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Sarah's Notes


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    mon dessin ne repr�sentait pas un chapeau!
    NOTE: Sarah was feeling Angst, which she mentioned to her daughter. I was so taken with Sylvia's essay that I wrote--to confirm that she's attending a public high school. Here's Sarah's reply:

    Of course.

    She goes to PACIFICA High school, Oxnard High School District

    She is the product of public education, with about a 90% Hispanic base, with teachers, who, in my opinion, are terrific.

    PUBLIC. I could not send my kids to anything but public....She also went to Hathaway Elementary and Blackstock in the Hueneme School District.

    All hail public schools.

    I take great joy and comfort in knowing that somewhere in America there is a schoolgirl who can say, I will miss this French class mightily. It is an evaluation to which every teacher should aspire. This particular woman can say a whole lot more--and eloquently.

    by Sylvia Puglisi

    My mother asked me what existential angst was, really was, today; for someone who spends a fair amount of time pondering (or wallowing in) it, my answer was strikingly unsatisfactory. Here are my thoughts on the matter and existentialism in general, more or less in terribly rambly style. Such is the nature of my philosophy, cobbled-together and disconnected and utterly unintelligible.

    * * *

    My French teacher's explaining Sartre to our class had to be one of the most intellectually exciting experiences I've had throughout all of high school--it's up there with learning pathos, ethos and logos, and with a few debates between me (playing, for the sake of the argument, a Utopian Socialist) and some kid in US History (playing, for the sake of the argument, a Social Darwinist libertarian--that is what happens when you get two Devil's Advocates together). In any case, Sartre via Monsieur Mac struck me about as strongly as anything that wasn't in a book or music or my parents has ever struck me.

    How M. Mac explained it (he had to switch reluctantly to English halfway through, due to our blank looks) was, first and foremost, that we are all completely and entirely alone, and secondly that we can never get away from other people. I like paradoxes, so I hung on as he continued.

    We are alone, he said, because ultimately we exist as and only contain ourselves. I only know my own thoughts and feelings and perspectives on the world; I am only sure that I am real (if one will even accept that premise, which I will, cogito ergo sum). We are all, apparently, driven by this intense feeling of loneliness, or more accurately aloneness. But no matter how desperately, achingly we desire true companionship, the combining of two souls into one oft mentioned in marriage vows, we can not. There is always a chasm.

    The image I thought of--perhaps it only works for me--is your hand and my hand, palm to palm. We can touch them together and press for all we're worth, get them as close as it is humanly possible to get, and yet my hand will never know what it feels like to be your hand; they will never be feeling exactly the same sensation, they will never be one.

    I believe, for most people, the ultimate one-becoming is the expression of romantic and sexual love, and in this I find a beautiful kind of sadness. Ultimately, it is like the two hands: close, but not close enough, together, still alone. That we are all lonely creatures wandering about, trying to fill this void, is an intensely powerful image to me. I do not know if I misunderstand the philosophy, but there it is.

    I imagine this is where a goodly portion of said angst comes in, that loneliness.

    The second thing, as I mentioned, was that we can never get away from other people. Sartre wrote in Huis Clos, "L'enfer, c'est les autres" or, roughly translated, "Hell is other people." My french teacher explained it like so — in French, even, so I'm working now to translate it and make sense of it in English:

    Freedom, real freedom, is entirely within your grasp. (Ms. Gillet, my English teacher, used to say something like this — "No one can make you do anything," she said.) Freedom is simply the freedom from letting others' judgments of you affect you. Not giving a damn what anybody thinks, in other words, pas la sociïÿýtïÿý, not society, not anyone. In existentialism, there is no God nor absolute morality: so you have your own morals, I suppose, and then there are others'. Acting regardless of the others', that is freedom--and, one would imagine, since freedom is such a positive word, happiness.

    Of course, no one can; none of us can escape the judgments of society and others, and none of us can help caring, at least a little bit. Even Sherlock Holmes, who cares not for laws nor policemen nor being anywhere close to "normal" by anyone's standards--even such an independent person as he can never resist a bit of a flourish when revealing his solutions to cases. Never can resist astonishing people a little.

    Hell, then, is other people, because as long as we let others define us with their judgments--and we must needs let them, we are only human--we are not free, we cannot define ourselves.

    This lack of freedom, dependence on others: stop two on the existential angst express.

    I will miss this French class mightily.

    * * *

    Personally, existential angst for me is a lot about death. Don't worry, I'm far from depressed, but one can hardly help but ponder it when it occupies so much of literature and the news and even plain old day-to-day idioms. I'm dying of hunger. It won't kill you. Or one that's gaining ground, among my friends, as a general expression of concern and good wishes: e.g. "Achoo!" "Don't die!" As if we could help it!

    I know how I deal with things that are too much for me: I rationalize. This is why I was fairly articulate during that kidney stone--my alternatives were (a) notch up the vocabulary to intensely verbose and detached, or (b) not cope at all. This is much the same.

    Rationally, I prefer the premise of a finite life to an infinite afterlife: I prefer it logically and viscerally, the latter seems nonsensical and abhorrent to me. I have come to terms with that, somehow, on some level; understanding that in order for this all to matter as I want it to, that I must inevitably shuffle off this mortal coil, and that indeed I must anyway. It has made me that much more aware and even happier: there's always a certain relief in not being able to do anything about it, no matter what "it" is.

    Despite all this, I do--and I confess, I did this even when I was younger--lie awake at night and imagine what it is like to be dead. It is, naturally, impossible. One can imagine the world going on, but one cannot take one's perspective out of that imagining, which is of course exactly what one would need to do. And back to the loneliness, again. I have but myself and with that my perception of the world. What have I, when I have not myself? Naught.

    Too much Shakespeare, apologies: but oh, see pretty much anything Hamlet says for more existential angst. He's a bloody bundle of it.

    But anyway, this mental exercise inspires in me a great feeling of terror and uncertainty. Not insignificance, exactly--that is reserved for when I try and conceptualize the size of the universe, or the world, or just my city, or all the people in a crowded room.

    That too, I suppose, is existential angst, and that is what I understand of it. There you are, mum, and in the likely event that I don't know anything at all, here is what Google had to say:

    * * *

    Search term: "existential angst is"...

    ...reading a book about the meaning of life and then doing gym homework.
    ...one of the three corners of the Existential Triangle along with the People as Scenery theory and the Anthropic Fallacy.
    ...frequently written off as a rite of passage to young adulthood.
    ...totally a reason to call in sick.
    ...is not uncommon, if not quite "normal."
    ...nothing new; we are now much better at acting it out.
    ...not exactly gripping dramatic television.
    ...hardly worth the effort.
    ...subjective reaction to an incomplete perception of reality.
    ...a real pain in the ass, you know?
    ...not treatable with short-term remedies.
    ...a start, it lays bare what we are up against.
    ...pacified with soothing iTunes lullabies.

    2007-02-01 02:11:27


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