Saturday, January 19, 2008

a word about existentialism

As I said a couple of days ago, I mean to write something about the existentialist core of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. First I have a little bit to say about existentialism itself. Given its nature, it's fitting that existentialism lacks a satisfying definition. To some extent it's a philosophy, though one that lacks precise description. To some extent it's a literary movement, albeit without much in the way of self-acknowledged followers. To some extent, it's a cultural development, a historic artifact that arose from the pressures on Christianity in the 2nd half of the 19th century and, much more, from the ravages of the two world wars in the 20th.

The most satisfying treatment of existentialism as philosophy is in Anthony Manser's article in the old Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

Manser says existentialists are pessimists about humanity. They say that we humans deceive ourselves, fail to face up to reality, and evade both the choices we must make and the responsibility for these unacknowledged choices. They say humans are absurd, complacent when well off and succumbing irrational despair when not.

He says existentialists tend to be romantic, somewhat bohemian souls who believe that
the smug, the comfortable, and the bourgeois pretend that there are moral rules written into the nature of things, but this is a device of bad faith or inauthenticity, an attempt to hide from one's self the agony of choosing. . . . This concentration on the personal, the subjective, the authentic individual who makes his choice without reference to “what they will think,” made existentialism popular in times of crisis; it is no accident that the movement had its greatest appeal in wartime and in the immediate postwar period.

He says things don't have to be this way. We can if we will lead authentic lives as opposed to the escapist ones we've passively accepted. This release from illusion and invisible, though self-imposted, constraints can be accomplished by facing up to emptiness and the inevitability of death. These two are not the same. Existentialists say we all dread nothingness -- a nameless, featureless, absence of structure, support, certainty, objectivity; all material substance and all source of sustenance. Equally, we all dread death, the extinction of our existence. Existentialists say religious faith helps us cope with these two dreads, but those that are atheists say this faith is one more complacent illusion that needs to be overcome in order to lead an authentic life and those that are Christian say that faith itself cannot be authentic unless the faithful face up to the two types of existentialist angst; otherwise it is, as the atheists say, just another complacency.

Manser uses texts from Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre to explicate all this. Interestingly, there are medieval religious texts and Asian writings say much the same. Perhaps this simply illustrates his point that what we call existentialism belongs to specific men of a specific time, but the existentialist impulse is not so constrained.

For me, Zen is existentialist. Its end product is overcoming dread of nothingness and of death by facing up to both. It is subjective practice aiming at a transcendent objectivity. It values the absurd and is enemy of complacency. Zen adepts are fully conscious of the choices they make; if there is self-deception among them, it is conscious self-deception.

So too, the Japanese martial arts, at least as given by Miyamoto Musashi. I have a copy of his Book of Five Rings, Go Rin No Sho, translated and introduced by Victor Harris. Written in 1645, it is a masterful guide for Samurai swordsmen by one of the best of them who ever lived.

As Harris explains, "Enlightenment in Zen does not mean a change in behaviour, but realisation of the nature of ordinary life. The end point is the beginning, and the great virtue is simplicity. . . . The ultimate teaching is lack of anger. You treat your enemy as honoured guest. You abandon your life, throw away fear. . . . The first of Musashi's chapter headings is Earth, for the basis of Zen, and the last book is Void, for that understanding which can only be expressed as nothingness. . . . the first elementary teaching becomes the highest knowledge, and the master still continues to practise this simple training, his everyday prayer."

In the first book -- The Earth Book, Musashi says:
Strategy is the craft of the warrior. Commanders must enact the craft. and troopers should know this. There is no warrior in the world today who really understands the Way of strategy.

There are various Ways. There is the Way of salvation by the law of Buddha, the Way of Confucius governing the Way of learning, the Way of healing as a doctor, as a poet teaching the Way of Waka, tea, archery, and many arts and skills. Each man practices as he feels inclined.

It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of the pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death. Although not only warriors but priests, women, peasants and lowlier folk have been known to die readily in the cause of duty of out of shame, this is a different thing. The warrior is different in that studying the Way of strategy is based on overcoming men. By victory gained in crossing swords with individuals, or enjoining battle with large numbers, we can attain power and fame for ourselves or our lord. This is the virtue of strategy.
In the last book -- The Book of the Void, Musashi says:

The No To Ich Way of strategy is recorded in this the Book of the Void.

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man's knowledge. Of course the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.

People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment.

In the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practise day by day, hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.

{This painting by Musashi expresses Void and Wind, and by implication, Earth}

The Book of Five Rings, Go Rin No Sho, can be found online. Here are three sources:

Go Rin No Sho, by Miyamoto Musashi.

The Book of Five Rings

A BOOK OF FIVE RINGS by Miyamoto Musashi

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