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.

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