For something completely different... and really well written... and either marvelously meaningful or completely meaningless... yet fun to read, nonetheless...
Check out Rivka Weinberg's New York Times piece, "Why life is absurd."
I liked it a lot. While understanding it hardly at all. Which could be Weinberg's point. With modern philosophy, often it's hard to tell the difference between satire and seriousness.
Here's a few excerpts to whet your reading appetite.
In a famous 1971 paper, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel argues that life’s absurdity has nothing to do with its length.
If a short life is absurd, he says, a longer life would be even more absurd: “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts 70 years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?”
This line of reasoning has a nice ring to it but whether lengthening an absurd thing will relieve it of its absurdity depends on why the thing is absurd and how much you lengthen it. A longer life might be less absurd even if an infinite life would not be. A short poem that is absurd because it is written in gibberish would be even more absurd if it prattled on for longer. But, say I decided to wear a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a belt. On my way to teach my class, a colleague intercepts me:
“Your skirt,” she says, “is absurd.”
“Absurd? Why?” I ask.
“Because it is so short!” she replies.
“If a short skirt is absurd, a longer skirt would be even more absurd,” I retort.
Now who’s being absurd? The skirt is absurd because it is so short. A longer skirt would be less absurd. Why? Because it does not suffer from the feature that makes the short skirt absurd, namely, a ridiculously short length.
The same goes for a one-hour hunger strike. The point of a hunger strike is to show that one feels so strongly about something that one is willing to suffer a lack of nourishment for a long time in order to make a point. If you only “starve” for an hour, you have not made your point.
Your one-hour hunger strike is absurd because it is too short. If you lengthened it to one month or one year, you might be taken more seriously. If life is absurd because it’s short, it might be less absurd if it were suitably longer.
Absurdity occurs when things are so ill-fitting or ill-suited to their purpose or situation as to be ridiculous, like wearing a clown costume to a (non-circus) job interview or demanding that your dog tell you what time it is.
Is the lifespan of a relatively healthy and well-preserved human, say somewhere between 75 and 85, so short as to render it absurd, ill-suited to reasonable human purposes?
...The absurdity of human life poses a challenge to its meaning. Absurdity and meaningfulness don’t go together. This, however, does not mean that if life were not absurd then it would have meaning. Removing the obstacle of absurdity does not entail that meaning rushes in.
But if we cannot remove the obstacle of absurdity then it will be hard to conclude that life has meaning or determine what that meaning might be. The clown suit is standing in our way.
There are lots of comments on the piece. I only looked at a few. This is one that resonated with me.
Yikes. What a lot of words. I am older, and have discovered for myself, that over-thinking, over-analyzing, trying to ascribe meaning to this brief existence of mine, have done nothing but cause me to not be present and subsequently fuel neurotic behaviors.
Late in life, I am finally learning to curb my need to analyze and now try to only apply that important skill to problems that are solvable. (like how to figure out a stress-free password solution or purchase a used car).
At some point I decided that the experience of being alive was so full of things that engendered a sense of wonder and awe, that I let go of the need to make sense of it all.
Thinking about how the optic nerve works, or how my body sustains itself, watching the play of dolphins in the ocean, for the most part, brings me to a resounding "yes" . In spite of the hardships, the struggles and the mistakes, I am grateful for the trip and do not want to spend a lot of calories anymore deciding whether it is absurd or not.
Lovely post, Brian. Every word you said there, every logical turn you took as you navigated your way through to your conclusion, resonated with me. (Although I was content to read just what you wrote, without clicking my way to that other article.) That was a great distinction you made : between the absurdity (or otherwise) of life, and any meaning life may have (or not). It’s lovely, what you say : It’s necessary to deal with the absurdity of life ; but there is no assurance that once you cross that (one way or another) you’ll actually see life imbued with meaning. I’ve never thought of this quite that way, and that small distinction makes the whole issue so much clearer. You’ve presented this whole thing lightly and humorously, but that insight is far from trivial.
On a somewhat-related-and-somewhat-at-a-tangent note : That’s the thing with poetry. It’s often beautiful, obviously. But often, it’s also BS. What the poet does (among other things, and at times) is basically pretend to an illusion of depth using words : you sometimes halt wonderstruck at some lovely piece of poetry, seeing meanings within meanings within meanings : but then it’s simply you imputing those meaning yourself. And the best poet-BSers are not those who’re shallow and pretend to be deep : but those who start out from a position of undeniable depth, and then use their poetry to create the illusion of a bottomless depth that is way beyond the actual extent of what they know and could convey had they used simple prose. Much of mystical poetry would, I suppose, fall in this category.
Much like life itself? Life can be great BSer too, in that sense!
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | January 16, 2015 at 04:36 AM
For those with some imagination
In poetry you can read amazingly often that
a certain ( even short ) period of feeling Love was worth
all the misery & emptiness of the rest of a life lived.
What if a giant invisible UFO was above our heads
all the time
and you were the ambassador on earth
and all the time you have that signal telling you
how much your service in the mud is appreciated
by the intergalactic council of galaxies
and that signal provided you with an wow*feel energy
all the time and you feel so great each second
Wouldn't that be swell ? ,,,,, Isn't it ?
Posted by: 777 | January 16, 2015 at 01:00 PM
"The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'
"`Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. `I'm glad they've begun asking riddles.--I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud.
"`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare.
"`Exactly so,' said Alice.
"`Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.
"`I do,' Alice hastily replied; `at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'
"`Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'
"`You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, `that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!'
"`You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!'
"`It IS the same thing with you,' said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn't much."
The beauty of the English language is the ability of words to shade and shift in meaning, to mean one thing and then another, much like another character Alice met - the Cheshire Cat.
When in doubt, consult your OED. Therein you read that “absurd” begins as inharmonious and then shades off into tasteless and foolish. In our world, lacking as it does any harmony, the word today is associated, as the OED says, “plainly opposed to reason, and hence, ridiculous, silly.”
As for me, I concur with Albert Camus: “The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Posted by: Richard van Pelt | January 17, 2015 at 07:01 AM