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…


  1. I've always enjoyed your posts--engaging and insightful. I do wonder, however, how your exhaustive social and cultural capital (i.e. we've been to "such-and-such countries"), perhaps, may narrow your audience a bit. I'm a working class stiff . . . just feeling like your most recent post intuited that one must be a world traveler extraordinaire to really embrace the absurd

  2. Rick and Inigo, I am almost sold on the absurd perspective... These days I just smile at the absurdity of it all. You have said that whatever we do doesn't matter in the long run. But what about a legacy...? If you are able to see further, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants right? And I feel all people who have contributed to it have kept some goals and worked accordingly right? Is it not conflicting with the absurd? I understand that whatever my legacy is, it doesn't matter to me, but it matters to the world right? Think of all the inventions starting from the fire to the internet... what do you say??

  3. BSH- Thanks for the note. We certainly don't mean to imply one must circle the globe to embrace the absurd. In fact, we would argue just the opposite. Today, for example, we have been involved in a variety of mundane tasks (getting kids off to school, meetings, etc.), but as we know none of them "matters," we are free to enjoy them (whatever they may be) simply for what they are. Indeed, we often find our most absurd moments come during very routine activities.

    Inigo's point about traveling is not that it is a requirement to live the absurd life, but rather one way (among many) to keep the absurd perspective. (It is also worth remembering that one man's exotic vacation spot is another man's home, as discussed in our "On Vacation" post.)

  4. Connected- This is an interesting point, but it seems to us there is an inherent contradiction here. You ask whether one's legacy can be meaningful to "the world." Well, let us turn this around. Do you accept that you, and all you do, are devoid of meaning? And is not humanity simply a large collection of individuals?

    We would also draw a distinction between "different" and "better." In other words, your comment assumes mankind is better off thanks to inventions. But why is this necessarily the case? (And how does one define "better"?) As noted in our "What Makes Us Happy" post, there is no objective reason to assume one state of affairs is preferable to another. As we wrote then: "While we (for example) 'enjoy' good food and wine, we also know we are no different from the characters in The Matrix who mistakenly believe they are experiencing 'life.'"

  5. BSH,

    Anyone can live the absurd. All that is required is awareness of the absurd and acceptance of our situation.

    The attempt with this post was to describe one absurd life or moment in the same spirit in which Albert Camus does in The Myth of Sisyphus.

    In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes several absurd types - Don Juan, the actor, et al. But he is quick to add that none of these have a monopoly on the absurd - a chaste man, a civil servant or a prime minister could also live lives consistent with the absurd. (Also, one could imagine an anti-absurd traveler).

    Again, all that is required to be absurd is awareness and acceptance. The absurd man does not try to escape the consequences of the absurd.

    Thanks for you comment and bringing up this point.


  6. Connected -

    Interesting questions, indeed! Well, we would also say,as above, that the main requirements of the absurd man is awareness and acceptance of the absurd.

    That admits a wide range of activities. Certainly, the absurd man could be, say, an inventor or scientist (among many things). In fact, one of Camus' absurd types is the creator (or artist), which in many ways is similar to, say, a scientist who creates things that benefit generations.

    That's a big topic and gives me an idea for a future post. Until then, may this small comment suffice. Also, we find that with many brilliant scientists we have read about they are quite absurd in many respects.


  7. Thanks for the replies Rick and Inigo.

    I get your point Rick... The inventions and discoveries have not changed anything.. we cannot definitely say that it has made lives happy but we can't imagine life without them...

    Inigo - Well, we would also say,as above, that the main requirements of the absurd man is awareness and acceptance of the absurd. This I completely appreciate.. Accepting that it is absurd, still there is a choice as to what one might do and I feel it doesn't contradict with the absurd perspective.
    Waiting for your post on this topic...

  8. Hi,

    I've just started a new travel blog called The Absurd Traveller's Guide. It's inspired by Camus. Well actually I read The Myth OS and agreed so much that I had to change my life completely and pack up for the open road. It was lovely to stumble across your post and see that I'm not the only one who thinks that travel and absurdity go hand in hand.