When I was in college my French history professor presented me with his existential philosophy in the famous quotation, “Life is a tragedy – Hurrah!” which quote he attributed to the Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot, but which I later discovered was actually first uttered by our own Eugene O’Neill. This has been the winter of my discontent made glorious summer by Prozac and a truckload of talk therapy, not that I’m not still sometimes to be seen looking like the first pictures in an ad for antidepressants, dressed in the same fabric as the couch, or at the shutters, shuddering, but the daylight is obviously staying longer now. I saw a serious patch of sun sit out my window for a good stint today. I used to have a poem that went: “Something let me tell you of my own dark heart, man it is a dark dark.” I can’t remember the first word.
There are two main models for thinking about the meaning of life: The first is that it has no meaning, the second is that there is a hidden world that provides the meaning. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I think of as “poetic atheism,” as I’ve often bled about to you bleaders in the past, and by which I mean a third way, where we believe there is no hidden world that provides the meaning, but there is meaning anyway. My thesis is that the feelings we have that suggest meaning are sufficient to the definition of meaning. It is a romantic claim, by which I mean it is a very active rhetorical device, but it seems to me that what we think of as the real situation (atomized meaningless animals on a dirt ball) is also a very active rhetorical device, and one that is neither normal nor encouraging. Normally (in most cultures through history, everywhere) human beings notice interdependence a lot more than we do and the feeling of living in a web of meaning is so intense that even the most sober descriptions of reality show human company as the asset that is our excellent true answer to cosmic meaninglessness. Think of how safe the child feels with parent sitting on the bed as compared to all alone in the darkness. If we invent a third-party invisible friend, we have to work to believe, and then commune. If we notice that we are all right here in front of one another, actual visible friends, then we can commune. You still need faith to believe that we can help each other and are willing to do so, you still need faith to believe life is worth the trouble and humanity is basically good, a lot of faith. But at least the people you are talking about actually exist, right?
A hundred years ago the French philosopher and founder of sociology, Emile Durkheim said that what humanity mistook for God was actually the community, that when you get together in a large group, especially around some shared idea, you feel something amazing, something you usually do not have access to. The feeling of one-ness is not a mistake. Following Durkheim, when religious people get together and have transcendent experiences they associate their feelings with their culture’s supernatural stories. Those supernatural stories are always inventions, but the experience is real.
Human existence is strange and secular writers about religion often explain the weirdness of religious belief – paradoxes like the monotheism/trinity idea – as necessary because such fanciful inventions reflect the weirdness of our real circumstance. Nothing could ever be stranger than consciousness. The meat thinks. No magical legend could be weirder than each of us appearing suddenly in the universe, knowing it, looking out at it from within our skulls, trying to communicate with others, also locked in their skulls and peering out, and eventually disappearing again. How strange to find our little thinking and blinking faces amid a universe that is for the most part not alive at all. Believers say, “If this weirdness is true, why not believe angels,” but adding nonsense is not helpful.
Just because we don’t believe in the supernatural, why should we ignore the ways in which that natural situation of the human is paradoxical? I am claiming that despite the truth of science, the experience of being a human being is filled with feelings and impressions that are irrational. The irrational is real. Absurdity is a real part of our experience. A display of the irrational and absurd is the most accurate description of the schism between how things feel to us and how they are in anyone else’s reality – or in the reality of the nonliving universe. The science of actual life, not in life in the lab, is poetry.
Again, just because life isn’t rational doesn’t mean you make up stuff, like a thinking universe. As far as I can tell, the universe is a place, not a mind. But we are minds. And together, our minds form something that is greater than our individual selves. Beyond our evolutionary explanations for it, we humans have the grandeur of art and love. We have to take note of the way that we can help each other, through art and love.
Imagine God came down and said life has meaning, it all makes sense. Why would we be comforted by any justification of the suffering that goes on around here every day? What could a third party be hiding behind his back that would justify all this absurdity? All we ever had was the feeling of meaning, and we still have that and it loses nothing now that it is no longer associated with a third party. It is what it is, no more, but no less. Feelings of right and wrong are sufficient to prove morality, though they indicate nothing unseen lurking behind them. The feelings of right and wrong, the feeling that it matters what you do and what happens to you, the experience of kindness, listening, and generosity, the thrills of art, all of this is extra-rational and it makes life – the real life that we actually have -- worth living.
We can talk about these things in terms that value them as real, and do not merely explain them away, but don’t add any heavens or buddahverses because the truth matters.
An atheist believes you don’t make up extra stuff in the universe to help you make sense of it all and feel safe and cozy. But what we sometimes miss is that an atheist can, in fact, have a positive relationship with the irrational, can notice that existence is too weird to fit in any purely rational box. We can glory in that without duping ourselves with false beliefs.
I’m saying all of this here and now because the post I posted after I learned about Rachel Wetzsteon’s suicide has gotten a lot of attention -here, and here, for example, and on a whole lot of people's websites. I’m still stunned that I’m never going to see her spot me across a poetry event again and make that lit-up face she could make. The post got a lot of attention in part because a lot of people were also missing her and feeling freaked. Also, many don’t have a robust secular argument against suicide and they were glad to get one.
This experience has made me feel more inclined to write publicly what I’ve been privately thinking because I’m still just feeling my way about how to talk about this idea, but it still seems worth saying. The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning. We can help each other. The help that we can give each other has to do with believing in one another, and is a medicine sufficient to our wounds -- protection sufficient to our fear.
Or so, with your leave, I am surmising.