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Nihilisme en Postmodernisme

Voorkant Foley 'The age of absurdity - Why modern life makes it hard to be happy' Michael FOLEY
The age of absurdity - Why modern life makes it hard to be happy
Londen etc.: Simon & Schuster, 2010, 260 blzn.; ISBN-13: 978 18 4739 6273

[Michael Foley werd geboren in Noord-Ierland, maar leeft al het grootste deel van zijn leven in Londen, waar hij tot aan 2007 les gaf over informatietechnologie aan de University of Westminster. Tegenwoordig besteedt hij al zijn tijd aan het schrijven van fictie en non-fictie. Dit is zijn eerste non-fictie boek en het werd meteen een beststeller. Ik begrijp dat wel: het is een sympathiek boek, want het meeste wat hij schrijft is voor iedereen herkenbaar; daarnaast is het taalgebruik ervan toegankelijk en los. Vind ik het zelf een goed boek? Nee, niet echt. Ik vind dat populaire taalgebruik juist niet erg prettig: veel wat hij schrijft is niet zo logisch als op het eerste gezicht lijkt, nuances ontbreken nogal vaak. Erger is dat hij - vooral in de eerste hoofdstukken - van alles bij elkaar harkt: de ene na de andere auteur wordt genoemd, het ene na het andere citaat wordt gegeven, waardoor hij geregeld van de hak op de tak springt en van alles beweert zonder dat erg controleerbaar is hoe waar die beweringen zijn. De latere hoofdstukken zijn een stuk concreter en aangenamer om te lezen. Ik vind ook niet dat Foley de ontwikkelingen die hij schetst erg goed analyseert, het is me allemaal te oppervlakkig. Bovendien heeft het verhaal uiteindelijk de sfeer van onstuitbare achteruitgang en verlies en is er meer sprake van een heimwee naar bepaalde waarden dan van een verdedigbaar alternatief dat aan dat verlies een halt kan toeroepen of de aloude waarden in hun glorie zou kunnen herstellen. Aardig boekje, maar niet goed genoeg.]

(1) Part I - The Problems

(3) 1 - The Absurdity of Happiness

Dit hoofdstuk begint met het schilderen van - mogelijke - onvrede over allerlei zaken en stelt:

"But who, in the Western world, has not been deranged by a toxic cocktail of dissatisfaction, restlessness, desire and resentment? Who has not yearned to be younger, richer, more talented, more respected, more celebrated and, above all, more sexually attractive? Who has not felt entitled to more ... "(4)

[Hm, ik hou niet zo van dit soort generaliserende taalgebruik - mijn eerste neiging is om dan meteen 'nou, ik niet!' te roepen. Wie niet? Wie wel? Maar dat is nu net het punt, nietwaar? Dat we zouden moeten vaststellen hoeveel mensen werkelijk jonger, rijker, aantrekkelijker willen zijn. Ik denk dat een verrassend groot aantal mensen heel tevreden is met het leven dat ze leiden. Of dat een goede zaak is is weer een heel andere kwestie.]

"Of course many also become aware that demanding everything is absurd. Then the questions arise. How did such inordinate expectation come about? What is the alternative? If there is an alternative how can it be achieved? Do the best minds of past and present offer any useful advice? Is there a consensus in what they say? If so, what is it and how does it apply to living in the twenty-first century? These are the questions addressed by this book – but there are no simple answers."(4)

Wat we willen is geluk, maar dat is zo'n vage term. Foley speelt met wat begrippen als welbevinden, welzijn, maar vindt ze allemaal even vaag.

[Eigenlijk vindt ik de uitdrukking 'geluk', 'gelukkig zijn' helemaal niet zo vaag als Foley zegt. Het is niet een toestand die er voortdurend is natuurlijk. Waarom zou dat ook moeten? En misschien kun je zo'n toestand niet bewust scheppen en hij leent zich inderdaad niet erg voor analyse, al kun je heel goed weten wat je op een bepaald moment gelukkig maakt. Geen punt. En ja, er zijn gradaties in je gelukkig voelen. Maar waar het om gaat is dat we van onszelf heel goed weten wanneer we gelukkig zijn en zelfs vaak van anderen weten dat ze gelukkig zijn. We weten dus eigenlijk heel goed wat we willen wanneer we zeggen dat we gelukkig willen zijn. Alleen is wat gelukkig maakt niet voor iedereen in alle omstandigheden hetzelfde. De vraag is of er universele zaken zijn die iedereen op elk moment in alle omstandigheden gelukkig kunnen maken. ]

"So the absurdity of happiness is that it is embarrassing to discuss or even mention, impossible to define or measure, may not be achievable at all – or, at best, only intermittently and unconsciously – and may even turn into its opposite if directly pursued, but that it frequently turns up unexpectedly in the course of pursuing something else. There is no tease more infuriating."(8)

[Waarom is die situatie 'infuriating'? Dit klinkt niet als het verhaal van iemand die weet wat aanvaarding is, meer als het verhaal van iemand die meent dat alles te controleren en te sturen is. Waarom moet geluk te maken zijn? Ik denk dat de meeste mensen niet de neiging hebben om te denken dat je geluk kunt maken of afdwingen en heel goed weten dat geluk iets is wat je overkomt. Dat de marketingafdelingen van allerlei bedrijven mensen proberen aan te praten dat je geluk kunt kopen betkent nog niet dat mensen werkelijk denken dat dat mogelijk is.]

"So the approach in this book is to trawl philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience for common ideas on fulfilment, then to investigate how easy or difficult it might be to apply such strategies in contemporary life and finally to apply them to areas of near-universal concern."(12-13)

(15) Part II - The Sources

(17) 2 - The Ad and the Id

"Everything about a shopping mall is designed to encourage the feeling that not to want anything would be atrociously churlish."(18)

[Nou, dan kom je daar toch niet? Of anders: dat negeer je dan toch gewoon?]

"So the ad woos the id in the traditional way – by impressing, flattering and stimulating."(19)

[Leuke woordspelinkjes, hoor, maar advertenties hebben dat soort invloed alleen maar volgens de mensen die ze maken. Advertenties en marketingmensen liegen, dus daar luister je niet naar, zo simpel is het. Wie gelooft er nu wat er in advertenties beweert wordt? Je 'id' is niet de baas, jij bent de baas wanneer je je hersens maar wilt gebruiken.]

Over het boeddhisme:

"As a consequence there is no permanent self to attack or repress. The greed, the cravings and lusts, are as fleeting as everything else and will simply wither away in the bright light of intense and prolonged scrutiny. To recognize them for what they are makes them impossible to indulge. So Buddha did not denounce vice but dismissed it as ‘unskilful’ behaviour. Buddhism has none of the self-loathing so common in Christianity, the hatred and fear of the body and frenzied mortification of the flesh."(23-24)

"This refusal to construct a Great Unified Theory of Everything was profoundly wise. For, if there is no dogma, there can be no doctrinal disputes, no heresies, no schisms – and so no inquisitions, no torturing, no burning at the stake. The two main Buddhist sects, the Theravada and Mahayana, have always coexisted in harmony – compare and contrast with the history of Catholicism and Protestantism. And in Buddhism there are no supernatural interventions, no gods, no miracles, no divine revelation, no divine grace or divine incarnation. So there is no need for faith. In fact, Buddha expressly rejected the idea of faith as an abdication of personal responsibility – no one should believe anything just because someone else says so. Each individual must work out a personal solution.
It is ironic that Christianity, the religion of the rational West, is, in fact, completely irrational, inconsistent and even absurd, whereas Buddhism, the religion of the mystical East, is completely rational, consistent and even practical – not a creed requiring a leap of faith into absurdity, but a method that can be shown to work. And it is even more ironic that the attractive features of Buddhism make it unattractive to the modern age; while the other major religions are all gaining believers, Buddhism is losing ground.
Christian doctrine blamed the flaw in man on original sin, which could be redeemed only by the mysterious workings of divine grace. For over a thousand years this ruled out any investigation of the self or belief in terrestrial fulfilment. It was not until the Enlightenment that thinkers gave the individual hope and scope."(24-25)

[Goede uitwerking van het boeddhisme en terechte kritiek op het christendom. ]

(31) 3 - The Righteousness of Entitlement and the Glamour of Potential

Het linkse denken met zijn nadruk op rechtvaardigheid en de rechten van de mens heeft geleid tot een 'culture of entitlement, attention-seeking and complaint'(32). Mensen menen overal recht op te hebben en willen individuele aandacht of aandacht voor hun groep.

[Dat is erg ongenuanceerd. Het linkse denken heeft mensen een welvaartstaat gegeven waarin solidariteit belangrijk gevonden werd. Het probleem is natuurlijk hoe ver je daar mee moet gaan en in hoeverre je mensen moet blijven aanspreken op hun eigen verantwoordelijkheid, de balans tussen zorg voor jezelf en zorg voor anderen. Maar ik denk niet dat dat linkse denken heeft geleid tot het verwende gedrag dat Foley hier beschrijft. Ik zou gemakkelijk kunnen verdedigen dat die infantilisering en het idee dat je overal recht op hebt voortkomen uit het (neo-)liberale gedachtengoed dat ons zegt dat we zo vrij zijn zonder er bij te zeggen dat dat gepaard gaat met een grote verantwoordelijkheid voor anderen.]

"Many of these contemporary trends are interrelated. The infantile tendency is surely a reaction to the age of liberation. It is a common mistake to assume that liberation is in itself enough for fulfilment, that everything will be fine if one can just escape the soul-destroying job, oppressive relationship, dreary town. But it turns out that freedom does not lead automatically to fulfilment. Instead, freedom leads to unremitting hard work. The old traditions may have been oppressive but living without them is uncertain, complicated, confusing and stressful. Having to think every decision through from first principles is exhausting. The potential of infinite opportunity becomes the perplexity of infinite choice. And so to the backlash – a deep yearning to act from impulse rather than deliberation, to follow emotion rather than reason, to prefer anything certain, simple, easy and passive. The arduous responsibility of being an adult induces a deep nostalgia for the luxury of basking in unconditional love, eating, drinking, filling a nappy and dozing off to a lullaby."(38-39)

"The new infantilism has contributed to the growing sense of self-importance and entitlement, the diminishing sense of self-awareness and obligation and the increasing recourse to resentment and outrage. Big Baby is frequently red in the face."(39)

"All these developments have combined to produce a shift in values – favouring change over stability, potential over achievement, anticipation over appreciation, collaboration over individuality, opportunism over loyalty, transaction over relationship, infantilism over maturity, passivity over engagement, eloping over coping, entitlement over obligation, outwardness over inwardness and cheerfulness over concern.
Seduced from the left by the righteousness of entitlement and from the right by the glamour of potential, it is easy to believe that fulfilment is not only a basic right but thoroughly deserved, and that attaining it requires no more thought, effort or patience than an escalator ride to the next level of the shopping centre."(40-41)

"The problem, they [Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius - GdG] argued, is not that affluence is bad in itself but that it encourages character defects such as self-importance, contempt, resentment, impatience, restlessness, and, worst of all, desire for yet more wealth. They understood all too well the madness that makes too much never enough."(43)

[Dit hoofdstuk vind ik nogal oppervlakkig. Psychologie en gedrag koppelen aan eeb bepaalde maatschappelijke ideologie is niet zo simpel als hier gesuggereerd wordt.]

(49) 4 - The Old Self and the New Science

Over de zelfhulpindustrie met zijn positieve vrolijke boodschap die suggereert dat je alles kunt bereiken wat je wilt en kunt worden wie je maar wilt. Het vermogen van mensen om zichzelf iets wijs te maken is enorm en gaat gepaard met een buitengewoon vermogen om zich overal uit te kletsen en informatie te negeren die die zelfillusies zouden ondermijnen resp. informatie te accepteren die die zelfillusies bevestigt.

"But, if anything can be justified, what hope is there for self-knowledge and self-transformation? The psychologists point out that delusion, justification and righteousness are successful because they operate below consciousness. Once exposed to awareness they lose most of their power. This is, of course, the understanding advocated by Buddha, Spinoza and Freud."(56-57)

(64) 5 - The Quest and the Grail

[Foley heeft het regelmatig over waarden en komt nu - na die eedrdere bespreking van religieuze en niet-religieuze ideologieën - uit op een aantal waarden die behoorlijk universeel zijn.]

"The American psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman examined many cultures and traditions to find the virtues believed to be essential for living well. Their aim was to find a consensus; the virtues had to be universally accepted. This proved impossible – but the following six kept turning up: justice, humaneness, temperance, wisdom, courage and transcendence. The list is short but so predictable that many readers will have gone to sleep before reaching the only mild surprise – transcendence."(67)

"There is no guarantee of finding common ground but it is exciting when original thinkers in widely different times, cultures and specialisms come up with the same strategies. When several guidebooks recommend the same restaurant, that’s where you go to lunch.
The good news is that there are indeed such strategies. The bad news is that all of them are discouraged by contemporary Western culture. The great achievement of the age has been to make fulfilment seem never easier, while actually making it never more difficult.
Here are the concepts that keep turning up in philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience: personal responsibility, autonomy, detachment, understanding, mindfulness, transcendence, acceptance of difficulty, ceaseless striving and constant awareness of mortality."(68)

[Deze concepten verantwoordelijkheidsgevoel, zelfstandigheid, onthechtheid, begrip, prudentie / aandacht, transcendentie, het aanvaarden van moeite, onophoudelijk streven, en het besef van onze sterfelijkheid worden verderop deels gebruikt om de rest van het boek aan op te hangen.]

"There is a rich and unbroken tradition of quest literature running from The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1000 BCE to The Wizard of Oz in the twentieth century. The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, has shown how the quest saga has been important in every period and culture and always has the same basic structure, though local details may vary. Each saga begins with a hero receiving a call to adventure which makes him abandon his familiar, safe environment to venture into the dangerous unknown. There, he undergoes a series of tests and trials, negotiates many difficulties and slays many monsters. As a reward he wins a magical prize – a Golden Fleece, a princess, holy water, a sacred flame or an elixir of eternal life. Finally he brings the prize back from the kingdom of dread to redeem his community."(70)

(75) Part III - The Strategies

[In de hoofdstukken die nu volgen wordt een verlies beschreven, zaken die Foley is gaan missen. Hij klinkt in zijn uitwerking een beetje als iemand die vindt dat vroeger alles beter was, maar dat is bedrieglijk, dat is alleen maar zo omdat de nadruk soms te veel op het verlies komt te liggen in plaats van op een standpunt dat zegt hoe het dan moet zijn. Maar dat laatste ontbreekt niet. Ik denk dat Foley heel aardig weergeeft hoe een aantal ontwikkelingen verlopen.]

(77) 6 - The Undermining of Responsibility

Het wegzetten van ongewenst menselijk gedrag als een stoornis door psychiaters en de farmaceutische industrie e.d. ondermijnt de verantwoordelijkheid van mensen voor hun eigen gedrag. Ze hoeven niets meer aan hun ongewenste gedrag te doen, wan dat komt voort uit een stoornis, ze kunnen het niet helpen. Aldus Foley.

"But the Disorder phenomenon is only one consequence of a contemporary desire to evade personal responsibility. No one is prepared to accept blame any more. Instead, everyone wants to be a victim – and frequently succeeds, even in the most unpromising circumstances."(78)

"When was the last time anyone said, ‘It’s my fault? Already it seems like centuries since Sartre declared, ‘Man is fully responsible for his nature and his choices.’ Now the opposite is true. Man is responsible neither for nature nor choices.
How has this come about? The concept of personal responsibility – that we can and should decide our own destinies – is at the heart of modern society and considered axiomatic by most of its citizens. Yet this concept is now being steadily undermined, from both above and below, from both high and low culture – from scientists, philosophers and writers denying free will and from the age of entitlement denying obligation."(79)

Verder van alles over genetica, neurowetenschap, evolutionaire psychologie, en wat dies meer zij.

"Parallel to the refusals of responsibility are the claims to deserve. Everyone now deserves a holiday (meaning not just a break but a trip abroad to a desirable location); students invariably deserve higher grades (regardless of assessment criteria, the argument is always, ‘but I spent x hours on this’); employees deserve promotion (even when they meet none of the requirements for the new level); artistes deserve more recognition (everything written deserves to be published, everything painted deserves to be exhibited, every performer deserves a stage); lovers deserve a dream partner next time (not despite but because of ‘all the past failures they themselves probably caused but for which they accept no responsibility). Failure is an obsolete concept."(87)

"Another consequence of entitlement is the contemporary worship of ‘diversity’ and the, often concomitant, belief that the demands of all groups are equally valid."(88)

"Zimbardo’s [= psycholoog Philip Zimbardo die conformisme en gehoorzaamheid bestudeerde - GdG] conclusion is that group influence may be resisted by a combination of detachment (the exercise of scepticism and critical thinking), humility (willingness to admit personal limitations and mistakes), mindfulness (transforming habitual inattention into habitual awareness), autonomy (preserving independence within groups) and, above all, responsibility: ‘We become more resistant to undesirable social influence by always maintaining a sense of personal responsibility and by being willing to be held accountable for our actions.’"(92)

(94) 7 - The Assault on Detachment

"What you need is detachment, concentration, autonomy and privacy, but what the world insists upon is immersion, distraction, collaboration and company."(94)

"Anyone doing fewer than three things at once is not living to the full, failing to take advantage of the age of simultaneous multiple distractions and permanent multiple connexity – the multitasking, hyperlinked, immersive network world."(95)

"However, the serious seeker of detachment will have to embrace the Holy Trinity of Ss – Solitude, Stillness and Silence – and reject the new religion of Commotionism, which believes that the meaning of life is constant company, movement and noise. Commotion is life, repeat these new faithful; solitude, stillness and silence are death."(103)

[Dit is al zo'n oud gegeven. De informatieovervloed etc. etc. De oplossing is simpel: doe er niet of slechts beperkt aan mee, maak keuzes om de rust te bewaren. Moeten we het daar nou echt nog over hebben?]

"Already the word ‘solitude’ has an archaic ring to it, as though it were some weird ascetic practice of the Desert Fathers, like taking a vow of chastity or wearing a hair shirt. When a team of psychologists asked people to rank common activities in order of preference, spending time alone came out second last, just ahead of being interrogated by the boss. There are many possible reasons for this. Like detachment, solitude can be frightening. It may expose the insignificance, ugliness and emptiness we are trying so hard to conceal. And, within relationships, a desire for solitude may be interpreted by a needy partner as rejection or a failure to provide the constant company craved, or both, and this partner will scheme, bully and intrude to prevent the other being alone. Then there are the demands of relatives, colleagues and friends, the last two categories being increasingly significant. In the survey cited above, spending time with friends was by far the most popular activity."(103)

"Then there is stillness. ‘Teach us to sit still,’ T.S. Eliot prayed – but his prayer went unanswered. Instead the age has been increasingly dominated by the superstitions of activity and movement. Mere activity has always been worshipped, but the obsession with movement is new, driven by restlessness and facilitated by cheap transport. ‘I want to travel, ’ people say nowadays, with a solemn, mystical, faraway look. But, if you respond with, ‘Where to and what for?’ the mysticism dissolves into irritated incomprehension. For there is no burning desire to see anything in particular, merely to get going, to be on the move."(105-106)

(112) 8 - The Rejection of Difficulty and Understanding

"It is shocking and profoundly regrettable, but, apparently, sales of oranges are falling steadily because people can no longer be bothered to peel them. As soon as I read this I began buying oranges more frequently and eating them with greater pleasure. Now I peel an orange very slowly, deliberately, voluptuously, above all defiantly, as a riposte to an age that demands war without casualties, public services without taxes, rights without obligations, celebrity without achievement, sex without relationship, running shoes without running, coursework without work and sweet grapes without seeds."(112)

[Dat is wel mooi gezegd, vind ik. GFoley heeft af en toe uitspraken die de zaken echt raken. Dit is er een van.]

"Difficulty has become repugnant because it denies entitlement, disenchants potential, limits mobility and flexibility, delays gratification, distracts from distraction and demands responsibility, commitment, attention and thought."(113)

"Rational thought has been successfully discredited – and Francis Wheen, in his book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, has catalogued many of the monsters brought forth by the sleep of reason."(114)

"How have such irrationality and credulity come about? As always, there are many causes, overlapping and interacting, in both high and low culture. There is the postmodern promotion of epistemic relativism, which not only rejected reason but also truth, objectivity, meaning and even reality and fact; the age of entitlement’s demand for qualifications without the tedium of difficult study; the preference for presentation over explanation and image over content; the hatred of science, so cold, remote, inhuman, arrogant and oppressive; and the replacement of rational argument by emotion, so warm, human, humble, positive and liberating."(114-115)

"Once reason has been discredited anything goes. Truth becomes merely relative – everyone has a different version of truth and they are all equally valid. So historians began to argue that anyone’s version of events is as good as anyone else’s, and literary critics that a ‘text’ means anything a reader wants it to mean. The great advantage of these approaches is that they render unnecessary the difficult business of establishing meaning and truth."(115)

[En dat is in een notedop een perfecte kritiek op het postmodernisme. Heerlijk.]

"So face value becomes the only value, and there is no longer any awareness of anything beneath the surface. In fact, the concept of ‘beneath’, like those of difficulty and understanding, is ceasing to exist. There is no longer a beneath, there is only the surface; no longer a complex machine, only a bright interface."(119)

"This is not an argument against emotion. Without emotion there would be no possibility of happiness, compassion or love. Even rational decision-making would be impossible. But emotion must be balanced by thinking. And the negative emotions are so much more powerful than the positive that it takes a constant effort of understanding to keep them at bay."(121)

"The only alternative to difficult thought is surrendering autonomy to a higher authority. This is the attraction of fundamentalism, which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning, much of the trauma of life’s decisionmaking and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God."(124)

(129) 9 - The Atrophy of Experience

Dit hoofdstuk gaat over de devaluatie van de alledaagse ervaring van de realiteit door de nadruk op de verwachting, de potentiële mogelijkheden, de toekomst. Of anders op 'fantasy', magische werelden.

"For Kierkegaard the desire to become someone else was a symptom of the most extreme despair. And this extreme despair is a modern phenomenon. In traditional societies life was entirely determined by gender and class. There was no possibility of becoming someone else, so no one dreamed of it. But the continuing development of individual freedom has encouraged the notion that anyone can be anything. Even gender has become a matter of choice, and celebrity has now been decoupled from the tiresome prerequisites of talent and hard work. There appear to be no barriers to a more exciting and fulfilling life. And the images of such apparently fulfilling and exciting lives are everywhere."(133)

"In the modern world, an event has not really happened unless it has been photographed or filmed. This failure of primary experience means that the photograph or the film becomes the reality instead."(134)

"The society world of Proust is now as lost and remote to us as the civilization of the Incas but the narrator’s lifestyle is strikingly contemporary – networking, parties, infatuations, casual sex, capriciousness, impulse buying, celebrity worship and celebrity stalking. And the aristocrats, whose company the narrator craves, are the precise equivalent of the modern celebrity, special only by being thought special, living entirely in a bizarre, enclosed world designed to pander to their narcissism, violently glamorous from a distance and utterly tawdry at close range."(138)

"We all yearn for renewal but imagine that it may be found only in novelty – a new place, a new lover, a new job. More effective, and much cheaper, is to see the familiar with new eyes. And a few writers offer just such transfiguring eyes. They smash the crust of habit and permit us to see life anew. In the contemporary world, such crust-smashing is both more difficult and more necessary. Once there was no crust at all and most people were exposed to hunger, cold, disease and violence. Experience was unavoidably immediate and real. But now most are increasingly protected from the old dangers, and the new danger is that, as the crust becomes thicker and stronger, the life it shelters is more likely to wither and die in its shell. So seek out the crust-breakers and the eye-openers. Read authentic writers – and then begin a new job in your current post, enjoy a holiday where you actually live and, most thrillingly, plunge into a tumultuous affair with your own spouse."(139-140)

(144) 10 - The Loss of Transcendence

Als in 'kort ontsnappen aan het alledaagse bestaan', 'jezelf even verliezen' en zo verder, bijvoorbeeld in muziek en dans, in rituelen.

"And there is an equivalent indifference in high culture, caused by the neutralising effects of relativism, which makes everything equally meaningful and therefore equally meaningless."(144)

(159) Part IV - The Applications

(161) 11 - The Absurdity of Work

Over werk als religie met bijbehorende rituelen, heidagen, en dogma's (verandering om de verandering, bijvoorbeeld).

"Once people worked in order to live; now working is living. As with shopping and travel and communication, the means has become the end. Your job is your identity and status, your life. Long gone is the notion of work as a tedious necessity that supports the true life. Now everyone wants a job. Kings, presidents, assassins, priests, poets and prostitutes – all claim to be merely workers getting on with the job. And so the religion of work grows in confidence. How laughable the twentieth-century predictions that technology would permit everyone lives of leisure – and the fears that we would be unable to occupy adequately all this free time (Hannah Arendt agonized about the future of a society of workers deprived of work). How shocking to think that, in the Middle Ages, people worked only for part of the week and half the year, whereas 70-hour weeks with few holidays are now common in major US and UK corporations. As Erich Fromm remarked, ‘There is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely for the one purpose: work.’ "(162)

"Certainly the idea of a secluded office is obsolete. Now there is nowhere to be alone and out of sight, nowhere to protect and nurture the secret self, nowhere to ruminate. Indeed, rumination has become so alien to the workplace that a ruminant expression is likely to be interpreted as a symptom not of pleasure but grief. Such detachment is so unusual and disconcerting that colleagues can explain it only as a consequence of grievous affliction."(165)

"Surviving work requires hypocrisy. Many thinkers have attacked this vice – and none more consistently and vehemently than Christ. But Christ never had to earn a living or endure colleagues (disciples are very different). Honesty at work is a dangerous luxury. It would be foolish to reveal one’s true feelings – and even more foolish to become involved in the great eruptions, the disputes and feuds and simmering animosities. It is useful to remember the Stoics on the futility of anger and especially Seneca who wrote extensively on the subject. Quarrelling is a form of emotional involvement that establishes a relationship – and there should rarely be a genuine relationship at work. But an attitude of surly superiority is just as bad – professionally untenable, damaging to the character and far too revealing. The secret of workplace detachment is to understand your colleagues while preventing them from understanding you. One technique is to use all the cheerful conventions but with an elaborate, ironic courtesy so that you are neither breaking the rules nor playing by them. This creates useful uncertainty. What is his game?"(172)

(182) 12 - The Absurdity of Love

"But, even by candlelight, romance is not easy.
Indeed, so numerous and varied are the illusions, difficulties, demands, resentments, burdens and strains that beset contemporary relationships that the wonder is not that so many fail but that any survive at all. Yet never have so many sought relationships so urgently or entered into them with such high expectations. For, as the actual relationships have become more like short-term business transactions, the belief in eternal love as an essential prerequisite has grown stronger. In the romantic 1960s 40 per cent of women were willing to accept marriage without love but, by the hard-headed, money-obsessed 1980s, only 15 per cent would countenance loveless financial security. There seems to be a weird and catastrophic inverse effect – the less tolerant the practice, the more demanding the theory. The lovers expect more but are willing to give less. Yet the inevitable disasters rarely chasten these romantics."(184)

"This belief that it is only a matter of finding the right person is further encouraged by the refusal of personal responsibility, the tendency to look outward in demand rather than inward in obligation. It is up to the other to provide love so, when the relationship breaks down, it must be the fault of the other. This was not the right one after all and the solution is to resume the search with greater urgency. It is astonishing how those with a string of failed relationships rarely accept that they themselves must be at least part of the problem."(185)

"And there is the problem that the initial phase of the relationship is always more exciting, especially in an age fond of fantasy and bewitched by the glamour of potential. In fact the early and later stages are so different that they deserve different names. It would be more accurate to describe the initial stage as infatuation and the later stage as love. And the crucial misconception is that everyone claims to be seeking love but is usually seeking only infatuation.
This is hardly surprising. Almost all so-called love stories are really infatuation stories. Is there a novel or film that portrays mature, happy love? Everyone claims to want such bliss but no one wants to read about it or see it portrayed."(186)

"So infatuation is a way not of accepting responsibility but of actually escaping it – lovers are entitled to avoid the tedious obligations of life beyond the beloved. In the legend of Tristan and Iseult the influence of potions excuses the irresponsible behaviour of the lovers – and, in the modern world, the sanction is infatuation’s involuntary, even irrational, nature. It’s a clinical disorder. The lovers can’t help it."(188)

"But infatuation cannot increase the dosage beyond a certain point, so the high finally wears off. Another team of neuroscientists has investigated the time span of the love high and concluded that the popular perception is correct – infatuation usually lasts between twelve and eighteen months.
What to do when infatuation fades? One option is stoic acceptance – by this time the couple may be married and have children. This was a solution common in traditional societies. The prince in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard describes love as ‘a year of fire followed by thirty years of ashes’ and goes to prostitutes for his pleasure. In the contemporary world, a popular alternative would be adultery, the adventure tourism of the middle-aged middle classes. Another option is a different kind of acceptance – to understand that the guttering flame is a signal to find a new partner. Why live among ashes if fire can be rekindled elsewhere? Why not skip the disillusionment and enjoy only serial infatuations? This, too, is popular, but depends on not wanting to bring up children and on being always attractive to new partners, an attribute that diminishes with time. The twilight of the serially infatuated is likely to be as bleak as that of the hedonist.
The final option is to attempt the transition from infatuation to love."(189-190)

"Unfortunately, Tolstoy does not explain the nature of this ‘quite different happy life’ or how it was achieved, other than to suggest that the process is long and painful. And, in fact, the transition from infatuation to love is difficult because the two are opposites in many ways. Infatuation is transcendent; love is down to earth. Infatuation creates a fantasy; love accepts a reality. Infatuation is an addiction; love is a commitment. Infatuation craves unity; love cherishes separateness. Infatuation evades responsibility; love wholeheartedly accepts it. Infatuation is effortless; love is hard work."(190-191)

[Ik mis hier toch wel een kritische noot bij het monogamie-model van relaties. Foley's verhaal suggereert bijna dat je alleen van liefde kunt spreken wanneer je leert om genoegen te nemen met één iemand met wie je je hele leven doorbrengt. Erg eenzijdig en ouwerwets.]

(201) 13 - The Absurdity of Age

Acht punten over ouder worden.

[Niet erg origineel, moet ik zeggen, en ook maar half waar.]

"For the beauty of youth, which youth itself seems hardly to appreciate, astounds and dazzles the ageing."(203)

"On the other hand, mindfulness, attention and learning new skills do appear to extend life, as well as improving its quality. So the tendency of age to shy away from the new and difficult may literally be fatal. There is even evidence that the brain, far from being doomed to steady decline, can generate new neurons right up until death, a miracle known as neurogenesis."(208)

"Awareness of mortality can provide the focus and intensity so often missing from experience and is another gift of the later years. The time-rich young are as presumptuous and careless as the materially wealthy – if everything may be purchased then nothing has value – but the time-poor old know that very little may now be purchased and so everything is valuable. Sexual pleasure, for instance, is immeasurably enriched and intensified by the knowledge that it may not be available for much longer, cut off by incapacity or the death of a partner. One of the most heartfelt lines I have written is: ‘If every time could be the last it’s as good as the first.’"(216)

(217) Part V - The Happy Ending

(219) 14 - The Happiness of Absurdity

[Ik weet niet, hoor. Wanneer je zegt dat het leven absurd is - Foley noemt Kafka, Camus, Beckett -, wat voor maatstaven hanteer je dan? Wanneere je uitgaat van een god, of een absolute zin / waarheid, of wat ook, misschien. Maar wat is er absurd aan het helpen van een buurvrouw die even vergeten is waar haar mobiel ligt? Het leven is niet absurd. Het leven is gewoon wat het is, je moet de zin ervan niet buiten het leven zelf gaan zoeken.]

"And mordant laughter seems the only possible response. There is no way back to certainty, simplicity and innocence, only the way forward into confusion, uncertainty and knowingness. The gasp of wonder becomes the sardonic bark of disbelief. Absurdity is the new sublime."(219)

[Ook dat is een verkeerde voorstelling van zaken, te abstract en generaliserend. Er is in heel veel gevallen en situaties sprake van zekerheid, eenvoud, onschuld. Waarom zou je kiezen voor al die absurde mogelijkheden als wedstrijden in veeleten? Omdat je daarna kunt zeggen dat het leven absurd is? Het is een merkwaardig standpunt wanneer Foley de mythe van Sysiphus aanhaalt als de oplossing: je moet het absurde gewoon accepteren. Dat gaat er vanuit dat die absurditeit er is. En ik vind dat maar een aanvechtbare stelling.]

"Depression is often the fate of the modern personality – greedy, attention-hungry and resentful, always convinced of deserving more, always haunted by the possibility of missing something better somewhere else, always smarting at lack of recognition and always dissatisfied. It is necessary to find again the classical courage and humility of Sisyphus who does not demand gratification but knows how to turn to advantage whatever the gods have decreed, and how to make every activity its own reward. Sisyphus is happy with the absurdity and insignificance of constantly pushing a rock up a hill."(225)

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