Disquietude

What, dost thou weep? Come nearer. Then I love thee
Because thou art a woman, and disclaim’st
Flinty mankind, whose eyes do never give
But thorough lust and laughter. Pity’s sleeping.
Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!
               –William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

And if levity (“lust and laughter”) were the cause of–our excuse for–our irresponsibility? If the injunction to have fun and “meet” was side-tracking everyone from what they ought to be doing?… All the goofy videos that go viral, the flashy apps that sap our attention on commutes, the ecstatic moments of drunken connection, the knowledge that comes from constant study… What if this veil of conviviality had, since time immemorial, prevented our perception of all the deeper pains? From the old aristocrat to the modern consumerist, all would be united on this front: the possibility of “happiness,” of the orgiastic enjoyment of things, will have blocked out the possibility of responsibility–of disquietude. Those obsessed with such pursuits, with status, sex, money, fame, or comfort–who follow, in a slave-like way, Oscar Wilde’s maxim, “Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures,” even though Wilde eventually rejected his pleasure-seeking aims and wrote a most ponderous meditation on suffering, in a quasi-Christian conversion that couldn’t be further from the current forms of complacent Catholicism and Christian Hedonism–sit back, attend parties and church services and political meetings as if that guaranteed moral righteousness, love and reproduce as if the family were the ultimate form of community, act  out in the world as if the point here was to make a name for oneself… “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!”

I can’t imagine sounding this refrain often enough: “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!” Who could still feel innocent in this world? Who could go to sleep with a good conscience? Who could face the everyday without ever-deepening guilt? Who could be dull enough to believe in the goodness of their own position? Those who smile and are proud to be on earth and to be human… Those who fancy themselves just, to be doing the right thing, to be helping the world… Well, I do not cast doubt on it, I do not judge or reckon; I can only judge myself, and I extend myself no benefit. I’ve tried to track it farther, to cut myself less and less slack, but ultimately one only feels more wretched, more selfish, more indefensibly calm and cool in a world of ruins and injustice–more guilty, more indebted. For the best of us have all done much less than the very worst, much less than we know we could have done. This is the only way to respond to a world running dry with laughter: to aggravate our own guilt and hyperbolize the call; to expose ourselves without shelter to a disquietude without respite or relief.

Many exalt failure and obscurity, but do so only to hide away; whereas they ought to say: we have failed ourselves, obscured our own true challenge. We have centered our acts too often on economic exchanges, we have looked for compensation, we have sought approval by others instead of cultivating our disapproval with ourselves. The secret of responsibility lies in this disapproval, in a responsibility that deepens the more you try to respond to it. And such a secret is only possible where one takes oneself to be nothing, where one has given oneself death, the impossible: to know oneself nobody. Degree zero of desire’s exhaustion: to have pity for desire itself, for one’s desires and for all desires, for the confusion and myopia it causes, for all the “laughter and lust” of the self-conception, this inescapable and inexpiable selfishness that haunts even the most selfless act. But it is better–though it counts for nothing–to be haunted by one’s own limitless wrongness and unforgivability for being, than it is to feel “at home” in oneself, comfortable in one’s life choices and the things one has made. You can find your oceanic feeling, your euphoria, your union with nature or with consciousness. Your art, your music, your lifestyle will bring you pleasure, it won’t be surprising. But isn’t that the big farce? That the point is to be satisfied, relaxed, and to find peace? To survive and grow for oneself? “Strange times, that weep with laughing, not with weeping!” Strange times, that fancy it good to be at ease!

“In being as such, there cannot be meaning. Mortality renders meaningless the care that the me takes of its destiny. To posit oneself as ‘me’ persevering in its being, when death awaits, resembles an evasion within a world without exit. Nothing is more comical than the care that a being takes of its being when destruction is certain” (Levinas), but “…I am not going to admit to a fault, I am going to avow a shame without apparent fault, the shame of being ashamed of shame, ad infinitum, the potential fault that consists in being ashamed of a fault about which I’ll never know if it was one” (Derrida): ashamed of these traces you associate with me; ashamed of being unable to erase myself; ashamed of not laughing; ashamed for weeping, for apologizing, for the potentially limitless fault of being; ashamed that we were never quite anxious, never quite responsible, enough; ashamed for having kept to ourselves what should have burst: our life, our experience, our self.

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