Monday, August 31, 2009

Jim Harrison, Absurd Man

We’ve never read anything by Jim Harrison before. Harrison is a poet and novelist, perhaps best known as the author of Legends of the Fall.

We picked up a copy of his latest poetry collection, Saving Daylight. We were immediately hooked. Right away, the opening poem is fairly absurd, in the philosophical sense:

“Before I was born I was water.
I thought of this sitting on a blue
chair surrounded by pink, red, white
hollyhocks in the year in front
of my green studio. There are conclusions
to be drawn but I can’t do it anymore.
born man, child man, singing man,
dancing man, loving man, old man
dying man. This is a round river
and we are her fish who become water.”

Throughout the collection, Harrison is sensitive to our essential mortality and insignificance in the larger scheme of things. He focuses on the simple pleasures of being alive and the beauty of nature around us and the ceaseless march of lost time.

“You can’t row or swim upstream on the river.
This moving water is your continuing past
that you can’t retrace by the same path
that you reached the present, the moment by moment
implacable indifference of time.”

Harrison is also aware of the mystery of the ego, of the “I”. As he writes: “There is no ‘I’ with the sun and moon. Time means only the irretrievable. If I mourn myself, the beloved dead, I must mourn the deaths of galaxies.”

He repeatedly returns to the theme of insignificance, of the absurd nature of our existence, in lines such as:

“Both cat and man are bathed in pleasant
insignificance, their eyes fixed on birds and stars”


“The beetle takes half an hour on a leisurely
stroll across the patio, heading
northwest as if it truly mattered.
I think of Wallace Stevens in his office
doing insurance work as if it truly mattered.”

Among others…

This all seemed too much of a coincidence to us. Upon further investigation, we find that Harrison found Camus inspirational. In a book Conversations with Harrison, we find the following:

“The most inspirational literature I ever read was Dostoevsky or Camus. Then I believe his assertion when he says you only have one choice in your life: it’s whether or not to commit suicide. If you don’t commit suicide, you have to treat your life with a great deal of energy and assertiveness.”

Jim Harrison, absurd man…

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Building sand castles

We recently spent a day playing at the beach with our six-year-old son. We built the standard things - castles, moats, little villages - all of which were eventually wiped out by "tidal waves" crashing over them. Our son reveled in the experience, frantically building castles and protective moats, then laughing hysterically when they were overrun by water, only to dive in and start building again.

This, of course, got us thinking about the absurd. Specifically, building sand castles seems a wonderful allegory for all the things we "build" in life, such as family, careers, and social networks, not to mention the incredibly seductive (yet ultimately ephemeral) sense of who we "are." (Along similar lines, a reader recently mentioned a woman named Byron Katie to us - she is another promoter of the absurd lifestyle. She recently published a book with the terrific title "Who would you be without your story?")

The point is that all the things we "build," the people, events, and experiences that seem so all-encompassing and critically important, are nothing more than sand castles with longer lifespans. These lifespans, of course, prevent us from seeing the transitory nature of everything we do, since we get constant and persistent feedback that such things do, in fact, matter. In other words, it is very difficult to view your family or career as meaningless when you not only spend decades cultivating and maintaining them, but are also surrounded by people constantly telling you they do matter.

We found our son's behavior to be a wonderful template for how to go through life. We also found it illuminating given recent reader comments that have suggested we are not capable of "enjoying" experiences as much as people who find meaning in them. But as we have pointed out, lack of meaning need not equate to lack of enjoyment - in fact, we find it to be quite the opposite. Our son, for example, was under no illusions that his sand castles would be permanent, or indeed that they had any significance beyond his immediate enjoyment (or for that matter, than one castle was more "meaningful" than another, even if only to him), and yet he found tremendous joy in building them. (And, we would note, in seeing them destroyed...)

Carpe diem!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On vacation

"Wherever you go, there you are."--Anonymous

We have been traveling the past couple of weeks, which got us to thinking about the concept of vacation. Now, there is certainly nothing profound about pointing out the reality that going "on vacation" simply changes one's physical location. Or, for that matter, the inherent absurdity that one man's vacation spot is another's daily grind.

However, one of the messages we continue to pound away at here is that the absurd can be found everywhere, often without looking for it. For example, we went on a dolphin watch the other day, during which we heard a couple of fellow passengers discussing the inherent wisdom of dolphins.

"They sure have the life," said one. "Yup," replied the other, "just eat, play, and sleep. Wish I could live like that."

We will pause a moment to let this sink in....

In fact, what struck us the most was not the discussion itself, but the fact that such discussions almost certainly happen on all dolphin cruises! Such lamentations have become virtually boilerplate, with people constantly complaining about their stressful and put-upon lives. If only, they wail, I could live the carefree life of that...dolphin, or dog, or cat, or some other animal that seems to spend all its time lounging around while I have to go stare at my computer screen.

Well, we have a revelation for you. You can live that life! And you don't need to wait until you have enough money saved, or until your children are grown, or until you are "ready." You can do it today - now - this minute.

Once you accept there is no "greater meaning" to life, you can choose to live however you want. And please understand - this does not necessarily mean quitting your job and retreating to a Buddhist monastery (although it could). The point is that once you realize things don't matter, it doesn't matter what you do. This is not only incredibly liberating, but is also a potent tonic against worry (about the future) and regret (about the past).

So go ahead and take a vacation - NOW. Stop worrying about what happened earlier today, and what may or may not happen tomorrow. Stop thinking about your job, your retirement, your family - whatever. Just...STOP. Then, spend some time in the present. Enjoy what you are doing right now, without all the baggage of yesterday and tomorrow and next week. Just be.

We understand this is difficult to do consistently - we ourselves struggle to maintain our perspective on a day-to-day basis. But try this. Next time you find yourself slipping back into old patterns, try spending a few minutes marveling at the wondrous miracle that is life - that some random collection of atoms can see, and hear, and smell and taste and touch...and actually attempt to comprehend this miraculous universe we inhabit. It might just make that very serious problem (whatever it is) seem a bit less overwhelming.

We'll be home in a few days. But our vacation will never end...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Busyness dulls awareness

More absurd thoughts uncovered while reading the Wall Street Journal (of all things…)

An excerpt, then some of our own thoughts below it:

“We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes—heartbreakingly—before us. Being someone else, traveling the world, making new friends gives us a temporary reprieve from this knowledge, which is spared most of the animal kingdom. Busyness—or the simulated busyness of email addiction—numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.

Our society does not often tell us this. Progress, since the dawn of the Industrial Age, is supposed to be a linear upward progression; graphs with upward slopes are a good sign. Processing speeds are always getting faster; broadband now makes dial-up seem like traveling by horse and buggy. Growth is eternal. But only two things grow indefinitely or have indefinite growth firmly ensconced at the heart of their being: cancer and the corporation. For everything else, especially in nature, the consuming fires eventually come and force a starting over.”

Full piece is here.

The absurd man cultivates an awareness – in this he has many fellow travelers. The absurd man’s unique awareness centers on his absurd condition – the indifferent universe and the meaningless nature of existence. The absurd man cherishes this insight, which he finds liberating. (Like finding out you can play a game for the sake of playing and in which the outcome is irrelevant).

There are many consequences of this awareness, but one of them is a focus on living in the present moment, the idea of trying to stay in the present. (Life being a series of present-day moments.)

It is interesting to think about how the modern world clashes with this idea. The idea of always being “plugged in” either to one’s laptop or PDA or what, seems to discourage reflection or awareness of anything in the real world. We know people who can’t take a simple walk around the neighborhood without their iTunes in their ears. Televisions that are nearly always on, e-mail accounts that can’t go more than an hour without being checked, telephones that are not allowed to ring themselves to silence – all of these things seem rather unhealthy.

As the writer above puts it, all this busyness numbs of the pain of our awareness. We take issue with the pain part. We don’t find the realities of our existence painful. We accept them as they are, however we can see how other people would find the idea of death painful.

But the larger point is that much of our society and technology seems geared to keeping us pre-occupied, so we are never alone with our thoughts. Elevators play music – as if you couldn’t stand there for the 15 second elevator ride. Restaurants pipe in music or put televisions on the wall. The barbershop down the street has the TV on all the time.

We think it is important, whether one embraces the absurd philosophy or not, to put time aside for calm reflection, for some quiet solitude. It’s too easy to get lost in the matrix of everyday life and then put too much stock in what happens in that everyday life. These things will inevitably disappoint.

But if you cultivate an awareness of the absurd condition, it is easier to let the slights and disappoints of the real world slide by. We argue that the absurd philosophy makes it easier to enjoy your life as it is, in the present moment. And that, after all, is the main thing. Absurdity declares that a life is an experience to be lived with no appeal to anyone or anything.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Impermanence of All Things

The absurd man does nothing for the eternal, Camus once wrote. In a meaningless world where our eventual death is the only sure thing, there is no point in legacy-building. Instead, the absurd man lives in the moment, happily relieved of the burden of making a lasting mark on his fellow men.

The absurd man appreciates the life cycle of all things and his place in it.

Recently, we read Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias.” We think it carries within it the spirit of the absurd and the futility of all man’s works, even those he dubs great…


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Everything matters!

Interesting looking novel "Everything Matters" by Ron Currie, Jr., reviewed in the LA Times.

A snippet from the review:

What would you do if you knew the world was coming to an end? What if you were the only person who knew it, and you knew it irrefutably and without any hope of deliverance? Would you tell anyone? How would you live your life?

Junior, the protagonist of Ron Currie Jr.'s superb novel "Everything Matters!," is 3 when he receives a prophecy from the television: The world will end in 36 years. Junior is already a special child. Beginning in utero, he has had an unassailable voice in his head that tells him things no baby or toddler can know. Now this voice corroborates. The obliteration of the planet is inevitable. From that moment on, understandably, Junior is not a happy child.

Not that there is much to be happy about. His mother is an alcoholic. His brother is a baseball phenom permanently brain-damaged from a childhood cocaine problem. His girlfriend's mother abuses her. His father was severely damaged in the Vietnam War. And the voice in his head won't shut up. It tells him things he would rather not know.

Currie's first book, "God Is Dead," is a collection of stories linked by the premise that God is, in fact, really truly dead, having expired in the form of a starving Sudanese woman, powerless even to help herself. The stories are dark and disturbing and hilarious. Obviously, Currie is at home with the apocalypse.

In "Everything Matters!," he romps through the bleakest of landscapes. Cancer. Addiction. Stardom. Torture. Abuse. Secret and all-knowing government agencies. Flesh-eating disease. Suicide and terrorism.

Like his earlier work, this is a comedy, albeit a scary one. Some scenes make you laugh out loud. There are passages of beauty and wicked turns of phrase.

The novel is violent and disgusting, then sweet and romantic. It is carefully sentimental, never becoming maudlin. Occasionally, Currie runs into problems: A chapter narrated by Junior's girlfriend, Amy, sounds too much like Junior. And at the end, there is one too many extraordinarily precocious kid.

But these are minor quibbles when, marvelously, Currie suffuses his unhappy and disparate characters with salvation -- not in a post-death heaven of harp playing and endless ice cream, but in the awareness right here on Earth of what makes life worth living.

It's no accident that Amy has a dog named Camus. The question Albert Camus poses in his philosophical essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" resides at the heart of this book. What is the point of living if death is the inevitable conclusion? Doesn't that render life absurd?

Junior's father emerges as Sisyphus, pushing the same boulder up the same hill every day at his two jobs, barely making ends meet, having given up his dreams for his family. He is not a saint, but he cannot stand the way his co-workers complain.

"Maybe what really bothers me," he explains, "is that guys like Dan never own up to their mistakes, never accept their lives as they are today, with all the accumulated blunders that brought them to this place and time. In some fundamental way they are not really here. They're in a past that never really existed, or a future that never will exist, even while their bodies are in the present, in this warehouse, loading real packages onto real semis, with real wives and children at home, and very real opportunities for small but meaningful pleasures all around them. Pleasures that I enjoy, in my way, and never pass up."

That passage comes early in the book, but its strength becomes more apparent as things progress. It is this unflagging endurance, this loyalty and determination that frames the answer to Camus' question. Yes, the boulder rolls back down every night, but what would he do without it?

Full review here.

Be Merry

“Sir, I have never complained of the world; nor do I think I have reason to complain. It is rather to be wonder at that I have so much.”

- Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson

When you first think about absurd nature of our existence, it seems somewhat abstract. And for a lot of people the idea of a meaningless existence seems sad and bleak.

We find the insight practical in many respects, as we’ve talked about on this blog. And we also find it uplifting. At bottom, we think the absurd philosophy contains within it a simple message that many of societal pressures that constrain our lives shouldn’t. In fact, if nothing matters in the end at all, you are pretty much free to create your life as you wish without the burden of living up to anyone else’s plans or expectations for you.

This is what we think lies beneath Samuel Johnson’s quote above. He recognizes that while it is easy to complain about our lot, the truth of the matter is that we have a lot more than we think. Existence itself is a treasure chest of many wonders, if we would only open it up and take a look. Absurdism is a key to getting in that chest.

Absurdity does not mean one takes life complacently. The absurd man does not sit there and absorb indifferently the experiences that roll his way. The absurd man, as we take him, grabs life with both hands and rides it as far as he is able. Absurdity is his key to freedom, to experiment, to seek out experiences for their own sake.

Since we were recently re-reading pieces of Hodgkinson’s book, we share with you another quote of his that we like:

“Lap up experience rather than complain about it. Celebrate the bad, celebrate the good, as they may even be the same thing.”

It is, we know, hard to live like this all of the time. However, we think the benefits of keeping a bigger perspective on life make it worth trying.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Self-Important Puritans Must Die

This blog’s name is in the form of a question: Who is the Absurd Man? It is in part a searching question, because we are not sure ourselves and aim to explore absurdity here.

The absurd man is a rare bird. And as part of our doings, when we find an absurd man, we like to highlight him here, as one who walks along a beach finds a particularly interesting shell and sticks it in his pocket.

Today, we highlight another absurd man. His name is Tom Hodgkinson and he is the founder of a U.K. publication called The Idler. He also wrote a book called the Freedom Manifesto. The subtitle is quite a mouthful: “How to free yourself from anxiety, fear, mortgages, money, guilt, debt, government, boredom, supermarkets, bills, melancholy, pain, depression, work and waste.”

The chapter headings also give you a feel for the book: “Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises” “Smash the Fetters of Fear” and “Say No to Guilt and Free Your Spirit.”

Hodgkinson is an absurd man. He sees the meaningless of existence and it is his key to achieving a kind of happiness.

Take the idea of self-importance. Hodgkinson is against it. He lays it at the feet of the Puritan ethic, which makes one live for some afterlife. But it’s more than that, as Hodgkinson says today that consumer products and job promotions have taken the place of the Puritans. These things promise to make you feel like someone. Hodgkinson mockingly writes, “No, you are not just a quintessence of dust, a speck of nothing, you are a Senior Branch Manager… You are somebody!”

Mobile phones are decidedly non-absurd. Mobile phones trade on self-importance, as Hodgkinson writes. You can’t miss a call! You can’t not be reached! You are too important! (This explains, perhaps, why we so seldom carry our cell phone, much less turn it on. We are always amazed at how we can sit at lunch with someone who must interrupt this otherwise peaceful interlude by answering his buzzing Blackberry. Our advice: turn the damn things off.)

Hodgkinson uses a great quote from Bertrand Russell: “One of the symptoms of the approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important & that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster.” The Freedom Manifesto is a lot of fun, just for the quotes.

The great summing up on self-importance by Hodgkinson pretty much nails the ideal of the absurd man:

“Self-importance is a trap, because the moment we start to think that we actually matter is the moment when things start to go wrong. The truth is that you are supremely unimportant and nothing matters. All of man’s striving is for nothing; all effort is wasted. To realize that everything is meaningless is tremendously liberating, since it then leaves us completely free to create our own lives and ignore the plans that others have for us.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

Monday, August 17, 2009

Quiet Days in Clichy

We enjoyed this passage from Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy. The book covers some of Miller’s adventures living there in the 1933. The character “Carl” below is his flat mate Alfred Perles, the Austrian writer.

Give this passage a minute of your time. We like Miller’s outlook here and find him very much an absurd man:

“For an artist bad situations are just as fertile as good ones, sometimes even more so. For him all experience is fruitful and capable of being converted to credit. Carl was the type of artist who fears to use up his credit. Instead of explaining the realm of experience, he preferred to safeguard his credit. This he did by reducing his natural flow to a trickle.

Life is constantly providing us with new funds, new resources, even when we are reduced to immobility. In life’s ledger there is no such thing as frozen assets.

What I am getting at is that Carl, unknown to himself, was cheating himself. He was always endeavoring to hold back instead of giving forth. Thus, when he did break out, whether in life or with the pen, his adventures took on a hallucinating quality. The very things he feared to experience, or to express, were the things which, at the wrong moment, that is to say when least prepared, he was forced to deal with. His audacity, consequently, was bred of desperation. He behaved sometimes like a cornered rate, even in this work. People would wonder whence he derived the courage, or the inventiveness, to do or say certain things. They forgot that he was ever at a point beyond which the ordinary man commits suicide. For Carl suicide offered no solution, if he could die and write his death, that would be fine. He used to say on occasion that he couldn’t imagine himself ever dying, barring some universal calamity. He said it not in the spirit of a man filled with a superabundance of vitality; he said it as one who refused to waste his energy, who had never allowed the clock to run down.

When I think of this period, when we lived together in Clichy, it seems like a stretch in Paradise. There was only one real problem and that was food. All other ills were imaginary. I used to tell him so now and then, when he complained about being a slave. He used to say I was an incurable optimist, but it wasn’t optimism, it was the deep realization that, even though the world was busy digging its grave, there was still time to enjoy life, to be merry, carefree, to work or not to work.”

Just a few comments on this passage. The absurd elements are palpable here: The emphasis on experience in the beginning and the fruitfulness of all experiences, “good” and “bad.” And especially, the last paragraph, which sums up the cheerful aspects of the absurd life – trying to always find a way, trying to always find some time, to just be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Enormous Absurdity of Nature

A reader and frequent commentator on this blog, Jack Sparrow, who has an eye for absurd things himself, sends us the following. It is an excerpt from “The Enormous Absurdity of Nature” by Paul Allen Carter:

“However, Griffen continues, if we took time to consider nature, we could understand more fully the raw beauty of the life cycle, that without the rot on the forest floor there would be no iridescent hints of new life." That cycle includes us as much as the falling sparrow or the vanished dinosaur. And we fight it: "In the natural rhythm of life, things are born, grow up, grow old, die, and rejoin the Creator. But we have become nature's misers, hoarding our youth."

"The culture," adds adventure-fiction writer (and, at times, social philosopher) John D. MacDonald, "has labeled death unthinkable and unspeakable. One is forbidden even to think about it. That repression generates a deep cultural sickness: "Unable to turn inward, all fear turns outward," manifested in the "pinched, bitter, ugly, suspicious faces in Florida, California, Arizona--wherever the old ones gather for dying." But this particular anxiety neurosis long precedes old age. Egged on by profitable cosmetic and medicinal industries "our horror of the aging process," Lauren Griffen asserts, keeps us chained to the myth that we can be forever young, sexually attractive and virile. We cannot avoid aging, but think that we can delay it by becoming slaves to products that promise to tinker with nature."”

Full text, if you are interested, is here:

We like the excerpt because we think it is true. Society harbors an unhealthy denial of aging and of death. The absurd perspective would be to appreciate our part in the life cycle of the universe and to put no special brackets around humanity. We are defecating animals like the rest.

Accepting that condition, though, is part of the absurd man’s freedom. He finds peace with that and lives his life to the fullest without anxieties over his eventual death.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Seeking clarity

It is often said that the stock market abhors uncertainty. In other words, investors would rather hear bad news than worry about what the news will be.

We see a corollary for this in life, with people seeking certainty about inherently uncertain things such as their health, job prospects, and family status. Further, we believe this search for certainty is behind much of the pain and conflict in modern life. As one of our readers recently noted, western cultures do not deal well with the certainty of eventual death. As she put it, "When it happens it is 'devastating, tragic, sad, unfair' as if it is not supposed to happen. A fluke rather than a rule."

This, of course, is a relatively new development, tied largely to the dramatic increase in lifespans over the past century or so. Prior to the development of modern medicine, people saw death in much more realistic terms--not only as a certainty, but one about which they could do little (if anything). Thus the widespread appeal of religion, which not only gave people hope (for life after death), but also nurtured the illusion that things happened "for a reason." Getting sick and dying, in short, was seen as a natural part of the ebb and flow of life, with death often greeted as an occasion for rejoicing rather than weeping (as the deceased was in a "better place").

Today, by contrast, we labor under the far more dangerous illusion that we can not only delay but perhaps...someday...if we keep working on it...actually prevent death. Not many people would actually admit to this, of course. But how else can one explain the vast resources we as a society devote to keeping people alive?

Indeed, people are arguably more humane in their treatment of pets than of family members. When a pet gets sick, we are far more likely to "put it out of its misery" rather than desperately attempt to prolong a life we know is drawing to a close. Yet when family members get chronically ill, most of us go into full-scale denial, refusing to accept (or even acknowledge) the ultimate certainty of their mortality.

Thus, while the rapid advance of medicine has certainly benefited society as a whole, it has also instilled the (largely unacknowledged) belief that we can cheat death if we only try harder. (After all, look at all the ways we can prolong life that did not even exist a few decades back!)

The tragedy is that, human nature being what it is, people forget the advances we have made and ask "what have you done for me lately?" They do not, in other words, celebrate the fact that they do not have polio (for example), but rather fret that the lead level in their drinking water may be slightly too high. Or that they must take a daily regimen of expensive pills. Etc, etc, etc.

This is yet another consequence of most people's refusal to accept their own mortality. Rather than viewing illness and death as just another part of life, modern society sees death as the ultimate horror, to be delayed by any means necessary in the (futile) hope that it can ultimately be cheated. The supreme irony, of course, is that in so doing we end up denying ourselves the joy of living in the moment and taking each experience as it comes.

In seeking to cheat death, we unwittingly cheat ourselves of the wonders of life.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Camus: A Life

We recently read a new biography on Albert Camus by Elizabeth Hawes, titled Camus: A Romance. If you want to find out more about the life of Camus, and what sort of fellow he was, without tackling the doorstopper tomes of Lottman or Todd, then we recommend the book. It is not a straight-ahead biography, but more an exploration of a life by a writer who is a fan. Hawes brings her own journey into the story. It makes for easy reading.

Hawes does not deal as much with Camus’ ideas as she does with his life. She gives a lot of the backstory on where Camus was, what was happening in his life and in the greater world around him, as he wrote his various works.

Camus was born in Algeria in poor circumstances. He was a good student, though, and that was his ticket to get out of poverty, attend school and enter the literary world. He contracted TB at 17, which would affect him the rest of his life.

At this early age, the absurd starts to make its appearance. Camus remembers the episodes of coughing up blood and his mother being no more worried about it than if he had a headache. Hawes writes:

“But if he was initially disconcerted by his mother’s “surprising indifference” to the gravity of his condition, he also knew that in his seventeen years he, too, had learned indifference, which was both a cover-up for suffering and a commitment to getting on with life.”

After reading Hawes, we want to read some of Camus’ other works that we have not tackled yet, such as The First Man, which is largely autobiographical or his Notebooks, which Hawes quotes from liberally.

In the course of her portrait, we also see Camus as a very human figure. He is the absurd man, but he is hardly always so. He frets about criticism, has black episodes of depression and has all the emotional highs and lows of any man. At one point, in one of his many bouts with TB, he is feeling particularly sick and tired and he writes in a letter, as if to dispel the gloom: “It’s necessary to know how to make friends with your rock.”

This is a reference to the myth of Sisyphus, where Camus imagines Sisyphus as happy. We love this quote, as it again shows the indomitable spirit of the absurd man to persevere, to find happiness in whatever circumstance.

There are other gems. Another favorite quote Hawes finds is also from a letter. Camus writes: “That’s what I call happiness, to talk about sausages when the others are interested in the soul’s destiny.” This gets at the idea of enjoying the moment and the experience of the present rather than worrying about the future or about things we cannot know or control.

There are interesting connections Hawes makes along the way. For instance, there are several pages devoted to A.J. Liebling, the great New Yorker writer, and his relationship with Camus. As Liebling is one of our favorite writers, we found it interesting that, as Hawes writes, “Liebling loved Camus.” It seems the affinity between the two writers as mutual. They went pub crawling together in New York and had some adventures in the seedier side of the city. Hawes writes: “Camus loved seeing the underside of the city with such a wry and seasoned guide.” Both loved sports, women and good food and wine.

Liebling also wrote the obituary for Camus that appeared in the New Yorker. He wrote of his old friend: “He felt the world as close as water then and never grew the scales appropriate to a Big Fish. He was without insulation – the antithesis of the detached Stranger.”

Readers will also find Camus as essentially a moralist. Hawes quotes from a letter, in which Camus writes: “For my part, I have always thought that there was more to admire in a man than to despise. That is why it is always necessary to begin with kindness.” That is interesting, because critics of Camus’ absurdism – even in the comments of this blog – often accuse him of dancing on the lip of the volcano of nihilism. The man himself, though, had many beliefs about how to live well and in harmony with your fellows. He was greatly concerned with moral questions and wrote about them (such as his opposition to capital punishment or his opposition to bloody revolt – the latter belief was, in part, behind his famous break-up with Sartre. Camus thought Stalin a thug; Sartre, a communist, thought otherwise. History judged Camus correct, though it was a very unpopular position at the time, especially in France.)

In reading her portrait, you will get to know Camus, the man, a little better. You will learn more about the context of his thoughts and works. And it will send you scurrying to a bookstore to track down some of his books. We enjoyed it, too, as it made Camus a much more human and flawed figure, and thus even more admirable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Living without fear

There are many facets to living the absurd life. Indeed, we are often struck by how broad and deep the concept of meaningless turns out to be--just when we think we have it figured out, along comes another fascinating application. How can something so simple, we sometimes wonder, also be so complex?

For example, one of the most liberating parts of the absurd is that once you realize nothing matters, there is no need to be afraid. Think about this for a minute. Consider the source of your fears--not just of physical harm, but that you will lose your job, or not have enough money to retire, or be abandoned by your friends, or that something horrible will happen to a loved one--and examine why you fear such things. Where does this fear come from? What purpose does it serve? In short, are there valid reasons for fear, and (most importantly) would you be better off without it?

This concept plays into a theme we have previously explored, which is the large number of people who are sympathetic to the absurd, but only to a point. After all, they argue, what about loved ones? What if something really bad happens? What if, what if, what if...

We sense this is a fairly common viewpoint, the idea that certain things "matter," such as family, or friends, or health. Of course, if the world is meaningless there is no reason to view anything as more (or less) meaningful than anything else, even such culturally sacrosanct ideals as these, but nevertheless a great many people reject this simple (to us, anyway) explanation.

This is certainly understandable, particularly given enormous and persistent societal pressure to do so. However, in our opinion this is a tragic error. In short, by accepting that certain things matter more than others, such individuals unwittingly create the source of their own fears. This is ironic, since they no doubt believe they are doing the opposite (i.e., increasing their happiness) by caring about such things.

Consider: If you have no fear of death, why be afraid of pain? If you know your children will die someday, then why fret about their education, their marriage prospects, their "place in the world"? If you live moment to moment, for experience rather than meaning, what does it even mean to "retire"?

The bottom line is that fear is divisive, destructive...and entirely self-created. We all have the ability to live without fear if we choose to do so. But we cannot live this way so long as we cling to our hope--the hope that things matter, that our life has purpose and meaning, that we are something more than random collections of atoms thrown together in a fantastic cosmic accident.

The wonderful thing about embracing the absurd is not only that it frees one to live as one chooses, but also that it strips away these self-created impediments to loving freely, unconditionally, and without reservation. When the fear is gone you find that all that remains is peace and harmony with the world as a whole, which is simply not possible when one "wants," and "prefers," and "chooses" one thing over another.

As with many issues, we have found Krishnamurti enormously helpful in this area, and we close with what we consider to be one of his most thought-provoking passages--on how to live peacefully (i.e., free of fear) in a violent world.

"If you are free of violence in yourself the question is, 'How am I to live in a world full of violence, acquisitiveness, greed, envy, brutality? Will I not be destroyed?' That is the inevitable question which is invariably asked. When you ask such a question it seems to me you are not actually living peacefully. If you live peacefully you will have no problem at all. You may be imprisoned because you refuse to join the army or shot because you refuse to fight, but that is not a problem; you will be shot. It is extraordinarily important to understand this."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Wind in the Willows

We were reading The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame to our kids last night. It’s one of those classic children’s books. But we were surprised and delighted by its absurd moments.

The easy-going, affable and happy water rat, for instance, is quite the little absurd water rat. He lives along a riverbank, where he is content with things as they are. In describing how he loves to go “messing about in boats,” the water rat says:

“In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all...”

That’s a nice summary of an absurd life. The rat lives for every moment and the experience of that particular moment is less important than enjoying the moment itself.

Another character, the mole, has some flashes of absurd insight he discovers by hanging around the water rat. The rat’s infectious joy of life seems to rub off on mole. As one point mole is charged with packing the picnic basket. Grahame writes:

“Packing the basket was not quite as pleasant work as unpacking the basket. It never is. But the Mole was bent on enjoying everything…”

This, too, is an absurd insight. In a world where nothing matters, each experience is as good as any other. Mole does his best to enjoy the experience of life, even mundane experiences such as chores.

We’re not finished reading the book, but so far we are pleased with its absurd subtext. Such wisdom in a children’s book! We could all learn a little something from the water rat and the mole.

Friday, August 7, 2009

What is the absurd?

What is the absurd?

When we talk about the absurd in common speech, we get pretty close to what the absurd philosophy is all about. Really, the absurd is born of a comparison.

If a man walks up to you and says he is going to lift his car above his head with his own hands, you would say that is absurd. Why? Because you recognize the futility of his effort. You see the conflict between his means and his reality. He can’t, no matter what, raise that car above his head.

The absurd, then, springs from a comparison between what people are trying to do and what the reality of their existence is. There are absurd wars and absurd politics… there are absurd marriages, absurd jobs, absurd universities, etc. Anywhere the goal (say, for the war on drugs) seems impossible given the reality (there will always be some group of people doing drugs no matter what), we say that is absurd.

The philosophical absurd view of life begins with the idea that life has no meaning (at least, not one that is possible for us to know). Therefore, the absurd sees man’s quest or longing for meaning as futile. Any attempt to create meaning then puts you in conflict with the way the world is. Or, put another way, the absurd is the gap between “the mind that desires and the world that disappoints,” in Camus wonderful phrase.

The great metaphor is still Sisyphus. He rolls his rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down the hill where he has to start over again. He never will get the rock up the hill. It will always roll back. But Sisyphus continues anyway. He accepts his fate. Sisyphus is the absurd hero.

Imagine Sisyphus as happy and there you have the absurd man.

The absurd philosophy, then, is about how to live in an absurd world – a world that has no meaning, and where all of our efforts are ultimately futile. There are some logical deductions one can make from that premise. And we’ve tried to examine a few in past posts, such as we do here.

We aim to explore more of these ideas on our blog.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why do you care what other people think?

We were having a conversation recently with someone we consider "semi-absurd." (And of course, as explored in our recent piece on consistency, by semi-absurd we really mean not absurd...) This individual recognizes the validity of the absurd (i.e., he agrees there is no meaning beyond the physical world), but can't quite bring himself to embrace its ultimate conclusions. (That, for example, there is no reason to care more about one's biological family than about other people.)

Anyway, during this particular conversation he told us something was bothering him (we can't recall what it was), and referred to it as "self-imposed" stress.

But, we protested, isn't all stress self-imposed, being that it originates and resides in one's brain?

Well, sure, he said with an annoyed wave of his hand, if you don't care what other people think!

We have nothing further for this witness...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In Praise of Consistency

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. "--Ralph Waldo Emerson

With all due respect to Emerson, we have always been mystified by this quote. It seems to us that true consistency is something to be admired, as it speaks to a unified vision of the world, one not swayed this way or that by events and emotion.

Let us be clear. We are not talking of someone who is (for example) a consistent Republican. It is not consistent to resist government intervention in your bank account but welcome it in your bedroom. (Indeed, we find the rampant inconsistency of most people's political views more than passing strange. But this is not a political column.) We define consistency as a worldview that does not differentiate based on race or creed, wealth or poverty, educated or illiterate. It is the practice of looking at things broadly, not (as is often assumed) to incorporate multiple points of view, but rather to view people and events with true objectivity.

We admit this is a tall order. Indeed, the list of those we consider truly consistent is short indeed. Krishnamurti and the Buddha jump to mind, as does Thich Nhat Hanh. Others we have quoted in this blog (Bemelmens, Bukowski, Mencken, Henry Miller) are close enough for government work. And surely a number of individuals have lived their life according to a stable vision yet never come to be widely known.

All the individuals cited, of course, would also be considered absurd. But this is not the only way to be consistent. For example, we recently had a visitor post several comments attacking us and our philosophy. After a bit of back and forth, we discovered he is (in his words) "a believer." He added that he has"always felt that a true Christian has much in common with an atheist: the urgent need to disbelieve in a thousand false gods."

We found this an interesting way of putting it. In fact, religious fundamentalism is no less consistent than being absurd. We may (and do) feel it is incorrect, but it is a consistent belief system. It is indeed possible that God, or Allah, or some other deity is in fact the creator of the known universe, and thus our assumption that life is meaningless is simply...wrong.

However, such a statement applies only to fundamentalist beliefs. Indeed, we shudder when we hear people praise religious "moderates" for embracing a "practical" worldview. We have little patience for those who attend church out of some vague "duty," or say they believe in most scripture, but are willing to give a pass to evolution. This is not consistent. If your religion says God created the world in six days a few thousand years ago, then either this happened or it did not happen. There is no in-between. You can't claim to believe in a God who created man in his own image, and also believe man evolved from single-celled organisms. These views are simply not compatible. Thus, while we do not agree with religious fundamentalists, we do respect the consistency of their belief systems. (It is true, of course, that religions may have internal contradictions, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

Consistency is not, we should mention, what drew us to the absurd. But it was a vital factor in our accepting its premises. Indeed, we have always marveled at the wonderfully simple consistency of the absurd. Even its seeming contradictions turn out to be illusory. (The most significant of these is the question, explored by Camus in The Rebel, of whether the absurd man should be opposed to murder given that life is meaningless anyway. Camus' elegant solution was to point out that by not committing suicide, the absurd man has, whether consciously or not, imposed a belief system on his worldview [i.e., it is better to live than not live]. Thus, it is not consistent to take the life of another.) We also find it interesting (and a bit sad) that so many understand the basic premise of the absurd, but shrink from the broad implications of fully accepting the meaninglessness of life. (They are, in a word, inconsistent.)

It may well be that the consistent individual has "nothing to do." But in contrast to Emerson, we find this something to be celebrated rather than derided. Indeed, the absurd man by definition has nothing he must "do," and yet it is through this release, this unlocking of chains, that he finds true peace and contentment.

Boost Your Creativity

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of the absurd – of embracing this idea that life has no meaning and all that spins from that insight. Part of that is cultivating a detached view of yourself.

By cultivating a detached view of yourself, we mean that you try to achieve a little distance in how you look at what you are doing. You see the bigger picture around you. You see yourself as playing a role. Kind of hard to describe, but we know sometimes we sit at our favorite cafĂ© and “zoom out” – like in those commercials where they show a guy, then the guy around his house, then zoom out to his neighborhood, then the U.S., then the planet… It’s just a way to disengage your immediate emotional self and gain perspective. You pull away and see things at a more abstract level.

Well, it turns out this kind of detachment can also boost your creativity.

A reader of ours, Jack Sparrow, forwarded to us a piece in Scientific American about this idea of “psychological distance.” It concludes that achieving this state of mind can actually boost creativity. An excerpt:

“Psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete. Consider, for instance, a corn plant. A concrete representation would refer to the shape, color, taste, and smell of the plant, and connect the item to its most common use – a food product. An abstract representation, on the other hand, might refer to the corn plant as a source of energy or as a fast growing plant. These more abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other, less common uses for corn, such as a source for ethanol, or to use the plant to create mazes for children. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as fast growing plants (corn) and fuel for cars (ethanol).”

And the conclusion:

“This research has important practical implications. It suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly. So the next time you’re stuck on a problem that seems impossible don’t give up. Instead, try to gain a little psychological distance, and pretend the problem came from somewhere very far away.”

You can find the full piece here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Living the absurd life

There is an interesting conversation taking place here in response to the “Embracing the Abyss” post. One thing that is missing from this conversation that deserves a fresh post is some idea of what living the absurd life means in a practical sense.

Some thoughts on that idea follow (by no means comprehensive or exhaustive) and then a pair of examples…

The absurd man is relatively indifferent about the future; his focus is on the immediate because that is more certain. This is important, because the more you try to arrange your life to certain aims and create meaning, the more you create barriers that confine your life to those aims and meanings. The more you insist on living with concerns about the future, the more you lose your absurd freedom, or inner freedom that comes from releasing those concerns.

Therefore, as absurd men we try as much as possible to be in the present moment. Is it hard? Yes. Do we do it 100% of the time? Of course not. We get better at it as time goes on. But again, we find the idea itself is liberating and worth pursuing.

Experience is all we have. The absurd man is passionate about life; he has rejected suicide. He accepts his futile struggle, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain only to have it roll back and have to start over again. Sisyphus is the absurd hero, happy in the meaningless struggle. The struggle, life itself, is enough.

As absurd men we don’t pine to be somewhere else or hope for a better or different life. We accept our lot and try to make the best of it by, among other things, living it fully, collecting experiences, trying new things and not being afraid of death.

The absurd man lives in full awareness of his absurd condition. What sets the absurd man apart is his awareness – awareness of his temporal limitations (he knows he will die) and awareness of the absurdity of his existence.

Just being aware has great benefits as we’ve written about before. It is hard to describe in words what it feels like to just be somewhere, be at complete peace with the world.

The absurd life is a life without regret. The absurd man does not live in the past. Regret in a world that has no meaning is a wasteful emotion, in fact it is practically a contradiction.

The practical effect here is that what is done is done and we don’t worry about things we can’t change.

These are, again, just some thoughts, banged out here in the lunch hour… Our whole blog is, in part, an exploration of what it means to live the absurd life and many of our posts have touched on these ideas.

As an aside, Camus often talked about the three consequences of the absurd – revolt, freedom and passion were the words he used. It might help also to go over these broadly…

Revolt essentially means to keep living without despair or resignation that some might think comes with the knowledge that all is meaningless and death and oblivion await us all.

Freedom means living indifferent to the future, living in the present, free of constraints and worries that plague those who put undo importance on what happens on this earth.

And passion means living a full life of experiences, not passing judgment on those experiences (abandoning a scale of values as Camus put it), but valuing all experiences, being aware of them and aware of the passing moments.

Albert Camus also gives examples of absurd lives in Myth of Sisyphus. The most powerful to us is the actor.

The actor is always assuming new roles, each of them is fleeting and he knows this. He plays them to the fullest and remains aware that he is acting, that it is not “real”. In a similar way, we’ve often looked at our own lives this way – as if we were playing a role. We find this detached look at one’s own life to be very helpful and calming.

We’d throw professional athletes in this mix too, very similar to the actor. He plays a game, which no one puts any special meaning on. He plays it fully (most of the time) and with passion, but again he is under no illusion that what happens on the field makes the world better or has some greater meaning. It is just a game. This, too, is a good metaphor for life. We are playing a game and we aim to play it well and play it to the hilt, but in the end it is only a game.

These are just snippets on what living the absurd life is about, but we aim to explore more of these ideas and others on this blog.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

War is Absurd

We saw The Hurt Locker the other night. The movie follows a bomb tech team charged with disarming “unexploded ordinance” like roadside bombs and other traps in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. The movie was very well done.

We also have to say that if anything brings one closer to the absurd realities of life, it seems war would do it. The characters are constantly reminded of their mortality and the seeming futility of their struggle.

In the movie, as in most war movies, the characters take up different roles.

There is the soldier who can’t stop worrying about his own death. He is obsessed with it and is afraid. There is the soldier who buries his emotions in his duty. He is the one who follows the rules, does his job and swallows down the emotions inside of him.

Then there is the main character of the movie, Sgt. James, who is the absurd hero of the film in our view. James is fearless. He is referred to, more than once, as a wild man. He seems to even enjoy what he does, seems to get a thrill from it. Sgt. James is nearly always loose and calm. He is the absurd man, facing down death.

As we mentioned, the team has to diffuse bombs. They face their own death every time out. Sometimes the bombs go off and techs are killed. And every tech knows this every time they go out on a mission. The pressure and intensity they face is incredible. The strain of daily life is almost unbearable.

We won’t give away the ending, but we recommend the movie. It will give you some food for thought, something to chew on while you enjoy your creature comforts here way away from the hell hole of war.