A Kind of Return: “Life is Trouble…”

Part 3 in the series: Art And The Trouble With Death

The following is the third of a three-part series of reflections on the possible relationship between our consciousness of impending death and our reliance on popular forms of art for making sense of death. Part I considered examples of art in popular music and film and their resonances with what concerns human consciousness. Part II examined Heidegger’s precept to cultivate authentic attitudes of resoluteness towards death. It suggested that this idea is found lacking when compared to Nietzsche’s focus on pettiness as the human being’s chief concern in the face of our transitory nature. This final part reflects upon the possibility of transcending life’s limits in art and in the way time is conceptualized, and it returns to the themes with which this series began.

“Don’t care how rich you are. Don’t care what you’re worth. When it all ends up, you got to go back to mother earth.”
— Memphis Slim, Mother Earth

The ancient Greeks understood that although we may surpass many of our natural limits through the development and acquisition of various skills and arts, one’s death shall not be overcome. The historical prevalence of this leitmotif in art suggests that its truth touches the very core of who we are. Many popular songs and works of literature, film, and stage focus on themes related to life’s existential limits. Yet, as works of art, per se, they represent the possibility of transcending these limits via art’s inspirational power to heal, console, make meaningful, and the like. How then might we comprehend the kind of transcendence that nevertheless remains within the natural limits of life’s finality?

In Part I of this series, I wrote that Heidegger and Nietzsche shared the sense that

an awareness of our temporal horizons and factical limits brings forth the human being’s most fundamental orientations — towards oneself and towards others in the world — and that thinking-through these orientations in light of those temporal limits is necessary to live the best life.

For Heidegger, understanding Dasein’s being as a limited, temporal entity is necessary for freely choosing to live an authentic life. By articulating a non-traditional model of time — the possibility of the “eternal recurrence of the same” — Nietzsche attempts to reconfigure traditional understandings of the categorical relationship between mortal time and immortal eternity. That is, Western metaphysics since at least the days of Augustine has understood “time” — and the birth, life, and death of the human being — to unfold within a conceptually distinct quasi-temporal category called “eternity,” which is presumed to be the province of the Supreme Being.

For Augustine, who admitted to having difficulty explaining what time properly is, all moments in time exist within eternity, while the latter is not exhausted by those moments, not even in the total accumulation of them. We are born, we are alive for a while, and then we die. But eternity somehow transcends this sequence of events. Eternity is thus necessary but not sufficient for time.

For Nietzsche the antecedent and consequent in such a statement are either reversed or they are bi-conditional, depending on how one understands the role of consciousness as such as a condition for the possibility of time, which Nietzsche himself did not clarify. If consciousness is not a necessary condition of time — if time does not imply consciousness (and Nietzsche certainly refers on occasion to a natural history without consciousness), then time may not necessarily imply eternity. Even with human consciousness, it seems, time does not imply eternity prior to the very moment the eternal recurrence is grasped.

In all cases, however, eternity conceived in the eternal recurrence is sufficient to imply time. By comparison, in the Augustinian system, there always was, is, and always will be God, without implications for human time and creation. There is just no necessary answer to the question of why God — in eternity — created the human being and its temporal horizons. The subaltern term, in the Augustinian system, is a finite being, the most significant of which is the kind of being who contemplates God. For Nietzsche, upon the epiphantic vision of eternal recurrence, the subaltern is a “moment” enveloping past and future events and destined to recur eternally. In grasping the eternal recurrence, the becoming of sequences is understood to provide the ontological ground for the possibility of eternal being.

This is obviously not the place to survey the many theories promulgated in philosophy and physics on the nature of time. I will simply point out that in Nietzsche’s system it is possible to transcend the limits of beginning and end while nevertheless remaining defined by them. What is required to transcend these limits is a notable act, a freely chosen overcoming of pettiness which Nietzsche also called “love.” Although Nietzsche adopted Schopenhauer’s concept of the “directionality” of time as a circle, he intended to avoid the pessimistic conclusions Schopenhauer drew from this innovation. Nietzsche claimed to have discovered a real and meaningful choice for living the good life: one may either affirm one’s fate by “loving” it or one may deny fate by lamenting it. This is the upshot of Nietzsche’s take on amor fati, love of fate.

The problem Nietzsche elaborates goes something like this: He asks us to begin with a question or, rather, a related set of questions based upon a cherished or otherwise unforgettable memory. For example, he might ask: What is one’s earliest childhood memory? The thunderous commotion of a passing train? Blowing out birthday candles? The death of a pet? Being punished severely for reasons scarcely understood? Can you recall that moment in which you can definitely say, upon reflection, that your being-in-the-world as a self-aware little girl or boy had fundamentally changed — indeed, had even properly begun? What if, by some force of argument, inspiration, or grace, you were to become convinced that at the moment of death this coming-into self-awareness will return, and following it the whole sequence of life’s experiences just as they have been encountered from the beginning of self-awareness to the final moment approaching death? Would this epiphany be disappointing? Devastating? Would one’s highest hopes and values be devalued? Would the aims of every intention be undermined? Are we so indifferent to questions of life’s meanings and sufferings as to not care?

With these sorts of musings Nietzsche had hoped to confront Schopenhauer’s pessimism regarding freedom as the possibility for amor fati and time as thought in a circle. The human being is free to love or to not love the fate of eternal recurrence, while eternity is lived and no longer disconnected from human existence. I would even argue that Nietzsche’s thoughts do not preclude the eternal recurrence of different outcomes (each recurring eternally) resulting from the use of this freedom, but I need not develop that analysis here.

In the practical sense, the philosophical endeavors of Nietzsche and Heidegger are thus cast into the light of fundamentally existential questions such as, “Who am I?” “Where am I?” “Why am I here?” “Who are you?” “What does it mean to aspire?” “To what ought I aspire?” “Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing at all?” If it seems to discredit their projects to be tangled-up in the ineffability of these issues, I might ask, “Who has not pondered these questions, and who could possibly resolve them decisively?”

Philosophy, as with art, endeavors to raise questions, some of which cannot be answered.

Yet, it is not enough to say that “human endeavoring” makes life meaningful. We must overcome our fantasies about finding and realizing our so-called authentic selves. We ought also to ask, in what way is life made meaningful?

In order to elaborate the problem, allow me to draw down my discussion with a personal anecdote. Several years ago, a friend visiting from out of town hoped to convince me to skip half a week of classes so that I could join her on a trip to a nearby vacation village. Her argument went something like this: “Twenty years from now, what are you more likely to remember? The classes or the trip?” The critical response would be that although the trip will likely be more memorable, “remembering the day twenty years from now” does not necessarily settle the debate. I could have decided, after all, to rob a liquor store on that day, with the likely outcome being a 20-year jail sentence, or worse. The point is that if “remembering the day twenty years from now” were to provide an adequate measure for justifying our endeavors, for making decisions, and for taking action, then such an ethos would permit outcomes that are clearly dubious.

Arguably, this ethos might be taken into consideration while aspiring to “live fully,” but it lacks something essential: a check against doing regrettable deeds. Similarly, it might be good to “live authentically” but it is also essential to seek out one’s petty and destructive impulses for the purpose of overcoming them. Heidegger’s “anticipatory resoluteness” contains the same sort of ambiguity: What it would sanction disqualifies it as a foundation for living the good life, whereas Nietzsche’s amor fati entails the self-overcoming of one’s own pettiness.

To return to the questions with which this series began: 1) Should we trouble ourselves at the crossroads of finitude and meaning? Perhaps we cannot do otherwise. Techne — art, skill, linguistic expression, concept-formation, and the like — responds to this human necessity. Thus, a second sort of question arises: 2) Is it, then, necessary to disqualify some forms of art in order to determine art’s true meaning? Must we condemn “the they” and its discourses to a secondary status in order to understand the real influence of art upon the human being’s rise to consciousness and with respect to the quality of one’s being-in-the-world? Must we seek to discover our presumably true and isolated self in order to live a free and authentic life? I don’t believe so. Finally, 3) Might a plausible ethos be found in everyday discussions at this crossroads? Perhaps.

In revisiting Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, introduced in Part I of this series, we find an early scene in which Zorba excoriates his boss for refusing to chat-up the ill-fated widow, upon having the good fortune of recently meeting her. What seems most illogical to Zorba is his friend’s pathetic attempts to justify his incapacity to follow a perfectly natural course of action: to simply introduce himself to a beautiful woman who has shown him some interest. Here, the boss’ indecisiveness — his inability to reach out beyond his inhibitions — foreshadows the graver scene in which the widow is senselessly murdered in the middle of town, as Zorba’s friend helplessly cowers in the face of this petty and brutal spectacle.

In the aforementioned scene foreshadowing the murder, Zorba encourages his comrade to take action: “Boss, I’m counting on you not to shame the male sex…Why did the Creator give us hands? For grasping! So, grasp!” Zorba’s boss could only reply, “I don’t want trouble.” Despite Zorba’s insistence that his friend account for himself, the boss could offer no further response. Thus, Zorba muses: “Life is trouble; only death is not. … Do you know the definition of being alive?” Zorba’s answer to this rhetorical question is somewhat crude, but no matter. Only pettiness — and all that is complicit with pettiness — contradicts a life well-lived.

Zorba’s maxim for being alive (“to undo your belt and look for trouble”) is perfectly situated for the moment in which it is posed, and it generally concerns venturing out beyond ourselves in order to discover our everyday vices and contradictions and to work to overcome them. It also implies standing up to one’s paltry impulses. To put it more explicitly: In the murder scene, as in all of life, being-alive calls for action in the form of direct confrontations with pettiness and its consequences. Answering this call, I believe, is what it means to love one’s fate.

Still, it is important to note that Zorba’s answer to the rhetorical question of what it means to be alive is not merely an expression of resoluteness. It could, after all, be argued that the townsfolk acted “resolutely” in avenging the suicide of one of their own with the murder of the widow. What is clear, in Kazantzakis’ story, is that the townsfolks’ appalling pettiness overshadowed whatever resolution for revenge they might have endeavored to fulfill. Nor could an understanding of Zorba’s maxim be fully realized in flights from social discourse and interaction. In speaking with Zorba, the boss came to understand “that Zorba was right” and that his own “life had taken the wrong path,” because in the search to find his authentic self, his “contact with fellow humans had ended up as an internal monologue.”

Part I: “Time Is Ticking Away”

Part II: “On Resoluteness and Pettiness”

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