A Reflection on “Existentialism and Time”

I’ve made a few podcasts in the course of taking a class on Existentialism this semester, and each time I learn something new about the process of producing my own podcast from start to finish. Even after working for others on any different aspect of production, from editing to audio engineering to being interviewed yourself, you still learn what it really takes to bring a project to fruition when you do everything yourself. This podcast was by far the longest and most abstract podcast I’ve made so far—all previous philosophical podcasts focused mainly on explaining to my guest a singular quote or concept from a specific Existentialist philosopher. In this project, I wanted to bring together multiple ideas and multiple thinkers in order to provide some kind of survey of how the Existential attitude deals with time. It’s a topic I have found particularly interesting in Existential philosophy, and it tied in nicely with how Existentialism can be uniquely practical, so I chose that as the driving force of the narrative arc.

This was the hardest part—really making sure each concept wasn’t just thrown in back to back in one long explanatory ramble session, but was connected by a larger narrative goal. Having one concept related to the past, present, and future gave this internal structure more shape, and within each topic connecting them with some conceptual question hopefully propelled the narrative between the sections. Using a semi-personal introduction (even if tongue-in-cheek) attempted to give the whole thing an arc of drawing out something true, nuanced, yet also useful to how we think about the world around us. Beyond that, I just tried as I did in all other podcasts to create a humorous, upbeat, entertaining, but also informative tone to all of the explanatory sections of the podcast. My favorite element that might not first be noticed was trying to incorporate clock-like elements into the music, such as ticking sounds or similar repetitive musical elements.

To see the template used during the recording of this episode, click here.

A Story about Memory (and the Lack Thereof)

I would like to tell you a story, a personal one, in which the personae dramatis are your narrator himself and his mother. It’s not a particularly grand story, but rather one of everyday conflict, the kind that every person and their parental unit has all too many similar. 

The story begins with an extraordinary ability of mine: the ability to forget. This ability doesn’t encompass all kinds of forgetting—my long-term memory can be quite good on occasion, and my working memory also proves itself adequate for the purposes of test-taking, writing, and the like. It is in the ambiguous space between the two, the time after my attention switches to another topic and before I am forced to recall again, that my brain seems to be quite challenged. 

It only takes me a handful of seconds to remember plenty of examples from even just the past few weeks, most in the realm of losing things: over break, I left my keys in the Bay Area because I put them in a drawer and forgot about it; just before break I had lost a water bottle, so I brought another back and proceeded to lose that one; I forgot where I locked my bike up over the break, and spent two days looking for it when I got back; and when someone asked where I finally found it, I told them the wrong location only to remember two days later I had found it in a different place. This might seem like a long list, but to me it’s actually rather short, and I’m pretty sure upon reflection a few days in the future I’d find I have forgotten multiple instances of similar forgetfulness. This might seem frustrating, and it can be—but often, I haven’t even noticed that I’ve lost or forgotten anything until much later. My attention shifts and stays so until slapped in the face with a reminder. Just a few days ago I spent a good 30 minutes organizing an allergy shot appointment for later in the afternoon, only to forget to take the necessary premedications, which I’ve taken for every appointment over the past year and a half. Somehow all of that thought was not enough of a slap to bring the topic to mind and keep it there. 

You can imagine how deeply I felt Nietzsche’s undertaking of the concept of forgetfulness. For Nietzsche, forgetfulness is a strong and resolute human force. It is built into our minds not as a defect or shortcoming of the faculty of memory, but rather an active faculty of its own merit, one that plays a key role in the genealogy of morality and punishment that Neitzsche is attempting to describe. For if one is to understand how humans came to have a sense of morality, a conscience, one first has to understand how humans came to have the right to make promises—i.e., the ability to make promises and keep them in the first place. 

Nietzsche makes a superficially obvious point: if one makes and keeps a promise, there must be the “continuance of something desired once,” a desire to do something that is unbroken from the time of the desire to the time of the action (58). He calls this the memory of the will. This ability isn’t something to be taken for granted, as there are many necessary cognitive abilities to be considered that only developed relatively recently on the scale of human evolution: the ability to “distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distance eventualities as if they belonged to the present,” etc.

Even once we developed these abilities, the force of forgetfulness fights back. Forgetfulness, Nietzsche argues, has its own distinct functionality, and is in fact a “robust form of health.” It allows us to flush our minds of the old and use the space we have for new and cognitively complex tasks. One only has to read once Borges’ story Funes the Memorious to cling tightly and gratefully to this ability. 

Let me now return to the personae I introduced at the outset: my mother and I. You can imagine my habit of forgetfulness caused some amount of strife in our family, only because it correlated so heavily with my inability to follow through on promises. Not weighty, important promises; but if unsuccessfully asked to complete household chores after I finish my homework more than a handful of times, it would probably to any reasonable person like I was skirting responsibility. At 5:30 I would agree to set the table for dinner at 6:30 wholeheartedly intending to do it, only to get sucked into whatever project or assignment needed my attention and forget the whole thing happened. 

I’m not arguing that I had no responsibility to begin with, but rather that the failure was negligence to adapt that a younger me would have to counteract and grow beyond over time. I now have better systems of checks and reminders, strategies to make sure I don’t simply let things flow out of my consciousness too liberally. I seemed to be too robustly healthy for my own good, and certainly for those around me.

Nietzsche might be on board with this practical solution, but it is not quite what he is concerned with. He wanted to know not how to retain memories in the face of forgetfulness, but how memories were created in a more indelible way. How something of a conscience, a moral tool that diligently remembers what is good to do and bad to do, came about. This is how memory is connected to the genealogy of punishment: for Nietzsche, the strongest and most comment mnemotechnic is pain. This is how we as humans remember the societal and religious decrees of “do’s” and “don’ts”—it was burned into our memory through bloody practices carried out over centuries. Personally, I find this is exactly why I do a much better job of remembering important promises than lower-stakes ones. While the latter can cause conflict when often repeated, the former is so painful to break out of forgetfulness even on the part of the negligent that one scarcely makes the same mistake twice. 

This account is both a powerful explanation of the sociological history of humanity and punishment, but also a rather incisive and thoughtful analysis of human nature. Our bloody, gruesome histories that might otherwise be hard to justify or explain for Nietzsche follows directly from our innate cognitive abilities and our desire to live and function in (hierarchical) groups. Nietzsche looks not at what we wish morality and conscience were, or even what they are now, but out of what necessary conditions they arose. When seen with such clarity, it seems hard to view the unimaginable cruelty and suffering we humans inflicted and continue to inflict on each other in any other light.

For my part, I’m just glad I was allowed to remain forgetful. It is a virtue of my mother’s forgiveness (and perhaps forgetfulness of her own) to have avoided using this tact, however successful it would have been and may be for other parents, on my own memory and lack thereof.

Kierkegaard and Love: Marriage as the Essential Unfaithfulness

Kierkegaard makes quite a striking claim in the midst of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and in fact sets it aside to lie inconspicuously in a footnote: “the incidental unfaithfulness [in an erotic relationship] is to love someone else.” 

I have to imagine someone who has been cheated on wouldn’t exactly call that unfaithfulness incidental, but Kierkegaard somehow goes a step further. Not only is loving another incidental, but the essential unfaithfulness is not adultery, but marriage. For such a counterintuitive claim, it gives me some semblance of reassurance in his logic to know that Kierkegaard himself followed through on his principle and never married; yet it still takes quite a commitment to one’s own ideas to denounce what most consider the great culmination of love as the very thing that undermines it. This is the commitment that one might see in Camus and other existentialists, the commitment that finds the seams in the dome-shaped firmament and realizes it’s made of cloth and wool and plaster. I imagine Kierkegaard would too appreciate the image of him as the waywardly determined man poking his head through the edge of the sky. 

So, what now: marriage is divorce? How did we get here? 

Kierkegaard relegates this comment to a footnote precisely because it serves only to illustrate and add nuance to his claims about the difference between a subjective thinker and an objective thinker. This distinction later becomes important when he argues about truth and the leap of faith required in eternal decision-making. It is important because it establishes something he believes other thinkers, whom he calls “speculative” thinkers, seemed to have forgotten: that a thinker must exist.

Quite an oversight, one might think. Kierkegaard would agree. But this isn’t a trivial clarification: Kierkegaard notes that, as subjective thinkers, we exist in our own thinking. If we have an objective thought—say, there’s a big cloud in the sky—then we as existing can’t help but also be in relation to that thought. We don’t just have a thought and deposit it into the universe as a fully formed idea. We have thoughts about our thoughts—maybe, you reflect on the related bigness of that cloud to other clouds and why you consider it big, or the fact that it could seem big right now because you left your glasses at home. This is what Kierkegaard calls “double-reflection.”

Double-reflection gives your experience a unique quality: you-ness. You have your specific relation to your own thoughts that nobody else has, even if they have access to your objective thought through communication. Nor can you fully communicate your you-ness in relation to your thought: you can try, artistically approximate and express the gist or a facet of the relation, but you as existing are always changing. You are never static. This is another revelation of your existence as a thinker Kierkegaard thinks we have overlooked—since you exist, and you are always changing, your subjective experience can never be expressed as an objective statement. Objective statements are final, complete. You are becoming. 

Now Kierkegaard believes this is enough to fully render his striking damnation of marriage. Love, he says, is a quality of a subjective thinker. That much seems intuitive. It exists in double-reflection as inwardness, your you-ness and its relation to the always-changing thoughts and feelings you have towards someone else. You could try to communicate it—and looking back upon the history of art and literature, we seem inclined to do so—but you must do so indirectly, what Kierkegaard aptly calls “artfully”. You never get the certainty of direct, objective communication. You never encapsulate the whole idea. You never get assurance of truth. 

And what, says Kierkegaard, is marriage but assurance? 

What is marriage but the desire for certainty? In saying “I do,” you express objectively something that simply has no objective meaning. It is taking a subjective experience wholly tied with your inwardness and becoming and attaching it externally to a set of assurances and standards that already exist. In fact, Kierkegaard argues that it is no longer love. Love is your inwardness, and marriage makes it external. And in this way, it is unfaithfulness, and of the highest degree: because your partner loving someone else is not as unfaithful as your partner no longer loving you. 

Is this the opinion of marriage I might have? No, probably not. It seems like one could have a more charitable view of marriage, one that perhaps views it as an artful statement in itself, consummated between both in the relationship and approximately expressing their connected inwardnesses. But it is certainly a cautionary tale against marriage as it has been employed in the past, as something that binds you to a particular narrative of love. This is the same insight Camus expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus when discussing how each instance of love has a different combination of experience, and as such it would be foolish to categorize each instance under the same term. It is an insight that comes from holding true to certain evidence facts of existence and not allowing them to be forgotten when coming to conclusions you don’t want to consider. For me, it is a key characteristic of existentialist thinkers; the one that does make you feel like, when reading their words, you are also slowly poking your head through the stars painted on cloth that shields us from a more Empyrean reality. 

Jazz is Freedom. You Think about That.

I have included below songs to listen to along with this post, if you are that kind of reader. I am that kind of writer, and listened to them in the making of these thoughts. If the absurd has a sound, I am willing to bet it would be Monk. 

Of all Camus’ thoughts on absurd creation, one particular paragraph struck me. I’m no accomplished creator or artist in any grand fashion, but I do find myself doing it often and in a handful of forms. One of those is music, what Camus calls an art “devoid of lessons.” I don’t necessarily agree. I sometimes believe the medium can be a message in itself, and while the work serves no direct propositional thought, simply engaging as an audience member can be a lesson on its own.

Camus wants to investigate if and how an absurd creator would go about creating an absurd piece of art, one that is “for nothing,” “has no future,” and yet also remains absurd. It seems as if he believes that the art must function as thematically aligned with the absurd, in that it remains wholly indifferent throughout. This was Dostoevsky’s perceived shortcoming. His work “propounds the absurd question,” but is only “existential.” In its conclusion, it does not escape appeal.

But this investigation applies only to the medium that Camus sees as tempted to explain and not describe: fiction. He, rather, sees other media of “form and color” as only descriptive, only involved in mimicking the experience of the creator. Of these, music is one. 

The paragraph that struck me particularly, and reminded me of the song above, was Camus’ insight into why exactly art is a useful practice in maintaining the absurd. The absurd is described as a tension, the edge of a chasm, a moment—all of this one must diligently maintain. To not lose awareness, Camus suggests a practice of “unfailing alertness”. It calls for “daily effort, self-mastery, a precise element of the limits of truth, measure, and strength.” It is a practice of artistic ascesis. In my experience as a jazz musician, this struck me as a wonderfully on-point assessment of what the musical genre entails, and a fairly damning assertion of why I’m a mediocre one. 

When I speak of jazz here, know that I have come to the conclusion that all musical genres are essentially equivalent, and while some have similar aims and desired outcomes as jazz, some do not. In my experience classical is the closest in practice. Jazz as music that is inseparably linked to tradition, and to play and understand one needs to not only learn the skills and techniques but also the repertoire and the history. This is necessitated by the practice itself: when a jazz musician sits down with other musicians, there is a large canon of classic songs, “standards”, they are expected to know by heart. Hundreds and hundreds of songs, all complex in form, structure, and harmony (although some quite more than others). 

I began playing jazz in middle school, not too long after I picked up drumsticks and sat down at a kit. It just so happened the local rock band summer camp had filed for bankruptcy, and the jazz camp was still available for signups. I continued throughout middle school, but only in bands and camps. In other words, I had no discipline. Nobody forced me to practice, so I didn’t. I made my way only because I had played for a decent amount of time and figured some things out on my own. In high school, I worked my way up to better bands, more difficult camps. At one I had a teacher named Ndugu Chancler, an elderly drummer with an effusive, warm, and tightly disciplined disposition. He was the kind of teacher for whom a drummer in over his head like myself would sit two rows back, as to hope not to be called up to the kit to demonstrate. 

Ndugu was a great. This camp was known for attracting some legends of the music to come and teach—the year after Ndugu’s passing in 2018, a drummer who toured with Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins was his replacement. Ndugu himself is the drummer on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. He was larger than life, and when he sat down at the kit at the age of 66, his solo was all anyone talked about walking out of the theater. 

I was 15 when I attended Ndugu’s masterclasses for a week. I remember no specifics from camp save for what Ndugu said over that week. He insisted on every drummer in the room knowing all 40 essential drum rudiments, and any student who claimed to know them was called up to play them as slowly as possible to as fast as possible and back down again. He insisted on each drummer not only being able to recognize each standard, but sing it, as well as know the lyrics if there were any. He insisted that this was something to practice every day of every week, to pick a rudiment and song and drill it until you could move on to the next one. Of course, he led by example: there wasn’t a standard he couldn’t sing, a rudiment he hadn’t mastered, and when asked of practice, he detailed how he woke up at 6am every day since he was a teenager to get extra practice time in around school and work. Even doing his homework, he had a practice pad in his lap. 

Ndugu, I came to learn, was a jazz ascetic. And he truly recognized that to be great, or to even be good, one needed to aspire to the same level of asceticism. And he wanted his students to be great. 

In high school, I began to warm up to Ndugu’s kind of asceticism. I began to really practice; to sit with rudiments, at about as slow as I could play them, and continue for as long as I could. The connection to mindfulness isn’t a stretch. It is a task wholly dependent on focus and the mind. It takes exactly what Camus describes as an act of creation: “patience and lucidity.” It takes discipline. And to be honest, I’ve never been much of a disciplined creator. I do it because I enjoy the moment, and I practice when I have time to devote to it. I find, however, there is value in just the attempt. I may not be an ascetic, and hence, I am pretty mediocre on the scale of things. But to sit and remind oneself of the practice of discipline, and to force oneself into that space—that practice, even in the hands of the creatively indulgent, is useful. 

I started by mentioning that music can be a thought in and of itself. Perhaps it takes a musician’s mind to think so, or perhaps I’m wrong; judging by how many people or pieces of media seem to think jazz is “dead”, I can imagine this level of appreciation is not all too common. But I can’t help but feel that Monk is making an intelligible statement with his playing. A man technically capable of so much in any style one could imagine, he plays jarringly. He throws in our face the melody in awful intervals or obscures it under a cascade of syncopated descending lines. Yet he still swings. He keeps the music alive. You can tap your foot to it. Monk himself would get up at the piano when it wasn’t his solo and dance do it. Through discipline, Monk held on to the dissonance of his character and the typically sweet and sonorous songs he played. If anything musical speaks to an absurd work, a tradition of discipline and skill used for pure expression existing only and exactly in time, it should be Thelonious Monk. It is no wonder he is famous for a quote that reveals his absurdity: “Jazz is freedom. You think about that.”

Video Essay on Ansel Adams: Review

Ansel Adams’ photography, and photography as fine art generally, is a difficult topic to cover in a way that respects the process and intention of the artist—in the video above, Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter1) does a valiant job of doing just that. Covering Adam’s career, unique techniques, body of work, philosophy of art, and more, I find this video essay to be one of the best at conveying what exactly makes one of the legends of photography so great. Puschak’s video essays are as well produced as they are thoughtful, and in my opinion, are some of the best in both categories that I’ve come across on the Internet. His essays are cinematic, constantly visual, and pull you along in a (somewhat cheesy but altogether genuine) arc of drama propelled only by Evan’s insatiable desire to explain why what he’s discussing is as fascinating as he thinks it is. Puschak utilizes primary footage of Adams himself seamlessly; not only hearing his words but seeing the man himself express his philosophy within Puschak’s framing and explanation gives the entire video weight, gravitas, and engagement you wouldn’t expect from a typical YouTube video essay. The concepts aren’t just explained, or taught: they’re shown, and in such a clear and well-visualized way that one doesn’t even notice they don’t know what aperture or F-Sto means. If the goal of good educational media is to teach and change perspective in a short but engaging creative work, Puschak’s video is a very well-executed example.