Like all those who place the ego’s false persona before all else, Simone De Beauvoir struggled mightily with the reality of death. She writes of “the scandal of finiteness,” referring to our inescapable mortality. When you insist on emphasizing your separateness and see yourself as merely an isolated conscious ego, it becomes inevitable that fear of the permanent extinction of consciousness — occasioned by physical death — will threaten your peace of mind. Death can become something of a preoccupation.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre wanted more from life than it could give. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The real scandal here is de Beauvoir’s way of ignoring the bigger picture — the immortality of the human race, which transcends individual mortality. Unfortunately, for those locked into believing they are merely a self-made false persona, only the individual counts. They never look beyond the boundaries of self-absorption and never seem to learn that such selfishness comes at a terrible price. Placing too much emphasis on maintaining a false image is a massive source of anxiety. The chronic angst generated by the necessity of maintaining and defending an idealized false persona is confused with fear of death and labelled existential angst. However, it is the dread of humiliation and exposure as a fraud that really drives this kind of continuing anxiety. The more-immediate fear is the death of the false persona.
Fear of death is mostly dread of the permanent loss of conscious awareness. We see that expiration, the snuffing out of the light, as the final irrevocable end of who we are, the irremediable dissolution of our identity. However, our consciousness is not who we are – it is only our way of knowing who we are. We prove this every night when we sleep and consciousness dissolves, only to magically reappear the next day. If consciousness is who we are, how do we survive this regular extinction? We survive because the self is who we really are.
Tradition can ease the fear of death by overcoming social- and self-alienation and providing assurance that some part of us will live on. (Image: wpclipart.com)
The self lives in the unconscious and the unconscious never sleeps. Picture it as a well-furnished room. We store our memories there. Consciousness is the light that enables us to see and know them. Switch off the light – as in sleep – and the furnished room remains, and we see it once more when consciousness, the light, returns.
Simone de Beauvoir’s useless passion is the desire to escape death by becoming God.
French writer and feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir was Jean Paul Sartre’s long-time lover and companion. She did not consider herself a philosopher, but nevertheless advanced some challenging ideas. One of these was her concept of the “useless passion,” the desire to be God. De Beauvoir posited two sides to this passion: violence and merging. Violence, the attempt to wound or destroy others is a bid for omnipotence. Merging with the world or cosmos, what we might call the “all-is-one” philosophy is a bid for omnipresence and omniscience. At the philosophical level, the useless passion stems from the truth of human existence; that is, that we are finite and that we will die. The useless passion is our desire to escape from our finiteness. It is important to realize that those who espouse violence and the all-is-one philosophy may be unaware of their true motives for doing so.
Do human beings literally create the cosmos by thinking and conceiving ideas about how it works? (Image: public domain.)
In the early days of the Christian era, a curious flip or reversal of reality occurred in the minds of the period’s thinkers. Faced with the insecurity engendered by the steady decline of the Roman Empire they decided the old assumption that “I die but the world goes on,” should actually read, “the world dies but I go on.” Thus the idea of immortality was born. Life continued eternally after death. The individual survived, while the world eventually ceased to exist.
A similar phenomenon of reversal is growing in our own time. Faced with the rapid decline in the importance of humankind brought about by the discoveries of science, some of today’s “thinkers” have taken to reversing the idea that puny man discovers or uncovers a pre-existing universe and its preset laws. They offer instead the elevating concept of man-the-god, a being that creates the universe and its laws in an ongoing off-the-cuff manner simply by thinking about the cosmos and how it works. There were no black holes, according to this way of looking at things, until some astrophysicist thought them up! (A more likely explanation is that the concept came first and then someone juggled the facts to fit the concept, but we will leave such “cynical” considerations for a future post.)