Acedia and the Search

Plum Blossom Snow - Free photo on Pixabay
Plum blossoms in winter. Image credit: zt997 (creative common license)

On the recommendation of a student who took a creative writing class with me, I read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.

I don’t really know much American literature, and many of the classics (Hemingway, Steinbeck) don’t appeal to me. But The moviegoer did speak to me, with its vivid depictions of spiritual quest, which the protagonist, Binx, calls “The search”. This is a kind of low-level religious like experience (though Binx explicitly frames it in terms of seeking, not of religion and certainly not God).

The search occurs to him on occasion, in the bus, in the movie theater, when he’s not overwhelmed by everydayness:

What is the nature of the search? you ask.
Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.
The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

(Excerpt From The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.)

Though these is not much explicit philosophy in this novel (unlike, say, in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being), there is a strong Kierkegaardian theme throughout the book: to be in despair is to deny oneself possibilities. The antidote to despair is to allow yourself possibilities, the search.

I notice that the search, for me, is rooted in a lot of everyday engagements, particularly with nature and with people. Now, as it happens, I don’t have a car and live in the suburbs (since 2019. Before, I lived on walking distance to a beautiful forest, a nature reserve and an ancient meadow). There is a nice large park nearby, but that isn’t quite the same as the more untamed wildness of, say, a forest nearby, or the meadows that are just cut twice a year and where cows and domestic geese graze, and wild birds dwell.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that my pre-pandemic engagements with people were constitutive of the search for me. Such interactions would sometimes constitute moments of existential feeling that are pulled out of the everyday where one can just glimpse the bigger cosmic picture. Observing people, in a cafe, or waiting in an airport, I could see a bigger picture of lives intertwined, of atoms temporary coalescing to create us and our specific situations, of how we’ll all dissolve and be gone over time, the marveling about how we are both supremely important and cosmically insignificant, as captured at the end of Kant’s Second Critique. His starting point for this search is the starry sky above and the moral law within. I don’t see enough of the starry sky for it to be a source of admiration and reverence anymore (and I only vaguely remember my most awesome starry sky, which was in Brazil where I visited family long ago), but the phenomenology is similar for me and engaging with/watching people:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more frequently and persistently one’s meditation deals with them: the starry sky above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them do I need to seek or merely suspect outside my purview, as veiled in obscurities or [as lying] in the extravagant: I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The first thing starts from the place that I occupy in the external world of sense and expands the connection in which I stand into the immensely large, with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and also into boundless times of their periodic motion, the beginning and continuance thereof.

Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788 (Pluhar translation, par. 162).

With my normal people-interactions interactions gone, the search is gone, or in any case, low-key.

We do not live in interesting times; we live in tedious times. Acedia, Zoom fatigue, even depression, don’t quite capture what I feel. Maybe the best characterization is existential despair. We despair without even knowing it, because we tend to think that despair is some high-level emotion rather than the dull sense many of us experience every day. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote in Sickness onto Death (1849) “the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” 

A friend of mine recently moved to Australia–with the very low local transmission of coronavirus he can sit in movie theaters again, and write in coffee shops again, and see friends in restaurants again–and he asked whether there was a word for the feeling of weirdness caused by doing something completely ordinary (he referred to drinking coffee in a café). I responded “radical amazement”, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s term for the sense of awe we have sometimes when the everydayness lifts and we can glimpse the extraordinary in perfectly ordinary occurrences.

We don’t only feel radical amazement after a pandemic, we can feel this all along. The truly ordinary is sometimes needed to glimpse the extraordinary, to allow ourselves possibilities of spiritual quest and numinous experiences. I need these to feel like an entire person again, among other things.

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