Uncanny Bliss: An Existential Reading of Thomas Wolfe (2 of 2)

Read part 1 here first.

Meaning and Finitude 

Although we will never find a home, troubled as we are by our consciousness of existence, Wolfe believes that in accepting the limits of life—chiefly, the shortness of life as delimited by death—we can nonetheless create a home for ourselves, finding meaning therein. 

In the closing chapter of Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene prepares to leave home for college. He walks aimlessly through the town at midnight when he encounters the ghost of his recently deceased brother Ben, who, after stating that “[t]here is no happy land” or “end to hunger” (Wolfe 526), tells him, “You are your world” (527). Hearing this, Eugene becomes inspired: “I shall find no door in any city. But in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded; I shall haunt you, ghost, along the labyrinthine ways until—until?” (527-8). 

imagesThe novel comes full circle here, as it begins and ends with an invocation of the symbolic “door” and the “ghost” which Eugene himself is. With the death of Ben, to whom he was closest, Eugene grasps the fragility of his existence; he sees that life is but a sojourn, a temporary stay in a foreign place, which solidifies his abnegation of the external door. It is for this reason that upon hearing from Ben, who speaks from beyond life, that there is no actual beyond, no “happy land” to call his true home, Eugene comes to accept his uncanniness. While he does not and cannot belong to Dixieland, his mother’s boarding house; to his father’s house; or to any other place—these being a part of the world—he can and must belong to himself. It is only by turning inward, attuning himself to his interior “city,” and exploring his potential that he can “find the forgotten language” and “a door.” He also runs up against the limits of such a goal when he breaks off at the end: “—until?” To find himself, Eugene must risk completion: His own death. Because he is just awakening to this quest, though, he cannot bring himself to confront his mortality head-on, and must resort to an ellipse. 

This series of events parallels Heidegger’s existential analysis, in which Dasein, coming to terms with anxiety and confronting death, appropriates itself by means of resoluteness. Heidegger argues that it is our essence to be concerned with our existence; the question of Being and its meaning imposes itself on us from the moment we are born. Taking inspiration from Christian thought—which, in turn, is influenced by Plato, thereby establishing a imagesconnection to both Wolfe and Burger—Heidegger thinks that looking within the world, that is, at beings, can tell us nothing about our condition since we are fundamentally different kinds of beings; instead, if we want a sense of direction, if we want to get a grip on our lives, then we must turn away from the world and toward the interior self so that we can focus on and nurture our “potentiality-for-Being” (Heidegger 322). Eugene’s renunciation of external solutions, like that of some distant and paradisal “happy land” where everything will be alright, signals a crisis of conscience: Eugene is called away from the distractions and minutiæ of life by Ben, whose privileged role as a ghost allows him to set Eugene on the right path, which is to see himself as his own entry point into a home. Obviously unsettled by the fact that he shall end up like Ben, dead, Eugene has to confront the limited time he has, and this leads to a resolution to find himself, given that that is the only way of owning his uncanniness, his unhomeliness: Being at home with(in) himself. As consequential as this is, though, it does not mean he is out of the woods: Eugene still has to figure out what he must do in order to become himself. 

Wolfe arrives at an answer in Of Time and the River, as that is where Eugene discovers his potential. As the title of the novel indicates, Eugene must grapple with the mystery that is time, and the fact that he, and time itself, are a river in flux. Having graduated from Harvard, Eugene wants to be a writer, and he supports himself by teaching at NYU. He quits after a year, stays at a friend’s house, and finishes a play, which he then reads to his friend and his family. Met with praise, he decides there and then that he will be an artist, for he is driven by 

the intolerable desire to fix eternally in the patterns of an indestructible form a single moment of man’s living, a single moment of life’s beauty, passion, and unutterable eloquence, that passes, flames and goes, slipping forever through our fingers with time’s sanded drop, flowing forever from our desperate grasp even as a river flows and never can be held. (Wolfe 550) 

Later, for inspiration, he travels to Europe and, while staying in Paris, he writes the following in his journal: “Our lives can live upon only a few things, [and] we must find them, and begin to build our fences. All creation is the building of a fence” (673). In the first quote, the emphasis is on the dialectical struggle of the artist whose job it is to download-4reconcile the permanent with the temporary and to depict life fully. The image of the river, as well as a flame, is invoked in order to mirror not just the passing of life itself, the way sensations, emotions, and thoughts seamlessly become one another, but also the existence of Eugene: He, like the flame, flickers until exhaustion, and runs like a river until he is dry. Although it seems as if this task is just as, if not more, futile than that of finding the “unfound door,” resemblant less of the myth of Sisyphus and his fruitless punishment than that of Tantalus and the receding fruit within his grasp, it turns out that this goal, undertaken in the face of anxiety, recognized under the duress of death, and carried out with resoluteness, is authentic because Eugene has chosen it above all else, and because it depends not on some fortuitous discovery nor on the helping hand of another, but on the person he wants to be, or the potential he wants to actualize. 

download-6This is evidenced in the second quote by the image of the “fence.” Although apparently insignificant, this metaphor is important because it is an architectural one: It recalls the “unfound door” which he seeks throughout his life. While he may not be able to chance upon the one elusive door that will instantly and miraculously “unlock” life, making it intelligible to him, giving him the answers to the questions he has, soothing his insatiate heart, he can “build [a] fence” that is uniquely and creatively his own. He cannot, nor will he, find “consecrated earth,” but he can mark it off, lay claim to it, and create a lasting legacy for himself. Additionally, because Wolfe loves the idea of America, it may be that the fence is related in some way to the American Dream and its famous “house with a picket fence” image. Eugene resolves to memorialize his memory and contribute to the culture of humanity through his art, which is his own way of having meaning in spite of death; he is “building […] a fence” around himself.

download-5The significance of Eugene’s vocation, and therefore of Wolfe’s writing, is examined and articulated by Gérald Préher, who demonstrates in “A Cosmos of His Own: Loss, Ghosts, and Loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s Fiction” that art is the source of meaning for Wolfe, as it allowed him to make sense of the events in his life. Préher interprets Wolfe’s writings to be a way of coping with the emotional hardships of his life. Suffering the loss of two of his brothers, his college roommate, then his father, and stricken with the intractable inability to reverse the clock, Wolfe found in writing the ability to freeze time in a sense, and to resurrect the dead—Ben’s ghost being the prime example. Hence, the angel and the river in his book titles refer to his two foremost concerns: Death and time. 

By coming to terms with his own mortality, Eugene—and Wolfe—can come to terms with time. This is why Eugene chooses writing: He can “fix eternally […] a single moment of man’s living.” To this end, Préher notes that before calling it Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe considered calling his book The Building of a Wall (Préher 28). Accordingly, since the writing of his first novel, Wolfe had in mind the idea of building a fence. If life and time are captured with the metaphor of the river, then art is like a dam: Wolfe stakes a claim with his writing because it cuts off a portion of the river, turning it into something manageable, understandable, and personal; it gives him a foothold, a means of enduring the otherwise-unendurable change and impermanence of life. Writing, in other words, functions by fencing off the river. 

images-1There is agreement between Heidegger, Préher, and me. At first glance, it would seem that Eugene’s solution to the uncanniness of existence is a kind of flight or fleeing away from life. The act of writing, and of artistic creation in general, is arguably removed from the world and its problems, as it requires that the artist step back from the fray; however, I and the critics would contend that, on the contrary, art is an act of courage to the extent that it involves reckoning with life. It is through creation—resolute, anxious creation—that we make sense of life, confront the difficulties and burdens of our pasts, pave a path forward, cultivate a sense of identity and purpose, and find peace with the most unflagging of questions. 

Both Heidegger and Préher place incomparable value on death because it is the most singular event which belongs to us; and while Heidegger would understand Eugene/Wolfe to be acting out of “anticipatory resoluteness” in order to own his “being-toward-death” (349), and Préher a desire to repeat life in such a way as to bring out its fullness and three-dimensionality, both fundamentally concur that the homelessness to which we are all condemned can be assuaged and reclaimed through purposeful creation. This is why I believe Heidegger would find the following assertion insightful: “In Wolfe’s works, going back home and coming to oneself are two sides of the same coin, for the two make it possible to comprehend what life really is about” (Préher 36). Although the sentiment of “going back home” (italics mine) contradicts the foregoing analysis, I believe that its paradoxicality is essential: One must find within oneself the source of one’s life, from which its direction is decided. In short, the strangeness of the world must be overcome by familiarity with oneself. 


3526479580_98244bb013_bExistentialism, as Jean-Paul Sartre once lamented, is too often and unfairly represented as a pessimistic, dark, and depressing approach to life. I think he is correct because, at bottom, we are all existentialists since we are all caught up in the mystery of existence. Both Heidegger and Wolfe devoted their lives to working out the complexities and wonders of existence. Despite what has been said—particularly that humanity is bedeviled by an incessant desire for something which cannot be found, and is thus a foreigner in its own domain—Wolfe rejected pessimism. In one letter, speaking about an upcoming novel, he wrote, “Each of these discoveries, sad and hard as they are to make and accept, are described in this book […] But the conclusion is not sad: this is a hopeful book—the conclusion is that although you can’t go home again, the home of every one of us is in the future: there is no other way” (Nowell 712). Accordingly, even though he never found the door or language for which he had been looking, even though his life was cut short by sickness before he could wade through the river of time to the other side, Wolfe passionately and defiantly sought to live a deep, fulfilling, and meaningful life. 

images-1The facts of Wolfe’s life are important, to be sure, but the real preciousness is to be found in what was not his alone; the value of Wolfe is to be found in what he wanted to say not just for himself, but for all of us—those who read him; who cannot find the words for what we know and feel; who know desperation and loneliness and anxiety, but also love and joy and hope; and who feel with him, at overwhelming moments in our lives, that this cannot be all there is, that there must be an Answer to our questions, that life can be too much for us, and that all we want to do is go home again. We feel safe and happy at home, but where is home? For Wolfe and Heidegger, who tried their best to articulate the human condition, we have no home, for we are thrown into a maze without an end. And yet, because of this truth, there is hope. When we learn to look in the right place, and when we undertake the inner odyssey to find ourselves, accepting the limits and finitude of existence, then we can begin to construct a door, a fence—and a home. After all: To be at home nowhere, is to be at home everywhere.

Works Cited:

Burger, John M., “”A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search” (1988). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 123. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/123

Préher, Gérald. “A cosmos of his own: loss, ghosts and loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s fiction.” The Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 22-39.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperOne, 1962.

Nowell, Elizabeth, editor. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1956.

Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1967.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. Scribners, 1997.

Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River. Scribners, 1999.

Uncanny Bliss: An Existential Reading of Thomas Wolfe (1 of 2)


downloadA contemporary of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, and other legends of early twentieth-century American literature, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) is an unfortunately neglected writer despite the reputation he achieved among his peers as a promising and formidable author. A North Carolinian, he was enamored with the idea of America—its geography, people, and myths, and everything for which it stood—even after travelling several times to Europe and imbibing its culture, because America, in his mind, represented the extremes of human life, from the freedom of which it was symbolic to the violence and inequality that it harbored, from the limitless opportunities of its land and growing population to the immense loneliness, alienation, and frustration that festered in its cities and towns. But if he prided himself on being the American par excellence, the voice of a triumphant nation, the solitary visionary who believes himself the possessor and carver of the world, then it is equally accurate to designate him as a human par excellence to the extent that in his writings, he concerned himself not just with the wonder that is America but also with the wonder that is humanity.  

In his first two novels, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935), about which I will be writing here, he tells the story of Eugene Gant, a fictionalized version of himself, from birth to college and beyond, detailing his experiences growing up in a chaotic household, developing a passion for learning, struggling to connect with others, attending college, dealing with death, and travelling to Europe, all the while awakening to his vocation as a writer. However, I hope to demonstrate that in so doing, despite the particularities of his narratives, he also tells the story of every one of us, for his novels are notable for their universality and depictions of lived experience, explicating the distinctly human concerns of time, memory, love, loneliness, art, and death. 

Heidegger_3_(1960)Accordingly, I will be analyzing Thomas Wolfe’s first two novels under an existential lens, drawing, in particular, from the thought of the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, whose preoccupation with the question of Being parallels that of Wolfe’s with life, showing through the former how Wolfe developed his own “existential analytic,” that is, an account of what it means to be human or, in Heidegger’s terminology, Dasein, “being-there”—existence. Using insights from Heidegger’s 1927 work Being and Time, and engaging with the judgments of several critics, I will examine Wolfe’s views on the human condition, namely, that to be human is to be fundamentally without a home and that life’s meaning can only be discovered by facing up and answering to one’s finitude.  

The Question of Home

In Wolfe’s fiction, the theme of home or, more vitally, the lack thereof, is prevalent in his reflections on life, such that it takes on essentially existential importance. 

At the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel, before the events of the novel even begin, the epigraph reads, “Oh waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. night-sky_4BVRB2CW61Where? When?” (Wolfe 19). This passage, spoken by an unidentifiable speaker who nonetheless says “we,” laments the contingency of existence, referring to the Earth as a “weary unbright cinder,” on which humans are “lost” in “hot mazes.” Thus, at the outset, the novel establishes a mood of discontentment, jadedness, and desperation; the tone of impersonality and distance hint at the lack of grandness in life, suggesting that in the Universe, there is no scheme which gives it purpose, making it seem inhospitable: It is a “waste of loss.” And yet, finding itself forced into existence, the anonymous voice exhibits its own sense of purpose. In spite of the unideal conditions into which it has been placed, it takes unto itself the seemingly futile and hopeless task of “remembering […] an unfound door.” This quest is presented as doomed, for if it is to be “remember[ed] speechlessly,” and if the speaker, in desperation, wonders aloud, “Where? When?”, then it becomes apparent that this “unfound door” is not so by accident but by design, in virtue of what it is—in other words, the door turns out to be not merely unfound, but unfindable

download-1According to John Burger’s dissertation “‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door’: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search,” this passage captures the entire spirit of Wolfe’s writings. Knowing that Wolfe studied the Greek philosopher Plato in college and was fascinated by the Romantic poet Wordsworth’s spiritualism, Burger asserts that the Platonic myth of reincarnation, known as anamnesis, motivates Wolfe’s feeling of separation from the world around him, his sense that he was never “at home” (4-5). This finds expression in the detached, wistful voice that announces its restless, unending search before the protagonist of the novel, Eugene Gant, is even born, and before any characters are introduced for that matter. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the speaker is really the soul of Eugene during its descent into a mortal body, after which he will be stranded, left to look for a way back, full of painful longing, a representative of the tragic condition of the human race. Hence, for Burger, the “unfound door” is a passageway and transition into the Next World, the realm of the Forms, from which the soul originally came; until then, Eugene will remain a stranger in a strange land, though the memory of his previous life is invoked from time to time by various things—“a stone, a leaf, an unfound door”—each of which hints at the lost world. 

In Of Time and the River, which picks off where Look Homeward, Angel ended, this meditation is continued, with Eugene graduating from Harvard and seeking his place in the world. Throughout the work, no matter where Eugene travels—be it in his native “Altamont,” North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; London, England; or Paris, France—he invariably senses an oxymoronic “strangeness and familiarity” (Wolfe 58-9). To his dismay, he finds that he “has no door to enter, no room to dwell in, no single handsbreadth of certain, consecrated earth upon that continent of wild houseless space, to which he can return” (842), leading him to conclude pessimistically that “cruel skies bend over us, and all of us are driven on forever and we have no home” (176). 

download-1The motif of the door appears here, showing that six years later, Wolfe was still preoccupied with this elusive passageway. However, at this point in his maturity, having seen and experienced more of what the world has to offer, Eugene states matter-of-factly that “we have no home” and that the world is a “houseless space,” which is a significant departure from his earlier tone of blind hope. At the same time, it is to be understood that the physical dimension of home has been called into question; Eugene grasps that a home—not even a house, an empty structure for inhabitance—does not exist for him, no matter how far he travels. There is, additionally, the element of singularity that runs through this thinking: He wants a locale that is “consecrated,” and the notion of “dwell[ing] in” a room gestures toward his desire for something uniquely his own, which explains why he cannot simply stop anywhere and settle down. Consequently, Wolfe illustrates that Eugene’s homelessness is much deeper and fundamental than one would think, and exceeds the merely empirical and sociological. 

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger came to a similar conclusion: Mankind, or Dasein as he called it, is intrinsically homeless. In Heidegger’s analysis, Dasein is always being-in-the-world insofar as it has always existed ever since being “thrown” into existence, and it is in the world—surrounded by objects, people, and meanings—that Dasein navigates through life. His originality, though, lies in his investigation into the core of Dasein which, through downloadthe mood of anxiety, is revealed to be pure negativity; that is, Heidegger observes that at on certain occasions, Dasein is overcome with an unsettling, disturbing feeling that places the world into perspective, stripping it of its sense-meaning, leaving Dasein naked and alone in the face of pure Being, i.e., the brute fact of existence, the fact of being-there (da-sein) (189). From this, he deduces that Dasein as such is uncanny, considering it is always haunted by a feeling of being out-of-place and not belonging despite its existence. In German, uncanny is unheimlich, which literally translates into “unhomely.” Based on this interpretation, Eugene’s repeated puzzlement at the world around him, which transcends culture and spatiality, stems from the disorienting finding that, ultimately, he cannot explain why he is where and when he is and that the world around him is fragile, its intelligibility temporarily suspended, disclosed as alien and foreign. 

Although Burger’s interpretation is compelling and valid with regard to the facts of Wolfe’s life, it seems limited in scope because, in spite of Plato’s influence, it is also true that Wolfe found much in the philosopher with which to disagree, causing him to reject any notion of idealism (Turnbull 61). It is worth considering that Burger does take this into account, as he refers to Wolfe’s Platonism as a myth rather than a personal conviction, an explanatory provisional backstory for his dissatisfaction, which seems to capture the contradictory tension that endures in Wolfe’s personal life (Burger 94). For this reason, Burger’s Platonic analysis, evidenced in the title of Look Homeward, Angel—Eugene’s soul yearning for pre-existence—is acceptable but, to my thinking, contingent; that is, it does not go far enough. 

download-2What Burger does not consider is the ground, or deeper reason, upon which this tension rests—or, to put it differently, he fails to investigate why this tension, this hunger for a personal myth, an explanation for his yearning, exists in the first place. Reading Burger, one would naturally assume it came from Wolfe himself, meaning that his feeling of lostness was but a psychological phenomenon unique to him; whereas Heidegger’s existential analysis reveals homelessness to be not a contingent, particular malady but rather a feature of existence itself. Eugene’s “strangeness and familiarity” and “unfound door,” therefore, can be read as either cries for a prior existence or, more originally, epiphanies at the rootlessness and uncanniness of the world itself—and a need for a place to call home.  

Works Cited:

Burger, John M., “”A stone, a leaf, an unfound door”: Thomas Wolfe’s Platonic search” (1988). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 123. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/123

Préher, Gérald. “A cosmos of his own: loss, ghosts and loneliness in Thomas Wolfe’s fiction.” The Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 22-39.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperOne, 1962.

Nowell, Elizabeth, editor. The Letters of Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1956.

Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. Scribners, 1967.

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel. Scribners, 1997.

Wolfe, Thomas. Of Time and the River. Scribners, 1999.

Absurdism in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

At the end of her novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers takes the opportunity to reflect on the inevitable condemnation of man to existential loneliness. Although she ultimately believes that life is Absurd, and existence tragic, she also suggests the possibility of rare moments of genuine connection and glimpses of meaning, which make life bearable.

It is made clear in the novel that the inescapable fate of man is to remain alone, for no one can truly express oneself in a way others can understand. John Singer, a deaf-mute, cut off from the world by his lack of speech and hearing, abandoned to isolation by the death of his one and only friend Antonapoulos, and left with nothing else for which to live, commits suicide, unable to bear his condition. Throughout the novel, in his sleep, he is known to use his hands restlessly, attempting to talk to his friend in his dreams. Thus, Singer is symbolic as a character of the existential state of loneliness; for it is not just the case that he is alone by choice, through his decisions, but rather he himself embodies the very loneliness of man. Unable to convey his thoughts or feelings to anyone—Antonapoulos appears to understand, yet he does not confirm this—unable to get beyond himself, to escape the egocentric sphere of his subjectivity in conversation with others, Singer is literally closed in upon himself.

A self-enclosed monad, Singer is stuck with the polarity of his interior self: On the one hand, his life is significant in that he is able to experience anything at all, form thoughts about his experience, feel things about his experience; though on the other, he is tantalized by the need to share this rich experience of his, this internal world confined to his head and heart. With the death of his friend, Singer succumbs to pure solipsism, as he is the only one who, for him, exists in the world; he is utterly, existentially alone. Accordingly, to begin the ending of the novel with Singer’s suicide, is not just to make a comment on a character, but to make a comment on existence itself: The vain struggle to escape oneself, to connect, is not merely incidental or contingent, but a necessary facet of life within the world.

Yet just as the philosopher Camus recognized that the true question of philosophy regards suicide in the face of an apparently indifferent world, championing in its place the rebellious drudgery of Sisyphus, so the end of the novel, through its final reflection, offers a glimpse of some vague brightness against the backdrop of darkness: Love. In the final chapter, Biff Brannon, owner of the New York Café, closes up his place, occupying himself with his duties when he questions why he even continues, why he keeps the bar open so late. All the love in his life has left him. His wife. A radical Communist. A young girl for whom he was sentimental. But he also realizes that love is not necessarily for anyone; rather, it is indiscriminate, absolute. Upon more thought, he suffers an epiphany that reveals the distant possibility of love amidst the confusion and sadness of the world before questioning his own sanity. Brannon recognizes the Absurdity of existence, the meaninglessness of it: After all, a total war has been waged, a man has killed himself, taking with him the solace of all those who sought solace in him.

At the end of it all, there is nothing to show for any of it. No one has ended up farther than where they started. His own loves, he ponders, have left him neither happy nor sad. He sees life as puzzle to be solved, a mystery, yet he cannot say what it is. However, Camus, in a similar position, acknowledged that, this being our lot, existence must be fought against; it is a given fact that life is Absurd, but that is no reason to give oneself over to despar; instead, one must commit to the very Absurdity of life, wading through it, our universal, shared condition the only means of finding some sort of hope. And, indeed, Brannon, in his meditations, falls upon this same truth, that love, and love alone, for anyone, for everyone—total, all-embracing, hopeless love—is like a flickering candle in the impenetrable cloak of loneliness and desperation. People come and go from his bar, and he gets farther with some than with others; yet he gets somewhere, he meets new people, he sees in the late Singer an odd, bewildering hope, a fascination with the chance for connection. All those who flocked to him, irrational as they were, and for as brief a time as it was, had found something worth living for. His departure from this world—did it change the world? It reinforced the Absurdity of the world if anything, and Biff, understanding this, troubled by its implications, thinking on the entirety of his existence, backward to the past—replete with sorrows and failures—and forward to the future—haunted by uncertainty, future failures, and… love, perchance?—believes himself insane.

Yet, in philosophical fashion, just as he himself is philosophical, the fact that he questions his sanity, unlike anyone else, is what makes him the sanest and, in the eyes of Camus, the most heroic; as shortly after, he breaks his enchantment to prepare for a new day. The significance of this closing act—returning to the banal, the everyday, the toilsome—is Sisyphus’ ascent to the top of the hill, his triumphant defiance of the unrelenting desolation of life. Biff, fixing the awning, issues a rejoinder to the gods who condemned him thus. The willingness with which he does it, furthermore, in hopes of more people coming with whom he can talk—and perhaps see into—as well as to persist courageously, unlike Singer, who was unable to cope with his condition, is his resignation to the Absurd, his way of asserting his existence, his self-conceived value—he upholds the dignity of life, knowing that at every moment it is doubtable, that nothing is assured, that no one may come into his life again, and that this in itself may be Absurd. Yet open the awning he does. One must imagine Biff happy. 

Existence is a solitary adventure, and no one is exempt from the pains of loneliness or the attempts to overcome it because this problem is not some external imposition, but the very root of our lives; however, McCullers, in the ending of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, juxtaposing Singer, who fails to properly reply to this Absurdity, with Biff, who succeeds in tolerating, enduring, and “abiding with” this “ambiguity,” contends that at the top of the summit, after much travail, there is the possibility of love. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.”

Passion and Craft (2)

Read the first part here!

imagesAccordingly, it strikes one as strange and impossible that a mathematician, a physicist, a musician, and a yo-yoer should all stand before a crowd of unshaped, directionless children and, with equal confidence, state matter-of-factly, “My path is the best”: “Math is the highest pursuit in life,” “Physics is the highest pursuit in life,” “Music is the highest pursuit in life”—”No, yo-yoing is!” We know none of this is true, though; even to the most inexperienced and naïve child, this state of affairs is sense-defying. What each speaker really means, and what we understand them to mean, even though it goes unstated, is, “My path is the best for me.”

images-1But this is common sense. We surely understand these adults to be speaking subjectively, so it is absurd that we should expect them to add so trivial a phrase to the end of their speeches as though it were a much-needed disclaimer. If one occupation or passion were truly the best, greatest, and most meaningful, then we would expect more people to be doing it. But even this is a childish claim, as we know not everyone can do what is most meaningful or that about which one cares most considering there are jobs in society that need to be done and that are often neither desirable nor pleasurable. Both of these are fair and evident considerations, yet I do not intend to focus on them; instead, I will be ignoring them, expressing in more detail the uniqueness of one’s calling by sharing my recent thoughts.

UnknownThis year, for class credits, I have been working in my school’s tutorial center as a writing tutor. My responsibility is to help students who need help with their English assignments, typically essays. For what deeper reason, beneath the surface-level motive of getting credits, did I choose to be a writing tutor? Simply and naïvely put, I wanted to get my fellow classmates to enjoy, or at least understand, their English classes. Ever since middle school, nearly every one of my contemporaries has consistently rated history as the most boring class and English the most hated, two opposite explanations being either that “We speak and write in English every day, so there is no reason to have an entire class on it” or that “I barely understand our language or what I’m saying.”

UnknownThen, in response to protests that English is useless and a waste of time, English teachers eagerly and desperately defend their class by arguing that, on the contrary, their class is the most practical in everyday life since we are expected to write and speak well regardless of the field we end up entering, a claim which is then summarily attacked by students who are fed up with analyzing the symbolism hidden in an elaborately described doorway, the passing of nighttime, or a character’s name; explaining why an author used repetition in one place, emphasis in another, and rhetorical questions at the end; or having to engage in a “class Socratic” where participation is required and which is about a book that nobody cared to read or understand, that has no relevance to daily life in the 21st-century, and that is difficult to read—even if, as they occasionally admit with sourness, the book was actually a good one, the fact that it was assigned to them—that is, that they did not choose it, but that it was imposed upon them—being enough to tarnish, pervert, and obstruct their experience of it.

These are just a few of the most recurrent complaints about English, and I do not intend on answering any of them; in fact, even I, who have rated English highly and thoroughly had fun in it throughout my schooling, resort to some of these criticisms from time to time, like last year, when I had to write rhetorical analyses, closely looking at word choice, context, figurative language, etc., in speeches and other writings in order to demonstrate how the author accomplished some specific task. I certainly do not miss rhetorical analyses, and there have been books which I disliked and yet on which I had to write essays and discuss with classmates.

Unknown-1What I find problematic yet unavoidable is that the diversity of opinion regarding experiences in English class is thus attributed to some deterministic aspect; that is, whether one has a good time or does well in English depends upon the type of student one is, some people “just being good” at it while others are not, with those who have a good experience therefore being singled out as the exception because they have something in them, some quality—perhaps genetic, perhaps temperamental, perhaps superhuman—that sets them above the rest, distinguishing them as “those who do well in English,” as though it were a conspiratorial secret which only a few elites know but which is, and shall remain, forever inaccessible to those outside.

Unknown-1Writing well and speaking well are enviable skills that seem as far off as competing in the Olympics, and those who enjoy the class must surely be naturally talented; hence, it is hopeless and futile for everyone else to “train,” as it were, or even to have hope, since “that is just how it is”—namely, they will never be good writers nor do well since writing is “not one of my strengths, fortes, or talents.” The sports analogy runs much deeper and is actually more apt than we might imagine inasmuch as talent is overrepresented and -valued in athletics just as it is in writing, the heritability of the two—sports and writing—quickly deconstructing when we examine them further: Inheriting “athleticism” is a vague, misleading notion since athleticism is nothing but a set or bundle of other inherited variables, like height, weight, body composition, coordination etc., sort of like general intelligence (g), just as “writing/speaking well” is not some specific, discrete code that can be passed down, but is better thought of as a cluster of associated traits, like creativity, comprehension, critical thinking, etc.

Passion and Craft

In middle school, after reading some philosophy, and in emulation of the aphoristic styles of Gracián and Nietzsche, I excitedly began writing short passages on various subjects, almost like an advice column for myself to consult as a guide for daily conduct which, following Plutarch’s example, I titled “Moralia.” On February 6, 2017, coming home from a choir rehearsal at which a musician spoke, I wrote the following entry, number 31:

Ask a musician what the meaning of life is, and they will say music; the engineer, engineering; the painter, painting; the teacher, teaching; and the philosopher, philosophizing. But ask a man what gives life meaning, and you will have naught. Evidently, a man without a craft is but a man, and one without passion, without guidance, and without purpose. Stripped bare, man is a tabula rasa, his abilities latent, his curiosity untapped, and his sense of self yet to be discovered. It is only later in life that man finds his calling; thitherto, he is like a child, in that he is a funambulist who requires railings, for he is uncertain, not only with life, but with himself, full of doubt, hopeless, and insecure. Confer not with an artisan, because, as we have seen, there is no single correct answer wherewith we may answer the question anent the purpose of life. Follow not the path others have taken, for you must pave your own path, disinterestedly, without the approbation or consent of others, since you shall not have it any other way save your own. Find your calling, and pursue it full-heartedly.

The passage is admittedly saturated with youthful, naïve ambition and perhaps a few too many large and outdated words—if I am being honest, my writing has not changed all that much in four years, although I like to think that I have become a bit more moderate and restrained—and it is clearly Emersonian in influence, with its unapologetic gospel of unbridled and Romantic individualism, optimism, and pluralism. Of course, in my young, unworldly enthusiasm, I also ignored the obvious problems that come with the innocent exhortation to “Find your calling,” which is sound in theory, but which is easier said than done: How, for example, does one find one’s calling? How does one know if it is a true, sincere calling? And what is one to do until one finds it—if one finds it at all?

These are difficult questions, to be sure, and I concede that I am no wiser today than I was when I wrote the passage with regard to these formidable questions. The fact is that some people find their “callings” early on, some later in life, and some not at all. One could also make the objection that naming it a “calling” in the first place is problematic because it prevents certain people from seizing opportunities, forcing them into endless, intolerable, and indolent anticipation; for to conceive of one’s purpose in life as a calling is to make the matter into an essentially passive one where all one can do is dim the chatter around oneself in order to hear the far-off, vague sounding of an even-more-ambiguous vocation to which we are assigned and summoned, creating an unreliable and regretful situation much like that in Henry James’ work “The Beast in the Jungle,” in which the protagonist, convinced that something great will happen to him, fails to see that the very thing for which he has been waiting has been in front of him the whole time, ripe and ready to be plucked, his active role and sense of free will surrendered to the hopeful expectation that the event lay outside him.

However, in my defense, I did write “Find your calling,” not “Await your calling”; nonetheless, the important point is that passions, vocations, and purposes are vital aspects of life, and while some people are luckier than others, we should neither stress ourselves out excessively, as many young people do these days, pressured as they are by their families and schools, nor give up on our searches entirely, forfeiting or foreclosing—simply picking the “easy” or “close” option, like doing what one’s parents do, instead of deciding upon preference, to use a term from the developmental psychologist Erikson—our lives to be rid of responsibility. I have not given sufficient thought to the matter to give an informed opinion, but the advice that I often hear is to just experiment—try out new things, explore different activities, and expand your horizons since the wider your circle is the wider are your choices and abilities. 

Having said a few prefatory things about this topic and addressing a couple drawbacks, I want to briefly discuss why I decided to analyze a four-year-old passage in addition to its relevance and some follow-up thoughts.  

As I said in the first paragraph, the context and inspiration for the entry was a choir rehearsal. After we sang, a musician spoke to us about her career path, her successes and failures, her upcoming projects, her joy in choosing music, and her advice for us. At the end, like any speaker, she closed by repeating how happy and fulfilled she was living as a musical artist, declaring emphatically that music was most meaningful thing in life and that a career in music was the best one could choose (she did not literally say that last bit, but the sentiment was certainly there). Throughout our lives, and especially during our schooling, from elementary school through college, we have been familiar with this: A speaker is invited to visit, and he or she tells us how they became what they are, what they enjoy about what they do, and what we should do going forward.

If my observations and memory serve me right, then it is interesting, in my experience, that in elementary school, a diversity of relatively unique speakers would come to visit, like an animal handler, a professional yo-yoer, or a human calculator, creating the impression that our possibilities are endless and stretch the width of our imaginations, no occupation being too “out there,” while as I got older, noticeably in high school and college, more conventional speakers would come, like an engineer, a writer, or a police officer, with a blatant favoritism toward S.T.E.M., not only since is our world increasingly more scientific and technological but since I also live in a highly technological center, the prevailing notion being that some jobs are unrealistic and that if one wants to be successful in life or assured in one’s prospects, then one must adapt to the world’s stringent, unwavering demands and start thinking “realistically,” with a view to the “Real World.”

The Star: A Poem

In the night sky, in black oblivion,
There, above our quaint concerns, a glimmer,
When the eclipse of life is just begun,
And all the light in the world grows dimmer.
So faint, so fair, painfully unaware,
Through the sheath of unholy pall it shines,
Like a beacon amidst depthless despair,
And harboring untranslatable signs.
A star, a guide, and a whole host beside:
The near-end, far-off—Chronos’ irruption,
Sidereal plaints, which our fates betide,
And the eternal, merciless resumption.
Restless, nebular drift in endless space
—And who among us knows if there be grace?

A Mute World: A Poem

Atop the mountain, and atop the world,
He strained to the horizon his tired eyes,
Beyond which many vast vistas unfurled,
And beheld with awe whence all things arise:
The beginning, and the end, of all Time,
The end, and the beginning, of all Space,
The interconnected expanse of clime,
Wherein the tempo of Life sets its pace;
Whereupon his elation subsided,
At the sudden deafness wherewith he met,
And, feeling betrayed, he then decided
That the sum of existence was regret.
Because he refused to let Life be heard,
He resolved that existence was Absurd. 

Bergson and Proust: Intuition and Literature (6 of 6)

UnknownAlone, rising from the level of the plain, and seemingly lost in that expanse of open country, the twin steeples of Martinville rose towards the sky. Presently we saw three: springing into position in front of them with a bold leap, a third, dilatory steeple, that of Vieuxvicq, had come to join them. The minutes passed, we were travelling fast, and yet the three steeples were always a long way ahead of us, like three birds perched upon the plain, motionless and conspicuous in the sunlight. Then the steeple of Vieuxvicq drew aside, took its proper distance, and the steeples of Martinville remained alone, gilded by the light of the setting sun which, even at that distance, I could see playing and smiling upon their sloping sides. We had been so long in approaching them that I was thinking of the time that must still elapse before we could reach them when, of a sudden, the carriage turned a corner and set us down at their feet; and they had flung themselves so abruptly in our path that we had barely time to stop before being dashed against the porch. 

Unknown-1We resumed our journey. We had left Martinville some little time, and the village, after accompanying us for a few seconds, had already disappeared, when, lingering alone on the horizon to watch our flight, its steeples and that of Vieuxvicq waved once again their sun-bathed pinnacles in token of farewell. Sometimes one would withdraw, so that the other two might watch us for a moment still; then the road changed direction, they veered in the evening light like three golden pivots, and vanished from my sight. But a little later, when we were already close to Combray, the sun having set meanwhile, I caught sight of them for the last time, far away, and seeming no more now than three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields. They made me think, too, of three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place over which night had begun to fall; and as we drew away from them at a gallop, I could see them timidly seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another, forming now against the still rosy sky no more than a single dusky shape, charming and resigned, and so vanishing in the night (255-6).

The charm of this passage comes from its sense of movement and its use of innovative similes, metaphors, and personification. Throughout, the steeples are “springing… with a bold leap,” “like three birds perched upon the plain,” “fl[i]ng[ing] themselves,” “wav[ing]… in token of farewell,” “like three golden pivots,” “three flowers painted upon the sky above the low line of the fields,” then like “three maidens in a legend, abandoned in a solitary place,” finally “seeking their way, and after some awkward, stumbling movements of their noble silhouettes, drawing close to one another, gliding one behind another.” Furthermore, the sunlight is “playing and smiling.”  The array of human behaviors, meanings, and movements attributed to the inanimate objects reveals an intuitive sensitivity which only the philosopher or artist, according to Bergson, exercises.

Unknown-2Rather than providing a stagnant, unmoving description of the world as if it were frozen, or like some exhibit, the narrator gives us plenty of kinetic verbs; few things stand still in the passage, and many are in movement. Bergson, recall, opposes himself to staticity, stillness, stagnation, because reality is dynamic; life is not Parmenidean permanence but Heraclitean hurrying, a flowing river. Thus, the passage demonstrates intuition as “intellectual sympathy,” since we see Proust/the narrator sympathizing with the steeples, considering how they feel, how they react to him just as much as how he reacts to them, and how they interact even with the sun. Of course, this could be criticized and passed off as merely excessive and crude anthropomorphization, which raises anew the question of intuition: Is it even possible?

Assuming we go with this objection—that intuition, as a form of sympathy, inevitably becomes overtly and unapologetically anthropocentric—then we would be forced to concede that the only way of considering how a steeple would feel is if we ourselves were steeples, and that steeple-essence can only be grasped in the vocabulary of steeples, requiring steeple-centrism or steeple-morphization; however, I think we would agree that with this reductio ad absurdum, it is safe to say that such an extreme standard is not worth taking seriously, that it does not work in the long run, and that personification is, to reiterate, an approximation, since Bergson admits that no language is perfect, and since we humans immediately and emotionally connect with and understand human terms. In other words, we must take Wordsworth’s complaint seriously in “The World Is Too Much With Us”: “Little we see in Nature that is ours.” 

imagesIn conclusion, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, we achieve true, absolute knowledge not through methodical analysis but simple intuition, and philosophy’s—and art’s—objective is to show the world, life, and experience as they truly are, which means walking a mile in their shoes, proverbially speaking. Marcel Proust, a French early-twentieth-century Modernist novelist, is, I have argued, an excellent representative of intuition as applied to literature, for his book In Search of Lost Time beautifully and lengthily explores the inner life not just of man, but of things, showing how it is possible to achieve insights into life and the world. Are Bergson and Proust perfect? No. Are they successful? Well, it depends how we define success in this case. Do either of them express the world as it truly is? Probably not—we can never know, and that is the point they both stress. Do they get close in approximating the richness of life? I think so. To the extent that they tried with new language and originality to initiate us into the hidden depths, to the extent that they revealed truths of which we were previously unaware, and to the extent that they did this elegantly and movingly—to this extent, I think they were successful. That is just an intuition of mine, though.