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It would be difficult to find a more perceptive description of Western man and the world he now inhabits than that provided by Chantal Delsol in Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. With style and lucidity, Delsol likens contemporary Western man to the mythical figure Icarus, fallen back to earth after trying to reach the sun, alive but badly shaken and confused. During the twentieth century, Delsol argues, man flew too closely to the sun of utopian ideology. Having been burned, he is now groping for a way to orient himself. But the ideas he once held so dear—inevitable progress, the possibility of limitless social and self-transformation—are no longer believable, and he has, for the most part, long since rejected the religious tradition that might now have provided an anchor.
Delsol's portrait is engrossing. She explains how we have come simultaneously to embrace the "good" but reject the "true"; how we have sacralized rights and democracy; and how we have lost our sense of the tragic and embraced the idea of "zero risk." Already a well-known political thinker in her native France, this is Delsol's first book to appear in English. Icarus Fallen should establish her as one of the most insightful social and cultural writers working on either side of the Atlantic.
"This is simply the best book about the problems of modern man since Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. It is so crammed with truth and insight that, as someone once said of Chesterton, every line deserves a review."
— The American Conservative
"An extensive evaluation of the pitfalls of modern times and the strict limits on human virtues, Icarus Fallen, is strongly recommended reading for students of 20th Century Philosophy, Politics, and History."
— Wisconsin Bookwatch
In general our contemporary cannot imagine for what cause he would sacrifice his life because he does not know what his life means. One cannot accept death if one does not know why one lives.
This is an entirely new phenomenon and represents a profound break with the past. The two previous centuries, having rejected religion, gave rise, for the first time in history, to societies which no longer wanted to be structured by religious meaning. If modern man distanced himself from God, however, he found meaning in the ideals of modernity. Twentieth-century man in general no longer devoted himself to the quest for saintliness or to preparation for eternity. Instead, he gave himself over to the construction of an ideal society, described in different ways according to the worldview to which he subscribed. Therefore, even if the abandonment of a structuring religion constituted a change of seismic proportions, the ways of considering existence never changed much, since the content of one just replaced the content of the other. In both the former and the latter, the existence of man meant something, pointed to something beyond itself.
On the other hand, the age that is now dawning constitutes a dramatic break: ideals of every kind have more or less disappeared. Contemporary man observes with a suspicious eye the certainties he once held or the institutions he maintained-institutions are very often the extensions, guarantees, and tabernacles of certainties. His existence no longer means anything. Hence, we see unfolding before our eyes a strange phenomenon: a world without signposts.
How can one describe the "meaning of life"? The individual one meets in daily life says, "My life has lost its meaning" (by "my life" he actually means "my existence"). In saying this, with a voice wrought with regret, he clearly indicates that meaning is the salt of existence; or, if one prefers, what makes it palatable, digestible. Without it, life becomes no more than a colorless, bland thing accepted out of habit, routinely. Existence that "is no longer worth living" indicates a rupture with an object outside of oneself, a fallen fervor, a downcast look, a pointless act. Such an existence signifies nothing; it is no longer the sign of anything. It does not stand for anything to which it can bear witness or for which it can be a guarantee. It remains within itself, as if a thread had been snapped, or a vital link suddenly broken.
To have meaning, to signify, is to stand for something other than oneself, to establish a link with a value, an idea, an ideal beyond oneself. Life has meaning, for example, for those who spend their time and energy in search of a cure for a disease, or in the struggle against injustice, or just to show every day that society can be more than a jungle. The link one establishes with this value or idea confers a higher value on life.
A life that has meaning recognizes certain references. One might say that existence takes on meaning insofar as it enters into a relationship with exterior referents that go beyond it and outlive it. In other words, it is paradoxically worth something only to the extent that it admits itself not to be of supreme value, by recognizing what is worth more that itself, by its ability to organize itself around something else.
Everyone will admit that existence is at once both finite and deficient. We consider society to be mediocre, love insufficient, a lifespan too narrow. The person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection, however imperfectly, to express the absolute, even through his own deficiencies, to seek eternity, even if only temporarily. If he spends his life making peace in society or rendering justice to victims, he is effectively pointing, even if it is with a trembling finger, to the existence of peace or justice as such. If he spends his life raising his children, that is, in teaching them a way of life, it is because he thinks that his way of life is worthy of immortality, that it deserves to be perpetuated because it brings happiness. In raising his children, he seeks to give concreteness to values that he deems essential.
He seeks, since his world is too narrow and too imperfect to completely realize his ideals. By pursuing his referents, he points to them. He awkwardly expresses these impalpable, immaterial figures of hope or expectancy. His existence never entirely realizes justice or peace, but it partially draws them out of the nothingness of abstraction and makes them appear in outline, which is a great victory in itself. Individual existence, when it means something, points to its referent through its day-to-day actions and behaviors, the sacrifices it accepts and the risks it dares to take. It is well known that those who fight for peace or justice are capable of taking extraordinary risks, of making extraordinary sacrifices.
In such cases, and no matter what the nature of its referents, existence then seems to deny itself, since it compares itself to something greater, wanting to be the expression of what goes beyond it. It is a sign or witness: it alone does not say everything, but rather grows by saying what it is not. It seems to know, however, that it is thereby worth more. A pale reflection of the referents it points to, this existence considers itself greater than an existence for and of itself. The contemporary man whose life no longer has meaning envies the freedom fighters who are capable of self-denial because he considers them greater for this very ability.
So it is that what is commonly called an ideal in its different modalities guarantees the value of existence. The converse, however, is also true. Ideals themselves survive and are realized only by the existence that guarantees and bears witness to them. Liberty would never have acquired any reality at all if no one had ever become its servant. It took shape and form through the combat of its heroes, from Brutus to Solzhenitsyn, and the countless other anonymous heroes that reveal it to the world. One might well wonder what wisdom would be without philosophers, peace without the infinite patience of those constantly seeking truce, solidarity without militants, saintliness without seekers of God. These ideas take shape in a groping sort of way through the miraculous efforts that some devote their lives to in order to show that such ideas are real. How many men live and die only to convince others of the possibility that an idea might break through the weight of being-to simply demonstrate that justice or love exists? It happens that certain men are identified so strongly with their ideals that they become the living symbols of them, as were Gandhi, Walesa, or Sakharov in the twentieth century. They make the earth yield unhoped-for flowers. Conversely, an ideal dies when its advocates fall into disarray. A society that methodically quashes wise men ends up taking delight in insanity, to the point where it can no longer see this insanity for what it really is, since there is nothing to compare it against. Thus, man carries full responsibility for his ideals, which, without him, remain strangers to the world.
Man's existence and the reference he points to, therefore, are intertwined and grow from each other. The difference lies in the fact that the reference does not die, or rather, that it only dies when it is forgotten. Every man knows his existence to be mortal. By embracing a project, a philosophy, a God, he steals a small piece of immortality. He escapes the fate of his own fleetingness. By identifying what goes before him, he identifies himself. But in spite of his precariousness, it is he, and he alone, who guarantees the survival of his ideals and confers a reality upon them.
To say that existence has meaning is to affirm the distance between existence and its references, to affirm their irreducibility, their inability to be one and the same thing. This is how we must understand the dynamic of existence toward the ideal, its feverish impatience to make the ideal real and thereby make itself still more real, that is, suffused with a sort of immortality.
This distance is expressed in the restlessness of an existence given over to the never-ending quest for those figures that are not immediately attainable but rather take on concrete form over the course of a lifetime. The seeker moves forward, all the while wondering, "What is worth serving?" Individual existence structures itself through the call for meaning. Existence is shaped by questions and expectations. By defining its questions-by describing the justice or peace it longs for-it becomes the author of its own destiny.
Man can manage to live without thinking about meaning, contenting himself with raw existence. It is like a musical lyric one keeps turning over in one's head that finally becomes reduced to the song's melody. The lyric loses its intrinsic interest and the words get lost in the tones. Existence, in a similar way, can become reduced to its ephemeral joys and interior troubles, spinning round within the walls of selfhood, sinking in the sand instead of marching toward its dream, without an echo to its cry. This is indeed the situation of Generation X, a generation that has nothing to do, does not know what to do, nor to what it should devote itself-a generation without a sense of purpose.
In general, however, this closed-off existence is not satisfying, because man defines himself, on the contrary, in the adventure of the quest for meaning. A life that seeks meaning throws itself into the adventure. Existence calls out for references in an epic journey rich with meanderings. Or rather, when it has meaning, existence signifies an object that evades and escapes its grasp. It knows it wants to signify something but does not know exactly what. What is more, it is ignorant of the shape and form, of the face of what it claims to signify. This adventure represents the way of being of an existence in the perilous pursuit of a reference it desires and intuits but has no idea where to find. Someone may seek to make liberty real, but not only does its realization elude him, its very definition also escapes him. He manages with difficulty to give some shape and form to liberty, but cannot help but notice that this liberty gives rise to abuses. In other words, he seeks what he does not entirely comprehend, and so in his quest defines his object more clearly.
Hence, the pursuit of an ideal feeds on our sense of futility by making us aware of the distance that keeps it from reach. It also feeds on our anxiety, but an anxiety armed and comforted by the certainty of being. No one can be without being for a reason. This is clearly seen in the physical and mental decline associated with old age, when we become useless to the world, incapable of serving anyone or anything. Deprived of his vitality, man becomes distraught. The dynamism of existence cannot be found solely within the self. Paradoxically, existence that signifies something saves itself by going outside of itself. By seeking and realizing the ideal through the actions it engages in, existence unfolds and confirms itself in time.
The deprivation of dynamism corresponds to the situation of the free man as generally defined by contemporary man. He willingly considers freedom as an end in itself, to the point that he measures the good life according to the level of liberty he enjoys. But freedom is nothing but an empty form awaiting content. The freedom to be oneself, to define one's own norms, is not sufficient to structure the subject, since it is mere openness and condition. It opens up possibilities but does not define them. It is the atmosphere, the backdrop, the framework in which the individual can shape himself, but it does not itself shape him. In fact, it is not the freedom to be that the individual wants, which would make him merely a subject in the world who knows himself. The axis around which the subject shapes himself positively is, rather, responsibility. In choosing what he will "answer" for, the subject is mobilized and shapes himself into a whole being. Modern freedom signifies only that the subject is free to choose what he will be responsible for. To the extent that this freedom is taken to mean that he will be responsible for nothing, the subject destroys himself by mistaking the means for an end. However, the man who must answer to, or be responsible for, even a reference he himself has chosen is no longer entirely free in the sense of this objectless adventure. He can no longer be absent, cheat, or call in sick. He must remain steadfastly present, and this presence carries with it the weight of attention. It is precisely this carefree-ness that contemporary man fears he will lose by giving a meaning to his life.
The question of the meaning of existence is naturally related to the question of what man is doing here on this earth. One is tempted to ask what purpose man can possibly serve in this world. In fact, he serves no purpose at all, but rather signifies. He is the sign of something that he is often unaware of himself, of something he seeks and occasionally believes he has discovered. He is not a useful structure indistinguishable from its task, but a sign, and in him can be detected everything that is uncertain about a sign, which never de-sign-ates with certainty, and which can never be confused with what it is meant to be a sign of. He is a subject because he himself decides what he will signify-in other words, what is worth more than himself.
We speak of a useless machine, but of a man we say he is insignificant. The difference is clear. An insignificant person is unworthy of our consideration; he signifies nothing, designates nothing, remains imprisoned within his own narrow limits. Thus, common parlance expresses the blandness and nothingness of an existence that does not refer to something outside itself.
Furthermore, and paradoxically, existence actually finds true happiness in the anxiety of unresolved questions, and suffocates in the identification of itself with the object of its expectations. Freedom fighters, those who combat poverty-in fact, all tormented watchdogs of change-bear the unmistakable mark of meaning. Those who are bloated with freedom and abundance bear nothing in their self-satisfied connivance with the world, where hollowness and emptiness are manifest. The man whose desires are satisfied is characterized by a feeling of wandering even though he has achieved an enviable stability. Utopias that describe a man who has at last arrived home, also describe him as distraught, deprived of both history and hope. If the postwar period did indeed give rise to a kind of utopia made real, with the emergence of societies for the first time free from the threat of war, oppression, and want, it still does not seem that the satisfied individual really achieved the happiness he longed for.
Is it really necessary that man remain unsatisfied in order to be happy? Can he only find happiness when engaged in a quest? Or does he, through this quest, actually seek something other than what he believes he is looking for? No doubt both questions have the same answer, albeit a problematic one: the intuition of an ontological, as opposed to a circumstantial, insufficiency. If not, why would men, whose needs have all been met, still feel that something is missing? What is it that is still missing when nothing is missing?
Our contemporary asks the question, "What is worth serving?" and worries that he might not find anything. To regret the elusiveness of meaning is to contemplate in sorrow the unrecoverable distance between oneself and the object of one's hopes. Existence that points to nothing beyond itself is doomed to die. If nothing is worth more than my self, how can I survive myself? This question is written in capital letters throughout our books and individual consciences. All the epics of our society evoke it and remind us of it. It epitomizes the major torment of our time.
The dissolution of meaning, understood as the dissolution of ideals, seems to announce the death of the individual-not his biological death, but the absolute death that now seems to be his through biological death. Existence that fails to signify devalues itself, or rather, underestimates its value. It thereby becomes equated with life, that is, reduced to the narrow frontiers of biological life. He whose existence points to nothing, owns nothing more than his own life. Of course, no one owns anything more than his own life, but existence that signifies gives value to a project that goes beyond itself. On the other hand, if there is nothing that existence points to, everything of value in existence lies exclusively at the biological level. As a result, biological life becomes overvalued, in the sense that it eclipses all other values, to the point of becoming the only entity that is sacred and untouchable. So it is that the present era has a tendency to protect life at any cost. The frenetic efforts we undertake in order to conserve the physical health of individuals, the struggle to prolong life and, increasingly, to portray death as an unexpected catastrophe obviously reflect only laudable aims. They nonetheless clearly express the desertion of meaning.
Excerpted from Icarus Fallen by Chantal Delsol Copyright © 2007 by Chantal Delsol. Excerpted by permission.
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|Author's Preface to the English Edition|
|Pt. 1||A Condition Deprived of Meaning|
|Ch. 1||Existence as Sign||3|
|Ch. 2||The Rejection of the Figures of Existence||15|
|Ch. 3||Black Markets||25|
|Ch. 4||The Danger of a Return to Essentialism||33|
|Pt. 2||The Revelations of the Devil|
|Ch. 5||The Good without the True||45|
|Ch. 6||The Morality of Complacency||65|
|Ch. 7||A Morality of Emotion and Indignation||73|
|Ch. 8||The Clandestine Ideology of Our Time||83|
|Pt. 3||The Urgent Need for a New Anthropology|
|Ch. 9||Is Democracy Unsurpassable?||93|
|Ch. 10||The Rejection of Worldviews||103|
|Ch. 11||The Fear of Decision-Making||113|
|Ch. 12||The Sacralization of Rights||121|
|Ch. 13||Utopian Equality||139|
|Ch. 14||Production and Care-Giving||149|
|Pt. 4||Mastering the World in a Different Way|
|Ch. 15||Fallen from the Heights||161|
|Ch. 16||Fragmented Existence||171|
|Ch. 17||God in Exile||187|
|Ch. 18||The Return of an Uncertain World||203|
|Ch. 19||On Vigilance||219|