In one of my earlier essays, The Glory of Sloth I write that the great burden of contemporary culture is boredom. By-en-large I was mistaken. In societies of leisure boredom will be an ill that exists in dull minds and sharp minds placed in situations of monotony that do not excite the mind or spirits. But the intellectual (or virtuoso of any craft – the intellectual merely being a virtuoso of the most important craft regarding human existence) can entertain himself fairly easy due-to the litany of books, movies, thoughts and various other things to use as inspiration for his creativity or simply to enjoy as products of creativity.
Discontentment and dissatisfaction are the ills that plague even the most virtuous and wise of souls. Both are completely healthy in certain environments and circumstances, and perhaps even necessary generally for the growth and deepening of one’s mental activity and psychology. But there are times when a plague is felt in the soul, times where one becomes neurotic and nothing in life (or next to nothing) will satiate one’s self from this sorrow.
A quick clarification of terms: Discontentment is that feeling where one is not satisfied with one’s general state-of-things, dissatisfaction is a lack of enjoyment or satisfaction of what typically either brings joy or pleasure to someone or will put a cease to biological or psychological yearning or craving. This life is one, our species is such that is, that if discontentment ruptures the natural whirling and vibrations of the mechanism then to the mechanism all will feel very meaninglessness. The irony here is life is only meaningless when one has given into existential nihilism and held to themselves that it is such. Meaning is a subjective thing, comes from the perception of the organism, and like all forms of perception and subjective states-of-being is derived from the objective state of the organism. Meaning therefore is simply a matter of health, and it is lost when the soul is sick.
This is seen in the movie The Zero Theorem. In it Qohen (Q-No U-O-H-E-N) suffers from severe neuroticism, inability to experience pleasure and a fear of death and pointlessness that puts Woody Allen, George Constanza and Larry David to shame. The neurotic is one of the most fascinating and human of characters for he exemplifies that most human quality of looking at the Universe “objectively” and seeing no purpose or significant place for Man in it. He is lovable despite his neuroses for he suffers, and he suffers from what appears to be not a vice but a virtue – namely intellectual honesty. However, honesty and an attempt at objectivity does not equate to truth. The Existentialist is honest when he sees “nothingness” in existence, but the problem is that he wants to see meaning the way he would see the bonds of water under a microscope or something to be solved using enough intellectual legwork. Meaning is by nature subjective as I’ve mentioned and is objective through the functioning of the organism.
Qohen not only is constantly discontent and unable to be satisfied, he does not wish to be satisfied. When the love interest of the movie (which was portrayed and written very-well I must say) makes advances on him he shies away from his desire to pursue truth and not be distracted by pleasure. This is the neurotic intellectual in a nutshell. Life has no meaning to him, and he is dedicated to continue to remain in his state, not finding meaning in intellectually meaningless experiences such as sex and entertainment. Here there is a connection to Kierkegaard who felt he had to abandon his fiancé whom he loved dearly and make himself miserable so he could be a great Existentialist Philosopher.
However, towards the end of the film it is made clear that Qohen wants her, not only “physically” but “intellectually” as well. That is, not only his most base animal instincts yearn for her, but he wants her (or to be with her) with the whole of his conscious self, the self that the Christians (and other Dualists) separate from the body while talking about the Idealist conception of the soul. He however refrains from going with her, but arguably not out of some deep-seated desire to search for the truth and be neurotic. If we are to follow the allusion that is created in the film, the Existentialist Neurotic deprives himself not out of intellectual virtue, but out of fear. He intellectualizes his life’s failures and his own inability to find or seriously pursue happiness and worthwhile endeavors (outside of nebulous tasks such as finding life’s meaning; instead, I speak of endeavors with social relevance such as medicine, engineering and revolutionary participation) as some great struggle of the soul, rather than his own sickness or weakness (if you want to use a term with a greater sense of moral judgment, as the philosopher I am about to mention does).
This depiction of Existential sickness is portrayed quite well in Nietzsche. Nietzsche describes a repulsion towards the sensual pleasures of life as those who “turn away from life” and whose ideals are merely conscious manifestations of their own weakness. We see this when Nietzsche quotes Bible verses, and says more-or-less it is clearly the loser who says, “blessed are the meek, the sick, the friendless, the downtrodden, for they are loved in the Kingdom of God.” Nietzsche acknowledges that these people possess no virtue simply in being sick (though he himself is heartless and lacks the virtue of compassion, or in other words makes a worthy observation but fails to give the proper Materialist remedy) just as the Existentialist is not a great soul solely out of being struck by the feeling that his life is without purpose. This state-of-being is usually felt amongst intellectuals, but can very-well be merely a stepping stone towards other more worthy pursuits and higher more healthy states of being.
Though Existentialist Nihilism and Christianity are superficially at-odds with each other, in a deeper sense they are very-much alike both in being defined primarily by Man’s attitude towards existence (e.g. life being without purpose, or existence being grounded in purpose either through the existence of God, the sacrifice of Jesus or other mystical narratives that people use to ground meaning in something outside of the subjective feeling of meaning) and by wishing to say that Man’s short-comings (at-least of a certain kind) are really a indicator of great spiritual value and wisdom. Kierkegaard told himself he could not marry Rachel out of some dedication to God, but is being a husband and a neurotic intellectual really mutually exclusive? Hell, Woody Allen has been married five times, so if anything, being a neurotic is great for marriage!
Existential despair is a material condition in the brain that is due-to chemical conditions, yes, but that does not mean it lacks cognitive or environmental causes. Despair is material, and it only exists in the brain, but that does not mean one is wholly inaccurate to say that the death of a loved one caused the despair just as much as (for one caused the other) the lack of serotonin did. So, we can easily say that Existential despair can have its social causes as well. It seems to me clear that Existential despair largely results from living lives with little to no direct social utility. Perhaps a cancer-curing scientist can at-times feel the sense of ennui we describe, yes, but typically those who perform great acts of clear social good do not worry if their lives have purpose. It is primarily bourgeois or idealist philosophy, discussing and endlessly yammering about states of “existential reality” that cause one to feel like there life has no purpose – for from a Consequentialist stand-point it does not. They are practicing a virtue without any of its utility, and rightly at-times feel like fools. Just as the man whose virtue is running, but will only ever run on a treadmill should rightly feel foolish. Virtue divorced from reality is akin to sight divorced from reality (by reality I mean the reality we occupy, not pointless questions about whether or not this reality is really reality or not). By this I mean that virtue is a product of evolution just as much as sight is. Using virtue without any benefit to anyone is indeed comparable to staring at hallucinations and being able to distinguish all the different shades of green of the purple-haired rummy playing dragon in the living room. Philosophy without effect is a sickness, and not only torments intellectuals with certain psychological proclivities, but it dissuades the dullard from being intellectual, though since he was already dissuaded by bourgeois culture and his own nature he required no further repulsion from virtue and greatness.
In conclusion, meaning like philosophy must be lived and if it cannot be lived, it must be abandoned. This is something that despite their weaknesses and errors the religious (the ones who are involved in social welfare whether effectively or not; and not the insecurity of life being so awful without a God to watch sparrows fall – which somehow makes it and all the pain and suffering of this world tolerable or better) know quite well. Their beliefs no matter how absurd in-regards to the nature of reality, are based primarily on the social question (even though many Christians’ values are backward and how they tend to solve the collective plight of this world is idealist and ineffectual) of how we are to relate to our fellow human beings and what actions are permissible and not – though as both a Materialist and Anarchist I hold to have such a simplistic dichotomy of “yes” and “no” is both not realistic and not productive, for as Aristotle points out, one must look at all the details of any situation and be a judge who does not pass universal laws. We must remember that meaning is secure as long as we viscerally create meaning from our own material make-up; otherwise, if meaning exists at-all it is something to be understood or solved like a scientific or logical problem – as the Existentialists foolishly try to understand or solve it. But considering the Existentialist is really searching for contentment, and cloaks it in the noble veil of purpose, this notion (that it is a intellectual problem rather than a problem with some intellectuals) is clearly false for if he somehow found the formula for meaning but his phenomenogical state remained the same he would still be an Existentialist in despair. Only now he would be despairing that he found life’s meaning, but it has no meaning for him, which just shows how absurd, meaningless and pointless existential endeavors and all endeavors with no reliable social or personal utility are.