Nothing, Everything, and Nowhere In Between

At face value, existentialist philosophy is the philosophy of aloof scorn towards societal values and human problems. That middle-age “existential crisis”, questioning, “What could it all MEAN?” For most characterizations of such philosophy, the answer is nothing. All of society, human institutions, experiences, and emotions are for naught, at least as far as the universe and life itself is concerned- we are all just a part of a big floating rock in space where stuff happens, with no rhyme or reason as to when it happens or who it happens to. It is all absurd.

Yet, a deeper look into existentialism produces a different outlook, for which we may consider Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”. In his essay, Camus argues that the old Greek mythological figure condemned to rolling a boulder up a mountain for eternity has been severely misrepresented in his emotional state. Rather than becoming discouraged at the futility of his fate, Sisyphus finds meaning and fulfillment in the brief moments walking down the mountain to retrieve his rock; for then, he can appreciate his momentary triumph and very existence. The act of living becomes his meaning of life, and he is fully present. Therefore, rather than being sad and longing of his old life, Sisyphus is actually happy.

This idea about finding meaning in existence results in an important modification to the common portrayal of existentialism. Nothing matters except for existence, and therefore, everything matters. The meaning of life is not found in emotions, or institutions, or goals; it is found in the very existence of the mundane. Everything simply is, and nothing lies beyond- there is nowhere in between.

Cultural Anthropology, the Middle East, and White Women in the Library

The field of cultural anthropology, especially the study of subjects in the present, has significant value to understanding our civilizations and how communities form in different areas of the world around different ideologies. However, the lens through which historians (particularly white, Western historians) view other cultures may serve as a thin, unconscious veil for validating misconceptions and maintaining a power structure. In the 1980s, the late historian Edward Said proposed that Western cultures adopted an “orientalist” attitude towards the Middle East, dictating that it was barbaric, homogenous, violent, etc. Particularly, he received pushback on his assertion that scholars of the Middle East from the West committed a certain type of damage: though under the veil of scholarship and objective observation, their conclusions were influenced by their Western biases, and the scholarship itself was an assertion of the power structure with the “Orient” as the subjects for the West’s observation. Thus arose the question, “Does cultural anthropology of other cultures ever capture an accurate description of subjugated ethnicities/cultures, and does it even benefit those it studies?” Similar questions arise in “A Conversation about Bread”, as Edwin questions his role as a ethnographical storyteller for an experience that is not is own. Yet, what I think may be more telling is the role of the white woman in the library. The woman takes notes, presumably as another ethnographical academic exercise, on the interaction between Edwin and Brian, two black scholars. Notably, her reactions to their conversation and the notes she takes reveals certain prejudices she harbors towards her subjects; note her surprise at Brian’s correct use of “monolith”. Therefore, this character may serve as an allegory to the Western cultural anthropologists Said warns against: maintaining a power structure of subject vs. object under the protection of scholarship, despite her clear biases, and never benefitting those she studies.

How do you escape your past?

The title “Escape from Spiderhead” implies a physical escape from the research/prison complex where Jeff is held. Yet, in a physical form, he never leaves. His body remains in Spiderhead after his suicide- none of his fellow inmates escape either. Therefore, what exactly does Jeff escape? To answer this question, we must assess a) what Jeff wanted to escape and b) who (or what) was narrating the story during its last moments. In regards to the first problem, the answer appears simple: he wants to leave Spiderhead physically so that Rachel will not be Darkenfloxxed. However, will Rachel not just be Darkenfloxxed with Rogan or Keith narrating her experience on Veraluce instead of Jeff? With this in mind, it becomes clear that Jeff truly wishes to escape killing, both in his past and present. On page 76, Jeff describes, “It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was to sit there and wait.” He then regretfully recalls his first murder of Mike Appel in detail. In Jeff’s mind, even if he isn’t actively killing Rachel, his complacency will render him a murderer once again, just as he was when he actively killed Mike Appel. Though Rachel will be Darkenfloxxed with or without Jeff, he wants to escape his complacency in her death, and by extension, his violent past. This desire is confirmed when we assess who escapes Spiderhead and how they do it. After Jeff kills himself, he transcends his physical form and leaves Spiderhead, sailing “right through the roof.” Additionally, some benevolent figure asks him if he wants to go back into his body, to which he refuses, and he joins a flock of birds, and “flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them…”. All of these confirm that he does not have a physical human form and that his body was left behind in his death. However, the ending suggests that his body was not the only part of the narrator that remained in Spiderhead. Jeff implies that the murder in his past is “the ultimate, unwashable transgression”; there is no way for Jeff to escape his wrongdoing. This appears to contrast the ending, where the narrator articulates, “and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never will.” How could the narrator, Jeff, have escaped his past if murder is unescapable? The narrator at the end of the story is not Jeff at all. Notice that he never refers to Jeff at the end of the story; he states, “This is all me now”, implying that he and the Jeff that was in Spiderhead are now separate. The narrator not only leaves behind his physical form when Jeff dies- he ceases to exist as Jeff, and therefore absolves himself of Jeff’s past. In this way, the narrator has never killed and never will, because though Jeff never escapes, his conscious does.