Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philip Roth and Living in the Moment

It seems that the philosophy expressed in The Human Stain can be more or less summarized by the maxim: “live in the moment.” I think that this might be a notion of Existentialism most applicable to our lives.

When we live in the moment, we have no opportunity to imagine the past or the future, only what we experience in the present. We have no opportunity, as Sartre would say, to live in bad faith, to exist in the mode of not-being. It seems imperative to live without over-thinking the future or the past, because our past and future selves do not exist. By pretending that they do, we are not really living. We pretend that our present reality is false, that we do not exist. This is not to say that some sort of long term goals are wrong or bad, but they should not dictate the way in which we experience the present.
I think this is what Roth is getting at with the story of the couple dancing. The woman urges her partner, “don’t look at me now like I’m good for something other than this. Something more than this. Don’t do that. Stay here with me. Don’t go. Hold on to this.” This is Roth’s notion of an ideal life. It should not be one lived in moments of the past, or attempting to imagine the future. To actually live life, it is necessary to actively make meaning of the world. The couple in this example make the dance a symbol of human existence. They render the event significantly meaningful. They do not allow the past or present to nihilate, so to speak, their present selves.

The dance represents the rarity of modern life in which a person is actually doing what they’re doing. To be more specific, it is like another except from Roth. The woman posits, “You’re a man and you’re with your wife and you’re fucking her, but you’re thinking you want to be fucking the post office janitor. Okay—you know what? You’re with the janitor.” In this case, the man is not actually doing what he is doing. He is somewhere else. In his mind—and therefore in his “true” reality—he is fucking the “janitor.” Although perhaps this seems like a somewhat esoteric example, it actually is quite like the way most of us live our lives. We go to class imagining that we are outside or back in our rooms. We stay in and imagine scenarios in which we decided to go out, of all the fun we could be having. Thus, we rarely do what we are doing.

They actions of the couple are life affirming because they are inherently meaningful. They do not garner a sense of meaning from what might happen in the future, or what has happened in the past. They do not imagine that they are dancing with other people or that they are outside or at dinner. They are living in the moment. Thus, they are genuinely themselves. It seems that by acting in this way as much as possible, we can best apply the tenets of Existentialism. Too often we worry about the past or future and forget to live our lives.

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