(23RD JANUARY, 2015. BETWEEN 8–9 AM)
Another morning & I’m leaving Brighton behind again in sunrise, sailing up that electric river to the capital. Facing backwards, dreamy gaze out the window across the east on the way out. It doesn’t matter where I sit on the return; too exhausted to care and it’s dark besides, and besides I’m coming home.
Suddenly there’s the sun melting upwards, and nobody sees it nobody but I. But it’s so big and so closelooking and this is when you can look stare at it & it won’t harm you much. My palms even feel sweaty, I even feel ill, because it seems to be travelling right alongside us.
Now it’s rising like a chinese lantern and getting brighter every moment.
I see three deer look up sudden in a frosty field, startled, and I think I’m the only one saw them too.
When I took out my phone to get the sunrise I looked like a dick, but the guy sitting over saw me and then he saw it too so at least there was that.
By the time we arrive it will be just an ordinary sun. Just another day.
I did not choose to become a commuter. Two hours there, two hours back, it’s not ideal. Halfway through November last year my company was bought up by a larger publishing group, and my colleagues and I relocated to London. We were given a choice stay or go, which is a not much of a choice for an apprentice editor in an employment-hungry field of work. Still there was a choice.
We are told and likely we believe that we have more choice than ever before in history, and this isn’t untrue. There are more possibilities open to us all now, for sure; more places to go, more things to buy, more ways to live one’s life. Yet there are matters in which we have as little choice as ever. To be born, to die, these were never choices we were free to make, and everything in between often feels like a part of the same river, which we are swept along in, and like we have no control over our lives. When we are reduced to an asset, for example, a part of a company like a mac or a publisher’s backlist, to be bought – the decisions we had made beforehand that brought us to the point we were at, simply washed away like in the grand scheme of things they don’t matter and too bad if you were happy and too bad if you made such choices because that was what you wanted; after all you are lucky just to have the job still!
This is just an example, and when you are feeling overwhelmed with all the things you could be, that life should be, it’s the same.
But none of this is strictly true. Aside from things that happen to us, like birth and death, it’s not that we don’t have a choice it’s that we feel that we don’t. This is where you might need to stop. And step right. Oh literally and all.
Let me explain this. Somewhere between accident and design, I happened to be reading Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea around the time that my company was bought. I never enormously got on with JP’s philosophy when I studied at university, and although I enjoyed his literature (particularly his Roads to Freedom triology, which I read out of order beginning with The Reprieve, and I still haven’t read the first one yet. I didn’t even finish Nausea.) I clearly just didn’t get it. It’s the same with many books; it’s not them it’s you – but they’ll often find you when you’re ready (for example, I felt Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway found me at exactly the right moment). So with Nausea: the tale of a man writing a book in a provincial French town who finds himself experiencing phenomenological attacks wherein a thing – a pebble, it begins with – overwhelms him simply with the surging assertion of its existence.
Existence is a horrible thing to Antonin Roquentin, Nausea’s protagonist. Extistence, the noun, something that happens to you, bears down with a terrible chaotic contingency; everything is absurd. It leaves him stranded longing for meaning, for his life to be a story as might be M. de Rollebon’s, the obscure historical figure of whom he is writing a biography.
‘I haven’t had any adventures. Things have happened to me, events incidents, anything you like. But not adventures. It isn’t a matter of words; I am beginning to understand. There is something I longed for more than all the rest – without realizing it properly. It wasn’t love, heaven forbid, nor glory, nor wealth. It was… anyway, I had imagined that at certain moments my life could take on a rare and precious quality.’
He waits for meaning or purpose to come. But someway through the novel he loses faith even in his biography, even in M. de Rollebon. The only time he finds a spark of life is certain times when a sense of potential comes on him and he feels himself existing at last.
‘Nothing has changed and yet everything exists in a different way. I can’t describe it; it’s like the Nausea and yet it’s just the opposite: at last an adventure is happening to me and when I question myself I see that it happens that I am myself and that I am here: it is I who am piercing the darkness, I am as happy as the hero of a novel.
‘Something is going to happen…’
He travels on with a sense of destiny, but when the way forks the weight of decision comes heavy on him, fills him with anguish for potentials lost. Adventure is still something that happens to him, and it comes on him not by his will and with nothing apparently to be reasoned. It simply comes.
Yet he begins to understand that nothing is absurd, and everything is gratuitous: ‘And I too have wanted to be. Indeed I have never wanted anything else; that’s what lay at the the bottom of my life.’ Not adventure, a thing that happens to him out of a novel, but to be; that rare and precious moment, not a moment but a movement, a verb.
In the end, when none of his illusions about who he is survive, or when, that is, the veil has fallen from the ideas he has of his life, as a story he has told himself, he finds there the freedom to choose who he is, what he wants to do.
The most famous maxim of Sartre’s philosophy is, I should think, existence precedes essence. The simplest way I believe I can summarise this is to say, we may believe certain things about ourselves, like that we are shy, or that we are no good at music, or that we are selfish, &c., but in fact we can behave in ways that completely contradict these ideas. It takes a choice, an effort, an act, to become what we are.
It is the doing the living the contingent the verb that’s primary in Sartre’s philosophy; the forward-looking potential instead of nature instead of what’s set instead of status quo ‘that’s how things are’ giving up giving in, and that’s exciting. It’s central to Sartre’s notion of freedom, the possibility of deciding who you, as an individual, are – ‘are’ which is a fluid thing. You are not what you are but where you are being I mean where you’re going, what you are doing.
For Sartre ‘I’ is not the static ego, a fundamental essence to be reflected upon, but an ‘ideal synthetic object, comparable to a melody, whose unity is that of a continuing pattern of acts, states, and utterances’ (Phyllis Sutton Morris, ‘Sartre on the Transcendence of the Ego’) constantly moving relationship between a self that is the accumulation of experiences and history, the self that entails the physical processes of experience (i.e. perception), and the self that projects; the ‘projects’ we undertake, the idea of who we are and want to be and so on. These three interpret and shape each other. Being is not flotsam on the ocean; it is a ship attempting to navigate a course.
The simple act of doing something absurd, or anything; deciding to do and doing, rather than peoceeding on automatic, letting existence happen to you, is strangely comforting. In times of crisis stepping right can remind you of how much power you actually do have. It also reminds you that true decisions take effort. In order to do something that you want to do, you have to consider, focus your attention on it, and move accordingly. I know a lot of people who say they’d like to write, but all you have to do is start, get a notebook, and write. It’s easy and it’s hard.
I made my choice to work in London, live in Brighton, commute and use my time more wisely than ever, and all of this is OK. I feel like Roquentin at the end of Nausea.