Friday, October 30, 2009

More with Less

In his reflective preface to the 1958 republication of The Wrong Side and The Right Side, Albert Camus wrote:

“Although I live without worrying about tomorrow now, and count myself among the privileged, I don’t know how to own things… I cling like a miser to the freedom that disappears as soon as there is an excess of things.”

We think these words, written by a 45-year-old Camus only a couple of years before his death, are very wise. They reflect the wisdom of many sages before him who reached the same conclusion.

Henry David Thoreau, for instance, wrote in Walden: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” (Thoreau, by the way, had an absurdist streak, too. “Men labor under a mistake,” he once wrote, for “man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.” But that is a story for another time…)

The idea has relevance for the absurd. We have often written than one can’t find happiness in things. It seems simple, but it goes against the powerful thrust of society’s pressures… bombarded as we are with ads encouraging to us to buy new cars and bigger houses and more stylish jeans… “You deserve it,” these modern sirens coo…

But it’s more than just advertising. People, too, expect you to buy new things. If you make a certain amount of money, you are expected to own a certain kind of house in a certain kind of neighborhood. Wealth is a nice car and new clothes…

Even before we could articulate the absurd, we resisted such pressures. We have always resisted this ceaseless drive for more things… for more money, for a better career.

We drive an old 96 Chevy. It has dents and scratches. The upholstery is coming undone. The carpet on the floors is worn nearly bare. We make enough money to buy a new car without any problems, but we choose to stick with the old one.

This is a pattern in our life in many ways. Our mother thinks us cheap… but that is not it. It is not frugality but rather indifference to many of the things society thinks we ought to spend money on.

We don’t value money in itself and we are willing to pay up for certain things, like good food and beer. A plateful of fresh oysters is a treat not to be passed up lightly. And we willingly pony up to travel to faraway places to collect new experiences. We think, now that we read Camus’ words again, that we implicitly understood what he was saying all along. Things are a burden. To invest your happiness in things is to invite disaster and to lose your freedoms.

“I don’t envy anyone anything,” Camus writes in the same preface. This is a trait we find very admirable. The complete inability to feel envy is a great thing. We likewise do not begrudge our neighbor’s desires for bigger houses or fancier cars. We choose to spend that money in other ways.

But we do recommend that you re-read Camus’ wise words up top. Living without concern for tomorrow is an absurdist point of view. Live in the present, live for the experiences of living and don’t be so quick to trade your freedoms for things. In end, we’re all headed to the same place – oblivion.

In an essay called “Irony,” written when Camus was only in his twenties, he ends with some wise words on the varying paths to the same destiny that all of us take. “Death for us all, but his own death to each. After all, the sun still warms our bones for us.”

This essay and preface and lots of other goodies are all found in the Lyrical and Critical Essays pictured here.


  1. Wonderful post, Inigo. I have read many of Camus' work in the past, but have somehow missed this collection of essays. My next trip to the library will definitely be a fruitful one.

  2. I'm not sure if reading books is the best way to apreciate the absurd. I mean it helps but,I think the most powerful way to realize the absurd is to taks LSD. But beware, it's very powerful, so take it with caution. If you decide to take it, do it in a place where you are with people who know and understand. In a place where if you took off all your cloths, for example, you wouldn't get into trouble

  3. Thomas,

    Coincidentally, your post reminds me of Aldous Huxley's book, "The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell."

  4. Excellent book, that. We were actually discussing this very issue with Inigo a few months ago. No question that LSD (and other drugs such as ecstasy) are extremely effective ways to experience the absurd - specifically, they reinforce the ephemeral nature of the self and the tenuous nature of "reality."

    That said, we view this as just one tool among many to realize the absurd. While the LSD experience can be (and in our experience, generally is) truly profound, our most significant absurd "revelations" have occurred unaided...

  5. What about the Via Negativa or depression?
    When logic no longer supports the narative of your life, when you see that reason can only take you so far, and can not provide you with all the answers was the first time I encountered the absurd. It is the final surender for someone who is too weak to fight and use cultural defences to reconstruct meaning. LSD scares me...I think if I try it, I wont come back :0

  6. Elena,

    everyone thinks they won't come back from the acid experience. that's what makes the experience so powerful. If you were aware that the experience was only temporary it wouldn't be as wonderful or terrifying (heaven and hell, like huxley wrote) because you wouldn't take it seriously.

    That's kind of like life. When we take life seriously we believe that it is permanent and won't end. But when we realize that it is just like a dream and will fade away soon enough it's hard to take it seriously. Might as well enjoy the moment for what it is

  7. I didn't mean physicaly, but mentaly not come back. Which I guess is in itself a sort of death...

    ps. speaking of movies with a healthy dose of the absurd, just watched Zorba the Greek.

  8. Walt Whitman - “demented with the mania of owning things”.