Friday, July 3, 2009

Motorcycling as Tragic Humanism

Motorcycling is dangerous, and when I confront danger it tends to impress important truths upon me. So motorcycling calls forth truths about myself and the human condition. For me it embodies what Raimond Gaita called “a summer-coloured humanism”. But it also shows our limits and vulnerabilities, and so reveals our tragic condition – inviting at the same time a ‘tragic humanism’.

Having showered and eaten, I bind myself in leather and armour which stiffen me and holds my body erect.  My heavy boots sound clear and intent as I stride across the wooden floor. I feel like a soldier at Troy. Helmet donned, and thick leather gauntlets, I straddle the machine and experience the last moment of quietude, electric in itself with promise of the day and of the next moment, when I kick the foot-lever, or depress the starter-button, and the sound of combustion bellows out of loud, low pipes. I wait for a moment while the engine warms, then pull the clutch and depress the gear shifter with my foot – it produces a heavy clunk as first gear engages – and again there is a moment of anticipation.  I then release the clutch, open the throttle, and the bike pulls forward on to the road, and I lean for the first time that day and am off: awash in the morning air, the eucalyptus smells, or the scent of bakeries and coffee, and the cool breeze tickling my face.

This is knowledge; this is lucidity. I don’t feel any distinction between body and soul, intellect and action. I am not in pained reflective alienation from myself, in some state of ambiguity. I am simply aware. I become aware of desire because I am experiencing its satisfaction. To be satiated is simply to reach out and take, and there are no questions or gaps. That is my knowledge and lucidity. It equates to confidence, the strength of my body and machine unified, a new body unlike the mammal which climbed out of bed exhausted and heavy and soft and slow, I am now a locus of thrusting and growling, of motion and joy. Lucidity at this moment is not rational thought but awareness, responsiveness, knowing what I am feeling in the flood of experience and flux of sensations. It is the certainty of the moment.

This is no evasion of life through pleasure. That is a kind of avoidance, a slumber, whereas this is pure attention, hiding from nothing. Strong but sensitive flesh. It is truly to be awake. To experience the pressure of the wind on my chest as I cruise at speed down the empty freeway, the only thing approaching self-consciousness in me being the awareness of my shadow stretching out from my side, as I move forward absorbed in the rumble and hum of an engine whose needs I respond to as though they were bodily sensations.

Albert Camus accused the philosophers of committing suicide. He was a philosopher and was speaking philosophically, and his accusation was against all those – all of us – who become lost in thought, who fall asleep in the obsessions of their minds. His was not anti-intellectualism, but a call no matter what your vocation or employment in life to authentically inhabit your blood and your body. To be here and now. Not to be an outsider to yourself, a stranger to life. In this moment on this motorcycle there is nothing on which to hang a mythology, a religion, a scientific explanation for it all, but only “stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch” (-Camus, Summer in Algiers). As the condemned Mersault in Camus’ Outsider reflects, after his argument with the priest, “And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman's hair.”

In the Australian summer, riding a motorcycle through a counterpoint of shade and stunning light, in a body of muscle and potency, in a land of poetry and beauty and sun, we become such a unified being that we come as close as we might to freedom.

At the same time motorcycling has weight.  It draws me down to the earth, to a particular place. As I wind through a corner I lean my bike and counter steer. The faster I go the harder and faster I lean. Some physical pressure, some secret law awakened by the speed and weight, takes me in its hand.  The air and space become a pressure that holds me more firmly and more safely the faster I go and the harder I lean. This happens no matter how fast I am going in conventional terms – it might be a confidently lazy act, it might be a slow commonplace corner. The commonplace is my existence, and when I can become alive to it, without falling asleep in distracted thought and abstract desires, I become lucidly awake to the beauty and brilliance of existing. That is not an abstract idea, in this example it is an experience, regardless of whether or not I reflect and give names to it. The name I give is humanism because I do not find them elsewhere in metaphysical or religious realities, and neither do I find a reductive scientific explanations of life adequate or meaningful. Both examples evade or are blind to the meaningful and joyful experiences which life is holding out to me.

We are generally responsible for inducting each other into stultifying thoughts and desires. Of course the other – each of us – is at the same time responsible for maintaining them within the self. The questions our conversation partners put to us, the tone they place on something said, can make us feel as though they are enrolling us in a social program: “A life well lived involves A, B, and C…when are you going to stop playing around and move on to these?!” Society can be like a machine that wants to induct you, use you, and spit you out. People who are too conventional live according to unreflective economic totalitarianisms where the value of one’s activities and one’s self are determined by monetary value and contribution to the system. But we live for a short while and then we are dead for a very long time.  It is enough, as far as I am concerned, if I can immerse myself in a rich enough experience, and as much as possible before I am gone. Have people forgotten that they are going to be dead in a very short while from now? Maybe tonight? Philosophies and religions, desires for possessions and achievements (even humble ones), scientific causes, my own obsession with motorcycling and lately my interest in writing something philosophical about it, these can be so many ways of averting our eyes from the fact that we are born, love and hate, work and play, suffer and enjoy, and then die and are forgotten. Nobody is watching and it is all for nothing beyond what it was when it is was, for the person experiencing it. So we ought to reject anything hat denies the possibilities of life here and now, such as conventional but stultifying doctrines about how to live. This is a humanist stance. It is summer-coloured humanism on a motorcycle.

This humanism also faces the tragic, the fact of suffering and death, and this realisation forces itself on a motorcyclist.  Irvin Yalom recently wrote: “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.” The awareness of death drives me back to the only things which are truly real, and that which is truly real is that which is at the same time coming into and then out of existence at each moment: the particular manifold reality I am immersed in right now, and the meanings and values they bring to my life. A humanism which takes its meaning in important part from our vulnerability, especially the fact of death, is a tragic humanism but a vibrant humanism nonetheless.

True tragedy asserts that there are irreducible clashes that find no solution so long as a person remains lucid. What I would call ‘deluded humanism’ is more common than tragic humanism, at least as an idea. It is the idea, often found among those who place too much faith in reason and science, that humankind’s capacity for achievement through reason and science is unlimited, that life’s problems have the form of causal problems which can be solved, such that through science or reason we might work our way toward true happiness. It is an idea also found in many schools of psychotherapy, where again problems are causal, like gases in a closed bottle, or patterns gone awry, and we can set them right through insight, understanding and care. Christianity and Buddhism and other great religions also possess a form of this: the problem can be fixed, there is a way to unbind us from the cause of suffering. On the contrary, while relative problems do indeed have (relative) answers, there are no such answers at the fundamental level where basic human problems exist. Life’s problems do not have a causal structure which can be undone or reconfigured. Rather, life’s problems are a direct consequence of the fact that life is meaningful and people valuable: the beauty and goodness which life offers us is at the same time mismatched with the facts of life: those others which most give meaning to our lives are at the same time destined to die or otherwise cease their relationship with us. We come into the world under the same condition as rats – we must try not to starve and to find comfort, and at some point will be killed or otherwise die – and yet we humans, who are in that condition, bring with us a love and intelligence which finds or constructs a meaningful beautiful reality out of what we encounter. Hence we not only experience loss and death as we might were we some other kind of mammal, but in bringing to being the love and beauty which is the essence of our lives, we also bring into being profound possibilities. The pain of another’s death takes on a lacerating dimension it has never possessed among other animals. Tragic humanism as I am describing it is a celebration of all that is beautiful and meaningful here in this life, but its pleasure in such things must include a lucid awareness of the potential and eventual loss and death of all these things.

Amidst the joy of riding, the pleasure of my bodily sensations and the feel, both in motion and not, of the strength and vigour of my body in itself within the leather and armour; and amidst the joy of friendship, the play of riding with others, my partner waving to me as she over-takes me, my friend up ahead with whom, over coffee in a beautiful place, I will soon recount the ride and talk the talk that makes us close; amidst all this there is the constant awareness that around the corner I might find my partner, who has just overtaken me, lying twisted on the bonnet of a car. I might never speak to my friend again. And when I venture far out into the hills in the hot summer, then bushfire, snake-bite, or even falling, mildly injured, into a gully and suffering dehydration, might kill me. Even coming off the bike insignificantly enough to be able to walk away is likely to tear skin from my bodyand leave me in great pain. I feel very aware of all such possibilities both when out riding and when sitting quietly at home. Speak to any long-term motorcyclist and they will know other riders, usually friends, who have been killed on the bike, sometimes in front of their eyes. I have had to take that long, slow-motion walk over to another lying in the road, whom I feared might have been dead or mutilated. Motorcycling is not only pleasure, it is also pain. This beautiful activity is out to kill or maim me. Lucidity demands that I respect that fact. We could say of motorcycling and of the country which partly constitutes it, what Camus said of Algiers: “Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendour and his misery!”

What matters is that we evade nothing, neither the good experience existence offers us nor the suffering end of that existence. Motorcycling carries us toward the flame and sometimes burns us. Through it we can partly live out that contact with the world which I celebrate through the idea of a summer-coloured humanism, but it is not the humanism of the unlimited person who over-comes all, it is the humanism of a person who knows their fundamental vulnerability and the inevitability of their eventually succumbing to it. It is tragic humanism. Motorcycling embodies a tragic humanism because the essence of tragedy is irreducible contradiction in the most fundamental soul-lacerating way, and in motorcycling that which it offer us the chance to contact the beauty and vigour and joy of life, can at any moment destroy us.

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