Thursday, September 23, 2010

Playing a role, part deux

OK, in reality this is probably more like part 12 or 13, but we just liked the way that sounded. What got us thinking about playing a role was a television show we watched last night called "Lone Star," in which a con man (Bob) is living two lives (girlfriend in one, wife in the other) and gets upset when his scheme begins to collapse and he needs to leave the girlfriend. "I've always taught you," his con-man father admonishes him, "you can play any character you want...but don't play yourself. That's what lets you walk away when the time is right."

There is much to like in this quote, but what struck us was the glaring contradiction inherent in the concept that there is a real "himself." Indeed, at a later point in the show Bob tells his father that he wants to take a high-level job he has been offered at an oil firm, not as a way in to loot the company (their original plan), but to really do the job. "I've been pretending to do it for so long," he says, "that I think I can really do it."

So...which is the "real" Bob? If he renounces his con-man life and becomes a successful corporate exec, does his self undergo some sort of transformation? For that matter, who among us--even with the requisite training--has not, at some point, felt a complete and total fraud?

We had a conversation once with a former colleague who insisted there is indeed a self. We pushed on this, curious to see how she would defend something so clearly indefensible. (She is religious, and simply not willing to accept the premise that the self might be an illusion, as it would be far too damaging to her current worldview.) She backed herself further and further into a corner, until finally coming to the position that, at some indeterminate point in childhood, every individual "becomes" who they are; subsequent alterations are considered changes to their true nature.

This, of course, is ridiculous. But it is no more ridiculous than any other defense of the self, which, as the saying goes, becomes more elusive the more one searches for it. And yet, the illusion of the self is so powerful, so all-encompassing, that the vast majority of people simple accept it; or, as with our friend, twist themselves into increasingly contorted positions to defend it.

So what, exactly, is our point? The point is that Bob has it half right, but that other half is critical. While he is (or, apparently, has been) able to treat his life as akin to a role (or roles) in a play, he nevertheless believes there is something "real" outside this. Further, the longer he stays in the roles, the more "real" he believes the roles themselves to be.

Well, how exactly is this different from the way most people approach life? We speak of things such as relationships, work, and family in exactly the same terms ("this is what's real," "this is what really matters"), based almost entirely on the length of time we have been doing them. Consider how absurd (pun fully intended) this is. What if, for example, we lived for a million years - would we still consider a 50-year relationship to be "real"? Or would it be a mere dalliance--a blip in time, as it were--compared to our 500,000-year marriage?

Everything is relative, and by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the game of what is "real"--i.e, meaningful--and what is not, we lose our ability to see reality as it truly is. We are all playing roles, but while the absurd man recognizes this reality and embraces it--as Camus put it, he knows the rock will roll back down the hill--others fight tooth and nail against this simple truth, hoping desperately to be rescued from what they see as the hellish existence of life without purpose.

We, of course, think it's pretty cool.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Great Oblomov

"All his anxiety resolved itself into a sigh and dissolved into apathy and drowsiness."
- From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

Each morning we sit down with a pot of a tea and leisurely go through the morning newspapers. (We get three delivered to our door every day). We enjoy this easing into the day. Life doesn’t start before 9 AM around here.

In any event, we were cheered by the appearance of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov in today’s Wall Street Journal. Oblomov is one of the great lazy men in literature, a satirical creation of the novelist Ivan Goncharov in 1859.

Here is the bit the Journal reproduces, in the Notables & Quotables section:

“He was a man of about thirty-two or -three, of medium height and pleasant appearance, with dark grey eyes, but with a total absence of any definite idea, any concentration, in his features… Oblomov never wore a tie or a waistcoat at home because he liked to feel unhampered and free. He wore long, soft, wide slippers; when he put his feet on the floor as he got out of bed, he invariably stepped into them without looking. Lying down was not for Oblomov a necessity, as it is for a sick man or for a man who is sleepy; or a matter of chance, as it is for a man who is tired; or a pleasure, as it is for a lazy man; it was his normal condition.”

We pulled out our old copy of Goncharov’s story and perusing it inspired this post…

Oblomov is a character that most of society would have a hard time warming up to. He is supremely lazy, rarely leaving his flat or even his bedroom. And yet, somehow, we are inspired by his staunch refusal to bend to what others think he should do.

He is a semi-absurd fellow in this respect, a man not roused by things that society finds so important. Instead he spends a great deal of time lying in bed and shirking work. He finds work especially tedious, asking famously, “but when am I to live?”

Oblomov stumbles around, never putting the pieces together of just how absurd life is and thus missing his absurd awakening, so to speak. “During his early years,” Goncharov writes of his fictional anti-hero, “He was stirred to excitement like other people, hoped and rejoiced at trifles, and suffered from trifles, too. But that was a long time ago…”

His sublime indifference is practically comical. We loved the description about how “he found it irksome to remain dressed all day” to which we sympathize. (We have the luxury of working at home and hardly every wear shoes and often wear nothing more than shorts and a t-shirt.)

Oblomov grows weary, too, of “evening parties” and instead invites his good bachelor friends where he can “take off his tie, unbutton his waistcoat, and even lie down and have an hour’s sleep.”

Oblomov is a day-dreamer, loafer, rebel and master of lassitude. For us, too, he’s a satirical example of one who finds his own way to cope with the futility of it all. The story is funny and sad, but ultimately, very human - with the absurd elements sprinkled in as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Forget voting!

It’s primary Election Day where we live. Members of political parties will truck to the polls to pick senators, representatives and other positions.

We will not be voting. We haven’t voted for many years and have no plans to return. Today, we look at the idea of voting through an absurd lens.

Now we know that the idea of the absurd goes against nearly everything we’ve been taught since we were knee-high to a grasshopper. It goes against nearly everything society would want us to believe. We are told to work hard, be good in school, obey the laws, get a job and pay our taxes. Society wants good citizens.

In other words, it wants dogs that enjoy their leashes.

But having an absurd worldview casts all of that in a laughably ridiculous light. Or as Camus put it, “after the absurd, everything is upset.” The absurd view, as we’ve pointed out, embraces the meaningless nature of our existence. It sees the futility of man’s struggle, which ends in death. Therefore, all of these ideals people hold as meaningful and important are seen as nothing more than fleeting shadows and vapors.

In this blog, we’ve tried to explore the ramifications of the absurd – how to live an absurd life in an absurd world. We’ve tried to recover this alternative tradition in literature and philosophy – one that sees the absurdity of the world and embraces it.

In politics, we see another area where the absurd clashes with mainstream thinking. We are told to vote and participate in our democracy. It is a point of pride for those who do. People wear little stickers saying “I voted.” If you don’t vote, people give you disproving glances and “tsk, tsk.”

We find it all amusing. Voting is as meaningless as anything else we do. It simply doesn’t matter one way or the other. An absurd man may vote, we suppose, just because he can. But we find good reasons not to vote.

Supposedly, our government is built on the consent of the governed. Think how silly this is. Did we ever consent? And if we did, can we not withdraw that consent? Why is it that we are ever slaves to the promises made by dead men? Did we participate in drawing up the US Constitution? Did we sign it? How are we bound by these laws?

Our non-voting is our way of saying we withdraw. There was a brilliant 19th century fellow, a lawyer and entrepreneur, named Lysander Spooner. He made the argument, convincingly, that people who voted for the government delegated their rights to it, and those who did not vote for it were free from its jurisdiction. Legally and morally, Spooner has the high ground in our view.

We suppose the absurd man can enjoy the whole spectacle of politics as entertainment, but it is a mistake to impute any importance whatsoever to government and its doings. It is among the most anti-absurd of our institutions – full of self-importance and bluster, and on top of it all, it is lethal too!

Our view is to skip the whole thing. And there are benefits to not voting. As you no longer have a horse in that race, you will look at it more objectively, in a more detached way. It is freeing in its own way, we find.

It’s like C.S. Lewis once said, “I believe a man is happier and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind’ … and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of the government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology.”

The ideal absurd man depends on nothing external for his sense of equanimity. He is truly free because he realizes that nothing matters.

The gravity of the world is all in our heads. It is in how we look at the world. That’s the beauty of the absurd. It shows us that the chains we wear are of all of our own making. We can slip out of them whenever we choose.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Was Socrates happy?

We are traveling today. We are on a slow-moving train slinking its way across a rusted out part of America. We brought a book along – Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, an account of his living on the Greek isle of Corfu on the eve of WWII. It is the kind of book we thought we’d like. Durrell was a chum of one of our favorites, Henry Miller, and seems a similar life-affirming, carefree character.

For whatever reason, the book is not holding our interest. But the trip is three hours long and we find ourselves turning to it again… then we come across an interesting passage:

“If you had an opportunity to put a question to Socrates what would it be?” writes Zarian. “I would ask him if he was a happy man. I am sure that greater wisdom imposes a greater strain upon a man.”

… This view is bitterly contested by Peltours and Nancy. Wisdom, they say, teaches the ratiocinative faculty how to rest, to attain a deeper surrender of the whole self to the flux of time and space…”

We think the line of thought is interesting in light of the absurd. It would be vain to suggest we possess a greater wisdom. But we would argue that the viewpoint of the absurd has had the effect on us that Peltours and Nancy argue for in the passage above.

Later in the book, we come across another passage that grabs us…

“Philosophy,” he said once, “is a doubt that grows… Suddenly you awake one day and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five percent of the activities of the human race – to which you supposed you belonged – have no relevance whatsoever for you.”

That is almost an absurd awakening… and it seems to us when one begins to think like this, one is well on one’s way to shedding the barnacles of discontent that cling so easily to human egos…

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Island of the Absurd, Part II

We continue where we left off in Part I

Cleveland-born Robert Dean Frisbie (1896-1948) headed out for Tahiti aboard a steamer in 1920. He would spend the rest of his life in the South Pacific. For several years in the 1920s, he lived on the little atoll Puka-Puka in the Cook Islands.

There he ran a small trading store for the Line Islands Trading Company. Frisbie was the only white man on the island. He sought to escape the “noisy clamor” of modern life and wanted to write the next Moby Dick. While he never wrote his Moby Dick, he did write about his experiences on Puka-Puka. These pieces were collected in a book title Puka-Puka: a Lone Trader on a South Sea Atoll, published in 1929.

We read this book recently – it is nice light summer reading and very entertaining. We were struck by the many absurd episodes and ideas he encountered in Polynesian culture.

Frisbie himself is something of an absurd man, though he seems more driven by escapism. “At Puka-Puka – there surely I could be as indolent as I pleased, as lonely as I pleased, never disturbed by the hateful thought that it is my duty to become a useful cog in the clockwork of ‘progress.’”

And this: “Here no officious relatives or friends would cry: ‘Young man, you are wasting your life! Here you are, nearing thirty, with nothing accomplished, with no plans for the future, with no bank account! It is your duty to keep the wheels of industry moving! Abstain from alcohol and tobacco! Join the Church!”

But he also doesn’t attach any importance to anything he’s doing. Of his written accounts, he writes, “I know how trifling they are.” He is Godless, though very tolerant of such beliefs in others. He lives very much in the present. And he never imparts greater meaning on anything that happens on Puka-Puka. He seems to take things as they come, enjoying the experience of living on that island.

At Puka-Puka Frisbie finds contentment, even though he is without most of the comforts he has grown accustomed to. He adapts to its slower paced life, a life with hours spent doing little of what we would consider work. He sleeps in the hot afternoons and goes swimming a lot. The food practically falls off the trees. The islanders bring him fish. There is sometimes a pig to slaughter.

The Puka-Pukans people challenge his western notions of what life is about. They are the ones who bring out the absurd in the book. We won’t go through all the episodes, but we were particularly intrigued by their carefree attitude toward death.

They don’t seem afraid to die and seem to relish their brushes with danger and death.

At one point, Frisbie is out fishing with some of the men in a canoe and they have to brave fierce breakers on their way in and out. The giant combers are deadly if they catch you, because they will drive you down into the sharp coral and you’ll be shredded to bits.

The canoe has a very close call on its way in. After a narrow escape, Frisbie writes, quoting one of his fellow fishermen: “If we had been a foot closer in we would have all been killed,” Benny shouted with a laugh.

(This reminds us that Puka-Pukans favorite word is “if.” Frisbie writes: “Every day one continually hears phrases such as “If I had gone fishing I would have something to eat”; “If I had put a new roof on my house – if I had done this, that and the other.” Something about that strikes us as absurd. The absurd man knows things could always easily be otherwise, a sense captured by the word “if”…)

These kinds of episodes, where a Puka-Pukan laughs off danger, are common. These are a people who joyously compose death songs for each other while they are living. These are songs they intend to sing over the fallen. Frisbie at first finds it a bit gloomy, but comes to understand that the Puka-Pukans view death as naturally a life and they feel no compunction to hide the fact that they will all die one day. (In a similar way, they are very open about their own bodies and free with sexual favors).

This point of view gives the Puka-Pukan some mighty psychological armor. “When one believes death is inevitable,” Frisbie writes, “one is indifferent to everything.”

Near the end of the book, Frisbie has his own near death experience when he is caught by crashing waves and barely escapes. He has to put quite a fight to stay alive in the violent waves.

One Puka-Pukan says of Frisbie. “He is superman! A Puka-Pukan would have been killed by the first wave!”

Frisbie writes: “He was right: a Puka-Pukan would have philosophically allowed the first wave to kill him, not being sufficiently egotistical to make a final grandiose gesture in the face of death.”