At the limit of our being…

The topic I chose to write about today emerged in a quite wonderful way. This morning I was looking through some quotations to add to the “Others Words” section of I chose a selection from Sarah Bakewell’s book, “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others”.

She discusses Karl Jasper’s concept of what is translated as border conditions, extreme situations, often of life and death, and including illness or the guilt of unbearable choices. Bakewell suggests that Jasper was drawn to the topic because of his own life. He was burdened since childhood with a potentially fatal heart condition that he expected might strike him down at any moment. Emphysema also required him to consciously breathe as he spoke, husbanding his energy from both conditions to live and to work.

Later in the evening I was reading the second book of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume autobiographical novel, “My Struggle”. And there was a passage discussing Karl Jasper and border conditions!

Although over twenty-five hundred pages in total, I’ll finish Knausgaard, reading others in between. Knausgaard is now one of those writers whose new books I’ll look for and whom I’ll read as much as they write. Others in that category are Haruki Murakami, Richard Powers, Neal Stephenson, William Volmann, especially his Seven Arrows novels exploring the encounter of Europeans with the Native People of North America beginning with Icelandic settlers a thousand years ago, John Crowley author of “Little, Big”, W.G. Sebald, who unfortunately died too young several years ago, and China Mieville among others. What do these authors have in common? Interesting ideas, distinctive voices, and not always well written dialogue.

In fact, I would not be surprised if two or three of them are hypergraphic.  And each is a world creator. Several in the science fiction/fantasy sense, but also in making something mysterious of our “real world.”

As the anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend writes in “Against Method”, “We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit.” That is what each of these authors does. When I read them I am brought into another consciousness because of not just what they write, but how.

Anyway back to border conditions, the alleged reason for writing this post. Here are the two quotes.

From Knausgaard: “I nodded, pulled the sheets from the sleeve, stubbed out my cigarette, and began to read. It was the opening of the essay I had been looking for when I went through his manuscript. It was based on Karl Jaspers’s concept of Grenzsituationen, border situations. The point where life is lived at maximum intensity, the antithesis of everyday life, in other words, close to death.”

And from Blackwell: “Jaspers focused on what he called Grenzsituationen — border situations, or limit situations. These are the moments when one finds oneself constrained or boxed in by what is happening, but at the same time pushed by these events towards the limits or outer edge of normal experience. For example, you might have to make a life-or-death choice, or something might remind you suddenly of your mortality, or some event may make you realise that you have to accept the burden of responsibility for what you do… Although they are hard to bear, these are puzzles in our existence, and thus open the door to philosophising. We cannot solve them by thinking in the abstract; they must be lived, and in the end we make our choices with our entire being. They are existential situations.”

In borderline situations, such as our encounters with serious illness and disability,  we begin  to experience the familiarity of the “real” world as increasingly “unreal.” We question our values and are forced to confront the meaningfulness of our lives. In such conditions, we discover whether we are who we wish ourselves to be.




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