A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Existential Reality

Last night found me sitting in Barnes and Noble with a friend, discussing reality. We had as our jumping-off point a contest sponsored by Vanity Fair for the best essay on the topic, "What is reality to Americans today? And did we ever have a grasp of it?" The advertisement for the contest depicts George Washington wearing a virtual-reality headset, and includes a quote by an aide to our current commander-in-chief. Something about being an empire and being able to create our own reality.

Christopher is the author of a textbook covering 400 years of philosophical thought, which is why I had challenged him to enter the contest. Fueled by double "expressos" served by cheerful, if clueless, teenagers, we tried to strategize an approach. Unfortunately, the topic seems to require one to get inside the heads of "Americans today," and I have to say I can barely articulate what I myself think, let alone the American people, whatever that is. I would consider myself a "lifestyle anarchist" (see yesterday's entry), or perhaps an existentialist. Both radically subjective ideologies.

I think about existentialism a lot, particularly when I walk my dog. This gnarly mass of tree roots erupting from the sidewalk on Spring Street, just around the corner from my house, is the reason why. It never fails to remind me of the central passage of Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée, a novel which influenced me perhaps more than any other in the '60's.

Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist, is sitting on a bench in the public garden when he becomes aware of the root of a chestnut tree right under the bench, and has an "illumination." Although existence is all around us, is in us, is us, although we can't say two words without talking about it ("la mer est verte"), in the end we cannot grasp it. Before this realization, Roquentin had only a superficial awareness of the existence of things: he looked at them, touched them, used them as objects, but thought of their existence as something added to them which did not change their nature. But suddenly the diversity and individuality of things manifest themselves to him as nothing but a thin coating which has melted away, leaving "des masses monstrueuses et molles, en désordre--nues, d'une effrayante et obscène nudité" ("monstrous, soft masses, in disorder--naked, of a frightening and obscene nakedness").

Roquentin is an historian, but in the end he abandons the autobiography he's trying to research, feeling there's no way he can reconstruct the past. He has the urge to inflict pain on himself, just in order to feel something and perhaps better become aware of his own existence. In the end, it's art to which he assigns meaning, via a song he frequently listens to in a café. The scratchy phonograph record is not the song...and the singer is dead, having existed in another time and place. But the song persists. (It's significant that Sartre states his existential manifesto most memorably here--as art, in a novel--and not in a treatise.)

In the forty years since I first read La Nausée, I've yet to come across a better discussion of reality. And nowhere does politics or current events enter into it. You can build a politics around it, of course--Sartre did--but the core of existentialism, the experience of it, is very individualistic. And I for one have no desire to elect one goofball to lord it over everybody. No matter what kind of revelations he thinks he's had. As for getting inside the head of "Americans today," I'm no more able to do that than Roquentin is able to reconstruct the marquis de Rollebon. Even for $15,000, a trip to Tuscany, and a Mont Blanc fountain pen.


Anonymous Christopher said...

Reading your post, I had a thought that harkens back to my days as an overcaffeinated law school student in the early 1980s.

Land is called "real" property. Why? The implication is that, at some time around when the "common law" was distinguishing among categories of property, sometime between the Norman Conquest and the Great Charter, land seemed the most real of them. More real than personal property (chattels), or currency. I'm not sure whether they even had the notion of copyrights or other intangible sorts of property in the period of which I speak.

Only land and structures permanently affixed to land are "real" (estate or property).

What is especially real about it? Two things, at least. First (and I hope I don't sound too much like Scarlett O'Hara's father here) it lasts. You can go about your travels, go around the world, come back ... your land is still where it was. Even through war. Armies marched across Tara, but Tara remained where it was, largely WHAT it was too, and that sense of reliability, and permanence, is part of what both law and, I submit, common sense mean by reality/realty.

Second, though, reality is fecund. When she was poor, when most of the newly-emancipated "help" had left her, Scarlett survived by digging with her own hands and eating the wild radishes that grew in Tara's soil. Land is inherently creative. But here I impinge upon Henry George, who thought it the only real source of wealth and accordingly the only proper target of a tax.

I don't see that this connects too tightly with Sartre, but I think that Camus, with his admiration for the pieds-noir, might have nodded in approval at some of the above rambling. Did they get those black feet by working soil?

8:53 PM  

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