Monday, April 11, 2011

Estoy Contento

It means, “I’m happy.” We’ve been taking Spanish since Thanksgiving. We thought it would an entertaining and useful thing to try and take up a second language. And it has been.

Our teacher recommended we read Spanish poetry to help us appreciate the rhythm and beauty of the language. We chose Antonio Machado since he wrote one of our favorite poems, which we find quite absurd.

We picked up Borders of a Dream, a bilingual edition of collected poetry translated by Willis Barnstone and proceeded to read.

This edition features some biographical commentary in the beginning and we warmed up to Machado immediately. John Dos Passos writes of him: “He gave the impression of being helpless in life’s contests and struggles, a man without defenses… Long ago he accepted the pain and ignominy of being what he was, a poet, a man who had given up all hope of reward to live for the delicately imagined mood, the counterpoint of words, the accurately recording ear.”

Juan Ramon Jimenez writes: “A poet of death, Antonio Machado spent hour after hour meditating upon, perceiving and preparing for death… All our life is usually given over to fearing death and keeping it away from us, or rather, keeping ourselves away from it. Antonio Machado yielded to it in large measure…”

And finally, Barnstone writes that of the Spanish poets of the 20th century, Machado is “the least pretentious.” Also, that “the poet read and loved philosophy.”

It shows in many thoughtful poems:

“Learn to wait. Wait for the tide to flow,

as a boat on the coast. And don’t worry

when it buoys

you out. If you wait, you will know


for life is long and art a toy.

And if life is short

and the sea doesn’t reach your galleon, stay

forever waiting in port,

for art is long, and never matters anyway.”

Or this:

“In my solitude

I have seen very clear things

that are not true.”

Or this:

“One day we sat down by the road to wait.

Our life is time and now our only care

is all these desperate poses we must bear

waiting for her. But she won’t skip the date.”

Or this absurd snapshot:

“Empirical faith. We’re not nor will be.

All our life is on loan. We brought nothing.

With nothing we leave.”

Machado’s poetry drifts over dreams and the blurry line between them and memories of experience, of the temporal nature of both… of landscapes, remembered and imagined, as allegories of human existence and emotions. And there many poems around traveling and wandering along roads.

The greatest of these is the one that begins simply,

“Caminante, son tus huellas

el camino, y nada más;

caminante, no hay camino…”

“Walker, your footsteps are

are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road…”

Who is the “real” you?

Yesterday’s Financial Times carried a review of The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini. We’ve not read the book, but it seems to raise many absurd questions and touches on many absurd themes.

The reviewer begins, “The problem of self-understanding is a perennial one. But even before you tackle it there is a prior problem: making sense of selfhood itself. What is a ‘self’?”

Is there is a physical part of you that makes you, you? No, there is no physical “seat of personal identity.”

Is there is some transcendent self, some kind of soul? “Whatever stuff you are made from,” the author writes, “is the same kind of stuff that everything else is made of.”

Then there are more interesting questions such as the effect of brain tumors that destroy the “self,” along with severe head injuries, dementia and the like. What do these say about who the real self was or is? And then there are life-transforming experiences that alter self, such that the person that was is very different from what that person is after the event.

Baggini argues that self is achieved through an ego trick. “Namely,” the reviewer sums up, “that of constructing a strong sense of connectedness and continuity out of fragmented experiences… by our fashioning an autobiography for ourselves.”

The self is essentially an illusion – a powerful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.

The reviewer calls it “one of the best, most readable and most stimulating introductions yet written about this intriguing topic.”

As we say, we’ve not read it and may never get to it, but we highlight it here as tackling a fascinating line of thought. If you’ve read it, let us know what you think by posting your comments on the book and its conclusions below.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Power of Mother Nature

“When you are in a huge, empty waterworld you gain a new perspective on life and the universe and that sort of thing. The antics of violent men seem absurd and irrelevant on a planet where nature casually demonstrates the power to sweep us all away.”

- Gavin Bell, Somewhere over the Rainbow: Travels in South Africa

Yes, nature is powerful and awe-inspiring and it makes humanity look like a small trifling matter… which it is, of course.

The quote from Bell up top comes from a book of travels we’re reading on South Africa. Bell takes a ship from Tilbury and the comment comes after passing within 100 miles of a war zone in Sierra Leone. At night, he sees flashes from heavy artillery – and at that distance and with perspective, he sees the comical and ridiculous nature of it, “as if a mischievous god was playing around with a galactic light switch,” he writes.

This got us thinking, too, of the Japanese disaster…

We’ve not commented on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, though we might be expected to. After all, doesn’t this disaster show us in stark terms how tiny a human life is in the grand vastness of the universe? As historian Will Durant supposedly quipped, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Do these things not bring an absurd epiphany (at least for some)?

Of course, they do.

All of these things remind us how we’re barely here at all in a geologic or cosmic sense. They remind us how we could be dead any minute. They remind us of our smallness.

But… while these things bring about feelings of the absurd, they are not what make life absurd.

We used to think otherwise, but Thomas Nagel has since set us straight on this point:

“For suppose we live forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasted seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or the universe was smaller)?”

Indeed… Our mayfly-like existence has nothing to do with it. If we lived forever, our lives would still be absurd.

The absurd is something deeper; it is when we step outside of ourselves and look at our lives from a perspective apart from the minutiae of living it. It’s when we ask “why”? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we bother fretting over a crease in our pants? Why do we care that the jackass in front of us cut us off? Why do ponder over what brand of peanut butter we prefer? These are “small” things… but the “big” things also don’t escape such doubt… Why do we care about our family? Why do we save for retirement? Why do work hard?

Unable to satisfy these doubts, we live on anyway. “The absurdity of our situation,” Nagel continues, “derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.”

Mother Nature, in all her power, may heighten that sense that life is absurd, but it is this clash that goes on in our minds, between the inescapable seriousness with which we pursue our lives and the realization that it is all for naught, that makes life absurd.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The urge to be king...

We stumbled on this bit of absurdity today - a NY City Councilman has introduced a bill that would "restrict toys to meals that contain fewer than 500 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium, and in which less than 35 percent of the calories come from fat (making exceptions for nuts, seeds, peanut butter or other nut-based butters). In addition, the meal would have to contain a half a cup of fruit or vegetables or one serving of whole-grain products."

Clearly the bill is aimed at McDonald's Happy Meals, and indeed the Councilman, Leroy Comrie, "said that he was motivated in part by his experiences with his own children, who are now 17 and 13. 'Both are fast-food aficionados, and it’s my fault,' he said. 'I’m not healthy. I’m the typical parent with no time and limited options, so you’re grabbing whatever is going to make your child happy. My wife has yelled at me repeatedly for grabbing Happy Meals.' Mr. Comrie, who admitted that he was 'seriously overweight,' said he hoped to 'beg and cajole' enough supporters to pass it."

So let's see if we've got this straight - Mr. Comrie has trouble controlling his urge to eat unhealthy food, and as a result wants to restrict others' right to do so.

Now, as we have often said, this is not a political blog, although we think our leanings (such as they are) are fairly apparent (and consistent with the absurd) - put simply, live and let live. Indeed, as we have discussed in the past, one of the more frequent rejoinders we get from people--if nothing matters, what's to stop you from just killing people?--is ridiculous on the face of it. The question should rightly be turned around - if nothing matters, how can you justify taking such actions? The only logical reason to kill people would be if you felt it improved "your" life in some way...but if nothing matters this is a meaningless proposition.

Similarly, we have been (and continue to be) surprised that there seems to be a correlation between the absurd and a "liberal" mindset (liberal as currently defined, not the classical liberals who believe more or less what we do). The rationale seems to be that "liberals" are compassionate, and seek to better others' lives through government.

But...............there is a world of difference between being compassionate in one's own dealings, and forcing others to behave in a similar fashion. Thus, we find it mildly amusing that so many believe (as we do) that nothing matters, and yet also believe in the "rightness" of forcing others to behave as they see fit.

We should note that this is a bipartisan affliction - indeed, when we sent the above piece to Inigo, his response was "Pathetic, but not surprising… It’s that kind of mentality that permeates all the big gov’t types, left and right."

Indeed. And here is where we can bring this full circle. For what can possibly explain this urge that possesses the vast majority of humankind? Why would anyone ever presume to tell another what to do, except in the rarest of cases (one's own life being threatened, for example)? Particularly when one considers people for whom adequate shelter, food, and clothing have been acquired, this behavior seems downright mystifying...

And unfortunately, the only answer we can come to is that such individuals are not, in fact, absurd. For the only reason to behave in such a manner is, as with achievement, or acquiring material objects, or even stockpiling facebook chase, however unconsciously, the chimera of immortality. (E.g., he was such a good man - he helped so many people.)

To give of oneself is compassionate, and reflective of the lack of self. To force another to give is another matter entirely...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Charles Addams, absurd cartoonist

“Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!”
Caption from cartoon above, by Charles Addams

Today it is raining. It is a dark overcast day. People say it is a gloomy day.

But why should it be gloomy? It is a natural occurrence, as natural as the sun and the wind, as days and nights and the turning of the seasons.

Now maybe there is some chemical reaction in our brains that makes us feel less cheerful on dark days. But our guess is that we can change our perception by changing how we think about the world.

We’ve made a conscious effort over the years to buck this natural tendency to impute some kind of emotional content in the weather. When we hear someone say “What a miserable day!” we immediately think to ourselves, “Nope… it’s just a day like any other.”

In fact, we’ve managed to go further and enjoy the weather, whatever it may be. Rain is wonderful. Feel the water dribble down the back of your neck and moisten your face.

Our thoughts on weather today made us think of the Addams family. Yes, the Addams family.

They were the cartoon creations of Charles Addams. We have his first collection of cartoons from 1942, “Drawn & Quartered.” The vast majority of the cartoons appeared in the New Yorker in the 1930s and 40s. Of course, the Addams family has since gone on to the world of TV and movies. If you know the Addams family at all, it is likely through these mediums, not Addams’ original cartoons.

We loved the TV show as kids and remember watching re-runs. Some years ago we sought out the original cartoons. They are quite an achievement of wit and black humor. They give you a window to a bizarre world where our darker sides enjoy a little fun. (And not all the cartoons involved the Addams family.)

As Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times:

“We enter a world so perverse even wind-up toys commit suicide, bitter matrons ask in department stores to be directed to “blunt instruments,” and beams of light bearing divine illumination stream from the heavens only to shine on television antennas… One of the strange characteristics of contemporary bourgeois life is the sheer pleasure we take in inverting it. Uncomfortable with its promised comforts and disbelieving its reassurances, we maintain its manners but stand it on its head.”

Addams was brilliant. If the absurd has a cartoonist, we’d nominate Addams. For his gift was to turn traditional perception on its head. Invert, he did, with charm. He takes familiar scenes and makes them absurd, both in the philosophical sense and in the sense of making life ridiculous.

In the world of Addams, death is ever present. Suicide is an ongoing theme and the hangman’s noose a regular touchstone. But Addams treats these subjects lightly, without judgment. He makes death something to laugh at, something to accept.

One cartoon has a caption that reads: “In a rut, men?... Discouraged?... Life look hopeless?” And there on a street is a man selling hangman’s nooses, as casually as if he were hawking watches.

Or the boy scout who walks in on his father who is standing on a chair ready to hang himself… the caption reads, “Hey Pop, that’s not a hangman’s noose.”

Then there are the cartoons that deal with the Addams family itself.

You surely know these characters by now… Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandmama and Uncle Fester, not to mention a small constellation of relatives and pets.

One thing that always struck me about the Addams family is that they were nearly always happy and accepting. It didn’t matter what others thought of them, they continued on their merry way. They had all kinds of oddball interests that they indulged enthusiastically (Gomez's love of destroying toy trains, Morticia's enthusiasm for meat-eating plants, etc.) And life for them always seemed a kind of game.

We think there is much that is absurd in Addams’ worldview. It makes us smile to think of his cartoons. And it makes us look out of our window, at the rainy, windy, dark day in a different way, in an absurd way… Today is a day like any other.