My son was working on an essay about the Elgin marbles. I said: ‘This debate has been raging for over 200 years. Do not be tempted (as I am wont to do) to solve it in one go. However, there are many good resources. My advice: cite a few, write an error-free essay, and move on.’ (He got an ‘A’.)
Far longer than about the Elgin marbles, debate has raged about the meaning of life. Existentialism, absurdism, and nihilism are just recent flavours that deal with that age-old question: What’s it all about, what’s it mean? Like chess, searching for an answer is good brain exercise. But will I move on?
(Pictured is ‘Tre profili’ [‘Three Profiles’] by Remo Brindisi, c.1975. ‘Critics hold that in this repertoire the artist begins to reflect on the existential malaise of modern man [sic], victim of the violence that undermines interpersonal relationships in contemporary society.’) One friend’s professional experience of not getting stuck but moving on is that reconnecting even painful memories from the past to the present provides a meaningful future, most importantly by listening. But another friend’s professional experience is that some people avoid working things out and get stuck in the past. A third friend’s professional experience is that the future is unknown–you don’t want to get stuck there either for that causes anxiety–so forget the future, stay in the moment. Three different people, three different points of view. But each is trying to make sense of it, each is searching for meaning, an existential search. However, my own search for meaning lead me from existentialism to absurdism because I’m not sure if we can make sense of it.
The central theme of existentialism is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In existentialism, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.’
In absurdism, the universe may have meaning, but a human can never know it. As far as we can know, the universe is meaningless. Nevertheless, we keep searching for meaning. In so doing, we encounter the absurd, ‘the fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma’:
- Suicide [aka ‘escaping existence’]
- Religious, spiritual, or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being, or idea [aka ‘leap of faith’]
- Acceptance of the absurd’ [aka ‘recognition’ or acknowledgement]
Douglas Adams, most famous as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, finds technology absurd because it fails to understand meaning: ‘Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don’t quite work yet is just not worth the effort for end users, however much fun it is for nerds like us. The days when you can say “open pod bay number 2, Hal” and be confident that Hal understands that you want to be stranded on the outskirts of Jupiter are still a way away.’ All you can do is laugh if you acknowledge the absurd. Better than leaping or killing yourself.
I am reassured yet tantalized that ‘in acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing meaning from the search alone’. However, unless one develops meaning, this encounter ‘can make a person mentally unstable, and avoiding such instability by making people aware of their condition and ready to handle it is one of the central themes of existentialism.’ In searching for meaning, ‘these encounters with the absurd are where we are most in touch with our condition as humans.’
The chart, ‘Basic relationships between existentialism, absurdism and nihilism’, has two types of existentialism, atheist and theist, but only one type of absurdism. Does absurdity preclude divinity? In a well-written piece, Absurd and Absurdity–Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought, Austin Cline writes that Christian existentialists ‘accept the notion of the “absurd” and the irrationality of human life because they agree that humans are caught in a web of subjectivity from which they cannot escape. As Kierkegaard [pictured] argued, in the end we must all make choices which are not based upon fixed, rational standards–choices which are just as likely to be wrong as right. This is what Kierkegaard termed a “leap of faith”.’ Humans must choose and are fated to die; however, ‘we must be willing to live in spite of death, create meaning in spite of objective meaninglessness, and find value in spite of the tragic, even comic, absurdity of what goes on around us.’
Traditional Christian theology posits when you die you go to a separate heaven and a separate hell, but some modern theologies hold that this world is heaven or hell now. Wherever and whenever it is, can you be happy? Camus (pictured), in The Myth Of Sisyphus, recalls Sisyphus’ punishment in hell for defying the gods, endlessly pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down. But Camus imagines that Sisyphus is happy, because he gradually learns that ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough‘ and concludes that ‘all is well’.
It’s much the same for us. Isn’t life really just endlessly getting up, going to work, going home, making supper, doing the dishes, lying down, over and over? Like endlessly pushing a rock uphill, only a little more complicated, with its many distractions and all its stuff? However, in the struggle itself each of us can choose to be happy, can choose heaven over hell. Seen this way, this could be taken as a theological matter, eh? Camus imagines that Sisyphus finds happiness. But can we find true happiness only in relationships, or only in our selves, or both, or neither but only in a possibly non-existent divinity, or god, the universe, and everything? The search continues. Maybe the search is everything.