12 April 2012

Too Early, Early in the Spring

The secret seems to be that one must learn that there are no rules to how a life should be lived. These are the existential question, I know: what is the right thing that I must do? How ought I to behave? To receive some answer seems to me why Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot: “What exactly did we ask him for?” Estragon wonders.
V: Oh . . . Nothing very definite.
E: A kind of prayer
              V: Precisely.
             E:  A vague supplication
             V:  Exactly.
             E:  And what did he reply?
             V:  That he’d see.
             E:  That he couldn’t promise anything.
Vladimir and Estragon wait desperately for Godot to arrive and to give them direction; alas, Godot will never come today but will always arrive tomorrow. Today we are always on our home:  “What’ll we do, what’ll we do?” Estragon cries despairingly. There is no redemption forthcoming: no rules offered by which one might live.
Actually, to live in the belief that life must be lived by some set of rules and that the purpose of life is to learn the rules deflects me from living my life. To hold to such belief mires me in self-doubt, and separates me inevitably in and from the company of others; out in the world I continually assess my behavioral and even psychological compliance with some vague set of rules, and in this process I focus not on my self but on the judgments of my companions’ regarding my conformity to these supposed rules. Because there are no rules but I live pretending that there are, I live forever in some existential doubt. “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
This is in large part the problem of assimilation. Tony Judt speaks of this paradox in his discussion of the assimilation of American Jews. In America, he claims, assimilation has been a great success: that is, in America Jews are not instantly recognizable unless they wish to be so, and yet these same assimilated Jews are obsessed with circumstances in which assimilation has either completely failed, as in the holocaust, or completely rejected, as in the Jewish state. In the former, Jews who thought of themselves first as Germans or Poles or Austrians were denied this identification and murdered for being Jewish, but in the latter case, Israelis want to be known only as Jews. For American Jews, Judt suggests, assimilation has not led to satisfaction: “Even if the gentiles like you and treat you as one of their own, you will not like yourself. Indeed, you will like yourself even less for just that reason. And you will seek other ways in which to assert your distinctive Jewishness. But the price of assimilation is that the Jewishness you assert will be perverse and unhealthy.” Because this Jewishness acted out will be practiced from some rule-governed behavior that derives from some external source and won’t be authentic or productive. Or one will act out difference in ways that defy whatever rules the society has set. Assimilation always fails either because one never learns all of the rules of the society one wishes to join, or in obeying any of the rules one is then subject to contumely for inauthenticity: obeying the rules in bad faith. Who should I be? What is to be done?
            What are the rules? In fact, it was Kant who believed we abide (or at least we ought to so abide) by a certain set of innate rules: Kant called them the categorical imperatives. A categorical imperative commands an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances. According to Kant, the categorical imperative is both necessary and justified as an end in itself, and the first formulation of the categorical imperative says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” That is, I want to act as if everyone else would act in a similar manner: this would eliminate my engagement in such heinous crimes as murder and war because if others practiced these customs I would become endangered. The same would be true for them. I don’t know Kant well enough to consider how he might respond to such activities as nose picking or passing gas in public, but the simplicity of the categorical imperative troubles me.  Absolutes trouble me, and I began this rambling with the problem of rules: the absolutes. The question returns me to the trouble with strangers, the title of Terry Eagleton’s book on ethics. I do not live by myself and so there are standards by which I choose to interact with others, but from where do these standards derive? And what do they mean?
To be or not to be is not the question, rather, the question is how to be! In this world of conflicting and competing motives, how to choose remains the central issue. Vladimir and Estragon conclude “Nothing to be done,” though they do continue to wait for Godot. There is something to be done: waiting is itself an action, passive as it may seem. Roth says that life is getting it wrong, but how do I know I am or have been wrong? And having been wrong, is there repair? 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps, since you have an unremitting dilemma regarding the Prufrockian peach, you should eat a kumquat.

14 April, 2012 15:45  

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