Monthly Archives: November 2015

Analysis of W. D. Auden’s, “The Labyrinth”

W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973) was an Anglo-American poet, best known for poems such as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” “The Shield of Achilles,” “The Age of Anxiety,” and “For the Time Being” and “Horae Canonicae.” I have written previously about his poetry in my post, W. H. Auden’s: We Must Love One Another or Die. Recently a reader made me aware of another Auden poem, “The Labyrinth.” Here is this profound poem with some explanation and commentary at the end, so as not to break up the rhythm of the poem. (Anthropos apteros means wingless man.)

Anthropos apteros for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperment for getting on.

The hundredth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.

“Where am I?” Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.

If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I’m sure,
The Universe in minature.

Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?

All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?

Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.

His absolute pre-supposition
Is – Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.

The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.

My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I’m only lost until I see
I’m lost because I want to be.

If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man.”

Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.

Stanza 1-2 [Anthopos apteros, literally “wingless man,” describes our earth-bound ignorance—we are lost within the maze of life. In the first stanza wingless man seems happy, but by the second stanza he realizes that he is existentially lost. This begins his philosophical turn.]

Stanza 3-4 [Some philosophers suggest that it all makes sense; theologians seem sure it does.]

Stanza 4-7 [Science provides truth but not values; mathematics gives certainty but life does not; art gratifies but is subjective; so can I create my own answers?]

Stanza 8-9 [It seems that answers elude us; perhaps we are the problem; we are still lost.]

Stanza 10-11 [The answer, that we must accept our uncertainty, was within us all along. By accepting being lost, we find ourselves and we find peace.]

Stanza 12-13 [In the end we are still lost; and we cannot know the truth.]

Stanza 14 [We wish we had wings and could see things from a bird’s-eye view; we wish we knew more and could quell our doubts. Perhaps if we were different kinds of creatures we could.]

Disclaimer – When I took a modern poetry class as an undergraduate I quickly learned that poems are susceptible to interpretation. I learned that to one person, “stopping by the woods on a snowy evening,” was to another a poem about suicide or sex. So I don’t offer the above as a definitive interpretation.

Subjective Meaning in Life

Naturalism and Subjective Meaning

Assuming that none of our previous answers to the question of the meaning of life completely satisfies, we now consider the idea that meaning is not something you stumble upon, find or discover, but something you fashion, invent or create. This is the most prevalent view among contemporary philosophers. On this account life can be meaningful without any supernatural or objective reality if individuals give meaning to their lives. Therefore subjectivists believe that meaning is relative to their desires, attitudes, interests, wants, preferences, etc., and there are no invariant standards of meaning. Something is meaningful to individuals to the extent that they find that thing meaningful, in other words, meaning is constituted by human minds and varies between persons.

Starting tomorrow we’ll look at more than a dozen contemporary thinkers who hold this view. Until then here are a few quotes which hint at the general idea:

The living thing is not the clay molded by the potter, nor the harp played upon by the musician. It is the clay modeling itself. ~ Edward Stuart Russell

There is no golden rule which applies to everyone: every man must find out for himself in what particular fashion he can be saved. ~ Sigmund Freud

I do not know to what great end Destiny leads us, nor do I care very much. Long before that end, I shall have played my part, spoken my lines, and passed on. How I play that part is all that concerns me. In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure. ~ Owen C. Middleton (after being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1932. 

Commentary on the Varieties of Nihilism

For the past ten days or so I’ve been discussing various views about the meaning of life that I’d classify as nihilistic. I’d now like to briefly summarize my response to nihilism.

I believe that suffering and death count strongly against meaning—they detract from meaning. I also believe that the challenge posed by nihilism is the challenge for contemporary individuals and culture. We have argued that rejecting or denying nihilism, by accepting a religious metaphysics for example, is philosophically problematic, inasmuch as there are good reasons to doubt the truth of these systems. Accepting nihilism is either self-defeating, useless, or both. Finding meaning by affirming nihilism is a brave response but it is not all that different than accepting nihilism in the end. So questions remain. Why give up so easily? What do we gain by embracing nihilism?

Camus’ Sisyphus supposedly found happiness in his revolt, but one has to wonder whether that suggestion is mere romanticism. And neither Nagel’s nor Feinberg’s irony provides solace; they merely counsel passive acceptance. Maybe we should simply reject meaning and all salvific narratives, reveling in the pleasures and joys of this world, the extraordinary ordinary. But can we really do it? In Our Town Wilder suggests we cannot, it is too hard to appreciate life while you live it. When responding to Emily’s query as to whether human beings can appreciate life every minute while they live it, the narrator tells her: “No—saints and poets maybe—they do some.”80 But even if we could affirm nihilism would this be satisfactory? If we think of Critchley as advocating living lightly, Kundera responds that such a life is unbearable; perhaps even more so than living heavily.

We thus find ourselves at an impasse. Nihilism looms large and none of our responses are completely viable. Rejecting nihilism seems intellectually dishonest, passively accepting it appears fatalistic, actively rejecting it with Camus is futile, embracing it looks pointless, and yet our consciousness of it is unbearable. The only way forward—if we do not want to accept the verdict of nihilism—is to consider other responses. It is to these responses that we now consider over the next few months.

Summary of Milan Kundera’s: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

                   Milan Kundera redux.jpg

Should we take life seriously or not? Should we think of it as heavy or light? Perhaps we shouldn’t take it too seriously, enjoy the pleasures it affords, and reject all heavier philosophies of meaning. But is this solution satisfactory? These are the fundamental questions posed Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Kundera is a writer of Czech origin who has lived in exile in France since 1975, where he became a naturalized citizen. His books were banned by the Communists of Czechoslovakia until the downfall of the regime in the Velvet Revolution in 1989.)

Kundera begins his novel by pondering Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence—the notion that everything that has already happened will recur ad infinitum. Although it is hardly Nietzsche’s interpretation, Kundera remarks: “Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.”[i]

For Kundera a life lived only once is light, unimportant, and infinitely trivial; by contrast, if all recurred infinitely, a tremendous heaviness or significance would be imposed on our lives and choices. Kundera contrasts the heaviness and lightness of life as follows: “If the eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.”[ii] But is heaviness bad and lightness splendid? Kundera answers:

the heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes a man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.[iii]

So both the heaviness and lightness are unsatisfactory. The light life is meaninglessness. If everything happens only once, it might as well not have happened at all; and our best response to this situation is to live for beauty and pleasure. Yet such insignificant lives are unbearable—the unbearable lightness of being. But if our actions eternally recur, if life is heavy, then the heaviness of our actions and choices crushes us under their weight.

Despite these conundrums the main characters in his novel who embrace the heaviness of life and love die happy, while those who live lightly suffer the unbearable lightness of being. This suggests that heaviness is better after all. Still nothing is eternal for Kundera, and if there were eternal things, our lives and choices would be too burdensome. Perhaps the fact that some of his characters find love is enough, but nothing matters ultimately. In the end nihilism is, for conscious beings, both true and unbearable. A heavy life crushes us; a light life is unbearable.

Brief Reflections

As for me, I think we ought to consider life significant, but not too significant; light but not too light. Here it is in simple form.

Nothing matters -> life is unbearable
Everything matters -> life is unbearable
Some things matter but most things don’t -> life is bearable and occasionally meaningful.

Wisdom is, in large part, differentiating what matters from what doesn’t.

Near the end of the movie Unbearable Lightness of Being, the protagonists Tomas and Tereza, despite the meaninglessness of life seem to have found happiness. Here is the penultimate scene.

[i] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999), 3.
[ii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.
[iii] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 5.

Summary of Simon Critchley’s: Very Little … Almost Nothing

Simon Critchley (1960 – ) was born in England and received his PhD from the University of Essex in 1988. He is series moderator and contributor to “The Stone,” a philosophy column in The New York Times. He is also currently chair and professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York City.

In this recent book, Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, LiteratureSimon Critchley discusses various responses to nihilism. Responses include those who: a) refuse to see the problem, like the religious fundamentalist who doesn’t understand modernity; b) are indifferent to the problem, which they see as the concern of bourgeoisie intellectuals; c) passively accept nihilism, knowing that nothing they do matters; d) actively revolt against nihilism in the hope that they might mitigate the condition.[i]He rejects all views that try to overcome nihilism—enterprises that find redemption in philosophy, religion, politics or art—in favor of a response that embraces or affirms nihilism. For Critchley the question of meaning is one of finding meaning in human finitude, since all answers to the contrary are empty. This leads him to the surprising idea that “the ultimate meaning of human finitude is that we cannot find meaningful fulfillment for the finite.”[ii]But if one cannot find meaning in finitude, why not just passively accept nihilism?

Critchley replies that we should do more than merely accept nihilism; we must affirm “meaninglessness as an achievement, as a task or quest … as the achievement of the ordinary or everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption.”[iii]In this way we don’t evade the problem of nihilism but truly confront it. As Critchley puts it:

The world is all too easily stuffed with meaning and we risk suffocating under the combined weight of competing narratives of redemption—whether religious, socio-economic, scientific, technological, political, aesthetic or philosophical—and hence miss the problem of nihilism in our manic desire to overcome it.[iv]

For models of what he means Critchley turns to playwright Samuel Beckett whose work gives us “a radical de-creation of these salvific narratives, an approach to meaninglessness as the achievement of the ordinary, a redemption from redemption.”[v] Salvation narratives are empty talk which cause trouble; better to be silent as Pascal suggested: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” What then is left after we are saved from the fables of salvation? As his title suggests; very little … almost nothing. But all is not lost; we can know the happiness derived from ordinary things.

Critchley finds a similar insight in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.”[vi] In Stevens’ famous poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the setting is a funeral service. In one room we find merriment and ice cream, in another a corpse. The ice cream represents the appetites, the powerful desire for physical things; the corpse represents death.  The former is better than the latter, and that this is all we can say about life and death. The animal life is the best there is and better than death—the ordinary is the most extraordinary.

For another example Critchley considers Thornton Wilder’s famous play “Our Town,” which exalts the living and dying of ordinary people, as well as the wonder of ordinary things. In the play young Emily Gibbs has died in childbirth and is in an afterlife, where she is granted her wish to go back to the world for a day. But when she goes back she cannot stand it; people on earth live unconscious of the beauty which surrounds them. As she leaves she says goodbye to all the ordinary things of the world: “to clocks ticking, to food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths, and to sleeping and waking up.”[vii] It is tragic that while living we miss the beauty of ordinary things. Emily is dismayed but we are enlightened—we ought to appreciate and affirm the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps that is the best response to nihilism—to be edified by it, to find meaning in meaninglessness, to realize we can find happiness in spite of nihilism.


[i] Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12-13.
[ii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 31.
[iii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[iv] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[v] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[vi] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 118.
[vii] Thornton Wilder, Our Town (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), 82.