Friday, December 31, 2010

To stand outside of yourself

The monastic life is not a place where you think you’d find the absurd. All the devotion and seriousness of purpose and belief in the power of prayer and salvation, etc. And yet…

We read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s short book, A Time to Keep Silence, in which he writes about his experience staying at a few monasteries in Europe. Karen Armstrong’s introduction includes a fascinating passage, which strikes us as very absurd. Give this a read:

“The monastic life demands a kind of death – the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life. We are, perhaps, biologically programmed to self-preservation. Even when our physical survival is not in jeopardy, we seek to promote ourselves, to make ourselves liked, loved, and admired; display ourselves to best advantage; and pursue our own interests – often ruthlessly. But this self-preoccupation, all the world religions tell us, paradoxically holds us back from our best selves. Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves – incrementally, slowly and imperceptibly. Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.”

There much that is absurd here. And we appreciate the effort to shed the ego and stand outside of self. We’ve written before about this before. It is partly what creates those feelings of wanting to “go bamboo.” And as we read Fermor’s book, we had the urge to stay in a secluded monastery, if only for a time, to see what it is like.

Fermor writes about how uncomfortable it was at first. He felt lonely. The monks had taken vows of silence. There were long stretches of days where nothing happened. He can’t sleep. He feels depressed.

After several days though, things change. He starts to feel very relaxed. Time seems to go by quickly. He sleeps deeply at night. His attention drifts from himself. It’s as if he shed the anxieties of modern life.

We understand, rationally, that circumstances don’t matter. We can carry these liberating absurd ideas wherever we are. This was part of the learning process for us, too. We came to realize that we don’t have to go bamboo. We don’t have to travel. And we don’t have to join a monastery. Certain environments seem to make it easier to be absurd than others… but there is no reason we can’t try to step outside of ourselves wherever we are.

When you step outside of yourself, you seem more clearly the ridiculous nature of that self and of existence entirely. You see the irony of the whole thing called life.

As we write this, it is New Year’s Eve. Use it as a time to start fresh. Shed the anxieties and worries and baggage your ego demands you carry. Step out of yourself. Turn over the calendar to 2011. And revel in the fact that none of it matters.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Absurd Monsieur Monde

We recently read a terrific book by the prolific (and heretofore unknown to us) Georges Simenon, called Monsieur Monde Vanishes. The plot, basically, is that a well-to-do middle-aged man (the owner of a family firm) simply vanishes one day, leaving behind his wife and family for the pleasures of living a more down-to-earth life. As the author puts it: "He...felt so envious of those who take no heed for the morrow and know none of the responsibilities with which other men burden themselves!" He assumes a new identity and spends several months living this way, with a relatively menial job and hand-to-mouth existence, before eventually returning to his family.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some reviewers took the story at face value (or, more accurately, at an extremely superficial level), concluding that Mssr. Monde returned to his family because that was the only place to find true contentment. But nothing could be further from the truth! Instead, Mssr. Monde realized the contentment he sought ("taking no heed of the morrow") was not to be found in changing his external conditions, but rather came from within. Thus, while he returned to his family and job, he did so sans his own internal baggage (as Jack Nicholson might ask: "Is there any other kind?")

We found the story interesting for two reasons. First, it is a terrific exposition not only of someone discovering the absurd, but also of how to apply it to one's life (the section after he returns discusses his easy manner and lack of worry), and second, as noted above, we could only shake our head at the reviewers who simply refused to see the underlying message, instead cramming it into their preferred narrative that family is what really matters.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thomas Nagel on the Absurd

“The standard arguments for absurdity appear to fail as arguments. Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct.”
- Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd"

What makes our lives absurd?

To paraphrase philosopher Thomas Nagel, it is to be full of doubts we can never answer but also full of purposes we cannot abandon. It’s the awareness of this clash that makes our lives absurd.

As Nagel writes, “the main condition of absurdity” is the “the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanant, limited enterprise like a human life.”

But… is the absurd a problem to overcome?

We’ve long argued on this blog that it isn’t. We accept it. We embrace it. It is what it is.

Nagel, too, argues that the absurd is not a problem that demands a solution. It is not something that warrants distress or defiance. “I would argue,” Nagel writes, “that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight – the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.”

He goes on to say:

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a master for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

Nagel’s essay is a must-read. Print it out. Read it slowly. Give it some thought. It builds a strong foundation for the absurd.

You can find the essay here:

A reader of the blog sent us Nagel's essay and link, for which we are grateful. (Don't hesitate to send us stuff!)