The Existential Hero
PERSONAL COLUMN STEPHEN VIZINCZEY
Our age lacks both sanity and honour, but Eugene McCarthy's notion that it is more fun to do the right thing than to worry about success may be catching on. To follow one's instinct and one's conscience, to act for the here-and-now instead of an imaginary future, this is the existential attitude to life, this is existential politics. By his 'hopeless' stand, McCarthy has demonstrated that we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the future, from the imagined obligation to win our battles even at the expense of our souls.
These are the days of righteous violence, when just grievances are avenged on innocent bystanders and maiming and murder have appeared to be the only viable forms of com- munication. 'To show you what I mean, I'm obliged 'to kill you,' said President Johnson, Ho Chi Minh and Rap Brown. Housewives and negro militants are buying guns in America to debate what to do about the slums, and municipal police are turning into combat troops to fight the dispossessed and the young; the war of the races and the war of the genera- tions are being prepared to secure the victory of desolation and death. Yet these are also the days of the malaise of helplessness, when millions suffer paralysis of the will in face of a world hurtling on to new horrors and ever More visible chaos, impervious to our attempts to improve it or hold it together.
Suicide and murder, as Camus argued in The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, are the only truly serious philosophical problems. What should we do—act or fold our arms? The sphere of action has become increasingly violent, while quiescence is a form of self- immolation. The void at the centre of the whirl- pool swallows those who give up.
Camus found the source of this deadly impasse in our refusal to remember the limits of the human condition, limits which can be summed up in one word : dependence. We are born, we die, without having any say in the matter; .and we spend the interval labouring ceaselessly in the dark. No activity has any meaning beyond itself, for we cannot know what will be its result. The Greeks understood this—hence the myth of Sisyphus: one's whole being is 'exerted towards accomplishing nothing.' Or rather, we do not know what our labour will accomplish, which amounts to the same thing. The result, shrouded in mystery, offers no justification. Yet Camus, rightly, imagined Sisyphus happy. Conceive of yourself acting without thought of success or failure! What freedom! In such a life, there is no question of overcoming nature; the only victory lies in acquitting oneself with valour.
We have forgotten the Greek lesson: for us, an action has no meaning in itself; what we are actually doing is almost irrelevant, be- cause it is only a means to an end. But as the imagined end is by definition unreal, this 'pragmatic' approach leads us to abandon the present for the future, the real world for a fantasy life. Only the 'results' count, we say, and we hardly notice when we bloody our hands.
Thus fire-bombs on Dresden, A-bombs on Hiroshima, splinter-bombs on Vietnamese peasants—wholesale massacres which turned out to be needless, useless and 'counter-produc- tive.' Each time there has been great surprise at the outcome, though what is truly surprising is that we haven't awakened to the fact that the effects of our actions are always unfore- seeable. None of these horrors would have been possible if they had been considered as actions for their own sake, on their own merits—if they had not been conceived in a hallucinatory trance induced by the chimeras of global democracy, the Four Freedoms, the 'Free World.'
It is impossible not to sense, however dimly, that something is wrong with our process of decision-making, yet we don't mend our ways. We prefer to go on pretending that we are masters of history, insisting that we want to overcome evil, although what we really want to overcome are the limits of human power.
Such arguments, Nietzsche thought, serve no other purpose than to preach the virtue of inertia; and this would be true if we could be moved to action only by the prospects of 'results.' But while we're used to misconceiving action as begotten solely by our desire to achieve some purpose, to fulfil some plan, in truth we act because it is our nature. Nature has no justification and needs none. The result of life is death, yet we go on living.
So all this is said not to discourage anyone from doing anything, be it suicide or murder, but only to recommend the consideration of every action on its own terms. By all means, the student should kick the policeman and the policeman should break the student's head, so long as they know this is what they want to do. Let us rebel and oppress with the lucidity of despair, knowing that the pain and death we inflict must be its own reward, for the effect it may or may not have on the future cannot be foretold.
But let's not destroy cities on the pretext
The start of the open season.
of liberating them. If we're to kill one another. let us do so from pure hate. There can be dignity in such violence; there is none in the sick farce of killing the victim to save his soul. Renouncing the madness of the Inquisi- tors, who burned people out of love, we could aspire to the wisdom of the Greeks. 'The Greeks,' wrote Camus in his essay Helens Exile,' made the will conform to the limits im- posed by reason, whereas we have made the impulse of will the very centre of reason, which makes it deadly. For the Greeks, values pre- ceded action and the limits of action were set by these values:
We cannot master fate, but we can at lea,t submit our decision to the judgment of what- ever honour and decency we possess, and so can choose what meaning we give to our There is no other possible human victory.
But what use is philosophising? Ideas can be taught only by examples—by examples such as Eugene McCarthy's. In a country going mad with the notion that there is no limit to what human beings (and especially Americans) can achieve, he stepped forward to demon- strate the only valid response to the chaos of life: do your own thing.
I first saw Senator McCarthy on American television when he took upon himself the hope- less task of nominating Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic Convention, which the Kennedy apparat had sewn up tight for JFK. 'There was only one man who said let's talk sense to the American people,' he reminded the Democrats, 'do not reject this man who made us all proud . . . do not leave this prophet without honour in his own party.' Now presenting himself for the presidential nomina- tion, he has again been moved by sense and honour rather than faith in the mirage of suc- cess, showing Americans how they can attain, if not peace, their peace of mind.
His showing in the primaries and President Johnson's apparent withdrawal from the contest have also demonstrated the fact that while we have no rational basis for hope, we have no reason to despair: if nothing is certain in life, then nothing is impossible.
In their arrogant knowingness about the unfathomable future, some Democrats aban- doned McCarthy for Robert Kennedy on the 'practical' grounds that Kennedy could wrest the nomination from President Johnson and McCarthy could not—a classic example of how result (fantasy) oriented thinking corrupts action. These American liberals have once again sacrificed their integrity for absolutely nothing.
We live in a world of such bad bargains, which may yet hinder McCarthy's political for- tunes; but they make his reluctance to speculate, his refusal to guess against his heart's judg- ment, all the more inspiring. Robert Kennedy had hardly hit the campaign trail when he found it convenient to resurrect the imperial demagoguery of his late brother, promising Americans that with him they would 'regain the moral leadership of the world.' McCarthy has no hallucinatory visions and strikes no god- like poses; he recognises that the only certain benefit we derive from any act is the satisfac- tion of doing it. 'I believe,' he writes, 'that a man who is presented to the presidency must know the limitations of power.'
He reminds one of Camus's observation that true pride, true greatness, is 'the recognition of human limits: He is in fact what. Mailer so unjustifiably hoped irx would become: the Existential Hero.