The Unhappy Man
Wisdom Through Despair
Since our culture glamourises unhappiness and depression, I feel a moral obligation to state that I'm not depressed nor particularly unhappier than the average person. I'm captivated by the phenomenon of unhappiness as it's a peculiarly powerful impetus for existential metamorphosis in human beings; therefore, I decided to call my newsletter The Unhappy Man—it's also a catchy title. So forgive me if the title, my prose and the themes of this publication make me look narcissistic; I doubt I'm any more narcissistic than the average person. And forgive me for starting this newsletter with such a self-flagellating caveat, as penance itself could be the vainest of acts; most times, humility is a wolf in sheep's clothing.
I greatly admire men of my father’s generation; when they inescapably suffered like the rest of us, they did so in silence. Such men weren’t as vain and exhibitionist as I am to start a whole newsletter to confront one’s unhappiness. I find great nobility in such reticent suffering where one doesn’t use pain to further indulge in vanity and bring lurid attention to oneself. So I ask myself, who says your pain deserves a notable spotlight? It certainly doesn’t, and yet here we are.
Growing up, I noticed unhappiness in my parents—the two people I knew the most intimately as a child. Of course, theirs weren’t any different from the condition of all human beings. As the precursory high priests of existentialism, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche elucidated misery, pain, and unhappiness are concomitant with self-consciousness; therefore, only human beings truly suffer existentially. Animals, of course, feel pain, but it’s up for debate if their suffering is of the same ontological status as ours because they’re not cognizant of their own existencethe way we are. Furthermore, due to our idiosyncratic subjective awareness, our inner knowledge and experience can never be quantified, relativised or categorised objectively using, let’s say, the scientific method as we do with the world of facts and objects. In any case, with time, I’ve begun to understand why my parents and everyone else, for that matter, were occasionally unhappy; now, I can truly empathise with them as I’ve experienced this similar deepfelt unhappiness in my own life.
But the apropos question is how do we respond to the datum that suffering is an ontological reality? Past generations would probably say to grin and bear it because this is life, so deal with it stoically and keep plugging away. And in our times, we respond sneeringly at such old-fashioned, “uninformed” views. We, the enlightenment ones, the medicalised generation of therapy, self-care days, mental health awareness weeks, social media vulnerability sessions and newsletters on unhappiness, would find such anachronistic comments ignorant and repulsive. In our haughtiness, we presume that since there is less taboo around topics like anxiety and depression, we have a better grip on the realities of existence and know the “science” of dealing with life’s inevitabilities. Purportedly, it seems progress made by modern psychology has given us unique epistemic insights into the human psyche. Ergo, can we assume our supposedly newfound knowledge to be the elixir to the perils and afflictions of being human?
We’d like to think so, but I beg to differ. I don’t believe I have any superior understanding of true reality than my parents did so as to find the panacea to my own unhappiness. No amount of pop psychology or self-help books will ever change the verity that human beings are lousy at being happy. Furthermore, as Slavoj Žižek expounds on a finding of psychoanalysis, “We don’t really want what we think we desire.” Even if you think what you’re seeking is quasi-teleological happiness as a destination, achievement or an object, you will always be disappointed when you get what you want because of that insight Nietzsche, a morbidly unhappy man, made into our condition, “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.” Even if such matters of the heart could be reduced to a social science, there is no unequivocal evidence that prosperity correlates to an increase in happiness.
As Žižek says in his critique of capitalism, “The commandment of the ruling ideology is enjoy!” So whenever we’re met with unhappiness, we ask disquietly why? But this is the wrong question. Unhappiness, or the incongruence in being we feel, is the starting point of existence, so it requires no deeper explanation. Perhaps it’s this vexation that gives way to ultimate human freedom. So my purpose in writing this newsletter is not to provide any easy answers for happiness, nor is it even to find an antidote to unhappiness, rather it’s to explore human experience without any adjectives; the vast array of it, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote,
“God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.”
It’s with such intent I orient myself in starting this newsletter. And I hope it at least tolerably answers the question I posed in the first paragraph. If my pain—and that which I observe in others—could increase human freedom, mature our souls and give perspicuity into the human experience, both its beauty and terror, that is enough; I ask for nothing more.
The audacity to write about the human experience seems like a ludicrous endeavour due to its uncanny ubiquity from poetry to quantum mechanics. I might as well say I’m writing a newsletter about everything and anything that could ever be written about, which becomes meaningless due to its nebulousness. Hence, to contain my propensity to wander off into senseless obscurity and out of respect for the reader, I’ll outline (in no particular order of importance) and share guiding axioms for The Unhappy Man in the next few weeks.
Starting off with the first one:
#1 - Restrain the urge to overcome unhappiness with ideological prescription
“Like love, ideology is blind, even if people caught up in it are not.”
― Slavoj Žižek
We face the pressure of meaning. Camus was right when he said, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Our predicament lies not in the meaninglessness of the universe but that from all sentient beings, we are the only ones that yearn for meaning in this desolate place. If God created man not to desire meaning, then the meaninglessness of life wouldn’t be a tribulation. In that sense, God is more malevolent than we can ever imagine because he not only allows unreasonable suffering but even plays that loathsome trick on humanity by creating meaning-desiring beings in a meaningless world.
Therefore, our penchant for becoming ideologues, for finding psychic stability through the prescription and imposition of dogmas onto the world, is unsurprising. The profound unhappiness this Angst brings to our soul makes our capitulation to totalitarian ideologies (e.g., Marxism, Capitalism, Religious fundamentalism, etc.) understandable. Such facts of the human heart have to be acknowledged and dealt with ad infinitum. But on that lugubrious note, I ought to specify that ideology doesn’t intend to seek truth, nor does it increase human freedom. Ideology exists for its own sake, for its perpetuation; it’s a Sartrean nothingness. So I will ardently interdict my natural desire to make this newsletter a forum for ideological evangelism.
To write (or live, for that matter) authentically and non-ideologically is the strangest of all things. In many ways, it’s been the quintessential struggle to be an individual since time immemorial. And apart from authenticity being an existential predicament, modern society seems to hinder us from even raising questions about authentic living. For instance, contemporary culture reeks of the call for constant liberation, self-expression and bringing one’s “true self” to the world. Yet, as some Frankfurt School sociologists, namely Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, proposed, industrial, bureaucratised society allows us only to be free within the confines of the ruling ideology, and freedom itself is a tool used to coax an individual to submit to the establishment. They argued in the 1940s, popular culture does this best through the cultural goods of mass media, i.e. film, music, and commercialised sports that make people docile and passive consumers; for them, a true miracle would be if one of the NFL Super Bowl commercials said you don’t need another pair shoes to be happy!
Through this critical lens, even ostensible social justice messaging like the direct championing for liberation and equality is a facade for ideological control. Case in point: telling a woman to be a “Boss Babe” or a “SheEO” is simply the prevailing capitalist ideology telling her what to become. The establishment tells her to partake in a company that’s yet another overpriced fashion brand telling young girls to find their self-esteem and worth as an individual through owning some product leading to further exacerbation of the anxiety and insecurity we see in teenagers (especially girls) prevalent these days. Most of this happens subconsciously, unbeknownst to us, but vis-à-vis women’s empowerment. Adorno would ask how this would be true freedom? How does this allow an individual to be authentic? In Marxist parlance, he manages to bridge commodity fetishisation with reification, where such a woman has forfeited her inner freedom by committing to objects, i.e. fashion products, outside herself; she’s made the object a subject while relinquishing her subjectivity―this is the case only if the subject-object dichotomy is true, nevertheless, the existential point of losing ones innerness still stands. Such control is worse than the overt despotism of an authoritarian regime as, in our case, we don’t even know we’re being controlled and how our psyche is changing as a result of it.
Having said that, I doubt even being aware of this datum allows one to be truly authentic; if such a thing exists. For instance, Adorno was scathingly critical of contemporary Western culture and its concomitant cultural goods, especially the burgeoning Americanism with its Jazz music (No, that wasn’t a typo, he, in fact, hated Jazz!). Simply put, he thought Jazz wasn’t true art but rather a banal commodity that chained people’s spirits to the capitalist machine. It was merely “aesthetically pleasing” in contrast to so-called “serious” art produced by “high culture” like Mozart, which penetrated and changed one’s soul fundamentally. In typical leftist thinking, for Adorno, true art makes us question our bland comforts, conformism, ignorance and subservience to the prevailing dogmas; art cannot be simply enjoyed for its own sake. Art ought to transform a man, bar none. As he states in Aesthetic Theory, “Art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.”
But who’s to say that he, too, isn’t in this degraded state along with the rest of us. Perhaps Adorno is evading his true inner-self by indulging in higher culture and intellectual life where his authentic self never comes to light. Anna Freud expounds on this phenomenon in her psychoanalytic theory of defence mechanisms: she highlights how our unconscious uses a variety of defences (sublimation, rationalisation, intellectualisation, etc., to name a few) as an outlet for protecting our ego to avoid distressing, anxiety-producing thoughts and internal conflicts about our own life. So being an aesthete, immersing oneself in serious intellectual work, learning new languages, and travelling the world to experience cultures all seem like objects our subjective defence mechanisms exploit, no different from engaging in mindless consumerism or superficial capitalistic accumulation of wealth solely for the sake of accumulation.
Kierkegaard elucidates the essence of this datum best in Either/Or, wherein, attempting to outline a theory of human existence, he intimates how we all inescapably live a transient aesthetic life; the life of celebrating constant change and titillation; the life of desire and sensuousness; the life of immediacy and aesthetic reflection. This is in contradistinction to the ethical life Kierkegaard’s Judge Vilhelm delineates in his letters to the aesthete, “For the person who lives aesthetically sees only possibilities everywhere; for him, it is these that form the content of the future, whereas the person who lives ethically sees tasks everywhere.” And yet, in his moral phenomenology, one could argue for a subtler reading to find that even the ethical—societal and civic duty—collapses to the aesthetic as it becomes motivated by self-fulfilment; to do good because goodness makes one happy is nevertheless one’s ethical passions in effect. And ultimately, the highest stage of life for Kierkegaard is the religious sphere, beyond the binary of the aesthetic and ethical. When one arrives here, an inner metaphysical phenomenon occurs; in his temporality, one makes an absolute unconditional commitment to the ground of all being that transcends logical reasoning, the prevalent ethics and social norms of the day. We see this radical transposition epitomised in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where towards the end of the novel, the protagonist Raskolnikov simply accepts he’s wrong without any explanation, and perhaps we see this in figures like a Martin Luther King Jr., too; they’ve come in touch with a self-transcending deeper reality beyond coherent truth itself that’s scandalous to human reason.
Having gone on that tangential point, in the spirit of authenticity, I have to admit that I’ve never experienced this latter religious stage Kierkegaard writes of with such zeal—nor am I sure if I want to after having read Fear and Trembling. My life has been a constant oscillation between the aesthetic and ethical. Even reading and writing about the religious life is an intellectual thrill for me rather than a sincere expedition for truth. Kant wrote (paraphrasing), “If the truth shall kill them, let them die.” But then I wonder if any of us really seek truth? If truth made us miserable to the point of suicide, would we want it? The problem, as Nietzsche wrote, is that “no one has yet been truthful enough about what ‘truthfulness’ is.” This fundamental epistemic confusion will always make ideology attractive to us, and perhaps we can never abandon it. Perchance true authenticity lies in thinking less of being authentic, of trying to be in a particular “stage of life”, whether it be aesthetic, ethical or religious, rather simply discovering reality without expectations or suppositions—if such a thing is possible. Much like happiness, the more one thinks of being authentic, the less of one’s true self one becomes. Ergo, I will write non-teleologically, non-prescriptively but also not merely descriptively, as writing always has a point of view; a perspective. In that regard, I can only try to allow what I read and write to seize me rather than “I” trying to seize it.
What’s the goal of this newsletter?
The philosopher-mathematician Raymond Smullyan describes Taoism “as a state of inner serenity combined with an intense aesthetic awareness. Neither alone is adequate; a purely passive serenity is kind of dull, and an anxiety-ridden awareness is not very appealing.” And when asked what’s the purpose of the Tao he replies:
“To attribute ‘purpose’ to the Tao is sort of un-Taoistic. The Tao’s inner principle is spontaneity rather than purpose. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, the Tao does not create or make things; rather it ‘grows’ or ‘individuates’ into them. We might say, in the spirit of Laotse:
The Tao has no purpose,
And for this reason fulfils
All its purposes admirably”
In many ways, I view the purpose of doing something similar to how Smullyan views the Tao. To do something doesn’t require a teleology, but nor can it be done with apathy and a sort of ascetic resignation from life. It requires both the freedom to lose oneself in the act but also a deep appreciation of the act itself; once in a while, we should all get lost in the music. Furthermore, asking someone, “what’s the point?” is a silly and soulless question; it’s also awfully annoying, especially if it’s a creative endeavour. Much of our life is lived with no purpose, so why is it that certain things suddenly require one. In fact, a “Dreydeggerian” reading of Heidegger highlights that most of life is lived even quasi-mindlessly without conscious “intentionality” towards something. So what matters more than a goal or purpose is one’s intent in a spiritual sense; it’s where one’s heart’s at, even if one isn’t aware of what this “where” exactly is. And my intent is whatever I do to do with goodness despite not clearly knowing what good means. Perhaps one knows what is good when one is doing it, and one should just keep plugging away at it, not particularly concerned about where it leads (an exception applies to this rule if you’re a pedophile).
I take it on faith that living truthfully will be the antidote to suffering. And while goodness remains elusive to me, I certainly do believe that reducing meaningless suffering in this world is good. So here goes yet another leap of faith.
A difference in the essence doesn’t necessitate animal suffering to be just or that we should needlessly exacerbate it. My point was pertinent only to the specific type of existential suffering (e.g., Angst, meaninglessness, absurdism, etc.) that humans exclusively experience.
Because of this, one shouldn’t attempt to compare and rank order human suffering. The argument that privileged upper-class Westerners should feel guilty for their unhappiness because 689 million people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.90 a day, is utterly cynical and destructive. Suffering isn’t contingent, and the heart knows what it unequivocally feels; perhaps pain is the only thing we can say for sure is real.
Arthur C. Brooks states, “One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.” A statement based on his study of The U.S. General Social Survey.
Yet another insight from the labyrinth of Žižekian philosophy. Matt McManus synthesises it, stating, “Drawing on the philosophy of Georg Hegel, Zizek claims that the incompleteness of nature is part of what enables human freedom to emerge. In a truly perfect and complete nature, a kind of equilibrium would be reached in which there would be no space for human freedom. [...] Human freedom emerges as we struggle with the chaos of nature and seek to manipulate it to serve our ends.”
I’ve greatly simplified and reduced his arguments here for brevity’s sake. You can read his original paper On Jazz for the particularities. Or Conor Kostick’s Adorno’s Philosophy of Music which a neophyte like myself would find more palatable.
While it seems like I’m making a relativistic argument about one’s life choices, I’m not. One could undoubtedly make a qualitative distinction between different modes of life, though perhaps not intellectually. For instance, I’d say it’s qualitatively better to learn a new language and broaden one’s worldview than to buy yet another luxury watch that has a price tag that’s equivalent to the cost of feeding a whole village; it’s better to read philosophy and literature over watching Married at First Sight; it’s better to travel and experience different cultures than doing vodka shots to the point of passing out on weekends; or as Vida D. Scudder wrote, “Creation is a better means of self-expression than possession. It is through creating, not possessing, that life is revealed.” Having said that, while distinct individual decisions could be qualitatively compared and judged, the essence of two individuals can never be. As to Be an individual is infinitely deeper and multifaceted than one’s temporal choices; the fragments cannot replace the whole.