Friday, May 28, 2010

Camus in China

We’ve had a long absence from the blog. Well, we’ve been traveling in China for work and frankly barely had time to do much of anything. We zipped hither and yon from morning to night, crashing at the hotel in the wee hours of the morn only to arise hours later with a serious baijou-induced hangover and begin again.

(Those Chinese don’t do business without some serious baijou drinking – sort of like the Russians and their vodka. The stuff is worse than drinking tequila straight…)

We did think about the absurd quite a bit. It was hard not to. China is a strange and wonderful place with all kinds of experiences you’ll not likely find at home. It’s like a shot of… well, something… and we had a half of mind to just wander off in the hinterlands and never return.

Except that we don’t speak Mandarin… And that we were stopped by police officers more than once wondering what we were doing – we were in places where they don’t see foreigners much – which means we probably wouldn’t get far before we’d be spending the night in some Chinese jail.

Not that it would matter or that any of this matters, which is the point of this meaningless blog…

Always when we travel our mind sometimes wanders on the various ways in which we might die and never see our front door again. Most people find that depressing, we suppose, but we are fairly comfortable with the idea that one day we’ll die. It’s a matter of how.

Besides, as a passenger on China’s back roads, we saw lots of ways we could die and narrowly avoided a few, we think. We thought for sure that truck was going hit us and how we avoided it we can only chalk up to the improbable skills of our shurfu. (We think that means driver, but we’re not sure and too lazy to look it up.)

We sometimes take notes when we travel, carrying a little black notepad with us to jot down absurd thoughts and other ideas as they occur. We jotted down an interesting conversation we had with a fellow who makes chewing gum and buttons – don’t ask us how the two are related. He was fairly introspective about life in chaotic China… and somewhat absurd.

We met him at a local restaurant in a little town (by China’s standards), the kind of place where you pick what you want for dinner out of water tanks (for the fish and eels and whatever else). Then you sit down, smoke cigarettes, drink horrible alcohol and wait for them to bring your food, which come surprisingly fast. We’ve never had such fresh seafood…

Anyway, our man begins, after lighting what must be his 40th cigarette…

“It seems to me that life is a matter of routine… No matter where you are, you get settled into a routine. You do the same @#$# over and over again and you don’t think about it. I’ve always hated that.

“I left my village at an early age in search of adventure. I started my own business. But even still, I get stuck in the same routines… The same @#$#@$ every day… and I realize that you can’t escape it.

“Maybe somewhere someone has figured out a way to keep from falling into routines and falling into prisons of fixed ideas… I don’t know. Sometimes I think happiness is simply a matter of accepting whatever comes your way and not giving a @$#@ about it one way or the other.”

Well, we heard this little monologue and thought it a good time to offer up the absurd. He seemed mostly there. So we began to tell him our story, about how we stumbled around wondering what life was all about, and how we came to find absurdity in bits and pieces and how Camus put all those pieces together for us…

Since life has no meaning or purpose, we went on, we are really free – it’s as if life is a game that you can’t win or lose, that you only endure and accept… Then we stopped. Our host had a quizzical look on his face. Perhaps we had given him too much at once and his head was going to explode or, more likely, perhaps we rambled nonsensically.

”This Camus,” he said, taking another drag from his cigarette and then putting it at his temple in deep thought, “is he Chinese? I think I know this man…”


  1. On a different meaningless matter, since you asked some time ago for examples that might be absurd: I don't know if you consider Vonnegut's writing absurd, probably not considering he clearly had some political messages in mind, but I find his humor about meaninglessness wonderfully entertaining and totally absurd. I'm reading Cat's Cradle and here are two quotes from the book. "She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind" (p.33). And from a chapter called "Julian Castle Agrees with Newt That Everything is Meaningless," "Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing" (p.169).

  2. How bizarre it is — your aversion to presenting certain words. One would think someone who sees the absurd in all things would realize the absurdity of censoring one word over another.

  3. Lukas,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, we went through a Vonnegut phase. Slaughterhouse-Five was our favorite. Cat's Cradle is also excellent.

    We don't know if he is an absurd man or not. We haven't given it any thought til now. There are certainly absurd aspects to his books. Hmm...

    As to censoring our Chinese friend - we suppose you are right, but there is also nothing wrong with a simple nod to civility, like using punctuation or good manners.


  4. Hi Inigo, not that is matters, but Luke and Lukas are two different people posting here.

  5. Nice post (and *longer* than the previous two . . .)

    Myself, flying out of Italy tomorrow to Tunisia, then to the Phillipines, before coming back home to Hawaii.

    Ah, the traveling life . . . but it's all meaningless . . .

  6. Just wondering where in China are you right now?

    (have been reading your blog for some time and live in shanghai)

  7. Beijing and points north and west...

    We've been to Shanghai. Wonderful city.