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.


  1. The Importance of Living is one of my favorite books. And I'm really loving this blog.

    One topic which I hope you could cover is how love plays a part in life of an absurd man. When you're recovering from a breakup or experiencing unrequited love, no amount of "be merry and accept the impermanence of all things" platitudes can mend a broken heart. Well, not right away.

  2. I found your blog while web surfing at work and spent the rest of the afternoon devouring it. I appreciate and share much of your point of view on absurdism. I'm no student of philosophy; I've only considered myself an atheist. But, I really like the idea of just giving up any search for MEANING AT ALL, and simply living to live and appreciate our silly existence passionately. Thank you for your well written blogs. By the way, when you're writing as we, "We have taken" etc., whom are you referring to? A writing partner? Absurdists in general?

  3. Gavin, we'd agree. Our emotions are very powerful and can get the better of us, especially in the short-run. We've found the absurd helpful, though, and the more we keep awareness of the absurd in mind, the more we find we are able to control or temper certain emotions - especially emotions like anger or envy, among others. We've gotten better at it over time.

    Luke, we chose the "editorial we" in writing the blog, common in newspapers and the like. Depending on the situation, we can refer to Inigo or Rick or both of us. We've also come to like the "we" because it helps us talk about the absurd with a little more distance without getting our own egos involved. Who we are is not important and that is kind of the point, too.

    Good comments! Thanks for posting them,


  4. I especially appreciated the editorial 'we' when it caused me to reflect upon the meaning of the relationship of 'wife', as in 'our wife'. Of course, the relationship that was really being exposed is that of 'self' or 'me', not 'wife'...

  5. You are an arrogant ignorant. You have no understanding of lin yutan's point of view. You are that absurd man but you can't realize it.