Should we live life to the full, pack­ing it with high in­ten­sity? A young star of French phi­los­o­phy is doubt­ful

The Guardian - Review - - Nonfiction - Steven Poole

Re­cently I saw a woman in a train sta­tion wear­ing a T-shirt that read: “I wish ‘com­mon sense’ were more com­mon.” As a form of po­lit­i­cal protest this slo­gan is ex­tremely mild, but per­haps that was the satir­i­cal point in an age of fu­ri­ous di­vi­sions, where in­creas­ingly ev­ery­one is ei­ther a Nazi or a snowflake. The worst, as a poet once wrote, are full of pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.

Now the young French phi­los­o­phy star Tris­tan Gar­cia has de­cided that “in­ten­sity” it­self has be­come “the ethos of our age”. What­ever we do, we must feel it in­tensely; we must be the most in­tense ver­sion of our­selves. We pur­sue ever height­ened in­ten­si­ties in our di­ver­sions: ex­treme sports, ex­treme pornog­ra­phy, ex­treme metal. This value, Gar­cia notes, crosses po­lit­i­cal bound­aries: ev­ery­one agrees that one must pur­sue “ex­is­ten­tial in­ten­sity”, even if they dis­agree as to what – hedonism, fun­da­men­tal­ism – will sup­ply it. The point of life is to live it to the full, to pack it with the high­est in­ten­sity, and “only this feel­ing of ex­cite­ment al­lows us to live our lives free from bit­ter­ness and re­sent­ment”.

Gar­cia traces the ge­neal­ogy of this ethos back to the orig­i­nal spec­tac­u­lar pub­lic demon­stra­tions of elec­tric­ity in the 18th cen­tury. In his story – which re­lies, as the notes by trans­la­tors Abi­gail RayAlexan­der, Christo­pher RayAlexan­der and Jon Cog­burn point out, on work by the Amer­i­can philoso­pher Mary Beth Mader – the “elec­tric fluid” was con­strued as a lib­er­at­ing, mag­i­cal force, in­ten­sity it­self made pow­er­ful and vis­i­ble. As sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered that by Tris­tan Gar­cia, Ed­in­burgh, £14.99 The mid-20th cen­tury rock gui­tarist is the apoth­e­o­sis of the ‘elec­tric per­son’ elec­tric cur­rents also me­di­ate the work­ing of our nerves and neu­rons, a new kind of hu­man be­ing was con­ceived: the “elec­tric per­son”, who takes as her motto the state­ment by De Sade that “it is purely a ques­tion of ex­pos­ing our ner­vous sys­tem to the most violent pos­si­ble shock”.

In one of his oc­ca­sional lovely cul­tural asides, Gar­cia writes: “In some ways, the ro­man­tic is a lib­er­tine who, hav­ing de­serted cities and sa­lons, dis­cov­ers out­side of her body a sort of ner­vos­ity be­long­ing to all of na­ture.” The elec­tric per­son fi­nally at­tains his apoth­e­o­sis, for Gar­cia, in the fig­ure of the elec­tric gui­tarist of mid-20th cen­tury rock mu­sic, whom he de­scribes as nec­es­sar­ily hor­monal and ado­les­cent. In our time, we are not merely elec­tric peo­ple but “in­ten­sive” peo­ple, de­fined as peo­ple on whom in­ten­sity is morally forced, by “a so­cial in­junc­tion that de­mands that she al­ways love, work and have fun with ever greater in­ten­sity”. And yet “elec­tric moder­nity” is now on its last legs, be­ing re­placed by the less in­tense elec­tronic age. What to do next?

So far this is in­ter­est­ing and per­sua­sive as a work of cul­tural anal­y­sis in the tra­di­tion of, say, Guy De­bord or Jean Bau­drillard. But it also has am­bi­tions to count as a work of tech­ni­cal phi­los­o­phy, which is where it will di­vide read­ers who come up against state­ments such as this: “In­ten­sity is the very con­cept of that which re­sists con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion.” Those who en­joy con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy will gaze at the pretty para­dox and read some­thing trem­blingly pro­found into it; those more into an­a­lytic, mainly an­glo­phone phi­los­o­phy will snort and say, well if it can’t be con­cep­tu­alised, what is the point of try­ing to write a book about it?

Later he dou­bles down: “The con­cept of in­ten­sity rep­re­sents some­thing that re­sists all logic and cal­cu­la­tion. Nev­er­the­less, there is a logic of in­ten­sity.” What is this logic-re­sist­ing logic, you ask? “Para­dox­i­cally, the more in­ten­sity our feel­ings gain, the more in­ten­sity they lose.” He means that, like a drug ad­dict, the per­son seek­ing in­ten­sity de­vel­ops tol­er­ance and needs ever in­creas­ing doses for the same ef­fect. But it would have been easy to say that with­out first an­nounc­ing the im­pos­si­bil­ity of think­ing about it. Gar­cia’s par­tial­ity for the preen­ing para­dox, in­deed, does risk mak­ing him look like a bit of a pound-shop Zeno.

But these are all de­tails: for Gar­cia the real ques­tion is how to live. In the book’s per­ora­tion, he gloomily op­poses “thought” to in­ten­sity. Thought, for him, has no in­ten­sity and “nul­li­fies life”. So how can we main­tain the in­ten­sity of our feel­ing of life while also think­ing? For Gar­cia this is, he se­ri­ously claims, the most im­por­tant eth­i­cal dilemma of mod­ern times. One won­ders if he has tried just go­ing for long walks, as Ni­et­zsche and Kant did. Hav­ing fin­ished this book – by turns clever and silly, per­cep­tive and slap­dash – it’s hard to shake the feel­ing that this is only re­ally a big prob­lem for the kind of in­tel­lec­tu­als who don’t get out enough.

To buy The Life In­tense go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Jimi Hen­drix in 1968

The Life In­tense: A Mod­ern Ob­ses­sion

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