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Posts Tagged ‘meaninglessness’

I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide themes

Ecclesiastes is my second favourite book of the Old Testament, after Job. I read it something like this: (a) Existence is cyclical and meaningless; (b and throughout) but we can kind of ignore it if we live in moderation and appreciate the simple things; (c) we can handle cyclicity and meaninglessness to an extent but a lot of life exceeds this cyclicity and positively sucks; (d) after all this, there is a lot we do not know so let’s do our best to live in accordance with the one who gave it to us.

You can find nice in Ecclesiastes, especially if you read it in one sitting, as I did before writing this. But there’s also a lot of unnice. So it would be a bit irresponsible to airbrush over these unnicities for the the sake of harmonising with brighter parts of the biblical picture. The doubts Ecclesiastes so willingly endorses are not to be overcome but allowed, like Jesus, to join and suffer with us.

Existence is cyclical and meaningless

Ecclesiastes scores low on eschatology. If there is a sense of judgement (12:14), this is not the Last Judgement where God sets the world to right,¹ but an immanent judgement where God deals justice in the here and now, though this is also problematised throughout (e.g. 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2, 11)! Contrariwise, time is not heading to a roaring end but it calmly repeats itself:

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow…

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

(1:4-7, 9).

This theme dominates the first three and a half chapters. As in nature there is nothing new, so also human pursuits suffer from a lack of newness. Thus the Teacher, whom the writer implies is King Solomon (1:1), is presented as one who enjoys all the pleasures and achievements of the world yet is still dissatisfied (2:1-11). The famous poem in 3:1-8, “For everything there is a season…,” suggests that all worldly possibilities, for good or for bad (cf. 7:14), have their season and contribute to the totality which is existence. A later reflection situates the same principle of cyclicity in the individual: In the same way someone enters the world naked (i.e. with nothing), so they leave it (5:15).

Comprehending and transcending the totality

Not everyone experiences existence as meaningless, and I doubt that anyone who does experience it as meaningless would do so consistently. I understand the Teacher’s experience of meaninglessness to be related to cyclicity and totality as mentioned above. Firstly, existence is meaningless because instead of heading towards a telos, a goal, it reproduces itself in a cycle. Secondly, this reproduction is a result of its having limited possibilities. The Teacher experiences existence as a bounded totality outside of which there is nothing. Inside the totality there only has been, is, and will be what is already there. There is nothing new. Those who experience existence as meaningful are those who remain within in it. Conversely, through reflection the Teacher transcends the totality, no longer viewing it as something of which he is a part but stepping out of it and viewing it from the outside. And outside of being their is nothingness. In fact, through reflection he is straddled between the something of which he remains a part and the nothing beyond the totality which he comprehends. This reflection is an inevitable consequence of wisdom:

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

(1:16-18).

This I understand to be the logic behind the continual appeals to everyday distraction:  “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25; and many similar conclusions throughout!). Outside existence is nothingness; let us then be distracted with an excess of somethingness! This is also the logic of the song posted above, Waitin’ Around to Die. We know death and nothingness are at the door, but for fear of boredom or despair let us grasp at and be distracted by this present moment.

The beyond within the totality

Whereas both the Teacher and the singer see the nothingness and run from it to distraction because at least something is preferable to nothing, others see the nothing and prefer it to their unbearable something. This is definitely the case with Job. Rather than being threatened by the same, the cyclicity, the totality, he is threatened by the different, the new, the particular. The new of perverse suffering ruptures his otherwise contented life. He desires that he was never born. He seeks to retroactively annul the day of his birth because its somethingness disrupts the peace of nothingness:

Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.

(Job 3:3-10, though see whole chapter).²

On seeing the oppressed living, the Teacher echoes Job’s desires (4:1-3). Yet elsewhere he claims that life is to be preferred to death (6:3-5; 9:4-6). Those who desire to remain living either have not experienced great suffering or prefer the something over the nothing, perhaps just a result of blissful ignorance: “They will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joys of their hearts” (5:20).

The new of suffering arises within the totality yet the individual experiences it outside of the totality. This is because the suffering is so excessive that the individual cannot arrive at it by way of all the possibilities within the totality. Great suffering is something new, that which subverts the totality from the inside and in so doing transcends it. Though I have little to say about it, love may also arise within existence as a newness, but with the opposite effect. Instead of directing the individual to nothingness, their whole existence is overwhelmed with colour, so much so that all mundanities, hitherto the exhausted possibilities of the totality, also take on a new existence, open toward the future for whatever good will come. The individual can now faithfully say that something is better than nothing.³

The beyond within and beyond the totality

Though the transcendent may arise within the totality, there is yet an even greater transcendence both within and beyond the totality. The Teacher notes God’s relation to the totality: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him” (3:15). Existence is complete and subject to God. Beyond it there is not nothingness but the God who birthed it, leading to worship. He later revisits the same distinction of creation and Creator: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). If we attempt to include God in our system, our comprehension of the totality, he disappears. It is not God we include. God is not subject to anything outside of God. Finally, with reference to God, the whole idea of a totality breaks down because there is no totality which can include God; rather, God includes the totality. Beyond the totality is not something comprehensible but mystery:

When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

(8:16-17).

Perhaps, too, the Teacher would have understood life differently if he studied eschatology. Though now it appears that existence reproduces itself, through the coming of Jesus and the Spirit the infinite has entered into the finite. No longer is the finite many-things possible but only the immeasurable all-things. And these are good things. “[T]he blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). Ahead of the resurrection of all people, Jesus has been raised and the Kingdom is here. God is at work through the Spirit to reconcile the world to him. The cyclicity of history has been punctured thus with something itself could not produce and now it heads to its fulfillment when all things will be made new.

These are no doubt beautiful events which I am routinely reinspired by. To what extent does the beyond and mystery of God add meaning where there is none? If we are exposed to this excess of meaning can we still experience meaninglessness? Will there be occasion for experiencing meaninglessness in the new heavens and new earth? So the Teacher persists in his questions. This book is in our canon. Take and read!

* * *

¹This is evident in the lack of eschatological reflection on death (e.g. 3:19-21; 9:1-2). However, if the voice in 12:14 is different from the Teacher introduced in 1:1 (see 12:8-9) then it may refer to the Last Judgement. Regardless, a sense of eschatological judgement would still be missing from the words of the Teacher (1:1-12:8).

²Obviously because Job was a righteous man his prayers were answered. He was born February 30.

³This is not to say that love is an easily attainable answer to life’s lack of meaning. Nor would love not be difficult when the individuals arrived at it. Rather, it is capable of providing bursts of meaning to the otherwise mundane.

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Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

* * *

I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.

The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).

When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²

This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:

“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”

Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and  in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground

Just on the side, I looked up 'Aphrodite' on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was 'Aphrodite with clothes on.'

Just on the side, I looked up ‘Aphrodite’ on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was ‘Aphrodite with clothes on.’

Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.

* * *

¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.

²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

* * *

In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

* * *

¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.

* * *

I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:

Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.

(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).

And:

This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.

(p.153).

Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?

Peewee Herman is no fool

If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.

Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.

This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.

Carpe diem.

So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.

To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.

With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.

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¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.

²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.

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“You think that I’m strong. You’re wrong. You’re wrong” — Robbie Williams in Strong.

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Before I left my hometown of Christchurch I experienced something of a Robbie Williams renaissance in my own life. As I worked the checkouts at Fresh Choice, my ears always pricked up when one of Robbie’s classics was cycled through the delightfully plain playlist. After a little reflection I realised how much of an effect his music had had on me when I was younger. I was familiar with his song Back for Good from his earlier days in the boy band Take That. And his combined effort with Nicole Kidman on the older song Somethin’ Stupid was very cherishable. Perhaps most important was the Rock DJ, one of the highlights of my primary school music-listening days. I never stayed up late enough or always forgot — something like that — to see the video, allegedly, according to the accounts of schoolmates at the time, showing Robbie strip, taking off all his clothes, skin, muscles, etc, eventually becoming a skeleton. The primetime version always ended in his undies. I could never understand the transfixed facial expressions of the rollerblading ladies circling around Robbie… But perhaps the most important aspect of the song was the line, “If you can’t get a girl but your  best friend can it’s time to move your body”. I remember hearing the line, somehow thinking that if my nine year-old-or-so best friend at the time got a girlfriend then, according to Robbie’s rule, it would be time to move my body. Out of my three best friends at the moment, one has managed to “get a girl” so according to Robbie’s rule I’m yet under no obligation to move my body, or only under obligation to move a third of it. The careful reader will note that if two mutual best friends followed Robbie’s rule then they would remain perpetually girl-less.

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Being exposed once again to Robbie’s words as an adult, I noticed some thematic overarchings across his singles¹. The search for love, his self-confessed failings and cosmic bewilderment, among others, can be summarised in what I’d like to term ‘the weak man’, the self not as something central, boastworthy and knowledgeable, but admittedly dependent, confused and unreliable.

Millenium

At the same time as Robbie embraces the carpe diem, “We all enjoy the madness ’cause we know we’re gonna fade away”, there is an underlying sadness for the current humanity: “We’re praying it’s not too late  /’Cause we know we’re falling from grace”. Of course there is not a huge hurry to attend the first-world issues of the current humanity, but rather an acknowledgement that the issues are there and the ideal of sorting them out in the future. The value of Millenium is in its cynicism and self-deprecation: “Live for liposuction /And detox for your rent; /Overdose at Christmas /And give it up for lent”. The words are indicative of a generation searching for meaning and cataclysmically failing, periodically hopping from one extreme to the other.

Angels

I was surprised to learn that Robbie himself didn’t write this. The words are however in keeping with the purpose of this post. Although this song lends itself to the possibility of depicting an imbalanced relationship with a weak and a strong partner, it is also possible to read it as one side of a weak:weak relationship, where the Angel in the song is only an angel through her lover’s eyes; she equally depends on him for his love. In saying that, the Angel may very well have angelic qualities, therefore attracting the dependent speaker, who relies on her, looking for affirmation: “And as the feeling grows /She breathes flesh to my bones² /And when love is dead /I’m loving angels instead”.

The lyrics also allow for interpretation in a cosmic sense, where the non-physical angel is either a past/passed lover, representing the ideal, no longer attainable relationship, or an imagined/spiritually experienced angel whom the speaker looks to for hope when feeling downtrodden: “When I’m feeling weak /And my pain walks down a one way street /I look above /And I know I’ll always be blessed with love”.

Better Man

Perhaps signifying Robbie’s love for New Zealand, this song was only released in Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. The speaker tenderly acknowledges not only a need for love, shelter, security, etc, but also resolves to become a better person, possibly in relation to a past fault: “As my soul heals the shame /I will grow through this pain. /Lord I’m doing all I can /To be a better man”. The beauty of this is that speaker has clearly also been hurt by his own fault and is therefore quite defensive: “Go easy on my conscience /’Cause it’s not my fault”, which pairs nicely with his dependence and weakness expressed in the opening verses. Perhaps an appeal to Lord in the chorus represents a break from the accusations of others. The speaker has undoubtedly been hurt by his own actions, but this hurt has been made much worse by the condemnation by others arising from his own actions. Lord is therefore the last refuge, a hopeful desire for grace after being rejected by everyone else.

The speaker also expresses some naivety in resolving to become a better person, which can only be received lovingly by his listener. The bridge represents an alternative way of moving on, “Once you’ve found that lover /You’re homeward bound; /Love is all around” and “I know some have fallen /On stony ground /But love is all around”. The speaker moves away from his confession and appeal to the Cosmos, and instead hopes to find a new love, with the possibility of repeating again his past mistakes.

Feel

This is my favourite on the list. The edgy guitar, the tense video, and a more confidently weak man assaults his weakness head on with strength. The speaker explores existentialist questions in the opening verses: “Not sure I understand /This role I’ve been given” — What is my responsibility in life as a human? “I sit and talk to God /And he just laughs at my plans” — A variation of the adage, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’, represents the speaker’s cosmic bewilderment, earnestly seeking a spiritual connection and yet finding no answers. “My head speaks a language /I don’t understand” — The last straw is the unintelligible self. The speaker cannot find refuge either in the world or out of the world; now he is rejected by his very self.

Surprisingly, the speaker makes the most beautiful conclusion. Instead of doing away with himself, he aggressively confronts his meaninglessness and demands answers. He lives in spite of a world of questions and unfulfilled dreams. And he wrestles with the reality that birthed him, until it will answer him, “‘Cause I got too much life /Running through my veins /Going to waste. /And I need to feel real love /And a life ever after; /I cannot give it up”.

Before I end, I would just like to say that Robbie Williams is the man.

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¹Unfortunately all I have heard of Robbie has been on the radio, having never acquired one of his albums.

²There is a subtle hilarity in reading this as a reference to the skeleton Robbie in Rock DJ.

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