Hazel Barnes on the Meaning of Life

In her essay “Greek Tragicomedy” (1964), I think that University of Colorado existentialist philosopher Hazel Barnes summed up human existence rather nicely in just a couple of sentences:

[M]an’s imaginative reach transcends his actual capabilities. The goal he attains is never quite the same as the one he projects. By his little acts he inscribes himself in a world which he can never fully control, which distorts and disappoints his projects, which he cannot comprehend any more than he can understand himself. Each person is a self-creation, but chance furnishes most of the material out of which he must make himself. In short, man is absurd . . .

Let’s unpack this a bit. Here’s how I would restate Barnes’ key observations:

  • The body is a paltry instrument for the imagination
  • Plans rarely match what happens
  • By your actions you write yourself into the world, but like inscribing with a flawed instrument onto a difficult to write upon surface (such as metal), you don’t appear exactly as you please
  • You are like a parenthesis that you’re in the process of hanging in the middle of a book that you are unable to read much of, and thus you do not ever comprehend the whole, either of the world that you are writing yourself into, or of your own self as you do the writing
  • You are a contingent being—a product of chance and without necessity—but here you are
  • The above facts put you in a rather absurd position; indeed, they render you absurd 

And in this absurd situation, you have the task of “writing” your life—or dropping the pen (suicide). Kind of like blogging. Now choose.

Ain’t life grand?

Hazel Barnes’ essay, if you’re curious to read all of it, can be found in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Euripides’ Alcestis (1968), edited by John R. Wilson.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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