Alan Wheelis and the absence of meaning

On June 16th, I checked out a library book by the psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis. I had never heard of him, but I always peruse the new book section, and The Way We Are intrigued me. I finished my second reading this morning, and looked the author up on the net. He died the day I got his book.

“There are two essential categories: that unchanging backdrop, the raw nature of existence, unadorned, unmediated, overwhelming us with dread, the way things are; and that changing succession of stage sets we put in front of that backdrop, blocking it from view, the schemes of things, the systems of meanings within which we live. The backdrop is a constant, too awful and too fearful to be endured; the sets change over the course of history, though they may seem fixed over the course of a lifetime.”

But what of those who can no longer believe in the sets?

“Do you know? Do you feel it, this losing of grip? The received interpretations no longer work, don’t fit, don’t take hold…

“Some people don’t hear the screaming; the old fictions still work. Some hear it keenly: The chalk has worn down, the fingernail drags across an endless blackboard, the sky is empty.”

What is there for the latter?

“When the ruling scheme of things comes to seem untrue or unimportant, one’s efforts within it become meaningless. One’s whole life becomes meaningless…. One seeks distraction…”

He sought distraction through women.

“…I remind myself that my papier-mâché angel will turn into a witch or a drab. Yet this passion for a falsified other may be the only thing in life really worthwhile.”

But why not improvise a meaning?

“Free to choose how to live, the way we choose is meaningless; living in the certainty of meaning, we live a life that is imposed.”

An improvised purpose is just that—improvised, shot on the fly, made with limited—and possibly inaccurate—knowledge. The shooter can neither see his target nor know the nature of his target. I very much doubt that we are even able to think outside of the scheme of things, because we are the products of that scheme; we are contained within it. Even when we reject it, we reject it from within, using its terminology, its images.

When people explain to me their core beliefs, the thoughts that keep them going, that make their lives worthwhile, I can scarcely take them seriously. Still others have nothing to explain because they don’t feel compelled to look for an explanation. I am likewise challenged to take them seriously. I can flatter myself about why I am different (“I am more intellectually courageous,” or “I possess greater depth”), yet I would trade places if I could. I neither take comfort in religion, nor acknowledge human authority. The most I can ever know is but a guess. I am limited by my senses, my intelligence, and my culture.

I think of my species as I think of my dogs. Bonnie is smart, Baxter not so smart; yet even Bonnie couldn’t master long division. The most brilliant dog that ever lived—the Einstein of dogs—could not have mastered long division. My race is likewise limited. Some of us know things that astound the rest, but all of us together know very little in proportion to the totality of knowledge, and we probably lack the capacity to understand many things. Like dogs, our intellectual ceiling is not only low, we are too unintelligent to know how low it is. Or so I suspect.