Existence Precedes Essence (or Perhaps it is the Other way Around)

Samuel Rafael Barber



I was reading a profile of a certain moral philosopher (considered by some to be an unrepentant misanthrope) over papas con huevo tacos one morning while dreading the encroaching sun (whose setting in the west never fails to cast an uncompromising beam of relentless despair upon my desk during those hours when professionals are returning home to the bars from work, those hours when I am only beginning my precipitous loss in drink from the safe confines of a favored chair) when suddenly, I was given reason to reflect on the photographic exploits of my dear friend Simplicio. I had not given the matter thought in some time, and indeed found myself surprised to be remembering this friend at all, a man whose mere existence genuinely startled me after these decades of silence, a boy who had for years been my chief confidant, the sole figure entrusted in preserving my secrets both large and small, and I his. A boy who became a man whose friendship I failed to maintain, for reasons which will become abundantly clear.

This moral philosopher, you see, when given an expensive camera from a rich uncle for some birthday or other, found himself enraptured with the notion of rendering the ineffable in physical form. From an early age, it seemed to him that life looked far more beautiful, felt far more significant when considered through the medium of photograph. Of course, the sole subject worthy of his scrutiny was architecture, and there were but ten buildings in all of the world he wished to photograph. And so, years after the bestowing of this gift, his rich uncle despaired during an otherwise completely anonymous and wholly unremarkable telephone conversation some night or other, that the not-yet moral philosopher was less of an enthusiast than a mere hobbyist, one driving a Ferrari only to procure groceries or claim dry cleaning. Forgive the obvious analogy (it is not mine, but a formulation communicated by this rich uncle during the argument in question, or so claims the magazine profile). He expressed remorse for the gift, and asked for the camera back, if only so that it might make its way into the possession of someone perhaps more deserving.

Of course, while there were but ten buildings he wished to study as photographic subjects, these buildings were such cultural and physical monoliths that years were spent chronicling the constructions from every available angle, those both evident and not. From every street corner and bathroom window and verboten terrace which provided its own uniquely irreplaceable insight into the essence of these buildings, these subjects. Private property was not respected, and neither were the tourists manipulating angles in order to provide the impression of lifting this or that building for their own amateurish pictures, caressing this or that building for their own amateurish pictures, mimicking the behavioral patterns which limit our fallible minds from excavating beyond artifice. Forgive the crude cultural critique (it is not mine, but a statement given to police in the aftermath of the first of this story’s two institutionalizations). This search for an all-encompassing authority, the sum total of what could be visually experienced only through an overwhelming inundation with artifice so as to transcend this usually inviolable limitation, quickly became an obsession. This was no paradox.

This moral philosopher earned his doctorate from a respected institution, received a permanent post at a respected think tank, wrote a few influential papers on essence and being and identity (Aristotle did not emerge unscathed, though much of the credit for this destruction is owed to Sartre) and commissioned a few influential papers from peers and experts from other disciplines and even bright pupils whose talents he had reason to suspect could serve his goal. But mostly, he traveled to and from these ten buildings (these eight countries, these four continents) at every opportunity, preparing a presentation for his rich uncle, then in pronounced physical decline. Time does not pass, exactly, and yet we use it as a crutch, this reliance renewing the ravaging cycle whose study has consumed our lives, the three of us.

Over time, it seemed to this burgeoning moral philosopher that the totality of each building (indeed the totality of these individual totalities) constituted the true goal of this project. And that, when superimposing thousands (if not hundreds of thousands or millions or . . .) of shots of each building (from not just each available angle but every potential angle, those angles we are not accustomed to considering due to the limitations imposed by gravity and imagination) alongside and beneath and over one another, the photographer would indeed have discovered truth (but only given these precise circumstances, and only for the photographer in question).

Well, not truth, exactly, but a sort of knowledge unique in every way. The timing of these shots required a horizontal sun – that is, the casting of an uncompromising beam of relentless despair from a setting or rising sun – and so the images presented a perverse version of these buildings. And so, when presented as a photomontage, when the results were strewn throughout his dusty floor (it should be said our moral philosopher was a bit of a slob), the composite creation bore a peculiar timelessness. The oscillating sun – in the east throughout half of the scattered photos and the west throughout the rest – provided a suggestion of another plane entirely (the moral philosopher took this to be a profound epistemological discovery, but then again he was not an epistemologist).

Suddenly, he believed himself to finally understand the vision of Edvard Munch’s which compelled the Norwegian to see a terrifyingly absurd hellscape – the unrepentant apathy of nature – where his companions had witnessed only the latest beautiful sunset. Suddenly, he realized his subjects were not ten buildings, but ten manifestations of the same monolith to human history and civilization. A mere tourist or mere hobbyist would notice a series of seemingly identical pictures and feign excitement (or worse, understanding). And he was not one of those (or so he thought, or so claims the profile).

And so after a few decades, the profile explained, this moral philosopher returned home to Manchester with his mission completed and his camera gift wrapped for return. Returned home with no fewer than eight trunks in tow (though some accounts insist this was merely his personal luggage and that a further fifty or more trunks were transported by freighter by sea, though some accounts insist this number approached two hundred, others still insisting the entire cargo ship contained nothing but trunks of photographs taken by the moral philosopher of each and every one of these ten buildings now conflated in his mind and seen as but one). And so, what happened? His uncle went mad, of course. His uncle was driven stark raving mad! How would you respond when presented with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of nearly identical photographs, your nephew ranting and raving that these photographs indeed pretend mimicry while nonetheless encompassing everything and nothing about life and death when viewed in conjunction, when viewed as a single photograph, when understood as one?

The journalist responsible for the creation of this profile concluded her account by mentioning the uncle now suffers from a crippling dementia and so cannot recall the dramatic climax, the crucial episode in question (ensuring she must rely solely upon the moral philosopher’s account). She feels uncomfortable given this restriction, it is safe to say. While thankful for the lack of editor’s note preceding the article, which might pre-empt the arc for certain readers, undermine the narrative by presenting the possibility that the entire incident is mere fabrication, the moral philosopher utterly insane, utterly consumed with abstractions to a worrisome degree, I must now offer Simplicio’s tale, if only for the sake of context. Consider it a sort of confirmation.

In any case, this profile gave me reason to reflect upon how, when young, Simplicio too was gifted a camera, though a disposable one during that time after which the era of mechanized production had guaranteed the cheap purchase of such tools but before cellular phones supplanted (by force) these devices. When young, Simplicio too chose as composition the facades of things, the exteriors of pyramids and the foundations of Roman pillars, the canopies of telephone lines (and wires) and the carapaces of human life evident in our inanimate structures.

My job – once the twenty seven photographs had been taken (such was the standard limit on these disposable cameras, if you have forgotten) and I had been sworn to secrecy – was to hand-paint out all aspects of the images Simplicio found dull or distasteful, which usually meant the eradication of all cars and billboards and domesticated animals, as well as the complete desecration of any visible human beings. Had he possessed the funds, Simplicio would have surely paid a professional processor to accomplish the task – considering the stakes – but denied this opportunity, I resolved to do the job to the best of my teenaged abilities. I even developed a certain affinity for this aesthetic myself, after a time, when witnessing the overwhelmingly evident calm in these shots myself, once purged of human life. Began to even wonder, much to my surprise, whether or not I indeed might prefer other species to our own. Whether or not I felt more comfortable when surrounded by ducks and lynx and quail than by my own kind.

With those twenty seven shots Simplicio intuitively attempted a project even more ambitious than the one proposed by our moral philosopher (or so I mistakenly thought at the time) given the formal limitations, given his age. I became a sort of acolyte – a believer in his vision – and retreated from public view, developing an almost entirely self-sustaining rhythm of life. I eventually won a sort of competition for a popular job as hermit in the Austrian town of Saalfeden primarily because, in the words of the town’s mayor, “your personality appealed to us.” “You radiate calm and exhibit an astounding resolve in the face of oblivion, of certain death” he said, with a mixture of reverence and pity. Built into a cliff, my home lacks running water and electricity, but I receive my magazine, receive my peace from the likes of you.

And, as I drank my afternoon glass of gin before transitioning to scotch (or vodka depending on mood, for I certainly do not remember this minor detail at this time) on the day I read this profile of a certain moral philosopher sometimes lauded as the single most significant innovator since the late nineteenth century contributions of the notoriously boring and notoriously precise Henry Sidgwick within the pages of the sole magazine to which I subscribe during this era of an intensely hermetic existence, I remembered the sole letter I had received from my dear friend in the decades since the peak of our intimacy as boys, a letter received some decades later in which he had explained how as a parting gift to his beloved mother on the day she was to be committed to a nursing home, Simplicio presented a collage of these twenty seven pictures of his (all taken during the intermittent family vacations his mother provided for the family every so often despite the frugality of their way of life and the perpetual threat of absolute financial and corporeal collapse which informed the fragility of the lives lived by Simplicio and his siblings far beyond the parameters of childhood). How the pictures were framed and displayed without help of trunk or plane or ship, photographs which Simplicio had for years advertised and teased to his mother as nothing less significant than the most wondrous collective testament to his childhood and the only solace afforded to his brief existence which suggested he had seen real beauty and felt real satisfaction. How upon the gift’s unwrapping, she was so beside herself with shock at the absence of herself or his two brothers and single sister (or really, the absence of even a single human being) from any and all of these twenty seven pictures Simplicio had hoarded (and savored, and teased) as his most valuable artifacts from the earliest of ages that his dear mother (a lady known to cook me pancakes each time I visited their home following school despite the repeated reminders of my complete disdain for pancakes over the course of many years, which influences my certainty that she had it coming) was driven stark raving mad!

From within this serene home within this intimate town of Saalfeden won in what has been labeled the most competitive position for town hermit in all of Europe, it now occurs to me (for perhaps the first time) that in more ways than one, both my friend and his mother have ultimately proven to be pitifully derivative. It now occurs to me that these tacos could really use a bit more mole.


Samuel Rafael Barber is an M.A. candidate in English at Columbia University. Recent work has appeared in Puerto del Sol and DIAGRAM. According to life expectancy tables, he will live another 52.7 years.