A Review of: Martin Hägglund’s This Life and Yi-Ping Ong’s The Art of Being

Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

Format: 450 pp., hardcover; Size: 6.5” x 9.6”; Price: $25.95; Publisher: Pantheon; Number of Norwegian best-selling authors discussed in this book: One Number of years the author spent as assistant professor before being hired with tenure: Zero Most difficult German philosopher elegantly clarified: Heidegger or Hegel, it’s a toss-up  Representative Passage: “Part of what compels us to keep faith with what we love is our apprehension that the relation can be lost and thereby requires our fidelity.”


Yi-Ping Ong, The Art of Being: Poetics of the Novel and Existentialist Philosophy

Format: 298 pp., hardcover; Size: 9.6” x 6.25”; Price: $45; Publisher: Harvard; Number of drawings by Vladimir Nabokov featured in the preface: One; Number of pages of dense, realist fiction the author has read to be capable of writing this book: Unknown, but unreasonably large; Weirdest pseudonym used by Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kiekegaard: Also a toss-up, but I’m going with Anti-Climacus; Representative Passage: “The means by which the realist novel becomes an utterly compelling work of art are ultimately obscured by theories that cannot adequately distinguish its purposes from sociological, anthropological, journalistic, scientific, or historical accounts of the relation between individual and world.”

Central Question posed by both books: What ought I to do with my finite time so that my life is meaningful?

“This time the crisis seemed different; it seemed existential.”

Such a sentence could come from a novel. It could be in reference to a character’s state of mind, or to a family, or to a business concern. In this case I am coopting it for a field of knowledge.

In the 80s, when I started studying literature, the crisis was political. Conservatives were railing against the humanities for politicizing academia, for embracing race and gender studies, and for disrespecting the great tradition of thought that were the backbone of western culture, Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.”

In contrast, after 2018 the crisis in the humanities meant language departments shutting down and tenured professors being fired. Departments that didn’t shrink or disappear stopped growing; jobs for our graduate students dried up; the annual Modern Language Association conference became distinctly smaller.

For those of us on the inside, something else was happening during that time, related but not so clearly in the news. Starting in the 90s, some humanistic disciplines had been seemingly disavowing the human part of their mission and definition. Perhaps equally enthralled and appalled by the techno-capitalism driving the U.S. markets ever skyward, literary theory and cultural studies began talking about post-humanism and advocating “distant” over “close” reading. We strove to become sleek and cyborgy, all shiny surface with no time for stogy, probably-illusory-anyway depth. We made ourselves seem relevant by looking more like scientists and engineers, and by founding labs to crunch numbers about books instead of doing hackneyed stuff liking reading them.

Okay, this is a wild caricature; but like caricatures, it captures some essential features of a trend. And part of that trend was the apparent demise of some methods, some foci of literature and thought that had made the human, not the post-human, the center of their concerns. One of these was existentialism.

As a college student I had reveled in reading Sartre and de Beauvoir. As a graduate student I had consumed Heidegger. But for years now, such thinkers and their problems have been sidelined, painted as passé. Fellow travelers in the sea of finitude and the uniquely human problems it poses, like psychoanalysis, were suffering similar sentences of oblivion.

And then, gradually and suddenly, as we now like to say, the ground shifted again.

Sarah Bakewell published her chatty history of the existentialist movement At the Existentialist Café (with a tempting subtitle touting freedom, being, and apricot cocktails). A (for us in the U.S.) once-obscure Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, started publishing English translations of his 3600-page existential reflection on his life and struggles as a writer. And in local news, I’ve found that when I offer a seminar on psychoanalysis it fills to capacity instead of appearing as an outdated curiosity.

Perhaps this renewal of interest is the philosophical expression of an ascendant political idea, what we might call the new politics of existence. For the first time in a long time in the US there is a widespread sense that capitalism may be a fundamental problem and that something people are calling democratic socialism may be called for, but there is very little in terms of substantial new notions of what such a socialism could mean, and most strikingly no big visions on the left that take on foundational questions of the meaning of democracy, freedom, and value. Tellingly, while so many politicians are laying books like eggs these days, perhaps the most popular new voice in democratic politics, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has communicated her philosophy primarily in tweets and legislation, such as her Green New Deal resolution. This doesn’t mean that such books aren’t out there, though, only that we have to look for them elsewhere.

Enter two books that in their own ways make the argument for why the existentialist concern for human finitude is, well, of essence—and, more crucially, why literature and literary studies can’t do without it: Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, and Yi-Ping Ong’s The Art of Being: Poetics of the Novel and Existentialist Philosophy. Together, these titles make a powerful philosophical case for how contemporary social life has been beguiled by largely illusory essences at the expense of a respect for the urgency of life as it is lived in the present by real people. In that sense, these books bear witness to a politics that places people’s lives and the real histories that inform them above their adherence to ideology, faith, or tribe.

The Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund is the most elegant and least strident—while at the same time the most rigorous and thorough—atheist I have read. In two previous books in English, Radical Atheism and Dying for Time, he has laid out his argument for why the allure of religions, all religions, is not only illusory, but shouldn’t even be an allure in the first place. His latest book takes this theme up and extends it in crystalline prose and moving engagements with figures like C.S. Lewis, Knausgaard, and the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

For roughly the first half of the book he makes his clearest case yet for what he calls secular faith, the faith “that life is worth living.” In case such a claim seems all too painfully obvious to just about every reader who has gotten this far in this review, pause to recall (as Hägglund will force you to do) that not just the letter of all major religious doctrines but the logical core of religious faith per se contradicts this notion. “All world religions,” he writes, “hold that the highest form of existence or the most desirable form of life is eternal rather than finite. To be religious—or to adopt a religious perspective on life—is to regard our finitude as a lack, an illusion, or a fallen state of affairs.” For Hägglund, such a disregard of finitude is tantamount to an abandonment of everything that gives life value. We are thus not only mistaken in believing that eternity is real; we are mistaken in believing it could even be desirable.

In fact, we care for and desire people and things because and only because they are ephemeral. Religious nostrums about reuniting with lost loved ones for all eternity are incoherent not because they are pure fantasies; they are incoherent because they contradict and undermine the very essence of what we love about those we love. As he writes, “The risk of tragic loss—the loss of your own life and the loss of what you love—is not a prospect that can be eliminated but an intrinsic part of why it matters what you do with your life.”

For Hägglund what flows from the recognition that religious faith is incoherent is a revaluation of our relation to our finite lives that he calls secular faith—the faith that life is worth living, for itself, and not for some deferred or transcendent goal. But secular faith leads necessarily to another revaluation. When we realize that our time in this life is finite, we are compelled to ask the most fundamental of questions: what ought I to do with this time? Asking this question is at the core of what Hägglund calls spiritual freedom: “The ability to ask this question—the question of what we ought to do with our time—is the basic condition for what I call spiritual freedom. To lead a free, spiritual life (rather than a life determined merely by natural instincts), I must be responsible for what I do.”

Accordingly, the second half of This Life takes the form of an extended engagement with thinkers who have plumbed the problems of what freedom is and can be under capitalism, from classic theorists of liberalism like Rawls, Mills, and Hayek, to critics of it like Marx and Martin Luther King, critical figures who along with Knausgaard will becomes the heroes of The Life. The gist of Hägglund’s argument here is that the redistribution of wealth called for by almost all left-leaning critiques of capitalism, while desirable, must fall short of the freedom entailed by democracy. This is because capitalism has led us to bracket that most fundamental question — what ought we to do with our time? — having already decided that the ultimate purpose of social and economic life is profit. Hägglund’s name for the political formation that permits and encourages spiritual freedom in its fullest sense is democratic socialism; and just as secular faith is implicit in the care we have for our lives as we live them, the principles of democratic socialism “make explicit what is implicit in the commitment to equality and freedom through which we are already trying to justify our liberal democracy and our capitalist economy.”

That the core values advocated in This Life are already implicit if not recognized in our daily lives is a theme Hägglund borrows from the existentialists who preceded him and whose mantle his book carries into a new social and political day. How that movement contracted and cultivated those same values lies at the core (and graces the title) of Yi-Ping Ong’s impressive book, The Art of Being—namely, art, and specifically, the novel.

While others have noted the import of the rise of the novel on modern philosophy in general (guilty as charged) and existentialism in particular—Ong quotes Milan Kundera’s claim that “All the great existential themes Heidegger analyzes in Being and Time…have been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel”—no one I am aware of has detailed with such clarity how key existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, and de Beauvoir teased their ideas about finitude and freedom from the rigorous analysis of novelistic form they each pursued in early works of literary criticism.

Ong, like the existentialist writers whose work she explores, shows how the form of the novel opens up the very themes that animate existentialist thought, precisely because those themes are implicit in human life. The form Ong isolates is a necessary tension, perhaps contradiction, between a character’s temporal blindness—that “dark backward and abysm of time” that Prospero urges Miranda to divine—and the foreknowledge the author has of the character’s fate. The key to the novel’s structure, as Kierkegaard works out in an eviscerating review of Hans Christian Andersen’s third novel, Only a Fiddler, is to inoculate the character’s freedom from the novelist’s necessary knowledge of coming events, even while the latter knowledge guarantees the artistic coherence of the work. Andersen’s novel fails for Kierkegaard because its fundamental question, “Is life really meaningful?” always entails and seems to carry with it an answer the author already knows. This obliterates the central character’s chance of embodying a “life-view,” that is, a perspective from and in which the reader can experience the abyssal freedom of being a human subject, while at the same time suspending herself from falling permanently into that subjectivity. In Ong’s words, “A life-view, I interpret Kierkegaard to suggest, must take the form of an answer to a very different question, namely: ‘How shall I live my life so that it is meaningful?’”

Ong traces a similar move in an early review written by Sartre of Mauriac’s La Fin de la Nuit, in which again the existentialist demolishes the author for forcing “us to accept those exterior views as the inner stuff of his creatures,” thus “transforming his characters into things.” As Ong deftly points out, this resistance to human characters becoming mere things is predictive of the core value of existentialism that Sartre will work out in his 1945 essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” namely, that “existence precedes essence.” In Ong’s words, “we must first exist and then in the course of existing determine who we will be. When we read a novel, Sartre argues, the characters ‘live’ insofar as they can be imagined to exist in this human sense.”

Implicit in Ong’s engagement with these author’s is that their guiding question for reading as for living is one that resonates for us today. I was reminded of this while reading the introduction Sartre’s biographer Annie Cohen Solal wrote to Yale University Press’s 2007 edition of his essays “Existentialism is a Humanism” and “A Commentary on The Stranger,” in which she writes, “Freed of their cultural and historical baggage, these essays speak powerfully to young Americans of the twenty-first century. Isn’t he already connecting with them about the culture of interdependency, the universality of the individual project, the duty to act, the critical stance—Sartre, the eternal rebellious teenager, their contemporary?” Whether or not the zeitgeist is ripe for Sartre, today’s fiction, be it that of Knausgaard or, to take something closer to home, Ben Lerner’s very recent third novel, The Topeka School, is striving mightily to  embrace the question how fictional writing can be meaningful to a lived life. In Lerner’s case, a sequence of events from a past not far from his own upbringing in Kansas become a tapestry into which threads of political and personal conflict are deftly woven. Within and above the fabric of the tale, the author Lerner lives as an unnamed but unmistakable living presence, as when he remarks, in a fictional framework, “Why does it feel dangerous to fictionalize my daughters’ names?”

The question Ong shows the existentialists to have learned from their careful reading of novels is, as should be clear, the very question that Hägglund’s secular faith forces us to confront or that urgent storytellers of Lerner’s ilk model. Not, “does my life have meaning?” but rather “what ought I to do with my finite time so that my life is meaningful?” Against the fundamentalists, the blood and soil fascists who are so prominently on the rise around the world, but also against those who might cast their identity as an essence that sets them apart from the wider community, my meaning is not an essence written into the DNA of the world waiting for me to discover. Meaning is my charge to make, a burden for me to carry, and an art of being to produce in this life, and this life alone.

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