“No man can be ignorant that he must die, nor be sure that he may not this very day.”
- Cicero: De senectute, c. 78 B.C.
“We pass away out of the world as grasshoppers.”
- II Esdras IV, 24, c. 100
Well, our grandfather died after a four-month long bout with cancer. The experience and conversations we’ve had around this event inspire many absurd thoughts.
For instance, death, we know, is a natural thing. It is a door that we all must walk through. We expect it. We write about it here often. Awareness of the inevitable end is a core part of the absurd. And yet, it is not something one can experience nor is it something we see much of.
Albert Camus wrote eloquently on this point. “What is blue, and how do we think “blue”? The same difficulty occurs with death,” he writes. “I tell myself: I am going to die, but this means nothing since I cannot manage to believe it and can only experience other people’s death.”
We think Camus is on to something. We have been expecting our grandfather’s death, yet when it happened, it felt… strange.
Or our mother put it, “It’s surreal… It’s like one day he is here and then, he isn’t anymore.” The sentiment begs all sorts of absurd questions – such as who was he exactly? What was he? The self, we’ve contended often, is a powerful illusion. In death, the illusion shatters like a crystal vase dropped on a hardwood floor. There is no “self,” only a body. And soon even that will disappear.
Our grandfather in his semi-absurd ways, wanted no funeral or service. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes tossed into the ocean. No headstone. Nothing. This does not sit so well with our mother. But as she says, “He was not a religious man. He believed when you died, you were dead and that’s that. He never understood why families spend so much money and time on things like a casket and a funeral.” This sounded rational to us, we thought.
There are things he left behind, of course; evidence of a life, of choices made – a closet full of clothes, old shoes and personal knickknacks of all kinds. But these are just things. The true ephemeral nature of life is starkly clear.
As Bomstein said over wheat beers and brats at Absurd HQ the other day, people are defined by their connections to other people. Our grandfather now exists as a memory only among those who knew him. Thinking of this reminds us of our own fragile existence.
His death also brings other absurd feelings more to the surface. For example, our mother gave him a watch for his birthday. It needed adjustment. Our grandfather took it to the jeweler where our mother bought the watch. They wanted to charge him something for the service unless he had the receipt. So he goes home and asks our mother for the receipt. She sends it in the mail. In the interim, he falls ill. The watch is never adjusted.
It is but a small example of one of life’s small tasks left undone. In view of his death, the triviality of the task is absolutely clear. It really does not matter now… but did it matter even before? The absurd has us answer definitively that it never mattered.
It makes us think… Think of all the things in a life that would remain undone if you were to disappear tomorrow. The garbage would not go out. The lawn would go without mowing. And that coupon you meant to use would expire.
Death casts all such things in a ridiculous light. This is not a bad light, necessarily. This is one area where people misconstrue the absurd. We are not saying the absurd man never mows the lawn or performs the day-by-day tasks of everyman. The absurd man simply knows in his mind how meaningless it all is – not just the day-to-day tasks and concerns, but the whole enchilada of life.
This doesn’t prevent him from enjoying himself. Quite the contrary, as we’ve said many times before. The absurd man finds comfort in this knowledge that all is temporary and nothing matters. He finds it freeing. It gives his life a sense of lightness and air.
This is the power of the absurd in our view. As Camus put it: “What is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads? And what more legitimate harmony can unite a man with life than the dual consciousness of his longing to endure and his awareness of death? At least he learns to count on nothing and to see the present as the only truth given to us…”