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.


  1. In your last post you wrote "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."
    But I would say that given a deadline or supposed deadline, he discovered rather that everything matters, this life this present moment and that what did not matter was or were the things that so stressed him before. It was being given a deadline supposedly that woke him up to the importance of the present moment.
    Perhaps the meaning that we give to life is precisely what we give it. The rational clever mind will always find answers of some kind but the intellect arises from some deeper place connected with feelings.

    On this sultry evening, watching the sky grow dark above the city I feel an extraordinary richness. Life has sometimes been difficult indeed but right now it feels good. To desire oblivion right now that feels absurb to me. And even in the hardest times oblivion would feel like a cop out. I am being pressed and shaped like a sculpture. Long may it continue! Deck chairs are rearranged on a deck ie a surface. But below deck and and above deck too, exist. Sometimes I'M lucky enough to explore other levels. I love it! Ah, might that, might love have something to do with it? In my universe, it does.
    Thank you,

  2. I recon that people just don't think about it that much they just accept their version of life as reality. They go through life sometimes feeling good sometimes feeling bad, in an endless cycle of desire and suffering. Seeing the absurd is about stepping out, looking at life from a distance and realising that you can act in life and not just react. This makes the feeling of inherent meaninglessnes easier to bear.



  3. Kris-

    Well said! Although we would take issue with your characterization of meaninglessness as something to be "borne"; we think it worthy of celebration!


  4. haha thanks - I read (allot). I think you are right, but it's a matter of perspective, and also that many people try to run away from it in the form of religion (drugs, sex, whatever) and they are so desperate to hold onto their idea of meaning that well, wars start, you know the history of religion I'm sure. Not too good.

    How great would the world be if we stepped outside ourselves and accepted life as it is? (So basically I'm with you guys, I'm just verbose)

    1. How great would the world be if people all accepted that life was meaningless? Well, the suicide rate would go up sharply.

      After all, there is no such thing as gravity...the earth just sucks!

  5. To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.

  6. Life is pain! Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.