I am of two minds regarding the question posed by the editors of The Immanent Frame and the accompanying video prompt of Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” So, in good Kabbalistic fashion, I read it simultaneously as two opposing utterances: an honest, surprised, and disappointed question—“Is this all there is?”—but also a responsive, echoing exclamation, equally surprised, but retorting, maybe even chastising—“Is this all there is?!?!” The first question implies a lack and a more that was hoped for, perhaps yearned for, perhaps achingly, yet seen as deserved: “Of course there should have been more, something else! I have to settle for this?!” The second question denies the implications of the first, expressing bemusement, wonderment that a lack was perceived at all in the face of miraculous abundance: “All this isn’t enough for you?!?!”
In light of the song in the video, I take the question to be about the world, about life. What does existence, our existence, give us? What do we take from it? The question addresses both the personal and collective. While historical variation and specific context need to be taken into account, I am not sure I believe that in terms of basic factors much difference separates the Anthropocene or Age of Trump from any previous epoch. I can only respond to the question with further questions: Who says it, in what context, with what intention?
The jazzy tune “Is That All There Is?” itself paints a double picture.1 Peggy Lee’s delivery of the narrative segues between the verses—about a childhood fire that consumed the speaker’s family home, seeing the circus with her father, a lost love, reviewing life on the edge of death—invokes a sense of irredeemable loss, existential dislocation, and unfathomable pain. This perspective is bolstered for me by the blues-inflected womb of jazz itself: economic deprivation, racial alienation, struggling artists struggling against the world and with their own inner demons. But the lyrics and their performance by Lee also bespeak a spoiled, blasé pose, a kind of pretend or self-inflicted longing and response arising out of unsatisfying plenty, which my imagination colors, due to the video’s upscale setting, as Gatsby-esque. I am reminded of how imaginary needs are manufactured out of commercial interest, of how fashion (in the widest sense) generates endless desire for novelty.
For all too many in the world, the absence of enough, their exclusion from plenitude—not necessarily in a material sense—is real and tragic, patently unfair, unconscionable, and thus a justified indictment of the divine but especially of the human. For many others, however, the claim of being dissatisfied—again, not just materially—bears a feeling of self-centeredness, a failure of perspective and imagination, disconnection from reality, ingratitude. For most readers of this blog, for most of us authors, for instance, I surmise that all there is, at least materially, is more than enough.
As a genuine protest against want and misery, against a world that, whether by design or indifference, gives too little to too many, to ask “Is this all there is?,” to cry it out, stands as a sort of theological and political imperative. The persistence of natural suffering even in our scientific and technological age beggars understanding. The seemingly endless cruelty of people toward one another defies comprehension. The casual and callous corruption of leaders in positions of responsibility stupefies. The unreasonable injustice of life in so many ways infuriates and belies any pacifying talk of a cosmic plan or planner and any hopes that the human species has learned much from its own past. Friends who disappoint, family that can leave one cold, partners who fail to deliver, entail only some of the common ways of feeling short-changed, bereft, starved for interpersonal satiety. Alongside all the poets yearning for a sense of the meaningfulness hidden from them, the philosophers desperately craving some inkling of the All, the mystics thirsting for a glimpse of what lies behind and beyond and between everything, the activists and tinkerers being shattered by nearly always unreachable resolutions, the sad teenagers and perplexed lonely-hearts asking only for a bit more happiness and warmth from others and for self-love—I share their plea for more. By what right is it denied us?!
At the same time, that I had never experienced the video of Peggy Lee nor its song before the invitation to contribute to this forum corroborates for me my second impression. The world holds so much, contains far more than we imagine. Who can honestly say that she has exhausted its mysteries, enjoyed all its pleasures? Surprisingly, additional discoveries about what we think we already know seem always to await us. Even if our lives are not problem-free, our poetic and mystical sides remind us, when we are attentive enough, of the rich blessings we have received from the people around us, from everyday encounters with the world, from ostensibly ordinary happenings. From how many serendipitous turns have we not benefited, how many unexpected kindnesses? At how many moments of finishing a challenging path—a risky kiss returned by the one we hope to love, a job well-done, a child’s graduation—do we really digest the profundity of what has just transpired? Yet we possess the greed to need more?!
On the one hand, then, humans have, if anything, a responsibility to do so much more, even if I do not believe that we can undo or overcome all of the problems of the world as it comes to us. We have failed to distribute abundance equitably, failed to offer purpose and embrace to so many who have sought it instead in harmful palliatives, failed to provide help to and attempt healing for those we end up penalizing, failed to protect innocents from the depredations of often-respectable liars, exploiters, thieves, and profiteers. If there is not “enough” for so many, the fault lies mostly in ourselves and therefore it is up to us alone to rectify it. If this is all there is, boozing and dancing (as the song has it), comprise only temporary responses and must be followed by countless acts of repair and revolution, small and large, in both the internal-personal and external-collective meanings. (The lack of this next step in “Is That All There Is?” marks one indication of the distance between the nihilism-lite of Leiber-Stoller and the submission of, say, Hafez.)
On the other hand, many of us (and I am not excluding myself) must evolve inwardly to know how to be satisfied, to understand that in a deep sense we have “enough.” One of my favorite lines from Theodor Adorno speaks of this: “Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”2 In one way, then, freedom means not needing more.
On Passover Jews sing the ditty Dayenu (“Enough”), which teaches gratitude to God for the kindnesses He/She/It performed for Israel in the escape from Egypt and sojourn through the desert. “If God had brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah it would have been enough for us! If God had given us the Torah, but not led us to the Promised Land it would have been enough for us!” In better moments I find myself saying to myself the same kind of thing: If I came into this world only to have heard my son play the Beethoven bagatelle that I had never before heard, it would have been enough. If I came into the world only to have gotten to know my wife, it would have been enough. If I came into the world only to have experienced Venice once, to have read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, to have spun, tumbled, sweat, and danced while playing capoeira, to have understood a bit of The Zohar, to have given a blessing to a complete stranger who approached me for one on a near-twilight street in Jerusalem, to have stood briefly under that skinny, pristine, chilling waterfall at Yosemite . . .
The question “Is this all there is?” implies transcendence: a gap, a distance between what is and what ought to be. Transcendence to me resonates not as an ultimate and totalizing move toward metaphysics as an escape to some “beyond,” but rather as an eternally recurring “horizontal” reality of emotional and intellectual growth, for individuals as well as collectives (as articulated, for instance, in J. K. Gibson-Graham’s book, A Postcapitalist Politics).3 One source for such a view of transcendence might be Søren Kierkegaard, whose text Repetition asks “‘of freedom to see constantly a new side of repetition.’ Each new side is a ‘breaking forth,’ a ‘transition’ or ‘becoming,’ and therefore a concept of happening, and not of being.”4
At some times and in some places transcendence of what is calls out as a demand. At others, what actually already is could not be improved upon even with other unimagined potential possibilities, which would only be needless in any case. If we learn to distinguish between these two faces of the world, of our existence, these two different modes of address, and act in accord with each situation, I would call that one aspect of wisdom.
I believe I have said nothing new here. But aren’t old tricks harder to learn than new ones?
Is this all there is? Yes, and no. What will you do with that?
The song was written in the mid-sixties by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the team behind numerous hits of the era, and originally sung by several performers before Peggy Lee covered it and turned it into a smash hit. The quasi- “art song” ambitions or results of the song, by the time it got to Lee, made it a collaborative product of the increasingly soured and darkening 60s. See the insightful treatment by Franklin Bruno, “‘Is That All There Is?’ and the Uses of Disenchantment,” Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, ed. Eric Weisbard (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), ch. 8.↩
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), 156-157.↩
J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). And see William E. Connolly, Why I am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 52 and 103, n. 8.↩
Harold Bloom, The Breaking of the Vessels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 44.↩