We are all fanatics—stark raving mad—after a fashion. Whether in the name of God, Humanity, Love, or any other ideal. Even those walking euphemisms for atheism, secular humanists, have faith in humanity. This faith might be thought of as a frame. Breaking through these frames that, well, frame our existence is a violent, life-shattering endeavor. But it is also an existential crisis you can be proud of. It is saying farewell to that which you once lovingly held up as Truth. Many refer to this experience as suddenly feeling “alone in the world,” to which the Spanish idiom comes to mind as a rebuttal: “Es mejor estar solo que mal acompañado.” Roughly translated: “It’s better to be alone than in bad company.” Others might argue that this solipsistic gesture is for the egoist and the self-entitled, but I believe it is a move towards freedom.
If you’ve ever seen Slavoj Žižek’s visual polemic The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, you’ll remember his appraisal of the 1988 film They Live. The protagonist, aptly surnamed “Nada,” chances upon a pair of very special sunglasses that allow him to see the ideological frames that dictate our lives. Is it telling that he discovers them in an abandoned church?
In your daily amblings, you might have noticed hordes of hipsters wearing one of the film’s emblems, “OBEY,” on everything from shirts to hats. Unfortunately, the irony might indeed be lost on them that their consumerism feeds into the film’s very critique: we are controlled by the ideological markers of our society, the most prominent of which is capitalism. This is expressly symbolized when the following words glare at you from the face of a dollar bill: “I AM YOUR GOD.”
I should take a moment here to mention the friend’s dissertation chapter that prompted these thoughts. Check him out at joaquinpedroso.com. Said scholar cites R.W.K. Paterson, who in turn cites Max Stirner in saying the following: “If the idea of ‘God’ is the idea of a unifying principle which transforms our centrifugal experiences into a coherent and significant whole, then the atheist’s denial of God is a denial of the possibility of any such ideal unity.”
The theological is such a tough frame to break through, but once you do, you’re free. What about a non-interventionist god? A movement, a force, without any direction, without any intention. How does conception of a deity frame our conception of self? Characterizing god with human qualities springs from a desire to characterize ourselves. If a vengeful god requires guilt and contrition, then does it follow that a forgiving god generates hedonism? Stirner might want us to “reject the guiding ideas that…underlie our understandings of ourselves,” (qtd. in Pedroso 11) but is this really tenable? Even if we could, like Nada, put on the ideology-blasting shades, would that change anything? We might (in dialogue and behavior) be able to recognize and “reject” ideology, thereby annihilating all sense of self, but it’s all a ruse. It’s like inadmissible evidence in court—once it’s presented, you can’t really ever erase it from your memory. Memories might very well be the blessing and the bane of our lives, depending on how you choose to look at it. Indeed, even the question of choice is up for debate. How many memories would we gladly expunge, if only we could? To what extent can someone choose to remember or forget? Unless you’ve sustained brain trauma or engaged in some heavy psychotropic substances, you cannot simply choose to forget. The best you can hope for is to choose to ignore—with varying degrees of success.
My friend continues by invoking Nietzsche—that wonderful skeptic of all that is holy. For him, Ideological Man must join Ideological God in mutual death. But then, even the idea of death is permeated with an expectation of mourning, of continued re-visiting. Admittedly, this is another social frame speaking. Must that die too? How can we condemn to death that which embalms our lives with a smidgen of hope? It takes the bravest to do so.
Nietzsche explains why we engage in functional lies thus:
We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live – by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith no one could endure living! But that does not prove them. Life is not an argument; the conditions of life might include error (qtd. in Pedroso 22).
Dualisms act as the bulwark of our collective identity. To define something in opposition to another gives us a sense of security. And yet, the current Pope’s suggestion that science and religion can exist in harmony is only radical at first glance. The truth is, Science and Metaphysics go hand in hand, since people are compelled to fill in the gaps left by science with the divine. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
Why do people feel compelled to close the gaps? To go against what Keats described as “negative capability,” or being comfortably within uncertainty. What’s so great about certainty anyway? Why are questions (like these) so irritating?
As a nod to the ubiquity of Derrida in my life, we cannot escape our dichotomies because we think via language. The extra-linguistic should be our aim, but systematically tapping into it would defeat the purpose. It should be an organic encounter—unplanned and fleeting. This type of encounter sacrifices efficiency though, another divinity in itself. The balmy conviction that comes from thinking in dualisms is particularly suited to bitter maturity. Children don’t suffer from this. Only the mind of a child can contend with an infinite horizon of possibility. We may also take a page from Fitzgerald, who imbued his fictional Gatsby with a mind that could “romp like the mind of God.”
But alas! We cannot all be like Gatsby. In any case, look how he ended up. A caution against dreaming?