On Geoff Dyer’s unsatisfactory philosophy of life – Part 1

The Nature of Desire

A desire is born. That desire seeks something other than itself: namely, the object of desire. Because the desire does not have what it wants, it lacks. It lacks and aims to possess.

An organism is a desiring being. Because it is not self-sufficient, because not everything is already within it, an organism wants what it lacks. Its wants propel it in certain directions. It goes toward the object of desire.

There soon emerges more than one desire, desires for all kinds of objects. The world, as it were, complexifies. And the organism exists within conditions of scarcity. Not everything is available. Not available immediately; perhaps only later. Not available ever; thus never graspable. Not available concomitantly with another; hence only one of a set of desired objects can be pursued at once.

In a complex world characterized by scarcity, the organism must learn how to rank order its desires: some desires will be valued more highly than others, for good, at different times, etc. To the degree that some are valued more highly than others, the former will be pursued and, presumably, the latter will be let go of or pursued only when more highly ranked desires are unavailable or will lie dormant for a time or…

The Problem of Vacillation

Consider the following scenario: A person wants X, but he also wants Y. This person wants both X and Y at the same time. Does he want X more than Y? He thinks. No, he wants X as much as Y. He wants both at once but cannot, upon further reflection, have both at once. Worse, he cannot pursue both at the same time. For were he to pursue X and Y at the same time, he would risk–seriously risk, perilously risk–possessing neither X nor Y. He knows this too, the risk of pursuing X and Y at the same time, the danger of wanting both and of getting neither.

Still, he wants X and Y with equal intensity. What to do?

He could reflect further, saying to himself, “You know, after all, X will be easier to get than Y, so I should go for the one that is easily had. It’s too bad I can’t have Y, but at least I’ll likely have X. I can live with that.” There we have one solution. Or he could say to himself, “The more I reflect, the more I realize, at one higher level up the ladder, that I really want X, and though I want Y I don’t really want Y. I’ve made up my mind: X is more valuable than Y. Hence, I shall pursue X.” Another solution. Oh he could say to himself, “Come to think of it, whatever I value in X and Y can actually be had in some other item, namely Z. So, in satisfying my desire for Z, I shall also–and by virtue of stealth–satisfy both desires for X and Y.” Here are we have a third solution. I don’t doubt that there are others…

The peculiar thing is that many individuals are like Dyer: like him in not being able to get beyond the period of vacillation. To vacillate is to be unable to make up one’s mind about X and Y, to be unable to throw one’s weight behind one or the other, to pursue wholeheartedly X rather than Y (or vice versa). Vacillation is as maddening as it is foolish.

Something of a taste, a small taste, of the madness courtesy of Geoff Dyer’s book on Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage:

Although I had made up my mind to write a book about Lawrence [call this X–AT] I had also made up my mind to write a novel [call this Y], and while the decision to write the book about Lawrence was made later it had not entirely superseded that earlier decision. At first I’d had an overwhelming urge to write both books but these two desires had worn each other down to the point where I had no urge to write either. Writing them both at the same time was inconceivable and so these two equally overwhelming ambitions first wore each other down and then wiped each other out….

Eventually, when I could bear it no longer, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence because, whereas my novel was going to take me further into myself, the Lawrence book—a sober academic study of Lawrence—would have the opposite effect, of taking me out of myself.

I felt happy because I had made up my mind. Now that I had made up my mind to throw myself wholeheartedly into one of the possible books I had been thinking about writing I saw that it didn’t actually matter which book I wrote because books, if they need to be written, will always find their moment. The important thing was to avoid awful paralysing uncertainty and indecision. Anything was better than that. In practice, however, ‘throwing myself wholeheartedly’ into my study of Lawrence meant making notes, meant throwing myself half-heartedly into the Lawrence book. In any case, ‘throwing myself wholeheartedly into my study of Lawrence’—another phrase which became drained of meaning as it spun round my head—was actually impossible because, in addition to deciding whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I had to decide where I was going to write it—if I was going to write it. ‘If’ not when because once my initial euphoric resolve had collapsed the possibility of writing the novel made itself felt again as an attractive option. And even if I didn’t decide to write my study of Lawrence I still had to decide where I was going to live because, irrespective of whether or not I was going to write my study of Lawrence, I still had to live somewhere—but if I was going to write a book about Lawrence then that brought in a whole range of variables which I would need to weigh up when considering where to live, even though deciding where to live was already complicated by a massive number of variables.

 And we are only on page 2. And so it goes throughout the rest of the book, my copy coming in at 242 pages.

The initial problem of vacillation seems to entail a further problem of paralysis. If Dyer goes for X, even if he gets X, he knows beforehand that he will long for Y. And his longing for Y will get in the way of his truly enjoying X, which he now has. So, he reckons he had better go for Y. But the same thing would happen, and he knows before the fact that the same thing would happen. So then why pursue either? But if he pursues neither, then he feels dissatisfied as well.

As I say, and so it goes… More about paralysis tomorrow.

A Preview of the Argument in Part 2

The problem with vacillation, I will argue in Part 2, it that it leads to the problem of ranting and ranting, in turn, to that of exhaustion, exhaustion of the will. This, I will conclude, is a recipe for nihilism as well as the basic structure of an unsatisfactory philosophy of life.