On Being Alive, Utility, Meaning, Beauty, and Unity

by R. Artaud (Telos)

A continuation in spirit, but not form, from Part I.

At this point in our labors the notion of a “sense of life” became central to our analysis. In our eyes it had several components that in the usual way of things tended to develop sequentially. First there is the simple “will to live”. At a very early stage in the unfolding of living processes the organism seems driven by some unknown imperative to go on existing and expanding. Whether or not this tendency survives from some nonliving precursor of the organism, as Darwin believed, or is generated within the organism itself, as Henri Bergson argued, seems to us of little importance. More significant is the fact that it represents the emergence of a specific direction, however inchoate and unarticulated, within the flow of physical energy.

Second comes the sense of “self-identity through time”, which we take to be a kind of extended moment or extended point (homologous, that is, to the extended line or extended plane that defines a unidimensional or bidimensional movement along a single axis). That is to say, we take self-identity to be not just the property of persisting in being from moment to moment but of persisting in being along some determinate continuum that indexes change. No sooner has this “spatial” or “topological” sense of identity emerged than it tends to branch out into a variety of modes: the sense of being a “thing”, of being “one”, of being an “individual”. We say “tends to” because it would be a mistake to think of any one of these modes as primary and the others as derivative. They are all generated simultaneously and are essentially interdependent. We use the word “tends to” therefore to indicate the sort of general logical relation among the modes and not, necessarily, the temporal order of their development.

The third, and last, component of the sense of life that we can distinguish is what we call the sense of “being alive”, which we define as the logical negation of “being dead” and which, because it is negated, presupposes all the other two. There is, in other words, no sense of being alive in which the other two have not previously been invested. But just as the other two are simultaneously generated so too is the third, and its relation to the other two is essentially complementary rather than antagonistic.

This is especially evident if we take “being dead” not to mean non-existence but, instead, the cessation of any one or both of the other two senses. For then we can see that being dead is just as much a direction along the continuum as is the will to live, and that both of these, taken together, define the boundary between existence and nonexistence. Thus “being alive” means simply “neither being dead nor not-being-dead” — a state in which existence has passed beyond nonexistence and entered into the realm of some determinable or other, the first and lowest realm that encompasses the full range of organic being. The negation of this “being alive” — the absence of all direction in the flow of energy — is what we call chaos, a state that, since it implies the full extinction of the sense of being a thing, of being one, and of being an individual, is something quite different from the absence of all direction within any one of these senses. It is the extinction of life itself.

Now the fundamental situation that prevails throughout all of organic nature — indeed throughout the entire physical universe, so far as we know it — is this: the flow of energy is characterized by a surplus of “being alive” over “being dead”. More of what exists does not cease to exist than does cease to exist. There is more reality in life than in death. Somehow the universe has “slanted” in favor of existence, however we choose to understand what that means.

Put in these terms the “purpose” of nature, insofar as there is one, seems clear enough: to increase, so far as possible, the quantity of that surplus, to propagate it, and, ultimately, to maximize it. As a result, therefore, the first, fundamental “value” that we can infer from the observed facts — what, for lack of a better term, we must call the “value of life” — is just this: that it is better for there to be more existence than none than the reverse, that being alive is preferable to being dead, everything else being equal. We say that life has “intrinsic value” (even if, strictly speaking, we know of no “values” in nature).

This value of life — that it is good to be alive — appears to be something that in one way or another every living thing shares and this is not simply because being alive is necessary for it to reproduce and thus perpetuate its being alive but because all living things also, and necessarily, have a “will” (whether you want to call it that or not) to increase the quantity of that surplus to the utmost that conditions will allow, regardless of any possible “costs” that may accrue in the process. All things alive are not just concerned with their own individual existence but with the overall abundance of life, which we must understand, for the present at least, in very general and abstract terms, without reference to any of the higher forms of life or their organization into ecosystems. All this follows simply from the fact that there is more of what exists than does not exist, and that this is a condition that prevails throughout the whole of physical reality as we know it, even if its origin and meaning are matters of pure speculation.

Now in its purest form this sense of life has nothing to do with pleasure or pain, enjoyment or suffering, joy or grief. Whether pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, joy and grief are, for any particular living thing, objects of its “will” or not depends entirely on the kind of organism it is, and we shall have a great deal to say later about this important question. For the moment, however, it is sufficient to remark that pleasure, pain, enjoyment and suffering are very specialized modes of being alive, much more complex than the will to live or the sense of self-identity, and they are by no means universal among living things. Not that we mean to deny the obvious fact that pleasure is to be found everywhere in the biosphere, and even outside it. What we mean to deny is that the will to live, or the sense of self-identity through time, requires them in any absolute sense, much less that they have any importance apart from them.

If the will to live is strong enough it will transform pain into pleasure and do it without winking. A dog that must get outside and go for a run will take pain or grief along with him, if need be, and sometimes will invent some in order to justify the trip. There is no question but that every living thing prefers to be alive and to keep on being alive, even if it has to work at it, even if it has to make sacrifices. This is as true of bacteria as it is of people, if not of rocks. If anything in nature is exempt from this general rule it can only be the things that are not alive, or it can only be because they have absorbed, so to speak, some surplus of the vitality of what is alive, and have in that way been brought into the realm of value.

This is the case, for example, with precious stones or metals. They have no value of their own but derive it from the work that was done to get them, work that had to be done because the will to live demands that everything count for something in the great ledger of being. A sunset that is simply beautiful has no value at all. A sunset that is beautiful and cost something to see — say, money or trouble or discomfort — has some value, which increases as the cost does, up to some point, beyond which the surplus of value disappears again as the cost becomes too great. Everything beyond that point is wasted effort. All work is a struggle against chaos, but each kind of work has its own line of retreat.

At this point you are no doubt thinking that all this is so obvious that there is hardly any point in discussing it. Why go on? If it is true that in the last analysis the only values are the values of life, what is the purpose of all our calculations and distinctions? If everything reduces to being alive, why talk about anything else?

The answer is that even though all values derive ultimately from the value of life, not all values can be expressed in terms of the value of life. It is because there are different ways in which the will to live may manifest itself that some of these values have no direct relationship to life at all. Nor do they lose their reality or importance just because they are not reducible to the value of life.

We might go so far as to say that values that have no intrinsic relationship to life — in other words, values of a type that we shall call “extrinsic” — are necessary to life just as much as values of an “intrinsic” type are, but for very different reasons. Values of an intrinsic type are those that contribute directly to the quantity of the surplus of value that belongs to life and helps it to grow. Values of an extrinsic type are those that do not contribute to this surplus directly, or do so only in a very indirect or minimal way, but instead function as means that serve to motivate things to act in ways that do contribute directly, or to reinforce the results of those actions that do contribute. It is obvious that such extrinsic values can be useful to life only insofar as life itself cannot manage, by itself, to produce and accumulate the necessary quantity of intrinsic value.

Intrinsic Values

Let us say that life itself produces, generates or induces intrinsic values of three principal types: what we shall call utility, beauty and meaning.

By “utility” we mean simply the “goodness” of an object or event for the sake of some desired result, and we assume that every living thing has some basic utilitarian drive (including the drive for self-identity, which can be understood as the need for a stable configuration or identity of utilitarian components).

By “beauty” we mean the enhancement of the will to live for the sake of itself, for its own intrinsic power, a gratification that, as it were, loops back upon itself to increase the vitality of the will itself.

By “meaning” we mean the contribution of some object or event to the integration and coherence of the world for a living thing, an integration that has meaning in the sense of reducing the sense of “chance” or “randomness” or “fatalism” that might otherwise prevail, by establishing connections among events that suggest they are related as means and ends. Meaning need not involve purpose or intent, as if some event were produced by nature in order to contribute to the coherence of a world. It is better to think of meaning as an attribute of events themselves, as an internal relationship among the parts of a whole that has the effect of strengthening the whole. The parts “mean” something to each other when they contribute to the maintenance of a pattern of behavior that has a function in relation to the survival and growth of life.

Utility, beauty, and meaning are then the three basic types of intrinsic values that contribute to the increase of the surplus of vitality that is life. They represent the “natural,” “aesthetic,” and “intellectual” aspects of life, as it were, its self-serving, self-gratifying, and self-cohering modes of behavior. But if this is what life is “on its own” (assuming we could even conceive of such a thing) then life is something very raw and elementary, indeed something whose relation to the highest forms of human existence it is hard to imagine.

Life’s relation to its own potentialities is like the relation of the silent movies to talkies — a sudden, vast qualitative change brought about by a relatively small and trivial modification in some pre-existing condition. Yet, when we try to identify that pre-existing condition it turns out to be elusive and hard to grasp. If, as we have said, the intrinsic values of life consist in utility, beauty and meaning, then they do not, at first glance, seem to be all that important or compelling. Even beauty is something we can do without. Without it our enjoyment of life may be dulled, but it does not affect the essence of our being alive. Utility and meaning, too, are accessories, not essentials. We can do without them as well, and we do not even know that we are lacking them until we discover that the hole in our heart is in a place where once beauty used to be.

In other words, the extrinsic values that make up life’s second set are crucial to life not because of any direct contribution they make to the surplus of vitality, but because they provide the motivation that enables life to generate or to generate more abundantly the intrinsic values of utility, beauty, and meaning. Extrinsic values can be understood as the “form” that life assumes in its efforts to enhance its intrinsic values.

We call these extrinsic values “form” not only because of their importance as motives but also because they themselves are indirectly dependent on a third type of value that we shall call “formal”. By “formal” values we mean certain irresistible or pre-eminently compelling configurations of being that act as “models” or “prototypes” for the realization of intrinsic or extrinsic values.

It is only insofar as something is formal that it is beautiful or meaningful or valuable in some other way, just as it is only insofar as something is beautiful or valuable or meaningful that it is utilitarian. Just as the model airplane you built when you were a boy did not serve to get you from one place to another, any more than did the real airplane, so that both were utilitarian only because they “stood for” real or possible machines that were utilitarian, or else because they motivated you to design or build such machines, or else because they satisfied some deep need you had for symmetry and grace, or else because they “meant” something to you personally that was not contained in any of their specific properties but only in the “formal” property of being airplanes, and, perhaps, of being toy airplanes, or of being miniaturized replicas of some specific type of machine, and so on. Thus we can see how it is that formal values function, in various combinations, to reinforce the achievement of all three types of intrinsic values.

At the same time, however, we must admit that there is something fishy about this business of formal values, as if it involved something essential and fundamental but at the same time unessential and superficial, like the relationship between a plan and its execution, or between a photograph and what it photographs, or between a symbol and what it stands for. We must also be aware of the danger that a “formal” value can easily degenerate into some kind of fetish or “magical object” that ceases to have any meaningful relation to its original model or prototype. We will return to these matters at a later time.

Now if it is true, as we have suggested, that all the values in the world derive ultimately from the value of life, then it must also be true that among all these values there is some set that is uniquely important in the sense that they are absolutely indispensable to life itself, no matter what else life may or may not include. Call these values the “minimal” values of life. They must include at least two of the intrinsic values: beauty and meaning (and, of course, the “formal” value that is a condition for their existence).

Without these two life would lose its capacity for self-reflection and self-transcendence and would degenerate into some brutish form of existence that is totally enmeshed in its immediate utilitarian interests. The beauty and meaning of life, on the other hand, make it capable of projecting itself into the future and of making connections with things outside itself and thus of generating its own purpose and thus of transforming its utility into something nobler. It is clear from this that, at the very least, life must include two “minimal” values: what we have called beauty and meaning. But what about the third: utility?

Here we must tread carefully, for at this point our argument could easily become unconvincing, and that is precisely because utility has traditionally been thought to be the principal value of life, perhaps the only one. This is especially true when utility is not conceived in a restricted way as a matter of convenience and efficiency, as in the “hedonic calculus” of eighteenth-century philosophers like Helvetius and Bentham, or of the classical school of political economy, but is understood in a universal sense that includes the very notion of purpose and its attendant concepts of good and bad, right and wrong.

While true that this broad, purposive conception of utility does not include within itself any specific idea of enjoyment, but that is only because enjoyment is itself a derived and dependent notion whose very possibility presupposes the existence of utility, since enjoyment is simply pleasure taken in something, and pleasure is merely a heightening of life’s basic utility (its capacity for keeping on existing). Hence it is reasonable to say that life itself is an endeavor or struggle, that its ultimate “value” is to be found in its success as an end (or “telos”) to which other things are merely means.

It is at this point that the arguments of utilitarian thinkers like Bentham and Mill, though compelling enough in themselves, reach their limits. It is as if they took a painting to be a reproduction of something that already existed as a concrete entity outside the canvas, whereas what needs to be explained is how a painting can ever be more than a painting, how anything can ever be more than itself. But to say this is not to reject the idea of utility, which must remain inseparable from every notion of life, as long as we understand it in terms of purposive endeavor and not as something aimed at mere comfort and convenience. In other words, the traditional utilitarian theory must be embraced and deepened by seeing in its “good” nothing less than the “telos” or purpose of all existence.

Thus life as we know it has set itself the task of overcoming itself, of destroying itself as a means to transcending itself to something that can be achieved only by going beyond utility, that is, by giving up the idea of utility itself. If the success of life were to be measured by the amount of utility it accumulates, then its success would consist in giving up utility altogether, for its “telos” is a state of being in which utility would no longer matter, where the purpose of things would be nothing. If utility is the first stage in the development of life, then the realization of this truth is the second stage. What comes after is life’s highest achievement: the self-abolition of utility.

Now if utility were something like beauty, or meaning, or even the conjunction of beauty and meaning, then it would make no sense to speak of it as something to be overcome, any more than we would speak of beauty or meaning or their conjunction as something to be overcome. But utility is none of these things. It is merely a property of living beings to find satisfaction in certain forms of behavior, to seek out such forms and to prolong or multiply such behavior. When these forms are also beautiful or meaningful or both, that is all to the good, because then the higher development of life (its “meaning” or “beauty”) can come into existence along with its need to go beyond what is beautiful and meaningful.

In other words, beauty and meaning are “in themselves” conditions that are desirable for their own sake, but utility is something “in itself” that has no more value than is necessary to achieve what is desirable in itself. Utility is what makes life possible, but only to the extent that it has to, not to the extent that it could.

Hence it is clear that the first principle of life must be to pursue its utility, and the second must be to abolish it. This second principle, in turn, must be pursued as if it were the first. To put it in yet another way: the meaning of life is a constant effort to achieve something that is impossible to achieve.

We can see how this double principle — “pursue utility and abolish it” — operates in the development of the natural sciences. Science is the means by which man extends his power over nature and this must be his fundamental interest if he is to survive, if he is to “live utilitarianly”, as it were. Yet as soon as science succeeds in giving man this increased power over nature it sets in motion forces that inevitably lead to a crisis in which science itself, together with all the other values that supported it, come into question. So long as science remains at the stage of experimental investigation it is able to ignore the problems posed by the absolute “disenchantment of the world” (Max Weber).

This comes home to it only with the breakthrough to a new theory. Yet the very fact that such a breakthrough is possible means that the enchantment of the world, the magic circle that excluded science and kept it at bay, must also be breaking down somewhere, and that, sooner or later, the same fate is in store for science itself. For what other reason could there be for a change in the basis of science if not that the very foundations of the world have shifted? We cannot believe that nature has taken note of all our efforts and made concessions to them in order to defend herself against them. It is just as likely that she has never heard of them or has merely forgotten them already. Yet this is what we wanted her to be aware of so that we might extend our power over her.

But then how is it possible that science can still claim to be the powerful disenchanter if its very achievements ultimately render it superfluous? In what sense is science “positive” if the very growth of knowledge paves the way for its own negation? As if by some paradoxical necessity the fullness of its own being forces science to question its own presuppositions, thus in the long run canceling out its achievements and condemning them to irrelevance.

How strange it is that science is willing to put up with this! How it clings to its problems! What does it matter to science if its conquest of the world remains incomplete? It will never get to the bottom of things. Every new stage of understanding that it achieves merely conceals deeper enigmas. It is not science’s fault. This is how things are. But why should science make itself responsible for things of this sort? Why not take up something else, like sports, say, or easing animals, or painting pictures, something where there is no talk of a “truth content” or a “reality behind appearances,” something that leaves one in peace? Surely science cannot believe that all the other things that people do are really just play and pastime compared to its own serious activity. Why should it have to shoulder the burden of the world?

Value of Life

We have wandered far from our subject. The question we wanted to address was: where is the value of life to be found, and what is it? We began by assuming that all values were reducible to the value of life and we saw that this had to be wrong. Then we explored what had to be right in the view that the value of life was not to be found in utility, but we had to recognize that, after all, utility was one of its indispensable components.

We will now take a step further in the same direction, without abandoning it, and attempt to clarify the position of the remaining two values, beauty and meaning. We will assume that utility, beauty and meaning are all indispensable conditions of life, yet that their “value” depends on their relationship to each other and that this relationship must therefore be very precise, so precise in fact as to justify calling them “formal” values. Thus formal values are those values that seem to stand between the values of life and the values of man; they are values that pertain to life as such, not to man as an individual. They are formal because they are universal, detached from all content and devoid of individual subjectivity.

Beauty and meaning are examples of formal values. This means that beauty is the formal value of life that manifests itself in the desire to preserve what is beautiful, and meaning is the formal value of life that manifests itself in the desire to increase what is meaningful. But neither the desire to preserve the beautiful nor the desire to increase the meaningful is identical with the value of life itself. Beauty and meaning have their own intrinsic worth, and this must be distinguished from their value for life. As long as this is not done, as long as we do not distinguish between form and content, between formal value and value of life, we remain caught in a maze of vague, ambiguous concepts, like utility, purpose, goal, finality, and so on. If we confuse these categories we end up confusing utility and finality as well. If finality were nothing more than the culmination of utility, then life would indeed be no more than a means to an end and there would be no reason not to strip it of all the ornamental trappings of beauty and meaning. But the problem is not so simple. For even if we accept that there are no such things as finalities and goals independent of utility, we cannot conclude that finality and goal are merely illusionary additions to utility.

On the contrary, they are integral parts of life, intrinsic to it, and they must therefore be understood in relation to utility, not as its projections, but as its conditions. Thus the beautiful or the meaningful are not appendages to the useful; rather, the useful is an appendage to the beautiful or the meaningful, depending on the perspective we take. For the perspective of life as a whole the beautiful and the meaningful are prior to the useful; for the perspective of its parts the useful is prior to the beautiful and the meaningful. It is thus that the beautiful and the meaningful enclose the useful between two impenetrable walls. The useful cannot penetrate beyond them. They form an absolute boundary within which alone its autonomy is ensured. Their interdependence has nothing to do with any reciprocal conversion of one into the other.

Beauty is the nonfunctional form of life, its irreplaceable “play-form”, its expression within itself, its “symbol” (to use a loaded word).

Meaning is its directional form, its irreversible developmental pattern, its unfolding within a specific continuum, its “narrative”.

These are the conditions of all utility, not vice versa. Just as play has no external goal that it would seek to achieve through victory, so too the meaningfulness of life does not rest on some future consummation to be reached through continuous exertion. The meaningfulness of life lies in its momentum, not in its goal.

Similarly, the value of life does not depend on any particular utilization of its possibilities. The value of its potentialities resides in the very fact that they are not realized, that they remain open. Therein lies their beauty. And in this sense we can even speak of a beauty of the meaningful, just as there can be a meaning in the beautiful. For beauty also has its openness, its subtle formality, its density of suggestion, even when it does not reach the intensity of meaning. In fact, there is no such thing as an absolutely meaningful work of art or absolutely meaningful behavior, just as there is no absolutely beautiful work of art or absolutely beautiful behavior. An excess of either one tends to destroy the other.

Whatever has meaning at the cost of beauty, beauty at the cost of meaning, form at the cost of content, or content at the cost of form is soon dead, bogged down in its own excess or emptiness. This is true both of life in general and of every kind of artistic achievement. This is the case whether we consider works of art in the usual sense or whether we regard the cosmos, the psyche or society as a work of art in the broad sense. Here and there we must lighten the meaning and brighten the beauty of what exists in order to bring it to its highest potential, so that its content can become form and its form content, so that the living unity of meaning and beauty may be preserved.

This unity is the essence of what we call style, the fundamental principle of all that is created by man, whether it is a work of art, an institution or a social order. Style is the unique signature of everything that has meaning and beauty. It is the touch of the artist in what is made. And this signature is valid for its creator as an absolute necessity, just as it is valid for the viewer, listener or user as an ultimate requirement. When two signatures correspond, a work of art comes into being, and only when they correspond. We cannot imagine any higher criterion for judgment, nor can we imagine any higher fulfillment for the one who creates than the absolute agreement of both signatures.

When the beautiful is meaningful and the meaningful is beautiful, when the clear is colorful and the colorful is clear, then all the senses of each sense have come together in a unity that is never confused or diluted by any externally imposed category, but is a fusion that arises from within, like the color of an iris, the sound of a string quartet, the taste of an exquisite meal, the touch of velvet, the smell of an orange blossom or the taste of warm water on thirsty lips. It is a matter of style, of taste.

What we have said about style will certainly seem odd to most people today. Today beauty and meaning have parted ways; each is pursued by itself, like a long-lost twin finally re-united in the golden years of a rip old age, each alone. Once they were inseparable, two dimensions of the same surface. Each wanted the other for its own sake. Each enriched the other, added something to it that it lacked.

Now beauty pursues its own measure, meaning its own development, each along a separate course, no longer crossing the path of the other. Style as the love of what is at once beautiful and meaningful is increasingly rare, like a shooting star that goes out alone in the night. Beauty and meaning are looking for it, but they are not yet one in it. Only once upon a time was there a signatory of the beautiful and the meaningful, a seal of unity that made them identical. Only once upon a time was there a style in which beauty and meaning embraced each other as the touch and the caress of the beloved. Only once upon a time was there a creator who could use that seal and who still had something to say.

As we have seen, the great artists are now fewer, the beautiful is less beautiful and the meaningful is less meaningful. This does not mean that the world is in bad taste, only that its inhabitants are jaded with life. But for some reason, maybe due to their great age, they have lost their appetite for unity, for the enjoyment of combining opposites into a higher unity. What exists today, taken all around, is much more than any one of us could possibly take. Each of us can take much, but not everything. And this is the case even if we look for a sign in the beloved who can embody what we wish for. This is what Duchamp was able to show when he painted the Madame Bustle. What was still necessary when Van Gogh put it all together in the new book of life. But if life has already gone into its reverse, if the thenreverseis no longer reversible, thenthereisonbeautiful.