Existentialism inspired the original Beatles’ haircuts and trademark black rollneck sweaters. It influenced the views of those who marched to Ban the Bomb. It won the world record for cognitive dissonance every year from 1956 to 1962, and was probably wrong about everything. Now a new generation of rebels has adopted its ability to avoid capture by anyone of sound mind.
I first encountered existentialism at Uni fifty years ago. I knew there were people who dressed in black all the time, were sometimes called Beatniks, sang dreary songs, liked cutting-edge and often weird art, hung out in the seedier parts of rive gauche Paris and followed Juliet Greco, modern Jazz or (sometimes) Leonard Cohen . But there was nothing that I could nail down definitively as the core nature of existentialist philosophy. It felt like trying to lasso ether.
Half a century later, I remain confused. The only thing for sure I know about existentialism is that it exists. I must have read a dozen or more books on the subject (some of which I finished) and the best I can say about it as a philosophy is that it presents a moving target: is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a piano? No – it’s existentialism.
Fair enough, it does have some central beliefs – but they aren’t backed up by anything more than “because we say so”. Thus, all existentialists believe the universe is irrational, and that ‘the major questions of life are not amenable to science or reason’. I disagree with both statements, but either way, the assertions are, to say the least, hazy on the detail . At the outset of an explanation, broad brushstrokes are fine: but slapping on paint with a roller at the evidence stage simply won’t do.
This is not to say that every last existentialist lived in a Parisian basement flat while at the Sorbonne, and achieved nothing apart from scaring the neighbours with white-cake makeup. Albert Camus was a fine writer and also an exi: I read his book L’étranger in my late teens and identified with most of it. But Camus and his circle (like most followers of this arcane philosophy) took opposite sides on almost every issue of the day. That’s the thing with existentialism: it stimulates debate….mainly about what it is.
Human beings (say the exis) try to be rational, but this is a waste of time because (as we already established) the universe is irrational. Do try to keep up and pay attention. I think the universe is based on logic and Man isn’t – and I could write a book crammed with footnotes to explain that view empirically. But there I go again, silly me, applying science to that, you know, irrational e=MC² Einsteinian universe.
What I really do not get is what conclusions existentialists draw from their core faith, however daft it may be. Some tracts (and people I’ve met over the decades) say ergo sum, action is pointless, live your own life in a model way and ignore the rest. Others in the brigade say to exist and do nothing to combat irrationality is a wasted life – we all have the freedom to choose one path or another, and must accept the personal responsibility for doing so.
So, it’s a sort of anarchic hermitage where everyone has the choice to go out and change everything, or stay inside the hermitage and do nothing. Freedom to do what you want to do. Whatever feels good for you and your values, do it. Enter Charles Manson, exit Sharon Tate.
The cognitive dissonance involved here makes Islamophile feminists look positively consistent. In fact, it’s quite close to the way of Zen: “don’t put an arrow in your bow, simply twang the string, and thus the arrow lands where you want it to land”. Why be old if you decide to be young? Why be small when you can be big? Why be ugly when you can be handsome?
You see, everything is possible if you’re an existentialist, because ‘the major questions of life are not amenable to science or reason’. Ah, right: I see….said the blind man, but in fact he couldn’t see at all.
And yet, from these humble beginnings of muddle and life on the lower ground floor, exi thought has come a long way. Very few people realise this, but existentialism now runs the World, having conquered other more hopelessly organised thought by unconsciously permeating the mind of everyone following Islam, neoliberal economics and LeftLib beliefs. This must be true, because the one feature dwarfing all others in these three catechismic ideologies is that nobody can agree just what the blue blithering fuck they are. And if nothing else, that is at the heart of all existentialism.
On the road to World Hegemony (which all three dominant contemporary systemic schools desire) there are snipers in the bushes everywhere along the way: moaning minnies trying to catch you out on unimportant details. I’m talking stuff like wealth gushing upwards not trickling down, peaceful religions that behead infidels, the failure of socialism to um achieve socialism wherever it’s been tried, and – right across the board – the individual citizen coming last, way behind the priesthood and the élites….while losing their liberties one by one along the way.
So it’s absolutely vital to present a moving target by adopting the tenets of existentialism – that is, “everything is irrational except us, and so we need to adopt seemingly irrational tactics in order to finally teach everyone how to be rational”.
Doncha love it? Whatever your methodology – a hunger strike, trade union picket lines, a Buddhist retreat, undermining populism, being a Stalin yes-man but thinking seditious thoughts, starting a war and then being paid to broker the peace – you too can be an existentialist. You don’t have to be a deep thinker to hide your shallow chameleon nature.
Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson, Hilary Benn, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Philip Hammond, Nick Clegg, Barack Obama and above all, Angela Merkel: I hereby claim every last one as a convert to the exi cause.
As Rab Butler never said (but he may well have wanted to) “We’re all existentialists now”. To which my response would’ve been, “What’s with all this ‘we’ shit, Paleface?” By the way, I never met Butler – although I once worked with his niece Katherine – but you see, I wanted to meet him, and I wanted to tell him I wasn’t an existentialist, even though he never said I was. This is, in its entirety, the very quintessence of the will-o-the-wisp existential experience.
In the United Kingdom, one political issue has dominated all others for the last three years, and that issue is whether Britain should remain in the European Union, or not. By a relatively small margin – albeit more than pertains in most UK and US general elections – the British People voted NOT.
Some voted for greater control of our fishing waters, some for an end to infinite levels of immigration, some against the ludicrous drive to federalism, some against the austere ClubMed economic strategy, some against the as yet unaudited EU corruption, some based on worries about the viability of the euro, and some against the illegal use of financial force to crush Greek resistance to what was, at best, a vengeful policy aimed at pauperising the very Greeks who had nothing to do with their country’s sovereign debt problem.
People who did so were dubbed Brexiteers, and those who craved the security blanket of EU inverted democracy became Remainders, Remaindeer, Remoaners and Remainians. The latter losing side gained these nicknames chiefly because they flatly refused to accept the outcome of the referendum….for reasons that rarely rose above toys-out-of-pram whingeing based on either no empirical reasoning or very silly (and thoroughly unconstitutional) fantasies about voter representation.
Allow me now to refer you back to the earlier statement about a key element of existentialism:
all existentialists believe the universe is irrational, and that ‘the major questions of life are not amenable to science or reason’
Those who want a Brexit whereby our independent sovereignty is returned to the British People now find themselves opposed by the potentially overwhelming force of a non-specific, unscientific and less than pacific opposition to democracy. As this opposition is based on almost entirely irrational leaps in illogic, I have chosen to christen it
It is a first principle of Brexistentialism that Brexit is pointless, because it involves rational thinking about a Europe gone mad. Were it ever allowed to exist, Chicken Licken, all manner of dire punishments would be wrought upon us by Gods that do not exist.
Irish horse trainers would be unable to get their horses back, air travel would become a thing of the past, Britain would require the help of Alchemic sorcerers to heal the sick, underwear would become scarce, every expat Brit would starve, Baron Adonis would be unable to stop the instant rise of Nazis absolutely everywhere, the UK would go to the back of every queue for everything, and Owen Jones would live in Sherwood Forest sporting tights in a divine shade of Lincoln Green, emerging from time to time in order to smash the ineluctably fascist Sheriff of Nottingham.
It is, therefore, the personal responsibility of each and every Brexistentialist to ditch all empirical data, eschew all reason, forget all experience of real life – and point out how unscientific thinking proves conclusively that Brexit is wicked, evil, more infectious than eboli, unfair to Belgians, and a inhuman plot by poorly educated racist bigots to keep unaccompanied African children aged 30 from seeking succour in these, our sceptred Isles.
I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. I shall now sit quietly in my little haven here, store the nuts and fruit for the winter, saw up some wood for the fire, enjoy a nice Christmas somewhere as yet undesignated, and re-read some Trollope before sailing single-handed to Nigeria. With a bit of luck, they’ll let me in.
And if you believe that, you must be an existentialist. That is all.