Friday, February 18, 2011

The Foresight of One Gabriel Marcel

Recently (through a chain of circumstances that is probably completely irrelevant to anyone reading this blog) I found myself embarked upon a first reading of Homo Viator, the large, wordy, and occasionally weighty tome of the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel. (I believe, having gotten perhaps a third of the way through, that he deserves the name "existentialist," his own protests to the contrary not withstanding.) I call this a first reading, and it has been worth while; but I find myself rather hoping against ever having to perform a second: existentialism is neither psychologically nor philosophically appealing. It also seems to me that with Marcel, as with Kierkegaard and Pascal, this ceding to the enemy of huge territories at the start—this refusal to fight for the premises upon which older western philosophies were based—is a rhetorical and tactical mistake of the first order.

But I come not to bury Marcel, but to praise him—praise him in a limited way, but praise him nonetheless. For one thing, his observations upon modern society (many of the talks and essays in Homo Viator were written under the Vichy government of the 1940s) are so remarkably apt that they call up Chesterton and C.S. Lewis again and again. Though none of them can quite (to this Aristotelian die-hard) make up for his Cartesian attitude towards human consciousness, they paint the society Marcel inhabited—the society whose fruits we are living with today—with remarkable, powerful accuracy. There is his critique of the dehumanizing tendencies involved in the wholesale embrace of technology—Tolkien, anyone, and the destruction of the Shire? There is also the distributism of Marcel:

We must make ourselves aware of the primitive us, this archetypal and privileged us which is only normally realized in family life. This us is in general inseparable from a home of our own. It is certainly not by chance if all the forces which have been working towards the destruction of the family house have at the same time been preparing for the overthrow of the family itself.

Then there is the Lewisian psychology of Marcel (think of Till We Have Faces, and also The Four Loves):

"Idolatry," Gustave Thibon says very strongly, "is only a projection of individualism; it wears the mask of love but knows nothing of love. For it is not enough to love (everybody loves somebody or something); we have to know whether the beings and things we love are for us doors leading to the world and to God, or mirrors which send us back upon ourselves."

Or, speaking with all of three of those writers and many another on freedom versus fidelity:

We are too inclined to consider [fidelity] as a mere safeguard, an inward resolution which purposes simply to preserve the existing order. But in reality the truest fidelity is creative.

What struck me most forcefully of all, however, was Marcel's critique of the sexual ethics of his day, when family planning and divorce were already ceasing to be unusual. Chesterton in one of his stories had a character complain of the "Bright Young Things" and their "jazzing and joy-riding" which the older folks of the era did not "particularly enjoy." Chesterton's own almost caustic comment, placed in the mouth of Father Brown, was that "[t]he Bright Young Things don’t enjoy it . . . That is the real tragedy." Marcel made the same sort of criticism when he described his "Malthusian couple" of World War II era France. They

go to the cinema twice a week and treat themselves to an expensive meal every Sunday at Pointoise or at the Bourgival [and they] can no doubt claim that they love life, and it is precisely in order not to spoil it for themselves that they take such care, and if necessary efface the consequences of their amorous frolics without a scruple. . . . It would be possible to say that they nursed in the depths of their being, and stored up for the time to come, the pretension of acquiring life as one puts electricity or central heating into a house. Life really seems to them like an element to be used in order to obtain a few patent satisfactions, without which the world would be nothing but a prison.

And again, and perhaps more ominously, Marcel sees the "ever more numerous" people

whose existence coagulates [What a verb!] round a few satisfactions which from outside seem almost incredibly petty: the daily bridge party, the football match, some recreation connected either with love or food. They would not miss these pleasures for anything in the world. [His italics.] If for some reason or another they have to do without them, existence itself becomes a desert, a blank night of gloom. There is, of course, the most direct relation between the exaggerated value which is given to them and the insipidity which characterizes the general substance of life—an insipidity which can in an instant become nauseating.

Hardly happy thoughts, those. But as I read them this morning in the course of my daily commute, I was comforted by the consideration that I and most of my friends and even many of my coworkers live a life more examined, fuller, and happier than that. Marcel is, like most existentialists, a bit of a grouch; and at the time of writing those words he was already an old man of 53.

I got out at the station, and found myself walking in the great swarm of people that one always finds when a train or a bus lets out—whistling hopefully under my breath, and making cheery calculations as to how many seconds it would be before I escaped into the open. Then I saw it.

It was a large advertisement, the sort one finds everywhere in cities, especially at those hubs through which commuters have to pass. The picture was not particularly bad—not as offensive as others I've seen—but the words arrested me and almost stopped me in my tracks. "Life feels better with a condom."

Life feels better? For a brief moment, I felt like an existentialist. For nearly the first time in my life I knew how it felt to be one of those people who create graffiti, who protest at political rallies, who engage in civil disobedience. (Life indeed! one could almost hear Marcel grumbling.) It was not just the fact of the ad—the fact that it had been put up there, as if it could give offense to no one—it was the fact that it did really appear to give no offense to anyone in that throng of steadily walking people. No on, but no one whom I could see, looked up, and having looked up, looked away in disgust.

Are we used to this? My God, what has happened to us!

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