Thursday, March 31, 2011

Random thoughts while sitting in a cab...

Medical advances mean life is no longer fragile, so rather than treating it as fleeting and temporary, we instead seek to prolong it as long as possible (maybe forever?). Death, rather than a normal part of life, has been relegated to back rooms, alleyways, and sterile hospital rooms, discussed only in terms of sadness and tragedy. Never joyful, never inevitable, never simply what is and what must be...but always tragic and unfortunate.

Is that why we rush around, seeking to do, and create, and achieve, more, more, ever more? For it cannot be for the joy of doing - no, these fires that burn within the human ego yearn for eternal consequence, a sense that all has not been--as it so clearly has been--in vain. To do less would be to...what? To acknowledge our own insignificance, impermanence, complete and utter pointlessness? Well, yes...

"He had a good life." What does this mean. How can one define it? Is it intended for the dead or the living? If the former, he can't hear you, but if the latter, what of it? Good life means nothing. Life means nothing. Nothing. Is it wrong to to define life as an illusion, trapped forever in an infinite eternity of nothingness?

Hyperbolic? Sure, but that's the point. Can you argue? Where am "I"? Where did I come from, and where will I go?

Not forever, you say - life is definitely not forever. But is it not? Can you imagine a world without..."you"? Sure, you say - I study history, I dream of the future. But who is the observer? If not you, then...who? Life is forever...for you. Even if you don't actually exist...

The easy thing to say is that there are no answers. But that's not it. The answer is right in front of us, stalking us, making us squirm. All this could be a figment of some alien dream, or a "test" by some all-powerful deity...or maybe "reality" is just as we imagine it. Doesn't matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And the big wheel keeps on turning...

Monday, March 21, 2011

The never-ending tug of war

We have not posted in some time, due not to lack of ideas, but more from a general sense that everything we consider posting, we have already said. In short, we will have some insight, then begin to develop it (either on paper or in our head), only to wind up at a conclusion we have come to before. While we recognize the value in posting such thoughts anyway--the human grasp of the absurd is nothing if not fleeting--we have nevertheless shied away from treading the same paths over and over.

However, we recently realized that rather than a random collection of absurd thoughts, our ideas have of late had a remarkably consistent theme--the never-ending tug of war between our rational and instinctive brains. Said a different way, while we strongly believe the absurd point of view, the fact is that no matter how hard we try, how many totems we own, how simple a life we may live...we simply cannot jettison our human desires and emotions. We can, of course, exert some sort of control over reactions, and we have often discussed with Inigo the fact that our "recovery time" after getting upset has improved dramatically in recent years; yet, we still get upset.

What to make of this? Should we lament the fact that we will likely never shake these human tendencies? Or alternatively, should we shrug off the absurd when it suits us (say, when we are enjoying sex, food, or quiet reflections), and invoke it in more unpleasant circumstances?

The first option is easily dismissed. After all, if nothing matters (and this we know we have said before), then it doesn't matter if we know nothing matters; similarly, to wallow in self-pity--for any reason, but in this case, for frustration at our inability to live as if nothing matters--seems the antithesis of the absurd.

The second idea is a bit more complicated. And indeed, we sometimes feel we are living in just this manner--after all, when life is good what need is there to remind ourselves it's all an illusion? But before we explore this, allow us a quick digression.

As Inigo explored in his Gone Bamboo post, it is easier to live as if nothing matters when one surrounds oneself with very little in the way of possessions, family, or obligations; it is easier to "just live" when there are few demands on one's time. Now, of course, all such demands are self-imposed; nevertheless, it is easier to sit and watch the sunset when one's children are not screaming, or the phone ringing, or one's wife asking when the in-laws can come to visit.

But while it is unquestionably easier to live the "absurd life" when one has fewer commitments, is this because such an individual finds it easier to embrace the absurd...or has less need to do so?

We had a conversation recently with a colleague who told us she "could not do her job" if she lived as if life were absurd--the implication, of course, being that she would be unable to accomplish anything if she believed it were all pointless. But this is to miss the point entirely! Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the absurd is that it actually allows one to be more productive...if one chooses to live that way. After all, when one sheds worries about the future and past, it is much easier to focus on work in the present.

To bring this full circle, the question under review is whether, since people with fewer commitments have less "need" of the absurd, it should be viewed as a "crutch"--a tool used to shrug off disappointment, but eschewed in happier times.

The answer, of course, is an emphatic NO! Indeed, to even consider such a stance would be to misunderstand the absurd on a very fundamental level, and to mistakenly conflate happiness with contentedness. The latter is also something we have discussed before, and we find it to be more and more relevant as we consider different aspects of the absurd. In this case, the mistake is in assigning a value judgment to certain sets of circumstance, when all experience is equal.

Now, we of course realize such a sentiment is easier to say than to live...and thus the title of this post. What we have come to appreciate these past few years is that this constant tug-of-war between what we think and feel is not some sort of refutation of the absurd, or an argument in favor of using the absurd to boost our happiness. Instead, it is quite simply an unavoidable consequence of being human.

You can deconstruct sex all you want--the fact is it still feels really, really good. Conversely, few if any would choose to be tortured by electric shock. The fact that we ardently believe such experiences to be equivalent (in our rational brain), does not change our visceral reaction that they are radically different and one is clearly to be preferred over the other. But to take the view that the absurd should be viewed as a tool to help ease the pain of the latter, but ignored in the former, is difficult if not impossible to defend. For to do so is to acknowledge a belief that one is indeed preferable to the other, and this is clearly incompatible with the absurd.

That's enough for today--we're headed home to a nice glass of wine. The tug-of-war continues!

Friday, March 18, 2011


“Sisyphus is the absurd hero…”

- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

We recently watched the movie Inception, which deals with various absurd ideas. Christopher Nolan wrote, co-produced and directed the film, which was inspired by the idea of lucid dreaming (where you are aware you are dreaming) and the blurry lines between reality and dreams and time. (No worries, we won’t give anything away).

The characters in the film sometimes have a hard time separating what is a dream and what is real. (And in fact, one character in the film loses all touch with what is “real” and what is a “dream” – and the movie delightfully plays with these boundaries, such that viewers too will start to wonder what the difference is between the two… and if it even matters). And then are dreams within dreams, where someone is in a dream and has another dream. Things get murky, as you can imagine.

The characters in the film that can enter other people’s dreams are called “Extractors” because their mission often involves extracting information from a person’s subconscious.

One of the neat ideas in the film is the idea of “totems.” The Extractors all carry their own unique totems which serve to help them distinguish when they are in the “real world” and when they are in a “dream.” For example, the main character, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) carries a top which he spins. In the real world, the top eventually stops spinning and falls over. But in the dreamworld, it keeps spinning.

It’s an entertaining film and we would recommend it. But, what inspires this post is that idea of a totem, because we happen to have recently purchased something of an absurd totem. You can see the picture of it at the top of this post. It’s a watch with a little man pushing a rock around and around and around… Inside the face of the watch is the word “Sisyphus,” repeated in a spiral to the center.

What a great idea! We should have thought of it…The Myth of Sisyphus you may well know and we’ve sprinkled this blog with references to the old Greek myth. In essence, Sisyphus – as a form of punishment - pushes a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back. He descends the mountain and pushes again, only to have the same thing happen. He repeats this endlessly, pushing his rock over and over again.

To Albert Camus, Sisyphus is the absurd hero because he knows his task is meaningless and futile and yet he continues anyway. Sisyphus teaches us that a meaningless existence can lose its power over us once we recognize it and accept it. The struggle itself is enough. As Camus writes, “[Sisyphus] too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.”

Sisyphus is not a despairing figure at all in Camus’ absurd worldview. Instead, he is a figure of stubborn happiness. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he writes.

The watch, then, is our absurd totem. It reminds us that life is absurd. We look down at our wrist and see that little fellow pushing that rock and we can't help but smile. Life is absurd and all is well.

(If you are interested in where we got ours, you can find it here, animated even:

An absurd totem doesn’t seem a bad thing. We have a laughing Buddha that sits on our desk, too, as a kind of reminder to laugh off the world’s troubles. Another sits on our nightstand, greeting us every morning and wishing us sweet dreams every night. We’d encourage you too to find something, however simple or small, to remind you of that perspective.

And imagine what a great conversation starter this watch will make.

“What’s that watch you have there?”

“Well, it’s Sisyphus pushing his rock. Let me explain. You see…”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Cult of Happiness

“We all carry within us our prisons.”

- Albert Camus

We haven’t been diligent about posting on our blog. It is not for want of material, that is for sure. We find bits of absurdity every day. And sometimes we think we could write something every day, a project of the kind pursued by what’s-her-name in Julia & Julia, when the protagonist sets out to make every recipe in Julia Child’s famous book.

Our daily venture would catalog and collate little snatches of absurdity encountered during a day… nuggets picked up on the radio or in a conversation with a colleague or in the pages of a book. Quotes, articles, anecdotes, episodes… a seeming endless stream of stuff.

Ah, but life intervenes, we suppose, and we fall back into the flux of daily events. Before we knew it, February was in the books and March had begun. My how time does fly when one is pushing one’s rock!

Posting to this blog is somewhat cathartic to us, though, even if no one ever read the words, or even if they should disappear forever soon after we wrote them. Writing is like that.

Graham Greene once wrote “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” We agree that these means of expression can be therapeutic, but we don’t look to escape.

Escapism is not absurd. The absurd man accepts life as it is. Life is meaningless and nothing matters, as we like to say. Including, we should add, happiness.

The quest for happiness has become its own industry. We recently read an insightful essay on the topic by Pascal Bruckner, titled “Condemned to Joy.”

More than an industry, it has become a “new moral order.” As Bruckner writes, “We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences. Consider the poll, conducted by a French newspaper, in which 90 percent of people questioned reported being happy. Who would dare admit that he is sometimes miserable and expose himself to social opprobrium?”

This also extends to our obsession with health, as Bruckner points out. “Duration—holding on as long as possible—becomes an authoritative value, even if it must be achieved at the cost of terrible restrictions, depriving oneself of some of the best the world has to offer.”

So then we make ridiculous choices, like taking extraordinary steps to keep the aged alive, even when the mind is long gone and the quality of life poor – something none of us would choose for ourselves.

Alternatively, we might accept our lot as flawed, sometimes broken, sometimes miserable, sometimes thwarted, mortal agglomerations of chemicals going through pointless motions in a vast undefined space.

Acceptance… and, Bruckner advises, humility.

“What is needed is a renewed humility. We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close. The excessive ambition to expunge all that is weak or broken in body or mind, to control moods and states of soul, sadness, chagrin, moments of emptiness—all this runs up against our finitude, against the inertia of the human species, which we cannot manipulate like some raw material.”

Indeed… The absurd man aims to accept life it is, like a golfer who plays his ball where it lies without complaint. There is no good or bad. Life just is. We accept it. We feel a sense of equanimity with our mysterious existence and we view our ceaseless striving with irony. As Thomas Nagel wrote, we are full of doubts we cannot answer and purposes we are unable to abandon. “In viewing ourselves from a perspective broader than we can occupy in the flesh, we become spectators of our own lives…”

Life is funny and strange and surprising and many other things besides. But above all, life is absurd. We are (paraphrasing again from Nagel) an unconvinced transcendent consciousness dragooned into the service of a limited and meaningless enterprise – a human life.

We find this view very refreshing. It lifts all burdens. It is freeing, like a bird who realizes suddenly that there never was a cage... Or the prisoner who realizes the only prison is the one in his head...

And so we go happily back to pushing that rock!

This is Water, Part II

We originally wrote about Dave Foster Wallace's famous commencement speech at Kenyon College

We revisit it because we recently listened to the speech. It's very good... and has quite a few absurd insights. We pass along an extended excerpt, then links for you to find the whole thing.

“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out…

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is…

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations…”

Part I is here:

Part II is here:

Listening to it is what we recommend, but you can read it here:

Enjoy. And remember, "this is water."