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Our Own Time
... man is condemned to be free

The alarm clock showed 11:55 p.m. Hilde lay staring at the ceiling. She tried to let her associations flow freely. Each time she finished a chain of thoughts, she tried to ask herself why.

Could there be something she was trying to repress?

If only she could have set aside all censorship, she might have slid into a waking dream. A bit scary, she thought.

The more she relaxed and opened herself to random thoughts and images, the more she felt as if she was in the major\'s cabin by the little lake in the woods.

What could Alberto be planning? Of course, it was Hilde\'s father planning that Alberto was planning something. Did he already know what Alberto would do? Perhaps he was trying to give himself free rein, so that whatever happened in the end would come as a surprise to him too.

There were not many pages left now. Should she take a peek at the last page? No, that would be cheating. And besides, Hilde was convinced that it was far from decided what was to happen on the last page.

Wasn\'t that a curious thought? The ring binder was right here and her father could not possibly get back in time to add anything to it. Not unless Alberto did something on his own. A surprise ...

Hilde had a few surprises up her own sleeve, in any case. Her father did not control her. But was she in full control of herself?

What was consciousness? Wasn\'t it one of the greatest riddles of the universe? What was memory? What made us "remember" everything we had seen and experienced?

What kind of mechanism made us create fabulous dreams night after night?

She closed her eyes from time to time. Then she opened them and stared at the ceiling again. At last she forgot to open them.

She was asleep.

When the raucous scream of a seagull woke her, Hilde got out of bed. As usual, she crossed the room to the window and stood looking out across the bay. It had gotten to be a habit, summer and winter.

As she stood there, she suddenly felt a myriad of colors exploding in her head. She remembered what she had dreamt. But it felt like more than an ordinary dream, with its vivid colors and shapes ...

She had dreamt that her father came home from Lebanon, and the whole dream was an extension of Sophie\'s dream when she found the gold crucifix on the dock.

Hilde was sitting on the edge of the dock--exactly as in Sophie\'s dream. Then she heard a very soft voice whispering, "My name is Sophie!" Hilde had stayed where she was, sitting very still, trying to hear where the voice was coming from. It continued, an almost inaudible rustling, as if an insect were speaking to her: "You must be both deaf and blind!" Just then her father had come into the garden in his UN uniform. "Hilde!" he shouted. Hilde ran up to him and threw her arms around his neck. That\'s where the dream ended.

She remembered some lines of a poem by Arnulf 0verland:

Wakened one night by a curious dreamand a voice that seemed to be speaking to melike a far-off subterranean stream,I rose and asked: What do you want of me?

She was still standing at the window when her mother came in.

"Hi there! Are you already awake?"

"I\'m not sure..."

"I\'ll be home around four, as usual."

"Okay, Mom."

"Have a nice vacation day, Hilde!"

"You have a good day too."

When she heard her mother slam the front door, she slipped back into bed with the ring binder.

"I\'m going to dive down into the major\'s unconscious. That\'s where I\'ll be until we meet again."

There, yes. Hilde started reading again. She could feel under her right index finger that there were only a few pages left.

When Sophie left the major\'s cabin, she could still see some of the Disney figures at the water\'s edge, but they seemed to dissolve as she approached them. By the time she reached the boat they had all disappeared.

While she was rowing she made faces, and after she had pulled the boat up into the reeds on the other side she waved her arms about. She was working desperately to hold the major\'s attention so that Alberto could sit undisturbed in the cabin.

She danced along the path, hopping and skipping. Then she tried walking like a mechanical doll. To keep the major interested she began to sing as well. At one point she stood still, pondering what Alberta\'s plan could be. Catching herself, she got such a bad conscience that she started to climb a tree.

Sophie climbed as high as she could. When she was nearly at the top, she realized she could not get down. She decided to wait a little before trying again. But meanwhile she could not just stay quietly where she was. Then the major would get tired of watching her and would begin to interest himself in what Alberto was doing.

Sophie waved her arms, tried to crow like a rooster a couple of times, and finally began to yodel. It was the first time in her fifteen-year-old life that Sophie had yodeled.

All things considered, she was quite pleased with the result.

She tried once more to climb down but she was truly stuck. Suddenly a huge goose landed on one of the branches Sophie was clinging to. Having recently seen a whole swarm of Disney figures, Sophie was not in the least surprised when the goose began to speak.

"My name is Morten," said the goose. "Actually, I\'m a tame goose, but on this special occasion I have flown up from Lebanon with the wild geese. You look as if you could use some help getting down from this tree."

"You are much too small to help me," said Sophie.

"You are jumping to conclusions, young lady. It is you who are too big."

"It\'s the same thing, isn\'t it?"

"I would have you know I carried a peasant boy exactly your age all over Sweden. His name was Nils Hol-gersson."

"I am fifteen."

"And Nils was fourteen. A year one way or the other makes no difference to the freight."

"How did you manage to lift him?"

"I gave him a little slap and he passed out. When he woke up, he was no bigger than a thumb."

"Perhaps you could give me a little slap too, because I can\'t sit up here forever. And I\'m giving a philosophical garden party on Saturday."

"That\'s interesting. I presume this is a philosophy book, then. When I was flying over Sweden with Nils Holgers-son, we touched down on Marbacka in Varmland, where Nils met an old woman who was planning to write a book about Sweden for schoolchildren. It was to be both instructive and true, she said. When she heard about Nils\'s adventures, she decided to write a book about all the things he had seen on gooseback."

"That was very strange."

"To tell you the truth it was rather ironic, because we were already in that book."

Suddenly Sophie felt something slap her cheek and the next minute she had become no bigger than a thumb. The tree was like a whole forest and the goose was as big as a horse.

"Come on, then," said the goose.

Sophie walked along the branch and climbed up on the goose\'s back. Its feathers were soft, but now that she was so small, they pricked her more than they tickled.

As soon as she had settled comfortably the goose took off. They flew high above the treetops. Sophie looked down at the lake and the major\'s cabin. Inside sat Al-berto, laying his devious plans.

"A short sightseeing tour will have to be sufficient today," said the goose, flapping its wings again and again.

With that, it flew in to land at the foot of the tree which Sophie had so recently begun to climb. As the goose touched down Sophie tumbled onto the ground. After rolling around in the heather a few times, she sat up. She realized with amazement that she was her full size again.

The goose waddled around her a few times.

"Thanks a lot for your help," said Sophie.

"It was a mere bagatelle. Did you say this was a philosophy book?"

"No, that\'s what you said."

"Oh well, it\'s all the same. If it had been up to me, I would have liked to fly you through the whole history of philosophy just as I flew Nils Holgersson through Sweden. We could have circled over Miletus and Athens, Jerusalem and Alexandria, Rome and Florence, London and Paris, Jena and Heidelberg, Berlin and Copenhagen . . ."

"Thanks, that\'s enough."

"But flying across the centuries would have been a hefty job even for a very ironic goose. Crossing the Swedish provinces is far easier."

So saying, the goose ran a few steps and flapped itself into the air.

Sophie was exhausted, but when she crawled out of the den into the garden a little later she thought Alberto would have been well pleased with her diversionary maneuvers. The major could not have thought much about Alberto during the past hour. If he did, he had to have a severe case of split personality.

Sophie had just walked in the front door when her mother came home from work. That saved her having to describe her rescue from a tall tree by a tame goose.

After dinner they began to get everything ready for the garden party. They brought a four-meter-long table top and trestles from the attic and carried it into the garden.

They had planned to set out the long table under the fruit trees. The last time they had used the trestle table had been on Sophie\'s parents\' tenth anniversary. Sophie was only eight years old at the time, but she clearly remembered the big outdoor party with all their friends and relatives.

The weather report was as good as it could be. There had not been as much as a drop of rain since that horrid thunderstorm the day before Sophie\'s birthday. Nevertheless they decided to leave the actual table setting and decorating until Saturday morning.

Later that evening they baked two different kinds of bread. They were going to serve chicken and salad. And sodas. Sophie was worried that some of the boys in her class would bring beer. If there was one thing she was afraid of it was trouble.

As Sophie was going to bed, her mother asked her once again if Alberto was coming to the party.

"Of course he\'s coming. He has even promised to do a philosophical trick."

"A philosophical trick? What kind of trick is that?"

"No idea ... if he were a magician, he would have done a magic trick. He would probably have pulled a white rabbit out of a hat. . ."

"What, again?"

"But since he\'s a philosopher, he\'s going to do a philosophical trick instead. After all, it is a philosophical garden party. Are you planning to do something too?"

"Actually, I am."

"A speech?"

"I\'m not telling. Good night, Sophie!"

Early the next morning Sophie was woken up by her mother, who came in to say goodbye before she went to work. She gave Sophie a list of last-minute things to buy in town for the garden party.

The minute her mother had left the house, the telephone rang. It was Alberto. He had obviously found out exactly when Sophie was home alone.

"How is your secret coming along?"

"Ssh! Not a word. Don\'t even give him the chance to think about it."

"I think I held his attention yesterday "


"Is the philosophy course finished?"

"That\'s why I\'m calling. We\'re already in our own century. From now on you should be able to orient yourself on your own. The foundations were the most important. But we must nevertheless meet for a short talk about our own time "

"But I have to go to town . .  "

"That\'s excellent. I said it was our own time we had to talk about."


"So it would be most practical to meet in town, I mean."

"Shall I come to your place?"

"No, no, not here Everything\'s a mess. I\'ve been hunting for hidden microphones."


"There\'s a cafe that\'s just opened at the Main Square. Cafe Pierre. Do you know it?"

"Yes. When shall I be there?"

"Can we meet at twelve?"

"Okay. Bye!"

At a couple of minutes past twelve Sophie walked into Cafe Pierre. It was one of those new fashionable places with little round tables and black chairs, upturned vermouth bottles in dispensers, baguettes, and sandwiches.

The room was small, and the first thing Sophie noticed was that Alberto was not there. A lot of other people were sitting at the round tables, but Sophie saw only that Alberto was not among them.

She was not in the habit of going into cafes on her own. Should she just turn around and leave, and come back later to see if he had arrived?

She ordered a cup of lemon tea at the marble bar and sat down at one of the vacant tables. She stared at the door. People came and went all the time, but there was still no Alberto.

If only she had a newspaper!

As time passed, she started to look around. She got a couple of glances in return. For a moment Sophie felt like a young woman. She was only fifteen, but she could certainly have passed for seventeen--or at least, sixteen and a half.

She wondered what all these people thought about being alive. They looked as though they had simply dropped in, as though they had just sat down here by chance. They were all talking away, gesticulating vehemently, but it didn\'t look as though they were talking about anything that mattered.

She suddenly came to think of Kierkegaard, who had said that what characterized the crowd most was their idle chatter. Were all these people living at the aesthetic stage? Or was there something that was existentially important to them?

In one of his early letters to her Alberto had talked about the similarity between children and philosophers. She realized again that she was afraid of becoming an adult. Suppose she too ended up crawling deep down into the fur of the white rabbit that was pulled out of the universe\'s top hat!

She kept her eyes on the door. Suddenly Alberto walked in. Although it was midsummer, he was wearing a black beret and a gray hip-length coat of herringbone tweed. He hurried over to her. It felt very strange to meet him in public.

"It\'s quarter past twelve!"

"It\'s what is known as the academic quarter of an hour. Would you like a snack?"

He sat down and looked into her eyes. Sophie shrugged.

"Sure. A sandwich, maybe."

Alberto went up to the counter. He soon returned with a cup of coffee and two baguette sandwiches with cheese and ham.

"Was it expensive?"

 "A bagatelle, Sophie."

"Do you have any excuse at all for being late?"

"No. I did it on purpose. I\'ll explain why presently."

He took a few large bites of his sandwich. Then he said:

"Let\'s talk about our own century."

"Has anything of philosophical interest happened?"

"Lots ... movements are going off in all directions We\'ll start with one very important direction, and that is existentialism. This is a collective term for several philosophical currents that take man\'s existential situation as their point of departure. We generally talk of twentieth-century existential philosophy. Several of these existential philosophers, or existentialists, based their ideas not only on Kierkegaard, but on Hegel and Marx as well."


"Another important philosopher who had a great influence on the twentieth century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived from 1844 to 1900. He, too, reacted against Hegel\'s philosophy and the German \'historicism.\' He proposed life itself as a counterweight to the anemic interest in history and what he called the Christian \'slave morality.\' He sought to effect a \'revaluation of all values,\' so that the life force of the strongest should not be hampered by the weak. According to Nietzsche, both Christianity and traditional philosophy had turned away from the real world and pointed toward \'heaven\' or \'the world of ideas.\' But what had hitherto been considered the \'real\' world was in fact a pseudo world. \'Be true to the world,\' he said. \'Do not listen to those who offer you supernatural expectations.\' "

"So ... ?"

"A man who was influenced by both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was the German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. But we are going to concentrate on the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who lived from 1905 to 1980. He was the leading light among the existentialists--at least, to the broader public. His existentialism became especially popular in the forties, just after the war. Later on he allied himself with the Marxist movement in France, but he never became a member of any party."

"Is that why we are meeting in a French cafe?"

 "It was not quite accidental, I confess. Sartre himself spent a lot of time in cafes. He met his life-long companion Simone de Beauvoir in a cafe. She was also an existential philosopher."

"A woman philosopher?"

"That\'s right."

"What a relief that humanity is finally becoming civilized."

"Nevertheless, many new problems have arisen in our own time."

"You were going to talk about existentialism."

"Sartre said that \'existentialism is humanism.\' By that he meant that the existentialists start from nothing but humanity itself. I might add that the humanism he was referring to took a far bleaker view of the human situation than the humanism we met in the Renaissance."

"Why was that?"

"Both Kierkegaard and some of this century\'s existential philosophers were Christian. But Sartre\'s allegiance was to what we might call an atheistic existentialism. His philosophy can be seen as a merciless analysis of the human situation when \'God is dead.\' The expression \'God is dead\' came from Nietzsche."

"Go on."

"The key word in Sartre\'s philosophy, as in Kierkegaard\'s, is \'existence.\' But existence did not mean the same as being alive. Plants and animals are also alive, they exist, but they do not have to think about what it implies. Man is the only living creature that is conscious of its own existence. Sartre said that a material thing is simply \'in itself,\' but mankind is \'for itself.\' The being of man is therefore not the same as the being of things."

"I can\'t disagree with that."

"Sartre said that man\'s existence takes priority over whatever he might otherwise be. The fact that I exist takes priority over what I am. \'Existence takes priority over essence.\' "

"That was a very complicated statement."

"By essence we mean that which something consists of--the nature, or being, of something. But according to Sartre, man has no such innate \'nature.\' Man must therefore create himself. He must create his own nature or \'essence,\' because it is not fixed in advance."

"I think I see what you mean."

"Throughout the entire history of philosophy, philosophers have sought to discover what man is--or what human nature is. But Sartre believed that man has no such eternal \'nature\' to fall back on. It is therefore useless to search for the meaning of life in general. We are condemned to improvise. We are like actors dragged onto the stage without having learned our lines, with no script and no prompter to whisper stage directions to us. We must decide for ourselves how to live."

"That\'s true, actually. If one could just look in the Bible--or in a philosophy book--to find out how to live, it would be very practical."

"You\'ve got the point. When people realize they are alive and will one day die--and there is no meaning to cling to--they experience angst, said Sartre. You may recall that angst, a sense of dread, was also characteristic of Kierkegaard\'s description of a person in an existential situation."


"Sartre says that man feels a//en in a world without meaning. When he describes man\'s \'alienation,\' he is echoing the central ideas of Hegel and Marx. Man\'s feeling of alienation in the world creates a sense of despair, boredom, nausea, and absurdity."

"It is quite normal to feel depressed, or to feel that everything is just too boring."

"Yes, indeed. Sartre was describing the twentieth-century city dweller. You remember that the Renaissance humanists had drawn attention, almost triumphantly, to man\'s freedom and independence? Sartre experienced man\'s freedom as a curse. \'Man is condemned to be free,\' he said. \'Condemned because he has not created himself--and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.\' "

"But we haven\'t asked to be created as free individuals."

"That was precisely Sartre\'s point. Nevertheless we are free individuals, and this freedom condemns us to make choices throughout our lives. There are no eternal values or norms we can adhere to, which makes our choices even more significant. Because we are totally responsible for everything we do. Sartre emphasized that man must never disclaim the responsibility for his actions. Nor can we avoid the responsibility of making our own choices on the grounds that we \'must\' go to work, or we \'must\' live up to certain middle-class expectations regarding how we should live. Those who thus slip into the anonymous masses will never be other than members of the impersonal flock, having fled from themselves into self-deception. On the other hand our freedom obliges us to make something of ourselves, to live \'authentically\' or \'truly.\' "

"Yes, I see."

"This is not least the case as regards our ethical choices. We can never lay the blame on \'human nature,\' or \'human frailty\' or anything like that. Now and then it happens that grown men behave like pigs and then blame it on \'the old Adam.\' But there is no \'old Adam.\' He is merely a figure we clutch at to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions."

"There ought to be a limit to what man can be blamed for."

"Although Sartre claimed there was no innate meaning to life, he did not mean that nothing mattered. He was not what we call a nihilist."

"What is that?"

"That is a person who thinks nothing means anything and everything is permissible. Sartre believed that life must have meaning. It is an imperative. But it is we ourselves who must create this meaning in our own lives. To exist is to create your own life."

"Could you elaborate on that?" /"Sartre tried to prove that consciousness in itself is nothing until it has perceived something. Because consciousness is always conscious of something. And this \'something\' is provided just as much by ourselves as by our surroundings. We are partly instrumental in deciding what we perceive by selecting what is significant for us."

"Could you give me an example?"

"Two people can be present in the same room and yet experience it quite differently. This is because we contribute our own meaning--or our own interests--when we perceive our surroundings. A woman who is pregnant might think she sees other pregnant women everywhere she looks. That is not because there were no pregnant women before, but because now............
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