“Grandeur, savoir, renommée, Amitié, plaisir et bien, Tout n’est que vent, que fumée: Pour mieux dire, tout n’est rien.
Greatness, knowledge, renown, Friendship, pleasure and possessions, All is only wind, only smoke: To say it better, all is nothing.” — Søren Kierkegaard
I remember many years ago seeing a billboard advertisement for an attorney that said, “Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t hold up in court.” I have always loved that phrase based on Roman law (Ignorantia juris non excusat) because it so clearly highlights our role in society. As citizens, we have a responsibility to be knowledgeable of the rules of society. We are not passive souls adrift awaiting direction, we are active human beings who should behave as such. It is incumbent on us to show up to life and fully participate even when it’s uncomfortable, unsatisfying, painful, or otherwise less than desirable.
It seems odd that the official historian to Louis XIV, Paul Pellisson, quoted here by Kierkegaard, would be talking about earthly attainments as wind and smoke, given the lavishness of Louis XIV’s reign in France, but then Pellisson was an enigma. That being said, Pellisson intended this phrase in his Histoire de Louis XIV, Kierkegaard’s meaning is to undermine our need for accumulation in whatever form. He is mocking our hurrying, our constant quest to accumulate things and to seek glory in the attainment of knowledge, renown or even simply attention. Kierkegaard recognized as the ancient traditions of Taoism and Buddhism recognize, that suffering is persistent despite our best intentions, so it is best to make peace with that reality and fully engage in the world on our own terms. Reading Pellisson’s statement puts our lives in context, especially knowing he was writing about one of the most self-aggrandizing kings of Europe. If Louis XIV couldn’t expect to escape the knowledge that all is nothing, certainly nobody else could.
Too much of our public discourse today is predicated on a wanton ignorance and a lack of regard for individual participation in society. We are drifting as a society toward absolutist desires because we lack the context to see that the treadmill we have willingly agreed to get on is an endless meaningless loop. We participate passively with media content being shoveled at us with unending persistence. We are pigs at the trough of media consumption, and it is blinding us to being able to any longer taste our food—the food of life—and experience our lives.
In this morning’s Guardian, the author and essayist Jonathan Franzen asks “Is it too late to save the world?” Franzen’s all is nothing is encapsulated in pessimism about our future. Using the death of the essay as an analogy for the death of critical thinking that could lead is to stem the tide of unceasing climate change. The slow pace—although increasing in intensity year over year—of climate change makes it easier for some to deny its existence or humanity’s role in its manifestation.
“I really did want to change the climate. I still do. I share, with the very people my essay criticised, the recognition that global warming is the issue of our time, perhaps the biggest issue in all of human history. Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely, and my only faith is that facing it honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it.”
For Franzen denial has real meaningful consequences. As a birder, he sees the implications of the onslaught of climate change in the withering of bird species around the world. Imagine watching a family member dying of the plaque, and when you run into the streets to warn your neighbors, they say there is nothing to worry about it’s just a cold. This is Franzen’s plea, for us to accept the reality around us, take our collective heads out of the sand and participate actively in saving what remains to be preserved of our natural habitat. Like Kierkegaard, Franzen sees our world as a suffocating blanket of complacency that is leading us like lemmings off the climate change cliff. It’s natural to feel the weight of radical change as oppressive, depressive. It’s a defense mechanism built into us to preserve our sanity against suffering but is also its own kind of denial. Franzen is an artist and artists are truth seekers and shit-stirrers. His essay in 2015 that climate change was already a foregone conclusion upset a whole lot of people. His goal was to refocus our attention on the present to save the remaining species we still could before we spend any more time looking to an ecotopian future. Instead of a call to arms, he was viciously and personally attacked by the very groups, he was hoping to aid, like the Audubon Society, (ironically John James Audubon used to pay hunters to bring him bird species while painting species for his famous Birds of America). Two years on and Franzen is more disheartened with the election of president Trump and his withdrawal from the Paris accord.
In 1962 the French artist Yves Klein created three works called Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility. Collectors were provided certificates in exchange for a quantity of gold leaf which Klein then ceremonial discarded into the river Seine in Paris. Afterward, the collectors burned their receipts as a participant in the ritual, artistic act, a final gesture of immateriality. Klein said, “I wish to play with human feeling, with its “morbidity” in a cold and ferocious manner.” The operative word here is play, and it may be the critical element missing from Franzen’s and Kierkegaard’s plaintive writing. We are resistant to confronting pain and suffering as a natural reaction based on self-preservation. A dialogue that directly engages readers with the painful consequences of our changing world is unlikely to get the appropriate reaction but instead as Franzen experienced, anger and scorn. We should look to play as the resilient answer to our otherwise dark time. Countering absurdity with greater absurdity is the metaphor that will likely open a dialogue to positive change as Klein so theatrically demonstrated in the immateriality of wealth. Play will open our minds not shut them down to disillusion. Many an artist has made the most serious of artworks (I’m thinking Guernica here) while playing.