spinning – without the words, there is a body there but not a mind. This languaging we do gives meaning to the word “human,” “word-maker” the really only useful definition there is of that word.
But what about philosophy as a guide for living rather than formal arrangements of positions and principles? It’s not clear to me how any of what they concocted (except perhaps for Camus) could give good advice about how to conduct one’s life. Their philosophies are more like cartographies than road maps; they show the shape and lay of the land but don’t tell you what roads and which turns to take to get from Y to Z.
Perhaps the problem is me and not their edifices, that I don’t have the same conviction they have that there is a rigging behind the rigged that can be limned and delivered to an audience, an authority with which “life” speaks to its creations, a codex that catalogues the lights that can pierce the darkness, an anatomist’s sketchbook that unveils why this pokes out this way and that concaves that way.
Bakewell does show how important what they were doing was to their own sense of self and purpose in life, almost as if it didn’t matter if what they said mattered to others as long as it gave the creators the feeling that they had done something significant with their lives, had pushed back against the fog, etc., etc.
Ideologies seem more powerful than philosophies, or perhaps an ideology is just a philosophy with an army behind it. Ideologies gives guidance, they resolve ambiguity (or at least lessen its confusing effects), they provide answers rather than suggestions, they take their delights from muscular forward action rather than intellectual arabesques, prefer satisfaction over delight.
This is certainly what comes through in Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America by Kathleen Belew. Belew shows the intricate and foggy connections between the Vietnam War and anti-communism, anti-immigration, anti-statism, racism, Americana mythologies and paramilitary preparations (many of which have been carried out; Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing in 1995 was not the first and has not been the only assault carried out on American soil by white power paramilitary action).
One of the many things that make the white power world frightening is how easily it maps onto and has roots in the violent origin story of the United States. These guys are the wild offshoots of the somewhat more domesticated white power ideologies instated in some of our government leaders, cultural icons (recall Charlton Heston’s teeth-gritted growl about his gun and his cold, dead hand) and cold-war-steeped publications like National Review. Trump is not being cynical or clownish when he says that there are fine people in the white power camp and when he pardons Dwight and Steve Hammond, sentenced to five years in prison for lighting multiple fires on public land in Oregon, an incident that gave rise to the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and provided great propaganda grist to the militia movement.
The paramilitary America that Belew investigates marches, literally and figuratively, to an apocalyptic lyric. No fuzzy categories of phenomenological perception for them. Just a 3-D printed AR-15 (see Wired’s recently article on the court case that makes it completely legal to upload the software to 3-D print an untraceable gun [https://www.wired.com/story/a-landmark-legal-shift-opens-pandoras-box-for-diy-guns/]) and intense hatred of the Other makes life tolerable, doable, and even enjoyable.
Arms and ideologies have always made for a heady brew, which China Miéville demonstrates in October, his story of the Russian Revolution in 1917 in honor of its centennial last year, though as he points out, the “arms” they used were as much pamphlets, newspapers and speeches as they were pistols and cannons. These were men and women impassioned by lusts, hatreds, and idealist visions, and they sparred with one another to give voice to a word-world that would offer direction, purpose and peace as it eradicated the backward cruelties of the country.
In other words, they had a philosophy in their pockets, and while Miéville doesn’t skate past the horrors unleashed once Lenin’s hopes were dashed, he says that with a different external environment and different actions by the main participants, the October revolution might have had a better outcome. The failure of its philosophy was “not a given, was not written in any stars” and that humans must continue to give voice to what they are experiencing to continue to be fully human, confounded by mysteries, yes, but still trying to give voice to the void and not, as Henry David Thoreau said it, arrive at death and “discover that I had not lived.”