My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.
Art reflects life and life during the early 20th century rise of Existentialism was fragmented and disjointed, at least it appeared thus based on Western man’s perception of the world, which in turn was based on ancient Greek notions of linearity. This is clearly laid out by Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics: drama (and by extension, life) must have a definable beginning, middle, and end – in that order.
For Western man, lack of linearity leads inextricably to angst and anxiety. This is precisely what Existentialists like Heidegger (1889-1976) were trying to address.
For Heidegger, ‘time is no longer a reckonable sequence’ but instead ‘an inexhaustible inescapable presence’. In other words, real time, unlike time displayed on clocks and calendars, is primitive, primordial, spooky; real time, as understood by Heidegger and others, is scandalously shorn from comforting pre-Reformation notions of eternity.
For Existentialists like Heidegger, real time is the reflection of a reality fraught with angst and anxiety, anxiety and angst that is the natural reaction to disruption within the ‘dense medium’ through which Western man drags himself ever day, the medium which is his existence or Being.
As such, it’s little wonder, Barrett instructs, that early 20th century writers like Woolf, Eliot, and Forster, on the cusp of World War I – global conflict killing nearly 40 million – experimented with disjointed ideas of linear progression.
For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to her house, Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not.
He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat.
But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear), for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!
But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify disconnectedness, especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity. For example, in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.
As each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot ever be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.
Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections in a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.
In Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected.
In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.
At the end of the day, all this fuss, literary and otherwise, regarding the disruption logical linearity is merely a question of perception and perspective. There’s a reason, Barrett says, that unlike Western society, Oriental cultures did not give rise to Existentialism. Such cultures do not share the Western preoccupation with linear ordering and so have no need to examine or explain its breakdown.
In other words, the ordered, precise and linear world of Western society is nothing more than a mental construct reinforced by centuries of culture.
Change that construct, and you’re well on the road to resolving ‘angst’ or that deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety from which, 20th century writers like Eliot, Forster, and Woolf and 20th century Existentialists like Heidegger were suffering.
Might the 20th century efforts of these men and women shed light on the 21st century anxiety and angst which in the aftermath of Covid-19, we are now suffering?