“We all carry within us our prisons.”
- Albert Camus
Most of us live in a sort of unthinking routine. We get up in the morning. We eat breakfast and read the paper. We go to work. We come home. We have dinner. We go to sleep. And the next day we do it all over again.
It’s a comfortable pattern. It has its own rhythms. We are barely conscious of the ceaseless passing of days. But then one day we start wonder “Why?” This when all things begin, says Camus. The chain of daily existence is broken. This is when some of us will experience feelings of the absurdity of existence.
Those feelings run along familiar grooves, Camus thought. Among them: An awareness of the inevitable grinding away of our physical existence, knowing the end is our inevitable death. A sense that the powerful forces of nature mock our frail physical existence; that there is this big, incomprehensible universe that is unmoved by anything we do. A feeling of being alone or apart from other people, even a sense of alienation from “self,” a questioning of what is self, like lingering over an old photograph of “yourself” and wondering who that was, doubting it was the same person who gazes at the photograph today.
All of these things Camus writes about. And though they may sound depressing, Camus turned it all on its head. He instead leads us to embrace absurdity. And in this embrace is a release, a kind of liberation. He stresses the joy of life in the flesh, of living in the moment.
Happiness or equanimity, then, comes from within.
But modern life conspires against this idea. That is the thesis behind a new book titled “The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It hard to Be Happy” by Michael Foley. If happiness comes from within, then unhappiness comes from without.
We caught this review and found the idea of the book fascinating. After all, we’ve made the same case on this blog.
As the reviewer (who seems to get the idea of the absurd) writes:
“Modern life, Foley argues, has made things worse, deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, but we have been encouraged – by a post-1970s "rights" culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance – into believing that to want something is to deserve it. As Foley puts it: "Is it possible that a starving African farmer has less sense of injustice than a middle-aged western male who has never been fellated?"
(Well… that’s an interesting question!)
We agree with the idea that society is decidedly anti-absurd. It wants us to buy things. It wants us to realize our potential – a potential defined by societal norms like having physical things… a nice house, a new car (you deserve it!), a sleek body, a college education, a promising career and on and on it goes…
The futility of the ceaseless striving is obvious when we reflect that our drive for these things is never satisfied. As the reviewer goes on to write:
“It's not even as if we want what we have once we've got it. Foley calls this "the glamour of potential", a relentless churning of desire by which the things we have are devalued by the things we want next. The only way out of the churn is "detachment", an idea as compelling to the Greek and Roman stoics as to Sartre and Camus: if you can't change the world, don't let it change you.”
Many great minds have arrived at the same general conclusions. Happiness is within and we make ourselves miserable with unmet desires. The great point of absurdity is that you find happiness in the absurdity of existence itself.
The book’s opening chapter is titled “The Absurdity of Happiness” and the last chapter is titled “The Happiness of Absurdity.” Sounds like a nice progression. And it also sounds like something we have to read if only for the pleasure of finding a fellow traveler in this absurd world!