Sunday, August 28, 2011

Absurd flotsam & jetsam

Sherman's Lagoon is one of our favorite strips. It tickles our absurd sensibilities every now and then, as the one above does today.

Here, it gently pokes fun at the common and widely accepted notion that we are all special, unique individuals - a notion that one can believe only by ignoring a lot of evidence to the contrary. But the absurd man doesn't shy away or sulk at the counterclaim of insignificance. Instead, he finds the idea freeing and embraces it! He is a man without chains.

Another bit of absurdity floated in from the week just past...

Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple. The news reminded us of Jobs commencement speech in 2005, which had many absurdist overtones. We particularly like this part:

"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

Wonderful words of wisdom and very germane, too, given our recent posts on the idea of a deadline. Life gets easier when you embrace the idea of that looming deadline.

We might have more to say on all of this, but as we are fundamentally lazy and disinclined more than usual to do much of anything on this Sunday morning, we'll stop here and let this assorted flotsam and jetsam of ideas float around in our brains awhile.

Stay absurd.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Desire of Oblivion

We ran across the following poem by Philip Larkin the other day, titled "Wants":

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death---
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

There is also a terrific reading of it here.

And so we wonder...what keeps people from choosing oblivion? Is it simply the biological programming that wires us to fear and abhor death? Given what we we explored in our previous post--namely, that imminent death is often comforting--and the fact that so many live in a state of perpetual unhappiness...why not simply end it?

To be honest, we don't have a great answer. The evolutionary/Dawkins answer would surely be that individuals who chose to die would not leave offspring, QED. But this is unsatisfying. Perhaps we should phrase the question differently.

Why, after years spent suffering through the torturous cycle of fulfilled desires that leave us wanting ever more, after climbing a ladder that, we now see, stretches on to the sky, after climbing the mountain only to discover its utter barrenness, why do we continue to put ourselves through this?

It is more than passing strange that for all we can know what ails us, discuss and write about it endlessly, joke about its absurd consequences (e.g., Arthur Dent's discovery that Earth will be destroyed tomorrow for an intergalactic highway), we nevertheless continue to play the game. We often discuss with Inigo the paradoxical nature of our relationship with the absurd--for all that we understand, believe, and appreciate it, we still like to get together for beers at our favorite watering hole. But why? Surely, as we have banged on endlessly in this blog, such a meeting is no more meaningful than any other state of existence. And yet.

So is Larkin right? We have a sneaking suspicion that he is. For despite our exhortations that absurdity makes the world a fascinating and curious place, and that we have no desire to leave, we cannot deny our current comfortable circumstances may well play a role in this feeling. If so, then the apparent comfort provided by the absurd is itself an illusion.

The counter to this, of course, would be the well-documented cases of content people who have very little. And perhaps we are selling short our (and others') adaptive capacities. But the issue is really a broader one--if there is some state of life which we feel is absolutely worse than death (and how many can honestly deny this?), the rest is just rearranging deck chairs.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

That deadline again

Edmund James Banfield (born in 1852) was a newspaper editor and had a part interest in the business. In 1897, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was on the verge of a nervous collapse. His doctors gave him one year to live, at most.

So, he resigned from the paper, sold his interest and sold many of possessions. He and his wife then moved to Dunk Island, off the northeast coast of Australia. There he expected to live out what was left of his days in relative peace and tranquility.

They built a temporary abode and raised a small garden. They enjoyed the leisure of the simple island life. In particular they enjoyed the natural wonders around them, the abundant and diverse plant and animal life.

Time was running out, though, like sand in an hour glass. Banfield knew his last day would arrive soon. But he was living the life he wanted to live and was happy, at peace with the world.

Then, of course, something unexpected happened. He got better. He winded up living 23 years on Dunk Island.

When death finally came in 1923, his wife commented, “I had no idea death could come so peacefully.”

We are fascinated by this idea of how a “deadline” affects people. As Bomstein wrote in his post about another man given a deadline on his life: “The certainty of death has granted him the luxury of living without worry, secure in the knowledge he will die soon and thus doesn't need to concern himself with long-term issues.”

And so we see it here again with Banfield. He was living a certain life, in which he was a frazzled newspaperman. But when told he had only a year left, he changed it completely. The certainty of death made him free in a way he wasn’t before – or rather, it made him free in a way he did not perceive was possible before.

Of course, we all have these same deadlines. We just don’t know what they are yet. And so why can’t we live just as free of worry and care as these men who know their deadlines?

Banfield was obviously a happy and contented man on Dunk Island. We have only read snippets of his stuff. Banfield is most famous for a book titled Confessions of a Beachcomber. We have not read this book, but we’ve ordered it. And we’ll report back should we find the absurd thoughts we suspect might lie in Banfield’s memoir.

But the point is, the absurd man ought to be able live with the same equanimity even though his deadline is a mystery (assuming he chooses not to set one himself). And this doesn’t mean he has to jump off to an island (though that option always tempts us). He can, in effect, create that island wherever he is by adhering to his easy-going “nothing matters” worldview and in his secure knowledge that his deadline will come soon enough.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Setting a Deadline

To have his path made clear for him is the aspiration of every human being in our beclouded and tempestuous existence--Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

Dying is easy. It's living that's hard.--Gregory House, MD

We posed a question to a non-absurd acquaintance the other day. What is, we asked, you were given the option of living a short but prosperous life, and a longer but destitute one. Which would you choose?

He chose the short life, and we suspect this is not unusual, which raises an interesting question--if people do assign subjective qualities of life based on material well-being (and most do), then why not set a deadline for one's own life and live large until then? (Or at least "larger" than one could live without retirement savings, etc.) In fact, we suggested this to our friend, and he was flummoxed as to why it would not be preferable to do so.

As absurdists, of course, we do not believe any states of existence to be preferable to others (although we admit it doesn't always feel this way), but this exercise is useful in pointing out one of the main flaws in "normal" (i.e. non-absurdist) thinking--namely, that it not only matters how (and how long) we live, but how we die. Consider--if you do not believe in an afterlife, then why not simply set a deadline and live life to the fullest? Think of the problems you could solve in one fell swoop! No more retirement planning! No worries about chronic illness! Who cares what the world will look like in 50 years! Indeed, with this one simple step you could banish most of your anxiety-inducing uncertainty...for good.

The House quote above comes from an episode where Wilson (an oncologist) has mistakenly given a fatal diagnosis to a patient. However, when given the "good news," the patient reacts with dismay--he has already sold his house, said goodbye to loved ones, and made final arrangements. In short, the certainty of death has granted him the luxury of living without worry, secure in the knowledge he will die soon and thus doesn't need to concern himself with long-term issues.