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The Purposeless Striven Life: Ten Steps to Giving Up
By Cunny Hustard

From Stephen Covey's seven effective steps to Rick Warren's driven-into-purposituity, self-help authors have generally drawn their inspiration from the spiritual: God wants you to improve your Production Capacity, implies Covey; God wants you to worship Him and that should be your purpose, Warren says repeatedly and outright. Ostensibly, this is to aid us in the trials and travails of this pale of tears, either in reaching those bland middle-class goals or figuring out what to do with them once we've achieved them. Warren, unsurprisingly, wants them spent on the church.

But those authors and the armies who have come before and after make one serious mistake, Simone Albert argues in her new book The Purposeless Striven Life: An Existentialist Guide to Graceful Living. Purpose, Albert says, is pointless, a mere manifestation of our desperate and eternal mystification, a substitute suffering projected back on the self to avoid the infinite and inevitable Void, to elide the sure confrontation with the Great Nothingness that gapes cavernous just a side-step from being's narrow and rocky way. The point, she writes, is not to mind it, or, at the very least for the sake of your friends, not to let your green-gilled nausea show too awfully much.

In an early chapter entitled “Embracing the Void,” Albert suggests that smokers contemplate the cancerous growths being engendered with every puff, not to wean them off tobacco but to remind them, as a sort of mantra, of the very absurdity of their existences in the first place: “Make the first puff the puff of enjoyment,” she opines, for

that is all you may ask of life. The subsequent puffs, drags, or inhalations fraught with dependency unto dissolution, should serve as reminders of the dependency the individual has on the Void, in turn, reminding him of that being, that existant being the aberration, and its dissolution being the state of normalcy, of rest. Then, the cigarette finished, it is time to rejoin the party, for the cocktails have begun.

In a chapter titled “Sartre's Wandering Eye,” Albert uses that influential philosopher's visual distinction as an opportunity to expose the great existentialist's vanity, and therefore his humanity, frailty, and relative lack of essence, the very problem, she argues, that plagues Modernity generally: “[i]ts obsession with self is is not an obsession with existence; rather, it is an obsession with essences, an attempt to assert meaning and purpose where there are none by asserting a 'self' as an entity above and beyond simple or factual being,” concluding, “Break all your mirrors!”

Albert notes that the need to go beyond the self, to “assert a self-presence as a created world,” is what drives the need for such inanities as cosmetics, war, television, employment, and, naturally, self-help books, “by their name and nature” a form of illusion brought on by the pernicious “ideology of the soul.” “If the soul is in peril,” she writes, “that requires a need to save it.” Saving an unprovable, unseeable, ineffable bit of terminology turns culture into “an elaborate shell-game” between bosses and corporations, workers and churches, priests and televangelists. They mystify through incense and radio waves, megachurches and books full of bad prose, direct mail, the “tools of tyranny” when placed in the wrong hands. Selective reclusion, suggests Albert, is key to surviving the onslaught with proper perspective of emptiness and ennui intact. “Mass experience,” she contends, “is a double-illusion, and a convincing one”--from the literal mass of the Catholic church to the Jumbotronic, high-sonic, high-colonic, ecstasy-inducing thrill ride called contemporary worship, to megaplex movies and arena rock, all of which are designed “to create a sense of meaning fused with impending imperilment, the only solution to which is the ceding of the whole to the mass leaving a massive hole created in the wallet.” Mystification along these lines, it seems, is to create a need for repentance, therefore dependence, and, barring that, or combined with that, a need to buy a discount salvation. Don't leave the house too much, she says, and frequent only the cafés you trust, and thus, as she titles another chapter detailing how most easily to do this, “Act as All Men.”

It's not that Albert embraces a secular seclusion entirely, but pop culture “threaten[s] to become a substitute illusion, pop culture puffing itself into cloudlike forms, cumulus anvils” squishing us between sky and ground and “filling us to the grillz” with things to do and the “need” to do them: the opus of consumerism has been played, and “played we are by the pied pipes.” To shop en masse, she worries, is even more false than faith, and combined directly with faith, is trebly illusionary. But that only happens at Christmastime.

Albert's tongue, then, is only partially cheekbound when she writes her perhaps most practical chapter, “Nausea for Fun and Profit (but Mostly Fun).” Here she argues that absurdity itself is its own reward: "Reminded of the simple pointlessness, the sheer shock, of one's own existence, one is faced first with the sinking feeling in the stomach's pit,” an attempt by the body to void itself “in syncopation with the Void beyond,” but second “by letting go of the need to mean, one arrives at the tragic silliness of be.“ Taking time every day to confront the Void, to project one's “self” perilously close to the edge, gives one the opportunity to imagine that “self” looking back from the Void, and thereby see one's “sack of flesh” as “the mere stupid polyp it is,” the dumbshow of the genes and the cycles of water and carbon, and thereby to “finally, freely, freeingly, laugh.”