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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 6 : The Sane Person Talks of Existence

When the sane person talks about life he sometimes mentions the Outside, but here a splendid confusion can be created from the simple fact that other people are, in a certain sense, outside relative to the individual. And so it is possible to find passages like the following:

And what, too, would our reactions to (ESP) tell us about ourselves? That we feel safer living in splendid isolation, a huis clos? Or that we are prepared to face the possibility of being members of one another in a world which, as mathematicians already know, is first and foremost one of relationships, and which now, as a great mathematician, Hermann Weyl, has dramatically put it, is being made by modern science itself "to appear more and more as an open one... pointing beyond itself."[1]

This, incidentally, provides a particularly ostentatious example of the use which is constantly made by sane people of words with two possible meanings.

Here the word "relationship" is used to assimilate the two concepts "human relationship" and "mathematical relationship". A little analytical thought should convince the reader that a person may be interested in human relationships without the slightest attraction towards mathematical ones, and vice versa.

A distinction may be made, though it is a difficult one for a sane mind to grasp, between the idea of a world "pointing beyond itself" to mathematical abstractions, and one "pointing beyond itself" to human mutuality and cohesion.

This passage also illustrates the habit of talking about human relationships as terrifying, difficult, dangerous, and the like. Conversely, any outlook not constantly preoccupied with human interactions is—though never described—implied to be excessively conducive of feelings of safety, ease, and comfort.

There is no particular reason why these implications should correspond with the psychological facts. As we have already mentioned, 'sanity' shows many of the characteristics of recognized psychological syndromes. All psychological syndromes are ways of defending the individual from intolerable stress, and can only achieve this objective by concealing their true purpose. So one does not expect a high degree of objectivity in the statements of—say—a paranoid about his condition. In fact, one expects a characteristic kind of inversion on certain crucial points. (Pride replacing guilt, superiority concealing inferiority, and so on.)

Now if "sanity" is a device for protecting the individual from the impact of facts, in the same way that paranoia is a device for protecting the individual from feelings of humiliation, it is obviously under the same kind of necessity to conceal its true terms of reference.

So it is scarcely surprising that sane people should have an unfounded belief that they are adopting a difficult and strenuous attitude.

But what are the psychological facts? Is it actually the case that when people adopt a less anthropocentric outlook they find themselves overwhelmed by sensations of ease and self-aggrandizement? We cannot expect to find very much evidence either way, because people do not often adopt such an outlook, but such evidence as there is suggests that they actually feel alone and defenseless, not to say frightened.

In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind.[2]

I shall never forget that night of December in which the veil that concealed from me my own incredulity was torn. I hear again my steps in that narrow naked chamber where long after the hour of sleep had come I had the habit of walking up and down. I see again that moon, half-veiled by clouds, which now and again illuminated the frigid window-panes. The hours of the night flowed on and I did not note their passage. Anxiously I followed my thoughts, as from layer to layer they descended towards the foundation of my consciousness, and scattering one by one all the illusions which until then had screened its windings from my view, made them every moment more clearly visible. Vainly I clung to these last beliefs as a shipwrecked sailor clings to the fragments of his vessel; vainly, frightened at the unknown void in which I was about to float, I turned with them towards my childhood, my family, my country, all that was dear and sacred to me: the inflexible current of my thought was too strong—parents, family, memory, beliefs, it forced me to let go of everything. The investigation went on more obstinate and more severe as it drew near its term, and did not stop until the end was reached. I knew then that in the depth of my mind nothing was left that stood erect.

The moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, somber and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.[3]

It is true that when people talk about life they do sometimes admit that being finite is rather awful. Sometimes they cannot even manage to say this without mentioning "other people" in every sentence. The following passage from Erich Fromm is interesting because it illustrates several kinds of question-begging simultaneously.

There is another element ... which makes the need to "belong" so compelling: the fact of subjective self-consciousness ... its existence confronts man with a problem which is essentially human: by being aware of himself as distinct from nature and other people, by being aware—even very dimly—of death, sickness, ageing, he necessarily feels his insignificance and smallness in comparison with the universe and all others who are not "he".

Unless he belonged somewhere, unless his life had some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overwhelmed by his individual insignificance ... he would be filled with doubt, and this doubt eventually would paralyse his ability to act—that is, to live.[4]

The first thing to notice is that Fromm implies (even before he has stated the problem) that what a person needs is "to belong". When he does state the problem he states two problems at once as if they were the same. (To feel insignificant and small in comparison with the universe is actually different from feeling those things in comparison with other people.) Fromm calls this problem (or problems) "essentially human"—a reassuring description. He continues by implying that it is right and proper for a person to feel that he does "belong", and that his life does have "meaning and direction". This will prevent him from feeling like a particle of dust: if he did, he would be paralysed. This last is, of course, an unverified assumption.

There is no evidence that people who feel like particles of dust relative to the universe become paralysed and inactive, although it is a fact of clinical psychology that people who feel worthless relative to other people often spend a good deal of time in bed.

Virtually all categories of modern thinkers unite in chanting "There is no Outside". The existentialists, alone, say "There is an Outside". On account of their sane upbringing they feel that this is a difficult thing to say and they say it with a kind of metaphysical stutter, inventing new words profusely in their desperation to make themselves understood. Of course in a sense they are right in supposing that it is difficult; no sane person is likely to understand it. But the difficulty is emotional, not philosophical.

(Incidentally, how well the human evasion has arranged matters when anyone who would say "There is an Outside" is driven to express himself at enormous length, in all but unreadable books.)

Existentialists admit that there are certain states of consciousness in which ideas about death, existence, isolation, responsibility, urgency and so forth may have some emotional significance. But these are rare and transitory.

The weakness of the existentialists' case is that they do not distinguish sufficiently between a philosophical attitude and a psychological one. A sane person may be made to admit, as a philosophical point, that everything is fundamentally uncertain, but this will not give it any power as a motive force in his life. Even a person who wished to realize the fact of uncertainty would find it difficult to perceive it with any vividness, or to eliminate other emotional attitudes which he saw to be incompatible with it.

Having accepted that one may, at certain times, become startlingly aware of certain things, the existentialist argument usually goes on to talk of "authentic" and "inauthentic" being. If what is meant by "inauthentic being" is living without awareness of these things, then obviously everyone is very inauthentic indeed. "Authentic being" would mean to live in constant awareness of these things, with all the modifications that would entail. But this is a problem in psychology; it must be asked what forces are at work to prevent this awareness, whether it is possible to defeat them, and how. It is particularly useless to give prescriptions for "authentic being" by involvement or commitment in the world. If we realize that we are talking about states of consciousness, it becomes clear that the procedure being recommended is this: "If you should chance to have a flash of awareness of things of which you are not usually aware, you will realize that your life is full of things which seem meaningless to you so long as you are in this state of awareness. What are you to do to overcome your sense of meaninglessness?" There is a simple answer. "The awareness will pass. You can forget it easily and go on living as before. But since you want to convince yourself that you are doing something about this flash of awareness you have had, you are recommended to return to your former way of life, but more thoroughly and deliberately than before. Commit yourself to doing just the kind of thing which makes further flashes of awareness unlikely."

Here, of course, we are encountering one of those linguistic swerves away from the point so characteristic of the evasive mind. "Authentic being" may be used to refer to a state of dishonesty towards the facts of existence, or to a state of dishonesty towards other people. It is even true that the two things may be to some extent interconnected, since a person suffering from the human evasion is clearly not able to be honest towards anyone, if only because he is constantly trying to force them to shield him from reality, including the reality of his own perceptions and desires.

It should come as no surprise that existentialist writers are unable to distinguish clearly between "mauvaise foi" towards existence and "mauvaise foi" towards people.

And so this kind of thing is written:

Dasein, everyday life, is destructible, and we should not even desire its indefinite continuation. But Existenz, authentic selfhood, can be entered into now and its meaning is imperishable. Only by facing death realistically do we become formed, decisive, resolute, and reconciled to finitude. The threat of missing true selfhood is worse than the unavoidable fact of physical disintegration. And the reality of the latter makes me alert to the former. It is because I am going to die as a biological organism that I may miss true self-hood. Because I do not have forever, the question hangs over every moment: 'Are you living, feeling, realizing, choosing yourself or some feeble caricature of what you could be?' One who has lived for ends-in-themselves and who has entered into existential communication with others knows that what is important in his life and in the life of his friend cannot be annihilated by death.[5]

What can be said of the statement that we can enter "authentic" selfhood "now"? Existential flashes are not easily had to order. It is not even easy, by trying, to realize vividly the fact that you are going to die.

Even more dubious is the assertion that once you have entered this state "its meaning is imperishable". Can this mean "you will be able to remain in constant awareness of the unknowability of existence", or even "once you have been fully aware of existence your psychology will never be the same again"? Such psychological evidence we have would seem to indicate that existential awareness is usually momentary, and its permanent effects on a sane person are nil.

Our existentialist now tells us that "only by facing death realistically do we become ... reconciled to finitude". To be aware of one's finiteness is one thing; to be reconciled to it is quite another. Nearly everyone seems to manage to be reconciled without being aware; I should have thought it probable that anyone who was fully aware of it would find it intolerable.

[1] Rosalind Heywood, The Infinite Hive , Chatto and Windus,
    1964, p.224.

[2] Quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience,
    Random House, 1902, p.158.

[3] Th. Jouffroy, quoted in William James, Varieties of Religious
    Experience, Random House, 1902, p.173.

[4] Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, Routledge and Kegan Paul,
    1942, pp.16-17.

[5] David E. Roberts (on Karl Jaspers), Existentialism and Religious
    Belief, Oxford University Press, New York, 1957, p.248.

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