[I gave this lecture today to colleagues in the context of teaching The Swallows of Kabul. It’s inconsistent in its scholarship and reckless in its claims; it’s also inexcusably long. Enjoy.]
Existentialism, OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lecture
Near the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Batman, the Dark Knight of Faith (I’ll come back to that), declares to Rachel Dawes, his never-to-be-seen-again love, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” In that banal statement, we hear the fundamental ethics of Existentialism.
If you’re not familiar with this bougie philosophy, it finds its origins in the work of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century, though neither of them ever used the term. Nietzsche is famous for saying, “God is dead,” contracting syphilis, and writing in a bombastic, self-effacing style that has been reborn beautifully in the likes of Stephen Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report. If your knowledge of Nietzsche stops at such a gross mischaracterization, I invite you to read his work; it’s The Onion with deeper anguish and insight.
As for Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, he explores (ready for it?) the teleological suspension of the ethical with Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Bible as a test case of Kierkegaard’s understanding of true faith. His analysis is not easy to track, but I’ll try to give you a breakdown:
Kierkegaard’s main purpose in the book is “to show what it means to be a Christian,” and his personal task is “becoming one.” To him, contemporary Christians made their faith too easy through an ethics that buried individuality under universality; that is to say, they were all too ready to abandon individual anguish in the face of ethical dilemma through the salvation of a universal code; or ready-made answers. His thought was that if I’m curious about how to behave in any situation, I don’t want to have to make the decision myself; I don’t want the freedom and responsibility that authentic ethics, and even more, authentic faith, actually requires. I prefer others to do my thinking and believing for me.
Kierkegaard lived in a world where ethical life required (or permitted) submission to such universal ends; sin was when you elevated your singularity above the universal. When you transgressed societal or religious codes and norms, that was sinful. Kierkegaard questioned this, dubious of its authenticity. For him, it wasn’t good enough to let priests and the church decide your moral compass and your faith relationship with God.
(By the way, most Existentialists are incorrectly viewed as nihilists and atheists; in fact, nihilism, the idea that nothing has meaning, in Existentialism, leads to a belief that everything has meaning. It’s just not inherent or essential. We decide that meaning, and it can always change. Also, Kierkegaard was deeply Christian.)
Kierkegaard wrote, “Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal…” (9) Basically, Kierkegaard argues that “true” faith is in personal choice and commitment, not submission or surrender to a set universal code. You should rely on nothing but yourself and feel the accompanying anxiety and dread of never verifying your decision by any external standard; there is no judge who can ever really tell you if you’ve lived “the good life” or not. Reconcile this with our characters and the tests of faith in Islam that they experience.
It is “by virtue of the absurd” that genuine faith is possible, evident in the case of Abraham and Isaac (11). Quick rundown: Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Just as Abraham is about to do it, God says, “nah, we cool.” To Kierkegaard, this is absurd and inexplicable. How do we understand Abraham’s decision?
According to Abraham’s “ethical,” his first responsibility is to Isaac, under a precept like: “the father shall love the son more than himself” (11). And so his decision should be an easy one if he relies on the ethical to guide him. Don’t murder Isaac. But he doesn’t; he chooses to murder Isaac. And so his situation is complicated, as is the nature of his faith. To people of his time, he had to be seen as a madman and a murderer. Oh, God told you to murder Isaac? Okay. So effectively, Abraham was completely alienated in this experience, unable to really explain it to anyone, and he abided by a very personal understanding of his faith and in doing so, transcended his society, and in many ways, himself.
In older stories, we used to learn ethical lessons through the archetype of the tragic hero, who is bound by the laws of his time. It was in realizing how we misaligned with universal ethics that we discovered how we ought to behave. “Therefore, while the tragic hero is great purely because of his moral virtue, Abraham is great because of a purely personal virtue.” (14) Abraham transcends tragic hero status because he transcends the ethical, on which the tragic hero comfortably relies, and on which his audience comes to depend. Abraham forces us to realize our existential freedom and responsibility.
“Why, then, does Abraham do it?” (15) Curiously, Abraham is tempted by ethical duty, which would prevent him from true faith; ethical duty is normally not considered a temptation as much as an obligation. True faith requires giving up on the universal “in order to grasp something even higher that is not the universal.” He called this the “religious” sphere of existence. You begin on the aesthetic sphere, living according to desire primarily; then, you’re presented with an either/or scenario in which you either stay on that level or jump to the next one. The next one is the ethical, where you conform to societal norms. Another either/or appears, giving you access – lonely access – to the religious sphere. Your path there can never serve as anyone else’s path, hence the futility of trying to find God through anyone else but yourself.
“How does the single individual reassure himself that he is legitimate?” (16) How do you know when you’re right? Well, you don’t. There is nothing external to us which can justify true faith, which is what makes it so difficult, especially because others will judge this personal faith against the universal, against which it must necessarily be in order for it to be genuine. So we must experience this forsaken isolation in order to rise above the universal that, once liberating us, now condemns us.
We cannot be judged by the result, or look back and say that because of the result, the journey is nothing. What makes Abraham’s faith so astounding is that he had no foresight and so had to live out “the distress, the anxiety, the paradox,” the terror of faith. Sustained tension and terror is faith. That is its “fear and trembling.”
Abraham is ultimately a Knight of Faith. He suspended the teleology of the ethical, the idea that in the ethical we find our telos, our purpose. In other words, we find our purpose in what others have already decided. In fact, we must suspend the teleology of the ethical in order to achieve our faith and our authenticity.
Batman might be considered the Dark Knight of Faith because he transcends the ethical and lives alone in his decisions; he is an absurd hero. No one can understand him, and he can barely understand himself. It is that ambiguity that we must live in order to be authentic. He has no external ethical code in which he can find comfort to justify his behavior. Who is he to supersede Gotham city’s moral order? He does it anyway, trusting that he’s right, even though he is also supremely doubtful. And so he remains in his own Dark Night of the Soul. For Kierkegaard, this is what would make him admirable and incomprehensible, like Abraham. Instead of almost sacrificing his son, Batman has to live with the murder of his parents, potential evidence of a cruel, uncaring universe. The fact that he finds meaning and purpose anyway, in the wake of such inexplicable tragedy, is what makes him an absurd hero.
What sucks – or rather, what makes a faith journey so unique and special and harrowing – is that Batman can’t save anyone or bring them to their own faith. That is a deeply personal quest that we must find the courage to commit to if we want to live authentically. What’s at stake is a fulfilling, if uneasy, existence. The world is rich with other way easier options that will bring you momentary relief, ways of not truly being yourself in all the anxiety and ecstasy that brings you.
When Bill Clinton was embroiled in what now seems like a quaint sexual scandal, he once responded to a question about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky with this gem: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”
Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher in the 20th century, had similar concerns throughout his philosophical career. Before he said anything new, he first, like a rapper, had to besmirch everyone who came before him. So he looked back at the history of philosophy and decided that his predecessors were all imbeciles; none of them asked the foundational question of what is is. So was Bill Clinton being evasive, or was he inviting us into a space where we might consider more honestly our ontological status?
Regardless, Heidegger’s guiding inquiry was: What is being? His answer, in his almost indecipherable book Being and Time, involves several hundred pages of labyrinthine logic and German neologisms. He even looked at language and decided the words of his predecessors were insufficient to capture his genius, so he just started making shit up. In translation, he ends up looking hyper obsessed with hyphens. For instance, in trying to describe how our being relates to death, he created this concept: the-possibility-of-my-own-impossibility-not-to-be-bypassed.
What I’d like us to move forward with from his work are his contributions to the Existentialist focus on authenticity. According to Heidegger, we are beings thrown into the world, abandoned, and left to fend for ourselves in the wake of an indifferent universe. When we become aware of this, our fundamental Being-There (what he called Da-sein), we do everything we can to flee this awareness, which is filled with angst and despair. You experience deep anxiety because change is threatening, and changing one thing in your life exposes you to the reality that you can, whenever you want, change a lot more. (This also makes you threatening to other people, who have settled into a way of being that they confuse with the way of being.)
Instead of taking up our freedom, we surrender to our Being-in-the-World and let our selves be taken up by the “They.” In other words, we conform to societal norms. The primary reason we do this is so that we don’t have to confront our own personal mortality, or as I said before: the-possibility-of-my-own-impossibility-not-to-be-bypassed. We can handle the fact that “They” die; it’s easy to intellectualize death as a thing that happens. To Others. We vaguely understand that it will happen to us because how is it logically possible to imagine your own absence, to conceive of your own non-being when such conception is predicated on being and this weird thing called consciousness.
Anyway, until we truly see the immanent presence of Death in Life, in our lives, we cannot live authentically. If we hide from the truth of our being, which entails non-being, we cannot live truly. When we do confront this terrifying truth, we are liberated; our life starts to matter more; our projects take on greater significance; it is only then that we take up our freedom and responsibility to create ourselves anew in every moment. He called this Being-Toward-Death. In that honest orientation, we begin to truly live, to commit to our perpetual becoming.
(Now, what if an entire society is pointed toward its own Death? What happens when death is banal, freedom feels futile, and authenticity a cruel lie?)
We’re actually not very good at acknowledging our own possibility, let alone our impossibility, when all the possibilities our lives presented are no longer possible. It’s here that we can transition into radical freedom and responsibility.
Existentialism really took hold in the 20th century after World War II, led by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. When Sartre and de Beauvoir weren’t busy exploiting their power and having sexual affairs with their students, or when they weren’t succumbing to a paralyzing bout of good old French intellectual ennui, they were laying out the tenets of this highly influential and still deeply pervasive philosophy.
Sartre defined the movement in a lecture called “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Its main premise is this: existence precedes essence. In other words, as Heidegger argued, we appear in the world without a priori purpose or meaning; there is no essence – no God, no human nature, no natural law – to which we can appeal to understand who we are. Who we are is a struggle that we must constantly be engaged in; we are our own becoming, which results from our choices. Our existence alone determines who we are, but who we are is not a thing that we can ever fix. No one, for instance, can ever become a good person. That’s a lie, a story we tell ourselves.
What Sartre hoped to magnify with this maxim is the fact that we need to take up our freedom constantly, which entails responsibility for others. Like Kant, morality and freedom worked hand-in-hand. Also like Kant, Sartre argued that we should always consider that whenever we value something, we are implicitly speaking for all mankind. What I do is what I believe all people ought to do. My is is your ought. Basically, this is Kant’s categorical imperative. Sartre would also support Kant’s dignity and respect for all human beings under the idea that I am never truly free until everyone is free. My freedom is wrapped up in your freedom, so I can never behave selfishly.
What’s also built into this belief is the idea of “situational being.” Existentialism is often criticized for being elitist. Try to tell citizens of Kabul, for instance, that they’re radically free to change their situation. (In the novel, Nazeesh is an interesting glimpse of radical freedom.) Existentialists were mindful of the fact that your situation constrains your freedom, but at the very least, they would support the idea that you can at least change your attitude and perspective, which would, of course, change your experience and existence. Radical freedom doesn’t need to mean observable, in-the-world action.
Sartre noticed that our default setting is to live in “bad faith.” Inauthentically. Living in “bad faith” is lying to yourself about the freedom that you always have and convincing yourself that you are who you are – or who other people tell you you are – and that’s it. Don’t worry about it. Just get back to Netflix consumption and buy the story that you’re stuck. The truth is, if you’re stuck in your life, if you feel trapped, it’s because you set the trap. You’re a prisoner because you’re the warden. At any moment, you can decide to be free. Don’t try to blame conformity or groupthink or learned helplessness or God or your parents or Culver for your choices. Now, what are the limits of that criticism?
De Beauvoir added ambiguity as a fundamental tenet of the philosophy in her work The Ethics of Ambiguity. She wrote, “To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must constantly be won.” Again, meaning is never fixed. Your life is artistic in that you always have the option to recreate yourself, and in recreating yourself, recreating the world.
The final figure I’d like to bring up is Albert Camus and his book The Myth of Sisyphus. For daring to challenge the gods, Sisyphus was doomed for all eternity to push a boulder up a hill. Camus saw in this myth a parallel to our existence. We constantly do things only have to start over again: from brushing your teeth to making your bed to fighting to win the Super Bowl (go Eagles), you are perpetually engaged in projects that will end, leaving you back right where you started, taking up your “burden” again. He concluded in his analysis that we must imagine Sisyphus happy in this fate. It is in his absurd defiance to the meaningless of his task, of his existence, that he finds fulfillment. In an entropic universe that mocks order, that owes us nothing and that gives us no answers in terms of purpose or meaning, we become absurd heroes by committing wholeheartedly to whatever we do, to see in that struggle our purpose, and to create meaning out of that experience. Our rebellion is our salvation.
This is all well and good to think about, but as Sartre once said, “The point is to live.” Ideally, you’re too busy being and becoming to worry about who you are; you’re so immersed in your own purpose; so committed to projects that you’ve autonomously decided and authentically pursued, that you forget your self and are absorbed by the universe. There, in that absorption, I must imagine you happy.