Struggle Without Telos

The phrase “struggle without a telos” is from Michael Roth, instructor of the modern/postmodern class from Wesleyan University, and is a summation of Darwin’s thought. Roth is a great teacher, and part of his brilliance is in articulating such phrases. Here is a quotation from one of his lectures on Freud:

[Freud] wants to escape the pursuit of consolation through ideals…. There is no objective certainty about who you really are and what you really desire. All there is is this inquiry into how the past has led you to have the desires you have and led you to make the compromises within those desires that you are currently making.

The phrase “escape the pursuit of consolation through ideals”, like “struggle without telos” endlessly inspires me. For this is the situation we modern Nietzscheans are in – we who are not capable of experiencing the comfort of a personal god, we who see no evidence of the eternal soul, we who believe that it is precisely because this all too brief blossom is all (we can know that) we have – because of this, it is imperative to strive for excellence, create beauty, foster love, diligently build (rebuild) the ideal of civilization. I have often been told by believers that they cannot imagine a motive for any of these things without the certainty of God and eternal life. Yet, for me, this very lack of certainty is why these things are of vital importance. They tell me that the highest form of love is universal love, a love that can only come from their God. I recall that they can find no justification for this love without their God, and also find that I am in accord with Freud, who wrote in Civilization and its Discontents that

A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; secondly, not all men are worthy of love.

Likewise, I find “unconditional love” to be a chimera, for the simple reason that love, in relationships, begins with a selfish need. One may very well have an overpowering feeling that one is capable of showing love, but one does not seek a lover solely because of the overpowering need to give one’s love away. It is the love that one needs and wants too that drives one out. The beginning of a relationship too is suffused with selfishness. One does not know the other well enough yet to get to anything resembling selflessness. This not knowing is the romantic period of the relationship, and many couples break up long before familiarity with the other becomes deeply developed. They never come to understand that romance is based on ignorance of the other, and therefore can only be satisfied by novelty – by moving on to the next lover. Only when deep familiarity with one person occurs is it possible to know the love expressed in the Beatles song: “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” There may come a time when it is more important to give than to receive, when one will lay down one’s life for another, but this only comes with time and diligence. And how can you ever be completely sure that you continue to love the other only because of the things they do for you, that should they stop doing them you’d stop loving them just as assuredly?

Funny, when these notes began I hadn’t intended on writing about love, but about something completely different. I hadn’t planned on revealing that when I was twenty-one years old, I considered ending my life. It was just too fucking difficult. Life was more pain than pleasure, with a good chance of more pain to come. A few years earlier I had lost my faith in a personal God. I had no prospects and no hopes for an afterlife. When I decided not to go through with suicide, I realized that deciding to survive was not enough. I had always been tormented by those zombies around me who seemed to have stopped growing at a certain age, and now were merely existing from meal to meal. I had to improve. This striving for health I called persisting, and understanding that a creative life required the discarding of outmoded forms and ideas, my motto became Persist or Destroy. I packed one suitcase, hopped on a bus, left the little town of my birth, and never looked back.

Today that motto strikes me as youthful and potentially dangerous, that if the individual finds himself failing to persist in a satisfying manner, then suicide is always an option. True, I’d be the last to claim that I have persisted in a remarkable way, and my greatest fear has always been mediocrity – the slow, unselfconscious slide into self-satisfaction. But I also have to admit that I no longer allow myself the comfort of suicide as an option. This, while a mellower existence, might also be a more dangerous way to live. “Struggle without telos” achieves its deepest meaning here: living without god, living without despair, and still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, striving toward health.



This entry was posted in personal essay, prose and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Struggle Without Telos

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    With these lines alone, I was ready to stand and cheer: ” I have often been told by believers that they cannot imagine a motive for any of these things without the certainty of God and eternal life. Yet, for me, this very lack of certainty is why these things are of vital importance.” I don’t feel pressed to think about the issue of belief much any more, but when I did, my thought often was that it was a bit of an easy way out. Meaning imposed, rather than truly lived. (I would say I do think there is such a thing as unconditional love, though the place to look for it is probably more likely in the relation of parent to child (though I hasten to say, by all means not in every case).) As for persistence and constant striving, again I stand and cheer. My father used to carry a newspaper clipping in his wallet that I wish I still had, the thrust of which was something to the effect that talent wasn’t the thing to applaud, but rather, “persistence is all.”

    • The belief in talent is also an easy way out. If you stand in awe at someone’s talent then it’s so easy to just say, ‘I don’t have talent like that’ and simply not work. Talent does not make a great artist, but constant hard work. People cite artists – “prodigies” – like Mozart and Picasso, completely ignoring how extraordinarily hard Mozart and Picasso worked.

      Between the extreme of a parent who shows unconditional love and a parent who tortures or even kills her child there are surely infinite gradations.

  2. angela says:

    Not only are some not worthy of love, but some shall never feel worthy. Your post was read right before sleep and I do believe it haunted me a bit. Your 21 was my teens, your escape was my chain. Certainly, our circumstances are quite different, but what is interesting is that our core refuge seems a bit the same ~ we seek solace and find freedom within creativity. I never broke free from my physical past for I still live where I began, but I finally found freedom from my past (for the most part). You inspire me to expound upon this at YHC, but sadly I still fear the judgement of those who read and ‘know’ me from my real life. Perhaps that is what your post reminded me most ~ I have yet to find the thread strong enough to sew both halves together for public presentation.

    • I think sometimes those who feel most unworthy are the most in need.

      You call it an escape, but we take it all with us wherever we go. It doesn’t matter where a person lives. I even miss the place of my birth.

      I get insecure about these personal essays. It would be easier not to write them, but I have this idea that only by exposing a raw nerve will I have the hope of engaging a reader. If that’s incorrect, then I could be saving myself a lot of trouble. Not from people who know me, though. People who know me rarely read anything I write. In fact, generally speaking, they’d rather cut off their right arm than read anything I write – and I ask them to! (-read, not cut off their arm) As for my biological family, they make a point of not paying attention to my writing, and I know all too well what their judgements are.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        I can only say I look forward to your posts mightily, even if I’m not always sure how to enter in, and value your company, even in this odd cyber way, enormously. What you write always has substance and, above all, is authentic in every way. Your comments about people not wishing to read what you write struck quite a chord. I wrote this in response to one of Friko’s posts, but it’s equally applicable here, I think. At a dinner party, entirely unbidden, I received a critique on my writing from someone with whom we’re friendly, if not friends. She let me know that, while I write beautifully (she emphasized that), she isn’t interested in anything I write about. The dinner party conversations are in the same vein. No one at the table could fathom my interests or how I spend my time now that I’m not working for pay. Their effort to engage is sincere, but focused on things like what do I do with my files. They advise me earnestly that I’m an “intellectual” and suggest that I try to get a job as an adjunct somewhere. (Whistling to Lachenmann, here. Will comment formally in due course over my way, but just to say you brought a big smile to my face with your response.)

      • angela says:

        It is their loss, Mark, for your writing offers such wisdom when written as observation & beauty when offering us your poetry. It is not that I have a great personal readership, but I have offered my blog to patrons when it was just poetry. I know not if they still check it, but to venture into the personal realm… sigh -this is why it is my belief that some poetry seems to be written under a veil, it is to express what cannot be written in full view. Ask me to read anything of yours, any time, I shall cut off my arm to do so…namaste ~ a

  3. Pingback: Badiou on Beckett | The Mockingbird Sings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.