Achieve the Absurd

Sometimes I wonder why the planets are where they are at. So often they seem just out of reach. It makes me wonder if they were intentionally put out there… as if to tell us “No, you’re stuck on your little rock until you can cooperate long enough to get faster-than-light travel figured out.” What isn’t mentioned is that even then we’ll have to either find or terraform a planet to be hospitable to our particular lifestyle — you know, that whole breathing air and drinking water bit. And I fully expect that any bad habits we’ve not purged from our behavioral systems will ensure that everything which has happened before is certain to happen again. If we ever get there. Frankly, I suspect we’re better off improving our habits and behaviors in the expectation that this is the only rock we get. It’s certainly been the case for everybody in our history books, from doomsday cults to Carl Sagan. And while they make strange company, at least Carl would have agreed.

This has come once again because, while I’m reading Camus at Combat, Dare Obasanjo is response to Peter Michaud’s response to Doctor Professor. The short of that litany is that Professor realizes that the time-sucking element of role-playing-games is rewarded by faux-achievement and scripted gratitude, so Professor plays arcade games now instead. Michaud pretty rightly says this is silly, faux-achievement is faux-achievement regardless of which game it is or which overly-scripted social norm it disguises itself with, but he comes off a bit too close to nihilism for my taste. Obasanjo stops to put it in perspective to realize that the vast majority of life is some kind of treadmill with the question being how much control the individual has over the measurement of their accomplishments. He stops short of drawing a conclusion, though, so I’d like to do that here: you are always hypothetically capable of being a better person, but you are always going to simultaneously be both the best and the worst you that your practice of being you has made you.

Put another way, any given moment can almost certainly be used in a better way — but how it is actually being used will alter the opportunities that the user has in the future in ways that cannot be predicted… at least, not with accuracy and substantially in advance. This is because a life is not a speck of lint, but rather a thread and the threads of lives have to weave through each other to form a tapestry. And that’s where we threads get into trouble: we can’t see the big picture.

If it even exists. It is a conceit to believe that there’s any specific point to our collective existence, for the threads to claim that they must be forming a tapestry instead of a messy tangle that will find no greater purpose than to make the cat that casually eats it quite sick.

And this is where we break out the Absurdism article, or rather will after this brief tangent… So going through High School and University, I was taught that Camus was an existentialist. I wouldn’t know about that, but I would know that he resonated with me so when I wrote a final paper — radio play, actually — for my University course on Existentialism (it was far better than the 101 Thinker of the Day course) and concluded that Camus would’ve said that Existentialism is the anti-philosophy of not asking questions because the limitations of the absurd ensure that the answers will not be satisfactory, I was apparently surprisingly close to the mark (noting “He shows less and less interest in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe“). But the crucial point is that Camus disavowed the title of existentialist — it’s referenced in the Wikipedia article and shows up in his writings for Combat. So, dear literature teachers and philosophy departments, please stop accidentally referring to Monsieur Camus as an existentialist; if you must do so, do it with intention so we know that you’re actively reinforcing the nature of the absurd. Thanks.

So what is the absurd? In short, it’s the progression of time forcing you to do something even though you don’t know how it’s going to turn out in your lifetime with the realization that your lifetime is finite. Kierkegaard puts it like this: “I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.” For my part, though, I think the scene in Stranger Than Fiction where Harold stays home is a very relevant dramatization: to a certain point, action is forced even if it is of such a seemingly low caliber that we complain of our lives being wasted.

Of course they seem wasted.

“I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” moans Eliot (and the next time you read that, visualize the speaker as an accountant flattened by opium in a brothel at the height of the industrial revolution), but really — what did Prince Hamlet do, anyway? He disrupted Denmark enough to make it collapse immediately prior to a Norwegian army showing up. This strikes me as not dissimilar from when King David was serving the Philistines who were about to, you know, slaughter King Saul and all his household. Except that Hamlet managed to get himself killed instead of making the kingdom great, so in retrospect he might have been better off in an opium den himself according to some value systems. But what Stoppard observed in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was that there are “deaths for all ages and all occasions,” but also that the value of life is determined by the reflectiveness of the individual living it regardless of position, as seen in the contrast between Rosencratz and Guildenstern’s bumbling postulations and The Player’s lucidity.

The Player is crucial: he was little more than a peasant with a carefully honed craft “set down with as much
modesty as cunning,” and from there regarded as “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” He was not royalty, he had no station. All he had were words. More historically, Camus had words and tuberculosis and a country overrun by Nazis — and the obituary he wrote for FDR was a work of beauty. And while modern audiences may remember that “while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth,” the truth is that in November of 1946, Camus wrote that “Henceforth there will only be one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.”

That is, of course, probably the least of the parallels between V for Vendetta and Camus’ work — an uncorrupted reading of the Myth of Sisyphus says that Sisyphus is happy not because he’s somehow content but because it is the path of conscious revolt in which he can triumph over his ridiculous fate. (That’s another thing that is often taught wrong.) The happiness of Sisyphus is, in the parlance of V, the last inch. “It is small. And it is fragile. And it is the only thing in the world worth having.” Because that is the basis for your self-definition and your self-worth, regardless of who you expect to have to represent yourself to.

I am not Prince Hamlet. But I wasn’t meant to be. I am me.

Over a decade ago — just about 11 years and 1 month — I hit that last inch. Who needs a vindictive pantheon or an army of jack-booted thugs when our own minds can produce the most wondrous of poisons? I’m afraid that I didn’t learn enough from the experience, but the one thing that I did learn is that it is a luxury to have so much buffer around your last inch that you can ponder whether or not playing Modern Warfare 2 is negatively impacting your ability to be a fully functioning member of society (for some not-supplied definition thereof). Really, when you can stop to realize that you’ve just exchanged one thing for something else which would appear to be astonishingly similar to anybody else, you should throw your head back and laugh at the absurdity of your behavior. It’s a thing of wonder and if you’re not willing to own your own behavior, then it really isn’t worth owning. But the real point is that many of the issues that were present 11 years ago have persisted and re-emerged. I’d like to think that I’m doing a better job of protecting myself from them here, but then again I’m still writing and it’s one o’clock in the morning.

If it’s good and we manage to do it twice, we call it virtue. If it’s no good and we do it twice, then we call it habit — and thus give ourselves indulgence to do it some more. There’s a repetition there, and whether citing Peter Pan or Battlestar Galactica, there are multiple ways to prove that “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” And that’s a good thing because as much as we hate our habits, we must take the opportunities to practice our virtues.

That’s somewhat the point that Nate goes for with uncanny timing in “The repetition of death,” in which I suppose I’ve also been participating. Nate’s posting is short and it is topical; I suggest you read it.

But getting back to this particular repetition, the question comes down to: are you living your life? Note the emphasis there. The question isn’t one of whether or not you’re living; time forces you to be living, you get in the habit of living before you get in the habit of thinking — and telling people to ask women on dates who aren’t much interested/interesting doesn’t change that. No, it is as a catepillar or inquisitor might misleadingly ask, “Who are you?” It is the question of whether or not you control the very last inch of yourself.

It isn’t easy. We spend so much time trying to inflate our egos and prepare for our grand futures that we lose track of that small and fragile last inch. We invest so much effort in our own greatness trying to forget that we’re invisibly small on a pale blue dot. And when we find exactly where we are at, when we are stunningly called to stare right at it, we run the high risk of damaging or even shattering it. “It”: that speck of ourselves that qualifies us as human.

I am sad to say that the buffer around my last inch has been compromised. Amusingly — at least, it would be amusing to an adequately outside observer — the circumstances have distinct similarities to 11 years ago. But in this case, while I am certainly feeling a stress-level response to defending what I regard as the core of my being, I have to say that I am somewhat thankful for the opportunity of self-rediscovery that it has given me that I’ve been needing for years now.