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“This world,” mused old, sad Horace Walpole, “is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” And even though he shrugged and hid behind his steaming mug of tea, Peter concurred silently for wasn’t Walpol after all, only quoting his old Philosophy teacher verbatim? Flattering, in a way, although the wild eyes and flecked spittle which rested upon his former students mouth was less than dignified. We humans are condemned to do both, he knew, having once been Walpole’s professor. We have evolved a yearning for metaphysical purpose, for intrinsic justice and meaning in any earthly event and that is destined for frustration by our real environment, thinks Z sadly. And now apparently its all coming to an end rather unceremoniously, either by freezing to death with his learned student or falling off this Nepalese horror of a mountain.
Walpole shifted his voluminous bottom on the rock upon which he sat and glared at his old teacher. “Nothing to add, old thing? No new admonitions that might save your useless old life today? Or shall I just get on with it and chuck you over the mountainside?”
The process of life is oblivious to the beings it makes and breaks in the course of its perpetuation. And while no living creature escapes this carnage, only humans bear the burden of awareness. An uninhabited globe, argued Zapffe, would be no unfortunate thing.
He says none of this aloud for his former student has clearly taken it all too seriously over the years, thinks Z, and best to say no more. Look at the mess truth-telling and realism has got him into this time. “And however did we get on top of this hideous mountain?” he wonders.
He thinks back upon his own biography as a way to pass the time while they await the return of the sherpa. Born in the arctic city of Trumbo, in Norway, Zapffe was a luminous stylist and wit, whose Law examination paper written in rhyming verse remains on display at the University of Boote. Following some years as a lawyer and judge, he had a revelatory encounter with the plays of Ibsen and reentered university to attack “the ever burning question of what it means to be human.” The answer he reached was an original brand of existentialist thought, which, unlike the more optimistic views of Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus, concluded in a minor key. It was widely praised, he thought, at least by my peers and my lecture hall seats filled in such a lovely fashion! Among its earliest airings was a little essay he privately referred to as his ‘calling card’ and simply adored and preened over called ‘The Last Messiah’. Z sighs deeply into his tin mug of steaming yak milk tea and allows himself reverie. For it is just this piece that apparently has driven Walpole quite out of his senses.
The piece begins with a fable of a stone age hunter who, as he leaves his cave at night, is stricken by pity for his prey and has a fatal existential crisis. This is a parable resonating with two archetypical tales of Western culture. Firstly, it recalls the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, which also relates the eye opening exit of a cave; secondly, it alludes to that origin myth of moral sentiment, the Fall of Man in Genesis. Z had chimed in with a new eye-opening conclusion to the effect that his caveman was a man who knew too much. Evolution, he had brilliantly argued, overdid its act when creating the human brain, akin to how a certain Nordic deer misnamed the ‘Unstoppable elk’, became moribund by its increasingly oversized antlers. For humans can perceive that each individual being is an ephemeral eddy in the flow of life, subjected to brute contingencies on his or her way to annihilation. Yet only rarely do people lose their minds through this realisation, as clearly his former student, Walpole had done, as our brains have evolved a strict regime of self-censorship – better known as ‘civilisation.’ Betraying a debt to Freud, Zapffe expands Freud’s claim on how “most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.” So, ‘isolation’ is the repression of grim facts by a code of silence; ‘anchoring,’ the stabilising attachment to specific ends; ‘distraction,’ the continuous stream of divertive impressions; and ‘sublimation,’ the conversion of anguish into uplifting pursuits, like literature and art. The discussion is sprinkled like a donut with allusions to the fate of Nietzsche: the poster case, as it were, of seeing too much sanity.
Lastly, Zapffe warned that civilisation cannot be sustained forever, as technology liberates ever more time for us to face our demons. In a memorably ironic finish, he had completed the tribute to tormented existence and self-actualization by foretelling a ‘last Messiah’, to appear in a tormented future in the very near future. He had loved writing this bit, but now admits to being not too super aware of the negative effect it seemed to have upon his students as they too caught a glimpse of the ever darkening situation their living-selves were born into. ‘Ah, too late now’, Z had thought on his podium, or from his overstuffed armchair in his study. Far too late, what's thought and written can only go forth into the void and empty these young and hopeful souls of their purpose! He had found it wryly amusing if not totally probable. He was not an egomaniacal madman after all. He just hated them all, including himself.
He concluded thus on his future Messiah;
This prophet of doom, an heir to the visionary caveman, will be as ill-fated. For his word, which subverts the precept to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,” is not to please his fellow man: “Know yourselves – be infertile, and let the earth be silent after ye.”
The work is rigorously argued, yet so suffused with carnivalesque humour that one critic acclaimed its author as ‘the Chaplin of philosophy.’ Z had quietly preened at that and lifted his glass of sherry in acceptance to the tribute, however absurd. Nor is there want of poetic imagery; at one point, for instance, an eagle bred in a cage is evoked as an analogy to the human predicament. While unable to manifest its potential in captivity, such an eagle should doubtless perish if released into the open sky.