mercredi, avril 28, 2010

The years of living existentially

If we only have love....

I'd forgotten the companions of my teenage years... Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and, of course, the irrepressible Jacques Brel, the songwriter and bistro philosophe.

I had reason to remember them recently in an extended email conversation with a friend.

First, a reminder of my ground rules for discussing real people. I blur the details so that only you can recognize yourself -- possibly. Unless, of course, you are my child, and then I am occasionally shameless.

I don't talk about you if I'm kissing you (unless you give me permission). I try not to talk about you if I'm mad at you and haven't told you. But if you present me with an intellectual or emotional or theological dilemma -- you may find yourself here. Usually well dolled-up as an archetype -- or as part of a Greek chorus.

The fire that lit this candle was, believe it or not, existentialism. I found that I had difficulty stepping outside of my own social framework enough to really wrestle with it.

And yet....

When I was a high school student, existentialism was in the air.

Or at least, it was in our rarified, precocious, sometimes pretentious air.

Although I can't be sure, at this distance, I'm guessing that it came from our headmaster.

Why else would sixteen year olds be asked to ponder, whether, as Jean Paul Sartre had one of his characters claim in "Huis-clos" (No Exit): "L'enfer, c'est les autres?"

@#!*% , it's those other folks.

I don't know what Sartre meant. But it seemed profound at the time.

Why were we spending time watching two characters hang around wondering about someone who never showed up (Waiting for Godot?)

Thank God no one offered us les Gauloises.

But I did have time to reflect on the idea of a world without inherent meaning. That philosophy probably got more considered attention from my teachers than many others did. Certainly than the foundations of faith in a higher being.

A nihilist philosophy, to be fair, was perhaps never a real option in my family.

Although most of us didn't pay much heed to the idea of God, our motley crew are largely, as far as I can tell, artists, political activists, teachers, and engaged in the social service arena. We help create meaning, if it's just for ourselves.

And is it not possible, in the freedom of the existentialist, to choose to believe? Perhaps moment by moment is as good as one can do.

Of course, it is also possible to choose to believe...not. That is still an affirmation -- of no-faith.

I close this post with an homage to Brel, the late Belgian singer (dead of lung cancer at 49) and romance... and the friend to whom I will probably never talk again for prompting me to ponder that which was buried in my memory.

Listen to Brel sing La Chanson des Vieux Amants -- you don't even have to understand French to be moved.

Or not.

But it's hard not to listen and tear up.

"But oh, my love, my sweet, my tender, my marvelous love, from the clear light of dawn to to the end of the day, I love you, my heart. I love you."

Be free.

(Here's someone else's loose translation of the second stanza:)

"I know your tricks and your deceptions,

You know my spells and wiles and charms.

From traps you’ve given me protection: Sometimes I’ve lost you from my arms.

Sure we’ve had lovers in our beds: It helped when there was time to kill

Or with our bodies’ passions raging,

But in the end when all is said

It seemed our only special skill

Was never growing up, just ageing. "

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