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Tristan Garcia, "The Intense Life: A Modern Obsession"

The French philosopher Tristan Garcia wrote “La vie intense. Une obsession moderne”, which has just been published in German.

I.

The author writes that once religion offered a moral framework. But with the loss of theology, when we measure which life is worth living, we judge ourselves which means that we replaced an external morality with an internal morality. What counts is to intensely feel that we’re alive. He writes:1

Modern culture is bound to this variable intensity, a sinus curve of social electricity, a proximate measure of the collective grade of the excitement of individuals.

So we lust for a constant state of excitement and what causes the excitement is less important than the fact that we are excited:

Apparently we belong to the type of humans who have turned away from the consideration and expectation of an absolute, a transcendence as the last purpose of existence, to turn towards a certain civilization whose majority ethic depends on the unremitting fluctuation of being as its principle of life.

Garcia defines intensity as the principle of systematically comparing a thing with itself. No external rules determine its goodness or beauty. And if values are relative and there’s no objective truth, then you cannot judge a thing’s worth. You can, however, determine how extreme it is. He sounds pessimistic when he writes that we aim for the intensification of what already exists.

And because intensity is not the what, but the how, we can use ploys to spice up our bland existence. These are (1) the variation of our experiences, (2) speeding up our experiences and (3) “primaverism”, indulging in the memories of the first time we did something.

He compares the difference in the meaning of an ethic and a morality. An ethic is adverbial, it’s how you do something. A morality is adjective, it’s what you do that matters. To be ethical is to things in a good way and to be be moral is to do good things.

Garcia argues that striving for intensity was for people first a morality, but now it’s an accepted ethic:

Whether you are a fascist, revolutionary, conservative, petty bourgeois, saint, dandy, gentleman, swindler or a villain – be so energetically. Overall, it is not about being an intense person, but being intensely the person who you are. In this sense, the term succumbed to democratic change.

He explains how things that were once novel and extreme soon become standard. We get used to them, they aren’t special anymore and so we stop feeling and become emotionally numb. Near the end of the book, he invokes the image of a manic party in which people dance increasingly faster. He thinks our search for intensity can lead to fatigue and collapse.

The book’s resolution is then that we should balance rational thinking and emotional search for intensity. And we have to learn to live with the fact that the two won’t always agree.

II.

So, what does Garcia think about this? He promises to develop a morality of intensity. I thought he meant that he wants to put it into perspective, to judge it.

But we don’t find out for a long time what Garcia thinks about it, because he hides behind an impersonal voice that speaks in the present tense like the voice-over narrator in a nature documentary. Are these facts or opinions? We aren’t told. It took until page 158 that I consciously read “I” the first time. So I found his argument hard to follow because it wasn’t clear to me where those statements came from. When he invokes the reactions of people experiencing electricity for the first time, I wished Joseph Henrich would take over and explain the anthropological evidence to us.

I take his view that we’re searching intensely for what we already have to be a criticism of hedonism and complacency in our society. But I don’t see how this squares with his first ploy (aiming for more intensity through variation). If it’s novel experiences and variations that we want, then that might motivate us to innovate and come up with new or improved products and tastes.

As an economist, I’m also asking myself whether he is not just describing people being good at getting what they want. And that seems to me a good thing. Garcia himself brings up the option that we’re simply trying to feel strongly about the things we like and avoid the things we don’t. But that somehow doesn’t fit the idea of an adverbial ethic without higher meaning, so it can’t be as easy as that.

The author writes that you need a routine that you can then break out of. If everything is novel and exciting, then nothing is. The third ploy (fetishize new things) will not work forever, as there are only so many new things. That’s actually something I worry about. It seems obvious that we should try everything. Our bucket list is full things we haven’t yet done: A parachute jump or sailing across the Atlantic. Yet experiences really do become duller. When our stock of memories increases, new experiences are less thrilling.

Yet, he remains oddly silent on the benefits of intensity. Many things are cumulative and they become more intense, when you keep at them. Activitites such as playing an instrument, doing research or some types of work only become more rewarding the more you do them.


Further reading:
  1. Citations are translated from the German version.