Learning How To Live

An office in the early 1950s. Photograph by Rolu Dsgn.

'The capitalist world, and in particular the heart of it, offers almost nothing a young man wants: the instincts of youth are at variance with the demands of business, and especially with those of clerking. What young man is by nature diligent, sober and regular in his habits? Respectful of 'superiors' and humble before wealth? Sincerely able to devote himself to what he finds boring? One in ten thousand, perhaps.'

R. J. Hollingdale, Introduction to Schopenhauer's Essays and Aphorisms
I often fall under the impression that I've taken the road most traveled by; the road that isn't necessarily the one for me. My interests are broad and I find satisfaction in all areas of life, but it's easy to feel dissatisfied or frustrated from time to time.

Since graduating from university, a lasting impression remained in my mind of something left unsaid, or undone. I enjoyed my course, and felt certain qualities had left a permanent imprint on my mind, and on the person I have become. I studied English Literature and Cultural Criticism, which prompted me to question the way films, artworks and novels were constructed, before interests expanded to encompass just about any cultural object.

It was an adventure, and I feel that the books I read and the thoughts I absorbed have placed me in good stead. But there is a part of me that is constantly wishing to expand this area of inquiry. The satisfaction was so great that I am constantly looking for ways to renew or expand my knowledge; not simply to develop career prospects, or to hold knowledge for knowledge's sake, but to discover more about myself and the person I would most like to be. As you can imagine, it's a work-in-progress.
'But for the great majority a 'job' is, depending on temperament, a torment or a tedious irrelevance which has to be endured day after day in order that, during one's so-called 'free time', one will be allowed to get on with living. The situation is the most commonplace in the world.'

R. J. Hollingdale, Ibid.
I think it is important to everyone that there is some meaning and significance in the things that we do. Our days, weeks, months and years are held together by the narratives we create, and ultimately become the way we see how our lives have developed. And I am often reminded of a line by Tennyson, that goes: 'How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!' William Burroughs quoted the line constantly, and it has since become a mantra of my own. A reminder of a purpose I'm still in the process of finding out.
'Nothing seemed true; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could quickly be removed...'

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
But although I feel a need for a meaning or a narrative in my life, a part of me feels it's important that it is not concrete or established. Everything that I want or value seems to be something that's in the process of becoming, and although I'm constantly moving towards one personal goal or another, I feel confident that I will never really get there.

On the one hand, this could sound like a profoundly pessimistic perspective. Nihilistic, even. Think of Camus, and his universe divested of lights. But there is freedom in that, too. Sartre's Nausea follows its protagonist through a bleak existential despair, before gear-shifting into a new frame-of-mind and responsibility. In a world without meaning, we begin to take responsibility for meaninglessness and create our own - out of thin air. God is dead, and we have killed him. And while it may send some to the nearest tall bridge, it sends me forward. It's an exciting and inspiring thought.
'This familiar feeling is what now overcame Schopenhauer: the feeling which appears when life, hitherto apparently capable of granting anything, is suddenly revealed as a deception, when the colour is drained out of it and the whole future seems a single grey. The essence of the question is: Is this all? Is this life?'

R. J. Hollingdale, Ibid.
But what's brought out this streak in me on a sunny Sunday afternoon? I've had a wonderful walk in the park with someone I love to be with, I'm looking forward to work tomorrow morning, and I can honestly say I don't have a care in the world. I think my answer begins with Schopenhauer, who I've been doing a little reading on just lately. R. J. Hollingdale's fantastic introduction to the 'Essays and Aphorisms' offers a fascinating glimpse of Schopenhauer's personal life, and more than a small smattering of perspective.

Painting by Wenzel Hablik

I'm fascinated by the lives that writers lead. Will Self once wrote that literary biographies were a satisfying kind of onanistic pleasure - and although I think he might be overstating the point I can understand his angle. I often look up to writers as people who have tried to carve out a meaning for their own lives, as a justification for their own existence; at their most ambitious, they even try to provide its explanation.

I often think of the creator or Withnail & I, Bruce Robinson, who sits at his desk for hours on end with a phrase from James Joyce stuck to his typewriter: Write, damn it. What else are you good for? And there's the bedridden asthmatic Marcel Proust, who attempted to express life, the universe and everything in a truly collosal first novel. In these attitudes (I almost wrote 'artitudes') to life there is much I admire. Call it self-indulgent if you like, call it onanistic, but what William Burroughs called the most noble of professions holds an incredible power. (Burroughs, incidentally, has the words 'American Writer' adorning his tombstone.)

I think it's wonderful when people can find meaning in a painting, or a television series, or a song on the radio ('whatever gets you through the night'); and I think it's understandable that people might turn to so-called high or low culture for solace and comfort.

Lately I've been turning to philosophy with something of a piecemeal approach, taking inspiration here and there, but quietly tiptoeing around the ideologies and the didacticism. It's great to see meaning in things that are external to us, and it's great to use them in our everyday lives, but it can be defeatist to allow those things to rule our lives, or the way we think. It's probably a good idea to work these things out for ourselves.

To use a melodramatic metaphor, we're all a little like the mythical Sisyphus, condemned to push the same rock up the same hill again and again. As Schopenhauer says, 'Today it is bad, and every day it will get worse - until at last the worst of all arrives.' But if we can create a meaning for our actions, and take it one day at a time, there's little need to despair or despondency. We just need to find the way that's right for us. (Which is of course easier said than done, and probably the point at which this article repeats itself again, and again, ad infinitum for the rest of my life.)