Monday, November 9, 2015


Robin Williams in Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" (1996)

The materialist conception of reality posits as self-evident the non-existence of the human soul. To materialists, a living being is a meat puppet controlled by no hidden hand; it merely flops about pitifully on its arbitrarily-constructed stage, until such time when events conspire to cause its demise.
In the materialistic conception, a creature like man simply has no enduring imperative beyond a desperate—and ultimately futile- drive for self-preservation. Notions of an afterlife and an eternal destiny are simply delusions he has sold himself to give his paltry existence the illusion of meaning. The very complexity of his consciousness has, in fact, become his curse. The reality of death, meanwhile, can only strike terror into his heart, and he strains miserably to avoid it. Pain, too, is something he cannot abide, for pain is a reminder of his mortality. Pleasure, conversely, is the main distraction that he craves, but it is an ever-fleeting one, which brings increasingly diminishing returns, given the constantly obtruding reminders of his approaching extinction.

Yet the materialist has no adequate way of explaining the fact that, for many humans, pain and death are not just stoically endured but actively soughtout. The so-called “pleasure principle” is complemented by what could be called the “pain prerogative.” The life force that animates our typical day-to-day behavior is balanced by a hidden, yet at times undeniably conspicuousdeath wish.

Answering Hamlet’s famous rhetorical question “To be or not to be” thus proves a more difficult proposition than one initially presumes, because the drive to go on existing in comfort is in competition with a strange and perverse yearning for pain and death. We secretly ache for catharsis—to be cracked open and smashed to bits, since we simply cannot find fulfillment here in this veil of grime and tears, no matter how hard we strain to be “happy.” This world in fact isn’t the proper venue for the attainment of joy; instead, it is a crucible through which our souls must be refined by fire, or else wither and melt beneath the torment that inevitably attends our temporal, transitory state.

Indeed, were the materialist conception of things really true, self-injurious activity of any kind would scarcely ever occur. It would make no sense for such conduct even to exist among the general inventory of human behavior, because it would serve no purpose. Under such a circumstance, humans would flee from pain at every opportunity, because pain would serve no function to the minds of such an un-ensouled race; the very notion of hitting, whipping, or cutting oneself would be regarded not just as silly and disturbed, but as patently obscene. Getting hurt at all would become a great taboo, never to be discussed in polite company without inducing titters of consternation.

The concept of death, meanwhile, would obtain such a level of horror in the human psyche that its ubiquity would present a grave, insurmountable challenge to one’s mental health. Man would have to become a deluded psychotic, all for the paradoxical sake of his own sanity. He would be forced to deny to himself that life as he knows it could ever end, much less that itinevitably ends. He would need to learn to un-see this fact, to un-acknowledge and altogether un-learn it, to the point where it would make as little sense to him as an absurd and unresolvable equation or a nonsense rhyme.

But we do not live in a world where such extreme customs prevail. Troubling though these aspects of life may be, we do admit to ourselves the existence of pain, and we do recognize the reality of death. We are generally able to endure the fact of both without losing our minds. And more than this: the fact is that we need both pain and death; at times we even crave them. If self-harming behavior isn’t common, it certainly isn’t uncommon, either. Even non-flagellants and non-cutters will admit that they can understand the appeal, if they are honest with themselves.

For example, is there not something wonderfully satisfying about nicking your face while shaving? The trickle of blood left in the wake of a blade’s accidental too-deep dig into your flesh fills your spirit with a rueful ripple of strange exhilaration, a sense of crossing a kind of threshold; were there no pain, after all, there would no gain. And is it not similarly bracing to accumulate blisters on your feet over the course of a long run, or to sweat through your shirt and skivvies on a blazing hot day, or otherwise to expend or abuse your flesh in order to graduate to a higher level of bodily consciousness?

Discomfort, paradoxically enough, can feel quite good. Numbness, conversely, can in its way hurt worse than pain. And psychic suffering, the kind with no means of physical outlet, can be the most pronounced, unendurably excruciating sensation of all. It burns a person from within, urgently demanding the relief that attends a self-induced catharsis. Those who willfully and habitually hurt themselves are in all likelihood hyper-conscious of these conditions, which are in fact inherent aspects of the greater human condition.

These unavoidable agonies—“the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”-- are rendered all the more acute, however, during times of entrenched secularism and mandated agnosticism, where one’s sincere attempts to strive for transcendence are thwarted through constant rhetorical undermining from blandly condescending spokesmen of official institutions (e.g. “That’s fine… if works for you), and therefore must be accomplished through more direct, unmediated means. When even those who are supposed to be mentors fail to be useful, since they have a greater desire to spout what is trendy than to serve the truth, then true seekers of truth, realizing they are on their own, are driven to pursue ever-more radical avenues to glory.

Robin Williams in "What Dreams May Come," 1998
This isn’t to say, of course, that everyone who does violence to his own flesh overtly seeks spiritual solace. Some… indeed, many, are no doubt entirely irreligious. But their actions testify to a hunger and thirst within the human consciousness that cannot be slaked by the dubious medicines offered by the would-be guardians of our failed therapeutic culture. Self-injuring behavior underlines the essential desperation of our troubled existence on this outpost Earth.

And suicide can even be called the apotheosis of this tendency. That anyone would rather die than live puts to rest the notion that man is neurotically inclined to embrace life and flee from its terrifying alternative at all costs. That we would at some point want death implies that we yearn finally to experience “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”

(originally published at Alternative Right, September 2014.)

Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is the author of seven books, including Under the NihilThe Columbine PilgrimConsidering Suicide, and his latest, Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so.

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