Tag Archives: existentialism


One of the real troubles I have with life (as opposed to the fake troubles, naturally) is that being a person doesn’t come with an instruction manual. At best, I’ve got a copy of the Quick Start guide that came in the box; although it’s surprisingly thick, there’s only one page per language, and every one is (badly) translated from Korean.

Some of the things in it aren’t nearly as true as I’d hoped (“The secret to lifelong happiness is behaving yourself and getting good grades at school.”) or worse, are just-flat out lies. It is amazing how long it took me to realise this.

Not to mention that there are whole sections of life that just aren’t covered at all. What do in case of X, or if Y starts happening, how do I deal with it? What if I discover I’m a Z?

So, absent a handy guidebook, I’ve been doing what I always do: analysing. I’m trying to figure out exactly what my personality flaws are, in an attempt to ultimately do something about them. In essence, trying to rediscover the guidebook using trial & error, deduction from first principles, and plain guesswork. Knowledge is power, so I reckon. The weird thing is that knowing what my flaws are doesn’t necessarily help; it just means I feel terribly self-aware as something gets screwed up (“Ahah! I feel like shit because of this!”), which is intellectually stimulating, but doesn’t really stop me feeling like shit. Actually, the process of intellectually dwelling can really just make things worse.

It doesn’t really help that I got terribly existential a few years back (as confused young men can, when they have access to either a well-stocked library or bookshop) and discovered that we all have absolute free will; in any situation you have total freedom of action. It’s simultaneously liberating and terrifying: absolute freedom of action is one of the most scary things imaginable. You become utterly aware that there is no such thing as following orders or going with the crowd; you’re making choices, all the time, and by freely making a choice you are assuming the awful weight of the responsibility that goes with that choice.

So if you screw up, it’s your fault. Even if you don’t know how you could have avoided screwing up, or if another choice could have screwed things up worse. The fact is, you did things the way you did (or didn’t do), and you’ve got to reap the consequences.

What I wish is that I could have access to a whole set of parallel lives so that I could try every possible action and figure out which one works best. An empirical approach to life, so that it could be led perfectly.

Although thinking about it, that’s just the plot to Groundhog Day.

Anyways, as I was writing this I thought of Neil Gaiman‘s “Instructions”, a narrated trailer for which I’ve embedded below, and it’s really marvellous.

My next post should be entitled “Damascus” and I’ve meant to type it out for a while. It’s been swimming about in my head.

Paradoxical Freedom

The odd thing about suddenly finding oneself a man of leisure is now that the exams are over is that it rather takes the fire out of things.

When you have a day-to-day purpose, it gives a underlying meaning to which you can anchor the structure and events of your life. Remove that purpose, that skeleton, or holding-pin, and everything else is suddenly adrift. It’s pretty unnerving, all in all. Another way of saying the same thing is that procrastination seems a lot more fun when you have something to be procrastinating from.

Sartre had a pretty good grasp of this phenomenon, all in all. His point was that life is always unanchored, but we like to pretend that it isn’t. He called that “mauvais foi”, or “bad faith”. Honestly, I haven’t read any Sartre for ages because my copy of Nausea is… elsewhere, and Being and Nothingness is trapped in book backlog hell. He’s probably still my favourite, though.

Anyways, exams are over, which means suddenly I have to figure out what to do with my time all by myself. So far, that’s mostly meant staying in bed stupidly late, which is frankly just crap.

I have though had plenty of good times with friends, including a barbeque, drinks in Kensington Gardens, a Champagne and Suit/Dress party, and a trip to the Tate Modern (see http://facebook.com/asimpson for pictures). With any luck there will be more such happy occasions soon.

Guess I don’t actually have a lot to say about stuff right now. This is one of the more fundamental issues with Twitter – it acts rather like a release valve, letting go some of the pressure that would otherwise build up into a blog post. Ah well.


  • Have more good times.
  • Play videogames.
  • Read books.
  • See bits of London I haven’t seen yet (like Marx’s grave)

Shifting Sand

It’s amazing the extent to which human beings attempt to rationalise the random, unpredictable and amoral universe in which we find ourselves. It’s a tendency that’s written all over; our labelling of the days, mapping of the earth, the advance of science, the teachings of religion. Somebody with more schooling in psychology than me could probably say it better, but we essentially we create a mental model, and we then rationalise our experiences with respect to that model.

To put it more simply, we see what we expect to see. A great example of this is in an ad being shown in London cinemas to promote awareness of cyclists; you’re shown a clip of two teams passing basketballs, and you’re asked to count how many times the team dressed in white make a pass. It’s fairly easy to get this right, but then the ad asks you if you spotted the moonwalking bear. Sure enough, when they replay the clip, a person in a bear costume does indeed moonwalk right across the shot.

I think it’s interesting the ways in which our mental models of life constrain us, mould our ways of thinking. The model becomes the framework of our lives. It shapes our subjective experiences of objective events, maps a rough outline of our future. The model makes sense of the past, and makes sense of the future.

I suppose that what’s most painful about a life-changing event, like a break-up or a death, is not the event itself, but the dislocation of the change forced on our mental model.

For a while, the insulating blanket of the rational model is ripped away, and you’re exposed to the full dizzying, vertiginous, inexplicable randomness of life, and the intense pain of living in a world where you truly have freedom of action – where any course of action is possible. The past is no longer what you thought it was, and the future once again becomes a true unknown, and what’s more painful, it’s not just unknown, but unknowable. The idea that what we perceive as reality is just a subjective interpretation is nauseating when you fully realise it – when you feel reality shifting like sand under your feet.

I don’t know about anyone else, but as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, I find the idea of a truly unknowable future terrifying – the freedom of action is paralysing, not liberating. I guess this is why reading existential literature makes me feel better at these kinds of moments – it’s rather like having a support group for my otherwise rather private insanity.