The gaze of existential angst. Manila, The Philippines. 1975

Sometimes when I look at my old photographs that I took many years ago, I feel similar to an astronaut who has returned to the earth from the lunar surface with moon rocks. What was gathered in a short time, will be analysed for many years to come, answering questions that weren’t even thought of when the mission was begun.

Like many people in the early 70s, I read quite a few of Hermann Hesse’s books and a quote from the prologue of his book Demianstruck me like a lightning bolt when I first read it at the age of 17 or 18, when I was travelling around South-East Asia.

“Every person’s life is a journey toward himself, the attempt at a journey, the intimation of a path. No person has ever been completely himself, but each one strives to become so, some gropingly, others more lucidly, according to his abilities. Each one carries with him to the end traces of his birth, the slime and eggshells of a primordial world. Many a one never becomes a human being, but remains a frog, lizard, or ant. Many a one is a human being above and a fish below. But each one is a gamble of Nature, a hopeful attempt at forming a human being. We all have a common origin, the Mothers, we all come out of the same abyss; but each of us, a trial throw of the dice from the depths, strives toward his own goal. We can understand one another, but each of us can only interpret himself.”

Ever since I read that quote I have realised that one’s life is an evolutionary journey towards understanding what it is to be a human being.  I’ll be the first one to admit that I have been a fairly appetite driven, base and hedonistic animal most of my life but every now and again, I’ve bumped into little diamonds of wisdom that helped me get back on track to some kind of understanding and enlightenment.

One of the things that I’ve really struggled with all my life is to try and determine what is important and what is not, in terms of what to do with one’s short time on this earth and how to be while we are here.

I’ve always instinctively known that it is meaningless to define one’s self in terms of a career.  Working has been a means to an end for me and if I didn’t have to pay for the basic necessities of life, I wouldn’t work at all.  Now that’s not saying I that wouldn’t want to do anything.  I’m one of those people, that is driven by the need to create, and as such I’m never truly idle.

What has always repelled me from the idea of having a career is the recognition that, for me, most jobs just turn into a pointless slow-moving river of continuous ennui.

The gaze that says, is this all there is?

Occasionally I think about the character (Whit I think) from Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, who when asked by the main character George, why he always blows his weekly salary at the local brothel, replies along the lines of, ” when I look back on my working life,  I can’t distinguish one day from the next, but when I go to the brothel remember every single moment”.

That’s not the kind of life I want to lead! 

If I hadn’t gone to art College at night, the 5 years I lived in Brisbane and worked selling professional photographic equipment would’ve been wasted years.  Like the character in Steinbeck’s book, I can’t remember any particular working day from that job.  It scares me to think that one’s whole life can go by so unremarkably.  I am absolutely certain life must amount to more than that.

So the gaze of my existential angst has led me to being more of a generalist than a specialist and I content myself with the thought that evolution doesn’t reward specialisation for very long.

6 thoughts on “The gaze of existential angst. Manila, The Philippines. 1975”

  1. “I have been a fairly appetite driven, base and hedonistic animal most of my life. . . .”

    You sound like my crowd. Brando, Falstaff, and the rest. I don’t know how it is where you are, but it is getting very hard to have large appetites here. Too much Dr. Phil (I don’t know if you have him in Australia–god, I hope you don’t).

  2. This post resonated for me. Life is so filled with the potential for wonder and awe. The poet Mary Oliver writes:

    When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.
    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

    When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
    if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
    I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
    or full of argument.

    I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

    PS Thank you for the kind comment on my blog.

  3. Hey mate, I feel so connected, Hesse, Demian – this is also what got me going decades back and all the existential questions about the meaning of it all, this is what keeps my mind occupied nowadays. Always coming down to the question of what kind of life do I want to live…

    Thanks for sharing this

  4. Cafe
    Thanks…. I think. The appetite I was referring to was the appetite for feeding all the senses not just food, or that was you meant and I’m missing something?

    Yes we do have Dr Phil over here but I don’t tend to watch daytime TV.


    Thanks for the poem. I so agree with it’s sentiment. It makes me shudder when I think about all the guys who have jobs working in places like underground mines. Day after day of unrelenting bleakness.


    Hesse is giant. I still think about stuff I read over 30 years ago, by him.

    Many people dismiss Hesse and go on to quote more recent or deeper philosophers. Trouble is that most people haven’t even made themselves familiar with thought over 2000 years old like Socrates or Epicurus.

    We as a species seem to be such slow learners. It sometimes fills me with despair when I think how so many people don’t move on from eat, sleep, shit and fornicate.

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