Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gone Bamboo, II

Inigo Montoya on assignment for the "Who Is the Absurd Man?" blog...

(Yes, it's a tough life...)

We are in Nicaragua, visiting an absurd buddy of ours from college days. He has gone bamboo, as we wrote about here.

There is the beach… the sun and the waves… He lives a very laid back lifestyle, free of many of the distractions and chaos of modern life. He lives simply. He seemed to not have many material possessions. In fact, he told us when he moved here five years ago he took only what he could carry.

He has since picked up things while here. He is not an ascetic. He has a TV and DVD player, a bookshelf of second hand books and even an internet connection. But it is all modest and yet somehow very comfortable. And always we could hear the ocean.

He doesn’t work at the moment. The cost of living is so cheap; he only has to work occasionally to live pretty well. His living expenses he told us can go as low as $500 a month.

The food is fresh and good. You could eat a big dinner with a couple of beers and it would cost you about three dollars. We walked through an open-air market in the nearby town...

And there you could find fresh seafood pulled out of the sea that morning. A rack of these beauties cost you only about $1.

We were feeling very mellow and absurd the whole time we were there. For whatever reasons, the ridiculous and futile nature of life back home seemed readily evident here. Really, it is as Thoreau once wrote, somewhere, that men need little to be happy.

These feelings made us want to chuck it all and head for life in the sun. As Rick wrote about in his post here, our pangs for going bamboo (GB) have made us think.

However, after being here a week, we have to say we’ve come to a different conclusion than the one we expected. In fact, Rick tipped our hand in his post the other day.

What we started to realize is that this thing – this pang for GB – is really all in our head. The absurd is a sensibility. It’s a way of thinking. There is no reason why we can’t be just as absurd at home as here. Somehow, that seems more clear to us now than before.

After all, we frequently are critical of those that drive themselves to be rich or famous, those that grasp for some arbitrary measure of success. And it occurs to us that the GB pang is no different. It's a grasping of a different sort, but a grasping nonetheless. It is hardly consistent with the equanimity of the true absurd man, able to find a sense of contentment in whatever circumstances he finds himself in.

The truth of the matter is that there is no absurd lifestyle. There is no "absurd way to be." It's all inside. Absurd men can go live on a beach in the GB fashion. But an absurd man may just as well live in a big city and seem, to the outside world, a hard-working fellow.

Camus dealt with these ideas in Myth of Sisyphus. "The lover, the actor, or the adventurer plays the absurd. But equally well, if he wishes, the chaste man, the civil servant, or the president of the Republic. It is enough to know and mask nothing."

He also uses this wonderful metaphor. The absurd men are, he says, like princes, but "they have this advantage over others: they know all royalties are illusory."

The key conclusion then is simply this: The absurd man can live like any other man, The difference is he knows it's all an illusion. The absurd man knows that nothing matters in the end.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Behind Enemy Lines

"I see dead people...Walking around like regular people. They don't see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead."--Cole Sear, The Sixth Sense

First, a mea culpa. We apologize profusely for our (in retrospect) short-sighted and misguided most recent post, in which we fell victim to the affliction we have spent much time and effort railing against--the notion that circumstances matter, and certain experiences are better than others. What can we say? To err is indeed human; still, we are more than a bit embarrassed we let ourselves be seduced by this delusion.

As often happens, however, this brush with non-absurdity has actually strengthened our commitment (as it were) to the absurd--seeing how easily we fell into this trap, despite the fact that we spend much time discussing and writing (some would say obsessing...) about this very topic...well, let's just say our eyes are open a bit wider today than yesterday.

The experience also got us thinking (again) about the difficulty of maintaining one's absurdity in a non-absurd world. Not so much that it is easy to lose one's perspective on reality (although clearly this is so), but instead about devising ways to maximize our ongoing recognition of the meaninglessness of existence.

Our error the other day was in naively assuming there truly was something "different" about living a simpler life--that such a life was somehow more in line with the absurd. But as an astute reader pointed out, "the absurd man doesn't 'belong' anywhere, and certainly not in one place over another...The absurd man gone bamboo represents one style of life playing the absurd. But so does the hard-working dad, should he prefer that. Going bamboo and sitting around in the sun all day long is, albeit perhaps very pleasant, indeed at best a useful trick."

At best a useful trick...We have discussed the concept of tricks in the past, and the more we think about it the more useful we find such ideas. In short, human nature being what it is (most notably the incredibly powerful illusion of the self), we doubt many individuals can sustain true equanimity without resorting to some form of trickery now and then. Indeed, this is true even of "professional" absurdists--we understand some monks move every two or three years lest they get attached to their surroundings.

One trick we have developed of late is the concept of being "behind enemy lines." Let us explain. Since recognizing the absurd, we often find ourselves bemused at the actions and comments of others, but bemusement can quickly turn to frustration or annoyance at the (for lack of a better term) absurdity of others' concerns. One way we deal with this is to treat dealings with non-absurd individuals as we would enemy encounters on hostile ground.

We find playing such a role (akin to an absurd "spy") to be tremendously entertaining; further, it allows us to feign interest in virtually any subject. Coming environmental catastrophe? Fascinating! (And deeply troubling...) Your daughter's field hockey game? Wonderfully elucidating! Features on your new car? Amazing--what will they think of next?!?

You must be cautious, however--playing such a role requires total commitment to the character, otherwise one will simply appear insincere and irritating. (A role we also play on occasion...) Further, one must always be cognizant the other characters likely don't know it's a play (although they may--the absurd lurks in strange places...). Above all, have fun with it! While we sometimes take pleasure in extolling the virtues of the absurd to the uninitiated, we also enjoy playing different roles--the absurd man in disguise, if you will.

We leave you with a quote from Ludwig Bemelmans (originally posted by Inigo):

"People such as I live by rules of their own. We are not happy with the comforts that the group offers. We are off-horses, misfits… In the design that has been imposed upon humanity we are solitary, self-appointed outcasts. Outcast is too dramatic a word; let’s call us alonegoers. That also is not quite true, for I seek people and like them, but still in their midst I am alone…"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Absurd simplicity

As Inigo recently mentioned, he is currently in Central America visiting an old friend who "has a Thoreau-like lifestyle." His updates have been like catnip to us - how wonderful, we find ourselves thinking, to live so simply, with the beach at one's doorstep, no cares, no responsibilities...

Wait a minute! Is not the stated and relentlessly repeated mission of this blog to inform and educate people that such a lifestyle is available to anyone, anywhere?!? Have we not argued extensively (some might say a bit too extensively...) that all experiences are equivalent; that the "pleasures" we think we experience are no better (or worse) than the worst horrors imaginable?!?

We have, and we have. Which, to steal a phrase from a former (and, let it be said, quite awful) Federal Reserve chairman, poses a bit of a conundrum. To wit - if all experience is equivalent, then why do we feel such a pull to the "Gone Bamboo" lifestyle (hereafter referred to as GB)? Indeed, even as we covet this bucolic existence we chastise ourselves for the ridiculousness of our feelings...yet cannot fully shake them. The reality is, when it comes right down to it...we honestly believe we would be happier living such a life.

So we wondered - does such an admission mean we are less absurd than we thought? Is a desire to live a life free of desire...still a desire? Conversely, is the individual who chooses to live such a life actually more absurd, or has he simply put himself in a more favorable position? Put it this way - while we have argued (and still believe) circumstances are irrelevant, we have also written often about the difficulties of living an absurd life in a decidedly non-absurd world. Clearly such issues are less prevalent for one who has GB, and perhaps it is this that explains the appeal.

In other words, the simpler one's life, the fewer the obstacles to truly living in each moment. While we can devise tricks to constantly remind ourselves of the absurd, the fact is that human nature (and much of civilization) is essentially non-absurd (else we would have died off long ago). Thus, to GB could be seen as a strategy to remove such complications - i.e., to facilitate an easier path to living the absurd life.

Hmm...when viewed this way, GB sounds like just another trick (albeit a very sophisticated one) to counteract one's innate nature. The question, to us, comes down to this - would one who has GB continue to live the same carefree life if placed in a different environment? Said a different way - does the decision to live such a life mean one is inherently more absurd...or that one is simply making it easier on oneself to do so? Or are these arbitrary, thin, and irrelevant distinctions?

The unfortunate answer here is...we're really not sure. We honestly believe nothing matters, and that experiences are indeed equivalent. We can argue these points endlessly, citing numerous reasons they must be true. And yet, we cannot escape the feeling that the absurd man, in some way, belongs by the beach, eating seafood and vegetables, taking long walks, and reading tattered second-hand books.

As we said, it is a conundrum...

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bolts of Absurdity

Feelings of absurdity can strike people at any time. It’s like some random bolt hurled from somewhere that cracks open the mind to ask new questions about what’s it all for?

We’re always fascinated when we see this bolt strike other people. For instance, in the last issue of Travel & Leisure, a travel writer explored the bookstores of London. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the piece, it was if Camus took a wet eel and knocked this guy right on his noggin:

“I’ve developed a strange ambivalence about bookstores. I look at the piles and crowded shelves and the specials and the staff favorites, and – some days – I wonder what it’s all for. Why write another book to add to the subdued melee of bookselling? Who buys all these books? Who has time to read them all?”

Ahh… the absurd.

Why do anything? Why care about anything at all?

We wonder these kinds of things all the time. For example, this morning over hot tea and a crunchy bagel, the absurd made its move. Why bother working today, we thought. It’s sunny outside. We read the papers. We felt angry about the pathological stupidity of our government and wished them all dead.

But then it’s like those cartoons where a little angel pops up over one shoulder and a little devil pops up over the other, each with his own counsel. Except in our case, it is a little Albert Camus who pops up on our shoulder in a trench coat, smoking a cigarette. “Qu'est-ce que cela peut faire?” he tells us. “La vie est absurd!”

Of course he is right and equilibrium is restored. We laugh at the silly Congress people and go back to enjoying our tea and the warm sun filtering into the kitchen.

Not everyone comes to such absurd conclusions. Despair seems a common emotion. Tell a man that his life means nothing and – if he believes you – odds are he feels ready to jump off the nearest bridge.

Another common emotion is the “let’s put up a screen and hide this ugly fact!” These are the folks who want to create meaning or purpose of some kind. They may ask the questions, but then they provide their own weak answers… Well, family is important, they might say. Self-fulfillment is important, you know, being the best I can be. God is important.

But, sometimes people will draw the absurd conclusion, which is simply acceptance. It is a great philosophical shrug to the question of “What’s it all for?”

And we were glad to see this travel writer came to an absurd end. Rather than try to make a case for why bookstores were important… rather than prattle on about the importance of reading… or how “we do it for the kids”… this writer answered his questions this way:

“Other days, the same store has rich wonders, and I remember why I’ve been reading all my life.”

In other words, he gives the whole thing a big shrug. He enjoys bookstores because… well, he enjoys them. And that’s that.

Often we come to the same conclusion. We do what we do because we do. That’s the way it is. Not every movement has to be explained or rationalized. It’s just the way it is. Acceptance.

Why bother writing this blog at all? Why bother posting? We wonder about this too… and then we shrug. Because we do. That is enough.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The comfort of irrelevance

"I devoted my life, longer than you can possibly imagine, in service of a man who told me that everything was happening for a reason, that he had a plan, plan that I was a part of, when the time was right that he'd share it with me, and now that man's gone so...why do I want to die? Because I just found out my entire life had no purpose."--Richard Alpert, character from Lost.

We were chatting with Inigo the other day about Karl Popper, the philosopher who said (among other things) that the way to empirically test scientific theories was not to seek confirmatory evidence, but rather to do one's best to falsify the theory. His famous example was that while one could see only white swans one's entire life and (quite reasonably) assume all swans are white, the sighting of a single black swan instantly invalidates the premise.

We find this to be of use with the absurd, as anti-absurd views often bring the benefits (and logic) of the absurd into sharp relief. For example, we keep a copy of Carl Sagan's famous "pale blue dot" picture on our wall as a reminder of our incredibly tiny and insignificant place in the universe. (For those who do not know the story, Sagan had the Voyager spacecraft take a picture of Earth from the edge of the solar system.) A colleague recently asked about the picture, and seemed visibly upset when we explained it to him. Shortly thereafter, he sent us an email with the subject line "More than a dot," with a full-scale picture of the Earth in all its technicolor glory.

While the email was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, it gets at what is so difficult about the concept of the absurd for so many people. Put simply, we live our entire lives being told, either implicitly or explicitly, that things matter--as Richard Alpert so aptly put it, that our lives have purpose. Thus, it can initially seem shattering when that sense of purpose is threatened.

Another example. We are quite fond of Cormac McCarthy's book The Road, and recently loaned a copy to another colleague. (For those who have not read it, the "plot" is that a man and his son are struggling for survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The entire novel seemed to us an allegory for the absurd--i.e., that "hope" is a false god--with the glaring exception of the ending, where the man dies and his son is inexplicably "rescued" by another man who can only be described as "one of the good guys." This, needless to say, was our least favorite part of the book.)

Anyway, our colleague said she liked the book a lot--while most of it was very bleak, she explained, she really liked the end(!) We, being unable to help ourselves, pushed on this point. "You know," we said, "the takeaway is really that all of us are on 'the road.'" She looked briefly panicked, then replied, "Well, that's depressing!"

But why? Why do people cling so desperately to the idea that things have meaning? Why must our actions have significance? Why are we so inextricably wrapped up in the ruinous cycle of achievement and accomplishment that inevitably lead to disappointment and strife?

We recently read Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void, about his near-death experience while mountain-climbing. While we heartily recommend the entire book, one passage in particular was particularly pertinent. Simpson and his climbing partner had just ascended the summit, and he recorded his reaction thus:

"I felt the usual anticlimax. What now? It was a vicious circle. If you succeed with one dream, you come back to square one and it's not long before you're conjuring up another, slightly harder, a bit more ambitious--a bit more dangerous. I didn't like the thought of where it might be leading me. As if, in some strange way, the very nature of the game was controlling me, taking me towards a logical but frightening conclusion; it always unsettled me, this moment of reaching the summit, the sudden stillness and quiet after the storm, which gave me time to wonder at what I was doing and sense a niggling doubt that perhaps I was inexorably losing control - was I here purely for pleasure or was it egotism? Did I really want to come back for more?"

For a moment, we found this terrifically insightful. For a moment. But then we read the next passage. "But these moments were also good times, and I knew that the feelings would pass. Then I could excuse them as morbid pessimistic fears that had no sound basis." (Emphasis added.) Indeed, when we searched the Internet for this passage we actually found it in a thesis that argued "if we do have a good reason for living, if we can give life meaning, impending
death is easier to bear. Some desires to die are the result of a lack of worthwhile purpose."

No doubt this is the case--many people find it so difficult to come to terms with our lives' lack of meaning that they contort themselves into all manner of logical fallacies to avoid accepting this simple fact. We have spent much time on this blog, for example, disputing the notion that individuals can create "meaning" for themselves, partly because we believe it is a bit silly, but also because it is the idea of meaning--rather than whether that meaning is defined as universal or personal--that ultimately creates conflict and unhappiness. In short, if one believes certain things "matter" more than others--regardless of why--it is inevitable that one's life will at some point not conform to these preferences.

The absurd man, by contrast, recognizes the folly of all such beliefs. While he certainly feels such things--he is human, after all--he laughs at his own foibles the same as any other individual. He rejects the notion of the "self," instead choosing to view life as akin to acting in a play, where actions seem to have consequences, but ultimately have no significance whatsoever.

To bring this full circle, we take great comfort in our own irrelevance. Rather than despairing over our lack of purpose, we celebrate it!

Until next time...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gone Bamboo

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

John Keats requested that those words appear on his tombstone.

We like it, as a kind of absurd statement. We also thought of these words after we recently had a shocking conversation with a very old friend, which we will share below. We found it inspirational and it plunged us into deep thought for several days...

But first, a few thoughts on Keats' words. The idea recognizes the temporal nature of our existence and its meaningless “here today gone tomorrow” sort of nature. It’s our contention that one can live a full and content life embracing the absurdity of existence. We need no goals or mission or meaning. We simply are.

It’s not a popular opinion. And some even feel vaguely threatened by it. We came across this recent editorial, which laments the decline of Judeo-Christian traditions and our “moral compass.”

“[W]e are threatened with the thought that human existence is absurd and pointless,” the editorial says. “That was the dread possibility explored by Albert Camus and the pessimistic existentialists in the 1940s and 1950s. For them it raised the question of whether, faced with meaninglessness, one would do better to kill oneself; and this prompts the question whether rising rates of self-harm and suicide among young people today may be connected to a similar sense of the absence of human meaning.”

If this were a political arena, you can see how the debate would unfold. People who espoused an absurd point of view would quickly be dubbed “pro-suicide” regardless of the arguments. Makes us think the absurd is better off on the comfortable fringe.

In any event, this is always the challenge. The absurd doesn’t really offer a formula for living in the same way the world’s religions do. The absurd is an expression of doubt – doubt about the meaning and significance people put on life, the universe and everything. It is an effort to live free.

Few can master this, it seems. Almost everyone feels the tug of societal pressures of some form or other – and gives in. Part of what we do on this blog is gather examples of people who didn’t or don’t give in, or at least resist better than others. (Rebels, as Camus would say…)

One good example came to us recently when we spoke to an old high school and college buddy. We haven’t spoken to him in 5 years, when he ditched the U.S. and decided to live in Nicaragua.But our business will take us through Central America in the coming months and we thought to find our old friend.

We were surprised to find an absurd man.

We say surprised… well, we knew he had absurd inclinations, as did we. But he seems to have really bloomed into an absurd man par excellence.

We chatted over the phone. We found out he doesn’t work. Well, he works sometimes as a general handyman, you might say. And otherwise doesn’t. It’s very cheap in Nicaragua and one can live very well on very little - even more so if you save and forgo luxuries we don't think twice about spending money on here, but which you could readily do without when you think about it. As he put it, with a laugh, “This is how I can work for a year and take off for a year.”

He has a Thoreau-like lifestyle. He lives by the beach, the grand Pacific Ocean at his doorstep. He watches the sea roll in and out. “You know there are people who pay money for CDs with these sounds,” he told us. “Here you have all you want for free.” The sea lulls him to sleep at night, the sky a canopy of bright stars here, invisible to most people who live near city lights.

He eats fresh seafood and locally grown fruits and vegetables for practically nothing. He reads tattered second-hand books. Takes long walks. Enjoys the culture of living near an old Spanish town that dates to the 1500s. He watches sports on TV. He has plenty of friends around the town in which he lives.

The man has no occupation at all and no ambitions. And he seems completely fine with that. He’s “gone bamboo” as the saying goes. He told us, “I don’t really care about the future. I just live my life in the here and now the way I want to live it…” To think we were in business school together nearly 20 years ago. Wow.

That’s not to say he has been foolish with his money. He told us, “I have saved almost enough to live on my savings alone. I bought some lots around here when they were very cheap. So, I am not poor. Either way I am very happy here.”

No wonder he’s not come back to the states. We made plans to visit him on our trip there. But it was refreshing to find an absurd man in an old friend. A man who completely rejected the normal measures of success, who finds no compulsion to seek a career or do any of the things society expects of a man.

And why not? We are all merely names writ in water…

Friday, March 5, 2010

Uncertain Destiny

Financial markets, it is said, abhor uncertainty. Put another way, stock markets tend to suffer their worst falls not due to some terrible event, but rather in anticipation of a future occurrence where specifics remain unknown. This, of course, is due to the fact that humans tend to overestimate the impact of future events (both good and bad). Indeed, studies have shown that people who lose their sight, or both their legs, or some other "critical" function deemed "necessary" by most of us, tend to generally adapt quite well to their new state of affairs. Conversely, the positive effect of things we expect to make us happy (new job, big house, beautiful wife) tend to wear off must faster than we expect (again, as we adapt to our new reality).

In short, reality is relative. Thus, many people remain unhappy despite the fact that large swaths of humanity today live better than the most powerful king a few hundred years ago. The fact that we have central heat, and air conditioning, and unimaginably plentiful food supplies is simply not all that impressive when our neighbor has a new boat...

But this is not really the path we want to follow today. Instead, we have been thinking about uncertainty as it relates to our own destiny. The ultimate destiny is well known, of course (even if we take extreme measures to avoid acknowledging this fact), but the timing remains uncertain. But what if it were not?

Consider, for the sake of argument, that the maximum human lifespan has been conclusively proven to be 50 years. While people can die before reaching 50, no one survives past this age. Society, therefore, is organized a bit differently. People who fall ill in their late 40s, for example, generally reject expensive and involved treatments, instead opting for smaller measures that simply make them more comfortable. Moreover, there is little grief for those who die at or near 50--after all, they lived as long as possible!

Indeed, 49th birthday parties are generally lavish affairs where people celebrate their achievement of this penultimate milestone. Time Magazine interviewed someone on the day before his 50th birthday and asked if he were afraid. "Of what?" he answered. "I know what is coming, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. I made peace with my destiny many years ago."

Often, when we see stories about terminally ill patients, the patients themselves have come to terms with the inevitability of their own death (even as family members have not). The knowledge that death will come soon, in other words, forces one to confront death as real (as opposed to some abstract concept). No need to save for retirement! No need to worry about next week's party! Promotion? What promotion?!?

Hmm...sounds like a pretty good way to live. Pity it's only available to those with a finite lifespan...