Gospel & Universe
Doctors of Revolt
This page contains an ironic poem about the evils of science, two sections on the existentialism of Sartre and Camus, and a short prose piece about living in a state of existential revolt.
Adam and Evil - Sartre: Existence Precedes Essence - Camus' Revolt - A Revolting Animal
Adam and Evil
so decorticated The Word
there was little left to say on the
slippery subject of eternal Truth
which started to look like a casket
or thin oval theatre in Padua, Italy
where stems popped from sockets
and the clear skin was drawn back
with a swift, meticulous precision
beneath the necromantic gazes
of the heretic doctors
There, in the northern cities of Italy
far enough from the chimes of Saint Peter's
Mondino de Luzzi and other heretics of science
conducted examinations on the squat human body
which lay naked, without so much as an apple leaf
in the wooden chambers of the Renaissance
The game of sex
and knowledge was afoot:
the head was exposed to the air
as flesh turned inside out
now knew itself
and its vesicles
and its muscles
that thrust up
in an endless
base raw drive
of its seedling nature amid the grass
of the wide world and its forbidden knowledge
The Index of Forbidden Books was itself forbidden in the ghastly bright theatres
of Bologna and Padua; lit on its own pyre, its own funeral altar
on which, to his great distress, Pope Prohibitus the Sixth
saw the Snake
with venomous fang
who once bit the ankle
of each clay-footed priest
the ancient enemy
with carbunckles for eyes
now circling on the table
and worming his way up each vein
kidney, liver, philosophy, and part
toward the pulsing red cylinders
of Darwin, Crick, Einstein, and Sartre
Sartre: Existence Precedes Essence
Since the Renaissance -- and especially since Darwin and the 19th Century -- many religious people felt they had to take the scientific arguments seriously. Many felt they had to relinquish their faith and find whatever meaning they could in a Godless world. Others tried to keep both worlds by accepting the relativity and chaos around them, but in the face of it all making a leap toward faith. This is often referred to as a leap of faith, although it's really the self that leaps -- from from relative chaos around it to an absolute order; from the many overwhelming truths uncovered by empiricism to the one sheltering Truth offered by religion.
Prominent in this shift is the notion that existence precedes essence, that is, that our physical bodies come before, or precede, our spiritual selves. This was formulated by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) in his 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism:
Qu'est-ce que signifie ici que l'existence précède l'essence? Cela signifie que l'homme existe d'abord, se rencontre, surgit dans le monde, et qu'il se définit après.
What does it mean here that existence precedes essence? This means that man exists to begin with, that he then encounters himself, that he moves into the world, and that he defines himself afterwards. (trans. RYC)
Existentialists believe that physical existence is all we’ve got, both on the small scale (the body) and on the large scale (the body politic and the universe). They believe there’s no essence guiding us -- neither a personal spiritual essence (a soul), nor a cosmic omnipotent essence (a God). Despite the alienation, angst, and anomie -- Modernism's Triple A -- that this rudderless state of things induces, existentialists believe that we're still free to choose our own paths, to create our our meaning. While this freedom may be daunting -- Sartre says that we're condemned to freedom (Being and Nothingness, 1943) -- it's still better than being one of God's chosen or elect, who is described by Sartre as a man pinned against the wall by the finger of God (Le Diable et le Bon Dieu / The Devil and the Good Lord, 1951).
In his 1943 play Les Mouches (The Flies), Sartre writes that the painful secret of the Gods and kings is that men are free (Le secret douloureux des Dieux et des rois: c'est que les hommes sont libres). This freedom comes at a high price, however, in terms of feeling that one's life is intrinsically meaningful. For Sartre, it simply isn't.
To a man without blinders, there's no finer sight than an intelligence grappling with a reality that transcends it. -- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942
While Sartre's thinking seems to have pushed him onto a difficult path -- one that led to angst, despair, and extreme politics -- the other great French existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960) trod a more middle ground. Sartre's logic led him to utopian politics of an authoritarian type, which makes sense in a way: if you can't change the absurd condition of the human self, and if you can't change the absurd contract between the self that yearns for meaning and the world that gives none, you can at least try to change the world in which you live.
The falling out between Sartre and Camus reflects their different views of how to proceed in an absurd universe: Sartre continued to support Stalin's radical attempt to change the world, whereas Camus rejected Stalin's authoritarian program in which the ends were allowed to justify the means. Camus argues that
democracy is, after all, the person who admits that his adversary might be right. He therefore lets his adversary express himself, and thinks about the arguments he's made. When parties or men are so sure they're right that they violently shut the mouths of their adversaries, democracy's over. (Camus à "Combat," Albert Camus, Gallimard 2002, p. 665 -- trans. RYC).
Camus' revolt against the absurdity of life is, to my mind at any rate, more subtle than that of Sartre. For while both existentialist realize, like Gilgamesh four thousand years before them, that one legitimate response to an uncaring, absurd universe is to engage with it anyway -- in Camus terms, to grapple with the reality that transcends you -- Camus doesn't prescribe a particular way that one must grapple. While both authors argue for justice and equality, Camus doesn't prescribe drastic manipulation as a means, nor does he imagine a particular goal that society must advance toward. His grappling is more liberal and democratic, which precludes supporting authoritarian versions of the perfect state.
In his essay, "Existentialisme Entre Nature et Culture: Camus Contre Sartre," Pierre Zima argues that while Sartre saw the cultural or intellectual domination of nature as a necessary response to alienation, absurdity, and chaos, Camus saw nature as a consolation or solution to these things. Zima writes:
Camus defends nature and human nature (human life) against the grand philosophic and political projects which tend to sacrifice the individual to the historical. At the same time, he defends philosophic, political and literary revolt against the type of revolution that invariably finishes by re-establishing the repressive system it pretended to abolish. (trans. RYC)
Zima suggests that Camus' revolt is in a sense more radical, since it doesn't prescribe any sort of human pattern that might counteract the absurdity that comes from desiring meaning in a universe that doesn't seem much concerned with that particular human problem. Zima finishes his essay with a quote from The Rebel (L'Homme Révolté, 1951) in which he aligns Camus' thinking with Nietzsche and the Greeks rather than with Marx and Christianity: "For Marx, nature is what one subjugates to obey history; for Nietzsche, it's what one obeys to subjugate history. It's the difference between the Christian and the Greek." (trans. RYC)
Camus's revolt against the absurdity of our brief and limited existence is also more positive and empowering than that of Sartre. Here's a famous passage from The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), in which Camus likens our struggle to find meaning to the struggles of the Greek king who was condemned by Zeus to push a boulder again and again up a hill:
This universe, now without Master didn't seem to [Sisyphus] sterile or futile. Each grain of the rock, each mineral splendour of that mountain of night, to him alone formed the world. Even the struggle itself toward the summits were sufficient to fill the human heart. It's necessary to imagine that Sisyphus is happy. (trans. RYC)
A Revolting Animal
Gérôme felt like an ostrich who lifted his head up from the sand and saw that there were no bugs to eat and no water to slake his thirst. He felt like a giraffe who lifted his head above the leaves and saw only dark blue sky and stars, reaching so high into the night that his hooves on the dusty ground seemed like the Gucci footwear of some other species.
Gérôme felt like rejecting the absurd contract between his self, that yearned for meaning, and the world that gave none. But that was itself absurd, he said to himself. The contract is absolute. Even the obscure author of Gilgamesh, four thousand years ago, understood that this world is all we've got. You can cross mountains guarded by scorpion men and sail boats to the garden beyond time, yet still you will never live beyond your death. At least, we can't count on it in the same way we can count on paying taxes or dying.
There were as a result two paths, mutually intelligible. That is, they were mutually understood -- by his first self that saw the impossibility of meaning, and by his other self that saw he would struggle for this meaning even if it wasn't there.
First, he could try to change the world to make it fit the desire for meaning that was locked inside his head -- whether this lost ideal of meaning came from genetics, family, history, literature, or Sunday school indoctrination.
Second, he could change his head so that it might see the world in a way that gave existential absurdity a kick in the pants.
Sartre took the first option; Camus took both options. Gérôme decided to go with Camus.
As an ostrich, he would continue to look about him, sizing up the danger possessed by jackals and thunder. As a giraffe, he would watch where he set his hooves, which were far beneath him, but were also part of this body of his that stretched above the sunburnt leaves.
He would also revolt against his own mind's version of events, citing worn-out neural circuits, redundant philosophical loops, a general failure of the educational system, and all the bad advice offered to him under the category of wisdom. He would do this within his own mind, within his own body, taking what was new and grafting it onto what he already knew.
Next: The Status Quo