“As our center disintegrates, the electronic media rise and centralize to ensure their utility as a means of expression. Art, which exists to bring peace, becomes entertainment, which exists to divert, and is becoming totalitarianism, which exists to censor and control. The desire to express becomes, absent the artist and in the face of the terrifying, the need to repress. The “information age” is the creation, by the body politic, through the collective unconscious, of a mechanism of repression, a mechanism that offers us a diversion from our knowledge of our own worthlessness.” (From Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet)
I suspect the average human’s first response to David Mamet’s statement might be a protest of “I am not worthless!” After all, are we not spending a great deal of societal energy on the generation of healthy self esteem, particularly in our children? We have, it could be argued, an entire industry (or confederation of industries) dedicated to sustaining a sense of inherent worth in the human being. The fact that we have such an industry hints at the troubling truth that Mamet is, I believe, getting at: that we all suspect, deep inside, that we are worth-less, and that we are doing everything in our power to shield ourselves from that knowledge.
Worth-less, in this sense, does not mean “bad”, “evil” or somehow unworthy of life. And I am most definitely not subscribing to the religious notion of the human as lower than dirt unless (and until) he or she is redeemed by whatever religious practice is on sale that particular day. It is simply the recognition that in the face of the sheer enormity of the universe and the mind-numbing depth of history, any claim on our part to a legacy that will last for more than a handful of years is patently absurd. No matter how many times our names are carved into stone, or cast into bronze, in time any trace of our individual lives will be erased. Even under the most extreme, best case scenario, the bronze plaque may be discovered by a future species and wondered over (just as we puzzle over the fossilized remains of extinct animals different from any we have ever seen in our time). But is that really worth anything?
(The other unsettling aspect of worthlessness on this scale is the challenge it brings to the notion of our lives having a larger purpose or meaning, or an impact on a global or cosmic scale. It is an intriguing aspect of human nature that our actual lives never seem to be quite “enough”, and so we are ever angling to acquire for them the stamp of heavenly approval).
Living as we do in an age of science we are confronted daily with mountains of evidence that seem only to remind us of our transient nature as individual living organisms. But is this the only service that such knowledge brings to us: a shattering of our cherished delusions?
As natural as it seems to be to deny the inevitability of our own eventual annihilation by death and decay — by joining together in the building of cell-phone networks and fast travel and deadlines and true-story biographies of the rich and famous among us — there is, I think, a real comfort to be found in the cessation, for a moment, of that frenetic activity in the recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance of our own worthlessness.
Religion has learned to co-opt such moments in order turn contrition into subservience to their particular doctrine. This is rapacious, pernicious abuse. But again, this is not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a religious moment of the kind that might have existed in religion before drama was divorced from it by the act of religion suddenly coming to believe in it’s own stories as fact (thereby becoming one of the more popular ways for humans to attempt to cheat their inexorable fate).
We are worthless. And nothing we can ever do will change that. Great. What now?
Well, we’re still alive. Here. Now. Dancing our improbably-conscious hearts out in the days and years we have between the cradle and the grave. Our lives matter to us and to each other, and the recognition that the value we place upon that reality is the only and sufficient value we can count on is, it seems to me, the basis of humanism.
I sometimes ponder the popular notion that the only ethical, existential choice for a human being who recognizes his or her own worthlessness is to remove themselves from life. In short such an idea only re-enforces the idea that life is worth living only if it has the stamp of eternal impact upon it. I think this idea fails in the same way that religious ideas do: it is just one more way of trying to outsmart an uncaring universe by showing it a thing or two by, in effect, attempting to thwart its meaningless lack of purpose for our lives by using our own death as a sort of monkey wrench in the works. In a way this is of a kind with the fallacy of humility in any religion in which the humble servant is, by his or her (assumed superior expression of) humility, brought to the personal attention of the god of the universe!
Our solipsism is, truly, impossible to escape.
If we can manage to put all of that nonsense aside for just a moment, I believe that we can find real comfort, and a moment of peace, in the hearing of the truth spoken by Mamet. We are worthless. Recognizing that, we can release ourselves from the tyranny of eternity, of the struggle to discern the intentions of god, and get on with the business of living our lives as animals who have earned their right to life by sheer dint of being alive now.
Honestly, I can’t tell you that this is the way to happiness. (For all its evils, religious belief provides effective distraction that has been finely tuned to the sorts of things we humans deeply want to believe are true). But I can suggest that it is the path to the only genuine meaning we can hope to find in our lives and the best chance of coming to whatever terms we can with the challenges of being the conscious animal that must contemplate his or her our own existence.