Monday, August 23, 2010
So when Raymond proposed that existential angst is a universal experience, it left me unmoved. I could only see circumstantial angst, the temporary distress that comes from everyday events. I might have suffered from an all-pervasive underlying angst in the past, but not now. I couldn’t even connect with that part of my past self which suffered continually. So I couldn’t try to determine whether this thing was, from my current perspective, a delusion; perhaps the same delusion that convinced our ancestors of Original Sin.
But Raymond is my friend. That provided enough emotional impetus to pursue the topic. I resolved to brood on it, in the open air, taking advice from Nietzsche:
“Sit as little as possible; credit no thought not born in the open air and while moving freely about.”
First I primed my head with a definition of existential angst from Wikipedia:
Kierkegaard believed that the freedom given to people leaves the human in a constant fear of failing his/her responsibilities to God.
. . .
While Kierkegaard’s feeling of angst is fear of actual responsibility to God, in modern use, angst was broadened by the later existentialists to include general frustration associated with the conflict between actual responsibilities to self, one’s principles, and others (possibly including God).
I parked the car beside St Bartholomew’s church in Fingest and went up to the hills. I found myself beside Cobstone Mill in Ibstone. It owes its well-maintained appearance to the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for which it was given a face-lift; since when it has had many other starring roles. From the mill, I could look down on the village of Turville, and from the village, back up to the mill. None of these sights, or my determined trekking through meadow and copse, hill and dale, threw any light on existential angst. Following a woodland footpath, I found the parish Church of St Nicholas in Ibstone. Despite its tucked-away setting, it’s left unlocked every day, so I went in. It’s tiny, bare, nine hundred years old. I put all the money from my pockets (pennies, alas!) in its collection box for building maintenance. I had hoped to feel something, if only a second-hand sense of devotion, from the centuries of parishioners flocking there on Sundays to wash away their original sin, mitigate their inborn angst. But I could feel nothing. Inside or outside the building, no difference.
When I ask a question, the answer always comes (by angel intervention, as I see it) within a few days. In this case it was “What is the feeling, that Raymond calls existential angst?” I got the first glimmer yesterday, on Sunday morning. I listened to Sunday Worship on Radio 4, from St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. I often listen to this programme, to get a feeling for different flavours of Christianity as practised in the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. St Giles is part of the Church of Scotland, within the Anglican Communion. In forty minutes of that programme, I seemed to revisit my entire childhood exposure to Anglican churchgoing. The theme of the service was the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, so there was lots of retrospect, but no evangelism. From the first hymn onwards, I was spellbound. The tune somehow reawakened all the conflicts I’d had about boarding-school, compulsory church attendance and my soul’s relation to religion. As it happened, the words sung in the Cathedral were not the words I was used to. I reproduce below the ones I used to sing, in choir or congregation:
Who wait at GOD’s right hand,
Or through the realms of light
Fly at your LORD's command,
Assist our song,
Or else the theme
Too high doth seem
For mortal tongue.
Ye blessed souls at rest,
Who ran this earthly race
And now, from sin released,
Behold the SAVIOUR’s face,
His praises sound,
As in His light
With sweet delight
Ye do abound.
Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing;
Take what he gives
And praise him still,
Through good or ill,
Who ever lives!
My soul, bear thou thy part,
Triumph in GOD above:
And with a well-tuned heart
Sing thou the songs of love!
Let all thy days
Till life shall end,
Whate’er He send,
Be fill’d with praise!
Each verse is imperative; each commands the impossible; each is obscurely painful to a boy preternaturally sensitive to the printed word. For it speaks of joy, love, blessedness, praise, in obnoxious and callous terms. For it is written to be sung by a congregation, regardless of their spiritual state; and thus requires their personal and collective hypocrisy.
This is not enough to convey what I felt. I’ve lately started reading Nabokov’s Lolita, a tale of obsession, within which delight and damnation are inextricably mixed. Suddenly, I saw a fiendish parallel between Lolita’s prepubescent situation and my own. Lolita was debauched by Humbert because she had no choice: was constrained by threats and bribes. Her mother had died: now her guardian was all she had in the world. There was another side to the bargain, if the narrator’s testimony is to be trusted. She was sexually precocious and he was devoted to her. It wasn’t mere rape, but something more insidious, in that she collaborated in the seduction. In body and mind, she strove to go through a normal adolescence, despite the assaults upon it.
I was sent to boarding-school from an unhappy home situation. There was no question of sexual abuse in either location: all the threats and bribes came from within religion itself, which sought to debauch my mind and soul. My only escape route was in secret resistance. I’m not even going to say there was anything abnormal about my upbringing: only that it took a long time to recover from it.
Then yesterday I watched the Baz Luhrman film Moulin Rouge. The courtesan Satine is caught in a bond as tight as Lolita’s. Living from hand to mouth herself, she succumbs to the charms of the Penniless Writer who represents True Love; but she must pretend to love her patron the Rich Duke. Though dying of consumption, she remains under compulsion to the message of her Impresario: “The show must go on.”
So why doesn’t she just walk out? Leave the Moulin Rouge, leave Montmartre? Go off with her mythical lover? For he is Orpheus, descended into the underworld. Why can he not bring his Eurydice back up to the world of daylight and freedom? It is because she must stay with what she knows. To go beyond that is the horror of emptiness. This is her existential angst, to know she is in the wrong place, but be unable to leave its familiar warmth so as to strike out into the unknown. This is how countless women stay with abusive husbands or pimps.
I feel I am beginning to understand the prevalence of this existential angst. As if these symbolic answers were not enough, in response to question, I had a dream.
I’m working in an office on the fifteenth floor. I spend the entire morning absorbed in a magazine. At noon, I suddenly realize I ought to be working. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know who my boss is. I feel that I might be called to account at any moment, to explain what I’ve done to justify my employment. But I can’t reveal my ignorance by asking anyone. The stress gets to me. I light a cigarette. Disapproving looks remind me that this is now banned in public places. I hide it in my pocket, still alight, and descend fifteen flights of stairs to the open air. As I approach the bottom of the stairwell, it gets smokier and more crowded, as others act in the same way. I emerge to a crowded courtyard, billowing with smoke. Bales of straw are provided for smokers to sit on, but they easily catch fire.
I wake up. Putting the dream into words, I see an angst-ridden view of life unfold.
Now I can feel the bind that Christians call original sin and others call existential angst. Now it makes sense: the inability to choose freedom. I see how long it takes to shake oneself free. Perhaps it needs favourable circumstance as well as time and awareness.
I don’t suppose Raymond will agree but this may be the nearest I can get to feeling what he means.
Posted by Vincent at 11:52 am