Writings on the Meaning of Life, and Existential 'Angst'

Reply Wed 23 Dec, 2009 03:57 pm
Hi folks,
For those of you that don't know me, I'm currently a music undergraduate, and for my final composition, I'm planning to write a short 10 minute vocal instrumental piece in a similar style to Brian Ferneyhough's 'Shadowtime'.
(I don't think this is on youtube, but if you want an example then think operatic works by Peter Maxwell Davis/Harrison Birtwistle).

The work is going to be called 'For the Love of Something Solid' and it is my reaction to the nature of belief and the meaning of life, and (my experience of) the existential angst caused by having no 'solid' concept such as a God to pin the meaning of life upon.

Now, since this is a composition, the philosophy is not really the issue. It is 'personal' to me, so I can do as I like (although I do tend to treat such a large topic carefully, and think/hope I can do it justice). (Also, i'd just like to point out that I know the whole subject area I'm dealing with here is massive and sounds a bit pretentious, but it was the only topic I could muster any enthusiasm towards).

Anyway, I am currently having problems finding the 'ideal' texts which to use for my work. If [/i]anyone[/i] has any suggestions I would be extremely grateful. (By texts I literally mean anything made out of words- poems/prose/newspaper articles/prayers/crisp packets).

Here are the sections, and descriptions of the texts needed:
(The 5 sections have a structure related to the structure of Mahler's 2nd symphony if that helps anyone)

1. (Purely instrumental)
2. (Wo)man inside his/her construct-
I need an example of complete naive realism. Someone who may have no philosophic thoughts whatsoever, or be naive towards the world. The 'things are just things' attitude.
3. Situations where someone may feel an 'existential angst', in general or maybe towards a particular situation- The despair at not knowing why we exist, the deep sense of longing, the sense of confusion.
The obvious example of this is Satre's Nausea- but I am reluctant to use such a classic work. A dialogue would be good here, but is not essential.
4. An example of resolute 'faith' in something. It is going to be repeated like a mantra. I can easily find a religious example of this, but if anyone knows of an secular or existential creed I can base this on that would be even better.
5. (Instrumental)

Feel free to put anything you feel may be of help.
If anyone has any questions please ask, and I apologise for reaching the age of 21 and still asking people to do my homework for me. Haha.
Thank you so much and merry christmas.

Thank you,
pq x
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Reply Wed 23 Dec, 2009 06:31 pm
While I find this thread very interesting, I have to plead incompetence to be of any help.
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Reply Wed 23 Dec, 2009 06:47 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
Anyway, I am currently having problems finding the 'ideal' texts which to use for my work. If [/i]anyone[/i] has any suggestions I would be extremely grateful. (By texts I literally mean anything made out of words- poems/prose/newspaper articles/prayers/crisp packets).

Try this for an angle on naive realism

Perhaps Hamlet for existential angst ? Or the "Life is a tale told by an idiot" quote (Macbeth I think or was that Hamlet ?)

Maybe Einstein quotations on secular faith ?

Reply Thu 24 Dec, 2009 01:28 am

This link provides a subtext for the first link with respect to naive realism.
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Reply Thu 24 Dec, 2009 03:44 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
Hm ... I like Monty Python's "Meaning of life". It's probably not the kind of artform you're looking for, but maybe you could mine it for ideas. It even starts with the "universal angst" theme: in a restaurant, inside an aquarium, a group of fish discuss the meaning of life as they watch one of them being served for dinner. Later in the movie comes the Universe Song, a particular favorite of mine.

Another possible piece of inspiration is Richard Dawkins's answer to a reporter asking him: "This atheistic worldview is so glum -- how do you get through the night?" Dawkins answers: "There's no obligation on anything in the world to get you through the night. If you can't get through the night, that's tough."

Oh, and speaking of Richard Dawkins, my all time favorite quote of his is the opening lines of Unweaving the Rainbow , and it also touches on your theme:

Richard Dawkins wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

So much for my first round of brainstorming. I'll come back when I think of more.
Reply Thu 24 Dec, 2009 04:16 am
Oops ... I just remembered the part where you said your composition has a structure similar to Mahler's Second. If you manage to marry Monty Python to Mahler's Second, you deserve a straight A, missus. Smile
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Reply Tue 29 Dec, 2009 10:36 am
@The Pentacle Queen,
PQ- I just found this. I'm at my parents' house for Christmas and doing all the family stuff on top of dealing with a cold- so this is like the first time I've even checked in here in a week. This looks really interesting. Thanks for keying me into it, although I'm sorry I didn't see it or respond before now. I'll be home in two days and not due back at work until the fourth, so I'll have a break and some time to listen to stuff I have and try to apply it to your project, and will actually enjoy thinking about it. I won't look at the actual thread until then, because I don't want to influence my thoughts by anyone elses suggestion.

Thanks for the good wishes - I hope you and your family enjoyed whatever time you may have had together and best wishes to you for a healthy new year - Rebecca (aidan)
Reply Sat 2 Jan, 2010 08:54 am
I've always really liked this poem because I think it addresses both numbers 3 and 4 in the requirements of your assignment - a sense of existential angst (as in not being able to understand or know exactly why things happen and being at the mercy of unthinking and unfeeling circumstance at times) but also observing a deeper sense of purpose and almost redemption in the natural world around us (number 4 on your list).

A friend of mine sent me the commentary - I don't know if he wrote it or found it somewhere, but we were working on a project in which I was combining poems I liked with photos I'd taken and I'd sent him this poem and asked him for his interpretation so I could see if it was different from or similar to my own and this is what he sent back- that's why I put the whole thing in quotes.

Snow in the Suburbs
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:

Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.

A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eyes.

And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

The steps are a blanched slope
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin.
And we take him in.

This is not a complex poem to understand. Hardy's point is that only human beings are capable of feeling (and exercising) compassion in the face of Nature's blind neutrality. He does not suggest that we have a moral duty to show compassion - there is no ought here. In fact the final line is matter-of-fact understatement.

The first stanza shows an interesting use of language: 'Every branch big with it,/Bent every twig with it'. Said aloud, the lines have a sense of weight (almost oppression), conveying the heaviness of the snow:sound and sense are well combined. 'Every fork like a white web-foot' is an image of the branches, glued together by the snow just as are the palings, but the image may also remind us of a bird's footprints in the snow - and indeed a bird is about to arrive.

When the sparrow enters the tree - and the poem - we are reminded of the New Testament lines about 'not a sparrow falling' without the eye of God seeing it. Hardy's atheistical philosophy has no time for this; the sparrow must take his chance with the rest of Darwin's creatures.

Only in the final stanza does Hardy see a way out of Nature's carelessness: human compassion.
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Reply Tue 5 Jan, 2010 04:08 pm
I didn't really think of it before and I'm not sure how relavant this is but since William James considers religion as:

a man's total reaction upon life


the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

...in his Varieties of Religious Experience. You can see how existentially belief and the god relation is considered. It's a hugely comprehensive work and contains many different quotes from many different people/backgrounds so you could do a lot worse than dip into that as well.
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Reply Wed 6 Jan, 2010 12:59 pm
@The Pentacle Queen,
Thomas wrote:
If you manage to marry Monty Python to Mahler's Second, you deserve a straight A, missus.

Methinks Mahler would have approved, heartily.

Pentacle Queen wrote:
3. Situations where someone may feel an 'existential angst', in general or maybe towards a particular situation- The despair at not knowing why we exist, the deep sense of longing, the sense of confusion.

It is perhaps a clich├ęd suggestion but you could try Samuel Beckett's Unnamable. The last line, especially, is often quoted as a credo of midcentury existentialist resignation: "I can't go on... I'll go on." It encapsulates the despair of someone who sees no good reason to continue but will go through the motions, just because.

(Apologies for the delayed response, by the way, Queenie. I hope all has been well. More soon...)

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