Monday, February 4, 2013

Existentialist tango

A few weeks ago, I met a man I found very attractive. He was flirtatious, and I was interested. I backed off a bit when I realized that he was quite generally flirtatious, not just with me. But he showed that he missed my attentions, and I decided the attraction between us was more than superficial. Over the next couple of weeks, we gradually spent more and more time together. He seemed very happy that we were getting closer, and so was I. I became increasingly sure that something would happen between us.

About 2 ½ weeks into this little dance, we were standing talking with a couple of other people when one of them asked him about the arrangement he had with his boys’ mother: how much time did they spend with him and how much with her? My ears pricked up – I’d asked him about this earlier, and he’d given me a somewhat vague impression he was their primary carer, but hadn’t said anything about their mother. Now he responded: “Oh, no, they’re with us all the time.”

Us? For a few moments, I struggled to make sense of this. Then I wondered if I should ask for clarification: are you saying that you and your wife are together? I felt confused. But I realized that the meaning of his response was clear. I had fallen for an almost comically classic routine (though I certainly couldn’t see anything funny about it at the time): the married man who gives the impression that he’s single to keep the women interested.

I was furious – with myself as much as him. Why had I let myself be taken in? The answer seemed obvious: my need had made me vulnerable. It was all very well for him to flirt, and indulge a few little fantasies during the day (presuming that was as far as it went), and then go home to his wife and kids each night. It was different for me – I didn’t have a partner to go home to. I took the fantasy seriously – way too seriously. 

Earlier that day, the topic of languages had come up. He and I both speak a second language, but not the same one. He asked which language I spoke and how fluent I was. When I told him, he made what had seemed an odd response, “You’ll probably show me up.” How could my fluency in a language he didn’t speak at all possibly show him up? Now his comment made more sense to me. Yes, we spoke different languages all right…

Jean-Paul Sartre
It took me a couple of days to calm down. One of the things that helped me get some perspective on the situation was something another man I met recently said to me. He is an existentialist therapist, who incidentally mentioned his girlfriend during our first five minutes of conversation (a man of integrity!). Following Sartre, he believes that everything that happens to him is something he has chosen. His girlfriend finds this hard to accept (possibly she believes that some of the things that happen to him are things that she has chosen).

Had I chosen to be deceived? The question reminded me of the ideas of a 19th century philosopher, William Clifford, who argues for the “duty of inquiry” – that is, the principle that we shouldn’t simply accept what we are told, at least if there is any sign that the information may be unreliable, or if the potential consequences that flow from relying on it are significant. He goes as far as to say that the credulous are morally responsible for the corruption of society – it is they who tempt others into deception.

William Clifford
Hmm, was it possible that I was responsible not only for choosing to be deceived, but for creating, through my wishful thinking, a situation of temptation that a weak man had been unable to resist, until, like a benevolent sorceress, a third party had helped him to utter the magic words that would release him from the sticky web of naïve, but also self-interested, attention and expectation that I had been artlessly spinning around him? Who was the vulnerable party here, and who the seducer?

Or is it unhelpful to attempt to fix these labels on either one of us? Responsibility that is framed in terms of black and white, villains and victims, is always unstable. It’s constitutionally liable to unexpected reversals, as the philosophical arguments show. The truth is that we cooperated in creating the situation we found ourselves in. Neither of us was completely powerful in it, nor completely powerless. Even if we didn’t say the same things, we did speak a common language. It would be reductive to see it purely as a language of seduction and deception, though you could say that the syntax was dominated by these elements…

This doesn’t make me responsible for his failure to mention his wife, or cancel out his own responsibility in the situation, but actually I don’t think that this is Sartre’s point, either. The existentialist approach as I interpret it is rather to say that the other person’s responsibility is entirely his (or hers) – it’s not my concern, and I shouldn’t attempt to judge it, or get worked up about it. The only thing I can judge or work with is my own will – and I can and must always assume this responsibility. This means I should regard the other person’s actions as I might regard a rock falling from a cliff that has been weathered to the point of erosion (to take a metaphor from Nietzsche), or a lettuce that isn’t doing so well (Thich Nhat Hanh’s version). It makes no sense to get angry at a rock for falling, or blame a lettuce for wilting – it’s obvious that what you need to do is just get out of the way, or give the lettuce some water.

My own actions and reactions are another matter – I can see them from the inside, infused with consciousness. This is why my responsibility is total – because I can't see anyone else’s consciousness from the inside, my own consciousness marks the absolute limits of responsibility, in an existential sense. Admittedly, the problem of how to assume this total responsibility is somewhat mysterious. There’s no formula to tell you how to carry out existential responsibility. It seems more like an art form than a morality. And sometimes more like a bungee jump than an art form.

This is the existential challenge as I see it – it’s also the challenge of tango philosophy: to be willing to abandon self-deception in all its forms (including self-seduction), and take a leap, or at least a series of steps into the vast, clear air of consciousness. You might expect that tango philosophy would be bound up with seduction, but as in the dance of tango, the further you go into it, the less it’s about seduction, at least in any ordinary sense, and the more it’s about cultivating a highly responsive, clear and attentive state of mind.


Jason said...

* Hugs.

* "possibly she believes that some of the things that happen to him are things that she has chosen" - Made me laugh.

* I had no idea that William Clifford was a philosopher! You're right of course (Wikipedia tells me), but I only knew him as a mathematician. Interesting how a historical figure can be famous in two fields, but famous to separate audiences.

Juzzeau said...

Thanks, Jason!