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.
Romantics like to think of themselves as unique individuals who have the strength of character to go against the flow. They describe anyone who stays in the mainstream as a “conformist,” a word with negative connotations.
Romanticism promotes an anti-social emphasis on individuality and self-absorption. (photo: public domain)
Academic and novelist Ann Swinfen has some interesting things to say about this topic as it relates to C. S. Lewis’sTheChronicles of Narnia. In her work of literary criticism, In Defence of Fantasy (1984), she points out that Lewis was against individualism and in favour of conforming to religious orthodoxy and societal norms. His fiction reflects this strongly held rational philosophy.
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.
French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus said, “man in the world is absurd.” Like so many recent Western philosophers, he was thinking of the individual rather than the human race as a whole. Camus felt that he (like all individuals) was alone in the world, and the world, being cold and inanimate, cared nothing for him. In return, he owed the indifferent world nothing. While he does end on a defiant note (we must stand against the uncaring world and take possession of it) this is definitely not a philosophy designed to infuse your spirit with joy.
Albert Camus’ emphasis on the individual left him with the feeling that “man in the world is absurd.” (Image: public domain)
Camus’ position arises from two sources: the human craving for meaning and the desire for individual immortality. In fact, he frames his entire argument from the perspective of the individual person. Nowhere does it occur to him that he might take a broader perspective, move to a higher level. When it comes to meaning and immortality, the concept of society (humans in organized groups) is not on the radar for Camus. There is only the wretched mortal individual and his pathetic lonely agony in a cruel world.
Bertrand Russell craved someone who could see into his soul and relieve his sense of loneliness and separation. (Image: public domain)
While not the most sympathetic, Ray Monk is perhaps the most thorough biographer of the English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. According to Monk, Russell felt lonely and separated. He felt trapped inside the prison walls of his self, and believed only another person could alleviate the agony of imprisonment by seeing into his soul. (For clarity, I should mention that Russell was one of those who used the word “self” to describe the conscious “I.”) This is the desire, so commonly met with, to find a profoundly understanding soul mate.
In reality, Russell was agonizingly self-alienated. As someone who stressed conscious reasoning above all else, he was partially cut off from his unconscious mind. The resulting isolation of his ego, or “self” as Russell would have it, was the source of his painful loneliness. A sound connection with the unconscious adds richness to life. A more plentiful supply of allusive symbols and subjective images would have balanced the dry logic of mathematics and the cold sterility of abstract reasoning that were the centrepieces of Russell’s world. He would have had a greater sense of meaning. In all likelihood, an improved connection with the unconscious would have enhanced his emotional life as well.
Heroes in myth, legend and literature are often profoundly troubled and provide deeper insights than action heroes. (Image: public Domain.)
The heroes we see in today’s action movies are quite different from the heroes of legend and literature. Film – being short and dealing largely with externals – does not easily allow for deep insights into a character’s inner life. Heroes played by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis are neither thoughtful nor subtle. They are never inwardly complex. Their heroism is all in the external world and conflicts are always struggles with other people or life-threatening situations. Such tales are certainly entertaining, but they provide nothing to illuminate the more psychological aspects of being human.
In myths, legends, and literature heroes serve a greater purpose. Through their heroic struggles, they demonstrate more than just singular physical feats or acts of physical courage. There is an inward component to their heroic adventures. These heroes are often profoundly troubled people. They have inner conflicts that have rendered them social misfits. They may be unusually sensitive, and/or intelligent, and because they are so different from the “well-adjusted” they suffer. Their suffering forces them into seldom-used paths quite far from the collective ones approved by society. They strive for things never attempted by the ordinary person. The battles along the way provide a great opportunity for strengthening personal growth. By trying to ease their pain, they have become extraordinary. They have inadvertently become heroic.