Monday, January 7, 2008

Into the Wild, Kierkegaard, and the Herd

The aesthetic life in its radical form (e.g. Chris McCandless) seems to be unconsciously based on the following syllogism:

1. Most men lead meaningless, desperate lives.

2. Most men lead a life that conforms to cultural and societal norms: Getting a job, buying a house, raising a family, etc.

3. Therefore, conformity to cultural norms leads to meaninglessness and despair.

4. Furthermore, the discovery of meaning and truth can be done only in opposition to or at least outside cultural norms.

Now as a matter of logic, 3 and 4 obviously do not follow from 1 and 2. I am sure there is a Latin phrase that captures the fallacy, but I don’t know what it is. In any case, the syllogism leads to a concern in the aesthetic man to separate himself from the “herd” of humanity. Since the circumstances of most men lead to meaninglessness and despair, rejection of those circumstances through a radical lifestyle seems to offer the chance of discovering meaning and truth. This adds a further qualification to the external circumstances for which the aesthetic man seeks: They must not only be radical and dangerous but novel. To the extent that they have been experienced before by someone else, they “lose” their power to confer transcendence. Thus the author of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, relates his own dangerous adventures in mountain climbing, where it is clear that a key component of his adventures was the novelty of the mountain-climbing routes he attempted. Similarly, the wine-taster or opera-lover will not be satisfied with a product that the mass of humanity might enjoy; critical to the experience of transcendence is the exclusivity of it.

Consider Chris McCandless and his bus in the following thought experiment. Suppose he made it out of his Alaskan adventure alive, then discovered from the locals that his adventure was nothing new and that young men had been periodically living “in the wild” in the bus for years. Would the “transcendence” of this experience suddenly evaporate? Would he feel the need to seek out some yet more obscure and dangerous adventure? I suspect so, and this reveals the fallacy behind the radical-lifestyle aesthete’s claim to being unique and unconditioned by society. The difference between the radical-lifestyle aesthete and the boring bourgeoisie is that the latter defines himself through a positive relationship to society, while the former defines himself through a negative relationship to it. But both nonetheless take their cue from society, just in different directions.

Kierkegaard teaches us that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. The man who is truly independent of society neither loves it nor hates it; he is indifferent to it. It doesn’t matter to him whether the lives of none, some or all of the rest of humanity are indistinguishable from his own in external circumstances. He knows that what counts is the inward aspect of his experience, not the outward, empirically visible aspect. This is Kierkegaard’s man in the ethical stage of existence…

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