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.

Dangerous adoration

We read a terrifically absurd story in the New Yorker last night, about a man (Viana) who films his girlfriend all day, every day, because he adores her and "she'll die one day." He also tells someone he has just met that he plans to kill his girlfriend precisely because he adores her:

"I would rather kill her than allow my adoration to die, you understand. I would rather kill her than allow her to leave me, than allow my adoration to continue without its object. I can delay it for as long as possible, but it’s only a matter of time."

We found this an interesting exposition of a problem explored elsewhere in this blog--namely, the question of why one cannot agree that the universe is ultimately meaningless, but still create "meaning" for oneself. The reason, as we see it, is that in creating this "personal meaning," one also creates conflict and strife, since to favor one set of events over another is (by definition) to lead down a very slippery slope.

It is easy to view Viana as ridiculous, but is his vanity really so different from that of most people? We would argue the difference is mere shades of gray--anyone who believes "his" world has meaning (and is thus, to him, more important than others' worlds) must then be prepared to do whatever it takes to defend it. This is why the family members of heads of state are so closely guarded--we realize that presidents would make objectively irrational decisions (eg, release terrorists who would do great harm to others) if forced to decide between this and the loss of a child.

Of course, we all shake our heads at such an example and say "Well, who could blame them?" But that is exactly the point! The protective nature we feel toward our offspring (for example) is simply a mirage propagated by the fact that we are, at root, gene replication machines. Thus, we all understand how a president would sacrifice thousands of lives to save his own child--who would not do so? And is this different from Viana?

The fact is that everything we feel is a fraud; more importantly, the quest for "self-created meaning" is the most dangerous of mirages. For once we begin to stratify people and events, we are all Vianas. Viana is willing to kill to preserve his adoration. Would you be willing to kill to save your wife? How about your children? How many "other people's children" would equal one of your own?

We are not saying these are easy issues--we wrestle with them every day. But the fact of the matter is that one who believes in "self-created meaning" must also believe his personal universe is "different," and "special," and (most importantly) "more meaningful" than those of others. (How could it be otherwise?) We all feel this way; it is an integral part of our nature, genetically handed down through thousands of generations. It feels as natural as anything in the world.

It is also a lie.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Leaden-Eyed

We came across this poem the other day while reading Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. We found it a wonderful elucidation of the absurd lifestyle - although, like all poetry, it is certainly open to multiple interpretations...

The Leaden-Eyed
by Vachel Lindsay

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are oxlike, limp and leaden-eyed

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More absurd moments

“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”
- Albert Camus

We were driving to make a 10 am meeting today… We were an hour away, but it was raining and the traffic was bad. We knew we wouldn’t make it the moment we rolled out of the driveway. We would be late… not only late, but royally late… late by maybe as much as an hour…

As we rolled along the beltway at 15 miles per hour, we reflected on this predicament. We could feel a part of us did not want to be late and worried what others might think. But our inner absurd man told us not to worry. We knew being late would change nothing really. It meant nothing. It didn’t matter. It was not worth getting upset over.

And yet still there was this part of us that was annoyed at being late. We had to fight it down, like trying to wrestle down a petulant younger brother.

But in thinking about it on the way, we realized again how much of the absurd goes against the hard wiring in our brain. There is something there that pushes us in anti-absurd directions. The absurd does not come naturally, we admit. It takes a conscious effort to retrain the mind to think differently.

By the time we arrived at our meeting, we were feeling very absurd… Nothing mattered. We were relaxed and cool. Life was good. The absurd, if nothing else, is a great mechanism to cope with life’s petty frustrations…

One other anecdote from the weekend… We were meeting with our family for dinner. Mom and dad, brother, wife and kids… And the conversation at dinner, as it often does, turns to matters of utter inconsequence… Whether or not my brother’s bathtub was as white as it ought to be… Whether or not we should get new cabinet hinges to fix the squeaks in the old hinges… Whether so and so go the job he was looking for… It was the usual riff raff of family get togethers.

We pined for some more interesting conversation… This trivia and effluvia had us wanting to walk off a pier… but again, the absurd kicked in. If nothing matters, then nothing matters – not even the things we think are important or more interesting.

We’ve talked about this before… about how, viewed through an absurd prism, a presidential election, for instance, is of no greater importance than a Sunday NFL game. And though we’d much rather pay attention to the latter than the former, we have to admit the game means nothing – win or lose. But neither does anything else…

In fact, this whole post is inconsequential, as is this whole blog… But we digress… We pounded out this post only to illustrate the absurd in action in every day situations. And, in fact, this is what interests us most about the absurd – not the abstract, but the concrete. Not the pie-in-the-sky ideals, but the usefulness in daily living.

We are particularly interested in examples of the absurd life - flesh and blood examples, living and dead, but also absurd depictions in books and film and art and more. (We encourage you to send us your favorites.)

In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the old saying goes. We find the absurd helps us push our rock – even if, as with the absurd hero Sisyphus, the rock only rolls back down the hill again – and be happy in the ceaseless and meaningless pushing.

It as the great Albert Camus put it: “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Trick or treat?

A reader (and fellow blogger) left the following comment on a recent post:

"A shift in perspective can lessen the impact of an event...but it does seem to me to be a trick that one can play [on] oneself, which may work sometime, and not...actual freedom from the impact."

This is a very interesting point, and one worth exploring. To begin, let us say we essentially agree with our reader's statement--in fact, many (if not all) of the strategies we have suggested in this blog could be categorized the same way. None, in and of themselves, are intended (nor should they be expected) to effect fundamental changes in one's perception of the world. After all, no matter how hard we work at pretending to be Nicolas Cage, such efforts to delude ourselves are simply that. Aren't they?

Regular readers will notice we have (purposely) wandered into a thicket here--if one views "reality" and the concept of self as delusions, then what does it mean to say one is deluding oneself in the first place? Let's come back to that...

Again, our reader is correct that our "recommendations" are essentially thinly-disguised methods for imposing an alternate view of reality on oneself, and do not prima facie change anything about a given situation. If (to return to an earlier discussion) our wife has an affair, pretending it happened 300 years ago (or to someone else) doesn't change the fact that she did in fact have the affair; moreover, any comfort we take from this alternate view of events seems to come from fooling ourselves rather than representing a long-term solution to the pain we understandably feel. (In our reader's words, it is "a trick," rather than "actual freedom from the event.")

However, in our opinion this is to focus on the effect rather than the cause. Put a different way, the point of all these tricks is to get one to focus on the fact that our feelings and emotions are not representative of some larger "truth"; instead, they merely represent millions of years of genetic hard-wiring. Consider again the example of our wife's affair. Why does it bother us? Well, she and I promised each other we would be "faithful." Why did we do that? (Indeed, monogamy is the rare exception in nature.) Most likely, human monogamy is a tradition that grew out of agrarian cultures where it was advantageous (i.e., increased one's chances of survival) to set up a family "unit" to work the land. Going further, why did we find her (or women in general) attractive in the first place? On and on, until...we come to the root of the issue, which is that we are all (as Richard Dawkins so eloquently put it) "gene survival machines," and all the things that seem so important and relevant turn out to simply be byproducts of whatever survival strategy worked best for our ancestors.

To return to the original issue, our reader is correct that the "strategies" we offer on this blog for dealing with the absurdity of human existence are nothing more than tricks--but that is precisely the point! Let us put it this way. The "conventional wisdom" is that things have meaning, and this belief system is constantly reinforced by extraordinarily powerful genetic and cultural factors. To cite just one example, our knowledge that the sex drive is entirely due to evolutionary factors does little to diminish its effectiveness.

Thus, even those who recognize the absurdity of the human condition--who believe, as we do, that the entire notion of "existence" is cut from whole cloth, right down to the concept of the self--find it difficult to maintain this view on a day-to-day basis, as it goes against everything we see and hear (not to mention being taught to believe, essentially from birth). It is with this in mind that we offer these tricks; not to delude ourselves, but precisely the opposite--to remind ourselves, on a fairly consistent basis, that reality itself is the true delusion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Don't Panic!

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose apedescended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea’”

- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Who didn’t love Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books when they were young teens?

We bring up the Guide today because there is a new book in the series, written by Eoin Colfer called “And Another Thing.” This got us thinking about those well-loved books of Adam’s all over again.

The absurd comes to us all in different ways and through different experiences. Bomstein and I have often mused over cold beers and brats at Absurd HQ about how we liked certain writers or books or movies and couldn’t put our finger on exactly what linked many of these things together at the time.

In retrospect, we now can see the absurd DNA that links many of these things. There is the cool detachment from self and ego… the recognition and acceptance of an ultimate (and inescapable) end in death… a willingness to poke fun of and ridicule some of man’s most cherished beliefs about himself and the his place in the universe… and a desire to live life all the more fully and intensely because of the meaninglessness of it all.

We would say that the Hitchhiker’s series has a fair dose of absurdity. In fact, we would go so far as to say that absurdity is an underlying theme throughout the whole series. Things are constantly happening that have no meaning and that appear entirely random. Humans are portrayed as totally insignificant and the great cosmos completely apathetic to whatever befalls humans or any other creatures.

I mean we’re talking about a book that begins with the casual destruction of the Earth to make way for an intergalactic freeway. No one really seems to miss it or morn over its loss.

In the stories, the Hitchhiker’s Guide becomes a character all its own. Adams writes “entries” from the guide at the head of each chapter, at least in the early going. These entries are usually funny but also have some point to make about the ridiculousness of the human condition and or the universe itself. (“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”)

The words inscribed on the guide’s cover are “Don’t Panic,” which is, in a way, a sort of absurd summing up as far as what to do in a crisis. After all, if nothing matters, why panic?

We did a little internet search just to see what was out there as far as drawing the connection between the Guide series and the absurd. Turns out, there is quite a bit of stuff, including a dissertation by one Margaretha Alletta van der Colff.

She writes of the main character, Arthur Dent:

“In Arthur Dent, we see reflected the character of Meursault, a character created by Albert Camus in The Outsider, who embodies the absurdity of the human condition and the ambiguity inherent in every individual life, as well as the solitary struggle to construct meaning. Arthur Dent lives in a bubble, a bubble filled with everyday, inconsequential phenomena such as kettles, plugs, refrigerators and, of course, tea.”

There is also a whole bit in the book about discovering the answer to life, the universe and everything. The answer, it turns out, is 42. In other words, there is no meaning – at least not one we can understand. Colff writes:

“Therefore, at the end of this novel, Ford and Arthur realise the futility of trying to discover life’s ultimate meaning, since this is utterly elusive. When approached by two girls on prehistoric Earth, Ford explains the absurdity thus, ‘My friend and I were just contemplating the meaning of life. Frivolous exercise’ (Adams, 1995: 306).”

And then comes the great absurd epiphany, which separates the absurd man from all other non-believing skeptics and existentialists:

“As a grand finale, Ford also echoes Camus’s suggestion that we should celebrate and love life instead of imposing an enigmatic, ultimate meaning on it, by referring to the vestal beauty of prehistoric Earth: ‘…Forget all of it. Nothing matters. Look, it’s a beautiful day, enjoy it. The sun, the green of the hills, the river down in the valley, the burning trees’ (Adams, 1995: 307).”

If you want to explore her dissertation yourself, you can find it here:

It is, of course, academic, but we found it worth perusing...and the liberally sprinkled quotes from the books made it entertaining.

And remember... Don't panic!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Matter of Time

We want to return to the issue of time today (pun fully intended), because we believe grasping the concept that time is an illusion is critical to fully embracing the absurd. Now, we realize this statement likely seems ridiculous at first blush. After all, we all experience time--we age and die, things break, and there is not one documented example of milk unspilling itself.

However, physicists have for a long time understood that one of the effects of Einstein's theory of relativity is that there is no true distinction between past, present, and future. Brian Greene did a wonderful job illuminating this in his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, in which he explains that given the nature of space-time, all moments (past, present, and future) could actually be considered "now" for someone, somewhere. Greene calls this the "space-time loaf"--basically, think of the entire universe as the shape of a loaf of bread that encompasses all space and time.

For each individual, his present moment is a 'slice' of the loaf, which contains all the events occuring throughout all of space at that moment. However, observers in relative motion will cut the loaf at different angles, resulting in a different set of events. While such differences are vanishingly small for individuals moving at speeds we think of as "normal," they become quite significant as you approach the speed of light, as well as for individuals separated by vast distances. However, it is important to understand that such differences do exist for people walking in different directions on Earth (for example); the fact that we do not notice these differences is irrelevant.

The result, of course, is that each individual perceives different events as occurring "simultaneously." More to the point, there is no "right" or "wrong"--all frames of reference are equally valid, even though they are all different. Time, therefore, is not absolute--the statement that two events occur simultaneously is not absolutely true or false, but rather depends on the individual's frame of reference. This is pretty mind-boggling (and we highly recommend reading the book to get a better handle on this issue), but we are most interested in the consequences. As Greene puts it:

"If you buy the notion that reality consists of the things in your freeze-frame mental image right now, and if you agree that your now is no more valid that the now of someone located far away in space who can move freely, then reality encompasses all of the events in spacetime... Just as we envision all of space as really being out there, as really existing, we should also envision all of time as really being out there, as really existing, too." (Italics in original.)

Such a worldview, of course, raises a host of thorny issues, not least of which is the issue of whether or not we actually have free will. If all time is "out there," then the concept of being born, aging, and dying, is simply an illusion--all these events are already embedded in the spacetime loaf, and we simply experience them as occurring in sequence.

So what of the absurd? Well, as we noted the other day, one practical application of this theory is to recognize the arbitrary distinction we place on past, present, and future. We are currently reading "Strangers on a Train," which opens with an individual en route to finalize his divorce. He spends a great deal of time on the train agonizing over what may or may not ensue when he sees his estranged wife; then, after he sees her, reflects that all the worries now seem somewhat silly.

Who has not experienced this exact emotion? We worry about the future because we believe we can influence it by our actions (and because some circumstances seem preferable to others). Then, after the event has passed, our worries vanish since there is no more uncertainty. (Yes, people can regret actions or results, but this tends to fade over time.)

So consider this. What if we viewed all time as ancient history, or better yet, ancient history happening to someone else? We do not worry about events from three centuries ago, nor regret decisions made by long-dead ancestors; instead, we view them as fixed and unchanging, and thus unworthy of our mental anguish. Would it not be preferable to view all things this way?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back to the Future

"The past doesn't matter anyway."

We were in a business meeting today when a participant offered this seemingly blase observation. Indeed, it caused nary a ripple, resulting only in some mild nodding of heads. While he was referring to investment returns, we imagine many people would agree with this statement if applied to other aspects of life - the past, after all, has already happened, while the future--what with its endless possibilities--awaits.

And yet...what is the future but a series of pasts? Consider this example. When you look forward to a vacation, do you look forward to the trip itself, or the memories of the trip? Clearly the memories will last longer; further, you can choose to remember the good and forget the bad. This idea was behind the movie "Total Recall" (based on a short story by Philip K. Dick) - the question is whether there is a difference between implanted memories of a trip, and one you actually took. If technology existed to mimic the brain changes caused by the trip itself, how would you tell the difference? Should you even care?

To our original point...if one agrees the past is irrelevant, then how can anything be meaningful? After all, what we think of as "the past" was once "the future," and our future will someday be the distant past. Further, as physicists have known for years (and as Einstein so eloquently put it), " the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

Ten minutes ago this post was in our future; now it is part of our past. What, exactly, caused it to become irrelevant in the interim?


We have been traveling for the last couple of weeks. Traveling these days means travel in the inner tube of a jet airplane. It means time for movie-watching.

We watched a movie called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell as the lead character Sam Bell. It was a pretty good sci-fi thriller with an absurd twist.

The premise is this: At some point in the future, a company called Lunar Industries mines the moon for Helium-3, which it ships back to Earth. We use this helium to generate power in the future.

Sam Bell works for Lunar on the Moon. At this one-man outpost, Sam oversees the machines that harvest the helium from the moon's soil.

But then things get interesting... (SPOILER ALERT)

Turns out Sam is not really Sam Bell at all, but a clone of the original Sam Bell on Earth. I'll skip the twists that get us here, but Sam encounters another Sam on the station after some mix-ups accidentally activate the other Sam Bell clone.

What follows is some absurd dialogue between the two clones, who are convinced they are both the original Sam Bell. As the viewer, you're not sure who is who either. They share the same memories, uploaded from the original. They look the same. Share the same personality.

(They also find a storehouse in the station where there many more Sam Bell clones waiting to be activated when a Sam Bell clone breaks down, so there is always one operating the station.)

Later the movie reveals that they are both clones and they come to reckon with their existence.

This is all absurd philosophically, because it exposes the idea of self as an arbitrary thing, or even better, a very powerful illusion. We are just a tangle of muscles and tissues, a jungle jim of bones, a sort of self-referential feedback loop.

In the movie, the two Sams only really start to get along when they appreciate the absurdity of their existence. They stop bickering and fighting. They stop acting selfishly. In fact, they become more determined to live, and live fully, by escaping the moon base.

We don't know what message the film's director wanted to get across. But the movie struck us as quite absurd on many levels. In a sure sign of a good movie for us, we were thinking about it, on and off, for several days afterwards.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The illusion of reality

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.--Albert Einstein

We were watching a television show the other night about different ways the world could end (defined as the human race being wiped out), one of which was an asteroid hitting the Earth. Discussion of this possibility centered (predictably) on how people would respond to the news - i.e., if you were told an asteroid would hit the Earth tomorrow (or next week), how would you spend your remaining time?

We turned to our wife and asked why people should behave differently under these circumstances; after all, we are all going to die eventually, so what's the difference? She rolled her eyes and said, "Well, you can't live like that every day!"

We find this is a common sentiment about the absurd - while people accept it in theory, they find it cumbersome and unrealistic to adopt in their everyday lives. After all, how can one possibly get through the day when none of it matters?!?

To us, this represents more a misunderstanding of the absurd than some fundamental disagreement with it. For example, one of the questions we frequently hear from people when discussing the absurd is: Why do we do things that seem decidedly unabsurd--have jobs, families, etc--when we could be just as happy (as defined by the absurd) sitting on a park bench? As one reader recently put it: "Why do you choose at all to have friends, lovers, family at all when you can be happy without all of it? You don’t live isolated in the middle of the desert or a mountain or a forest. Why not?"

The answer, of course, is that it doesn't matter what we choose to do. Put a different way--by accepting that the physical world is all there is, the absurd man frees himself to enjoy any and all experiences for what they are, rather than what they mean. Thus, one can have a family...or not. Live in a crowded city...or alone in a forest. Eat, drink, and be merry!...or sit quietly in a chair.

Put simply, this notion that the absurd man must wall himself off from the world is false. Indeed, it makes a mockery of the whole concept of the absurd, which is at root a method for finding peace and contentment (and even joy) in life, but without the burden that things must be meaningful to be enjoyed.

Reality, or what we think of as reality, is nothing more than an incredibly persistent (and convincing) illusion. Whatever you are doing right now, consider how meaningful it would be were an asteroid to hit the Earth tomorrow. More to the point, how meaningful would be your entire life? How about all of human history? Would the sum total of all our actions be any more consequential...than those of the dinosaurs?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The pleasure of getting lost

We found ourselves wandering an old bazaar in a small town in the United Arab Emirates. The bazaar was quite large, with what seemed like a nearly infinite array of vendors selling everything you can imagine… down this alley was the jewelry merchants… over here, the rug weavers… and down this way men selling pistachios, watermelons and baskets of dates.

We wandered somewhat carelessly, stopping to look at this and that and ducking down new alleys and finding yet new rows of vendors. The Arabs must have an affinity for labyrinths. After wandering around a bit, we had gotten completely turned around and lost our way. Perhaps we were too enamored with the glittering treasures laid out before us, the energy of the people hustling around and mosaic of color and sound and smell…

In any event, we were lost.

Years ago, our reaction might have been one of mild panic or even annoyance. But our newer absurd self reacted differently. We simply found some pleasure in getting lost.

Our modern life seems to revolve around knowing where we are at every moment. We have cell phones, so that we are never out of touch. We have maps and street signs and coordinates of all kinds… One must know where one is at all times.

But there is some pleasure, we found, in being utterly lost. It was another way in which we appreciated the absurdity of our position. What difference did it make really, we wondered, where we were. And aren’t we all lost in a way in this big vast universe? Do any of us know where we are truly?

We reflected on this when the sweet smell of apple-flavored shisha smoke wafted into our noses. We saw a little shop and decided to stop in. There we enjoyed the shisha, a cup of tea, and sat watching the people go by.

After a time, we asked our waiter for the way out. He told us. We got lost again. We asked a kind old woman for directions and this time we got where we wanted to go. It was a pleasurable afternoon…

This episode reminded us of an incident a year ago, when we missed an international flight. This was a very inconvenient and expensive error. But again, we did not fret or let it ruin our day. We bought another ticket and headed over to the lounge for a sandwich and beer. There we met a very nice couple and actually made a business contact that we have kept to this day.

So you never know what might happen, when you let things happen…

The absurd man does not hesitate to snub his destiny, so to speak. The financial writer Nassim Taleb gave this advice in his book The Black Swan. Do not chase after missed trains, he said. We like the advice.

The essential point was this: We control so little in this world, but one thing we do control is our reaction to that world. So, focus on that.

This, too, is a key mantra for the absurd man. If life is meaningless, as the absurd man believes it to be, then there is no need to panic when lost, to fret over missed flights or to chase missed trains. He can be happy all the same.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Circumstantial evidence

One of the issues we find most difficult to convey about the absurd is that circumstances don't matter. This is not debatable--if nothing matters, then it truly doesn't make a bit of difference whether you are sitting on an idyllic beach drinking a Mai Tai...or in some medieval dungeon being stretched on the rack. That is not to say we wouldn't choose one over the other; however, it is important to realize our preference for one does not mean it is objectively better.

Consider the following question: Is it better to be free or in jail? Most people would answer the former; indeed, many might say this is a case in which one option is objectively better. Who, after all, would prefer confinement to freedom?

Well...glad you asked. In fact, what got us thinking about this issue was a scene in The Shawshank Redemption, in which an inmate who has been in prison for 50 years (Brooks) is released from jail, and finds the outside world so unbearable that he hangs himself. In other words, he not only finds prison preferable to freedom, but considers freedom so horrible that life is not worth living.

The point, of course, is that everything we think of in terms of "better" and "worse" is simply personal preference masquerading as truth. To most people, the thought of life in prison is an unimaginable hardship; to Brooks, it was the only way to live.

Arguments that Brooks was not in his "right mind" because he was "institutionalized"--in other words, freedom is better, but Brooks can't see it because he has been brainwashed--quickly fall apart. Indeed, even our original example--that of a choice between a pleasant beach and a medieval dungeon--is not so simple as it appears. Would a sadomasochist really choose the beach?

Again, the point is not that most people would not choose one or the other, but rather that such choices represent physiological and biological factors (e.g., people who enjoy pain are more likely to die young and thus leave fewer offspring than those that don't) rather than some external truth waiting to be discovered.

Now, this may seem much ado about nothing. After all, we can all agree most people would rather be on the beach than in the dungeon, so who cares if one isn't really "better" than the other. Can't we just accept that for for most people the beach is the better option...and leave it at that?

Ah...were that things were this simple. The problem with such a stance is that once we introduce any sort of experience "rankings" into our thought process, we are laying the groundwork for conflict and unhappiness. It has long been established, for example, that humans tend to overestimate both the joy received from some "good" event and the pain suffered from something "bad." In other words, humans are remarkably adaptive creatures (more so than we realize), and thus we tend to see future events (big raise, new house, loss of a loved one) as more consequential than they end up being in practice.

Thus, by investing our happiness in external factors we doom ourselves to unhappiness. First, no matter what we consider "good" or "important," it is of course impossible to maintain that state of affairs all the time. But even if it were, once we adapted to it we would find ourselves no happier than before. This is why people in California are no happier than people in the rest of the US, despite having better weather and (in theory) a more laid-back attitude and approach to life.

It is also why the correlation between happiness and material well-being breaks down shortly after people reach a very basic level of subsistence--in other words, once we have enough to eat and shelter, more stuff doesn't make us any happier. According to Charles Murray: "Happiness is very low until subsistence is reached, rises very steeply immediately thereafter, but quickly levels off as subsistence is left behind."

As Inigo has noted in some of his recent posts, the concept of everything being relative also becomes readily apparent when one explores other cultures, where people may take pleasure in rituals (to choose an extreme example--cannibalism) we find repulsive. Are we right and they wrong? How would we know? If we were raised in their culture, would we have different beliefs?

The bottom line is that this notion of objective truth is not only false, but ultimately quite destructive. In short, people strive for whatever they believe is "good," or "meaningful," only to still be unhappy once they achieve it, ad nauseum.

A fellow blogger explored a similar theme recently, and concluded thus:

"What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing."

We could not agree more. Those who rely on circumstances for happiness are doomed to a never-ending cycle of fruitless striving for unachievable goals, an endless struggle against (ultimately) the dying of the light. We, on the other hand, embrace this reality and the boundless freedom that comes with it--the freedom to be content regardless of circumstance.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Mirrors of the absurd

We find that certain events or situations are mirrors of absurdity because they reflect the absurd world – the meaninglessness of it all – back to you with greater clarity than if you didn’t have such experiences.

We’ve talked about several of them before, such as travel and vacation. On this note, Inigo finds himself wandering Arabia once again after a very long flight. Jet travel has a way of really blurring all kinds of distinctions people otherwise find very important on the ground.

On a long flight, time itself becomes rather blurry and meaningless. Is it 1 PM or isn’t it? Well, it depends on where you are. And 12 hours in a plane can be 20 hours by the clock, thanks to time zones. Your mind and body fight it out as to what time it is. Your body says sleep. Your mind sees sunshine and says the day has only begun. It’s disorienting and a good absurd mirror.

Then there are the geographical distinctions. Peeking out of your window, the U.S. slides by like a big golf course – individual states and their borders rendered completely meaningless. And then you are over a vast blue sea and then Europe passes beneath your feet and so on… Countries, cities, neighborhoods, people and their cultures, races, religions…. All rendered illegible, like ink smudges, beyond distinction. Hence, another mirror of the absurd.

Humor, too, is a great mirror. Comedians and satirists make us laugh because they reflect the ridiculousness of the world back at us. There is, for instance, The Onion, which is a bastion of the absurd.

If you don’t at least peruse The Onion now and then, if only for the headlines, you are missing out on some good stuff. I look at today’s headlines for instance. “God introduces new bird.”

The story begins:

“THE HEAVENS—In what is being described by advance marketing materials as "the first divine creation in more than 6,000 years," God Almighty, Our Lord Most High, introduced a brand-new species of bird into existence Monday…

"This came out at the perfect time," said Chet Clem, Chair of Biblical Science at Oral Roberts University. "God hadn't come out with anything in a long while, and people, quite frankly, were beginning to lose faith in Him. But this bird is totally worth the wait."
Added Clem, "It's classic God."”

This is an obvious poke at the creationist argument and helps us realize the ridiculousness of the position in a funny way.

There are similar stories satirizing all those silly and self-important government reports (“Pentagon report finds too many soldiers have the same nickname.”) And reports on sports, such as the distinction between playing games that “matter” and “don’t matter” (“Flyers defeat Devils in what everyone involved believes to be preseason game.”) There are also stories on just the absurd banality of much of existence that the papers seem to want to make news (“Sexy career woman to take hot bath after very busy day.”)

The Onion helps you see the absurd by creating this parallel universe where the meaningless nature of our existence is manifest in every story.

Armed with this kind of perspective, there is no reason to be bitter or angry when you read the “real” papers with “real” news. If nothing matters, then the things that bother you don’t matter either. Training yourself to think in this absurd way is liberating, as we’ve argued. For this reasons, our absurd mirrors are helpful in reminding us of these things. Humor is another particularly good one.

Laugh it off, we say. Life is absurd!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Alice on identity

For all our efforts to describe the myth of identity, we should not forget that Lewis Carroll explained it in a mere six sentences...

"I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!"

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Tyranny of the Past

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"--Leslie Poles Hartley, The Go-Between

We recently attended a party and noticed a curious thing--virtually all the conversations were about the past (except for those about the future). Now, one could argue this is hardly curious; indeed, we expect it would be the same at pretty much all parties, or any social gathering for that matter. But to us it was noteworthy because it brought home just how difficult is this idea of living in the present. We also found it interesting because of the zeal with which people pursued various lines of thought, as if they could actually change another's life "for the better" by recounting (for example) their new parenting strategy that really works!

This may seem small beer. After all, one could argue conversation about the present would be exceedingly boring. But this would be to miss the point. It would surely be mind-numbing to endlessly discuss one's surroundings, but what of simply enjoying the moment, rather than seeking to make it "count" by doing something, discussing something, etc?

This is no academic exercise. One of the main threads running through this blog is the concept that the notion of identity--built up through years of personal experience--is not only misleading but actually divisive, and the main impediment to achieving a sense of true peace and contentment. Thus, discussions of what we did earlier today, or last week, or when we were children, simply serve to reinforce this notion that "we" are some distinct entity that "matters" more than the hors d'oeuvres.

How could it be otherwise? Once you introduce "your" view and beliefs--cultivated through your unique life--you have automatically set yourself apart from others. For example, we recently had a conversation with a woman from India who told us she "knows" there is an afterlife (and reincarnation). We asked how she could possibly know such a thing, and she responded that she has a friend with whom she is so close that their relationship must have started in another life.

Now...let's think about this for a minute. First, her belief in reincarnation almost certainly originated in her Hindu upbringing. (In fact, she told us she "picks and chooses" which parts of Hinduism to believe.) Second, this belief has been reinforced by the fact that she has a very close friend. So what she terms "knowledge" of this matter is really nothing more than taking personal experiences and attributing "meaning" to them. What of those who were not raised Hindu? Are they simply ignorant of this reality? Or those with no close friends?

Indeed, how is such a stance different from a fundamentalist Christian who takes the Bible as the literal word of God? Both set believers apart from (and above) others who are not part of this chosen group. Is it any wonder religion has been the motivating factor for the vast majority of wars?

The reality is that each of us is but an illusion--a terrifically compelling and realistic illusion, but ephemeral nonetheless. Such a notion, of course, is earth-shattering to most people, so they construct intricate and elaborate defenses against this truth. This is not done consciously (at least for the most part), but rather reflects deep-seated cultural forces. Indeed, children today are constantly told how special they are, that everything about them is unique and thus worth celebrating. Thus, it is not surprising they develop (and cling to) this sense of "self-ness."

The tyranny of the past, therefore, refers to the labels we affix to ourselves based on past actions, emotions, and experiences; the "person" we believe we should be. This is perhaps the most insidious form of anti-absurdity, and the hardest for most people to overcome. The concept that the "I" is nothing more than particles in a sunbeam...well, this simply does not come naturally to most humans.

Once you do come to terms with it, however, it is the most liberating feeling in the world. Instead of facing each day (or experience) as a hodgepodge of fears, desires, and emotions built up over decades, the absurd man wakes up each day as an entirely new person, with a smile on his face and ready to experience whatever may come his way.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Search for Self

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago on China here. As you’ve probably heard, the People’s of Republic of China turned 60 recently, which has brought out a spate of articles reflecting on all things China.

The nut of the referenced story is this bit of anti-absurdity:

“For decades, China's authoritarian policies kept a lid on ethnic expression. Now, as the party loosens control over society, individuals are defining themselves by their culture -- embracing who they are, what language they speak and what their ancestors accomplished. "This is not a hobby or an interest," says Hukshen, a 22-year-old Manchu language student. "This is a burning emotion I feel, a need to find out who I am."

On some levels, this search can be a positive force, helping to give meaning to people's lives...”

In this blog, we ask the question who is the absurd man? And how does one live in an absurd world? We define the absurd man and his perspective through the traditional lens of example. We also define the absurd man by what he isn’t. The anti-absurd man, then, is a useful tool.

We find Hukshen is an anti-absurd man. In fact, we find the whole thrust of this passage anti-absurd on many levels.

We’ve never understood this intense desire to belong to something that so many people seem to have. It looks to us like a raft people latch on to because they are lost in a sea of meaningless. Religion and politics usually serve up what’s needed. But culture also serves the same purpose. This 22-year old finds his life devoid of meaning and must fill the hole. Hence, his “burning passion” to “find out who I am.”

The absurd man, by contrast, would embrace that sea of meaningless. He sees the world as devoid of meaning and celebrates that fact, indeed, finds it liberating.

If life is meaningless, then so, too, are all these artificial lines we draw between us, around us and through us. Race, religion, politics, language – it’s all ladled out of the same bowl.

The absurd man doesn’t need these associations to be happy. He just is and that is enough.

We’d also point out how much blood has been shed in the name of such arbitrary divisions based on where one was born or what language one speaks. China has had its bloody moments in history. It has had its share of bloody riots involving the killing of ethnic minorities.

As the absurd man values his own life and hence the life of others, such violence he cannot approve. Therefore, it is no surprise when Camus supported the anti-government actions of Gary Davis in 1948.

Gary Davis, a former American war pilot, cut up his passport and called himself a “citizen of the world.” Albert Camus, among others, approved. Given the savage history they bore witness too, one can readily see the appeal of such an ideal.

Alas, the world is not ready for that kind of absurdity just yet.

Rearranging deck chairs

We watched a bit of "Titanic" last night. While the movie is quite simplistic (the vast majority of characters are either "good" or "bad"), we nevertheless found several scenes interesting with regard to the absurd. Further, the movie as a whole provides a fascinating commentary on the way most people perceive life and death.

But first things first. Most people recall the scene, during the frantic rush to get into lifeboats, when an officer accidentally shoots a passenger, then very deliberately takes a step back (onto the ship's railing), salutes, and shoots himself in the head. We found this compelling, but not because of the act itself (like much of the movie, it is fairly predictable) - rather, it is the reactions to the act we found interesting.

Prior to the officer shooting himself, there is a mad scramble to get into lifeboats--in other words, people are desperately seeking to save their lives. Right after he shoots himself, however, there is a (very) brief moment of silence, during which you can almost sense people thinking about the implications of his act. (I.e., now he doesn't need to worry about the ship sinking.) The clamor pick up almost immediately, of course, as any thoughts about this are swept away in the renewed rush to exit the ship.

Now, we don't want to make too much of this - we don't mean to imply every passenger who witnesses the shooting experiences an existential crisis - but we do think this scene is something of a corollary for the movie as a whole...which is itself a corollary for common perceptions of life. Said a different way, everything we do is in some way related to our overwhelming desire to evade death, even as we know (at some level) the futility of our quest. Thus, the passengers who witness the suicide are no different from those who don't - except that the death they see is more immediate (and thus more "real").

This desperate quest to cheat death is a consistent theme in the movie; indeed, as we see it the entire movie is something of an unwitting advocate for the (as we call it) non-absurd approach to life. In short, the length and substance of one's life is viewed as extremely substantive. This is brought home most powerfully in the final scene, when the "heroine" throws the diamond off the ship, then dies peacefully in her sleep. The clear implication is that she has lived a "good life" (and died a "good death"), and that this is preferable to (for example) the officer who shot himself in the head.

It should go without saying that we view such attitudes as the height of folly - nevertheless, we think "Titanic" is actually a good tool for deconstructing this view of life. For example, when the woman drifts off to "eternal sleep" we see her being welcomed into what we assume is the afterlife by her friends from the boat (specifically Leonardo DiCaprio's character). The question is - was her life really preferable to his? If so, why? How does one define this?

To be clear - we are not saying we expected such issues to be explored in the movie, only that those (i.e., most people) who hold these views should stop and consider why. The vast majority of people strongly believe certain lives are "better" than others, yet few stop to question why this should be so.

Finally, the movie is a wonderful messenger for the absurd for another reason - it has given us one of the great lines with which to describe the absurd. Namely, everything we do - all the striving, caring, achieving, hoping, praying, loving, crying, celebrating, and, yes, dying - amounts to nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on our own personal Titanic.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Dude Abides

The lighter side of absurdity is on display in one of our favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. We re-visit this flick today because we read about various Lebowski fests around the country. The movie has apparently become a cult hit, maybe like Star Trek or something.

Why? Well, the movie is just funny… but if you have a philosophical bent, there is another layer that will amuse you.

There are many creeds and doctrines on display, and referred to, by name, in the movie. John Goodman’s character represents Judaism and rants about Shomer Shabbos. There is Bunny, who is clearly a hedonist and there is Maude the feminist. Three villains in the film are proudly and defiantly nihilists (“We believe in nothing!” “Yeah, we believe in nothing Lebowski!”). Smokey, a sort of rattled Vietnam vet, is a pacifist while the Sheriff of Malibu is a fascist. There is a bowler with the nickname of Jesus.

And then there is Jeff Lebowksi, known as the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges. (Ever notice the copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness on the Dude’s nightstand?) That's the Dude on the left in the photo.

The Dude is the center of the film and he is a laid back sort of guy, tolerant, lazy, definitely lives in the moment. There is a great deal of appeal in the easy-going nature of the Dude. We would even say the Dude has an absurd streak.

As Jeff Bridges wrote “For me, the Dude has a certain type of wisdom. I like to call it the “Wisdom of Fingernails:” the wisdom that gives you the ability to make your hair and fingernails grow, your heart beat, your bowels move. These are things that we know how to do, but we don’t necessarily know how we know how to do them, yet we still do them very well. And that to me is very Dude. It’s not like he’s a know-it-all, the Dude. He’s not a guy who has figured out the way to be or anything like that, but he is comfortable with that he’s got, and, as the Stranger says [in the movie], things turn out pretty well for him.”

The signature line that sums up the Dude’s philosophy is this: “the Dude abides.” Abide means to tolerate and endure, to accept without objection. It means to get along.

As the Dude likes to say, “Take it easy, man.” I don’t know exactly why, but the movie always puts a smile on our face and puts us in a good mood, no matter how many times we've seen it. We think the Dude has it about right. The Dude abides.