Tonight, I am high. I am floating. I am free. I can fly. It's surreal to have these feelings exist at once; all because I have freed myself from a particular Western philosophy that has guided my view of existence for a very long time. This philosophical belief is called EXISTENTIALISM.
My love affair with existentialist thought started when I suffered from depressive anxiety seven years ago. Alone and romantically depressed, I sought books which I thought would help me understand the emptiness of my condition. The "booksale" at a mall became my refuge as I scouted for Western authors whose names I'd just find from the usual content of an English literature book. The mentality was "ok, they said this is good, so I'll read it" or "ok this author's name sounds familiar, he must be good".
An Affair with Sartre
One of these books I picked from the books sale was an old copy of Jean Paul-Sartre's No Exit (Hois Clos). I didn't know how to read a play then (AND I STILL DON'T KNOW HOW UNTIL NOW!). But because one of my college professors said that Sartre is an important thinker, then I thought he must be interesting. At the back of my mind, I thought I should just keep reading his works and perhaps I'd find something significant.
And so for days, I labored in imagining the narratives of two characters trapped in a room which was actually after-life version hell. Now these two characters knew and hated each other while they were alive; but then they're put together in an enclosed space which represents hell precisely because for Sartre, HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. The impact of that play is that I was able to imagine a world without the Christian conception of heaven and hell. For me, it was about LIFE BEING "HERE AND NOW"; there is no afterlife, so all we must do is make the most out of life here and now.
Existentialism in a Nutshell
After reading Sartre's No Exit, I read up more on existentialism. In other words, my view of existentialism expanded because of my interest in the idea that the philosophy emphasizes the loneliness of existence. It appealed to me because it nullifies the existence of afterlife and supports my atheistic mindset that there is no outside force; there is only human who exercises his full potential in a given lifetime. Moreover, the basic tenent of existentialism tells us that EXISTENCE PRECEDES ESSENCE; this means that we "exist" first -- tabula rasa -- and then our essence (depending on how we live our life) will come later as we carve our individual selves and meaning.
Now this idea is very appealing because it contradicts practically the very catholic concept of ESSENCE PRECEDES EXISTENCE; meaning this God(s) already gave us an essence (e.g. we are born unique and special in his eyes etc) before we even existed! This Christian concept sounded really ridiculous for my atheistic self and hence I found existentialism the best philosophy to counter this backward and defeatist thought of Christianity. In a way, for me, existentialism suits my need as a depressed and lonely individual at the time.
Atheism and Existentialism
An atheist who could not grasp the existence of a supernatural being must naturally turn to philosphy to answer his basic questions in life. This is what I love about atheism. I gives me freedom to explore philosophy and not merely subscribe on the given "essence" prescribed by religion. And so, existentialism undeniably fits my needs to cling on a philosophy which negates religious conception of God and afterlife as well as celebrates the freedom of an individual by reflecting deeply into the self and create meaning within it.
I am an atheist because I am free. I am an atheist because I revere philosophy and because I treat idea as an ever-changing evolution and exercise of the mind as one looks deeply into the self over time. The best thing about being an atheist is that you are challenged to look deeply for that ESSENCE or MEANING within you -- just you alone.. without confessions, without spirits, without mediator priests, without a God. Merging that atheistic idea with existentialism meshes well in providing VALUE to one's self -- particularly as an individual, brave enough to face the solitariness of existence without God(s).
An Affair with Comparative Literature
Now, let's fast forward: 2011. I started my MA in Comparative Literature in UP. I had a crisis, I must admit, when I first entered into the program; I asked myself: am I really fit to be in this course? Do I belong here? However, a year has passed and, having fairly good remarks from my profs, it convinced that I must be studying the right field. What I love about Comparative Literature (CL) is that it allows me to merge my "first-loves" in life: philosophy and literature.
Sometimes, I'd end up feeling "so high" after my classes because I have learned a lot from my professors. I have read numerous books (sometimes I read 3 books in a week). Now of course it has also affected my health because I get obsessive in my quest for knowledge. But the greatest aspect about the program is that it allows me to celebrate my identity, first and foremost, as a Filipino and secondly, my being Southeast Asian. It expanded my world and knowledge which started from a very Western-oriented individual to embracing my Asian philosophical and literary roots.
I come from the "exoticized" Mindanao; so why choose Asian Literature as a major? The answer is I want to expand my niche and learn more about our neighbors. In CL, as much as possible, there is a need to be critical about the Western philosophies we have learned over time. I myself is a product of this very western thought. It is very painful to empty myself of it but it is necessary to understand my true self, to understand where I come from. Through my numerous readings in CL, I must say that I am postcolonially trained; meaning I have been taught to DECONSTRUCT or participate in what Spivak calls "EPISTEMIC UPHEAVAL" in order to understand literary texts and (Western) philosophies.
I have studied bits of Western philosophy; now is the time to explore an Asian counterpart or even perhaps VARIANTS of these philosophies. Right now, I am very fascinated about the idea of a hybridized knowledge, the conception of the third space, and the insterteces of ideas. With the rapid globalization, I am interested in how knowledges are merged and reflected into a particular literary tradition or, just perhaps a basic piece of literature. It was the theorist HOMI BHABHA who said (this is not the exact phrase) : ONCE SITUATED, NO KNOWLEDGE IS EVER ABSOLUTE. This means that, once a thought is decontextualized from its origin (usually from its Western beginnings) and diffused to another setting (for instance, the colonized Philippines) then this concept/idea is transformed to particularly fit to realities of the Filipino setting. I think these metamorphoses of knowledge are very interesting to look at!
Back to Existentialism!
As I have claimed in this blog, I have officially freed myself from an existentialist view of the world. Because of Asian literature, I am able now to slowly distance myself from Western philosophy and beginning to explore Eastern/Asian thoughts. Now that I am beginning to familiarize and analyze with Asian texts, I am compelled to review my deeply rooted belief in Western philosophy and one of which is to examine my established notion of exitentialism. Last week , I read an early modern novel from China entitled Camel Xiangzi by a social realist writer, Lao She. Portrayed in the text is the fate of a rickshaw driver who, no matter what he does in life, is marred by misfortunes of poverty and the realities of his socioeconomic background.
Lao She, in this novel, wanted to examine the individualistic and existentialist self that has entered modern China in the early 20th century. Xiangzi is a rickshaw puller who believes that he has control over his life and that by just doing all good things, then he can achieve what he wants in his lifetime. This appeals to be an existentialist thought because it advocates that the character believes that with his individual toil and honesty/goodness (innate) in his behavior, he will be able to derive and achieve a meaningful life -- a life he perceives to be within his control.
Death of Existentialism in Asian Context
However, it seems that Lao She wanted to negate existentialist concept with the fate of the character in the novel. Though this is not much highlighted in the book, it seems that individualism is discouraged simply because oppressed people need each other to rise up against the abuses of capitalist industries. EXISTENTIALISM therefore cannot exist when a country, like the Philippines for instance, do not present the right condition or environment for the possiblity of the philosophy's existence. In other words, PEOPLE MUST BE FREE FIRST FROM THEIR SOCIOECONOMIC CHAINS THAT IMPRISONS THEM AND THE COLONIAL OUTLOOK WHICH HINDERS THEIR WAYS OF THINKING BEFORE EXISTENTIALISM CAN POSSIBLY BE EVEN THOUGHT OF!
Existentialism was possible in Europe because the EXISTING ENVIRONMENT permits it to be PRACTICED within that specific context, where people are able to realize and freely exercise their potentials; for instance, they are well-off to explore what they want to do in life or they are FREE from colonial exploits unlike postcolonial nations who are in trouble with their shattered cultural identities. Existentialism is NOT APPLICABLE in a poverty stricken Philippines where, no matter how the poor WANTS TO CREATE MEANING IN LIFE AND ESSENCE -- THEY CANNOT; particularly because socioeconomic circumstances hinders them from exercising a deeper look into the self. EXISTENTIALISM, which is also very individualist, forgets that there are those (esp. coming poor peripheral contries) whose EXISTENCE are not even RECOGNIZED precisely because they belong to one of the lowest strata in society (e.g. subaltern minorities).
Finally, because today's awakening enables me to contextualize a particularly European philosophy, now I am back from the start in searching another view of existence. I am happy because I have freed myself from a particular dogma or philosophical chain. It is liberating, really. The challenge now for me is to again, participate in the quest for meaning (not propelled of course by religious dogma) and to find out truth about life and the self. Back to zero, as they say. But whatever, I do not refuse learning! So for now, I am taking a break -- celebrating and writing with drunken happiness about the death of my existentialist self.
(P.S. Right now, I am really interested still in looking at how existentialism is being accomodated, perceived,and reflected in Asian literary texts. Now that Western philosophy is practically dispersed around the world, then it is just right to look at the metamorphoses of these philosophies as they are particularized in Asian texts and context; my interest in particular is SE Asian lit, of course. Exciting dba!).