A Pentecost sermon is many things, but you don’t often expect to hear about the fear of heights, let alone the kind of morbid ideation that sometimes accompanies that phobic vertigo: “what if I just flung myself over the edge,” the preacher intimated, illustrating his larger point about the fragility of trust in the self in contrast with the solidity of trusting in God. I suspect that his moment of vulnerability was encouraged by an editor who left a comment in the margin urging him to “tell us something of what you’re afraid of here.” I wonder if he worried how a sharing like that would make him seem: is this relatable or has he outed himself as batshit crazy?
I don’t know what others heard but, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the preacher’s point was made with the classical example that defines the meaning of “existential dread,” at least, in the Sartrean tradition. To explain what that dizzying dread that comes with absolute freedom meant for existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre uses this very question: what if you flung yourself over the edge? He shares this as a relatable experience, the way that young people nowadays caption their one-liners with “that moment when…”
I read an acceptable amount of Sartre in college. And though I gleaned the sort of properly philosophical conversations he spoke to, I admittedly read Sartre more as “consolation” than philosophy proper, despite the warnings of one upperclassman to not even touch the book that gave me that expression. That’s how I encountered everything back then and maybe even now still: as wisdom literature.
There was a comfort beyond ontology about an incantation like “existence precedes essence” for a boy tasked with walking the coals seemingly without end. And it worked because it wasn’t aggressive: Sartre was honest about how terrifying newfound freedom can be. He didn’t simply celebrate that God is dead and that we have killed him. He mourned. He knew that this deicide changes everything and made it his project to figure out how. This was a great comfort, indeed.
All self-help ideology preaches self-fashioning but very few admit the pain of relying on the self. How strange it is to be anything at all, the lyric goes; how dreadful, adds the sage with the strange eyes haunted by an invisible army of crabs.
There is a very clear afterlife to the soixante-huitard revolt against their fathers; after the beach is exposed from beneath the strewn paving stones, anything can be built, and too often, what came next was a shopping mall or a technical school for transferable skills or an ironic monument to revolt itself.
Okay boomer. Turns out sloganeering makes for good marketers. Turns out fighting against rigidity makes way for precaritization. Turns out youth culture is easy to capture. Turns out that having been at the barricades makes it easy to betray the cause.
This is what Milan Kundera was writing about in 1990, when history had ended, apparently. In the wake of discredited ideology, we had:
“Imagology! Who first thought up this remarkable neologism? Paul or I? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies; political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers; show-business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey.”
Kundera has one of his characters—a 68er himself—launch into a spirited defense of this cheapening of what the French call “the culture” as the triumph of peace itself, a refrain I’d heard from tired imagologues in Lebanon as well. I’m sympathetic but unconvinced, and Kundera prophetically places this warning in another character’s mouth: these people are the best allies of their gravediggers. He meant that imagology will betray its intellectuals but thirty years on we also know that imagology will do more than that; it will revive the ideologues. Peace isn’t that easily won.
I enjoy writers like Milan Kundera because their work transcends the fiction and nonfiction divide; his many digressions into cultural history or philosophy or metanarrative are integral to the story, and his many characters are integral to fleshing out that intellectual milieu in a way that academic texts can’t really do. They aren’t just positions on an intellectual spectrum; they are living breathing human beings with hopes and fears and insecurities.
The existentialist isn’t just a nouvelle vague but a boy heartbroken about losing his church; the neoliberal isn’t just an opportunist but a partisan in a very real war for relevance. That’s what novels like Immortality are fundamentally about: making meaning of our selves in a world evacuated of meaning.
I don’t know what drew me to Kundera in the first place. I somehow found a pirated copy of Unbearable Lightness of Being online that I saved as a continuously scrolling HTML file on the Nokia Communicator I’d borrowed from my dad. I read the whole thing that way, scrolling back to my place every time the app crashed while riding on the train or sitting on the floor waiting for the gig to start at the Bowery Ballroom.
There was comfort in imagining that there was someone out there who liked to think about things the way I liked to think that I thought about them. There was consolation in reading about interior worlds of figures thrown into historical events as I wandered around New York while my home was being bombed.
All I had was what I felt was essentially me just trying to exist.