When I was nineteen I was quite depressed. Coming out of a youth that I had found profoundly restricted and unsatisfying I had made it my task to educate myself. I delved as deeply as I could into world literature, political theory, history and modern journalism, and after being pulled to the study of philosophy I became increasingly confused about how or why I should go on living. Some part of me wanted to be a writer and a musician. That same part wanted me to continue to learn and expand, to become someone great, to be joyful and to make something of my life.
But there was another part of me which made sure that every time I mounted the energy to really make a try of anything substantial it quickly dissipated. My enthusiasm would crumble and I would find myself overcome by despair and the dry disturbing feeling that in whatever direction I might strive it was inescapably pointless to even bother. All my actions could only ever be my own vanity played out on a self-erasing canvas of nothingness. Every note I ever played, every word I ever wrote, every action, no matter how shit or seemingly memorable, it was all bound to be ground into dust by time. Momentary pleasures were the only thing that made life seem worthwhile, and by twenty-one I had quit university after a long period of non-attendance and moved into a life of nihilistic hedonism.
At the time my favourite book was Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It was published in France in 1932, which was a strange time for the human race. The scientific and industrial revolutions had changed the way we looked at ourselves. Contemporary thought combined with the atrocities of modern warfare had stripped a significant portion of us of the illusion of God’s justice and plan as well as any optimism about our future. In the void that was left we had experienced the vision of insignificant grains of sand in an infinite desert and a heartless machine rolling on to who-knows-where within which we were nothing but meaningless and replaceable cogs. With this world as his backdrop we are introduced to Ferdinand Bardamu, a discontented World War One soldier who spends the book bitterly scrounging his way through life.
A semi-autobiographical reflection of Céline, Ferdinand is an archetypal anti-hero. He is not virtuous in any conventional sense. He has nothing to believe in, nothing to fight for, no transcendental set of laws to live up to. His moral standpoint challenges even modern minds because it is so extreme. Not only does he not live up to old moral standards, he does not even develop his own set of standards to live by. He is opportunistic without discrimination, living as a direct reaction to the absurd experiences that he was born into and forced to eke his survival out within.
He is hard to build affection for because his foundation is a type of unforgiving cynicism which is directed straight onto the reader. He wasn’t me but I could see a lot of myself within him. He made me laugh and feel a little more comfortable knowing that even in my existential loneliness and ennui I was not alone. Céline was honest about the experience of being and the nature of humanity in a way that so few others had ever been. Sick of hero stories and make believe, what I respected most was his unwillingness to make the protagonist, his own reflection, into a saint, or to paint a silver lining onto a cloud that he perceived as having none.
I am twenty-nine now, and a long time has passed. My mind has changed quite drastically with experience and I am not nearly as cynical or confused as I once was. But when I woke up this morning I felt horrible. I rolled around in my bed throwing my blankets here and there, up over my head to reveal my feet, all around me but never on me, just in place before a strand of vicious sunlight would strike me in my eyes. It was as if even in my own safe space I could never just be warm or sleep in contented peace.
I wasn’t remembering the days when living in meaninglessness had almost killed me or had me kill myself, I was there, living in meaninglessness. Cynicism, confusion and fear were all real and present, giving me the desperate urge to want to pass off into oblivion in any way I could because even in my exhaustion I couldn’t keep my eyes closed or escape the terror of a new day. When I could find a little nook in which to pursue a pleasant emptiness I found that in my head I had on loop a scene from this book that I had all but forgotten, hidden deep in lost memories for all these years.
After some characteristic misadventures in the war and in France Ferdinand had decided to make his way into Africa to work as a colonial agent. He discovers beating sun and cruel exploitation of the natives, and after running into an old associate he eventually finds himself working out alone in the jungle, manning a post for the rubber trade. The jungle is dark and dangerous; Céline’s words paint it as a thick wall of scrub filled with unknown dangers, inscrutable mysteries, rotting detritus, and imminent death. On top of this he soon finds that there is really nothing for him to do there but to sit and wait. In the midst of his solitary ruminations he falls sick and succumbs to a brutal fever. The image which consumed me was that of Ferdinand laying there on his bed in his little hut in the middle of the jungle, thinking of the beasts out there in the blackness that wanted to devour him while he was convulsing prone with fever.
I’m laying there in my bed and I’m paralysed by it, as his bones rattle around in my mind. What of all the ever more terrifying and pointless wars that have happened since? What of the military industrial complex? What of the centralised media and censorship? What of the pervading nihilism which despite my sometimes optimism perhaps will never cease? What of techno-fascism? Of public-relations? Of continued racism and sexism and the decline of culture? Of the NSA? Of mind control? Of the fact that eighty-three years on the world has only got more and more existentially frightening? What of my own failings as a person, the people who hate me, the thinly veiled discordance of my relation to the other? I can’t imagine what sort of force would make me get up and open my door as I battle the thoughts of all these things that are waiting there just outside.
It takes me two hours of tossing and turning to find the strength. It’s not even strength, it’s just acceptance. It’s too late. They are already inside, running around my head. I crack the door and peer out through the opening in a symbolic gesture at the hallway I always knew would be empty. It’s just a circuit in my brain reminding me that even as I have found so many ways to think and to cope with it over the years, life still has its darkness and is sometimes quite terrifying. The beasts I’d come to fearing had never really gone away. The force that gets me through is somewhere between forgetfulness, hope, and a type of absurd existential courage which over the years I have had to come to trust for lack of any other options.
I have realised in the intervening years that the reason why I write and the reason I make music is not to make something of myself, it is because this is the way I want to fill the time that I have. It took a while for me to realise that even as everything is finally ground to dust, even if, perhaps, it is all meaningless, in the end philosophy must intersect with life. I’m still here, until I die I have to live. The cloud does have its silver lining, it’s just only from certain angles on certain days. Even Ferdinand in all his darkness filled his time with a great many adventures. I like to think that some of mine have been satisfying in a way that somehow transcends universal nihilism.
It is in my best interests to find the good things and revel in them without resorting to any great amount of self-deceit. I love and I try to overcome cynicism because, regardless of the existential facts, I find loving and trusting more enjoyable than hatred and second-guessing. I do my best to work through this life with the greatest joy I can muster if only that this time spent in emptiness was time well spent. Every day I find new ways to distract myself from the fact that from some perspective I’m in the middle of a jungle by myself with nothing to do, prone and vulnerable, surrounded by beasts that constantly threaten my devouring.
In the end Céline paints a picture of life as a kind of carnival filled with empty and vain amusements that we use to distract ourselves from the horrid facts. We’ve all at intervals amused ourselves at that carnival and seen it for what it really is. It is mornings like this when the weight of eternity feels like it is on my shoulders which remind me that the part of me that takes its pleasure in my pain and reduces everything to nothing still exists. But feelings change. Perhaps by this afternoon I will have forgotten this ever happened. By tomorrow I will have become something completely different. It is one of the virtues of the passing of time which I didn’t quite understand when I was nineteen.
There is still a part of me negates all my hopes and my dreams, undermining the power that I know that I have to live this life and live it well regardless of the circumstances. But that part of me only gets to yell and scream and torture on days like this. Maybe it’s all in vain, but what I am offered here is the chance to create and experience a self, and to see some things through its eyes that Céline and Ferdinand never seemed to have imagined. Sometimes it feels like there is absolutely no point to going on. It’s just lucky that in the grand scheme of everything and nothing there is equally no point to giving in.