Time and Existentialist Creation
On a Thursday in Bangalore India, I sat in a conference room of an engineering firm, listening to a small cadre of managers talk in detail about their manufacturing prowess, when I experienced an epiphanic moment. For a handful of minutes, a vision of sorts flashed in my mind, where I was a therapist sitting in a chair in a quiet room and across from me was a patient. I asked the patient to contemplate the most precious commodity humans possess: time. I told this client that they needed to feel the anxiety of time and to deliberate long and deeply about how they were going to spend the remainder of their time in life. I then turned to an hourglass sitting on a table, turned it over and asked the patient to feel the grains of sand fall from the top and pile at the bottom.
While I have been a student of existentialist philsophy for a number of years, I gained a deeper appreciation for it in this course. In this essay, I’ll focus on three lessons I learned from this class. The first is the pressing urgency of time in the context of living authentically. After having learned of the importance of existence preceding essence, I feel more keenly the need to use my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). Did my boredom in India lead to that epiphany which caused me to consider my own grains of sand? The second lesson I learned from this course was about the need for choice and action on finishing my life project. While the project is en media res, I nonetheless have had a re-kindling of effort to work towards making that creative project into a reality. From Sartre I learned the concept of “bad faith” regarding how being the perpetual dreamer does nothing but whittle away the grains of sand in return for nothing. While dreaming of transcendence is needed, so too is action. The third lesson I learned from this course, via Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, was that I must always create with no expectation of fame, immortality or any type of reward. As Camus writes, “to work and create ‘for nothing’ … this is the difficult wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions” (Camus 103). The protagonist of the film The Shawshank Redemption fittingly summarizes these three lessons when he said, “get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Did I experience profound boredom in that conference room in India? Possibly. My enlightenment might have been what Heidegger called Augenblick or “a moment of vision” in which I was experiencing such unadulterated dullness that I achieved an awareness of what I am missing in life (Gibbs 602). Indeed, Camus seems to confirm that such moments of brilliant boredom cause one to snap back into existential reality. He writes in Myth of Sisyphus, “Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and one day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm - this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the 'why' arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (Camus 19). One scholar has noted the worth of boredom in that “it has specific value in awakening our ability to experience meaningfulness, often through its negation; when bored, we may question meaning or, more precisely, lack of meaning by indifference” (Gibbs 603). For me, in that awakening moment in India, a contrasting vision came to me, in which I found myself “taking a stance on being” and I felt the urgency to make progress on what is meaningful to me (607).
The second pivotal lesson I learned from this course is related to action and making progress on my life project. From Sartre, I learned of the concept of bad faith and more specifically, the bad faith of not acknowledging my facticity and only focusing on my pure transcendence – in other words, only wishing for some possibility but never acting (Flynn 74). Like the woman on a date, in Sartre’s example, to not commit to a choice and action in order to become something (i.e. the woman refusing to admit that she is a body who can enjoy the touch of a man and postponing commitment) is living in bad faith (Anderson 6:07). To live in good faith is to admit to myself that my facticity as a human requires making a choice towards transcendence via focused and diligent work in order to change and make dreams into a reality. Good faith requires choice and action.
The third lesson I learned was more of a reminder of a brutal truth. All too often, our life projects aim at more than existence. We strive for lasting fame, status, power or abundant wealth – to overcome and become more than our circumstances. Indeed, Nietzsche wrote much of this with his concept of will to power. I discussed this idea in one of my essays when I quoted Nietzsche, “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad?—All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that a resistance is overcome” (Wilkerson). However, Camus importantly clarifies that we ought not expect anything in return for our efforts. While the notion of the will to power may spur us to action, we must never forget that ultimately our creative project will be buried by space and time.
In a moving passage from The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explores the challenging question of whether a person can persistently create with no expectations – to create for no reason other than to create. The point demands the full quote be mentioned.
I want to know whether, accepting a life without appeal, one can also agree to work and create without appeal and what is the way leading to these liberties. I want to liberate my universe of its phantoms and to people it solely with flesh and blood truths whose presence I cannot deny. I can perform absurd work, choose the creative attitude rather than another. But an absurd attitude, if it is to remain so, must remain aware of its gratuitousness (Camus 93).
Taking this absurdist attitude is a revolt against our condition. Too many times, people, including myself, feel the utter despair of casting maximum effort into a project or presentation, only to have it briefly acknowledged and then forgotten about. It is tempting, for me, to assume an attitude of: better to have never loved than to have a broken heart. The “higher fidelity” Camus and Sisyphus teaches us is to not only recognize our absurd condition but to also rebel and create projects despite our strange state of being (111). A scene from the film A River Runs Through It captures this attitude nicely.
The father of the protagonist was also the schoolteacher for his sons. The older son (the main character named Norman) was taught how to write well by his father. In the film, Norman muses, “while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.” In the scene, Norman writes an essay and then hands the paper to his father. The father reads it, turns to his son and says, “half as long.” Norman returns to the project, labors over the paper and then walks back to his father to have it graded. The father reads it, pauses and says, “Again, half as long.” Norman drags his feet back to his desk and makes additional edits. Again, he appears before his father, who reads the essay. This time, the father judges the essay acceptable and says, “Good, now throw it away.” Normal wads the paper – representing his work, effort and time – and throws it in the trash bin and runs off to go fishing. We must have that same perspective for our projects – work diligently on them but be perfectly willing to let them go when the next adventure calls. This is to create gratuitously.
In conclusion, I’ve gleaned three lessons from this course. The first is the rekindling of pressing urgency with regards to the use of my time toward my own “meaning-giving project” (Crowell). It would seem boredom has played a role in this rekindling. The second lesson I learned was to be aware of “bad faith” on my part, and to choose and act with good faith towards making my creative project into a reality. Lastly, Camus reminded me that the existential absurdist must always create “for nothing” – I must embrace this perspective and brutal truth, knowing full well the benefit is in the creative process, not the enduring creation (Camus 103). Perhaps Nietzsche captures the spirit of urgency, action and the notion of creating for nothing, when he wrote,
the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be satisfied to live like shy deer, hidden in the woods! (Kaufmann 106)
A River Runs through It. Directed by Robert Redford, Columbia Pictures, 1992.
Anderson, Ellie. “Sartre’s Theory of Bad Faith.” Www.youtube.com, 29 Apr. 2022, youtu.be/UUXXmHkI-Ug?t=367. Accessed 25 July 2023.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1955. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books, 1979.
Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 9 June 2020, plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/.
Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Gibbs, Paul. "The Concept of Profound Boredom: Learning from Moments of Vision." Studies in Philosophy and Education, vol. 30, no. 6, 2011, pp. 601-613. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fconcept-profound-boredom-learning-moments-vision%2Fdocview%2F899187218%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D8289, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-011-9256-5.
Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. 1956. New York, Meridian Books, 1960.
The Shawshank Redemption. Directed by Frank Darabont, Columbia Pictures, 1994.
Wilkerson, Dale. “Nietzsche, Friedrich | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/.