Existentialism as a philosophy coexists with the shadows of the world wars although its roots go far back. Existentialism was a brave effort to think through humankind’s predicament of the reason for their presence on earth. With the religious framework eroding and cynical despair predominant after the second world war Simone de Beauvoir’s novel ”All men are mortal” published in 1946, gave expression to this impasse and the mass scale carnage and destruction the world had descended to. Existentialism gave a bulwark and which as an idea I have tended to see as instituting its own anthropocentrism. Any intimation of mortality cannot be conceived without its concomitant opposite. Does the heightened awareness of morality come from the fear of death, or from the irreconcilability of mortality from the pabulums of the afterlife, self transcendence or reward that was a powerful strand in previous cultures ? Are definitive views on mortality and nothingness not risking the same absolutism they descry in belief systems ?
Fosca , the narrator of the novel, was born in Italy, Carmona in 1279. Choosing to embrace immortality Fosca partakes of a concoction to enable that . Fosca’s narrative traverses the centuries and is coterminous with major epochs in European history from the dark ages to the discovery of America, to colonialism, the French revolution upto the 20th century. Framing Fosca’s narration is a prologue and Epilogue where the action of the novel commences. Fosca’s imperturbability incites Regina , a selfish, narcissistic actress to seek him out , and seek to penetrate the self containment she intuits in Fosca. Upon learning of the gift/curse of immortality Fosca possesses Regina seeks to embalm herself for eternity through a passionate engagement with Fosca. The abyss between mortality and immortality is played out between Regina and Fosca. Fosca resists Regina’s overtures wearied by time, memory and history. Fosca’s fatalism about human progress is a byproduct of living through so many centuries and witnessing the incessant, inexorable yet repetitive rise and fall of civilizations , of the ceaseless human striving for freedom and self realization. Benumbed through temporal progression Fosca is bored and Regina seeks to draw him out of this shell whose origins are unknown to her.
Both Fosca and Regina are connoisseurs of solipsism. Fosca has found a safeguard in unrelieved despair which disallows passionate embedding in the present. Whereas Regina, for whom centrality of self is paramount, cannot withstand any deviation from unwavering regard and validation from the mirror /other she falls in love with. The novel traces Regina’s gradual disenchantment as Fosca’s experiential density and unremitting resignation shatters her self image and takes her to the abyss of indifference and unknowability where nothing matters, death is incontrovertible and all endeavours are futile and foredoomed . This Fosca effect is as much the unbridgeable gap between a conception of immortality which Fosca chooses to live through and the immediacy and tormented awareness of finiteness Regina and other characters in the novel undergo in relation to Fosca and themselves . Omnipotence is the shadow of self transcendence just as a cognizance of true powerlessness can be a stimulus for power. Omnipotence can also materialize in the requirement that the self’s version of themselves, or experiential self definition or worldview must perforce be superimposed or self explanatory as to the true nature of phenomena and reality. And Regina and Fosca both demonstrate this .
But where mortal Regina seeks this movement beyond the self yet through a thoroughgoing enmeshing in her sense of self and vicariously through Fosca , immortal Fosca foreswears this very movement outside of the self by inhabiting an in between , neither here nor there landscape of dispossession and unbelonging, within and without. Regina is irrefutably Regina for herself but for Fosca both Regina and yet another woman, in a long line of relationships and entanglements through the centuries whether it was Caterina in 13th century Italy, or Beatrice , or Marianne de Sinclair in mid eighteenth, early nineteenth century France. Passage through time has blunted Fosca, given him a macrocosmic perspective on the human condition , compounded by his accursed self chosen immortality. It is the unceasing protracting of a lonesome self in a world whose endless prolongation he is condemned to live through that inundates these melancholic ruminations. It gives Fosca prescience in witnessing and committing himself solicitously to the machinations of power and subsequent surges of revolutionary fervour. Having tasted immortality Fosca is initially blinded by the prodigiousness of his gift. Seeking to mould the world in his image and bend a tumultuous and contradictory human consciousness to his adamantine will Fosca dehumanizes himself , condoning the sufferings unleashed, the shenanigans that confound his grand designs . In a way Fosca’s omnipotence is on a continuum with European history and the juxtaposition and ricocheting of these ebbs and flow allows Simone de Beauvoir to encompass a historical large scale bird’s eye view of human ”progress” which Fosca very much doubts . The sufferings of native americans and American Indians when their lands are brutally snatched away and their bodies exploited for physical labour are acknowledged in their unmitigated brutality. The human struggle is for immortal Fosca a nightmare which his embroiling in through the centuries can only bring about through an unembittered disillusionment, interspersed by momentous and sporadic energetic lashings of hope counteracted by a finality of despair that crystallizes through time. The shadow of the world wars is an accompaniment to the bleakness threaded through Fosca’s life history. Heroic feats are, in the larger scheme of things , redundant, all will dissolve into formlessness and undifferentiated chaos. This becomes the message Fosca imprints on himself through experience .
Such inescapable despair, a despair which, under a certain state of mind, even mortals can face, can be very tempting. It is a nihilism that can be convinced of its veracity or as some subterranean truth underpinning all human effort. It can also be a tactic for survival or self preservation as it often is for Jenny Diski’s characters or a will to power and manipulation of other fellow beings as Iris Murdoch’s godless priests and demon philosophers evince. This hopelessness of purposelessness , or purposefulness not transmuted holistically is an ineffaceable shadow in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, a shadow whose forebodings and invitations to emptiness are circumvented through effortfulness and belief in metamorphosis , growth and evolution for the other characters who Fosca sojourns with on this odyssey. And feels profoundly deracinated from. Fosca swings between extremes , an oscillation his immortality allows for . Other women in Fosca’s life, be it like Marianne , who misperceives his fatalism as vulnerability or in the case of Beatrice, deal with from a position of proud disengagement and acceptance. However enviable the potentiality of immortality might putatively seem , however unassuaged the ephemerality of human existence, most of the characters in the novel are able to negotiate wisely , seeing the fleetingness for what it is. Some fear death, some fear being mere transitory appendages for Fosca, some see him as having use value for their various causes in science or revolution but none hanker unassailably for immortality, seeing the monstrosity its actualization has engendered in Fosca alongside veneration and awe for some other men who intersect with his life span through the centuries . Fosca’s narcissism alters through his narration, transmogrifying from a brute will to power and control to a desultory aimlessness where the will counts for nothing and enervating tedium of reiterated cycles of progress/regression become consolatory and unendurably painful. Immortality needs must dictate Fosca’s existentialism . Unlike an unfathomable god or creation whose ways are mysterious and outsurpass human comprehension Fosca is a mere mortal, albeit an immortal mortal .His immortality is in a very human world and cannot superimpose itself on an earthly paradise on his terms. This realization is what instils in him a valedictory remembrance of his early life before he opted for immortality. The human condition is , ipso facto, one of striving, trying to make sense of vastness and finding footholds and must be lived with , wherein mortality, however circumscribing of the possibility of living out the future envisaged needn’t deter commitment. Fosca can honour this indeterminacy of the human actuality only fitfully because his own solitariness of power and immortality persists as an inextinguishable ache.
Christopher Bollas in his essays ”The structure of evil” and ”The fascist state of mind” examined the ways in which the fantasy of omniscience and self transcendence as both gruesome political reality and a state of mind, across the quadrangles of human history and as a state of mind each individual could tune in to, existed as a powerful underside to civilization. Self annihilation, under perverse states of mind, would involve a delusion of one such misconception of transcendence for a cause. The embargo of the self would be lifted off. Throughout history this belief of the self evident universality and applicability of one’s vision has both brought in positive and negative things into being. Mortality cannot be disavowed but its fear can precipitate rash as well as heroic acts. In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel the disastrous assumption of ennui carried too far is counterpointed , but complementarily, through the narcissism in extremis that is its doppelganger. Both are mirrors that reflect a skewed picture to each other yet bleed into each other. ”All men are mortal” is a disturbing book whose pertinence for the present is indisputable. Carrying the weight of history and human consciousness , and reckoning with a present that resists straitjacketing in any epistemological compartment the post post modern human being is not entirely unsusceptible to giving up. The accelerating technology, environment threat and conflicted international relations may lead to either a complete disbelief in any kind of hope , or a voluntary solipsism that chooses personal happiness or , if phrases like fake news, cognitive dissonance attest, a foreclosing of the multitudinousness of reality through an overlay of sophisticated , reductive filters . Simone de Beauvoir’s ”All men are mortal” portends a cautionary warning of the dangers of these simmering risks in the face of an indecipherable reality, both corporeal and incorporeal. The novel ends with Regina letting loose the scream Fosca’s ghastly narration has prompted . It is the scream of knowing that the microclimate of solipsism she had so far inhabited is now inaccessible as well as the fear of Fosca’s totalistic picture/nightmare of the human condition rubbing off on her incrementally and suspended in this primordial scream of imminent, perhaps immanent nothingness. A chilling tableaux .