Madonna, like many people in the West, is seeking alternative spiritual sources to give meaning to life. Terry Eagleton ponders the nature of a very modern quest
Why is our culture awash with Tarot touts, kabbalah freaks, pyramid pushers, I Ching champions and water-divining wackos? The obvious answer is that, since the everyday life of late capitalism seems meaningless to many people, a hot pursuit of alternative sources of meaning is under way.
Yet everyday life doesn't strike everyone as bereft of meaning. In fact, one problem with late modernity is that there is too much meaning around, not too little. There are too many conflicting versions of the good life about the place, and the bad news is that we are never going to reach agreement on which one to opt for. This is an inevitable corollary of liberal civilisation. The price of freedom is lack of consensus. Not only that, indeed, but potential tragedy - for liberalism brings in its wake the possibility of clashes between two or more equally precious sets of values.
Relativism is, among other things, a way of trying to dissolve these tragic collisions.
The astonishing fact about modernity is that fundamentals are the last thing on which we agree. Hardly anyone believes in roasting babies over open fires, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this. We are doomed to concur in the inessentials only. It is not obvious, then, that modern societies are as shot through with nihilism as some suppose. Even the experience of meaninglessness assumes the concept of meaning.
There may be no meaning any longer, but perhaps there was once; and it is this poignant contrast that makes existence so unbearable. This is true of many a modernist work of art. It is not exactly that such works have lost all sense of meaning; it is rather that there is a meaning-shaped hole at the centre of them.
Modernism is still old enough to remember a time when there was, so the rumour has it, truth, reality, centred subjects, firm foundations and objectivity. It is just that these things can now be glimpsed only out of the corner of your eye, in some transient epiphany or fragile revelation.
Like the other who walks beside you in The Waste Land , they vanish if you look at them straight.
Postmodernism, by contrast, is far too young to recall such a golden age and treats it with the scorn that hoodies with studs in their noses reserve for those with fond reminiscences of Woodstock. For postmodernists, it is not that there was once truth, foundations and grand narratives and now there are not. Like the tooth fairy, they never existed in the first place.
So why, as the philosopher Richard Rorty would inquire, keep scratching where it doesn't itch? A society that lacked the concept of meaning altogether (not that there could be one, any more than there could be one that lacked the concept of truth) would not be in the least nihilistic. It would have no sense of tragedy or ontological absurdity. You cannot have tragedy without imagining that things might be different. If suffering were all we knew, we would not revolt against it.
To claim that your life is meaningless is to claim that it lacks a point, not that it is utterly unintelligible. People who do not know whether they are buried under the ocean or stashed inside a pig's bladder are psychotic, not nihilistic. But there is an obvious Nietzschean or existentialist response to this lament. If your life is shorn of meaning, why not supply it with some? If the fridge is empty, why not stick in a few groceries? This case plucks an advantage from dire necessity. An existence purged of meaning is an excellent thing, since it leaves you at liberty to create your own. Absurdity is the pre-condition of freedom.
What you really mean when you complain that your life lacks meaning is that it lacks built-in meaning. But meaning according to this theory is no more built into our existence than the sense of a word is literally embedded in the page. A character in Chekhov's Three Sisters gazes mournfully out the window and remarks: "Look out there. It's snowing. What is the meaning of that?" But not everyone would find this observation as profound as it sounds. You could claim, for example, that snow does indeed lack a meaning, but only in the sense that envy lacks weight and volume. Snow is just not the kind of thing we should expect to have meaning in the first place, beyond the meanings we might ourselves furnish it with from time to time.
Chekhov, for example, is making the snow a symbol of meaninglessness, and thus assigning it a kind of meaning.
We do not generally lament the fact that we were not born wearing small woolly hats. Emerging from the womb sporting a small woolly hat is just not the kind of thing one should expect to happen. There is no point in gnashing one's teeth over it. It is just one of those things, like snow or porridge or Bruce Forsyth. Things, if you share this view, are not inherently meaningful, least of all Bruce Forsyth, and this is no more a tragic state of affairs than the fact that one cannot play a tune on a carrot. Meaning is what you make it.
There is something in this theory, but it is scarcely a knockdown case.
Among other problems, it leads too quickly to the pick'n'mix theory of human existence, whereby each unique individual fashions the meaning he or she prefers. This is too Blairish, too hung up on personal options to be wholly persuasive. As the postmodernist remarked, the future will be just like the present, only with more options.
What if I find a sense of cosmic meaning in submitting as many Nepalese as I can lay my hands on to excruciating torture? Are there no given limits to the meanings we might validly manufacture? It is an intriguing thought that there may indeed be a meaning to human life, but that we will never discover what it is. Or, perhaps, that we are not meant to discover what it is and that life would collapse if we did.
Many a thinker has considered that our flourishing is dependent on our ignorance. For Nietzsche and Freud, a saving oblivion lies at the essence of subjectivity. If we could recall the traumatic horror at the roots of our existence we would find ourselves paralysed as social agents. Amnesia is what allows us to act. Repression is good for us. The truth, as Ibsen shows, is deadly and destructive. It is what we would perish of if we blundered into its august presence - the Medusa visage that would turn us to stone.
The pragmatic approach to the meaning of life is likely these days to muster a fair number of votes. According to this theory, the trouble is not that there isn't enough meaning around the place. It is the fact that the very existence of these discrete chunks of meaning leads us falsely to suppose that there must be one great meaning of meaning underlying them all. It is like the symbolist poet's doomed dream of a single, stark signifier that would say everything, wrap it all up, reveal itself as the Word of words.
Perhaps asking for one big meaning is simply to be the prisoner of a metaphor. It is like assuming that if the house of cards is not resting on some secure foundation it is bound to come tumbling down. In our own era, an alterative metaphor has been offered to us in this respect: that of text. A text is a weave of different meanings, but there is no one signifier on which all the others rest.
Tarot touts, pyramid pushers and ley line lovers all make the same mistake.
They assume that the meaning of life must be something elusive and ethereal. This is because they see materialism as being responsible for abolishing meaning, so that the more daylight one puts between oneself and material reality the more meaning there is likely to be. It would not occur to Madonna, for example, that spiritual value might be as simple and earth-bound as welcoming immigrants and caring for the sick, as it is in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This kind of thing is not grand enough to qualify. The meaning of life must be something mysterious and esoteric. It couldn't, by definition, be something tangible and out in the open, such as taking another's place in the queue for the gas chambers.
One can see well enough why the Madonnas of this world turn to the obscure and occult. It is because it is the exact reverse of their daily lives. If you spend your time sitting in the place of honour below the catwalk or being afflicted with existential angst over which of your 28 sumptuous mansions to be idle in next, it is no wonder that truth and value will seem like the opposite of all this brash, futile, showy stuff.
Celebrities are natural Cartesians. Since their external lives are usually pretty aimless and ravaged, they imagine that truth must lie within. The more portentously unintelligible the truth is, the further it is from their own instantly consumable everyday existences, and thus the more authentic it is likely to sound. This is why reasonably intelligent people who have been driven insane by excessive wealth and adulation believe that events on earth are being controlled by a spaceship concealed behind a cloud. They would not believe this if they had only £38 in the bank.
Nobody, then - not even the Pope - is as otherworldly as the worldly. A credulous superstition is simply the flipside of their crass careerism. The secret of life must surely be something as unlike their agent, minders and make-up assistants as possible - in which case pixies or extraterrestrials fit the bill nicely. Scientology is a "spiritual" reproduction of techno-capitalist values and a bungled alternative to them. If truth cannot be found in one's everyday life, then it must exist on a different plane entirely - which is to say, nowhere at all.
Political radicals, of course, are also otherworldly. This is what they have in common with the connoisseurs of kabbalah. It is just that the other world they have in mind is a transformation of the one we have already, not a higher alternative to it. Non-radicals are otherworldly as well, although in a quite different sense. They are victims of the fantasy that what we see around us, given a tweak or two, is as good as it gets.
Those with their heads truly buried in the sand are the hard-nosed pragmatists who behave as though the World Bank and chocolate-chip cookies will be with us in the year 3000. The real fantasists are those who refuse to accept that human societies could be feasibly much improved.
I should end, having mentioned Madonna, by declaring a personal interest.
Before she became a star she was an obscure dancer in New York and was, for a while, the apartment mate of another dancer who was a friend of mine.
When I visited my friend and her husband in Greenwich Village, I would sleep in Madonna's bed. The lady herself, unfortunately, had not slept in it for a good 15 years.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands fellow at Manchester University. The Meaning of Life is published by Oxford University Press on February 22, £10.99.