I have loved the French loanword word ennui for as long as I can remember hearing it. To pronounce it is compelling, almost like an onomatopoeia–though it is more the “feeling” than the sound. Turns out it comes from the Latin inordinare that also gave us our English word “annoy.” It reminds me in sentiment a bit of the word listless–though the meaning in English is more direct. It apparently means a lack of energy or interest, whereas ennui is sometimes defined as boredom–which to me misses its core meaning of a simple lack of interest or engagement with any kind of joy or enthusiasm. In each case one can ask–about what is one lacking engagement, interest, or energy?
In my case it would be the everyday business of human life itself on this planet with all its diverse complexities of celebration, tragedy, joy, and grief–and a thousand other contrasts, all hitting us at once like a firehose. I think even in the height of the opposites–enthusiasm, engagement, and the most intense interest, there is always listless ennui lurking on the horizon, not as a sabotage of joyfulness but as an underlying reality. It is just there. And I welcome it, lest one be carried away too much with what likely is projection of rather capricious moods or momentary diversions as if they have any kind of cosmic permanence. In a group or crowd or even with friends when one feels ennui the typical response is to ask “Are you okay,” “Is anything wrong,” as if any person’s individual failure to keep up the façade is some kind of indication that the mask might be slipping. We don’t abide well with sitting quietly, saying nothing. I think deep dives into the pools of listless ennui is as honest as it is therapeutic.
I love this one. That is you and me and everyone one of us, both the child within and the adult stumbling through many paths. I will not identify it, so those who don’t recognize can have fun finding the poet if they so choose. For those who are sticklers on the Upper/Lower case for God/gods, recall that ELOHIM is the “Powers,” i.e. the sum total of the Power of all powers…so-called forces of “Nature” and all that “Is.”
The darkness is apparent in every generation, in every life…as is the light. Tales of horror, loss, and grief, alongside those of joy and amazing grace and sacrificial kindness. Thank you Buk. I love your heart and soul.
Arthur Koestler, according to his biographer Michael Scammell, was was the only significant writer to stare death in the face in the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939). This includes Hemingway, Dos Passos, Auden, Orwell, and many others who had flocked to Spain. His three months in prison in 1937, that he recounts in Dialogue with Death shook him to the core. For those readers not familiar the international efforts to oppose Franco, the Joris Evens 1937 film, Tierra Española, which Hemingway had been instrumental in bringing to the world, is available on Youtube. Day by day Koestler listened from his cell no. 40, as prisoners were being shot at midnight. He wrote prolifically, beginning to question whether revolutionary violence in the end violated the sanctity of life, and he scratched out Euclid’s theorem on the prison walls to keep his mind focused. During that period he was greatly influenced by reading Schopenhauer and corresponded with Thomas Mann. The prison’s confinement and the imminent possibility of death, plunged him deep into thoughts about the existential meaning of life. He experienced a transformative new consciousness–as he took flights of philosophical contemplation. Scammell describes it this way:
Koestler concluded that his hours spent by the prison window scratching equations had brought mystical insights into another realm of being. He was filled ‘with a direct certainty that a higher order of reality existed, and that it alone invested existence with meaning.’ Koestler likened it to a ‘text written in invisible ink; though one could not read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the textual of one’s existence,’ and elsewhere compared it to Freud’s concept of the ‘oceanic feeling’ an overwhelming intuition about the infinite and the eternal that was the essence of religious faith (p.150).
For Koestler, at that moment, it was deep contemplation of the nature of math, but it could just as well be art or music or love or a thousand other numinous moments of insight in our lives. The metaphor of “invisible writing” gave him the title for volume two of his autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1954)–following Arrow in the Blue which had been published just two years earlier.
I knew little of Koestler until age 32 when I encountered his most mature work titled Janus: A Summing Up, written forty years later. Koestler carried his “invisible writing” insight with him to the end. I will never forget how I read Janus in one sitting through the evening, into the night, finishing it early the early morning as the sun rose. It put me in a kind of trance. I just went and pulled the book from my shelf, reminding myself of that May 19, 1978 morning; I wrote inside the front cover, in my tiny scrawled script, the following, with a flair of youthful enthusiasm:
It had a profound impression on me and my life at that time and that influence on my thinking has endured now for forty-three years, corresponding to the beginning of my teaching career at Notre Dame in 1979. Koestler died on March 1, 1983, a day before my 37th birthday.
Freud, of course, thought that any such flights of fantasy were just that–illusion to shield one from facing the ultimate truth–namely death as the permanent cession of the self.In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the … Continue readingErnest Becker, in his profound work, Denial of Death, published in 1973, expounding Freud and Norman O. Brown–succeeds brilliantly in following that line of thought to its stark conclusion–namely our futile and illusionary attempts to imagine our human existence “matters” to any kind of higher order of reality.
Koestler had no “illusions” about his bold proposal that amounted to a rejection of “materialism” without advocating any kind of conventional “dualism.” He wrote in his opening Author’s Note that he hoped his final proposal might throw some light on the human condition and contain a “shadowy pattern of truth.”
In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the source of all the religious energy that permeates in various religious systems, and one may justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one renounces every belief and every illusion.
We are all wayfaring ones, our birth, our circumstances, whether order or chaos, privilege or plague; very little is controllable in the grander scheme of things, at least from the vantage point of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. We carve out our tiny space, feel the “I” of it, but it all blends together into centuries and millennia. We call it “history.” Such a strange concept. Microbe, elephant, flea, or sequoia, seem to somehow “harmonize” with wars and cruelty, chance and necessity. And then there is that amazing grace, not the song, but the “thing” of it–the Dasein.
The Universe/God began to “talk” to me in synchronicities: coincidences meaningful only to me and individually dismissible (to a skeptical outsider) as mere hokum, but too numerous and often too striking for me to dismiss.
Nature notices neither the unspeakable sorrows and sufferings humans inflict on one another, nor the destruction and pain resulting from natural processes of cause and effect. “Chance and necessity, chance and necessity” chants Jacque Monod, with a cadence like the slow drumbeat of a cosmic mantra. “Atoms and the void, atoms, and the void,” echoes Lucretius from two millennia ago. The flowers outside the gates ofAuschwitz burst forth a panoply of colors and the grass grows green and thick with the spring rains as rabbits and mice come forth to welcome the sun. And that nature itself, “red in tooth and claw” drums slowly on in ever unfolding evolutionary patterns, each entity oblivious to the whole, but ever acting within it. The same is true after an earthquake or volcanic disruption or astroid impact or a pandemic. We who have the gift of self-awareness and wonder and analytical observation bear the burden, shed the tears, cry out to the cosmos, and wonder as we move through life how and where our sense of “meaning” and “purpose” fits…or Not. Are we anomalies and flukes in a process otherwise dead to and unaware of anything that goes on—or is that very capacity we have to ask, somehow reflective of something we have yet to understand? Yes, Mr. Zimmerman, we are going down the Valley one-by-one, as only your 70 year-old voice can sing it. But is there a choice? I put myself deep into this painting done by my departed son David, I can actually stare at it and merge into it–a strange feeling. I want to open my eyes and look around and see that is beyond the archway ahead.
Arthur Koestler once wrote that his attempt to write biography rose out of what he called the “Chronicler’s urge” and the Ecce Homo motive, both driven by a desire to transcend the self. I think the same can be said for my own lifelong desire–since high school living in boarding school in France outside Paris–to write contemporary fiction–which is inevitably a form of veiled or not-so-veiled (think Woody Allen!) bio-fiction. However, I would add the Hemingway sense of “getting it right,” somehow capturing our common human hours and days in a way that brings the reaction–yes, that’s the way it was! That’s the way it is!
Tell the tale tale, tell the tall tale, The idiot sputtered to the table Yes, indeed, tell the tale tale, That tall tale of life…
I love the phrase, the title of C. S. Lewis’s complex book about his “raging” grief and anger, against God and the cosmos and anything and everything after the death of his late-in-life-discovered beloved soulmate, Joy Davidman, in 1960. He published it originally under a pseudonym, lest the millions who saw him as a man faith be disturbed. It is well worth reading and there is a wonderful film, Shadowlands (1993), with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger–well worth watching.
The inaugural 2020 issue of The New Yorker (January 6, 2020) has a wonderfully complex personal reflection by V. S. Naipaul about his own coping with grief–over the loss of family, friends, and even beloved pets. It is well worth reading. There are many quotable lines and paragraphs but one in particular stood out for me:
The many anxieties I lived with helped to push grief away. I felt I had been inoculated against grief. I had drunk that bitterness to the dregs, and since human beings have limited capacity I didn’t think I would be able to do so again…It was a poor way of thinking. We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.
I have become convinced over my tiny “blink of an eye” three-score and ten years on this pale blue dot that our natural world, as it has unfolded through time, most acutely reflects the dichotomy of Predator and Prey–especially at the higher levels–those creatures, humans included, with brains and central nervous systems. Humans especially, and here I am thinking about individual psychological traits, are one or the other–not a mixture of the two.
This goes beyond the scientific understanding of our 3rd/Reptile brain–from which all of us certainly operate in a hard-wired fashion, given our instinctual drives, reflected in self-preservation–food, sex, and aggressive self-protection and promotion.
With our fellow inhabitants of the planet whose brains operate at a more instinctual “3rd brain” level, there is no moral judgment to be made. They are what they are, from the cute little kitten torturing the hapless wounded mouse, to the lion devouring the tiny lamb. But we humans have a choice, as self-conscious, self-determining “actualizations” of reality operating in a more free and adaptable arena. We call it social and individual “morality” and it is surely culturally determined in its manifestations, but not wholly so. Not at the deep level of individual Self.
Predators are those who push, manipulate, and appropriate as much as possible for the individual and extended Self. Violence, aggression, greed, and power are their hallmarks, even if such behavior is on a micro-level. Prey are their object–as one must conquer and oppress to obtain this power. Those who are Prey of course have their own system of individual and social values, chiefly the internal ethic of “Do No Harm.” Of course all give lip service to the virtues of giving, sharing, loving, and caring–but Predators do the opposite while claiming to reflect such. Prey, however, are not weak and defenseless. They are in fact “fiercely” powerful and strong in behalf of those in their care–and I mean in an extended planetary sense.
Who has the insight to do a bit of self-classification? It is tough and requires introspection and meditation on the self and the paths we have taken with their resulting consequences.
In terms of which side “wins” or dominates, the balance is overwhelmingly in favor of the Predators. After all, there is nothing stopping them from their behavior, even if it results in untold suffering and sorrow for others, and the destruction of our planet. But I am one who holds to the simple core authentic teachings of Jesus and the GENESIA vision of Isaiah the Prophet–and I take them as “apocalyptic” and “eschatological” in the long arch of history–not magical mysteries from heaven:
Happy are you poor, you who weep, you who are hungry, you who are persecuted–yours is the kingdom of God–not in heaven but on earth. Yes, the meek shall inherit the earth!