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Existentialism’s answer

Our daughter just selected her courses for her first year at college. Among the four: Existentialism. Which has me a little scared.

Existentialism did a good job on me in my freshman year of convincing me that life is meaningless. I moped. Ordinary objects lost their significance even as I gazed at them. I looked around for a local Seine to plunge into. It took several more years for me to figure out why I think existentialism is wrong: the sort of meaning it laments hasn’t been with us since God died, but other (lesser) meaning has always been with us. It’s like me saying I’m unloved because Uma Thurman hasn’t fallen for me, while ignoring that Ann Geller has. Well, maybe it’s a little like that. [Note: I’m Ann’s husband.]

I’d been thinking about exisentialism anyway — and why I like it — because of the conversation the Happy Tutor and AKMA had last week. Akma began by being offended by Bush’s bald-faced lying. The Happy Tutor wondered how a post-Modernist can distinguish truth and lie, and then reflected further. Akma, disdaining the pomo label, replied. Wonderful stuff.

As the Tutor notes, his words may sound like a personal attack on Akma, but they do not indicate any lack of respect. Truly. Tutor’s question is: How can a deconstructionist hold moral truths? Hasn’t post-modernism pulled its own ground out from underneath it?

Is there a harder question? In this newly connected world we’re more aware than ever that other cultures hold beliefs contrary to ours but with as much conviction. Even after we weed out the cultures that we count as crazy or evil (and that weeding out is, of course, fraught with its own problems), we’re left with “legitimate” ideas that others hold and we reject. So, do we let ourselves be paralyzed into inaction? Do we take absolute actions — like killing people in war — as if our beliefs had absolute foundation? Isn’t this the story of the past century? Isn’t it what western culture has been building to for two millennia?

And in this situation, existentialism offers an answer that is unsatisfactory but is at least self-aware. Sartre knew that he held his beliefs and values largely because of the historical situation into which he was thrown, but he didn’t let that keep him from the important work of killing Nazis. He got his hands dirty (directly or indirectly) because there is no choice. He acted absolutely while aware of the limits of his own understanding and the arbitrariness of his own situation.

So, while I disagree with how existentialism understands the problem, I am in sympathy with its “solution.” I don’t like it. I just don’t know of a better one.

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