Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Double Helix And The Absurd

A reader posed a couple of questions that go us thinking…

He asked: “You have said that whatever we do doesn't matter… [However], I feel all people who have contributed to [the present] kept some goals and worked accordingly right? Does that not conflict with the absurd?”

First things first…

First, we can imagine an absurd man doing just about anything – writer, doctor, construction worker, plumber, whatever. It’s really about awareness and acceptance of the absurd. A writer can be absurd and anti-absurd. A doctor can be absurd or anti-absurd.

Besides this, the only other key leg of the table of absurdity is that the absurd man does not wish to take away from others the freedom he cherishes for himself. (As Camus put it, with his usual style, in the Rebel: “The freedom which he demands he claims for everybody; that which he rejects he forbids all others to exercise. He is not simply a slave opposing his master but a man opposing the world of master and slave.”) For this reason, we can’t imagine, say, a murderous despot as absurd even if he agrees that nothing matters.

With this groundwork, it’s easy to see that just because you create something that outlasts you doesn’t mean you can’t be absurd. The absurd man does nothing for the eternal, Camus says somewhere, which is another way of saying that the absurd man rejects the sacrifice of present happiness for some abstract promise of future happiness (or happiness beyond death).

This doesn’t mean the absurd man – lacking grand life goals, living in the present – can’t create things that outlast him. It doesn’t mean he can’t advance the body of human knowledge. In fact, in our experience and studies, we find lots of scientists are actually quite absurd.

Take Watson and Crick, who discovered the Double Helix structure of DNA, as described in Richard Ogle’s book Smart World:

“At times the two central protagonists behaved like people whose day job was working up skits for Monty Python....they had distinctly lackadaisical work habits. Watson played several sets of tennis every afternoon and spent his evenings alternately chasing 'popsies' at Cambridge parties and going to the movies. Crick, who rarely showed up at the lab before 10 AM and took a coffee break an hour later, repeatedly appeared to lose interest in the problem of DNA. On more than one occasion, vital pieces of information were obtained not through hard work but as a result of chance conversations in the tea line at the Cavendish laboratory.”

Is that great or what? Is that not the portrait of two absurd men? We don’t know enough about Crick and Watson to say whether they were really absurd men or not, but his snippet by Ogle is a great snapshot of absurd men in action.

Scientists in general, as we say, are often absurd. They are, after all, at the frontier of absurdity. They know how little we know. Every answer simply raises new questions. They are fully aware of how small we are in this great big universe and how that great big universe doesn’t give a rat’s behind about humanity.

In the end, science affirms the absurd in many ways.

Monday, September 28, 2009

To Live Without Hope (And Not Despair)

“Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions.”

- Henry Miller, The Cosmological Eye

We puzzled over this idea about hope when we first read it some years ago. Miller was one of those who helped nudge us along the path of absurdity.

But we’ve since learned what Miller was talking about. And he is not alone. Nietzsche went so far as to write that “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of men.” And Albert Camus wrote that carrying absurd logic to its conclusion “implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair.)”

Camus parenthetic comment is key. Lack of hope doesn’t mean despair. The absurd man accepts the world as he sees it and finds happiness in whatever circumstances he finds himself in. (Easier said than done, we know). For the absurd man, happiness is about being aware of and accepting the absurdity of existence (the meaninglessness of it all).

Accepting is also key. Miller says as much, later on: “I am absolutely indifferent to the fate of the world… I accept. I am – and that is all.” To live without hope is to not make unrealistic demands of life. It is to “live without myths, without consolation” as Camus put it.

Happiness, in a sense then, is more about fitting your foot to the shoe of the world rather than the other way around. Hope – or wishing things were otherwise – would seem to be an emotion counter to that line of thinking.

In thinking about hope, we wondered too about all kinds of anti-absurd emotions. Envy, for instance, becomes a rather ridiculous emotion in light of the absurd. Self-pity is another. It reminds us of the D.H. Lawrence poem of the same name:

“I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.”

Only man creates these problems for himself, it seems. The good news is that we have some control over those emotions. And we can develop better controls over time, like a hot-tempered youth that learns to curb his anger. Ultimately, casting these anti-absurd emotions aside is freeing, in the same way the absurd idea itself is liberating.

Camus had a poetic point about absurd freedom in Myth of Sisyphus, and we’ll end with that:

“Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one's own scale? Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd? Let's make a final effort in this regard and draw all our conclusions. The body, affection, creation, action, human nobility will then resume their places in this mad world. At last man will again find there the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference on which he feeds his greatness.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Earth The Only Heaven

We find the absurd fascinating on so many levels. Even though there are just a handful of themes that seem to run through this blog, there are so many ways to get at the same insights and so many different examples of the absurd. We also find it refreshing to hear other voices arrive at the same conclusions that we do, especially when they come from across some distance of time and space.

We like to highlight examples of absurdist thinking on this blog, as we learn something from each of them. So in that spirit, let’s take a quick look at a Chinese writer named Lin Yutang (1895-1976) who wrote an entertaining book called The Importance of Living, published in English in 1937. (We have an original hardcover of this book, which is not expensive used. If you should choose to read it, we’d recommend this edition as later editions were hacked by editors who clipped Yutang’s wonderful subheads.)

We read the book long ago, but pulled it out again and started to read some choice passages. The book is not wholly absurd, nor is Lin Yutang. But, we were delighted to find so much absurdity in it. So this is why we kept this book all these years!

In the course of several of his discussions about all manner of things, Yutang states the absurd man’s position with great clarity. To wit, under a section that carries the subhead “This Earth The Only Heaven”:

“Belief in our mortality, the sense that we are eventually going to crack up and be extinguished like the flame of a candle, I say, is a gloriously fine thing… For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try harder to enjoy it while it lasts. A vague hope of immortality detracts from our whole-hearted enjoyment of this earthly existence.”

This is a pretty good capsule of absurdist thought. The absurd man looks at his mortality and the meaningless nature of existence, but instead of despairing, he lives life all the more passionately because of that insight. The absurd man focuses on the present and rejects any creed that surrenders present happiness to beliefs that assure happiness in some future beyond the door of his death.

The key question, then, is how to live in the present given man’s absurd predicament? This is a question we like to wrestle with here on this blog. As Yutang writes, life becomes a simple proposition. It’s all about living as best you can in whatever circumstances you find yourself in.

Yutang goes on to mention that this outlook is in the spirit of Santayana’s idea of “animal faith.” Animal faith is taking life as it is, as do the other animals. We liked this idea, because it gets to a point we’ve made before – that we, too, are still only defecating animals. Most people seem loathe to admit or confront our basic creatureliness, and put up many screens to hide that fact. Yet we remain, after all, simians in a simian world.

Yutang also talks about how an inner calm “is only possible when man is not disturbed by the vicissitudes of fortune… One must start out with the belief that there are no catastrophes in this world.”

Again, we were pleased to find this passage. It is such an absurd view. If nothing matters, then we should not allow “bad” outcomes to throw us. Of course, we are human and it is not easy to overcome our emotions. But awareness of the absurd goes a long way, we think, in helping us overcome those emotions.

As Yutang says:

“Evidently, this kind of philosophy enables a man to stand a few hard knocks in life… calm is possible with this kind of philosophy, a philosophy which says Nothing matters to a man who says nothing matters.” [Italics in the original].

That man is the absurd man.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Why are you afraid to die?

Well, you are, aren't you? Most people are, despite the fact that it is by definition an irrational fear. Put simply, those who believe in an afterlife expect to go to a "better place," while those who believe there is nothing beyond the physical world expect existence to cease--neither of which should be a particularly frightening prospect. (As the ancient philosopher Epicurus wrote, "When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.)

The fear, of course, comes from the singularly unknown quantity of death. Much as children fear mysterious "monsters" in their closet rather than, say, lions or bears, it is the unknown that makes our skin crawl, keeps us up at night, and causes us to cover our eyes when the innocent girl goes into the dark basement in a horror movie. This is why the scariest horror movies, paradoxically, are typically those that show the least amount of violence. It is much more frightening to see the girl go into the basement and hear her scream--i.e., let our imaginations run wild--than to witness whatever is actually happening. Thus with death, which is unique in that while we will all experience it, there exists not a single person to tell us what to expect.

Interestingly, many people say they are not afraid to die, but simply don't want to die yet. While we have sympathy for such a view, we think most people who say such things are deluding themselves. Put a different way, while the absurd man makes a conscious decision to live rather than die, he also accepts that all is meaningless, and thus does not particularly care when or how he dies. While he does not seek death, neither does he shrink from it. Those who have not made such a choice, on the other hand, see death as something to be avoided at all costs, even if this is consciously expressed simply as a desire to not die yet.

As the incomparable Ernest Becker put it in his classic The Denial of Death: "The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity--activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man."

This, of course, cuts right to the heart of the absurd struggle, which is that humans are the only animals capable of contemplating their own demise (and irrelevance). The truth that we will all die, that the physical world is all there is, and that everything we do is of no consequence whatsoever...well, it is easy to see why humans have evolved sophisticated defense mechanisms (such as religion) to keep these thoughts well-buried in the psyche.

As Becker noted: "It is hard for a man to work steadfastly when his work can mean no more than the digestive noises, wind-breakings, and cries of dinosaurs--noises now silenced forever." Indeed, it is one thing to say you do not fear death; quite another to agree that all of human achievement is in fact of no more consequence than dinosaur droppings.

Finally, we came across an interesting piece in the Financial Times recently that addressed this very issue. As the author (Stephen Cave) put it: "The fact of death imbues our life with passion and urgency, but it is that very passion for life that makes death tragic. Our eye on the reaper’s hourglass prompts us to strive for our highest achievements; but that very striving means that when he comes knocking, it is always too soon."

This is the delicate balance for which the absurd man strives--to live with passion while never losing sight of the meaningless of it all. This is the ultimate (and never-ending) struggle for which he chooses life over death--the rebellion against his knowledge that all is futile, and his commitment to live as if things matter...even when he knows they do not.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The fallacy of event-based epiphanies

A couple of months ago, we referenced a column by Tim Kreider in which he recounted a near-death experience (he was stabbed in the neck) and subsequent epiphany. In short, Kreider found the experience caused him to appreciate the joy of simply being alive (i.e., the absurd) for about a year, after which "the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back."

We imagine this is a fairly common occurrence for people who experience such "event-based epiphanies." The reason, of course, is that such revelations are not revelations at all, but rather yet another thread in the internal "story" we each construct about ourselves. As such, they do not actually change the structure of one's thinking, but instead cause one to morph into (for example) "someone who is always happy because he was stabbed in the neck and now understands the inconsequential nature of life."

Said a different way, someone who experiences an event-based epiphany does not (usually) accept that the concept of identity is an illusion, but rather posits he is a more enlightened individual because of his personal experience. This is quite a different thing. In fact, in that the transforming event is the memory of something that happened to you, such events actually reinforce the concept of identity. Thus, it is easy to see how such epiphanies would fade. Kreider's experience strikes us as typical--as the event receded into his past, he assigned less and less importance to it (much as sports fans are less interested in how their team fared 20 years ago than how they did last night).

One who comes to believe life is meaningless due to an event becomes reliant on the memory of that event to maintain his perspective. As the memory fades (and the event becomes more abstract) so will this individual's perspective. Indeed, it is a cliche that people at funerals--particularly those for younger individuals who died unexpectedly--talk earnestly and compellingly about how the death has been a "wake-up call" for them, and from here on out they will "live every day as if it were their last," or some other such platitude. And yet...the number of people who actually subscribe to this view on a consistent basis is far smaller than the number who express such views at funerals.

Our point here is not to disparage those who believe an event has transformed them in some fundamental way, but rather to point out that such feelings are (almost always) a mirage rather than a true epiphany, and will fade with the passage of time. People who experience such "revelations" are no different from those (for example) who believe their personal experiences make them well-qualified to opine on broad matters of public policy. (E.g., the individual who says he supports health care reform because his mother had cancer, or family members of terrorist victims who opine on the "best" ways to keep people safe.)

But we digress. The bottom line is that event-based epiphanies are not what they seem. Those who experience them believe for all the world that their perspective has changed forever, and they will henceforth live according to a different code. But almost without fail (there are, of course, exceptions), such individuals slide back, as Kreider did, to their previous state of worry and regret. This is because the epiphany was not real--rather than showing them the fallacy of the self, and thus the meaninglessness of life, the event actually reinforced their own view of themselves.

Event-based epiphanies are false.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Absurd Traveler

We like to travel. We like to experience new things, to see new places… but it was only recently that we thought about the absurd elements of travel.

First, to set the stage… You can come to discover the absurd – that life is essentially meaningless – in a number of ways. One way, is when you begin to question the value of your routines. So, you get up and go to work every day. Monday turns into Tuesday and then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and on and on. Then you ask “Why?” And then the absurd suggests itself. (Albert Camus called these episodes “intimations of the absurd” – as when you become keenly aware of your own inevitable death.)

The absurd, as we’ve pointed out, is that essential confrontation between a mind that seeks meaning and coherence against the opaque and irrationality of the greater universe.

Much of what passes for society is a mask to disguise the true absurd nature of our existence. The routines of our daily existence are screens to cover the meaningless nature of it all. We lose ourselves in these routines – the going to work, the coming home, the meals, the sleep and then the cycle starts all over again…. And again and again….

Travel brings out the absurd, we find, because it destroys – at least for awhile – the screens of routine. It is especially true when you travel to a new place, where you truly feel alien.

In our line of work, we find ourselves traveling to very unfamiliar locations on occasion… We have ridden camels in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula… rode horses across the pampas of Argentina… and elephants in the Pink City of Jaipur, India… We have walked the Great Wall of China and gazed in the reflecting pools of the Taj Mahal…

In all these experiences, one can’t help but wonder about the world and our small place in it. We feel truly as a stranger in a strange land. In these places, we are ignorant of the language and the cities are mysteries. It is, in microcosm, what we all must feel when we contemplate the larger universe and galaxies far from our own.

When you look upon the Andes, or contemplate the vastness of the desert and the canopy of stars above your head, you can’t help but feel small. The summers rolls into autumn, which become winter and gives way to spring… and on and on whether you are here or not. The mountains and rivers have been here long before you and will be here long after you. They are breathtakingly beautiful… but there is also this subtext of indifference that reminds you of the absurd. Your own mortality and transience is as clear as day.

Somehow, this makes it easier to accept. The affairs of men seem quite meaningless against such timelessness. At the same time, though, it takes some courage to accept the absurd head-on, without the need to hide it behind routine or create other means to dilute its stark power.

Yet accepting the absurd does not mean retreating into a shell. It means one lives all the more passionately because of its short span. A life is but the time after birth and before death. When viewed against time as measured by the mountains and rivers and deserts, it is but the blink of an eye.

As Camus wrote, “there are only rocks, the flesh, stars and those truths which the hand can touch.” All else is mere hypothesis. The absurd man chooses to live with what is real, what he can touch.

The traveler, then, in his quest for new experiences and new vistas is another living example of the absurd man.

When we visited the Taj Mahal in India, we stayed at the Oberoi Amarvilas, one of the finest hotels in all the world. It urged its guests toward the absurd perspective, though, with a promotional video played in the rooms that uses the song by FC/Kahuna called “Kayling.” The key verse says: “Don’t think about all those things you fear and just be glad to be here…”

Indeed, just be glad to be here…

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An absurd parable

“When I grew older and opened my eyes and contemplated the real world, I had to laugh, and have not ceased laughing, ever since. I beheld the meaning of life was to make a living... I saw that and laughed.”

- Soren Kierkegaard

Inigo walked along the shifting sands of Arabia. The sun was hot on his skin; the air, like ashes. Then, he saw a small cave. He ducked in, enjoying the cool respite from the sun’s daggers.

Inside, he caught a glimmer of light in the corner of the cave. It was a small golden lamp, half-buried in sandy gravel. He picked it up and with the bottom of his shirt, polished the dust from the lamp. Poof!

Before him appears a genie, big and broad of shoulder, beak-like nose, deep set eyes and coal black hair tied behind his back. The genie thanked Inigo for freeing him. He spoke in a deep voice which echoed throughout the cavern. Then he said this:

“For your troubles, I grant you one wish. You can have anything you want. Power. Money. Fame. Beautiful women. Long life. Whatever you want. But you must choose only one thing.”

Inigo was at first, taken aback. But then he began to thoughtfully entertain the genie’s offer. He addressed the genie this way: “I wish that I may always have the laughs on my side.”

The genie paused, a quizzical look came over his face. Then he laughed. He laughed a loud, rolling, hearty belly-laugh.

And Inigo realized that he had the power of his wish all along. And at that, he, too, laughs…

(Inspired by a similar tale told by Soren Kierkegaard)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Playing a role

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)--Walt Whitman

We have written in the past about viewing life as a role in a play. To us, such an outlook is the embodiment of the absurd, as it places experiences in their proper context. Said a different way, if nothing has any ultimate meaning, then one's actions in "real life" are no more (or less) consequential than those performed by actors in a play, despite the feeling that one "matters" and one doesn't.

Think about this for a minute. Consider why you believe one set of actions (those performed by the "real" you) are more significant than those you perform as an actor. If you spend enough time thinking this through, you will realize all the "consequences" of the former are but ripples on an infinite ocean of nothingness.

Along these lines, we recently came across a fascinating article about a man with a rare form of amnesia. Much like Jason Bourne, this individual (Edward Lighthart) has no idea "who" he is, and few memories of his prior life. According to the story, "Lighthart still doesn't know who he is, and is frightened over whether he will ever be reconciled with the man people say he is. 'The crux of the matter of who I really am isn't there yet,' he said in an often-emotional interview with The Associated Press on Monday. 'And I'm not sure that its going to come back. This is one of the frightening things.'...He says he still has no idea how he got to Seattle, only recalling several peaceful days in the park spent gazing at the trees and sky."

There is a lot here, so let's unpack it slowly. First, consider the claim that he doesn't know "who" he is. What exactly does this mean? To begin with, the concept of identity is fraught with difficulties--as discussed elsewhere, one cannot accept both that the world is entirely physical and that there is a separate self. Thus, the concept that there is some "I" associated with Lighthart assumes the existence of some as-yet-undiscovered mystical plane of existence.

But even setting this aside, we wonder to which "I" Lighthart refers. Is it the "I" that existed three months ago? Six months? How about 10 years? Yes, of course we know the answer - he wants to "be" whoever he was before he lost his memory. But this does not solve the riddle. What if (for example) Lighthart suffered a brain injury six years ago that completely changed his personality (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage). Which "self" would be the real Lighthart?

Clearly this all comes back to the ephemeral nature of the self, which seems so incredibly real, yet cannot exist in a purely physical world. (Where, for example, would it reside? How would you reconcile different versions of your "self" at different stages of your life? What happens to it when you die?) Douglas Hofstadter compared the self to a sealed packet that feels for all the world like it has a marble in the center. No matter how you touch it, the marble is clearly there. Yet when you finally open the packet, it turns out it was simply a stack of envelopes, and what you felt what the bump in the middle formed by the envelopes' "V".

To bring this full circle, our rejection of the self leads us to view life as a play, albeit a long-running and unscripted one. (Determinism, i.e. the view that in a purely physical world all is preordained, would of course argue against the second point [and free will in general]. That is beyond the scope of this post, but we will address this issue in the future.) Thus, rather than invest our actions with some sort of imaginary significance, we simply view ourselves as playing a role in this theater of the absurd (pun fully intended).

Indeed, we actually find playing more than one role is an excellent way to keep the absurd perspective. It is much easier to maintain a peaceful outlook when there is no single "I" to be offended, angry, or hurt. A belief that things "matter" is inexorably tied to the image of the self; eliminate the self and you eliminate the pain caused by believing things matter "to you." Thus, we play several different roles, none more or less consequential than another.

One final point. According to the story, despite not knowing "who" he was in the past, Lighthart nevertheless views his old "self" as preferable to the person that spent "several peaceful days in the park...gazing at the trees and sky." Are we the only ones to find this odd (and incredibly sad)? Put simply, is our hunger for self-hood so powerful we are willing to give up anything, including happiness, to achieve it?

Absurd flotsam and jetsam

Just a couple of things we thought we’d share. We are fascinated how people have been writing and thinking about man’s absurd condition for centuries. Today we present a couple of older passages of absurdity worth pondering.

Soren Kierkegaard is one philosopher who wrestled with the absurd – man’s desiring against an indifferent universe. Kierkegaard turned to faith, but his grasp of the absurd was as clear as anybody’s. Give this a look, from a student sermon Kierkegaard delivered in 1841, an account of emotions and questions that give rise to stepping over to absurdity.

“Was there not a time also in your consciousness, my listener, when cheerfully and without a care you were glad with the glad, when you wept with those who wept, when the thought of God blended irrelevantly with your other conceptions, blended with your happiness but did not sanctify it, blended with your grief but did not comfort it? And later was there not a time when this in some sense guiltless life, which never called itself to account, vanished? Did there not come a time when your mind was unfruitful and sterile, your will incapable of all good, your emotions cold and weak, when hope was dead in your breast, and recollection painfully clutched at a few solitary memories of happiness and soon these also became loathsome, when everything was of no consequence to you, and the secular bases of comfort found their way to your soul only to wound even more your troubled mind, which impatiently and bitterly turned away from them? Was there not a time when you found no one to whom you could turn, when the darkness of quiet despair brooded over your soul, and you did not have the courage to let it go but would rather hang onto it and you even brooded once more over your despair? When heaven was shut for you, and the prayer died on your lips, or it became a shriek of anxiety that demanded an accounting from heaven, and yet you sometimes found within you a longing, an intimation to which you might ascribe meaning, but this was soon crushed by the thought that you were a nothing and your soul lost in infinite space? Was there not a time when you felt that the world did not understand your grief, could not heal it, could not give you any peace, that this had to be in heaven, if heaven was anywhere to be found; alas it seemed to you that the distance between heaven and earth was infinite, and just as you yourself lost yourself in contemplating the immeasurable world, just so God had forgotten you and did not care about you? And in spite of all this, was there not a defiance in you that forbade you to humble yourself under God’s mighty hand?”

Also, yesterday, we wrote about Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas, which is a little gem of absurdity in many ways. Here is another clear exposition of the absurd condition of man, from Rasselas:

"What," said he, "makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation? Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporeal necessities with myself; he is hungry and crops the grass; he is thirsty and drinks the stream; his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied and sleeps; he rises again and is hungry; he is again fed and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty, like him, but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest. I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness."

The novel is a short one at only 140 pages or so and is available free on Google books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The absurd and the quest for happiness

This month is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, an occasion which seems to have led to several pieces about Johnson appearing in the media. This post was inspired by a column by Charles Pierce titled “On the Quest for Happiness” in which he explores Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas.

The novel is the story of Rasselas, a young prince of Abyssinia, who is not happy even though he seems to have everything. So, he leaves Abyssinia with his sister, Nekayah, and a philosopher named Imlac. The book is essentially about their quest, as Rasselas is in search of the meaning of existence and the source of happiness.

“I have here the world before me; I will review it at leisure: surely happiness is somewhere to be found” Rasselas says. On this quest, the trio meets all kinds of people – shepherds, hermits, an astronomer and others. And they question these people about their lives in their search for happiness.

In the course of this quest, there is some interesting philosophical banter between the various characters. For instance, at one point in the novel, Rasselas and Nekayah discuss the merits of marriage. Rasselas openly wonders whether anyone should get married. “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures,” he says. (This was in 1759, keep in mind.)

Anyway, in talking with the people they meet, they find that no one has a bead on what happiness is. Rasselas also sees great disparities in how people live and he sees a spectrum of human behavior (violence, madness, etc.), which the naïve prince seemed otherwise unaware of.

In the end, of course, they don’t find happiness and return to Abyssinia. Johnson has his wise philosopher Imlac come to a pessimistic conclusion, mirroring Johnson’s own disillusionment with his own life. “Life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed,” is Imlac’s credo.

Here, let’s turn it over to Pierce, who writes in his column:

“The last chapter is called "The Conclusion in Which Nothing Is Concluded." It is a witty but misleading title because Johnson, in fact, implies a more definite—albeit absurdist—view of life than his chapter heading suggests. He seeks to dramatize that the travelers have at last realized that there is no single choice of life that will satisfy them. The nature of desire makes the acquisition of happiness impossible. As he observed in one of his essays: "we desire, we pursue, we obtain, we are satiated; we desire something else and begin a new pursuit."

This is the tragic cycle to which we are all subjected. This is the view of life that inspired Samuel Beckett to write a play, never completed, about Johnson. But Johnson also meant to affirm that we must not abandon our quest for happiness. On the contrary, for us to remain healthy, productive and sane, we must continue our quest. In Imlac's words, we must be willing "to commit ourselves to the current of the world." And this is the absurdist predicament in which the travelers find themselves at the end of this philosophic tale. They recognize that no single choice of life will ever make them happy, but that they must continue the journey of life.”

We come to a more optimistic conclusion than Johnson because we believe one can find happiness in an absurd world by accepting the meaningless nature of our existence. In other words, we think one can break that tragic cycle of pursuit.

Happiness is a process; it is the journey itself, not the destination and not in things. It is Sisyphus pushing his rock and being happy to be alive and aware of the absurdity of his task. The absurd man finds the insight freeing, as we’ve often pointed out.

The absurd man admits that life has no meaning, but continues living anyway – and living all the more free and full of passion as a result. The absurd man cherishes his awareness of the absurd and does not try to make it something else or cover it up.

He tries not to do what Imlac sees most people do, which is to forget the absurdity of man’s visions for himself. “Such,” said Imlac “are the effects of visionary schemes: when we first form them, we know them to be absurd, but familiarize them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”

The absurd man doesn’t want to lose sight of that folly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Solar System Might Be "Undigested Sweetcorn"

Tipped to us by a reader, we found a story that begins with a headline that strikes us as very absurd, in the philosophical sense.

“Contemplating the scale of the universe makes a mockery of household chores” it begins, with the subhead: “News that the galaxy Andromeda is eating stars makes it hard to care about putting out the rubbish.”

We love stories like this, because they affirm the absurd perspective again. It seems ridiculous to worry or fret over much of anything that happens on this planet when you think about the bigger picture. Of course, being soft and emotional animals, we can’t help ourselves most of the time. It doesn’t help that we live on a planet full of people who take everything very seriously.

For instance, the wife yesterday was quite upset that somehow our daughter’s favorite pants got bleached out in a few spots. She came into our study and declared: “I am so pissed off about the laundry.” As we were feeling very absurd at that moment, since were noodling around on this blog – which we quickly covered up lest we blow Inigo’s cover - we looked at her like she was mad.

Then we took on the sympathetic role and she proceeded to tell us the story. After she left, we wondered again how little sense it made to worry at all about such things. Really, what is the point? The very fact we are here at all is a complete and happy accident. Just being alive is really the key joy, and ought to be.

Anyway, this a snippet from the story:

“…a group of astronomers has decided that the Andromeda galaxy is expanding by "eating" stars from neighbouring galaxies. Having studied Andromeda's outskirts in great detail, they discovered the fringes contained "remnants of dwarf galaxies".

It took me a couple of reads to establish that Andromeda wasn't literally chewing its way through the universe like a giant intergalactic Pac-Man, and that the "remnants of dwarf galaxies" were living stars, not the immense galactic stools I'd envisaged. That was what had really frightened me: the notion that our entire solar system might be nothing more than a chunk of undigested sweetcorn in some turgid celestial bowel movement; that maybe black holes are actually almighty cosmological sphincters, squeezing solid waste into our dimension. What if the entire universe as we know it is essentially one big festival toilet?”

A great read, you’ll find the whole thing here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Evolution, God and the Absurd

Over the weekend, we the “Man vs. God” piece on the front page of the Weekend Journal of the Wall Street Journal, the subtitle of which ran “Two prominent thinkers debate evolution, science and the role of religion.” There were two columns. One was by Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene and a tireless defender of evolution against the creationists. The other was by Karen Armstrong, author of a variety of books on theology.

Evolution, as we’ve noted, boosts the absurd view of the world as indifferent and our existence as without meaning. Oddly, it is the theological Armstrong who states the case clearly in the beginning of her piece:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making.”

The rest of Armstrong’s piece was weak beer. It seemed a gooey effort to try and make religion like painting or music, and therefore an art form and somehow beyond reason. But these opening lines are a pretty good start on the absurd path as it admits life is essentially an accident, a result of a blind process. From there, you are only a few steps from absurdity.

Dawkins’ essay made a good point near the end, which also touches on the absurd, in particular those who acknowledge the absurd, but insist on creating meaning anyway. I’ll quote from Dawkins here, as this is worth thinking about:

“Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.”

On this blog, we’ve had comments whereby people admit that the life has no meaning, but then go on to say that that insight is not important. What is important is whether meaning exists on a personal level, echoing Dawkins’ theologian. “If meaning is real for you, who cares whether there is or isn’t meaning on an objective level.”

We’ve long maintained that is a very slippery slope, at best, and flat out contradictory and wrong, at worst. It seems to us if you accept the absurd premise that life is essentially meaningless, then you can’t pretend that you can carve out an exception for yourself. That is the equivalent of recognizing evolution as true, but then insisting in some way that God did create you.

Anyway, these are just a few reactions to the columns. You can find the whole of Armstrong and Dawkins here.

The fallacy of achievement

We have taken great pains in this blog to point out what we see as one of the easiest and most destructive traps for people to fall into--namely, the sense that "things" (be they objects, relationships, or achievements) will make you happy. Such striving, while endlessly praised in Western (and increasingly Eastern) society, is, in our opinion, the main source of suffering for human beings.

Put simply, the man who relies on external objects or events to be happy will never be satisfied, as the high from achieving one goal will eventually morph into angst about something new. Got good grades in school? Great. Where are you going to college? Grad school? How about that first job? Promotion? And on and on and on.

Nevertheless, many people dismiss such concerns, stating that if only they could have...this job, or that spouse, or those children...then they would be happy. Thus, we found it fascinating to watch Michael Jordan's acceptance speech into the Hall of Fame last week. In a nutshell, Jordan--considered by many the best to ever play the game--used his speech as an opportunity to build himself up and tear foes down. As Yahoo columnist Adrian Wojnarowski put it: "When basketball wanted to celebrate Jordan as the greatest player ever, wanted to honor him for changing basketball everywhere, he was petty and punitive....Once and for all, Michael: It’s over. You won."

What is so fascinating is that despite this clear evidence that Jordan is, at root, an unhappy person, we have no doubt most people would jump at the chance to switch places with him, confident they would appreciate what should be, based on the standards of Western society, a very satisfying life. Yet what is missing in this analysis is that you cannot separate Jordan the superstar from Jordan the vindictive anti-hero. In other words, Jordan became "great" because of his legendary will to win at all costs--it is, in short, an integral part of "who" he believes himself to be. Thus the terrible irony that this character trait both drove him to greatness and prevents him from being happy.

The obvious lesson is that true happiness comes not from external "stuff," but rather from within. As Pico Iyer put it in a recent NY Times piece on remembering 9/11, he has met many "cheerful people" in his travels. "But if that cheer is genuine, I’m not sure if they’d be feeling better or worse now than they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Only more compassionate, perhaps. Looking to our circumstances for strength, solace or support is like dancing at the edge of a very deep grave."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Winston Churchill, anti-absurd man

Sometimes it is useful to define something not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it isn’t. There is the absurd man and then there is the anti-absurd man.

The absurd man is free in his knowledge that life has no meaning. He lives in the present moment and remains unconcerned about his legacy… and then there is the anti-absurd man. The anti-absurd man invests his existence with great meaning, worries about the future and is very concerned about his legacy.

We therefore nominate Winston Churchill as the anti-absurd man. We thought about this after reading Max Hasting’s “Man of War” in the Financial Times over the weekend. Hastings, who has a new book coming out called Winston’s War, comments: “[Churchill] believed that destiny had marked him to be the savior of western civilization and this conviction infused his every word and deed.”

A more anti-absurd outlook can scarcely be imagined. We submit that such people thinking such thoughts are very dangerous for the rest of us – at least those of us who want to be pretty much left alone to work out our own path in life.

(This reminds us of D.H. Lawrence’s observation that only robots start revolutions because real people are too busy living their lives. And the Tang dynasty poets and sages often taught that public life was inane and futile and without significance.)

All of this busyness about interfering with other people’s lives seems to lie at the root of much human misery and angst, and, at its worst, bloodshed.

It is hard to imagine WWII, for example, in a world of absurd men. The bombing of Pearl Harbor would have been impossible if the Japanese were absurd. Japanese aggression had its roots in a race-superiority ethos, a belief in the godliness of their emperor and a sort of Japanese manifest destiny. The absurd man would’ve seen through all this nonsense and unreality. He would’ve stayed at home tending his rice paddy, enjoying the warmth of the sun, the sound of his children playing at his feet and pondering what he might have for lunch that day.

It is rather hard to imagine the wide scale bloodshed of the 20th century if the world were even half peopled with absurd fellows.

On this question of how the absurd man values life – which might seem contradictory given the absurd view that life is meaningless – we quote from the ever eloquent Camus. In The Rebel, Camus says: “The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises… it is obvious that absurdism hereby admits that human life is the only necessary good since it is precisely life that makes this encounter possible and since, without life, the absurdist wager would have no basis….”

So, the absurd man values life. And this value judgment makes the casual handling of lives by men in power all the more offensive to absurd sensibilities. We think this aggrandizement and hero worship of such public personalities is also a sort of screen to cover the bare naked realities of our existence. It masks our essential creatureliness, the fact that we are defecating animals, inconsequential, marooned on this blue planet, in a vast and indifferent universe.

It is true that the absurd has a way of tearing down some of our notions about heroes, but is that such a bad thing? The absurd view sees the labors of the baker or the grocer or delivery man on the same level as the general and the president – which is to say one is of no greater importance or significance than any other.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keeping perspective

We were on a plane the other day and happened to have a window seat. As a result, we spent a good deal of time watching the houses, cars, trees, etc recede (as we ascended) and come back into view as we landed. We imagine many people have experienced the unusual feeling of detachment that comes from this - basically, the sense that all our worldly concerns seem ridiculous when we see how small we actually are. The cars and houses look like toys, and the people (when you can see them) like ants - the feeling that everything happening "down there" is irrelevant can be incredibly powerful.

This, of course, is what the absurd is all about, but what we want to focus on today is how to keep that feeling of detachment when you are not at 30,000 feet. In fact, we consider this to be one of the most critical aspects of the absurd. How do you keep your perspective when you are not only predisposed by genetics to non-absurdity, but also surrounded (for the most part) by people who are not absurd?

It would be nice if there were some sort of soundbite answer for this. Unfortunately, it is a great deal easier to recognize the absurd than it is to maintain this perspective on a day-to-day basis. One can, of course, meditate, read books, and generally try to maintain a sense of inward calm, but this is difficult for the majority of people (we among them) who live in the hectic world of modern society.

For us, the process of writing this blog (and responding to reader comments) has become a powerful contributor to our own sense of absurdity. This was something we did not necessarily expect - our primary motivations for creating the blog were that we thought it would be an easy way to share what we have found to be an incredibly liberating outlook on life with others, and also that we hoped to develop a community of like-minded individuals. But in effect, writing this blog helps us stay absurd.

We have other tricks, of course. As discussed on the blog, we like to view life as "pushing our rock," or playing a role in a movie, and Inigo and I have a meeting place we have dubbed "absurd HQ." But how you choose to remember the absurd is irrelevant. We, for example, tend to "worry" our wedding ring, and thus decided to "remember the absurd" every time we catch ourselves doing it - this is but one of many "triggers" we have for remembering our own irrelevance.

Not surprisingly, the more of these habits you adopt, the less you need them. When we first adopted the wedding ring "trick," it would often shift us from bring quite worried about something (whatever it was) to a far more calm and relaxed state. But now we generally find it to be more a reinforcement of our current mood.

To being this full circle, our newest "tool" for remaining absurd is to simply remember the view out the plane window and how it made us feel. Why, we ask ourselves, should we feel any differently now than we did then? Why shouldn't we always take the 30,000 foot view?

This is water. This is water. This is water.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happy and busy?

We recently stumbled across a Wall Street Journal column titled "The Myth of the Overscheduled Child," which sought to expose society's misguided worries about children with too much to do. In the author's (Laura Vanderkam) view, "most children are not at risk of being overscheduled. They're at risk of having too little to do with their time and thus never learning the joy of being...happy and busy."

As George Will might say...Well.

Ms. Vanderkam's thesis is that since children today spend much of their free time watching television or eating junk food, they would be better off joining the glee club, or learning Russian, or taking AP Physics, etc. Essentially, she claims kids with more to do are likely to be happier and in better shape, while those with too much free time (i.e., most of them) simply fritter it away.

As an example, Ms. Vanderkam cites a 17-year old high school junior named Erika Debenedictis. Ms. Debenedictis has a jam-packed school schedule that includes several AP classes taken concurrently with a "multivariable calculus" class, while in her spare time she works on computer-programming projects for science fairs, takes piano lessons and sings in a choir.

According to Ms. Vanderkam, this is an unalloyed positive. "So is Ms. DeBenedictis facing a nervous breakdown as she enters her senior year? Hardly. 'I'm very happy when I'm busy,' she tells me. It's when she doesn't have enough to do that she starts 'moping around.'"

Ah - now we are getting somewhere! The question, of course, is does Ms. Debenedictis feel good because she is busy, or does she keep busy in order to not feel bad? These are not the same thing, and the distinction is, in our mind, critical. Indeed, we wonder why Ms. Vanderkam does not ask what seems to us the obvious question - namely, why does Ms. Debenedictis "mope around" when she has nothing to keep her occupied? What is so bad about having nothing to do?

But such questions rarely get raised in our accomplishment-obsessed society. Rather, it is taken as a given that more is always better, despite the fact that vast numbers of highly-educated, well-paid professionals are miserable in their lives (and have no clue why). Indeed, the increasing volume of data on school "effectiveness" almost always focuses on the difference in earnings between those with different levels of education, as opposed to whether people with more education lead happier, more fulfilled lives. (This is more difficult to quantify, of course, which makes it far less appealing to researchers.)

The question we would ask Ms. Debenedictis is why she feels so miserable when she has nothing to do. To us, that is the real issue. Ms. Debenedictis (and Ms. Vanderkam, for that matter) is just pushing her rock like the rest of us. But, unlike the absurd man, she is perpetually mystified when it rolls back down the hill.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is Sherman absurd?

Sherman’s Lagoon is a comic strip featuring a shark named Sherman who lives at the bottom of a lagoon with his coral reef friends, such as Filmore the sea turtle. This was a bit from Sunday’s strip:

Sherman: “Fish are always going somewhere. Where are they going?”

Filmore: “Appointments, meetings.”

Sherman: “Boy, I wish I had appointments and meetings. I’ve got no place to be.”

Filmore: “That’s because you haven’t found your purpose in life.”

Sherman: “My purpose?”

Filmore: “Yeah. Something that will get you going every morning. You wake up, you see it. And you start chasing it. The purposeful life.”

Sherman: “I don’t think that’ll ever happen to me.”

(The punch line is when he sees his wife coming and disappears, at which his friend observes “At least he’s got something to run from.”)

We enjoyed this strip, as it is an obvious parody of human busyness. Replace “fish” with “people” and it becomes spot-on social commentary.

The absurd, which is what this blog is all about, offers a different perspective than the rat race view pursued by so many. The absurd man accepts that life has no meaning and he uses this insight as his ticket to freedom. Like Sherman, we don’t think we’ll ever adopt the “purposeful life.” But unlike Sherman, we have no wish to join the crowd in chasing something that doesn't exist. We take life as it is.

So, on Labor Day, we reflect on the meaningless nature of existence. Enjoy your day off from the rat race. And if you choose, every day can be like today, as the absurd man well knows.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The fact of evolution

Albert Camus writes in his introduction to The Rebel: “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.”

It is profoundly true and we find plenty of examples in contemporary life. Let’s take evolution.

This post was inspired by a review of Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, which appeared in the Economist. The reviewer writes “two-fifths of Americans still refuse to accept that human beings share a common ancestry with animals, preferring to believe that they were created in their present form in the past 10,000 years.”

This has always astounded us. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. As Dawkins says, it is “as incontrovertible a fact as any in science.”

As the reviewer notes:

“And what a lot of evidence there is. The fossil record, far from the tenuous succession of gaps described by creationists, provides an admittedly incomplete but beautiful and coherent set of clues to life in the distant past.”

And we love the quote from British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what would disprove the theory of evolution: “Fossil rabbits in the in the Precambrian era.”

Of course, no such thing has ever been found. The passage of time only makes the case grow stronger as more gaps are filled in and more and more of it just makes sense.

Yet, the urge to deny our simian roots is strong. People want to believe humanity is a special case, separate and apart from the animal world around it. Again, 40% of Americans believe God created man complete, only 10,000 year ago – an observation cleanly at odds with the facts.

We observe too, how this applies to the absurd. For one thing, the theory of evolution reinforces the essential absurd insight that life has no meaning, no purpose. It reinforces our insignificance in the scheme of things.

For another thing, the whole evolution “debate” reminds us of resistance we encounter when discussing the absurd. People seem loath to believe that their life has no meaning and that “nothing matters.” Instead, people cling to ideas and beliefs that soothe their egos and make them feel apart of something larger, something with a purpose, something that will last and is important.

The absurd is like an acid to the ego and we think that is why the idea is hard for many to swallow.

Evolution is not the only example of such thinking, as today’s Bloomsbury comic strip reminds us.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

An absurd moment

“We wonder where you get these obsessions,” we said to our wife one Saturday mid-morning. We had been happily engrossed in our reading when she called for us to help her with the “big bushes.” We walked out in the backyard where she then outlined, to our consternation, how she wanted to uproot these two big bushes.

Frankly, we had barely known of their existence before, as they seem to blend in with the other foliage that grows in this corner of the yard. “What is wrong with these bushes?” we wondered, annoyed as the absurd perspective leaked away for some moments and the simian emotions took over. “They provide fine cover.”

“They are ugly,” our wife countered.

“They have been here for years.”

“And I’ve been meaning to dig them up for years,” she proceed. “And these wild violets,” she said waving disgustedly at the things. “We’ll need to get a tiller and tear these up and try to grow grass here.”

We were flummoxed. “That’s just a lot of work for nothing,” we protested. “It’s like you are creating work.”

Our wife sighed audibly, exasperated at our apparent disinterest in the bushes and the violets.

“You know,” we said, the absurd returning to our veins, coursing through the soft gray matter of our brains. “Life is short. And should we be lucky enough to look back on it all near the end, I don’t think we’ll care a whit about the bushes or whether there was grass here or not. None of it matters, don’t you see?”

“You're so dramatic,” she said. “I actually care about what our yard looks like.”

We wanted to laugh, but thought better of it. We have had these discussions before and we admit our wife is not one for the absurd perspective. We thought back on how, on another occasion, she tried to distract us from a football game we were watching on TV by saying that whatever it was she wanted us to do – it escapes now, as does the particulars of the football game – was “more important than that football game you're watching.”

Of course, we didn’t say it was more important. They are both equally unimportant, we offered at the time, with some satisfaction, though our wife was used to this kind of reasoning by now.

We snapped back to the present moment… our wife standing there, the big bushes looking on patiently and violets spread around. We heard the cicadas sounding off in the trees, oblivious to what was going on.

At this point, we picked up the clippers. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was bright overhead. The shade of the trees warded off its heat. The air smelled lightly of pine and wet earth, and mint, of which she had clipped in her efforts to get at the offending bush. The grass was moist with dew and cool beneath our bare feet. It was a very nice morning indeed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's good to be lucky

We have always found the subject of luck a fascinating one. Chance plays such a large role in life; it’s hard to grapple with sometimes. The odds of things existing just as they have come to be are so mind-bogglingly long, it is hard to compute. Today is the end result of a long chain of events that had to happen just so or everything could be very different. As American paleontologist George Simpson elegantly put it:

“Man is the ultimate end of a twig. Even slight changes in earlier parts of the history would have profound cumulative effects on all descendent organisms through the succeeding millions of generations... Thus the existence of our present depends on a very precise sequence of causative events through some two billion years or more.”

In other words, that fact that we exist at all is a pretty damn lucky thing! A mere chance occurrence some billions of years ago and humanity as we know it never exists.

From a philosophical point of view, it also highlights a few absurd points. It shows how tenuous our existence is, how little control we have over how things come to be and just how limited we are in being able to understand what happens next.

We’re at the mercy of forces much larger than us, forces we don’t really understand and may never figure out. Every answer we find about how, for example, the world began or what lies at the rim of universe only brings more questions. It is a never-ending process.

There are lots of ways to deal with this. And we’re the only animals that have to deal with this. The German shepherd down the street doesn’t worry about what it is or what it will become. It just is. As Eric Fromm, a celebrated psychologist once put it:

“Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be discontented, that can feel a need to be evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he tries to solve and from which he cannot escape.”

This reminds me of a line from Jim Harrison, where he writes “if only I had the genius of a cabbage or an onion to grow myself.” It’s a sort of plea for acceptance of things as they are. In another place he writes how “a tree by its nature seeks its future moment by moment.” We can find our way, too, by focusing on the present moment and living each experience day to day.

We are not saying we want to be a vegetable or a tree or a German shepherd. We are happy to have such problems as these to wrestle with, as Sisyphus was happy to push his rock, however futile the quest may be.

And this is, in fact, the absurd view. In a world devoid of meaning, the absurd man chooses to live his life anyway and does so with relish and passion. There is also the notion of acceptance of things as they are.

We would not want it any other way. In our view, it is good to be lucky, to have that element of chance. We are glad the future continues to frustrate our ability to penetrate it. The mystery is the thing. Life, like a book, draws you in because you don’t know what will happen next.

Let us be thankful that our future continues to outwit us and revel in the absurd nature of our existence!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Living with passion

We have made numerous references to the concept of living with passion. Indeed, we believe this is one of the most important aspects of the absurd. Yet what does such a statement mean? Further, is such a stance not inconsistent with the recognition that life is meaningless?

Living with "passion" simply means one should enjoy life for what it is (i.e., meaningless). One should not live "for" material things, or family, or friends, or indeed anything other than the present moment - that being, in point of fact, all one can directly experience and influence. Thus, living with passion simply extols the benefits of embracing the world as it is.

The man who lives for material things is easily derided, of course. It has become de rigueur to criticize those who seek fulfillment in possessions; however, such comments are often misguided in that they assume it is better to live for things such as family and friends. But the man who lives for his family (or friends) does not live with passion. Instead, he deludes himself into believing there is meaning in his relationships; that his love for his wife and children (or network of friends) in some way transcends the physical world and creates import and meaning. Thus, he is no different from the man who believes "things" will bring him happiness.

The absurd man, by contrast, eschews all such beliefs. We, for example, went to a business dinner tonight. We ate, drank, and were generally quite merry, in large part because we did not assign meaning to the proceedings! We did not worry what the other participants would think of our comments, or our behavior, or whether we drank too much (or too little). We simply enjoyed the experience. Just as important, now that it is over we have moved on.

The concept of living with passion is really quite simple. All it entails is one's commitment to embracing the current moment and living it to the fullest extent possible. Such commitment is not possible if one is worried about what happened earlier today, or what might happen tomorrow, or whether his companions are angry at him. It is only possible if one truly embraces the meaninglessness of life, and chooses to thus live each moment as it comes.

As we have previously argued, we believe life is best lived as if one is merely playing a role. Thus, our dinner tonight was simply another scene in an ongoing play; one that will, like all plays, someday come to an end. Thus, our actions simple represented a "performance," or said a different way, our interpretation of the role played by our current character.

As we have also noted, these ideas are not particularly new (although that does not lessen their power). Consider, in closing, Shakespeare's timeless words:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.