Should we live life to the full, packing it with high intensity? A young star of French philosophy is doubtful
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.
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Jimi Hendrix in 1968
The Life Intense: A Modern Obsession