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.
Posted by Inigo Montoya at 1:12 PM