Like a lot of people, I went through an existentialist stage in my early 20’s. You’re coming into a rich and mysterious stage of life. Up to that point, you’ve been cloistered from many of life’s realities, but now you’re in the thick of it. It’s both exciting and confronting. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but also much that is confusing. If you’re like me you live it to the hilt, but in doing so find a lot of questions coming to the fore, both low and high. If you’re the questing type you search for answers, enlightenment, and failing that, clues and a direction to look towards.
It was natural for me. Like so many, I cut a swathe once I hit adulthood. I only have a vague recollection of the details these days, but have a general remembrance of being out all hours, of having real money in my pocket and a place to be. I would head out, with friends often for a big night out, but similarly I might join work colleagues for lunch at the nearest pub and entrée into the adult world of quickly poured beers and murmured conversations, the easy banter and camaraderie of colleagues who must endure work together, and in my case being the kid the gentle chiding and sense of protection being taken under the wing of the more experienced.
On top of that, there were girls. Gosh, I was wet behind the ears, I know that now, but back then I couldn’t get enough. I was smitten in general. I had always liked girls through school and had many a lurid fantasy as boys do – and spent most of my last year at school with a folder covering my lap to hide the almost eternal hard-on I had. Enough to make me nostalgic now, but then – both embarrassing and thrilling.
It was different as an adult. There were rules around being a schoolkid that were removed once I hit 18. Anything was possible. And the women were different. They were like me, making their way in the world, or were more than that – women who had transcended that stage and become sophisticated, mysterious women full of an almost exotic allure. The sheer range and possibility was enough occasionally to take my breath away. In this, as in other things, I was hugely ambitious. I wanted a piece of everything.
Then one day you’re past that. Maybe you’ve had your heart broken for the first time. Or maybe you’ve seen enough and been around sufficient to see beyond the bright lights and glitz. The spell fades, the veneer is rubbed off, peer behind the curtain and there for the first time you see the tawdry reality. It’s not all sweetness and light. But if it’s not, what is it? And what does it mean?
I continued to live large for the most part, but more and more these questions began to gnaw at me. For the first time, you attempt to place yourself in the schema of things. Where do I fit in? Whoa, who the fuck am I? What happens now?
Being of inquisitive nature as well as a great reader I sought the answer to these questions in literature. I had already been roused by writers like Hemingway and felt a subliminal curiosity at what it revealed to me. The next step on was to delve into writers like Sartre and Camus (as well as Nietzsche – a compelling character; and the Kierkegaard of Either/Or). I went through Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series once, and then a second time, as well as Nausea (and his play, The Wall). They were fascinating and engaging at an intellectual level and led directly to many hours of tortured contemplation, but it was the more humanistic writing of Camus that ultimately had a more lasting effect on me. I still read Camus occasionally, but Sartre I haven’t picked up since that time. In my perception, Sartre is the more sophisticated thinker, but like many highly intelligent people had blind spots, and a propensity to take something simple and make it more complex than it was. Camus was not as intellectually nimble, but he was a much more humble and attractive human being whose simpler, less audacious perspective had a truer wisdom. Or so I think.
That was then. I still ponder these matters. I have come to see myself as an outsider in the existentialist sense – that’s a post for another day – but I have come to terms with all that once upon a time where matters of urgent wonder. That reading, that time, is part of me, and informs who I’ve become and how I think. Since then, however, I’ve been caught up in the maelstrom of living life, and not just the consideration of it. Much I started then is still going on, though the route has been indirect and complex – there is no answer, after all, no single answer at any rate, but rather a gradual process of enlightenment that never reaches an end. The questions I asked then and which kept me awake now seem secondary – like tabloid headlines that somehow miss the true story. The truth has a finer grain.
I wished I had someone to talk to about these things back in the day, and even now I would welcome someone with who I could gently debate these matters with a glass of good whisky in hand. I look back on who I was and see myself clearly at that point and would like nothing more than to meet him, as if it was possible for the man I am now to exist in the same place as the man I was then. What a great journey it is!