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.


  1. Unfortunately, one need not go back as far as Churchill for a stellar candidate of anti-absurdism. The following nominates another candidate:

  2. baakanit,

    “[Churchill] believed that destiny had marked him to be the savior of western civilization and this conviction infused his every word and deed.”

    But believing that he was marked to be the savior of western civilization, made him also an absurd man. That's the rock he decided to push uphill.

    P.D. I love this blog, thanks for sharing with us all these thought provoking posts.

  3. What a burden that must be - The feeling that the only way to redeem yourself is to save the world first. I've always speculated that this self-infused importance and delusions of grandeur are remnants of a distorted childhhod narative when we felt like little gods. I had to come to terms with my own nagging feeling of obligation for martyrdom in order to give my life a dose of meaning.

  4. Sure, WWII wouldn't have happened if everyone had been absurd, but they weren't. So shouldn't we be glad Churchill and his hubris were around? Maybe it wouldn't have mattered if England had surrendered like the rest of Europe and we were all living in a still functioning 1000-year Reich since nothing matters. But it seems to me more logical to celebrate Hitler and all his bully boys and Hirohito and the Japanese high command, and the Vichy French, etc., etc. as a whole antiabsurd gang. Why choose Churchill who did a lot to get us out of a hell of a mess? For one thing, he took responsibility when just about everyone else had given it up. Isn't that what free human beings are supposed to do?