Monday, July 13, 2009

Shipwrecked on Strange Shores

Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1995), had the following observation, which has stuck with us since we came across it:

“The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” [about his own character and identity] and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost - he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.”

There are many things that strike us about this passage as absurd – the idea of the absurd being that life has no meaning and the absurd man recognizing this and celebrating the fact as liberating.

The first is the idea that our identities get in the way of the seeing the world for its absurd aspects. People often have very strong identities with groups. Religious people often identify strongly with a faith. Political people identify strongly with a political party or leader. But even on less visible levels, people latch on to all kinds of groups for a sense of meaning and purpose.

We have a friend who wears his Irish bloodlines on his sleeves. Even though he has never been to Ireland and both of his parents were born in the U.S., he somehow manages to work in a reminder somewhere in the conversation that he’s an Irish fellow. (Not that it would make a difference if he was born in Ireland, it’s just added details to heighten the absurdity of it).

And we all know people who wrap themselves up very much in what they do for a living, or what their hobby is, or in their families… even in their choice of music – think of all the fans of Michael Jackson mourning in the streets.

In a way, this sense of identity must be destroyed to see the absurd. You have to break this unthinking web of support. You have to see yourself as a defecating animal. (Try this next time you are nervous upon meeting someone: Imagine that person as a defecating animal. You will find that no matter how intimidating or how boundless is the authority of this person, he or she will be reduced to an ass-wiping clown in your mind’s eye! Works great for when you have speak in front of a group, too. Look at all those defecating animals out there!)

Admitting your “creatureliness” is also to come to grips with the idea that you will die – not just accepting the platitude that we all will die, but to really grasp it with two hands and face the idea fully that our existence here is fleeting.

You then start to see yourself as marooned, or as shipwrecked in Ortega y Gasset’s words. We really like these words… marooned, shipwrecked… they seem to be good analogies for what we face. Those support groups, stripped away, let us see ourselves more clearly as alone on an island.

It seems frightening, and we suspect that many people can’t “go all the way” with the absurd because this sense of being alone, devoid of the meaning and purpose found nominally in groups, is too frightening. These identities and groups all help hide the fact that we are defecating animals that will die one day.

But, as we’ve been pointing out again and again, we find this truth very liberating. It means we can enjoy the spectacle of the world – and it is quite a spectacle – without taking on the anxieties that come with thinking it has any meaning. We can, in other words, play the game cheerfully, because we know the results don’t matter. We can just “be,” enjoying our time as marooned or shipwrecked adventurers, washed up on strange shores…


  1. Very nicely stated, Inigo Montoya. Thank you for you insightful commentary (and the image of an audience of defecating animals). Seriously, thanks.

  2. Could you post the reference to the quote at the beginning?