Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Island of the Absurd, Part I

We are, you might say, island enthusiasts. We recently read a good book by Robert Dean Frisbie, a man who spent many years on a coral atoll in the South Pacific, which relates many absurd insights and observations.

The absurd’s core ideas of a meaningless existence, acceptance of eventual death and all its corollaries seem to come out more readily when one is on a remote island. There is something about the islands that teach us much about the absurd nature of our existence.

This is what we aim to explore here, perhaps inspired by our own vacation, in which we spent many days lulled by the sound of waves and seagulls, fanned by salty sea breezes, under a bright and warm sun…

The island literature is expansive… We have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his experiences amid the palm shades and trade-winds of the South Pacific, on the Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands. (Just to say the island names seems magical.) We’ve read the tales of Defoe and Melville and Gauguin and others who spent time on those little worlds surrounded by sea. We’ve devoured such stories since we were boys.

As adults, the lure of following in their footsteps, of going bamboo, remains. We have had the pleasure of spending many days on tropical islands. Growing up, we’d spend weeks hopping Caribbean islands when we visited our grandparents. And in our position today, we have ventured to islands from the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean all the way to the Tasman Sea.

We think that being a good bit removed from the patterns of our daily lives, modern society’s futile efforts come out in more stark relief. This is not say, as we’ve pointed out before, that one can’t be absurd anywhere. But we’ve come to appreciate that certain environments make it easier to be absurd (and the see the absurd) than others. As more than one reader has pointed out, perhaps if we were less comfortable, we’d find it harder to say nothing matters. Perhaps they are right, though we like to think we can maintain our sense of equanimity in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

In fact, it may be that life’s trials bring out the absurd in someone who otherwise was comfortable. That was the case with Alexander Selkirk.

Defoe found inspiration for his Robinson Crusoe in the real story of Alexander Selkirk; a Scottish seaman marooned for four years between 1704 and 1709, on Mas a Tierra, an island 400 miles off the coast of Chile.

At first, Selkirk was miserable. His depression lingered for 18 months. He’d have crying fits. He thought about killing himself.

But eventually Selkirk began to make the best of it. He learned to hunt game – the island had goats – and fish. He cooked up stews of goat flavored with native berries. He boiled lobster. He made clothes from goatskins. He found ways to entertain himself, hunting for fun and releasing his catch. Selkirk read aloud from his Bible to maintain his ability to speak and he found ways to write.

After awhile, Selkirk becomes relatively content. He writes how “he never had a moment heavy” and that his life was “one continual feast.” He also did a lot of thinking…

Selkirk had an epiphany – a realization shared by the absurd and certain other philosophies and cultures. He came to believe that “all our discontents” sprang “from the want of thankfulness for what we have.” He thought living on the island, removed “from all the wickedness in the world” helped him realize the folly of his past life, filled with work and striving and worry for some elusive success as defined by social conventions. The island, though it would appear very confining, was more liberating. Though it might seem lonely, he found his existence there contemplative.

The island taught Selkirk how little the old world mattered, how ridiculous it all seemed as viewed from a distance. He accepted his marooned circumstances, despite their apparent difficulties. (And we are, in a sense, all marooned here on this spinning planet).

In part II, we'll look at the experience of Robert Dean Frisbie, a lone trader on a South Sea Atoll, through an absurd lens. On the atoll, Frisbie finds a people with many absurd traits, including some refreshing views on death...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Well I've searched and I've searched
To find the perfect life-
A brand new car and a brand new suit
I even got me a little wife-
But wherever I have gone
I was sure to find myself there-
You can run all your life
But not go anywhere

-- Social Distortion, Ball and Chain

We have been on vacation the past couple of weeks (although as we pointed out last year at this time, the concept of "vacation" is a bit of a misnomer to the absurd man), part of which included a visit with an uncle who is a devotee of "mindfulness," the Buddhist tradition that encourages adherents to live in each moment, neither regretting the past nor worrying about the future. Clearly this is a philosophy that has much in common with the absurd (with the rather notable difference that Buddhism assumes an interconnectedness of all things--a kind of universal consciousness, if you will), and we have discussed it in the past in this blog.

We were surprised, therefore, when our uncle, in the midst of a discussion of such matters, mentioned that his life at the moment was well-nigh perfect, and he wished he could freeze things as they were. (For context, he is in his mid-60s, lives quite comfortably in Northern California, and has three children in their 30s who have recently married, two of whom have small children.) We were taken aback, to say the least--isn't the whole point of living in each moment to avoid the impact of such externalities? We were further surprised when he attributed our own sense of contentment to our relatively secure job and family.

This, to us, is one of the more frustrating aspects of the absurd--individuals who come right to the brink of understanding...but can't follow through. It is mystifying to us how such people can understand so much, yet not see the contradiction they ultimately embrace. It truly is an all or nothing proposition - either everything matters...or nothing does. If one's family matters (the reason why we harp on family, by the way, is because it seems the one area where seemingly rational people come to a brick wall), then so does everyone else's family, and everything they do, and everything that caused them to exist in the first place, ad infinitum.

This is why we have devoted so much time and space on this blog to the chimera of "personal meaning," which many see as an out to what they view as the bleakness of the absurd. In short, the universe may be meaningless, but that doesn't mean I can't create my own little island of meaningfulness while I'm here. This sounds incredibly seductive and logical, particularly for those who view the absurd as bleak. (As an aside, perhaps we should not have been too surprised by our uncle's comments, since a few months ago he responded to a note we sent about the absurd by saying: "Existential angst!!--Yikes, can't get through a day feeling too much of that.")

But as we have noted, we view the absurd as anything but bleak. Rather, it is the most liberating feeling imaginable. Imagine...this "I" we have been carrying around since early childhood, which wants, and needs, and never seems sated...is nothing more than a fantastic illusion! We can be as content sitting on a park bench staring into space (as our old nemesis Jack Sparrow once mocked us) as living the high life of a billionaire.

But there is another reason for highlighting our uncle's comments here, and that is their "wolf in sheep's clothing" nature. For despite their seeming banality, such attitudes open the door to all sorts of unpleasant realities. To begin with, while our uncle professes to be happy because he lives in the moment, he is in fact happy only because his current circumstances conform to what he views as "good." Thus, he is vulnerable to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" to which we are all subject.

Further, this attitude that his family is important by necessity means others must be viewed as less so. Consider what he would choose if given the option to end the life of one grandchild...or 1000 African children. Is such a scenario ridiculous? Of course. And we don't pretend that we wouldn't have similar misgivings were one of our family members involved. The difference is...we know the misgivings are all part of the illusion, while he thinks they are real. He honestly believes his family is "more" valuable than others, even while he preaches the virtues of mindfulness. Think about that...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The difficult wisdom of the absurd

“Living an experience… is accepting it fully,”
- Albert Camus

We’ve often noted here how embracing the absurd can change your day to day life. It’s this interest in the practical aspects of the absurd that really drives our interest, as opposed to idle philosophy.

Over beers at our favorite local watering hole, which we’ve dubbed Absurd HQ, we often swap stories about how our absurdist ways helped us sail past shoals that would’ve snagged people who take themselves more seriously.

In our experience, the absurd has had a definite impact on how we deal with everyday life. Most recently, we returned from a big conference held by our employer. It’s a week-long event and very busy for all concerned. Most of our co-workers go on their summer vacations immediately after it is over, because it is so exhausting. And we thought it was exhausting, too. At least, we used to think so before the absurd soaked into our thinking.

This year, we were completely at ease. We felt like we were walking on air each day, without cares or worries. Perhaps another way to put it would be that we felt “light” – as if our minds were not carrying a load of concerns. And when the conference was over, we felt no such exhaustion.

We think it was because of our mental attitude during the whole event. In short, we kept the absurd in mind.

We lived in the present. “The present and a succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man,” the great absurdist Albert Camus wrote. We did not wish we were someplace else. We were here and not there and that was all. We did not think of it as working. We looked at each day as it were just another day. It just so happens we were at this conference. And finally, we looked at the whole enterprise – including our role in it – as ridiculous and meaningless.

Camus wrote eloquently about these ideas:

“Before encountering the absurd, the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification (with regard to whom or what is not the question)... He still thinks that something in his life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free, even if all the facts make a point of contradicting that liberty. But after the absurd, everything is upset.”

After the absurd, one accepts a meaningless universe and revels in it. It is freeing once you accept it. The absurd man feels totally comfortable with the idea that all is for naught. Again, from Camus:

“To work and create ‘for nothing,’ to sculpture in clay, to know that one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries – this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions.”

Difficult wisdom, indeed, and so counter to the flow of mainstream cultural thinking.

We wonder sometimes… We’ve written often about the absurd here. Sometimes, we feel we are repeating ourselves. And yet, there are also times where we wonder if we have yet to find the right words to express just what we feel. We are having those feelings now… but to try to sum up this post, we’d say: When one embraces the idea that our lives are no more significant than those of the grasshoppers – and just as fleeting – then life’s burdens seem to lift.