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Tag: existentialism

consumption, the void, and palahniuk’s choke

Victor is a sex addict. He attends 12-step meetings, not in the hope of recovery but to hook-up with other addicts on the bathroom floor of the community center while the meeting is going on in the room next door. Victor scrapes together a modest income by working at a colonial theme park with his sex-addict friend Denny and supplementing this income significantly by dining at high-end restaurants where he causes himself to choke on the food until some good Samaritan steps forward to save him. Victor realizes that once a person saves him, they feel responsible for him and will send him money in the mail for years to come. He spends his evenings keeping an accounting of his many saviors, the details of their meetings (should he run into them again on the street), and the financial support each offers.

Victor lives in his mother’s house. His mother is hospitalized, as she is losing her mind (or perhaps she lost it years ago.) Victor’s life was anything but normal–falling in and out of foster homes as his mother fell in and out of prison–a result of her conspiracy-theory-related reactions to the world around her. Victor pays for his mother’s hospitalization, and it is draining him.

Victor needs the money, but he needs more than that, as he consumes and is consumed by his very existence. Victor Mancini is Chuck Palahniuk’s hero in his bestselling novel Choke.

There’s no escaping from constant escape. Distracting ourselves. Avoiding confrontation. Getting past the moment.

As expected, Palahniuk does not disappoint here in his creative storytelling, laced with strong social commentary and unflinching language. It’s a seedy story of desperation, postmodern alienation, and our frustrated search for identity and connection. What drew me into this story was the unity of the tale and the argument of the narrative (and the darkness of the protagonist to be honest). Victor is constantly struggling with (avoiding) his “4th step” in his 12-step sex addiction program. This is the step where you are supposed to write the “complete and relentless story of your life as an addict” (276); he doesn’t want to do this; he resists it. He is bent on finding another story to tell. He wants to know who he really is. He turns to his mother for this, but she has filled his life with lies since as long as he can remember, and now she is losing her mind. As Victor’s mental and physical suffering builds and as his mother’s condition worsens, he comes to believe that he is the second coming of Christ. This hopeful delusion gives him a temporary sense of meaning in his life; however, it is based on lies told to him regarding the contents of his mother’s diary (written in Italian) interpreted by Paige, a mental patient pretending to be his mother’s doctor. When he learns the truth that his existence is, in fact, little more than it seems to be, he hits rock bottom and comes face to face with the void of his life.

The colonial theme park where Victor and Denny work represents the artifice of our world and mocks the illusion of puritanical ethics. We build the fiction of our lives, and we pretend that it is as real as anything, but it’s not; it’s a constructed reality–an illusion, the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. We enjoy the shadows and want to believe that they mean something, but what? Towards the end, Victor sees the shadows and begins to realize “there’s no escaping from constant escape. Distracting ourselves. Avoiding confrontation. Getting past the moment. Jacking off. Television. Denial” (281).

We don’t need to accept old narratives. What we build could be anything.

He consumes and is consumed–meaningless sex without satisfaction, food swallowed in whole chunks that he never tastes but instead chokes upon, good Samaritans who care about a man who does not exist, people he pretends to be for his mother and the other patients couched deep in their dementia. And then there is Denny who decides to rebuild his reality. He starts compulsively collecting rocks–boulders even. He carries one swaddled in a blanket like a baby. It means something to him. Eventually Denny begins building a stone house on a vacant parkway in town. For him, it’s the act of building that matters–the process–not the structure. When it’s torn down in the final pages by a mass of people out for revenge on Victor for the lies he’s told, Denny, Victor, and the rest of the sordid cast start anew–recognizing that “what we build could be anything” (293).

I enjoyed Choke because, like most books I enjoy, it lingered with me for a week or two and gave me a new lens through which to see my world–even if just for a while.

brothers karamazov, let us never forget each other…

Parricide, greed, lecherous desire, the existence of God, the existence of oneself, the interconnectedness of all humanity, the very meaning of life–thinking on such topics is bound to leave a mark. It has on me. Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, I had the real pleasure of taking in a production of The Brothers Karamazov at the Looking Glass Theater. It is an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel by the same name. I had never read the the novel, nor had I visited the Lookingglass before this evening. I dare say I left an affected man.

I can go on about the surface pleasures of this theatergoing experience–the affordable $10 parking (once validated), the $1 bottomless cup of Starbucks coffee to be enjoyed during the show, the [singlepic=241,300,300]pleasant and friendly staff of the Lookinglass itself, the intimacy of the black-box theater setting nestled within the historic grandeur of Chicago’s Water Tower. These things alone made for a nice night out for me, but, indeed, it was the combined power of Dostoevsky’s timeless tale and the sheer might of the ensemble performance that left its mark indelibly upon my soul. (Err, that is to say, I really really liked this play.)

Heidi Stillman, ensemble member and Lookingglass Artistic Director, describes the play as “… a murder mystery but the ideas swirling around and within the plot have to do with the existence of God, the [singlepic=242,300,300]meaning of life, the broadness and contradictions in human nature, and the interconnectedness of humanity – that we are ‘all responsible for all’ – in other words, kind of all the biggest, deepest life questions.” Wow, you really couldn’t ask for more. It is a gripping and epic tale of three brothers reunited in a turmoil of murder and deceit centered around their father and set into motion over greed and lecherous desire. The story has all the makings of good old-fashioned family tale–perfect for the Thanksgiving weekend and the holiday season overall, wouldn’t you say?

The neat thing about this play is that despite all of its sinister darkness, it manages to end on a hopeful note. There is a real message in this story about how we, that is to day all humanity, are connected in some important ways–that we need each other and that we need to be kind to each other. The final scene of the play, known from Dostoevsky’s novel as the “The Speech at the Stone,” was most moving to me.[singlepic=243,300,300] “There’s no reason,” proclaims Alyosha Karamozov at the graveside of the young Ilusha, “why we should become bad, is there, boys? Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other!” All of our lives touch each others and are interconnected in ways that we too often forget Alyosha reminds us. The price paid by the characters in Dostoevsky’s tale for this painful reminder was an enormous one.

Apart from a storyline and theme that left me contemplating the bigger questions of life, my time at the Lookingglass reignited in me an appreciation for the magic of theater. Within the black box of the Lookingglass there were little more than a table, a chair, and an L-shaped wall partition on wheels. The stage was sparse (and not even a stage in the traditional sense). The illusion created, however, was breathtaking; movement on stage was executed with absolute precision; scene transitions were seamless; control of temporal duration was masterful; simple shifts in lighting and an amazing original score composed by Rick Sims completed the experience. Here’s a sample of the music:

original score by Rick Sims

The Lookingglass Theater’s production of The Brothers Karamozov will stick with me for some time. I look forward to visiting them again soon to be affected by another theatrical experience, to pause for a moment, to lose myself in the rapture of an illusion, to contemplate the bigger questions.

reading waiting for godot by samuel beckett

Sneaking in a little more summer reading with an existential classic–Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s been on my to-read list for years and on my shelf for almost as long. I thought I’d move it to the top of the list.

Is my life anything more than a distraction–an endless array of meaningless preoccupations to keep my mind off the reality of nothingness? Beckett might think so. I completed Waiting for Godot about a week back and have been meditating over its message ever since. Is it a dark message he sends? I suppose it’s how you look at it. It does, however, force the careful reader to reconsider how he or she spends time.

Vladimir and his dear friend Estragon throughout the play are looking for diversions to sustain [singlepic=150,200,200]  Beckett in a Paris Cafe
  Photo Credit: John Minihan
themselves–to take their minds off the waiting and to fend off the terrible possibility of thought itself. Beckett depicts life through his characters as just that–a waiting game, but what we are waiting for never comes (and likely does not even exist). To realize the fact of this nothingness can result in two possible outcomes: 1) a complete liberation whereby we understand that we are free to choose and, thereby, responsible for our own lives, or 2) a complete undoing of all that we’ve put stock in (blind faith)–an unraveling of the idea that something bigger than ourselves exists, something to wait for, something to give our lives meaning. This latter outcome is what drives us in search of a “good bit of rope” with which to hang ourselves; however, it is the not knowing of whether Godot will come to save us or not that keeps us in a constant state of waiting, diversion, distraction–a dynamic balance between thought and decision. It is sheer ambivalence that keeps most of us moving through each day without much of the dreaded thought–day in and day out. Of course we find things to pass the time or, as Estragon says, “We always find something…to give us the impression we exist” (77).

Too much awareness is a crippling disease.

Thought is a scary thing. It can be a real burden–quite the contrary to the bliss of ignorance. In Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from the Underground, the protagonist says, “I am firmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease.” More concisely interpreted in Gary Walcow’s film version of the novella, our underground man says, “Too much awareness is a crippling disease.” And so it is. But one might equally argue that a lack of thought–a lack of awareness–paralyzes us in this eternal waiting game or, if you prefer, sends us into perpetual, yet meaningless, movement (see Sisyphus) searching for meaning where none can be found. What do we do in the meantime?

Estragon: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of being silent.
Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
Estragon: It’s so we won’t think.
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
Vladimir: When you seek you hear.
Estragon: You do.
Vladimir: That prevents you from finding.
Estragon: It does.
Vladimir: That prevents you from thinking. […] What is terrible is to have thought. (Beckett 68–71)
Vladimir: We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work. (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (Beckett 92)

Beckett’s play left me thinking hard about how I spend my time. In fact, this concern has been a preoccupation of mine for the better part of my life. I don’t believe in wasting time. I also don’t believe in the false hope of urgency–as if anything really matters that much. Am I fundamentally an existentialist? Oh, I don’t know. I can probably answer that as easily as I can answer the question of whether I’m a vegetarian. (I don’t eat red, pink, or white meat except for fish and enjoy my eggs over easy.) “Once you label me, you negate me,” writes Kierkegaard. Do I think Beckett and his contemporaries promote a philosophy of despair? No, I really don’t. I believe Beckett sends a message of hope–a wakeup call that we all better start living our lives responsibly, deliberately, awake and alert, and make something of them, lest we fall prey to that bit of rope or squander all our time waiting by the roadside for someone or something that will never come.

On a related note, let me point you to one of my favorite essays of late by Penn Jillette. It is truly a life affirming essay about belief. Give it a listen/read: “There is No God”.

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