Friday, December 31, 2010

To stand outside of yourself

The monastic life is not a place where you think you’d find the absurd. All the devotion and seriousness of purpose and belief in the power of prayer and salvation, etc. And yet…

We read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short book, A Time to Keep Silence, in which he writes about his experience staying at a few monasteries in Europe. Karen Armstrong’s introduction includes a fascinating passage, which strikes us as very absurd. Give this a read:

“The monastic life demands a kind of death – the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life. We are, perhaps, biologically programmed to self-preservation. Even when our physical survival is not in jeopardy, we seek to promote ourselves, to make ourselves liked, loved, and admired; display ourselves to best advantage; and pursue our own interests – often ruthlessly. But this self-preoccupation, all the world religions tell us, paradoxically holds us back from our best selves. Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves – incrementally, slowly and imperceptibly. Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.”

There much that is absurd here. And we appreciate the effort to shed the ego and stand outside of self. We’ve written before about this before. It is partly what creates those feelings of wanting to “go bamboo.” And as we read Fermor’s book, we had the urge to stay in a secluded monastery, if only for a time, to see what it is like.

Fermor writes about how uncomfortable it was at first. He felt lonely. The monks had taken vows of silence. There were long stretches of days where nothing happened. He can’t sleep. He feels depressed.

After several days though, things change. He starts to feel very relaxed. Time seems to go by quickly. He sleeps deeply at night. His attention drifts from himself. It’s as if he shed the anxieties of modern life.

We understand, rationally, that circumstances don’t matter. We can carry these liberating absurd ideas wherever we are. This was part of the learning process for us, too. We came to realize that we don’t have to go bamboo. We don’t have to travel. And we don’t have to join a monastery. Certain environments seem to make it easier to be absurd than others… but there is no reason we can’t try to step outside of ourselves wherever we are.

When you step outside of yourself, you seem more clearly the ridiculous nature of that self and of existence entirely. You see the irony of the whole thing called life.

As we write this, it is New Year’s Eve. Use it as a time to start fresh. Shed the anxieties and worries and baggage your ego demands you carry. Step out of yourself. Turn over the calendar to 2011. And revel in the fact that none of it matters.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Absurd Monsieur Monde

We recently read a terrific book by the prolific (and heretofore unknown to us) Georges Simenon, called Monsieur Monde Vanishes. The plot, basically, is that a well-to-do middle-aged man (the owner of a family firm) simply vanishes one day, leaving behind his wife and family for the pleasures of living a more down-to-earth life. As the author puts it: "He...felt so envious of those who take no heed for the morrow and know none of the responsibilities with which other men burden themselves!" He assumes a new identity and spends several months living this way, with a relatively menial job and hand-to-mouth existence, before eventually returning to his family.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some reviewers took the story at face value (or, more accurately, at an extremely superficial level), concluding that Mssr. Monde returned to his family because that was the only place to find true contentment. But nothing could be further from the truth! Instead, Mssr. Monde realized the contentment he sought ("taking no heed of the morrow") was not to be found in changing his external conditions, but rather came from within. Thus, while he returned to his family and job, he did so sans his own internal baggage (as Jack Nicholson might ask: "Is there any other kind?")

We found the story interesting for two reasons. First, it is a terrific exposition not only of someone discovering the absurd, but also of how to apply it to one's life (the section after he returns discusses his easy manner and lack of worry), and second, as noted above, we could only shake our head at the reviewers who simply refused to see the underlying message, instead cramming it into their preferred narrative that family is what really matters.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thomas Nagel on the Absurd

“The standard arguments for absurdity appear to fail as arguments. Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct.”
- Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd"

What makes our lives absurd?

To paraphrase philosopher Thomas Nagel, it is to be full of doubts we can never answer but also full of purposes we cannot abandon. It’s the awareness of this clash that makes our lives absurd.

As Nagel writes, “the main condition of absurdity” is the “the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanant, limited enterprise like a human life.”

But… is the absurd a problem to overcome?

We’ve long argued on this blog that it isn’t. We accept it. We embrace it. It is what it is.

Nagel, too, argues that the absurd is not a problem that demands a solution. It is not something that warrants distress or defiance. “I would argue,” Nagel writes, “that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight – the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.”

He goes on to say:

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a master for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

Nagel’s essay is a must-read. Print it out. Read it slowly. Give it some thought. It builds a strong foundation for the absurd.

You can find the essay here:

A reader of the blog sent us Nagel's essay and link, for which we are grateful. (Don't hesitate to send us stuff!)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


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

- Samuel Johnson

We are thankful.

On the eve of the traditional feast, we recall, too, the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, which carry absurdist undertones:

“Abstinence in eating and drinking has no essential bearing on salvation: The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink… the holy apostles understood that the kingdom of God does not consist in eating and drinking, but in resignation to either lot, for they are neither elated by abundance, nor distressed by want.”

That is an essentially absurd statement, save for the references to salvation and all that. But really, living the absurd life is about acceptance of “either lot” as St. Thomas says. It is to view the world with a certain detachment, or equanimity.

Worry not about eating too much, nor make a virtue of self-denial. We recall that when the famous economist John Maynard Keynes was asked on his deathbed if he had any regrets, he said he wished he had drunk more champagne.

So, enjoy the holidays. Forget your worries. Live life without regrets. Accept what comes with equanimity.

And be thankful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, absurd man

"Ne'er the self-same men shall meet; the years shall make us other men."
- Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was an absurd man, or at least he seemed to embrace many absurd ideas, particularly about the illusory nature of self.

Burton was one of the great Victorian adventurers. He played many roles – explorer, spy, soldier, translator, anthropologist, writer and perhaps half a dozen others. He was master of many languages – Arabic, Persian, Punjabi, Sindhi and more. Burton was tall and swarthy and with his language skills and mastery of disguise he could often pass as a native. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, for instance, a great risk for a European. He also was the first white man to enter the forbidden Muslim city of Harare in Somaliland. As an explorer he journeyed to find the source of the Nile on two different occasions and did find the source of the Congo. Burton was also a writer for life and wrote many books. He was the first translator of Arabian Nights.

We are only touching on the highlights here, but is ought to be clear that Burton lived a full life. We recently finished reading Christopher Ondaatje’s Sind Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Ondaatje retraces Burton’s early years in India and Pakistan and relates stories of Burton’s life and times in this region.

We were stuck with the many absurd aspects of Burton’s character. It is hard to describe Burton’s attitude, because he did not write much about himself. That has frustrated many biographers who have tried to figure out who he was.

But his life speaks volumes about how unconcerned Burton was about the notion of self and how, instead, he seemed to relish the experience of living without worrying about what it might mean or what his purpose was or even who he was. Burton was a curious cat who simply followed his whims.

Burton himself loved to play many different roles – hence that long list we mentioned up top. In many of his journeys he takes on different disguises, whether as a Muslim Hajji or a Pashtu horse trader, with gusto. He was good enough – not only with language and the physical aspects of his disguise, but also with the subtle things such as manner, stance, gestures and the like – to fool the natives into thinking he himself was a native.

He also dabbled in many different religions. This, too, frustrates his biographers who debate what religion Burton was. At different times he was a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Brahman Hindu, Sikh and Sufi. This is another absurd element of his life as he seemed to not take any commitment seriously. He took on these different religions more out of curiosity, it seems, just to see what it was like, to experience the rituals.

This curiosity and lack of inhibitions ran through his whole life. He was particularly curious about things that were “forbidden” and so he spends much time exploring the underside of societies, such as brothels. His detailed report on the boy brothels of Karachi wound up getting him kicked out of the army.

He also experimented with drugs, using cannabis and opium at different times. He liked to drink. He was like Hunter Thompson before there was Hunter Thompson. He was very interested in sex and wrote about different sexual practices. He translated the Kama Sutra. Again, this has created debate among his biographers about whether he was a drug addict, alcoholic or had some kind of sexual addiction.

What we see is something of an absurd man. A man who understands on some level that life has no meaning or purpose, that there is no self to sweat over or worry about. Hence, his ease with taking on so many different roles. We see a man who loved life and plunged right in, following his whims without worry.

Now, we’ll never really know what Burton thought. But we were inspired by the example of Burton’s life. Albert Camus wrote that “we all carry within us our prisons.” Burton was a man who slipped many of those self-imposed prisons. He was free and he was absurd.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Cook's Lesson

In the spirit of not voting, we submit for the record an outstanding short (and we do mean short) story by Lydia Davis:

The Cook's Lesson
by Lydia Davis

Today I have learned a great lesson; our cook was my teacher. She is twenty-five years old and she's French. I discovered that she does not know that Louis-Philippe is no longer king of France and we now have a republic. And yet it has been five years since he left the throne. She said the fact that he is no longer king simply does not interest her in the least--those were her words.

And I think of myself as an intelligent man! But compared to her I'm an imbecile.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Screwing ourselves

Now you're climbin' to the top of the company ladder
Hope it doesn't take too long

Can't you see there'll come a day when it won't matter

Come a day when you'll be gone

Boston, Peace of Mind

But Marge, what if we chose the wrong religion? Each week we just make God madder and madder.

Homer Simpson

Cheers is one of our all-time favorite shows. We recall one episode with particular fondness, in which some Cheers regulars pull a practical joke on a rival bar, then become so worried about retribution that they decide to punish themselves, hoping to mollify the other bar's owner. After coming to this momentous decision, they begin to chant "Screw ourselves! Screw ourselves!"

We believe this is a useful corollary for the absurd, for what can we make of the human propensity to worry, regret, and obsess over the fleeting vagaries that make up our life, other than that we are, in effect, screwing ourselves? Why, instead of greeting each moment as joyous, a gift to be treasured, do we regret the decisions we made earlier this week (or last decade), or fret over what will happen tomorrow...or when we "retire"?!? Why do our minds so relentlessly focus on anything other than the present? Why do we nod in agreement when Agent Smith, in The Matrix, claims that "human beings define their reality through suffering and misery"?

We must ask ourselves...why?

Well, to be honest, we don't have the answer. We imagine it has something (perhaps a great deal) to do with our biological predisposition to survive, as a peaceful individual staring up at the stars is far less likely to survive (to say nothing of reproduce) than one driven to compete with others for wealth, status, and the affections of the opposite sex.

But more important than this reality is what one can do with such knowledge. Upset about something at work? Don't be! Had an argument with your spouse? Who cares! (Or as Inigo put what?!?) We all inhabit our own little worlds ("a prison inside our heads," as David Foster Wallace once put it), and have the ability to live (and feel) as we choose, no matter the circumstances. This is often a difficult hurdle for people to overcome, as we are indeed pre-programmed to feel as if the insignificant events in our meaningless lives are not only important, but of extraordinary us!

Next time you encounter some setback or disappointing news, consider how your reaction would be different had it instead happened to your next door neighbor. Or someone across town. Or on the other side of the planet. Would a starving child in rural China really care about a difficult commute?

Or, consider how such news would be received by yourself...10 years ago. Would your teenage self really be upset at losing out on a promotion? Why should your reaction to events be tied not only into this ephemeral notion of the self, but of its current incarnation? (For those who are interested, this idea is called "temporal neutrality," and Derek Parfit has a fascinating discussion of it in his book Reasons and Persons.)

We are so wrapped up in the false importance of personal experience that we not only cannot see the forest for the trees, but are obsessed with lines in the bark. We worry about this, that, or the other thing, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the importance of our worries, even as six billion others have their own critical concerns. Your own personal narrative, carefully constructed, cultivated, and nurtured over all these long years, is nothing but a seductive myth.

Happily, the likelihood of determinism notwithstanding, we at least have the illusion of control over our own emotions. Thus, every one of us can choose right now to lead a life free of worry and regret, in which we truly celebrate the miracle of each additional moment.

Or...we can keep right on screwing ourselves.

Monday, October 25, 2010

So what?

So what?

It’s fast becoming one of our favorite phrases. Absurdity seems to demand a light touch. Recognizing the meaningless of it all and the soap bubble nature of our existence means you see a lot of people making a big to do over nothing….

Next time you see someone getting all bent of shape about something, throw in a so what and see what happens. It’s like a sort of mental grenade that, upon impact, makes the other person stop in their mental track.

We did this to the wife recently, when she seemed to go apeshit because our son forgot some homework. “So what?” we said. If you say enough “so what’s” the other person can’t help but get a little existential. At least for a moment.

A pause followed… “He’ll get a zero if he doesn’t turn it in.”

“But again, so what?” we said. “He missed a homework assignment. It’s not worth getting all upset about.”

People seem to get most un-absurd about their kids. Especially the moms. We always thought the old advice from D.H. Lawrence has great merit:

“Take all due care of him, materially; give him all the care and tenderness and wrath which the spontaneous soul emits: but always, always, at the very quick, leave him alone. He is never to be merged into you nor you into him.”

With their mom away one weekend, we put DHL’s advice into play. We let them sleep in. We let them find their own ways to occupy themselves. We gently reminded them of their responsibilities for the day and let them sort out when they would do them. It worked rather well. The stress level was zero for both kids and dad.

Well, whatever… we don’t mean to give serious advice of any kind on child-raising. We simply point out that most people take themselves and their kids deathly serious. And they shouldn’t. Life is absurd. That includes kids and family.

We also find the “so what” exercise good for ourselves. Faced with an unexpected setback at work recently, we found ourselves saying “so what.” Just saying it and working out what might happen seemed to immediately cast the setback in its proper light – which is, that it is nothing worth getting upset over.

Steeped in the absurd, we find it hard to take much of anything too seriously. It’s as if it’s all unreal somehow.

Anyway, we’ve found the “so what” question a useful one for maintaining that sense of equanimity. Use it and see what happens. We think you’ll find that if you ask it enough, life’s absurd colors come out a little brighter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vacation and the absurd man

If you are living an absurd life, then you have nothing to escape from. Hence, the idea of vacation takes on an ironic aspect. We’ve alluded to this in the past, putting the word vacation in quotes or noting, parenthetically, the misnomer of an absurd man on vacation.

In this post, we aim to explore this link between work and play a touch more. In a sense, the absurd man is always on vacation.

If life is meaningless and our struggles – like that of Sisyphus – futile, then what difference does vacation make in this? If the absurd man accepts that life is absurd, then it makes no difference if he is “working” or not. The distinction is arbitrary.

Or, as a far-left-leaning friend of ours would say, “Vacation is a capitalist construct.” On some level, she is right. The idea of taking a vacation only came about when there was a need for it. Man first had to have that thing called a “job.”

The idea, as we know it, is a post-industrial invention.

E.P. Thompson writes about this in The Making of the English Working Class. He looks at different pre-industrial workers, such as silver miners in Mexico. The idea is that while people certainly worked, the modern concept of a job would’ve been a foreign one to them.

Instead, their work was much more irregular and task-oriented. You worked until you completed a task. Then your job was done and you were free to indulge in siestas and drink beer until you found another.

There was no sense in being stuck in a harness pulling for the same master for a paycheck. There was no sense, either, that one would be working all the time or on any regular schedule. As Thompson says, Mexican miners would be “willing to work only three or four days a week if that paid for necessities.”

There were many other ways in which one could spend one’s days – with family, fishing, gardening, playing sports or meeting your buddies at the local watering hole. The point is that the idea that one ought to be working most days of the week was not yet socially normal.

Thompson writes that for most of human history “the work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labor and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives.” Today, this lifestyle persists among our more creative classes – artists, writers, actors and the like. They tend to work for a time, around a task, and then idle until the next gig.

Now, we don’t know if Thompson is entirely accurate here. We suspect there is some romanticizing of the pre-industrial age. (We think of all the bad teeth, itchy clothing and body odor of those times…) Nonetheless, we think the observation is not so far off the mark. People simply viewed work differently than we do today.

All of this suggests, too, that the idea of vacation came about when we got jobs – jobs so unpleasant that we had to create a means to escape them. Now, people find it normal to go groveling to an employer to ask for time off. Two weeks of annual vacation is normal for many starting out.

It’s an odd thing, when you stop and think about it – especially in light of some of the work patterns of the past, such as those that Thompson writes about.

And for the absurd man, the modern day ideas on work and play take on an especially ironic meaning. We are all dead either way, whether we take a vacation or not.

In light of that, we say play all the time. The concept of work and play are in our heads. Better, we think, to learn to accept the absurdity of life and reject the arbitrary nature of society’s common divisions. It’s all the same. It’s an experience called life. Escapism is an idea antithetical to absurdity.

Some of this may seem unrealistic, difficult and perhaps even naive. But we think one can live an absurd life. Life is absurd. Nothing matters. Not even work. And that is a liberating thought indeed. As Anthony Bourdain put it, “When you don’t give a shit… you win.”