Friday, July 18, 2014

Absurdity and the Claims of Others

1. Every once in a while . . . 2. What if everything seems absurd? 3. Louis CK on the web of life — Camus and the dilemma of modernity — Christ? Or fleshy neighbors?; 4. Accepting fragility — The claims of others

1.      Every once in a while, I receive an email from people who have read one of my Pirsig essays at, every one of which have an “author’s note” in the header that gives my email and a playful request for all forms of feedback. Often I have to explain that I wrote them many years ago, and no longer think many of the things they contain. [1] The essay, bar none, that I receive the most emails about is one I wrote on Camus for a philosophy class on existentialism, “Absurdity and the Meaning of Life.” Usually, the people have no interest in Pirsig because they found the essay by typing in the relevant keywords into google. I have gotten many different kinds of response to this essay. [2]

2.      I recently received a response that touched an interesting chord. It consisted simply of a quoted passage from the essay—a passage from Camus and then my response—and a series of rhetorical questions. (No salutation, no closing signature; one of the oddities of internet life I’ve had to grow accustomed to.) Like so:
“Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”
In this way Camus seems to be merely pointing out the absurdity of some people’s lives. I can think of several people in my life that don’t fit into this simplistic mold. My sister, for example, prefers to live her life as something of a free spirit. She works when she needs money, sleeps rarely, and parties a lot. This isn’t quite Camus’ point, however. Camus would certainly argue that my sister is indeed in a pattern that could easily be questioned. Why party all the time? Why not work instead? Why anything at all? This last question is what Camus is driving at. [3]
What if we have to support our family?
What if we are bored of life?
What if we have no hope to live?
What if everything seems nothing but absurd?
What if you have no one to love you?
I found this very interesting, because it struck me that there was a tension in the questions. Some of the rhetorical questions point to an answer in the Cosmic Christ, and given my mysterious writer’s email handle, I suspect that was the intended effect. What if you’re bored, what if there’s no hope, what if everything seems absurd, what if you have no one to love you? Jesus Christ can do all of those things for you—He can love you, give meaning to your life, enter you into an exciting project to structure your earthly time. He is the substance of hope, the evidence for things unseen.

3.      The first question, however, doesn’t fit that pattern: “What if we have to support our family?” I like Louis CK’s version:
Whenever single people complain about anything, I really want them to shut the fuck up. First of all, if you’re single, your life has no consequence on the earth. Even if you’re helping people aggressively, which you’re fucking not, nobody gives a shit what happens to you. You can die, and it actually doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. Your mother will cry or whatever, but otherwise, nobody gives a shit.
I can’t die; I got two kids and my wife doesn’t fucking work, so I don’t get to die. [4]
I think what this points to is a different pattern of possible answers to those other rhetorical questions: finding a place in the web of life that makes up the connections we have with others is a way of giving meaning, finding hope, and structuring your earthly time. If you’re looking for love, you can find it in your fleshy neighbors.

And this, now, is the philosophical response I would give to Camus. The problem I took up in that paper was produced by the intersection between the seeming absurdity of our day-to-day processes of living and the death of God. Camus saw that there was a problem riven into modern life. God once played the role of framing life, of being the framework in which meaning was constituted—no longer. And the increasing mechanization of life, symbolized (and literalized) by the clock, produces the feeling of a succession of days without success, unending—up goes the boulder, and down it goes for tomorrow. In effect, these two patterns of answer—my interlocutor’s answer of Christ, my answer of fleshy neighbors—are simply two different attempts to grasp one horn over the other of the dilemma of modernity, so structured. He doubles down on Christ, denying God is dead; I double down on day-to-day life, denying it is absurd.

Camus thought the ultimate philosophical question was of suicide: why shouldn’t I commit suicide? Louis CK suggests quite plainly how taking seriously your obligations to others answers Camus’ question—his entire act is almost a concession to the absurdity, which heightens the sense of moral responsibility and obligation we continually flout but must find within ourselves if we are to be good people. Even if I wanted to die, Louis CK says, I don’t get to.

4.      Denying that life is absurd and finding meaning in the arms of others is a much more fragile pattern of answers, given that people can betray you, and no one is entitled to love from any particular person. We might be able to say that every person is entitled to love, but that does not mean that any person is entitled to fulfill that as their unique obligation.

Love from fleshy others takes work. Claiming the attention of others is as delicate a dance as the practice of reason, of the giving and asking for reasons, the exchange of assertions and claims about why you do or think a thing. Jesus’ love isn’t like that; He loves you no matter what. That, I think, speaks to the continued pull of Christian teachings. But it doesn’t speak against pouring your heart into others as opposed to the absurdly easy love of Christ.


[1] You can find a list of those essays and my grading of them here.

[2]One particularly weird one I had fun with I wrote about in “How Not to Start a Philosophical Conversation.” For an earlier autobiographical reflection on the “Absurdity” essay, in which I rain on my earlier self’s parade, see “Second Thoughts on Existentialism.” It has perhaps the greatest pun I’ve ever made (though “How Not to” has a good one, too).

[3] The Camus is from The Myth of Sisyphus, and the passage is from the beginning of the section of “Absurdity” entitled “Life Is Absurd.”

[4] This is from Shameless. You can listen to a clip of this joke here. I agree with the makers of that website—Louis CK is one of the most philosophically substantive comedians working today.

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