Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A sense of otherness

Interesting piece in the Economist on foreigners and the “thrill of being an outsider.” The premise begins this way:

“The desire of so many people, given the chance, to live in countries other than their own makes nonsense of a long-established consensus in politics and philosophy that the human animal is best off at home… The error of philosophy has been to assume that man, because he is a social animal, should belong to some particular society.”

We have talked before about how the absurd makes a mockery of so many of the identities to which people cling so dearly. Cultural attachments of any kind are things the absurd man holds to lightly, if at all.

It may be that this feeling – that cultural, religious and political attachments can be self-imposed chains –is more common than we suppose. The desire of so many to live in foreign lands is some evidence of this desire to slip these chains and escape.

As the Economist relates:

“Foreignness was a means of escape—physical, psychological and moral. In another country you could flee easy categorization by your education, your work, your class, your family, your accent, your politics. You could reinvent yourself, if only in your own mind. You were not caught up in the mundanities of the place you inhabited, any more than you wanted to be. You did not vote for the government, its problems were not your problems. You were irresponsible. Irresponsibility might seem to moralists an unsatisfactory condition for an adult, but in practice it can be a huge relief.”

The absurd man, though, would not need a new place. Absurdity is an attitude, a state of mind. It is all in how you look at things. You can continue to live right where you live and pursue your usual routines … but with the added perspective of the absurd – that none of it matters and to find contentment in that fact, as Sisyphus does in Camus’ reckoning of the ancient myth.

The absurd man believes that nothing matters – based on his experience and his questioning mind. He comes to see his existence as meaningless and the universe as indifferent.

But the absurd twist – and what makes the absurd man different than his many fellow travelers – is his embracing of this idea and his desire to live all the more passionately because of it. (Indeed, the absurd man seeks to maintain his “lucidity” as Camus put it; he wants to maintain the absurd and not hide from it by creating screens between him and his reality as he sees it).

This is something one can do anywhere and anytime.

The Economist writes that “foreignness is intrinsically stimulating. Like a good game of bridge, the condition of being foreign engages the mind constantly without ever tiring it.”

We’d argue that the absurd is very much like that. It definitely confers upon the absurd man a sense of otherness. He is apart. The absurd man is like the snow leopard; rarely encountered and incredibly stealthy amidst his surroundings. (Your neighbor may well be absurd, but it would be hard to tell.)

The absurd perspective is also always engaging and stimulating as it helps you look at everything in a completely different way than those around you. Every day becomes a new and interesting part of a journey that has no purpose, that seeks none and that has no measure of success or failure. It is a journey of liberation and contentedness in a world where people find such things are very rare…

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