A significant life – Todd May

This is philosophy as it should be. An imaginative, well written philosophical response for all those people who lie awake wondering whether the life they are living is meaningful.

As May says, in more religious times meaning in life was handed down from on high, but now there is no externally given meaning, there is just what Camus called a ‘silent universe.’ So May sets out to explain what, despite this, it means to live a meaningful life.

May distinguishes between a ‘good’ or moral life, a happy life and a meaningful life. He argues that a meaningful life is one grounded in what he calls ‘narrative values’.

His point is that lives have a narrative arc, and that a meaningful life is one lived in line with a or a number of values that might hold over a life – being steadfast or creative for example. It’s not what a person does that makes it meaningful so much as how that person does them. You can be a runner or a writer or a farmer, or all three, so long as you do those things in line with a value or values that are of importance to you, like being steadfast in your commitment to them.

Where does a narrative value come from? Two sources. On the one hand, from our own subjective view of what we value as a person. On the other hand, from the range of things that are valued in the community in which we live. It needs this mix of subjective and what May calls ‘ objective’ to be a narrative value than can allow us to live a meaningful life.

Intuitively this makes good sense, but I think the question this raises for me is, ok, so I now know that doing activities in a steadfast way or a creative way or in a way that fits in with what I value in life is a good thing, but what activities are or aren’t meaningful? Can watching football give meaning to my life if I do it in a steadfast way?

May says that it’s to do with engagement. For example, it’s meaningful, he says, to be steadfast in your commitment to playing football, but not to watching it, and the reason for this is that you are actively engaged in playing football, but you’re not engaged in it when you’re watching others play.

I’m not sure about this. Being engaged feels like a pretty fuzzy criteria to distinguish between activities what are meaningful and what aren’t. It fits with contemporary thinking about being ‘in the flow’ as an indication of something being worth doing. But you could be a seriously engaged sports fan who travels to matches, has friendships built around the sport, and so on, and in this case, you are steadfast and engaged in watching football.

So my feeling is that Todd May’s excellent book answers to many key points – why a meaningful life is different from a moral life, how the arc of one’s life is given meaning by living in line with a set of values, and how those values stem from your own subjective views and what is valued in your wider community. But it doesn’t fully answer the question of what activities give meaning to a life, because May’s approach says the meaning comes from how you pursue an activity rather than what that activity is.

In other words, if I spent my life a steadfast watcher of football, or player of tiddlywinks, or pacing up and down the same road for hours on end, then if you admit that you can be engaged in them even if they might appear ultimately pointless, then would they be just as meaningful as steadfastly playing football, engaging in politics, or looking after your kids? I’m not entirely sure this seriously thought-provoking book adequately answers this.

Books I’ll never write #5: Philosophy of the weird

Philosophy of the weird: Life and beyond according to Lovecraft, Ligotti and co

Are we always acting at the will of something beyond our understanding? Are humans an insignificant part of an indifferent world? Is there always an unnamable, uncontrollable part of us ready to emerge at any time?

In this book that I’ll never write I’d explore the philosophical ideas in the work of weird fiction writers, especially Thomas Ligotti and his predecessor Lovecraft.

What we find, in the end, is a philosophy for our times: a pessimistic one for sure, but also one that recognises that far from the lies of democracy and liberalism and secularism, life is often hard, sometimes pointless and mostly out of your control.

Topics and chapters:

– Freedom, determinism and mannequins

– The nature of power and the political

– The unknown, the Real and beyond

– Anti-humanism and existentialism

– The Nietchzean super human and dark power

– Slipping off life’s margins beyond reality

My work is not yet done – Thomas Ligotti

This is the closest thing to traditional writing that I’ve read by Ligotti, but it doesn’t disappoint in its dose of supernatural horror and, in fact, humour.

Frank Dominio is a supervisor at a large corporate; he tolerates the mundane work but despises his colleagues, especially, six supervisors of other departments and their boss Richard, which he dubs ‘The Seven.’

After making a proposal for a new product to The Seven, they conspire against him and he is sacked. Frank plans revenge by visiting a gun shop and ordering seven guns. All very Falling Down. But then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but entail a large black fog and, it seems, a mystical deal, he finds himself in his apartment in possession of supernatural powers.

He uses these to take revenge on each of The Seven, through some bizarre, macabre and disturbing acts. One of the seven finds herself sucked into an oozing substance in a door, for example, while another is trapped inside the body of one of Ligotti’s trademark motifs, a mannequin.

Frank only comes unstuck when it transpires that Richard himself has some supernatural links and that his earlier deal allowed him to kill only seven people; a problem because he had to deal with another office worker during his activities (trapping him in a never-ending series of doors.) To be honest, this results in a slightly weaker ending than I’d have expected, but nevertheless the book remains great regardless.

I love Ligotti’s work – his writing, his ideas, his weirdness – and this book is no exception. In fact, it’s got everything you’d want from a Ligotti story but puts it into a scenario it’s easy to relate to – dissatisfaction with all the bullshit of work – making it in many ways a stronger and perhaps more disturbing read.

The Fellowship of the Ring – JRR Tolkien

One of those novels that is so foundational to the whole fantasy genre and much more, The Fellowship of the Ring is a book I wanted to re-read but found that, although I loved the world building, it’s maybe a weaker book than the Tolkien I’ve just read, The Hobbit.

The imagination, the world building, is, of course, astounding. What is great is how so much of it is the core of a now-established mythology – the creatures, the language, the ideas, they are found in different ways throughout popular culture. Orcs, goblins, hobbits, dwarves… everything. I’m not sure how much Tolkien invented and how much he borrowed, but it’s clear he builds a systematic world around them. Even things like Lembas, the life giving Elven bread, is the name of a wholefood wholesaler in Sheffield, for example…

Great too is the building of the ‘company’ with all their quirks and different skills. The introduction of Aragorn or Strider in particular is captivating, he’s such a strong character; and the company’s gradual bonding as they travel for months on end through dangerous or arduous territory is powerful.

But, as the first part of a trilogy, this feels like a pretty slow start. Despite some big moments, most notably Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog and Boromir’s challenge to Frodo over the ring, much of the book is scene-setting and descriptive, with the major battles yet to come in the second and third parts. The language too, especially the dialogue, is pretty antiquated.

I think the major drawback of the Fellowship of the Ring, as opposed to The Hobbit has, is that it lacks two important things.

Humour. Perhaps because the latter is written for younger audiences it’s a big lighter, more fun to read, whereas in the Fellowship there’s a lot of drudgery, which makes it ultimately less enjoyable, denser maybe and lacking an element of joy.

Second, moral ambiguity. Whereas in The Hobbit the ring is a corrupting influence – with Gollum a clear example, but even Bilbo struggling to do the right thing at times – in the Fellowship there is a much clearer sense of right and wrong with characters like Aragorn, Legolas and Frodo rarely tempted by darkness. And this lack of depth makes it in some ways a thinner book than The Hobbit despite it being twice the number of pages.

The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

One of Ligotti’s finest short stories, The Town Manager is a disturbing allegory for urban politics and decay.

In an unnamed town, the protagonist tells of the role of the Town Manager, whose job is to run the town. The last one – the latest in a long line – has disappeared, and a new one comes along.

Their first job is to undo the best work of previous managers, in this case getting residents to destroy the tram service, with the driver found dead. Then they demand everyone in the town change the organisations and businesses they run, creating a bizarre carnivalesque world, in which shop fronts open into distorted or horrific scenes.

The narrator discovers that there are brochures for the town in nearby places, and the town manager has been marketing it as a bizarro-town to visit. It’s a success for a while, but when the tourists die down the town manager disappears.

The narrator leaves the town and travels through nearby no-hope towns until, in a diner, he meets a stranger whose job is to recruit… a town manager.

Like so much of Ligotti’s writing this is a great story and more: an indictment of political power and the willing gullibility of citizens, when there is no hope or wealth in a perhaps once great American city.