Many years ago, when I was young and open to new ways and ideas, and trying to escape the limitations of my small-town swot-cum-stoner mentality, I met a few people whose ideas were so far out I thought they must be faking it. One guy -- a tall, lugubrious northerner whose chest-length dark hair seemed to weigh his upper body down into a permanent stoop of resignation inside the heavy dark overcoat he wore in all weathers -- was the first anti-humanist I had ever encountered. Not in the sense that he had problems with humanist philosophy, but that he thought humans were the problem, and extinction of our species was the planet's best hope. No, really? Far out!
My friend was a straw in the wind, it turned out. In certain parts of the academy, and in particular within that strange penumbra of academically-tinged thinking on the Web that is the haunt of the recovering but still-unemployed humanities postgraduate, an oppressive orthodoxy of pessimism has taken hold, a sort of intellectual End Times mindset. For a while, this stuff seemed compelling. But, I don't know about you, now I'm really bored with the dull droning sound that this sombre hive produces, and I still tend to think they're faking it.
There is a serious contemporary problem of disillusion, of course: the steady stripping away by science of the handy illusions and delusions that have, for most of us, in large part defined our humanity, can be experienced as a bleakness. If not god, if not transcendence, if not spirit, if not art, then what? Attempts to rationalise consciousness -- most recently as a heuristic, integrating information-processing device -- strike directly at the "soul" and the "self" and the deep values of moral behaviour in ways that can be profoundly upsetting, but don't offer anything to put in their place. Humanism itself comes to seem like a mere comfort break on the journey away from superstition to nihilism.
Some sad cases, not themselves scientists, revel in this bleakness. Humanism is dismissed by them with a sneer. They enjoy the oh, so superior sense that -- you poor sentimental fools! -- it's all in vain. Life is a meaningless text, onto which we merely project whatever grids of meaning we have inherited, created, or had imposed on us. It is a tale told by an idiot, so to speak, full of sound and fury, signifying ... Well, nothing. The ultimate revenge of these nerds of nothingness, these nihilism wonks -- many of whom have found a congenial home in higher education -- is to take our brightest and best children and fill them with this grey poison of relativism and cultural pessimism.
This often goes hand in hand with a rejection of "Enlightenment" values, generally understood as a set of beliefs about the autonomy of the individual and the importance of human rights, with an underpinning conviction that cumulative progress through rational enquiry will free humanity from the chains of superstition and political oppression, and the scourges of disease and hunger. Hah! As if! Don't you know we're all doomed?
This toxic stuff is seeping into the wider culture. Take this quote from an article in a recent weekend's Guardian Review by voguish novelist Tom McCarthy:
Careful not to fall back on some naive escapist fantasy (of individual self-expression, or the transcendent human spirit, or art-as-redemption and so forth -- in other words, the very fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings), De Certeau is nonetheless groping his way towards some kind of resistance to or rupture of the machine's logic.Whoah... Watch out for those naive escapist conservative fantasies, dude! He goes on:
(James Joyce Would be Working for Google, 7/3/2015)
We could quite easily dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks, brush them aside and pen great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation, even as the sands in which we'd need to bury our heads in order to do so are being blown away. Alternatively, we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing's true and only lot, its afterlife.Blimey, what is the point? Hand me that razor-blade, when you've finished with it, mate.
Now, I'm no philosopher. The problem is, neither are most writers or humanities scholars. Sure, they've read some
As I say, I'm bored with this pessimism, however smart. Life is not meaningless, except as defined by someone playing linguistic games, obsessed by the meaning of "meaning", or by someone with an oedipal grudge against organised religion, and a minimal grasp of what religion is and does. Your life may have no "meaning", but it is not futile. All of the universe has followed a clear and compelling logic of behaviour -- "laws" -- that, however improbably, has resulted in me and you, right here, right now. You exist! I exist! Is that not utterly bizarre? Is that not exciting enough?
Yes, consciousness is fragmentary, and yes, we have plural, largely constructed identities, and yes, we're mortal, and yes, there is almost certainly no continuance of existence after death, at least in any form we would recognise, but... When was it ever any different? Why let the too-clever sweet nothings of a few academic doom-mongers poison your life at the well?
But then I'm still just a small-town swot-cum-stoner at heart. In the end, life is simply so much nicer than the alternative. Its very absurdity is a deep source of joy. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself otherwise. Besides, pessimism breeds passivity -- what's the point? -- and if we're ever going to get out the various messes we're in as a species, rather than simply extinguish ourselves, we're going to need all the optimism and activism we can muster.
Ditch, post, tree, copse, wood