03 Mar Nothing happens while you live [Jean-Paul Sartre (Daniel Klein)]
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, French Philosopher
I find myself both touched and embarrassed by the earnestness of my younger self in the note I scribbled below it:
I have been there, Jean-Paul. I have sung that blues of all blues, the There’s-Nothing-New-Under The-Sun Blues, the Fighting-Vainly-The-Old-Ennui Blues, the Same-Old-Same-Old-Thing Blues. The Existential Blues… I have felt myself drowning in the monotony of it all. I have despaired of ever finding anything new and meaningful.
I can picture my distant young self sitting alone on a park bench, the collar of my coat turned up, an unfiltered cigarette dangling from my lips, my eyes squinted as I took in the dreary predictability of everything I saw. I grimaced as I beheld the false bonhomie of middle-aged couples chatting. And I shuddered as I watched young lovers locked in an embrace, totally unaware that their affair would inevitably turn into mutual contempt or worse, boredom.
It was not pretty. But at those times in my life when I felt this existential ennui, it was very real. It made me wonder why I should bother to do anything, like get out of bed in the morning.
If I felt and acted that way today, someone would trot me off to a shrink where I would be promptly diagnosed with Recurrent Depressive Disorder (Code 296.32 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and medicated with Prozac. One thing about living in a psychological era is that few people give credence or value to a philosophical perspective. In our period, despairing of finding any meaning in life is rarely considered a sincerely held worldview; no, it is a sickness that needs to be cured. If I said to a psychiatrist that by treating existential ennui as a disease he is making the gratuitous assumption that the correct way to live is cheerfully and hopefully, he would look at me as if I was, well, sick in the head. Most shrinks presuppose that the goal of life is to become positive and to have a sense of well-being and that it is not healthy to feel or think otherwise.
But what if, after philosophical contemplation, a person finds life empty? What if he cannot find any meaning in life, either rationally or in the depths of his being? Does that simply mean it’s Prozac time?
The “Nothing happens while you live” quote is from Sartre’s first novel, Nausea. Written in 1938, it was a philosophical treatise in literary form.
The story involves a man who gradually loses his grip on everything that once had meaning and value in his life; hence the “nausea” of endless meaninglessness that overcomes him. Near the end of the novel, this man begins to grasp that he alone can create the meaning of his life. This freedom is horrifying in both its arbitrariness and its personal responsibility, but it is also thrilling. The novel’s theme of suffering as a prerequisite for consciousness— that “life begins on the other side of despair”—made Nausea an indispensable text of the Existentialist movement.
That the most compelling formulations of existential despair were French clearly contributed to this romanticism. It was not simply that French philosophers such as Sartre and Camus expressed this despair better than any other philosophers; this view of life also pervaded popular French language and art. The Nouvelle Vague films of the day portrayed antiheroes beset by a sense of meaninglessness and the inertia born of that feeling.
I also remember seeing attractive Sorbonne students in Paris cafés shrugging with soulful resignation and intoning, “Je m’en fous,” a fashionable phrase of the day that meant, roughly, “Not only do I not give a shit, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I did.”As I say, very French and very romantic. I was very young.
Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It