“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”– Samuel Johnson.
One of the disturbing things about death is that it is usually the cause of tremendous fear and anxiety. Or more generally people call this stress. One psychiatrist, George Vaillant, who has studied the stress and depression of Harvard graduates (the most depressed people on the planet, obviously) proposes two basic ways people “cope” with stress: there is a mature defense which he calls the “transformational coping” mechanism and a neurotic defense which he calls the “regressive coping” mechanism.
It’s pretty simple. Either you keep your cool by suppressing anxiety, analyze the problem logically, and reassess your priorities – or you withdraw into yourself, sleep late, deny yourself, and avoid thinking about your problems.
It is worth noting that both of these defenses are strategies or devices for dealing with stress. Everything is identified in the literature as a “mechanism”, not a solution. On one level, Vaillant describes his findings in purely empirical terms – the patient did x, y, and z when they were faced with stressful situations. But on another level, both defenses are normative devices for what psychologist Csikszentmihalyi called “cheating the chaos”. In order to overcome depressive neurosis, you must do a, b, and c, so you can be essentially ‘normal’ again.
Most underdeveloped depressions (I say ‘underdeveloped’ on purpose) will gladly take popular psychiatric advice as it is presented. But as a set of devices for overcoming depression, “positive thinking” is basically a trick. Like the “soma” that the people in the book A Brave New World drink, psychiatric devices are ways to keep us thinking about things other than death: our cars, our jobs, our bosses, our deadlines.
What the psychologists don’t seem to realize is that “cheating the chaos” is not really a mechanism you can use to cheat other mechanisms with. It is simply the will of one mechanism over the will of another. This is an important philosophically Nietzschean point. Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil that, “the will to overcome emotion is ultimately the will of one emotion over another.”
So if you’re depressed beyond the boundaries and understandings of popular psychiatric advice, you’d probably say to your Ph.D. psychiatrist that he is just giving you another stupid fucking mechanism to overcome your state of depression. He can never give a way to “cheat” the chaos. Even a pill like Prozac must be another mechanism.
This is why it is becoming more popular these days in Europe to have “philosophical counseling”. For someone struggling to determine which mechanisms will eventually win in a psychic battle for the perseverance of their soul, he or she needs another person like them to help them cheat the chaos together. (People pay good money to be counseled philosophically, and yet, here I am providing it for free on this blog.)
All you need to do is one of the following: shoot a bubble of air into your veins and kill yourself – or, reject the world order and become absolutely free to dance that shit away. This is just another mechanism, of course. It is ultimately the will of one order-imposing paradigm over another. Yes, and so is everything else, like “facing the abyss” or “overcoming man”. Even Nietzsche, so bitten by the snake of philosophy, recognizes his own devices.
At this point in your despair it is impossible to reject the thesis that you can rely on something transcendent to overcome anything – like God, science, and morality – and inevitable that your mind ultimately cannot function without imposing order into your thoughts and onto the world. But just like an illness that spurs creativity, so is our despair like an engine of creativity, the billowing smoke stack telling the 19th Century that ‘progress’ was being made. But ultimately it was not understood. So it is impossible to understand your unconscious drives and attitudes alone and without perspective. It needs to be a dialectical process.
The man sitting in his cell waiting to be hanged is also using a mechanism to overcome despair. Perhaps at that point in his life, he embraces his despair and this concentrates his mind – like Mersault in The Stranger death concentrates his mind, generates creativity, makes him into a stronger person. Beyond the mild despair of wantonly ‘using’ any false techniques, false devices, or false strategies of the popular psychiatrists that will help him overcome depression or despair, he wipes it all away with a brand new thought: Hey guess what, I’m going to fucking die!
How morbid, and yet how ultimately satisfying. It is satisfying because it is not ‘inauthentic’, a word the Jean Paul Sartre used to describe human behavior. The philosophers and psychologists have been counseling the planet for centuries now on how to deal with death and how to prepare yourself for it eventually. Today a new wave of futurists are excited about the prospects of immortality through human enhancement technologies, thus eliminating the problem of death altogether. They call themselves the transhumanists. But this is the ultimate ‘inauthentic’ strategy for cheating the chaos. It very openly another version of the desire to become immortal and escape death altogether.
As the prospect of real death looms, the man who is going to be hanged in a fortnight is walking the razor’s thin edge. His mind becomes sharper, more potent, perhaps more authentic. All these other devices – God, science, and morality – teach us to hate or escape the inevitable. Popular psychiatric advice teaches us to hide our despair under the guise of, ironically, revealing it. The snake of philosophy teaches us, as Seneca once said of the poets, to love what the rest of humanity hates the most: death.
Are we still cheating the chaos? If we assume that despair is necessary, and that any will to overcome despair is “cheating”, then yes. On the other hand, if we become really good at understanding our despair, loving it, using it as a fusion to generate ideas and creativity, then I say we become more wise, more snake-like, slithering through the confusion that besets the rest of humanity with ease and agility.