The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

Celebrating Death Day

By Jin-yeong Yi

Theodor Kittelsen - The Pauper

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

—Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow

“Death is not our enemy—I think St. Paul was dead wrong. Death is our friend, death is our shadow, death is what gives life its meaning. You walk with death every day of your life, and ultimately you put your hand in the hand of death and you depart this world. And somehow, we don’t seem to have that relationship correct.”

—John Shelby Spong

“Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”

—Corliss Lamont, Freedom of Choice Affirmed

“Only death is real…”

—Hellhammer, “Messiah” (Apocalyptic Raids)

You might die today.

No matter how strong and healthy you are right now, God can throw you a lethal curveball at any time without warning, whether in the form of a devastating earthquake, a sociopathic burglar, a drunk driver, or a 1,000 foot sinkhole.

Whether we are young or old, it is never too early to think about death, because death can come at any time.

We might die within the next hour, for all we know. Maybe not. Either way, we’re running out of time, because we were born terminally ill. Every day is another 24 hours closer to the grave. Every day people die. Every day is Death Day.

The question isn’t whether we will die, because our deaths are all but a given, an inevitability. The question is how we will die. All of us will have to step down from the stage of life eventually, but what kind of exit will each of us make when we do? And in the interim, what will we do with the time we have left?

“We are all racing towards death. No matter how many great, intellectual conclusions we draw during our lives, we know that they’re all only man-made, like God. I begin to wonder where it all leads. What can you do, except do what you can do as best you know how.”

—John Hurt

“We cannot fix death, perhaps, but we can make life so good that death is paltry.”

—Spinoza Ray Prozak, “The Internet People”

“Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.”

—Tim O’Brien

Some light listening for Death Day:

Entombed – “Carnal Leftovers” (Left Hand Path)

Carcass – “Reek of Putrefaction” (Symphonies of Sickness)

Asphyx – “Embrace the Death” (Embrace the Death)

Hellhammer – “Triumph of Death” (Apocalyptic Raids)

Nihilist – “When Life Has Ceased” (Nihilist [1987-1989])

Cryptopsy – “Graves of the Fathers” (None So Vile)

Deicide – “Dead by Dawn” (Deicide)

Celtic Frost – “Necromantical Screams” (To Mega Therion)

Demigod – “Towards the Shrouded Infinity” (Slumber of Sullen Eyes)

Demilich – “And You’ll Remain… (In Pieces of Nothingness)” (Nespithe)

Morpheus Descends – “Ritual of Infinity” (Ritual of Infinity)

Gorguts – “Sweet Silence” (Obscura)

Discovering the World Within

By Jin-yeong Yi

“While I am clearly a creature who lives in a specific time and who occupies a particular place, I am not like the plants of the field or the beasts of the forest. I am not bound in the same way that they are bound by either time or space. With my mind I can move back into the past and forward into the future. I can even transport myself to places different from the one I presently occupy. So I experience something about my life that is both limitless and timeless.”

—John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision

“Each Star must go on its own orbit.”

—Aleister Crowley

In everyday life, I not infrequently step back from my current situation and surroundings and examine them. I am almost never satisfied with the picture I see. I find it natural to ask myself, Is this the only existence, the only world I will ever know?

I actually don’t think that I despise this world, even if it may look like I despise it. Besides giving me life, this world made my standards, and provided me with all of the inspiration I have.

That said, I consider this world to be a cradle. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a richer and grander existence than that of grinding away as a cog in the machine of civilization, forever a slave to financial and social obligations. I can imagine a more sublime and poetic existence than that of long commutes through the concrete desert, of paying bills, of dealing with human dysfunction, of reading about the latest horrors in the news. Above all, I can imagine a freer existence than that of having my desires restrained and restricted by the laws of nature. I can imagine a bigger world, a more beautiful world. It’s not difficult to imagine how humankind came up with the idea of supernatural realms, of an afterlife.

I’m not calling for a revolution here. As I have stated before, I am of the opinion that no human efforts can redeem the prison of the real. If anything, I am suggesting the obvious: that we can make the best of our term of incarceration. We can’t redeem prison, but we can redeem our time in prison, or at least try. What that entails will differ for each individual, given the variation of predilections among us. However, there are certain methods that most of us can use, in similar ways, to our advantage.

One of these methods is creativity. To my mind, there are few greater ways to redeem the time than taking the imagination and translating it into something concrete, whether it be a painting, a song, or a poem.

If you aren’t content with this world but don’t believe that you’ll ever be given another, then consider creating your own. Let’s face it: how likely is it that the countless factors directing the course of history will swing in your favor? Will the world you desire eventually come about if you work hard enough, or just wait long enough? Probably not. It seems clear that you’re going to have to take matters into your own hands, in the here and now.

One of the greatest saving graces of being human, in my view, is the ability to dream up places other than the one we inhabit. Though these parallel universes don’t exist outside of our minds, they are real enough for us to live in, thanks to another saving grace of being human: the ability to mentally transport ourselves beyond the boundaries of space and time. That is why we can find so much value in the creations of a J. R. R. Tolkien, a Henry Darger, or an H. P. Lovecraft.

I encourage you to never fall into the trap of thinking that this mundane world is all you have. Recognize that you can fashion your own world and live in it–even in the midst of the daily grind. If you haven’t already, why not start today by answering this question for yourself: If you could, at this moment, leave this world for your own world, what would your world be like, and what would life there be like?

Discovering the God Within

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Indeed it is very difficult, if not impossible to prevent man from making himself the sole model of his divinity. Montaigne says ‘man is not able to be other than he is, nor imagine but after his capacity; let him take what pains he may, he will never have a knowledge of any soul but his own.’ Xenophanes said, ‘if the ox or the elephant understood either sculpture or painting, they would not fail to represent the divinity under their own peculiar figure that in this, they would have as much reason as Polyclitus or Phidias, who gave him the human form.’ It was said to a very celebrated man that ‘God made man after his own image;’ ‘man has returned the compliment,’ replied the philosopher. Indeed, man generally sees in his God, nothing but a man. Let him subtilize as he will, let him extend his own powers as he may, let him swell his own perfections to the utmost, he will have done nothing more than make a gigantic, exaggerated man, whom he will render illusory by dint of heaping together incompatible qualities. He will never see in such a god, but a being of the human species, in whom he will strive to aggrandize the proportions, until he has formed a being totally inconceivable.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”

—Bruce Lee

“I do not need to pretend that I am anyone other than myself. I do not need to feel insecure about my perceptions. The self-cultivation that I undertake is to perfect who I am, not to become someone other than who I am.”

—Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao

Surely most of us can name at least one individual, living or dead, real or fictional, who we view as a role model. The gods and saints in various religious traditions specifically serve this function. The problem is that, as a unique collection of opinions, experiences, abilities, tendencies, preferences, standards, etc., we can only go so far in emulating those we regard as role models. Chances are, you don’t have an ideal that is tailored specifically for the unique individual that is you.

Remember that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the tribe of Australopithecus awaken one morning to find a massive black monolith outside of their cave? I don’t know how exactly a motionless, monochromatic mass of matter inspired these hominids to invent tools, thereby entering the next stage of evolution, but I surmise that the answer lies in this feature of the monolith: perfection. Unlike the crude rock formations of the African desert, the monolith was without flaw–it was perfect in both shape and composition. Perhaps the tremendous contrast between the two taught the hominids the difference between that which is undesigned and that which is designed. The monolith taught them what it meant to have a goal to pursue, an ideal to work toward. It taught them the meaning of inspiration and ambition, and the possibilities that emerge therefrom.

Don’t have a God to revere and look to as a perennial source of inspiration? Then consider creating one. What to use as your template? Yourself. Take the person that is you and idealize him or her. Make this idealized you worthy of the Greek pantheon. Think about everything you regard as your shortcomings and flaws, about everything that you would change if you could. Subtract them, then add all the attributes and abilities that you wish you had, while maximizing the ones you already have. Don’t hold back. Godlike intelligence, creativity, strength, beauty, you name it. But make sure that the Being who emerges from your imagination is essentially recognizable as yourself. It should still be you–only an incomparably superior version of you, the highest you. You as a God or a Goddess.

By doing this, you’ve given yourself a specific, concrete ideal to be inspired by, an ultimate standard to strive toward–to evolve toward–each day of your life. You now have your own Monolith.

Destiny in a Meaningless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”

—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.

As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.

Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.

When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.

While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.

“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?”  As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.

Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.

The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”[1]

Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.

As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”[2]

I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.

If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.

I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:

“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”

Notes

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)

[2] Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont