by David Wemyss (November 2014)
Strange that you should not have suspected years ago – centuries, ages, eons, ago! – for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions . . . strange because they are so frankly and hysterically insane . . . Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought – a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities! – Mark Twain, ‘The Mysterious Stranger’
What makes the Danes so happy is that they are very trusting of other people they don’t know. Trust helps make people happy . . . The great thing about Danish society is that it doesn’t judge other people’s lives . . . [also] money is not as important here as in Britain and America. We don’t buy big houses or big cars, we like to spend our money on socialising with others – Professor Christian Bjørnskov, Aarhus Business School
Here in the UK, the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recently gave us a series of pleasant but inconsequential television programmes exploring the Scandinavian way of life. As you would expect, cooking featured quite a lot, but so did lightweight cultural commentary about the familiar idea of ‘the Nordic welfare states.’
I watched the programme on Denmark with particular interest. Living in the happiest country in the world, Danes welcome high taxes in return for social cohesion, good schools and universities, high-quality hospitals, cradle-to-grave welfare, green sensibilities, strong and transparent democracy, and a markedly tolerant culture. They really do seem to have been ‘educated for citizenship.’
Of course you could bring a lot of Danish people onstage to contest this picture. Anyone watching the marvellous ‘Borgen’ knows that not everyone in Denmark has the same political opinions – especially on immigration. However, be that as it may, it’s certainly true that the Danish mindset has to do with lifestyle versatility for everyone – senior executives and TV producers just as much as those in less high-powered jobs. There are extraordinarily generous paternity leave arrangements for men and not too many glass ceilings for women.
Yet, looking in from the outside, the ‘shiny happy people’ predictability is a bit soulless. The most included citizen in the most inclusive state in the world can still feel that something is wrong. There’s a pale and colourless feeling – but does that mean that (for example) the undoubted vigour of American culture is the thing that’s missing, or that a certain British eccentricity would puncture the staid egalitarianism? I don’t think that’s it at all. There’s a lot to admire in American life, but the quirkiness of British individualism is gentler in its scepticisms, less brash in its parochialisms. No doubt I would say that. Yet these cultural speculations are not very interesting in the end. Something quite different was troubling me as I watched pleasant young Danish people talking in such an ordered and predictable way.
Perhaps the greatest Dane of all – Soren Kierkegaard – saw it coming in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was particularly fond of saying that someone could be happy and in despair at the same time. But rather more recently, just forty years ago, I would sit in the pub with my friends and discuss whether in a benign communist society – or, more realistically, a sophisticated social democracy not unlike the Scandinavian models – there would be anything left to do apart from keep the machine well-oiled. We all knew bits of Sartre and Camus but we disagreed about whether their allusions to some sort of existential three-dimensionality really meant anything. And they seemed disappointingly political in the end. For me, Kierkegaard came later – but even his much richer allusions were elusive.
If you could have good hospitals and schools in an equal and tolerant society – and a free market economy, albeit with a lot of tax and regulation – then what would existentialism be for? Was it a kind of variation on art for art’s sake? Music and painting and literature were wonderful things, but did any of it really mean anything beyond its own inventiveness?
We usually agreed that it did, but it was a conditional assumption. Most of us assumed that the arts celebrated tolerance and love – or else issued uniquely powerful warnings about intolerance and hate. Of course Stravinsky famously observed that music expressed nothing but itself – and that it did that very well – but, even so, surely there was something edifying about going to see The Firebird?
In the end, the humanities were, well, humane. But they were the junior partner in the projects of the human spirit. Social justice (and the technological progress that served it) came first. You couldn’t live by bread alone, but you almost could. Only a few cared about Mahler or Charlie Parker, Friedrich or Kandinsky, Henry James or Thomas Mann. The rest cared about material comfort, security, and entertainment – although they might also care about each other, while arty types remained self-absorbed. Yet arty types might cherish freedom more, whereas the crowd was drawn to its defining collectives.
What about religion? Even back then, one of my friends used to cause a stir by insisting that Islam had never had its Reformation – and probably never could. How right she was. So religion for me was bound to be Christianity, God knowable only in Jesus. And I used to argue that, at its best, Christianity was about the salvific. It had to do with mysteries of death and consciousness that social justice could never touch.
Yet Jesus was unintelligible without a social dimension – although the point was to love our neighbours, not abstract humanity. But, then again, loving abstract humanity was a better project than setting out to hate it. Either way, I held to the view that some sort of purely experiential virtue was real and true. Some people would die on bread alone. Not if they were really hungry. Did you have to choose? Didn’t the weal and woe of existence embrace all of it? This was the kind of thing we talked about when we were students.
The years passed. Most of my friends stopped worrying about this kind of thing, but I had hardly begun. Kierkegaard stayed with me but I also became obsessed with Wittgenstein and Heidegger. I needed to work through their questions about presence in language – and their vivid sense of mysteries in the experience of speech. Pursuing the same questions, I lapped up Eliot, Kafka and Virginia Woolf as well. But there was an unlikely watershed in all of this, a middlebrow turning-point in the midst of so much genuinely exciting highbrow literature.
C P Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ novels – and the endless conversations in Cambridge and Whitehall of their largely autobiographical narrator Lewis Eliot – are usually interpreted as holding up a mirror to British political history in the middle part of the twentieth century, but, at their best, I think they’re ‘existential’ novels too – and a better bet than Sartre et al. In particular, in The Light and the Dark we get the resolution of the story of the highly-regarded academic Roy Calvert – manic-depressive at the very least, probably a genius, and a man in desperate need of God but icily aware that God is not within his reach.
In the thirties, Calvert – like Heidegger and Knut Hamsun perhaps but in a very British middle-class way – sees something in Hitler’s Germany, something deeper but yet dangerous. In the end, though, he turns away, and ends up in the RAF, bombing the German cities he loves. Most of all, however, he wants to die on one of these missions – and, inevitably, he does. However, earlier in the novel, while explaining the temptation of National Socialism, he says that communism is the driest and most sterile of human creeds –
Life is darker than they think, but it’s also richer. You know it is.’ Roy talked of our communist friends. ‘They’re shallow. They can’t feel anything except moral indignation. They’re not human, Lewis. I can’t get on with them anymore.
Eliot hears ‘a Wagnerian passion for death’ in all of this, but he knows that the psychodrama is free of theatricality or affectation and is in the end ‘darker and richer’ than Wagner. He knows that his friend is what Karl Barth called Krankgott – ‘sick with God’ – and that only death can release him.
Now I have to say at this juncture that using the expression ‘sick with God’ immediately narrows the breadth of nuance here. These things are not simply the same thing showing itself in different ways in the febrile imaginations of over-heated literary types. I prefer to say (pace Wittgenstein) that we’re looking at family resemblances between different things, and that, although Roy Calvert was an exciting (fictional) character for me to find, he certainly didn’t catch all the psychological nuances that had made me look out for such types in the first place.
In truth, in my case, existential loneliness often seemed like the cognitive peculiarity of an out-and-out solipsist – except that I had no desire to argue that the world was just a dream and that only I existed. That would have been silly. I was quite clear that the world was real and that all of us definitely existed. But I began to wonder if I was irredeemably alone with my experience of it.
As James Thurber put it: ‘It occurred to me today that the world exists only in my own consciousness; whether as reality or illusion the evening papers do not say.’
I like to call this a kind of transcendental solitude. It may be what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she talked about ‘the loneliness that is the truth about things.’ But we’re just sending messages in a bottle in a world when fewer and fewer people are finding things on the shore.
You could say that, in the end, the different messages show that the salvific is what human depth desires. The self needs to come to rest in the power grounding it, but, if that power can no longer be believed in, human depth has nowhere to go, and is its own irreducible mystery.
But that’s to try to explain the irreducible – by deciding that it points to the absence of God – a ‘God-shaped gap.’ Some theologians will find in such a gap the implicit presence of God – but ‘not yet.’ I beg to differ. I think we should just abide in the irreducible and not chatter about it. The genuinely irreducible doesn’t stand in need of any extrinsic justification. There’s no reason to be had. Our spades are turned. We hit bedrock.
And of course this can be an area where explanations are a justification for stone- age morality and credulous fanaticism. Better to abide quietly in a real mystery – too deep to imagine appropriating. Thinking you know something is the very antithesis of authenticity.
Too often we think a mystery is only a mystery if we already believe it’s been half-solved.
In Self-Consciousness: Memoirs John Updike says that billions of consciousnesses silt history full, every one of them the centre of the universe. ‘What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream – or take refuge in God?’
Yes. But not everyone says yes. Most don’t. A few will say that they ‘sort of know’ what the feeling here might be – but that they don’t feel like screaming. Most will agree with the first professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, Patrick Corbett, who used to tell his students that there was nothing wrong with the likes of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky that a good walk on the Downs wouldn’t have put right.
On this question at least, Philip Larkin is on the side of nuance –
Saying so to some/means nothing; others it leaves/nothing to be said.
Of course some will say that ‘transcendental solitude’ is just an aggrandisement of (what should be) the discovery of the small child that he or she just is. I suppose I’m not writing for them any more than I would have been writing for Professor Corbett.
But I am writing for those who ‘sort of’ know what I mean. Apposite to this, in his History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger observes that ‘whenever a phenomenological concept is drawn from primordial sources there is a possibility that it may degenerate if communicated in the form of an assertion. It gets understood in an empty way and is passed on accordingly, losing its indigenous character.’
In the end, though, most of all, I’m writing for anyone – anyone – who can warm to Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘what solipsism means is true – only it cannot be said.’ Now that’s right. I constantly feel that I have a vivid and colourful sense of being and that everyone else is stranded on its mere surface, in a mechanical or behaviouristic trap – dull and monochrome by comparison.
But I can’t say that, although I just did.
Yet my solitude requires that I do say it – and I can say that.
David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011 at the age of 56. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having been published in a number of journals and magazines over the years, his essays are usually drawn from a mix of middlebrow and highbrow literary interests.
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