To Be Or Not To Be? – The Problem of Meaning

Man's search for meaning

In Man’s Search for Meaning, dictated in the months following his release from a concentration camp, Victor Frankl delineated one of the seminal theses of the modern era: he noticed that people’s loss of a sense of meaning was the critical precursor to their death. Of course the camps were a machinery of death – Eichmann’s accounting was in essence the mathematics of evil and statistically millions were to die: the dice evidently were loaded. Yet Frankl saw something unfold in his experience that taught him about the inner workings of that process as it happened to individuals around him: as young women had their head shaved and in so doing are robbed of their beauty and femininity, as others could not cope with separation from their loved ones and fear of the fate that might have befallen them, their ‘will to be’ faded and within days they would pass away.

Frankl himself, separated from his wife (whom he would discover only after his release had died in another camp), was of course highly stressed but his moment of confrontation with this inner precipice came at another moment. When a guard bullying him tore apart his jacket, revealing his dissertation – on which he had spent years of his life researching and writing, sewn into the lining – he destroyed it, shattering Frankl’s will in the face of the loss. Frankl saw before him an emptiness which if he gave way to, he would die. Something inside him, some other aspect of his will was lit and he walked away from the loss and chose not to find it meaningful enough to die for. Instead the torch paper inside him burned with a new sense of meaning and purpose, something inborn and inherent arose in him, the life force celebrated for its own sake, dis-identified from any one form. And he was able to live on that fire for the rest of his incarceration.

Frankl was a brilliant man. Partly because on the edge of himself he discovered a reservoir of energy – his crucial resource. But in a way that energy arose in and of itself and his real brilliance came in self-consciously recognizing the importance of the moment and recreating it so movingly in one of the great books of the twentieth century. Man’s Search for Meaning is profound anyway for its humane insights into that most terrible of crimes, yet it is also a great book because it highlights arguably the most critical issue of the modern era: that meaning and purpose is central to human life. Not as a luxury to be indulged only when fed, clothed and in material comfort, but central, all of the time.

Hamlet’s agonising question “To be or not to be?” in the face of the recognition that his step-father murdered his father arises as he contemplates
killing the killer or whether to throw his own life away instead. The choice is too painful for him. T.S. Eliot in his Hamlet and his Problems essay famously
declared the play a failure because it fails to find an objective correlative – Eliot’s term for a central external image to dramatically express the character’s inner feelings. Yet what is perhaps an artistic failing dramatized the first ‘modern’ consciousness (see the work of Robert Johnson in my prior post A Life Boat in Years to Come) and that sensibility is one divided and teetering on the edge of the fall into death that Frankl found and managed to step back from.

To experience a suicidal impulse because of life and the choices it demands is in many ways the core adolescent crisis and source of much human angst. Certainly in my personal life that period was characterized by a profound struggle with the materialism and seeming nihilism of the modern world. This saw me reading Sartre’s Nausea and empathizing with the anti-hero Roquentin as he wallows in his alienation. When he finally choses freedom in a section of his diary ‘Tuesday at Bouville’ he sees it as like death to him, empty even as he chooses it.

Now the powerful irony in Sartre’s personal life is that whilst his intellectual position was one of disdain and rejection of meaning, his actual lived experience as recorded in his diaries saw him involved for many years in the French resistance movement against the Nazi occupation in which he wrote that he never felt more alive. The sense that he might be shot at any moment gave him focus and meaning. This insight is hi-lighted by the English author Colin Wilson, who with his first book The Outsider, analysed the character of the romantic hero in life and in literature as a fundamentally alienated being. He has gone on
to write many books on the occult, crime, and philosophy yet all are underpinned with his central insight into consciousness that we live much of our lives in a semi-depleted state that leaves us stale and defeated, a robot performing our tasks on automatic pilot.

Wilson then undertakes a critical vision of much of the artistic journey – the seemingly ‘great’ modern writers who speak of alienation and the death of meaning in the modern world – and critiques them as essentially passive and depressive types who have lost the capacity to discover inner resources in the way that I describe Victor Frankl as having found. For example Sartre himself has an experience with psychedelic drugs – a catalyst for a number
of people in the modern era to have a taste of new the potential of life, a new vista of meaning – and he spent his time in a nightmare Dali-like landscape chased by, amongst other things, lobsters (he had an intense dislike of shellfish). This essentially amounted to a classic bad acid trip. Yet when he felt that life might be taken away from him at any moment, he made a choice towards meaning and purpose (a nihilist does not work passionately for the resistance) and he had never felt happier.

Wilson cites the case of Graham Greene playing Russian roulette with himself in a state of youthful angst and then feeling a rush of joy and sense of purpose
when the chamber he fires at himself is empty. Dostoevsky has the same experience when, as led out to a firing squad, he sees the beauty of the world around him in what he believes to be his last moments (from what Wilson calls “the bird’s eye view”) and he gets the big picture. He then carries this new sense of meaning into his novels, exploring its contrast with his previous despair through the views of different characters.

What Does It All Mean?

When we can access the big picture, either through a confrontation with mortality, through an experience of crisis or through an inner resource (such as a dis-identification with our possessions) we enter the potential to experience beauty and the inherent sense of the meaning of life (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” -Keats). Frankl named his therapeutic system Logotherapy – literally reason/meaning therapy. Wilson argues that just as hands grasp and shape reality so do minds, and that one can, through the will, experience states of release from the automatic or depleted life and experience an influx of meaning and purpose.

Evolutionary Astrology, as a perspective on the birth chart that emphasizes the soulful unfolding of the meaning of an individual life is one ‘objective correlative’ – to steal Eliot’s term. It is one way to dramatize the inner meaning, dilemmas and potential of a human life. This is of critical importance in a world where the struggle for meaning is sometimes in short supply. I would argue that fundamentalisms, of politics, religion or even science and art, are just
another robotic form and that the crisis of meaning in the modern world is as critical as any of the environmental or social crises that face us as a species. Why so crucial? Because when we live without meaning, touched by nihilism, all lives can all too easily become violent or suicidal.

Violence in Arizona

Jared Loughner, the young man in custody for the recent shootings in Tucson Arizona, faced this dilemma and unfortunately for many others, fell at the precipice. Robert Sardello, a spiritual psychotherapist who combines the work of Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner, interviewed Loughner’s friend Tyler Conway. Conway talks about how Loughner, a passionate young man who wrote poetry, began to write in a very different way, “I told him I read it and I find nothing. It’s like nothingness to me. He says, “’Exactly. That’s where the meaning is.’ People are going to say that he doesn’t believe in anything, but it’s not that doesn’t believe in anything; he literally…believes…in nothing, nothingness.”

“He was obsessed with how words were meaningless,” Conway continued. “You could say, ‘Oh this is a cup.” And hold a cup. He’d say, ‘Oh is it a cup? Or is it a pool? Is this a shark, is it an airplane?’”

David Hawkins Reality Spirituality and Modern Man

Here we see the consequences of what Dr. David Hawkins, in his book Reality, Spirituality and Modern Man, calls the moral relativism of the post-modern cultural and linguistic critique, which is so prevalent in modern universities. This relativism is based on the materialistic nihilism, or ‘deconstruction’ of meaning present in much modern philosophy and cultural analysis. That the physical nature of the word does not have any link other than symbolic to the meaning of a word used to refer to it (door as a word does not open and close or have a handle) becomes an excuse to posit ever decreasing circles of meaning. This is what they called semiotic
breakdown in my literature department at college.

After a particularly exhausting seminar one day I confronted my aging Shakespeare scholar professor suggesting that much of the seeming profundity of the post-modern movement was childish and irresponsible. He replied that he could not agree more but that he was forced to teach it.

We see with Jared Loughner a classic case of adolescent depression that led to a series of internet searches and long hours of reading about conspiracy theories and ideas that posit that the government and authority figures are criminals. The classic idea that ‘the man’ out there is trying to get you can be seen as a projection of unresolved childish issues with the parents (particularly the father) and of current and past-life negative conditioning to authority figures generally. Somehow the mixing of this dynamic with the powerful catalyst of man’s search for meaning (and especially the wilful lack thereof) spawned a young man that one day walked out the door and gunned people down on the street.

Such action predicates not just nihilism but passionate frustration. To kill someone takes a degree of effort, even with a gun (though is interesting that one of the driving forces of man’s technological quest was how to make the killing process so much easier), and it betrays a profound frustration that leads to the insight. So much so-called nihilism is actually just betrayed idealism. We believe that someone else should do something about ‘it’ – whatever problems there are – whatever lack of meaning we feel, we believe that someone else must pay. As Colin Wilson writes, the criminal option is the passive, lazy way out – as in, “I want something to change but I am not prepared to change so I will just take it or force change on others”.

As Sardello writes movingly, this kind of belief also profoundly lacks heart:

“Heart consciousness is an utter necessity to meet the circumstances of our time – a time of spontaneous spiritual and imaginal awakening. Further, we develop heart consciousness in order to help others develop it, particularly the young who are exposed now only to dead consciousness. Their consciousness is radically alive, but is completely chaotic unless brought to the level of the interiority of the heart. Only heart consciousness is capable of presence to the flow of images, of time, of dynamic, imaginal movement, of inwardly knowing that there is something desperately wrong with present-day, ‘ordinary’ consciousness and that it is changing toward an orientation to the uniting of sensing and soul. Only heart consciousness can unite the clarity of thinking with the realm of feeling, imagination, and sensing. But, heart consciousness has to be consciously developed. It
cannot be mentally learned, but it can be modelled, and others can be drawn toward it by experiencing its strength.”

One source of building this strength is Astrology. Astrology, when considered with heart, is an en-souled form, because to even engage with it is to accept the principle of symbolic correspondence that was epitomized in the Hermetic dialogues – “As above, so below”. Astrology has no literal action, the planet Saturn does not descend from on high to sit on one’s back and cause the feeling of being burdened. Jupiter does not literally “deal you the winning hand.” Yet both planets symbolize the inherent archetypal meanings ever-present in the Cosmos. They symbolize our interconnectedness with the universe – that our life adds to the soul of things just as the soul of things adds to us.

When we learn how to interpret these symbolic correspondences, the way that the world around us mirrors meaning back to us (in astrology through the symbolic form of a map of the moment that we were born), then we learn directly how to participate in the meaning of our shared and individual lives. That this is a real experience and not just dreamy idealism, I will address in my upcoming blog post The Intentional Map, but suffice it to say both the world itself, and the self that is being in the world, experience a profound release of personal energy and joy when new meaning is brought into the experience of our lives. Astrology is one of the more vibrant tools available to us in order to achieve that end.