‘I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man.’
I have picked up Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground again this week after re-reading a post I wrote a few months ago called ‘Hunger‘. At the time this post dealt with an inability to write due to two key factors:
- I was extremely busy with office work (the time in which I liked most to write as it was simultaneously time least valuable to me and I was paid for it). I also did not write new material on weekends as I considered it more healthy to spend these hours developing and celebrating inter-personal relationships with those who were of most value to my social and spiritual self. If I were to be unashamedly honest, however, I will admit I also failed to adequately prioritise my hobbies so that I might also have continued to cultivate my private self through critical social and self-reflexive exploration, i.e. writing shit down.
- My expressive capabilities at this time had recently been numbed by a week of excessive hedonism. And when one rides a chemical steed to mighty heights, there will invariably be a come-down of regrettably unequal proportions. You pick up speed as you re-enter the social atmosphere of the day-to-day and a small part of your soul burns up in the process as you are once again forced to join the performance of ‘sane’ subjects on the social stage. At the fourth wall the audience is presented with a ‘normal’, coherent reality. Behind the curtain, however, we are all in a state of incomprehensible pandemonium.
In this September 2013 post I explored not so much the romantic, abstract tragedy that is a writer’s lack of (or more accurately inability to bring forth) inspiration, but more a concrete, even visceral inability to write. I wanted to write; I was hungry to write. But I just couldn’t stomach scratching out what I would only re-read as and incomprehensibly inky Sanskrit.
This time, however, it has been different. My entire January 2014 has been taken up by moving to Prague and completing an intensive course to teach English as a foreign language. Personally, the course developed my ability to function effectively under (what I felt to be) immense pressure as we spent the mornings as students, afternoons completing lesson plans, evenings teaching classes and the nights preparing for the next day. Academically, I have always worked intricately and at my own pace, i.e. slow as fuck. As a result, I personally felt I developed invaluable transferable skills and a practical understanding of English grammar (I had never been taught this in any of my schooling) from The Language House TEFL for which I will be forever grateful.
The consequent two weeks I spent largely intoxicated on cheap Czech Velkopopovický Kozel and 80-pence-a-litre box wine due to the anniversary of the 26th year of my biological existence and also the surprise arrival of friends from my hometown.
And once again I rode the steed and burned up on re-entry.
This is when I picked up Notes from the Underground again.
The novel, as with Hamsun’s Hunger, deals with what might be described as an existentialist struggle, aka. the burden of negotiating meaning and value in one’s life whilst under the knowledge that our life narratives bear no pre-ordained objective or direction; we must carve them out for ourselves and make it our responsibility to understand the meaning and consequences of our every action. On the other hand philosophers such as Sartre would further argue that understanding and acknowledging is not enough: our acts are not trivial, but are definitive not only of our very self-hood but also (to an extent) of the world around us. Every time we ACT, we change the world in some iota. (Corbett, B., 1985)
This very post will change the world to some degree.
Through philosophical and psychological enquiry, the existentialist explores questions they believe must be interrogated in order to fully appreciate human existence and lead a meaningful, morally just life. Death, the meaning of human existence, the place of God in human existence, the meaning of value, interpersonal relationships and the place of self-reflective conscious knowledge of one’s self in existing are all discourses of philosophical concern particular to those who have been labelled existentialists. (Corbett, B., 1985)
This is not an easy way to live, but for those who lead a life of philosophical interrogation and consistent critical thinking it is not just necessary but becomes irrevocably innate. I am impertinent enough to assume that (to the extreme) the only method of dissociating oneself from what has historically amounted to asphyxiation on one’s own philosophical enquiry is that which Nietzsche succumbed to in his final days – a retreat into madness.
Or suicide. Suicide would also work. I prefer insanity though, it’s more poetic.
Now that I have more time to myself (or more specifically, for my self) I can write again. Priority and distraction had dulled my inspiration. That and some weird pink stuff I had on my birthday. I am only just being inspired by my new surroundings despite having lived here for over six weeks. I am beginning to regard the graffiti on the archaic architecture as beautiful because it represents how trivial and impermanent it must feel to be surrounded by so much history when we can only ever occupy the most minuscule span of it – we (as experiencing organisms) can only ever be as temporary and vulnerable as a lick of paint.
But in the spirit of existentialist philosophical enquiry, I’m going to use the time I’m deliberately keeping myself unemployed for to enquire into what is truly valuable and meaningful for myself and to the world around me, what more I need to give to society, to the people I love and also to my self. In many cases I have discovered I already know what many of these things are, but have never truly acknowledged. In life, I have the opportunity to contribute positively to every single person around me who shares and struggles under the same human condition as I do. Basically, to not be a cunt and try to make other people’s lives better even at the expense of myself if I believe they would do the same for me.
Corbett completes his brief definition of the existentialist’s struggle in the following quote:
‘Living without certainty and with personal responsibility is a nearly unbearable burden.’
For Dostoevsky’s character in Notes from the Underground this is a burden which leads him to the extremes of both self-loathing and hatred of his peers. His very ‘I’ (understanding of his ‘self’) becomes fragmented as he struggles with an inability to fill not only the world around him, but this very ‘self’ with meaning and value. For Hamsun’s protagonist, ‘Pontus’, in Hunger, reality steadily begins to disintegrate as his literal hunger (he does not eat for days at a time) and metaphorical hunger (his desperation to be a successful writer at which he continually fails) become testament to the incomplete and de-centralised ‘self’ he experiences (a discourse typical to post-structuralist thinking) in his day-to-day struggle with his writing, money, work, love, social relationships and his general social performativity.
The irony for both writers, however, is that in order to express this existential vacuum in their characters – their void and their very alienation – they necessarily assume a subject – an ‘I’ – to be alienated in the first place. In order to speak about a ‘fragmented’ and ‘de-centralised’ self, you must first have a centralised position to speak from – an a-priori self.
And it is from this ‘first place’ – this (albeit near fictional) a-priori – that I plan to discover what I truly find meaningful and valuable, what is worth pursuing, who and what is bullshit and what and why is my insatiable desire for anything I consider desirable.
Not least to mention this entire quacked-up endeavour in itself.