by JIM KNIPFEL
August 12, 2018
Live Your Life Like You Don’t Exist
Oh, I don’t even know where to begin with this shit.
When I was a kid—and we’re talking five or six years old here—it didn’t strike me as that big a deal. When I paused to think about it, took a step back and considered what I was experiencing in my head, it became clear that the world was merely an illusion, that it didn’t exist. What’s more I didn’t exist. The people around me didn’t exist. Life and death didn’t exist. So maybe we were all something else’s dream, if not a terribly interesting one. Long before I knew the word, I felt a sense of radical alienation. Big deal. I’d just keep going about my business trying to ignore it best as I could, pretending everything was as real as everyone seemed to believe it was, or at least pretended to believe it was.
I didn’t realize this was any kind of shocking revelation to other people until I mentioned it in passing to my friend Eddie, the smartest kid in Mrs. Massey’s kindergarten class. Given how upset he became, and how even more upset he became when, not noticing yet how mad he was getting, I further commented I would prefer to be dead, I decided it would be best not to bring up this unremarkable observation with an adult. Like so many other things, I’d just keep it to myself, and continue to pretend I, everyone else, and the whole fucking universe was real, even though I knew different.
It was a perception I was never able to shake. I could go about the day-to-day same as anyone, do my schoolwork, do stupid shit with friends, watch movies, act like a normal person interacting with the world like other normal people and it didn’t get in the way. But if I stopped a moment and carefully took stock of my perceptions at that instant, there was that realization again. Nope, world still didn’t exist.
I don’t know if the eyes had anything to do with the notion or not. Even before anyone hinted I was going blind, the eyes were bad. I had cartoonishly thick glasses, so it was easy to get the sense I was trapped in my own head, the world around me warped and fuzzy and distant, that there was some kind of wall separating me from this shabby reality that didn’t seem so real at all. And if what was outside my head wasn’t real, who’s to say what was inside my head was any more real? I was no solipsist, and had no interest in claiming responsibility for anything I was pretending to experience.
When I started reading philosophy seriously in high school, I realized there might be some precedent to what I was experiencing. Descartes’ Discourses, Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, even Plato touched on the idea of an illusory universe. But in the end they all crapped out, admitting “Oh, okay, I was just playing around there—the world really does exist, though maybe not in quite the form we’ve chosen to believe.”
I did bring the idea up with some of the kids I hung around with in high school. They were smart for the most part and were always open to new and radical ideas, so the concept of non-existence became one of the central tenets of our invented religion, Spamism. We even made it central to our political party, AORNEA, or the Allouez Organization of Revolutionary Non-Existent Anarchists. As much as it was a running joke among us, I got the impression none of them really believed what I was talking about.
Not all of them, anyway. I had no idea Stanley, a skinny, oily kid who lingered about the fringes of the group, was a Christian until he invited me to a youth group meeting at his church one night. They were set to talk about the nature of reality, so he thought it might be interesting to bring me along as the loyal opposition.
The meeting took place in a carpeted room in the church basement, and was overseen by a fat, wide-eyed, red-haired hippie with a beard. There were eight or nine kids there, though Stanley was the only one I knew. The hippie being a hippie, he had us all sit in a circle on the floor. Then he shut off all the lights and lit a candle.
Fucking great. I was uncomfortable enough as it was just being in a church with a bunch of strangers and this oily kid I didn’t like much, and now I was in complete darkness to boot. That fucking candle didn’t do a thing. I was completely lost and disoriented, had no idea when this fat hippie was talking to me or when it was supposed to be my turn to speak. When I finally did blurt out something about reality being an illusion, and not a very interesting one, he told me I sounded like a Taoist. Then he went back to talking about Jesus and I stopped paying attention. Afterward I never bothered looking into Taoism, having decided this sense of unreality was all more than a simple philosophical stance.
It was around then I first started trying to write about this perception, to somehow describe it to myself, hoping to get a handle on what it felt like and looked like, but my efforts didn’t even come close. It wasn’t like a dream, and it wasn’t like watching a movie. When you’re in the middle of them, dreams and movies are very real, direct and tangible things. The closest I could come was that it was a bit like trying to recall a dream in the seconds after you wake up, but finding yourself in the position of trying to recapture a fading dream every single goddamn waking moment. This was an intense recognition of nothingness, of phantoms, of unreality, again a radical alienation from everything, a sense of extreme detachment from myself and the world, and one I simply couldn’t escape. I stopped trying to describe the experience, deciding it was indescribable. A friend of mine once told me I was living in the third person, which comes about as close as anything, I guess.
The really frustrating thing at the heart of it was it wasn’t like I was experiencing a world populated with singing pumpkin creatures or psychedelic trees. No, it was all really dull and banal and kinda sad. You’d think if I was going to create an imaginary reality in which to half-exist, I’d do a better goddamn job of it.
I still went about my business, still had clever thoughts and interacted with people and objects just fine so long as I didn’t stop to think about it, and no one was the wiser.
Sometime back, maybe twenty years ago, I did mention this inescapable sense of unreality to a shrink I’d been forced to see against my will. I forget now exactly why I was sent there—some ridiculous reason or another. When I made the mistake of mentioning my lack of direct connection with reality, he told me I was suffering from something the shrinks called “dissociation.” Then he never brought it up again.
I stopped seeing him shortly thereafter, having realized he spent most of each session talking about his own problems with his kids, meaning I was in the strange position of paying him for the privilege of listening to his stupid troubles. At least along the way he’d given the fucker a name. That’s more than I had before, and sometimes slapping a name on things can be an odd comfort.
Turns out “dissociative disorder” is another one of those broad and vague psychological terms that runs the spectrum from a mild sense of alienation to multiple personality disorder. Usually it develops in childhood as a means of coping with some prolonged trauma, and disappears by the late teens or early twenties. Well, that leaves me out again. There was no prolonged childhood trauma, unless you count stepping out of the house and encountering the rest of the world, and the perception has hung around way past bedtime. Of course the whole blindo gag hasn’t made shirking that creeping sense of unreality any easier.
It’s interesting how the writing racket, at least from my perspective, echoes all this. Every day I pull things out of my head, put them down in sentences and paragraphs, alienate them from myself, shove them away, and completely forget about them. One of the symptoms of dissociative disorder I saw noted in a few of the research papers I read was an inability to recall certain significant events in one’s life. If that’s the case, well hell—how about not being able to remember anything I did in three of the cities I lived in? How about not being able to remember anything in the three memoirs I’ve written? Once I push it away, it’s gone, it ceases to exist. And that brings up the Charles Manson song “Cease to Exist,” but I won’t get into that.
I do think this whole sense of unreality has made it much easier to recognize and accept the simple, elegant rationality of nihilism as a perfectly effective guiding principle in life. Unlike political parties or religious denominations, my nihilistic outlook has never encountered any contradictions or moral dilemmas, and it’s never let me down. I know nothing matters, I know everything’s a sham and a lie, from the evening news to the desk I’m supposedly sitting at right now, and nothing’s ever proven me wrong.
(I could go off on an incredibly interesting tangent here about the origin of the word “nihilist” as an insult hurled by mid-nineteenth century German philosophers, but I won’t. Really interesting, though.)
It also occurs to me that at this precise moment in history, when the world we’re living in has become so hilariously unreal and false, in which most people no longer experience any “reality” beyond what appears on the screen of the device they’re holding, that I shouldn’t be alone in having serious doubts about existence, but I get the sense if I were to bring it up in mixed company, I’d get a bunch of dumb cow stares in response. Funny thing is, despite my doubts, I suspect the “reality” I’m experiencing, as distant as it seems to be, is still a hell of a lot more real than what’s experienced by those dullards who get no closer to tangible experience than Twitter feeds and Facebook updates.
A professor I knew once told me that in the first draft of his Discourses, Descartes’ famous dictum, Cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am,” was in fact Dubito ergo sum, or “I doubt, therefore I am.” So there you go, maybe.
Anyway, guess I’ll just continue to pretend, to make believe all this shit is real, so long as you all insist on doing the same. Even though I don’t believe you exist, either.
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