P¹ –› TT –› EE –› P²
When you think of your life, and how you would like it to turn out, you might be overwhelmed when faced with your many problems. What is the right thing to do when faced with situation ‘x’ [insert problem here]? At the very least we ask this question for ourselves, and hopefully we also ask this question of those nearest to us, and, if we are ethical, we might ask this question for everyone else too.
“What should I do here?”
When faced with a problem and with this question, some people are rational enough to use their Reason and from this do the least worst thing when faced with situation ‘x’. These people might decide to identify a problem, problem one, they might decide to propose a tentative theory which might do away with problem one, they might then engage in a process of error evaluation, which subjects their own tentative theory to such scrutiny that it leads to further problems, or problem two (see the above formulae). Through some such process of truth-finding, our life problems become narrower, and should become slightly less worse than the initial problem we were faced with.
Should we plan our way through life like this? Use an interrogative formula – search perhaps for an ultimate formula that can move us towards objectively good outcomes – and apply our rationality to it?
Or should we aim to simply exist? Because some of us struggle enough with our inconsequential existence as it is. To invest in solutions, (I am thinking specifically of when situation ‘x’ is a problem of small differences, and especially when these small differences mean the world to us and will have humongous implications for our meaningless lives), can sometimes require such a degree of effort over such an extended period of time, that we might be better off just ‘being’.
To carry on existing without thinking about situation ‘x’ is essentially to leave your decision to instincts. It is to abdicate responsibility. I would go so far as to say that, for almost everything and at almost every time, you should not abdicate responsibility like this. You should treat life like you would a puzzle, and apply your cognition to the Sudoku. Before I launch into this, I would like to stress this again. Solve your problems. And yet, there might be cause, sometimes, to take the easy route – to turn away from your problems instead of facing them. I wonder whether this is what we should do when we are faced with our most personal and big and complicated life decisions.
Maybe what you should do is try and just exist. Go and sit in a corner and read the two famous authors who are pictured above, and, once you have done this, perhaps you should follow in their footsteps too, and imagine something about yourself, and, after this, (or after some other equally non-relevant experience), you should just get up and make your decision.
We humans make up stories about ourselves. Who we are. Who we will be. What we will do. Even what we do. We think these stories until they are our story, and to say that these stories are plotted by ourselves – in our minds, our diaries, our instagram accounts – is not to say these stories are necessarily less true than the reality of our day to day. It depends on context. If our hand touches a boiling kettle, our daydreams fall away and Reality painfully reasserts itself. But if our pain/pleasure receptors are not being fired upon like this, the fictions we tell ourselves can be just as true because the more time we spend thinking them, the more they are our experience, and the more they rule our receptors. Our daydreams affect us. Humans are torn between trying to understand our life, and making our life understandable.
To solve some problems in our lives, we ought to ask if this default setting can be highjacked. Two questions.
First: can I learn to plot my life better?
Second: should I want to do this?
After all, this coping-mechanism of refusing to face situation ‘x’ is instinctual, and instincts are not to be thought of as a good thing on which to base most of our life decisions. But if ‘imagining what your life would be like if…’ is something humans do already, then it seems somewhat counter-intuitive to say to someone that they could plot their life ‘better’. So we should go to the first question first, and see how it might be possible for humans to use their imagination to plot their lives, when to do so would seem to paradoxically imply that we were the creators of our own destinies.
To show how it might be done, how we might actively develop a purpose, the purpose, that was always going to be the right decision, we must look to Oscar Wilde. That people can’t change who they are fundamentally, was a known fact to Oscar – a homosexual in Victorian Britain. His creative works tend to end with an unmasking of his characters. Wilde’s characters don’t change, they merely develop their purpose – a purpose which had been hidden within them all along. How do they actively develop this purpose though? Wilde’s aestheticism holds the answer. Wilde’s aestheticism was not, as is often said, that art and beauty are all that matter, and that they are divorced from life. Wilde’s aestheticism was rather that our first goal should be to understand ourselves for what we already are, and art can help us do this.
The Portrait of Dorian Grey is a philosophical novel about the hedonistic life of Dorian Grey and a portrait which had been painted of him by artist Basil Hallward. Basil’s oil painting magically assumes the debts of Dorian’s moral vices, and, while the Dorian in the painting decays, the Dorian in the flesh remains ageless and beautiful. Dorian’s portrait is something which he, like Narcissus, is consumed by over the course of the novel. This piece of art – this oil painting – does not exist in a moral vacuum. The novel shows how the painting is corrupted by Dorian’s way of living, which in turn corrupts Dorian further, suggesting that the relationship between art and man is symbiotic, and thus that we can, at least metaphorically, ‘create’ ourselves.
Lord Henry, an aristocrat who intellectually feeds Dorian’s passion for pleasure, is the one character in the novel who might be said to most closely resemble Wilde. His philosophy – art is the highest form of experience; life can only hope to imitate art; and therefore that art is entirely separate from ourselves; – is usually ascribed to Wilde. Wilde, however, seemed to disavow such a connection, when he said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me.”
How can this be though? Lord Henry is a quick-witted, paradox-loving, symmetry-abuser; the type of character who exists in almost every single Wilde play.
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
“I adore simple pleasures… they are the last refuge for the complex”
“What of art?” “It is a malady.” “Love?” “An illusion.” “Religion?” “The fashionable substitute for belief.”
“You are a sceptic.” “Never! Skepticism is the beginning of faith.”
Lord Henry, in other words, is the dandy we know and love. He is the Wilde we know and love. The careless rebel. But what the form of the novel allows Wilde to do in A Portrait of Dorian Grey, more than in any of his plays, is cast judgement. The character of Lord Henry is shown to be a careless fanatic. He never retreats from his ideological carelessness, no matter what happens to Dorian. Even when faced with death and horror at the end of the novel, of which he was partly responsible, all he has to say is: “To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders.” All of his clever sayings are revealed to have been nothing but beautiful words, words which bore no relation to the truth which had been made evident to him. His answers to life’s questions are given by a man who would say something counter-intuitive or contrarian purely because he enjoys the attention and he knows he is clever enough to justify his remarks if ever challenged. Rereading the novel, I saw that Basil Hallward identifies Lord Henry as a sophist from the very beginning, when he says to him that: “You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.”
“There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence,” says Lord Henry, when considering his relationship with Dorian. Lord Henry succeeds here in never saying a moral thing, and never saying a wrong thing either. Because Yes! there is something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence, or so Wilde seems to say, but there is also something enthrallingly terrible in the exercise of influence. For Wilde, it is not moral to try to influence people when they need to find out about themselves, for themselves.
Wilde believes in ultimate goods, because like Lord Henry he does see art as a sort of ultimate good, and he thinks people should try for it. With regards to solving a situation ‘x’, though, Wilde’s quarrel with Lord Henry is that Wilde does not think it wise to unduly influence people, even if this comes at the expense of an ultimate good. For example, Basil Hallward says that he will support Dorian Grey wholeheartly in his marriage to the actress Sibyl Vane. This is not the move of an influencer – because for Basil to support Dorian Gray’s slapdash proposal to Sybil, (made, in Chapter Six, on the basis of her acting prowess; unmade, in Chapter Seven, following a prompt disillusionment), without having made his reservations clear, is to be disinterested in a good outcome for Dorian. However, this laissez-faire attitude from Basil seems to allow Dorian to make the very mistakes that Wilde seems to value.
My sense of Wilde is the same as Robert L. Caserio’s sense of Wilde, who saw in Wilde “an implicit notion of developing purpose.” Experiences allow for self-development, and to actively self-develop oneself requires a degree of passivity from you, so that you do not escape from adverse experiences by using rational means. Art is an experience, because it has a syncretic relationship with man – it tells us something about ourselves which we might have already known, we just needed to come into contact with it to realise that we already knew it. To plot your life like this requires that you dismiss anything that influences with an agenda (irrespective of whether that agenda is well-intentioned or not).
Lord Henry preaches this most eloquently: “to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has been written for him. The aim of life is self-development.” Lord Henry, however, does not act this mantra out. Lord Henry influences. He aims to do so in that very speech. By contrast, the character of Basil Hallward does act this out in the world, and even lives his own life this way too at times. Rather than spend time trying to solve his situation ‘x’, Basil develops his own purpose almost instinctually, because even though he knows that “the world is wide, and has many marvelous people in it,” he decides that for his art and perhaps even for his life, his purpose must be Dorian Grey (the homoerotic undertones are obvious; as are comparisons to Bosie).
Basil dies because of this self-development, but he succeeds in plotting his own life. The proof is in the novel? No. The proof is the novel. The Portrait of Dorian Grey is a novel without much of a plot. For the most part, Lord Henry and Dorian simply wander aimlessly between parties. It is the character of Basil who forces his own plot, and it is from him that the novel gets its shape. He paints the painting. He estranges himself from Dorian. He decides to move to Paris, before Dorian meets him by chance which leads directly to Basil’s death in Chapter Thirteen. But while the novel continues without Basil, Basil’s self-developed purpose, that of Dorian Gray, continues – in Chapter Fourteen, with his haunting face, in Chapter Fifteen, with his incriminatory clothes, in Chapter Nineteen, when the Doctor kills himself for having been complicit in Basil’s death. In fact, Basil is there (by way of his painting) all the way through until Chapter Twenty, when the novel ends with Dorian’s death.
To be able to plot your way through life when you need it most, all one needs to do is hold tight to this mantra: ‘Make whatever happens to me here, good for me’. Basil instinctively imagined that his purpose was Dorian, and from that point on, his life, like the novel, was decided.
Whatever our instinct-driven purpose is, it was always going to be the right decision, because we decide it will be the right decision. However, this terrible tautology, this self-actualising aphorism, this plotting of things which were always going to be plotted; lands us in a moral bog… and we move to the second of the two questions: should I want to do this?
There’s a moral quagmire to plotting your own life like this. If you turn away from your problems and maybe even the problems of others like Basil, this is to imply that bad choices concerning situation ‘x’ are justified by way of some sort of ‘mode of perfection’. Relativism, in other words. At least Lord Henry had an ultimate good he was willing to point to, however awful his direction…
To solve this, the life mantra might be refined as: Make whatever happens to me here, good for me, as long as it effects only me. Adding this clause is to make a plea for sanity, even though it is a contradictory clause, or at the very least impossible, because nobody can separate themselves from everybody else. We are social creatures. We care for each other. That Basil does not voice obvious concerns about Dorian’s nuptial intentions with Sibyl, might be seen as aiming for the best possible solution because Dorian (and therefore Basil) is given the chance to suffer out of experience and self-develop; but what of Sibyl? What of Sibyl’s brother? etc, etc. The web of connections is wide, and the bonds between people not easily broken. If Basil was more conscious of what he was doing, he have to ask himself – how many people am I willing to hurt before I stop all this carelessness?
The alternative to this purposelessness is to attach yourself to an ultimate good. Aestheticism. Virtue. Vice. Ethics. Wilde seems to say that none of these ultimate goods make good people either.
“There is nothing so dangerous as a man who thinks he is right.”
I’m not sure where I heard this statement, but I always thought it was a contemptuous one. It’s something that Wilde might have said without really meaning it. However, with regards to an individual’s ideas about himself as and only as an individual, about what he or she is, about what sets him or her apart from all the other humans out there, (solipsism’s not for everyone), this contemptuous statement might be true.
Are there some situation ‘x’s for which to ‘Make whatever happens to me here, good for me, as long as it effects only me,’ is the methodology which should be used? We should be skeptical of such an assertion, and not least because this do-it-yourself advice reads like an American self-help book. To show you how this methodology might be justified, I must show you what it looks like by turning to the second of our two British authors. I must turn away from our androgynous aesthetic; from Oscar Wilde; and turn instead to the taciturn anti-tyrant; to George Orwell.
1984 should need no introduction. 1984 gives lip-service to rational scepticism. Your telescreen cannot be trusted! How might we know objective truths and solve situation ‘x’? The formula must be the answer. Falsification is the way we tend to accurately distinguish between Comrade Ogilvy, (invented by Winston Smith), and Julius Caesar, (an example used by Winston Smith to convince himself of the invented Comrade Ogilvy’s invertedness). Orwell-the-objectivist says that, whenever you ever come across a conundrum in your life, use your Reason (!), recognise that reality exists (!), problem-solve (!), falsify (!)… because appealing to sources of authority will lead you only down the long corridors of the Ministry of Truth.
Although objective truths in 1984 exist – Big Brother is evil and this truth is worth exposing – Orwell recognises Winston Smith as being at his best when he refocuses his gaze away from evil, and focuses instead on simply existing as a human. It is when Winston is most lazy, that he is at his most human, and it is when he is most passive, that he cannot not be good. Is Orwell really advocating pacifism in an allegorical novel? Maybe. Let’s entertain this possibility. For while Orwell never supports pacifism in his political essays, in his novels he had huge sympathy for characters who were unable to act.
Winston’s “feet had brought him there of their own accord”; Winston is attracted to the “heavy lump of glass” in the junk-shop because of its “uselessness”; Winston “let’s lassitude take hold of him” rather than act and smash Julia’s head in; Winston doesn’t kill his wife by pushing her into a gorge that one time they are completely alone; Winston is given the directions to the Golden Place; and, once there, it seems only imaginable to a reader that Winston gets fucked by Julia, rather than fucks Julia. Winston’s main action in the course of the novel is simply to go on existing. Not until Chapter 8 has Winston even been living in the present, for up until then he has been recounting the past to himself, a past, remember, which does not exist. And once Winston starts acting in the novel, his revolutionary actions are mostly thought-crimes, hesitant counterfactuals, and excited hypotheticals. More often than not, Winston doesn’t act.
In 1984, Orwell never forgoes a sense of plot as utterly as Wilde does in A Portrait of Dorian Grey, but the positive driving force of 1984 is not Orwell as Orwell the author. This might be because Orwell was torn between what he wrote, and who he was as a writer. Like Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, who refused to say who she was in case the act itself changed who she was, Orwell resists the snare of words. All Orwell “believes can be truthfully writeable is the embodiment of a special state of mind or feeling that is static, humbly and strongly self-contained, impervious to the world,” says Robert L. Caserio.
The moment Winton Smith is most alive and at peace, most happy, is not, I submit, when he is in the Golden Place with Julia. Wine and sex are part of a humane subtext often overlooked in 1984. However, although Winston comes close to being at his most human in the Golden Place, it is not here that he truly enters into a “special state of mind” which is static and “impervious to the world.” He is, after all, still thinking about situation ‘x’. He wonders about microphones. He thinks of Julia as better for having corrupted herself. Sex was, to use his words, “a political act.”
The moment Winston Smith is most alive and at peace, most happy, is the moment when he and Julia give up their rebellions and stop acting in opposition to something. This moment in the novel comes when they listen to the song of the washerwoman.
The washerwoman pegs out diapers under a universal blue of the sky. Her “deep-lunged singing from the yard below,” her “indefatigable voice,” is something Winston then shares in with Julia.
“It was only an ‘opless hancy,
It passed like an Ipril day,
But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred
They ‘ave stolen my ‘eart awaye!”
“They sye that time ‘eals all things,
They sye you can always forget;
But the smiles an’ the tears across the years
They twist my ‘eart strings yet!”
A song in a time of eternal war. That the proles can emote unconsciously like this – singing without concern for being comprehensible by either friend or foe – reveals them to be the lifeblood of the novel. Early in the novel, Winston Smith says of the proles, that “until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” This – something Lenin might have written – is echoed by O’Brian in the later stages of the novel.
Orwell would not have the proles do anything else. If that means the evil regime must continue to exist, then so be it. The truth, (for Orwell is concerned with truth), of their unconsciousness cannot be compromised. Similarly, Orwell does not seem to be able to compromise on Winston’s unconscious moment even for a moment. Winston enjoys his moment with Julia; the moment directly before they are captured. Orwell cannot keep Winston safe, because it is exactly Winston’s pointlessness here that makes Winston so human, and it is precisely because he is so human that he is so difficult for the party to ‘cure’. As the party says, his is “a difficult case,” even as they demonstrate their absolute power. Winston is something that exists. Even after he is broken, he is something who chooses to take hold of Julia’s arm, in one final pointless gesture. Winston is not, as some have suggested, what you do not want to become. Winston is the best of us.
The mission of the Ministry of Truth was to eliminate difference. This is a mission one step behind humanity, says Orwell. Humans are already the same. Or, humans are at least more similar than they are different. And as such, this sameness will one day reassert itself, if only we exist long enough, and, from this, our differences will once again flourish.
The salience of human sameness defines Orwell’s work. In 1984, the character of Mrs. Parsons “had a habit of breaking off her sentences in the middle.” As a writer, Orwell did not prevaricate. Oftentimes, Orwell appears not to want to write anything at all. Orwell so strongly believed that a failure of purpose, a failure of plot, could lead to human happiness; that he wants to have less influence on his characters than even they have. Yes, in everything but their core, humans can change and can be changed, but it is their core, their essence, that really matters, and cannot.
Orwell’s view on how you choose to plot your life can only be teleological. As such, Winston feels his way through his life, and the novel takes its shape accordingly. Winston’s most meaningful action, his situation ‘x’, is to love Julia, because it fits with what his instincts tell him to do. The Brotherhood, something which could have driven the plot, is never realised in the novel. It is only in Winston’s imagination that it exercises any narrative influence – namely, the first time he sees O’Brien, and the flash between them – “Perhaps the rumors of vast underground conspiracies were true after all – perhaps the Brotherhood really existed!” If The Brotherhood had existed, this would have been a very different novel, but as such the resistance is something plotted within Winton’s head, which, so Orwell hints by way of his optimistic appendix, might be just as important in making the world a better place as the Catalonian socialists were when they fought the fascists in Spain. Just existing, and having those thoughts, Orwell seems to say in 1984, is a virtue.
“It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.”
The ideologue tells us plotted stories about history that are superstructures squashing life… they can be masked forms of righteousness or aggression that ignore or suppress the carefree. Orwell will not ‘plot’ to this end. Instead, he fictionalizes his characters as the main plotting agents in his stories. They represent those who search for their own sane ends so that they can fulfill them.
Humaneness is measured by attempts at ‘plot’, (trying to understand our life), and a defeat of plot, (failing to make our life understandable). To ‘plot’ cannot be avoided, we all succumb to it, and we all fail at it, but when we try, when we succumb, we give in to solipsism, and we realise things about ourselves we didn’t know before. This is made obvious in Orwell’s other novels, such as Coming Up for Air, but that it is true in 1984 – a story about something worth fighting against – is testament to the way Orwell writes his characters. He cannot help it. Even when his characters need to fight, their redeeming quality is just to exist. “As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line… it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful.” This is Winston at his most beautiful too.
It’s not exactly hard to go on existing. As Winston says, “To hang on from day to day and from week to week, spinning out a present that had no future, seemed an unconquerable instinct, just as one’s lungs will always draw the next breath so long as there is air available.” And in Oceania, where The Party insists on the present, where the past is abolished moment by moment, where the future is nothing but more war; it is in some ways easier just to exist.
Orwell-the-objectivist screams at me and my contradictions: O’Brian just ‘exists’ too. So by your standard he is no worse than Winston?
I do not see any moral equivalence between O’Brian and Winston. “Make whatever happens to me here, good for me, as long as it effects only me.” O’Brian effects other people. “Reality exists in the human mind,” says O’Brian while torturing Winston, “and nowhere else.” The independent clause is correct – Reality does exist in the human mind. Winston and O’Brian both agree. The dependant clause is incorrect – Reality exists outside the human mind too. Winston knows that an objective Reality exists, whereas O’Brian does not.
But what good is this Reality that exists in the human mind, when whatever happens to us tends to effect other people too? As we established with Wilde, none of us live in a vacuum. How can we be Orwellian objectivists (for this is how the adjective should be used) on the one hand, and reach for ultimate goods such as the elimination of human suffering, while also being kind to ourselves, and plotting our own futures through blind and often unreasoning instinct?
O’Brian says that “Men are infinitely malleable”. Like before, he is half-right here, but this time it is because he is right for the wrong reasons. No matter what O’Brian would have us believe, human beings are not ‘infinitely’ malleable: because they are not malleable to the extent that they can be shaped out of their malleability.
‘Doublethink’, or the ability to sincerely hold two contradicting realities in your minds-eye, is one expression of this malleability, and it explains this unresolved contradiction. Doublethink is almost always to be condemned. When underexplored contradictions are left alone, they lead to a Ministry of Peace that wages war, a Ministry of Plenty that creates poverty, a Ministry of Truth that tells lies, and a Ministry of Love that tortures people. Objective truths exist, and we should strive for their approximation. But whether the Ministry of Love tortures people 98/100 or 99/100, might not be worth the time it takes to consider properly. Julia knew this, when she pretended to listen to Winston reading Goldenstein’s book: “Yes, my love, I’m listening. Go on. It’s marvellous.” (Once again, to just live, and love, seems to be Orwell’s priority.) There are sometimes differences that are so small as to be impossible for any sane man or woman to distinguish between in good time, and if this is true for suffering, it is also true for pleasure.
This is what I am suggesting: it is dangerous to make a utopia of the road on which we travel to get to utopia. I am advocating for a methodological uncertainty, the consequences of which, when understood, can paralyse a person. Orwell has endless sympathy for such a person, for Winston Smith, almost as much as he has distain for the paralysis of people. What I am also saying, therefore, is that to do away with Dadaism, is not to do away with Dickens. What I am saying is that to commit personal philosophical suicide – to use that term technically and non-pejoratively – is not to commit political philosophical suicide. What I am saying, is that we should sometimes try to “make whatever happens to me, good for me, as long as it effects only me.”
If the stakes in Room 101 were high enough, if your lover’s life suddenly depended on you answering the question: does your left hand have five fingers? – then even you might take your hand out of your pocket to check that that you had not miraculously lost a finger. 2 + 2 = 5, as Winston manages to convince himself by the end, is possible, and as such there are moments when we must entertain the possibility that we really had been miscounting our own fingers all our lives. Falsifiability demands this of us. But to falsify everything always? It would be a Monster who would expect such calculations from a Mother who is faced with Sophie’s Choice. My position, therefore, is that some small element of Sophie’s Choice, some sense of overwhelming impossibility, might fall upon us all when faced with a situation ‘x’ that is probably less horrific than Sophie’s Choice, but is still world-changing because we’re solipsists (and in any case, Room 101 tells us that the worst thing in the world manifests differently for each of us). When faced with some situation ‘x’s, even a problem like ‘how many fingers do you have on your left hand?’ can be too difficult to answer. It might make more sense to fall back to gut-instinct here, lest we never ever answer the question, as we keep pulling our hand out of our pocket to check that we really do still have all five fingers.
Critical rationality – the formulas of Karl Popper et al. – can require too much of a person. There can be situation ‘x’s which are too complex or just too much for an individual to cope with in one lifetime. A person cannot live without positive momentum, and the falsifiability principal does not allow for positive momentum, because it is positive only when it is at its most negative. Only those who enjoy slaying the heads of their own hydra and want to do so indefinitely can hope to live formulaically, and will never have to plot their lives. They should beware too much methodological certainty though. The sheer size of the universe, compared to you and your seventeen-stone, is sometimes forgotten as the one source of authority that does in fact count, and in your determination to get life exactly right, you can get life exactly wrong.
“Do I contradict myself, very well then.
But I am larger than you.”
“At a certain point on his path the absurd man is tempted. History is not lacking in either religions or prophets, even without gods. He is asked to leap. All he can reply is that he doesn’t fully understand, that it is not obvious. Indeed, he does not want to do anything but what he fully understands. He is assured that this is the sin of pride, but he does not understand the notion of sin; that perhaps hell is in store, but he has not enough imagination to visualize that strange future; that he is losing immortal life, but that seems to him an idle consideration. An attempt is made to get him to admit his guilt. He feels innocent. To tell the truth, that is all he feels — his irreparable innocence.”
“The world of objective knowledge is man-made. But it is to be stressed that this world exists to a large extent autonomously; that it generates its own problems, especially those connected with methods of growth; and that its impact on any one of us, even on the most original of creative thinkers, vastly exceeds the impact which any of us can have on it.”