Our existential paradox and our need for a new grand-narrative

I tweeted yesterday about what I considered to be, against a lot of competition, the most depressing news story of the week. An article in The Guardian was reporting that “astrology is having a cultural moment” with a “surge in enthusiasm for astrology apps”. This disturbing loss of rationality and good sense was summed up by the comments of one of the interviewees: “I think anything that feels real is real in a way. And if I find the answers to questions I want through astrology and horoscopes, that makes it real.” My concern, however, is of a more fundamental nature than my rather glib tweet implied. What this person seems to be seeking is some narrative structure that helps make sense of, provide structure to, life’s events – a structure that seems to falling away before our eyes at the moment.

For me, one of the defining features of being human is what I term the existential paradox. We humans have an existential need for meaning and purpose in our life, both individually and collectively. But when examined, when critically challenged, any such meaning and purpose is exposed as being a myth of our own creation, is shown to be devoid of any solid ground. This problem was most famously brought to our attention by Jean-Paul Sartre. To explain what he meant by ‘existentialism’ he coined the phrase that for humans ‘existence precedes essence’. What he meant is best understood by first of all considering any item made by humans – say, for example, this laptop I’m writing on. This, like any other artefact that we have produced, was first thought about, considered or designed, and then actually produced or brought about. Its essence (it’s meaning and purpose) preceded its existence. But for at least one being (the human being) it’s the other way around. Sartre was an atheist, and in the absence of a designer / creator he argued that humans first of all exist, and then create meaning and purpose to their lives.

This meaning and purpose may only be of our own creation, but it has provided us with a profound survival advantage. Creating myths that explain both the origins of a tribe or hunter-gatherer community and its destiny, that provides a reason why it exists and what its purpose is, allows that tribe or community to work together as a community. Working co-operatively on a large scale allows that community to achieve far, far more than could be achieved by the sum of its parts, by individual members working as individuals. It has allowed communities to come together to create powerful nations, and has allowed us to develop technology of devastating power. In short, our myths and grand-narratives (to use Jean-François Lyotard’s phrase) have brought us to planetary domination. But in so doing they have been shown to be the charlatans they always were. Like some huge erotic tease, they have brought us to the brink…and then deserted us.

Such is the paradox of human existence. Our survival has been assured through the creation of myths, stories, grand-narratives that provide meaning and purpose to our existence, that, through encouraging us to work co-operatively, have allowed us (so far) to overcome all obstacles. But none of these narratives have, in any profound sense, been true. They have all been of our own creation, and, being fictions, are destined to come up against reality and be shown to be impotent. This is happening now – on a big scale. Capitalism, and particularly its latest incarnation, neoliberalism, has not only reached the limits of what it can ‘achieve’, but is now creating a negative response from those whose personal stories are grossly at odds with what its grand-narrative has led them to expect. But of even greater concern is the myth of omnipotence, the one that makes us feel special and all powerful, the one that makes us believe we have the right to dominance over all life on our planet, the right to extract as much of its resources as we are able, and the right to dump as much of our waste wherever we want to dump it. That one is now starting to bite us back big-time.

So what is the solution to this paradox? Well, in a sense, it’s to do what those people who are turning to astrology are doing. Except of course, that astrology is just an attempt to bury our heads in the sand – to pull the covers over our heads and return to dreamland. No, we do need a new grand-narrative, one that fully acknowledges both the fast approaching existential crisis and the existential paradox expressed by grand-narratives. Who wants to help me write it?

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