The Concept of Experience

The Meaning of Life I

The Oulaf’s Picnic
Bushwick Farms, The Oulaf’s Picnic, 2003. Courtesy of the Bushwick Farms Family Archive.

I.

So many conditions conspire to make life intolerable. A life is too short. You only get one of them. You find, living among other people, that every person has his own life, visible and desirable, and you can’t enter it; true as well for other lives past and future.

Cursed you seem, in certain moods. You are a man and not a woman, or a woman and not a man. You were born one person rather than two, or many. You are alive now instead of then. The morbid person knows he was born to die, but even the short time until the end he doesn’t know how to fill. The optimist says we were born for life, and in solitary hours fears he doesn’t live. Looking around at the dumb show, you see events flying past and can’t close on anything solid. Memory floats you back to days that will never be repeated, letting you know you didn’t appreciate them when they occurred. You move behind the time, like a clock continually losing seconds, and despair.


The problem is experience; specifically, a concept of experience that gives us the feeling we are really living, but makes us unsatisfied with whatever life we obtain.

Our acceptable philosophy is eudaemonistic hedonism. It says: we act, and choose, and react, by an insatiable hunger for pleasure, and this is to be adjusted, very reasonably, by an educated taste for happiness.

Happiness is a vague bliss. Sunny and sociable, it considers the well-being of family and friends, while ordinary pleasure is immediate and private. If you say, “I live for happiness,” no one will challenge you, since everyone is assured of the crumbs from your meal. The flaw of this philosophy, however, is that neither happiness nor pleasure can be put into reality directly. The pursuit of happiness has to enter occurrence, and raw occurrence can’t be saved or savored. Pleasure, like pain, will be unmemorable if it exists only as immediate sensation. Neither an orgasm nor the pains of childbirth can be recalled as feeling when you’re not undergoing them. So we learn to ask ourselves what it was like when the encounter or shock of sensation took place. You monitor the inward influence of occurrences as you undergo them, ruminating an interior object, something that can be brought up, later, to release a musty whiff of pleasure; or chewed again, to test if it’s “the real thing,” life; or digested some more to see if it will yield some elusive nutriment of happiness.

The new object is called “experience,” in the word’s most modern sense. Experience is directly attainable. It is definite and cumulative, when happiness is ambiguous and pleasure evanescent.

Any question of “the meaning of life” is usually raised as a joke. But some urge compels us to answer. “What am I living for?” The mistake commonly in our answers is that they project only a what and don’t spell out a how. A monk said, “I live for God”; a modern says, “for happiness.” But the meaning of life always comes down to a method of life. Sometimes the method follows from the goal, as religious obedience followed a God who paid attention. Often we don’t know how we are living.

Face-to-face with the shortcomings of more respectable goals, we have turned large tracts of our method of life over to experience—unwittingly. Even where life appears to be lived for happiness, it is lived by and through experience. We see our lives as a collection of experiences: “the day I met those people at that party”; “the night I lost my virginity”; “the feeling I had as a tourist in Paris”; or “when I stood at the lake in the woods.” These snow globes and beach rocks can be held onto, compared, and appraised for quality. You put them on the shelf, and take them down; or lie awake at night, just wondering at them. They come with stories, and you put forward your experiences as rivals to the experiences others can tell. We become lifelong collectors, and count on fixed mementos to provide the substance of whatever other aims we may declare, when asked, are our real goals or reasons to live.


Give experience your energy and like any living process it divides and grows. The deliberate wish to “live” takes over from the day-to-day accident formerly called life. Experience, pursued, creates certain paradoxes. The most memorable experiences need spontaneity, so you act “spontaneously” knowing full well that you are making memories for future time. They require surprise, so you launch yourself into situations in which surprises are likely to occur. They thrive on immediacy, so you hold yourself deliberately suspended in the most colorful and intense instants, proving immediacy by a special interruption and distance. Accident is precipitated; immediacy is studied; fate is forced.

The concept of experience attains its full dominion when it makes its own standard, dependent on sheer quantity—on filling up, or using up, a life. Less and less of experience can any longer be really bad or good. It can only be had or missed, life only used or wasted. Even the bad things, you become reluctant to wish undone.

All these developments together give a self-defeating quality to the concept of experience. In filling a cabinet with treasures, you feel, for the first time, your true poverty. You amass experiences, and inevitably learn they’re not enough, and never enough. You dwell on the album of your past, and are dissatisfied. You are like the traveler, back from any trip, who has to ask, “Why didn’t I take more pictures?”

You can wish your experiences had been more plentiful, or longer lasting. You can wish they had made you someone else—or that you could retell them to anyone who’d understand. But you do not wish you hadn’t had them. The need to retell experiences becomes your last means to try to redeem experience from aimless, pure accumulation—and either you cannot find a listener or you realize that you are mute, unfit to communicate the colors of this distant realm of experience in any way adequate to the wonders you found there.

Thus everyone longs to tell his story today, but not as literature.


Meanwhile, the permanent conditions of human life always remain in force, and the concept of experience recasts them in its own image—chiseling all statues with the face of the new emperor. Experience reconstructs the eternal limitations of human life to make us responsible for them. Instead of fate and finitude, we think of failure and waste. And only deliberately sought experience puts itself forward as life’s avenger and redeemer.

“Youth is wasted on the young,” we say—but even children know their obligations. In the nursery they learn the imperative not to lose a moment of life. The adult obsession with brevity, capturing soon-to-be-lost instants of childhood in photographs, baby books, mementos, and home movies, teaches them to take a mental snapshot of a moment, so as not to lose it to time. This is the first practical lesson in the concept of experience. Kids receive the inoculation against wasting precious moments alongside the other needles that teach them fear. But consciously sought, active experience begins in the years of adolescence.

Sex and intoxication are the most famous techniques the young use to create experience. Both activities are fundamental because they exist to find out what a person feels like while doing them. If friends ask any of us about the major experiences of those years, even into the twenties, these encounters still come to mind, whether or not they can be spoken: flirtations, romances, sex casual or deliberate—the learning of what it was like to come in contact.

“Hooking up” is a means to knowledge. The blurred floating face behind a fringe of hair reveals a mystery, and the difference of a face seen close up, possessing qualities of the monumental and the intimate, makes a lesson without words. You would like to know how somebody particular will kiss, what a particular body looks like, what you, personally, are capable of, what the postures of bliss will be. You learn how people differ in details where they might be most the same.

In intoxication, falling into chairs, against walls, and onto friends, a person enters a realm of free experience. Liquor unlocks the innocent belief that the way you feel about anyone else should be the way he feels about you. Drugs make perception the subject of experience, by slight derangement, tuning you to the colors, outlines, and movements we take for granted.

So sex and intoxication become forms of philosophy available to mindlessness. This shouldn’t diminish either one. As activities, they create experiences that push past the little you can learn about other people from social interactions and conversation, into immediacies it seems you couldn’t know in any other way. They point to a world a lot looser and more liberal than this one.

You could also easily say, how pointless—how uncomfortable I was, how much I disliked that person, how rotten I felt; how disappointed I was by what I learned in sex and intoxication, how ashamed of what I revealed. You can suffer hangovers in more shades of misery than the merely physical, and vow never to touch the stuff, or person, again. But somehow the experience seems definitive, for better and for worse. What was learned is not unlearned. Once you discover these earliest means to experience, of course, the question becomes how often you have to, or even can, discover them again, rather than repeating them with diminishing returns. So these two forms of experience may or may not have a time limit to them, associated with the feeling of youth.


One could argue that isolation is overcome in these experiences. I’ve said your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know how it feels. And it’s true that the earliest experiences that make you say, “I’m really living,” also suggest another person may be living along with you—in physical passion, by reciprocated touch, or in altered perception, when you take the same drugs and share effects.

The more serious problem of isolation in human life isn’t physical or immediate in the way sex and intoxication suggest. It is general, in the frustration that no one will feel the way I do in the many various moments that affect me most deeply. No one knows “what it is like for me” by any direct chemical transaction, and I find I can’t tell it in words. So experience comes to lend us a hand in being with one another, closing the gap of the inner “how it feels” by a sort of delay and exchange. You can hear it reflected in practically any intimate conversation you care to eavesdrop on: “Ah, I can’t say something exactly like that happened to me, but it does remind me of the time that I . . .” Two commiserators use each other as transponders of their own experiences, in their best shot at empathy. Your own experiences open a door into the inside-feeling of somebody else’s life.

We really wish to be multiple. Because of the mobile and vicarious character of so many promised happinesses, our era tempts us to push against the boundaries of any single destiny. From middle-class hopefulness, we think we have freedom of career. From the modern hiatus of college, we think life could be a thing of play and experiment. From the narrow and desperate occupational specialization that follows, we are left to suspect that we could have done, or should have done, something else. More different lifestyles are represented to us daily, televisually, than to any previous group of people, and actual jobs are more specialized. So it’s easy to feel dissatisfaction with doing any one thing.

Sought-after experience lets you multiply your possible existences; getting a piece, or a taste, of many lives, as you tell yourself you know what it would have been like. Travel becomes the main new experience people remember when sex and intoxication stop being the sole authoritative ones. What did you do last year? “Well, I took a trip to Washington”—or London, or Katmandu. While traveling somewhere else, you can simulate to yourself: “If I were another, this is how I would feel.” If I had been born to royalty, I would have filled a throne in a palace like this. If I had been a peasant, my prayers would have risen in a little church like this one. If I had no job—if I had become an “artist”—I could sit all day in a café, as I’m doing now. The water cooler conversation in which jobholders have the best relief from work revolves around the places they’re going or have been. Even dispatched someplace by the company, you gather the experiences that will last, for amusement, and knowledge, and the taste of another existence, through many ordinary days. Most travel is local: not only is there a Japan, but a Japanese restaurant, or Japantown in a big city. Each moment that you say to yourself, “This is how they do it,” you feel another life, and the phantom extension of experience.

But the only-onceness of your life, mortality, may be the undercondition of all your other troubles. Old-style mortality reminded us that death lay around every corner, by disease, accident, or violence. Contemporary mortality expects a solid life span, not a premature ending, thanks to medicine; but it resents the completeness of the ending of life, a life that preserves nothing, and leaves no soul, and can never be repeated.

Sometimes the concept of experience answers mortality by encouraging a spirit of recklessness. “You only live once” is the ironic verbal preface to actions that help kill you early. Or the concept of experience pushes you to pile up new experiences even in old age, refusing an earlier meaning of “experience” as the apprenticeship or tutelage needed to reach adult knowledge. A desire for quantity, facing mortality, leads to the same perverse consequence that occurs with physical goods: if you know something will be taken away prematurely, in this case “life,” the impulse is to use it up, or, sometimes, to use it roughly, and risk breaking it.

Other forms of sought experience confront mortality very differently, when you try to align yourself with immortal things, and, in the presence of quick-passing objects, assimilate the perception of mortality as a sort of strength. Nature is usually what we need to experience to make the trick work. The sights of trees, or mountaintops, or the sea, possess their intrinsic delights, by diversity of colors, and motion, and the millions of objects in a single scene. But nature takes on its occult power for redeeming experience when it puts the human being at a middle point between the perishable and the eternal. You watch nature’s decline in autumn and rebirth in spring, while you stay just as you were; half the objects in a forest clearing will die before you do, the leaves and birds and mushrooms, and yet you stay the same. Nature’s beauty seems to have been made for you, since only a human being can appreciate it; but you know nature is not created for you, and this melancholy indifference of nature to your appreciation adds its own gratifying experience of superior knowledge. It’s easier, finally, to have a mountain outlive you than another human being—especially when you know the mountain as it doesn’t know you, and everything smaller submits to you, as the squirrels run away in fright and the leaves fall at your feet.


The downside of sought-after experiences is usually that they end. If they don’t end, it brings worse trouble. Some people never stop following the same early experiences without limit. The sex seeker evolves from an innocent voyager in uncharted seas to a bored and cynical conquistador. The drunk finds that the fun is no longer shared as his circle of drinking buddies dwindles. The traveler goes from learning to mere categorizing: he has seen so much of the world that every town is reminiscent of another.

Youthful experiences are complicated by the pressure of new people, adding to the crowd that advances at your back. Contemporary perma-adolescence—the repetition of the experiences of youth ad infinitum—far from expressing solidarity with the young, becomes an act of hostility toward them. The concept of experience makes you fear you didn’t grab enough in the short time you were in the candy store. So you refuse to leave, and thereby prove that life won’t be ceded to those who come after you.

Most of us just have simple dissatisfaction. The sense that each or any moment might be won for experience, but is lost to time instead, leaves a residue of perpetual loss. We find out that every situation is withdrawn from us finally, and we didn’t have the will to take it far enough when we still could. When a cloud hangs over me, I think: “I was never the Casanova I meant to be: I was too slow. I was never the traveler I meant to be: I liked my comforts too much at home. I never built a cabin in the woods: I’m no carpenter. I never took the drugs I planned to take: I thought I’d lose my mind.” But I am bored by Casanovas, inveterate travelers, nature lovers, and the drug-obsessed, as they speak from the narrowness of their exhaustive experience of one thing. Nor can I make anyone feel what I did do. Trying to get a taste of everything, besides, gave me a depth of understanding of no one thing—I missed the experience of insight for a diffuse ambition.

Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their own little experience, and make a second pass at the day-to-day, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”


II.

Build peaks, and former highlands become flatlands—ordinary topography loses its allure. The attempt to make our lives not a waste, by seeking a few most remarkable incidents, will make the rest of our life a waste. The concept of experience turns us into dwellers in a plateau village who hold onto a myth of the happier race of people who live on the peaks. We climb up occasionally, but only with preparation, for short expeditions. We can’t stay there, and everyone is restless and unsatisfied at home.

Therefore desperate measures are required. Experience could be rejected or nullified—which would lead back to a set of solutions from Stoicism and Epicureanism, which people most often discover today in American Buddhist, meditative, and yogic practice, and in aspects of Christianity. One gets out of the lust for experience by denying and controlling it.

But a different set of solutions tries to radicalize experience, making it so total that its internal distinctions of use and waste, special and mundane, ultimately disappear.

The radical methods expand particular kinds of experience to use them against the concept of experience, overcoming the desperate search for quantity by a new guarantee of endlessness and voluntary initiation. These methods find ways to free experience from the accidental arrival of special occurrences. They seek to make experience occur wherever you are, and at every moment that you live; to make “life” happen at your bidding, and not at its.

The modern era bequeathed us a pair of radical methods that work: aestheticism and perfectionism.


These solutions appeared first, I think, in the 1850s. The full syndrome of the concept of experience had emerged by then, following shortly after—perhaps just by fifty or a hundred years—the rise of happiness as an acceptable answer to the question of the goal of life.

Happiness has its own history, but by the end of the 18th century its dominance was reflected in the intellectual triumphs of the age. In America, Jefferson amended Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” to enshrine among our inalienable rights “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Utilitarianism in Britain gave a practical cast to a life lived not only for maximizing the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” but for individual pleasurable experiences, whether Bentham’s push-pin or, later, Mill’s higher pleasures. The Romantics, with a poetry of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” and transports in nature, helped recast private happiness as a search for the right kinds of experience. Underlying much of the new energy for happiness was a secular version of the quest for inner experience in Protestantism, particularly an inheritance from the Puritans and Quakers—apostles of private experience diaries and public “experience meetings”—who had made experience an exaltation that might come at any time, in any activity, as an indication of God’s grace. Now the exaltation was uprooted, coming from nowhere.

The first intuitive methods to use experience to fight the new concept of experience came out of the sense that something had gone wrong in respectable living—in living for utility as happiness, or duty as happiness, or wealth or property as happiness. The two writers I most associate with the two solutions are Gustave Flaubert and Henry David Thoreau.

Their names are hardly ever put together in the same sentence, yet they were nearly exact contemporaries. Thoreau was born in 1817, Flaubert in 1821; the American published Walden in 1854, the Frenchman Madame Bovary in 1857. Sometimes the earliest individuals to face a situation get its description exactly right, since they know the shock of change, with the old condition right behind them. Nor should it be surprising that such careful observers could have laid down the early basis for resistance to problems of modern life which, over 150 years, have only intensified.

Each man reached adulthood in a postrevolutionary middle class that let him see he could choose any one of multiple lives, without assuring him any inherited livelihood at all. Thoreau got his Harvard degree, and worked at schoolteaching, management of the family pencil factory, and finally surveying—knowing no one would pay him for the thing he wanted most, which was to discover his true life. Flaubert escaped law school only by falling down with epileptic fits until he could come home and live as he pleased. Each saw and was fascinated by a market culture, with its multiplication of goods and interchangeable items, and asked himself whether one could freely choose or acquire the good things of a life—spending “life” itself, not money.

Each knew nature deeply, but as something one had to go back to, whether in deforested and railroad-transformed Concord, where Thoreau could watch the trains running near his cabin, or in Flaubert’s provincial Normandy, which looked to Rouen and Paris for instruction in the new modes of life. The random, premature, and unnecessary deaths of close siblings, at the dawn of the triumphant age of modern medicine—by tetanus from a shaving nick for Thoreau’s brother John, by puerperal infection for Flaubert’s sister Caroline—made the brevity of life more urgent, possibly, even than we feel it to be today. So Flaubert and Thoreau withdrew, to Croisset and to Walden, to try to figure out how to survive their time.

As doctrines, aestheticism and perfectionism have the worst names imaginable. Aestheticism is thought to be the pursuit of beauty. Perfectionism is supposed to be the pursuit of perfection. Neither idea is right. In ordinary language, perfectionism is so forgotten as a goal of life that “a perfectionist” is a neurotic who can’t finish his work. Aestheticism is equally forgotten; all aesthetic philosophies are held in such low regard that, for us, an “aesthetician” is a hairdresser who also gives facials. The two solutions were not just suitable for an earlier era, however, but for now. In the 19th century, Flaubert and Thoreau foresaw mud where others saw a perfectly rewarding way of life. Today we’re up to our eyes in it.


Aestheticism asks you to view every object as you would a work of art. It believes that art is essentially an occasion for the arousal of emotions and passions. You experience a work of art. You go into it. Not just a calm onlooker, you imagine the figures in the painting, and relish the colors and forms, the style becoming as much an object of experience as the content; you feel or taste everything; you lust for it, let it overwhelm you, amplify it to titillate or satisfy or disgust you; you mentally twist the canvas to wring it dry.

The discipline is to learn to see the rest of the world in just that same way. Art becomes a training for life, to let you learn how to perceive what you will ultimately experience unaided. Let anyone’s ordinary face fascinate you as if it were a bust of Caesar; let the lights of a city draw your eyes like Egyptian gold or the crown jewels; let a cigarette case you find on the road evoke the whole life of its imagined owner; let your fellow human beings be bearers of plot and motivation as in a work of fiction, possessors of intricate beauty or ugliness as in a painting, objects of uniqueness and fearful sublimity as in a wonder of nature. Over time, and with practice, the work of art will become less effective at stimulating these art-experiences than your renewed encounters with the world will be. Art may improve on life, as a painter focuses and humanizes what he sees; but art-experience, learned in the aesthete’s stance, applied to real objects, improves life.

Look more closely is the basic answer of the aesthete to any failure of experience: “For anything to become interesting you simply have to look at it for a long time,” wrote Flaubert. Life becomes the scene of total, never-ending experience, as long as the aesthete can muster the intensity to regard it in this way. We all have a power to find the meaningful aspect of a thing by going onto or into it; by spreading the surface world with experience, and pressing your imagination and emotions into any crack. You must let it into you, too: “External reality has to enter into us, almost enough to make us cry out, if we are to represent it properly.” Flaubert became a representer because he wished to live.

For the adept of aestheticism, experience is not rare; it is always available. There should be nothing that can’t be an object of experience. It is characteristic of Flaubertian aestheticism to make a specialty of taking experience even from the ugliest things: if you can manage it with the ugly, you’ll never want for experience—beautiful things will just be a bonus. Daily life far surpasses art in its depth, its freakishness, its absurdity, its accidents, its vehemence, its way of making fancy real, or of breaking the barrier between imagination and fact. But attention to the rejected also becomes a principle of the activity of living, refusing to leave anything out, and finally preferring the despised appearances that everyone else neglects, precisely because they are despised—this is the Flaubertian aesthete’s peculiar morality. “There is a moral density to be found in certain forms of ugliness.” No one should dare to destroy or change them.

Since I don’t want to be accused of offering a method that is no method at all, or promising a solution to the deficiencies of experience without giving a step-by-step procedure, let me list again the steps to aestheticism.

  1. Regard all things as you would a work of art.
  2. Understand that it is never wrong to seek in art the stimulation of desire, wonder, or lust, or to search for resemblance to things in the world. You encounter art, and the result is experience.
  3. Apply this flexibility of experience, taught by art, back to all objects not considered art—practicing your skill especially on the trivial, the ugly, and the despised. You will find that your old assessment of experience as something rare and intermittent, or bought with wealth or physical effort, was too narrow. By setting an endlessly renewed horizon for experience, from the endless profusion of objects, the aesthete guarantees that life-as-experience can never be diminished—not by age, by sickness, by anything, short of death.

Perfectionism, in contrast, puts the self before everything. It charges the self with weighing and choosing every behavior and aspect of its way of living. The process of weighing—so as to “live deliberately,” in Thoreau’s phrase—becomes the form of experience in perfectionism. You learn to consider the people and things of the world—a farmer, a stockbroker, your friend or enemy, but also any conversation, or book, or even a pond or tree—as if each might suggest an “example” of a way you, too, could be. In becoming an example, each thing invites you to measure and change your self—and therefore change your life. Perfectionism makes you weigh every experience against the state of your self, and accept or refuse it.

Perfectionism thus makes experience total, not by viewing outside people and things as art, but by feeling how each directs its summons to your self, and letting it enter and the self respond. This is easiest to understand with other people. Your neighbor who can’t stop working because he’s out to make his mortgage payments, like the one who lives for his family, or politics, or observing the weather, is presenting an example of a way of life which he may or may not know he has chosen. In his habits and behaviors, he presents even finer-grained examples of the way you, too, could be. Thoreau’s perfectionism sought examples in natural objects, in part to get away from people and their (to him) disappointing ways—and this can be a bit harder to understand. Because Thoreau responded to nature, it made sense that the woods and ponds should summon him and point out ways to improve his self. Because he disdained anything unnecessary to life, he tried to understand the simplest living things. He could sound Walden Pond to learn its shape and depth, and then also ask of his self whether it too was clear and deep, and its proportions equally just.

Though Thoreau was peculiar in his habit of finding so many examples in nature, there is no reason in principle that nature needs to dominate perfectionism. For Stanley Cavell, the major philosophical exponent of perfectionism in our own time, it extended from Thoreau to the things Cavell himself knew: a 20th-century world of the city, and talk, and especially of the relations between men and women, not men and trees. In Cavell’s perfectionism, the major incitement to becoming oneself turns out to be marriage—where the self takes continuous instruction from someone who is intimate and yet different, always a little unknown.

The self that responds to each summons isn’t a fixed entity in perfectionism. To each example, each person and thing, the self answers, “This is me,” or “This is not me.” Each response by the self constitutes an experience; each discovery of an example worthy of your self pushes forward a change toward a “next” or higher self, or opens a new aspect of “who one is.” The self may only truly exist in responding and corresponding to the world, and it may in fact be a series of selves, each drawing a new circle around the objects with which it finds new correspondences.

Perfectionism, too, has its simple steps.

  1. Regard all things as if they were examples, which state simply the way of life they incarnate.
  2. Understand that each of these examples, when experienced, makes a summons to your self. Experience things in this way, always inquiring of them, “What way of life do you express? What do you say to me?” and you’ll learn what it is that lives in you.
  3. If you are called to change your life by any example, and your self responds—you must change your life. And once you change, change again. Your next self, too, will be challenged by examples, to find a next self still waiting beyond. Thus there is no perfection in perfectionism; the process of experience and correspondence never stops. If there could be any end in view, it would only be this: that the circle of things corresponding to you grow not wider, but infinitely wide, touching everything that exists.

Whenever the steps of aestheticism and perfectionism are laid out, people want to know the result before they try them. “How will I actually live?” they ask. In principle, no one should know for you.

Certain things are hinted in the lives of those who tried the methods. It’s possible that these methods make people appear to withdraw from “living.” Flaubert and Thoreau seemed hermited, by the standards of their friends. Both testified explicitly that a small amount of experience, by ordinary standards, went a long way with them. Since experiences had become totally available and inhered in everything, they seemed strangely unhurried in chasing after them elsewhere, though Flaubert didn’t lose his taste for sex, nor Thoreau for nature.

It’s also possible that the pursuit of these methods becomes confusingly connected with wanting to be an artist. Both Flaubert and Thoreau became writers. For each, their famous, finished works coexist with unusual, voluminous documentation of daily living, in letters or journals. Was the daily recording their true life, and the finished work a byproduct, or was it the reverse? I want to believe in principle that one could live by aestheticism or perfectionism without accepting the need to become an artist, but we’ll have no proof—since anyone who did so live would leave no public record.

The best-known idea about aestheticism is that you’ll make your life a work of art. This isn’t incorrect, and it may come close to the principle that unites perfectionism with aestheticism—since perfectionism understands life as the work of making your self, either by advancing to another self, or by “becoming what one is.” It should be obvious, though, for each solution, that the work must remain unfinished; the stress falls on the active heroism of perception or deliberation. Their common principle is the learned ability, by method, to make your life at every moment—and not lay yourself out on a bearskin, waiting for life to paint you.

Against the obvious criticism of these solutions as solipsistic, the effort to remake your inside world inevitably turns you outward. Mature forms of each solution return you to the community of other people, albeit in an unfamiliar way. In aestheticism, this involves the sensation that one is not only the painter of one’s life, and the viewer who observes it, but a figure no different from the panoply of other forms in the painting, equally subject to their painting and viewing. In perfectionism, it emerges from an understanding of yourself as an example in the lives of others, even a negative example. Other people will surely find that you don’t correspond to their selves, and they will advance through rejection of you to a next self that leaves you behind—but your only duty is to prod and provoke, in disclosing who you truly are. You have to give yourself up partly, on both methods, to find out what you will be for others, and even invite this discovery—it will change further what you become yourself.

I hope it is obvious why these solutions are needed now—even more than when they first appeared—but maybe it needs to be said. Either you know aestheticism and perfectionism as philosophy today, or you’ll get them, disfigured, in weaker attempts at the solutions to the pressures of experience. The dawn of the 21st century illuminates a total aesthetic environment in the rich nations of the world, where you choose your paint colors, and drawer pulls, and extreme makeovers, and facial surgery, in the debased aestheticism called consumerism, to make yourself by buying, when you could make yourself by seeing. The radical perception of aestheticism doesn’t need always-new, store-bought beauties, and doesn’t feel them cloy and fade as soon as they are owned. In the debased perfectionism called self-help, each struggler against the limits of life is already considered wounded by experience, deficient and lost. He is taught to try through acknowledgment of common weakness to reach a baseline level of the “normal,” rather than learning perfectionism’s appreciation for peculiarity and refusal. He is kept ignorant of perfectionism’s hope for a next, unique, or higher self for everyone.


I mistrust any authority that is happy with this world as it is. I understand delight, and being moved by the things of this world. I understand feeling strong in oneself because of one’s capabilities. I know what mania is, the lust for powers not of the ordinary run. I sympathize with gratitude for the presence of other people, and for plenty and splendor. But I cannot understand the failure to be disappointed with our experiences of our collective world, in their difference from our imaginations and desires, which are so strong. I cannot understand the failure to wish that this world was fundamentally more than it is.

Experience tries to evade the disappointment of this world by adding peaks to it. Life becomes a race against time and a contest you try to win. Aestheticism and perfectionism make a modern attempt to transcend this world by a more intense attention to it—every day and in every situation. The concept of modern transcendence admits the hope that this world could be more than this world, though it acknowledges this is the only world there is. It holds that there is nothing behind reality, above or beneath it, but that the mind inevitably wishes there were. The human capacities for thought and desire are always excessive. We can imagine everything as other than it is. And so aestheticism and perfectionism develop ways of entering an experiential world, to apply mind to it, to add excess directly to the inert matter we know. The only way beyond, to something that truly rewards the extent of our minds, is not up and away, but in and onto.

I think each of us winds up obliged to answer what would give life meaning, no matter what we do. Many of us say today we live for happiness. The defects and vagueness of happiness lead to the choice of experience as the method of our lives. Experience, when we begin to seek it self-consciously, causes its own trouble, bringing back the permanent conditions of life—brevity, isolation, multiplicity, mortality—with renewed vehemence, and making us blame ourselves for them.

By a process of mind, the completion of the search for experience in aestheticism and perfectionism, making experience always available, turns the dynamic around once more. Here, at least, we do find the transcendence of limits, in the expansion of a mind by its own powers, reaching out to the world in experience that is ceaseless, and endless in extent as the number of worldly objects themselves.

Transcendence is a result in which what and how, goal and method, are both produced. Whether or not happiness or pleasure comes from the pursuit (they can), one lives one’s life for the daily goal of transcending, if only by a discipline of mind, the dull conditions that we face and that someday will kill us. You live by methods that await you, at your call. You know they can go on, even to your last view of the sky, and the final question you put to yourself. This, if not the last and best answer, certainly not the only answer, is still what we have longed to know. It is a meaning of life.

More from Issue 2

Issue 2 Happiness

Novelists said again and again they would never represent happiness.

Issue 2 Happiness

The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction.

Issue 2 Happiness

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.

Issue 2 Happiness

As soon as you hear, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually.

Issue 2 Happiness

I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess.

Issue 2 Happiness
Among the Believers
Issue 2 Happiness

A curse is a formula that becomes a doom. The two-party system is the curse of American political life.

Issue 2 Happiness
Babel in California
Issue 2 Happiness
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
Issue 2 Happiness

In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris.

Issue 2 Happiness
Trends in Network Television Comedy
Issue 2 Happiness
The Reaper
Issue 2 Happiness
The Vice President’s Daughter
Issue 2 Happiness
Three Poems
Issue 2 Happiness

Diana slides out of bed naked, feeling as if she has learned something about Coetzee in her sleep.

Issue 2 Happiness
At the 2003 International Security Conference
Issue 2 Happiness

Hitchens might want to insist, contrarily, that although he has changed his allies, he has not changed his opinions.

Issue 2 Happiness

For people stunned by the Seattle demonstrations, Klein’s book was a field guide; for people inspired by them, it was a bible.

Issue 2 Happiness

What a strange book Philip Roth has written.

Issue 2 Happiness

A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.”

Issue 2 Happiness

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste.

Issue 2 Happiness

Keith Gessen replies: The genital flag?

More by this Author

Issue 1 Negation

Right now we plant democracy like an orchid and depart—leaving behind oilmen to drain nutrients out of the soil.

Issue 7 Correction
On Food
Issue 2 Happiness

The growing influence of the Italian philosopher’s work seems in many respects to depend on his remarkable sense of taste.

September 20, 2004

Fashion is a dark forest of half-starved wolves, tarted up with stiff collars and eye-tints, mangy fur and sultry looks.

June 22, 2009

Punk promised physical violence, a buzzing charge, like the wish that someone would hit you in the face.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Jonathan Franzen’s novel is a feeling-machine.