What is Don Juanism? It is, perhaps, most easily expressed by this simple Latin phrase made famous by the film Dead Poets Society: “carpe diem!” or “seize the day!” Loosely defined, it describes a certain disposition or attitude toward life which is explained by the French existentialist Albert Camus in his influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.
According to Camus, Don Juanism is not a system or a formula but a general outline suggesting a way in which the “absurd man” might proceed in a world devoid of intrinsic meaning or value. Who is the “absurd man” you ask? The man who acknowledges the world is meaningless—and, that there is no hope of a life after death—yet, seeks to ascribe or, at least, search for meaning anyway. The absurd man, when faced with the dilemma of nihilism, may choose (following the manner of that famous womanizer Don Juan) to suck the marrow out of each moment of his existence. He does not dwell upon the past nor does he worry about his inevitable fate (i.e., death, dissolution, and non-being) but seeks to experience as much pleasure (not necessarily erotic pleasure; but typically so) as possible here and now. He is driven by passion, desire and self-love. He chooses not to limit himself—to narrow himself—to the love of but one creature but to share himself with all. As Camus explains:
“Don Juan, as well as anyone else, knows that this [i.e., love which limits itself to but one creature] can be stirring. But he is one of the very few who know that this is not the important thing . . . A mother or a passionate wife necessarily has a closed heart, for it is turned away from the world. A single emotion, a single creature, a single face, but all is devoured. Quite a different love disturbs Don Juan, and this one is liberating. It brings with it all the faces in the world, and its tremor comes from the fact that it knows itself to be mortal. Don Juan has chosen to be nothing.”
In short, Don Juanism suggests we adopt a god complex. In the face of the void it calls for us to create meaning and value in accordance with our likes and dislikes (we, thus, become the truth). It further challenges us to extend ourselves–our vitality–as far as possible; to transcend limitations and take in as much of this life that we can. Yet, ironically, under the impetus that one day we shall no longer exist and, thus, no longer experience.
It is safe to say that this is a way of approaching life many in our culture–especially those in Hollywood and the music industry–have embraced and enthusiastically promote. We are constantly told to live in the moment; to be true to ourselves (i.e., to passively allow our irrational instincts and biological impulses to dictate who we are); to release our sexuality; to hold nothing back. We are told to liberate ourselves from the shackles of traditional mores and moral constraints. This means moving away from longterm, monogamous relationships and diving headlong into unabashed–unrestricted–eroticism. We hear this ever so loudly in the music industry (Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé are but a few examples).
The lines become increasingly blurred as we seek to extend ourselves and to experience as much as we can: oral sex with members of both genders, multiple sex partners, bisexuality, polygamy, androgyny, threesomes, orgies, unrestricted masturbation, sex toy’s, hooking up with strangers, pornography, beastiality–the sky’s the limit! All this in an effort to establish our identity; to authenticate ourselves.
Note, however, the basic premise underlying Don Juanism (inadvertently expressed in the quote I shared from Camus): individuals or persons become nothing. There is no intrinsic value or dignity to the person–in the world according to Don Juan we are but brief irrational manifestations of the monolith that is the cosmos. And, the cosmos is unconscious, unaware, uncaring, and purposeless. You and I are, thus, non-being; because we (whatever “we” designates) are temporary, unidentifiable, meaningless blips, in a long series of meaningless blips, destined to fade out and be utterly forgotten. There is nothing concrete or eternal about us. We have no essence and, thus, no identity. And, to renounce identity is to renounce existence.
So I ask myself: What kind of freedom is this? The answer comes quickly: It is a freedom without hope; and, hence, not true freedom. It is a freedom built on an illusion; and, hence, not true freedom. What silly and pathetic little god’s we have become! God’s incapable of changing our fate; god’s with only the illusion of self; god’s with the mere illusion of being able to shape the way things are. Don Juanism requires the impossible–it requires something to come from nothing. It requires the unidentifiable to create identity; the non-existent to bring forth existence.
But, from out of nothing, comes nothing. The “absurd” man is far more absurd than Camus dared to imagine.