Take me, I’m existentially yours (or, crisis—what crisis?)

This essay appeared as an “On the Avenues” column on January 1, 2019. For those reading from afar, be aware that in metro Louisville, it is Kentucky Derby Day, which slips just behind Halloween and Oktoberfest as an adult costumery “dress up” holiday, with the primary difference being that during Derby, people seem prone to the belief that what they’ve chosen to wear are not costumes. 

As a new year dawns, I’m existentially yours.

According to the dictionary, an existential crisis is a psychological episode in which a person questions the meaning of their life, and of existence itself.

Okay, but to me the word “episode” is misplaced because it implies an exception to the everyday, and an event occurring rarely or even randomly. I firmly believe that for most of us, an existential crisis is ongoing and everlasting. “Episodes” are those special times when we’re able to ignore this existential condition, and for a short while at least, to enjoy a little peace.

Since you’re probably already jumping to conclusions, kindly heed the advice of Archie Bunker and stifle yourself. I’m not depressed or morose, merely surprised at anyone being so sure about the meaning of life that they’re not questioning their premises every single day spent in it.

For those responding to this provocation with an affirmation of one or the other religious belief systems, thanks but no thanks. I know you mean well – now please, vacate my internet porch.

However, now that YOU’VE brought up religion, and not li’l ol’ heretical me, here’s a brief excerpt from a book I recently read: To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949, by Ian Kershaw.

Where a significant threat from the Left posed itself, however, the Churches of both major denominations invariably backed the authority of the state. And the more extreme they perceived the threat to be, the more extreme was the reaction they were prepared to support.

Nowhere was the reaction more extreme than in Germany. Here, the Protestant Church – actually divided doctrinally and regionally but in its various forms nominally embracing more than two-thirds of the German population – had since Martin Luther’s time seen itself as closely aligned with state authority. The revolution of 1918, the removal of the Kaiser and the new democracy that replaced the monarchy brought widespread dismay in Church circles. The perceived ‘crisis of faith’ (Glaubenskrise) promoted hopes of the restoration of the monarchy or a new form of state leadership that would overcome Germany’s moral as well as political and economic plight.

A true leader was needed, in the eyes of many members of the Protestant clergy. He would be, in the words of one Protestant theologian writing in 1932, a ‘true statesman’ (as opposed to the mere ‘politicians’ of the Weimar Republic) who holds ‘war and peace in his hand and communes with God’. In line with such thinking, Hitler’s takeover of power in 1933 was widely seen by Protestant clergy as the start of a national reawakening that would inspire a revival of faith. There was even a Nazified wing of the Protestant Church. The ‘German Christians” rejected the Old Testament as Jewish and took pride in being ‘the stormtroopers of Jesus Christ’. Such extremes, the preserve of a minority of the clergy (though with substantial support in some areas), were rejected, however, by most Protestants, whose ideas of a revival of faith were for the most part both doctrinally and organizationally conservative.

Imagine it: an unfettered strongman boasting pure power, as better to interpret the prince of peace’s musings. Not that I’m suggesting something like this could ever “happen here” – wink wink, nudge nudge.

Just the same, be still my quivering middle finger!

If travel doesn’t induce a frenzied whiplash spate of good, hard thinking, then chances are you’re doing it wrong. Even if your holiday of choice is on the beach at a tequila-soaked resort in Cancun, there should be something there to ignite the synapses.

If not, why bother going away in the first place?

For me, books and travel collided during the fourth quarter of 2018, combining to create the feel of a graduate-level history course, albeit without the obligation of writing a term paper.

Except for today’s column, of course.

In October, I read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. It’s a novel, although much of the story takes place in pre-WWII Danzig (subsequently called Gdansk), and the author masterfully evokes a place and time on the verge of being lost forever.

November brought our pilgrimage to the Gdansk of today, with visits to the Museum of the Second World War and the European Solidarity Centre. I was deeply moved by both, and they contributed to a broader understanding of present-day Polish culture and politics.

Upon returning stateside, still in November, there were midterm election results to interpret and Kershaw’s text to begin reading. I finished it prior to embarking for Munich just before Christmas, where Bavaria’s history was revisited against a backdrop of Mexican walls, government shutdowns and Trumpolini’s latest Twitter meltdowns.

It was intense, to say the least. Past seemed to meet the present, and the process proved exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.

The blurriness went beyond too much exquisite pork and too many full-throttle beers. I’d been bingeing on knowledge, and it made me tired. Perhaps my body and brain are trying to tell me it’s time to read a romance novel – with a side of steamed vegetables, a six pack of ice-cold Miller Lite, and lots of television.

But then again, no. These milquetoast habits might make me depressed and morose.

Ironically, the first use of the term “existential crisis” was recorded during the 1930s, as it became increasingly clear to reasonable people that Nazism in Germany posed a very real threat to the very existence of Jews, Slavs, gays, the Roma, developmentally disabled persons and others landing outside the addled perimeter of Hitler’s crackpot racial theories.

Eight decades later, these tidbits of lunacy are enjoying a renaissance among mouth-breathing devotees of a president who’s never met a book he actually read.

But as Kershaw observes, science isn’t always the cure for stupidity. It’s important to remember that Hitlerian doctrines of racial purity flowed quite naturally from seemingly legitimate doctrines which had been venerated by polite society in Europe and America prior to the Great War, in particular the “science” of eugenics:

(Eugenics was) the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.

Not to exclude something almost as bad, phrenology: “The detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.”

The terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ come from phrenology, the nineteenth-century science of regarding the shape of the skull as a key to intelligence. A ‘high’ forehead meant intelligence; a ‘low’ one meant stupidity. Phrenology thrived as a popular science in the late nineteenth century and led eventually to the racial theories of the Nazis, for whom the Jewish cranium and pale, sunken face were clear indications of Jewish racial inferiority.”

Our days in Munich in December were a time to reflect on all these themes of 20th-century history, to observe how much (and how little) the city has changed since my first visits in the late 1980s, and to ponder certain existential questions – as opposed to crises, strictly speaking.

In the 1980s, World War II was only forty-odd years removed. These days, living memories of the era are confined to a fast receding generation of 90-year-olds. What we’re witnessing in Brexit, Trump and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, whether we approve or not, is the final dissolution of the post-war international order. It lasted a scant 70 years, which isn’t much of a run by the standards of the Dark Ages or Pax Romana.

The difference: this is the one we’re living through, if not grasping particularly well. Maybe it’s always been like that. Not everyone alive today has time to think about history, or cares to learn more about the past. However, it might be helpful to think more about the real world and less about those diversions intended by the architects of capital accumulation to keep us numbly quiescent.

In the 2012 book Thinking the Twentieth Century, the late historian Tony Judt and his co-writer Timothy Snyder discussed the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and Judt made a point that I think covers more ground than he intended.

“The vast majority of human beings today are simply not competent to protect their own interests.”

Granted, the context of Judt’s remark was financial decision-making. Before the modern advent of easy consumer credit, it was so difficult for ordinary people to borrow that they simply couldn’t, and were confined to the bare necessities of life. There were other problems then as now, but a crushing burden of personal debt tended to be avoided simply because society kept it off-limits to ordinary people — prior to concluding it was an ideal way to maintain control.

I believe Judt’s words apply to other aspects of contemporary life. It might help to know that our food doesn’t come from Kroger, but through it, and when you rail against multinational corporate tyranny and still take the kids to Disney World … well, you know, debt isn’t the only potential entrapment. Governing one’s life by pervasive fantasy is an impediment to activism, too.

I regularly take a few days off from competitive drinking, and these are the times when my existential crises exit the carefully curated lock box and creep back into view.

After a day or two of detox, I notice myself becoming more organized and efficient, like my mother, who was obsessively such. By the third or fourth day, clarity and perception have re-emerged to such a disturbing extent that I can look around me and see this place for exactly what it is: Nawbany as a grassroots component of L’America, both right here in broad daylight, the flaws of neither in any way capable of being cloaked.

My friends, that’s an existential crisis – and that’s also why I always crawl back into the beer mug, where it’s safe.


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