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What are we chasing after ? A few ways to see our quests as illusions

March 2013

Here are some arguments against the reality of quests, i.e. against the very central theme of this website… and some replies to them.

 

There is no quest, there is just work, and exploitation of work.

 A first set of arguments stems from the conception of work as mere drudgery, which falls on those who are not lucky enough to avoid it. From this point of view, self-realization through work is by nature impossible. Man has to “eat his bread by the sweat of his face” and this is not really a nice present.  Hence, noble and truly human activities are those which are not called “work”. Such was the view of a number of elites in our past civilizations, from ancient Greeks to the nobility of past Western kingdoms. Of course, one is tempted to pass this drudgery onto others. This was perceived by some part of the working class advocates: it would be a shame here not to quote a book with a famous title “le droit Ă  la paresse” (the right to lazyness), written by Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue. This man was indeed a pioneer : he was among the first to claim that the interest or even the passion workers can feel and bring in their work are a trap, and that this trap benefits to the one who is exploiting their work. Thus, this blurring of the boundary between work, seen as utilitarian, and the rest of life, where one may find happiness, becomes a sort of refinement in the way to exploit human energy.   Since then, this idea has been expressed under various forms. It is particularly relevant in our times when corporations tend to request a significant implication from their employees, far beyond the mere renting of their arms or neurons for a given time. The attempt to offer self-realization through this implication can therefore been regarded as a trap, a very useful one for the economic system and those who are best benefiting from it. Then, the quest through action is simply a form of organized narcissism, an illusion, as the one Narciss experienced when admiring his image in the surface of a lake.

 These arguments can be dismissed first because a quest can take place in those other things that are not called “work”. Our actions in the world are not necessarily “work”. They become the ingredients of a quest, whatever their name, when we feel attracted through them, insistently and persistently, by the search for something important and necessary, beyond the satisfaction of our biological needs. Second, it is not, for instance, because some people are forced or manipulated in order to prostitute themselves, or to accept non desired sex, that one can deny any possibility of sexual pleasure, when conditions are met for it to be expressed. In the same way, human energy can unfortunately be negated, hi-jacked, bought and sold as a commodity ; that does not prevent it from existing and, when conditions are met, from being used happily and even from giving a meaning to life. It is the topic of this site; and reflecting on it here does not prevent from taking part in other fights in other places.

 

The quest is an illusion because life has no meaning

 Let’s consider now those activities that are regarded as noble or, at least, as being worthy of our implication and therefore as possible means for a quest. This quest can nevertheless be seen as an illusion if one decides that life is meaningless.

 Pierre-Simon de Laplace was a physicist and mathematician and the author of a celestial mechanics book which described the system of the universe. He is told to have replied, when asked by Napoleon about God’s role in his theory: “Sire, I did not need this hypothesis”. Since Laplace, we have become skilled in explaining things without the hypothesis of the existence of a god or gods, and more widely, of anything beyond us, transcendent, sacred. In this perspective the idea of a quest towards self-realization loses one of its main pillars.

 A philosophical approach : living in a meaningless world, if possible with dignity

 A first way is well illustrated by a recent book by Alain de Botton: “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” (2010, London, Penguin).  In a lively and fascinating way, he depicts women and men in their relationships to work, which are often intense and passionate. He also points out the contrast between how important we feel our actions are and how pathetic they look  if one steps back or if one lets some years go by. What is left from empires that were once built, of past grand ventures, when death and time erosion have done their job ? “What is interesting is that we may take it upon ourselves to approach tasks with utter determination and gravity even when their wider non-sense is clear” (p324) given that “we are never more than a few rogue cells away from the end” (p324).

 The absence of meaning, which death reminds us : here are the key words. They inspired many philosophers, from ancient Greece to Camus and Sartre, whom Alain de Botton joins in its own style: how to live in a meaningless world, if possible with dignity ?  “to see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meeting as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries….: may be all of this in the end is working wisdom. It is paying death too much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions…Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protest against its waves” (p324-326). He concludes (p326): “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes of perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble”.

A psychoanalytical approach: the destiny of a desire

 Another way of pulling the same thread is given by psychoanalysis. Freud had been called “the big illusion killer” by Thomas Mann. According to him, the energy we spend in our actions in the social world is the outcome of what he called sublimation, i.e. the diversion of the fundamental sexual drive towards socially acceptable objects. No quest, then, no real self-realization.

Roland Guinchard, also a psychoanalyst,  diverges from this and explains why in a recent book, “Psychanalyse du lien au travail” (Psychoanalysis of the link to work) (see notes on this book). He contends that work is desire as well: our vital and fundamental energy is divided in two branches, one being the sexual drive and the other the energy that pushes us into action in the world. He pulls this thread in his book and shows how one can understand the relationship between a person and work by using psychoanalytic notions and mechanisms: the developmentof the desire for work in the unconscious, the challenge we face in becoming aware of, acknowledging, and naming this desire, the various pathologies caused by its denial or by the obstacles to its expression. Since work is the object of a desire, this desire will never be fully and for ever satisfied because the object of a desire is alack of something, “an absolute object, thus impossible, dreamed of, thus lacking “(p27). A drive never rests…

One is then not far from understanding what gives the impression of a quest through work. “one could say that the drive’s trip “draws a shrine, justifying the search for a mythical  jewel”, “ offers a narrative justifying the existence of a Grail”, “draws the map of a treasure which may not exist…” (p27)

Since the desire for work is a product of the unconscious, one does not necessarily become aware of it and, when one does, it is thanks to a specific and never ended voluntary process. “One would rather say that man is born to try to name the part of his desire which hides itself behind work” (p33).  Hence this impression of a quest:“I am looking  for something through my jobs, or: finally, my career will have been a search for something…which I will call my “success”, by lack of a more accurate word "(p33).

 

 The quest is an illusion because life has a meaning but we have’nt found it

 Let’s admit the hypothesis of transcendence, of a meaning of life, whether it is linked to a religion or not. Nevertheless, we may still consider we are running after illusions through our actions in the world.

 Some major spiritual texts remind it to us. All these documents were written long ago in contexts that are different from ours. They can be interpreted in various ways; let’s not claim that ours is the right one. They can anyway at least spark some reflection.

 Vanitas vanitatum, first of all... “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity ! What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?... I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are vanity, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes, 1). It’s in the Bible, even if it is one it’s most atypical texts. It illustrates an approach of spiritual life which despises the material world and what is done in it. It opens the door to the superiority of contemplation over action. The Ecclesiastes text is very ambiguous but it does not go that far. However others did. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, held that monks should not necessarily work at earning their bread if it could be provided to them through other ways: their main duty was prayer and God’s contemplation. We find again here the same idea as the one mentioned at the beginning of this article: self-realization through work is nonsense; work can only divert or distract from what is most important in life.

However, there are other spiritual approaches which give importance to action in the world. Two major allegoric texts illustrate the notion of quest through action; nevertheless, they both point out what in such a quest can be an illusion or a flight.

 Parzival is the hero of the mythical Grail’s quest. Before he eventually finds the Grail, he has to go through many stages in which he is led by his immature reactions and the influence of his social environment. His calling is indeed at play very early but his actions are inspired by a mix of this calling towards transcendence, these reactions and social influence. Only gradually does this mix get clarified. Moreover, Parzival reaches the Grail only after he has acknowledged and accepted his dark side.

The Bhagavad Gita (see notes on this book) also tells us that, in many of our actions, we are led by our fears and desires, whereas we believe we lead them. We can nevertheless grow through our actions and get closer to God, but this requires a specific work. There are three sorts of actions, it says: those led by desire and ego, those led by the desire of sacrifice and those without desire. Only the latter are the actions of an accomplished person.

 

A few comments

 So, it seems wise not to ignore the question : what, in my actions and projects, speaks and act through me, whereas I believe I am leading them ? What am I escaping, what do I try to hide to myself ?

 However, the true question is : once I have as much as possible acknowledged and accepted this part of my actions that is the outcome of social influence, anxiety and unconscious drives, is that all about it ?

Parzival’s myth, as well as Bhagavad Gita, suggest it is not. They also show that action in the world is a way to self-accomplishment and, in their vision of the world, to the divine within oneself. This way is like a labyrinth where dead end paths cross others that lead to the goal.

Oddly enough, the quest’s goal is reached when one in no longer searching, when one is acting without attachment to the results of action, thus in being fully present here and now. Parzival, once he has reached the Grail, no longer needs to fight. “Action belongs to you but not its fruits; do not act in view of its results” (II,47) “… without attachment, always do what has to be done; by acting without attachment, man reaches the supreme good” (III,19) Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita. Similarly, Lao Tseu in Tao te King: “(the saint)…produces but does not own, acts but does not expect; when his action is completed, he is not attached to it, and because he is not, it will remain”.  This idea is also present in descriptions of Zen masters of various arts.

The aim of a quest is to no longer seek, which is logical; the paradox however is that, in order to no longer seek, it is necessary to seek for a long time…

 How then can we distinguish the paths leading to illusions from those which more directly lead to the goal ? Parzival’s story tells it well: learning from failures and refraining from making others or destiny responsible of them, acknowledging with humility one’s dark side and enhancing one’s self-awareness, letting go… and never losing heart ! The quest for the Grail is a work of self-transformation.

 As a conclusion, what can we get from this discussion ? From the various arguments we have reviewed, our involvement in our projects and actions, the passion we put into them can well be elements of a trap in which we fall. It may well be that, under the cover of an ideal or a quest, we simply calm down our anxieties, fly away from what we do not want to see in ourselves, help ourselves live in a world which we believe is meaningless. Moreover, these coping strategies can be exploited by others, which results in multiple  forms of this trap and in its refinements. However, if one feels, even in a confused way, that life has some meaning, these projects and actions can be more; they can be a quest that gets us closer to this meaning. This however bears one condition: this quest has to be a non lenient work of self-transformation.

 

 

 

Comments  

 
#1 Hervé Gouil 2013-05-16 15:51
J’ai retrouvé avec plaisir la référence du livre de Roland Guinchard. Si je connecte avec la pensée de Robert Misrahi et ce que j’ai perçu du bouddhisme zen, Roland apporte un éclairage nouveau et puissant sur le travail comme désir, mais reste dans une vision psychanalytique « pessimiste » illustrée par les propos que tu reprends sur le site un peu plus loin. L’énergie de travail ne serait de toute façon qu’une agitation, réponse à l’angoisse essentielle, peur de la fusion ou de l’abandon, qui serait la nature même de l’énergie psychique. Je reconnais que la perspective de la joie (cf. Misrahi), comme satisfaction sereine et durable d’une vie pleine de sens me séduit, comme la vison Zen, qui en deçà de l’angoisse, conçoit la capacité à connecter une énergie vitale plus fondamentale et définit alors le désir comme « cette énergie de vie qui passe par l’étroit canal (j’ajoute l’étroit tuyau souvent tordu) de noter égo. (ET voilà nous avons bouclé avec la question de la boussole, la boussole pourrait peut-être permettre de nous aligner sur l’axe direct de l’énergie de vie, et nous éviter de continuer à suivre des désirs « tordus par l’angoisse », l’angoisse et la souffrance, comme le besoin de reconnaissance étant lié à l’égo et non à notre être dans ce qu’il est connecté au « soi » par la « fine pointe de l’âme » pour reprendre une expression de Lily JATTIOT (d’ailleurs son livre «DYNAMIQUE DU SOI, la fine pointe de l’âme » préfacé par Arnaud Desjardin pourrait avoir place dans les référence de Quêtes.
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