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.