What is the meaning of life? By Miguel Catalán

This post is also available in: Spanish

It’s a question with a difficult answer, because it assumes life has some meaning. From the point of view of my works in pseudology, I develop the following idea in La simulación del mundo, the volume I’m recently working on. The basic idea is that human beings have some information, but we lack the most important part of this information. The suspicion that we’ve been denied the possibility to access the most important part of information is very ancient. When T. S. Eliot warns us in his Four Quartets: “You must walk a path which is the path of ignorance” he is phrasing, in poetic language, the fear of the hiding of truth we already find in the Vedas or in the Alexandrian Gnostics. Some forms of self-deception let us get to the conclusion that our life does have some kind of predetermined meaning. Because what causes the most despondency, the most anxiety om humans is the idea that they cannot control the future, the “what will become of me?”. And that’s when a part of El prestigio de la lejanía, the book I started the Pseudology treaty with, comes in: the idea that, from our anxiety for knowing the future, which is the practical shape of the anxiety to know the meaning of life, we deceive ourselves. We end up paying soothsayers, mediums and visionaries, but also to found and maintain millenarian pseudosciences such as astrology or esoteric religions of salvation, that ease our distress. Undoubtedly, all of those are forms of self-induced deception. Misfortune, the pain at the loss of a loved one, is almost impossible to bear in all its dimension, so it has to be interpreted. We need to interpret that misfortune because the absence of a loved one is unbearable. And from there the illusion is born not only that we can still talk to their spirit, but also what I’ve called the prestige of distance, that is, the idea that, if we are not happy in this world, there will probably be another one, far in time or space, in which everything will be again the way it was or the way we want it to be. That’s how salvation-related illusions emerge, the contrast between Valley of Tears which is our everyday reality and the Kingdom of Heaven, the illusion of a future beyond esjaton from which everything is going to change. But we also have the intuition that we may not living our real life and the real one is “somewhere else” as Kundera put it. This self-deception is reinforced by social institutions: travel agencies sell us distant paradises, Oceania, the ancient Southern Seas. However, we see that in most occasions those paradises are false and on top of that they’re very expensive, when paradise is, by definition, a happy place, but free. When faced with misfortunes, with the possibility of our everyday life having no meaning, human beings create utopias that, as their name indicates, never happen: they are territories of our imagination. The force of utopia is precisely the force of defeat: since I’ve already lost all hope of making my environment better in order to make my dreams come true, I fantasize about a parallel world where those dreams have already been satisfied, if in an imaginary way. This is the kingdom of the Utopian city, the kingdom of the radiant city. When I run away to this parallel world, my dissatisfaction at the real world is diminished, diluted. Utopian thought opens a chasm between reality and utopia, and thus keeps the former from getting close to the latter. Because of this utopia usually happens in inaccessible islands, so remote that they don’t seem to exist in the globe, or in a remote future, as happens with the prophets in the Old Testament. Israel is suffering in captivity, it’s living in exile, its temple has been burnt down, but someday a Messiah will come, a Savior, and everything will change. In this prophet’s vision, the earthly kings will bite the dust and the chosen people will rule over them; Babylon will be destroyed and on its ashes Israel will recover the earthly power of David, etc.; the last ones will be first and the first ones, last. This compensatory impulse of imagination also affects philosophy. In Kant, for example, we find the idea of the kingdom of the ends, the idea that to keep on living it’s necessary to imagine that this world, in which we almost always treat each other as means, will change so radically that, from some moment on, we will always treat each other as ends in themselves. This ideal implies a secularization of the Kingdom of Saints. Canetti used to say the only way of bearing misfortune is to interpret it, and that’s what it’s about, interpreting misfortune in order to deceive ourselves. Probably the most interesting and subtle of deceptions is self-deception. Marcel Proust says something along the lines of this: we deceive a lot during our lives, especially the people we love and, even more so, the person whose contempt would cause us the most pain, which is ourselves. Since we don’t want to cause our own self-contempt, since we don’t want to be guilty in the court of our conscience, what we do is change our past in a way that becomes acceptable. We change the motives of our actions and when they’re selfish we try to explain us by digging for deeper motives which may have been secretly altruistic. Thus, we obtain a self-image which is always better, rounder, more honest than the image other people have of us. The physical self-image represents quite well the imago of our mental and moral self-image. For example, it’s difficult for us to see ourselves in the crude way other people see us respect to figure and age, because in that case it would be very hard to get up every morning. The mirror doesn’t represent the body as well as we think, because when we look into it, our self knows it’s being looked at and instantly adopts the best position, the most pleasing angle. Just when the mirror surprises us, when maybe we’re just walking along the street and we see our image reflected in the window of a shop, only then do we see our physical self.

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