Living the Absurd Life

A framed quote by Albert Camus hangs over my desk: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” To which I would add, but can it dance?

It is not a question Camus might have asked. In fact, it’s ridiculous. It just popped into my head, like so many other wacky thoughts. Cultivating such silliness is a strategy I’ve found most helpful during times of darkness and despair.

This intentional silliness is what many of us think of when we hear the word “absurd.” Unfortunately, many people also have a negative view of the absurd, since it involves a deliberate violation of what we consider reasonable, leading to illogical, nonsensical, often bizarre situations. Totally unpredictable, it follows no rules, turning on its head everything we hold logical and true. And some of us don’t like that.

Absurdist, or surreal, humor is the heart of all great comedy. Think of the preposterous scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice attempts to play croquet using a flamingo as mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Or Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussy-Cat” sailing off to get married and eating slices of quince with a runcible spoon? What exactly is a runcible spoon? Or Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis? You can’t get more ridiculous than waking up and suddenly finding yourself having turned into a giant bug. Then there’s Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a guy named Godot who never shows up and nothing really happens. But oh, what a glorious nothing it is! More recently, comics George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Monty Python, to name a few, have shared their private worlds of wackiness and helped to keep us sane.

But this silliness quite often masks a deep sadness, alienation, and inner struggle. Lewis Carroll used absurd humor as a way to deal with the chaotic changes taking place during the Victorian Period when, much like in Alice in Wonderland, the traditional British life he had known was being turned upside down. So he showed his character Alice struggling to make sense of this ever more curious world she must navigate.

Camus meant something entirely different by the absurd, which can also mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” According to him: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Silly was not his game. Talk about depressing. Can you imagine this guy at a dinner party? Instead of the usual banter, he would stare, with eyes ablaze, at the guests around the table and ask, “What is the meaning of existence?” And as each cited their various religious, philosophical, scientific, and personal answers, Camus would knock them down, one by one.

Ever the skeptic, he would insist that there is no adequate answer to this question. Despite all our efforts to find purpose to our existence, the universe remains silent on this issue. We cannot reason our way to meaning, he argued, for “this world in itself is not reasonable.” Considering the vast, ever-expanding amount of information available to us as well as all that may forever remain unknown makes total certainty beyond our grasp.

Camus rejected the false hope and comfort offered by religion. Like the philosopher Nietzsche, he saw the danger of devaluing this life at the expense of an afterlife which may never come. Why deprive ourselves of the rich opportunities offered by a life we know for one which we cannot know for certain? And therein lies the dilemma. While our human hearts seek to find purpose and meaning to it all (as in Dionne Warwick’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”), there is no definitive answer, no “familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” This is what Camus means by the absurd.

In his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus provides us with the memorable image of a man doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back each time it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the absurd human, doomed to struggle through life without hope or meaning.

According to Camus, you have two choices. Deal with this emptiness in your soul and embrace it, with no hope of escape or consolation, while boldly seeking your own meaning, or decide you can’t deal with it and just end it.

Camus saw death as “the most obvious absurdity,” so he chose life instead. Through his writing, and his personal and political life, he defiantly resisted the apparent meaninglessness of existence. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance to help liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and edited the underground newspaper Combat.  In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his life was cut tragically short, he showed us a way to triumph over despair and live an authentic life with dignity.

Have to admit, I do sometimes feel like Sisyphus, pushing my personal rock up the hill only to see it come crashing down again, times when everything I do seems hopeless and my life seems to have as much purpose as the floppy disk I found wedged between a copy of The Hobbit and The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Unlike Camus, however, the question that comes to mind is not: should I kill myself?

I do agree with Camus that the world is not reasonable, and find it curious that I am here. I look in the mirror and see a creature no less bizarre than a giraffe or a star-nosed mole, with all those weird tentacles at the end of its nose. As a kid, I used to gaze at pictures of certain animals in books and shudder. How could they be? They seemed so unreal.

And here am I, as improbable as Ionesco’s rhinoceros running through the streets. My face stares back at me in disbelief. I feel a disconnect between the image in the mirror and the image I carry inside. Is it really the same me, with all those dreams, lusts, and ambitions, all those noble and idle thoughts, all those precious and hateful memories? Or is it a mirage of someone who once was? As I write this, countless cells in my body have died and been replaced, as neurons flash and chart new pathways and memories in my brain. The person I saw this morning is no more.,

Tomorrow I will look in the mirror again, and what will I see? Will I see “the master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul?” Or will I see the more usual face of befuddlement and despair?

It is the dance I perform each day—a dance for meaning—and I never know how it will turn out. Some days, it’s a little jig before breakfast. Other days, it’s more like a polka from hell, or a slow, sad waltz on my grave.

Most often, it begins with some little thing. A little ray of hope that sets my feet moving. Some encouraging thought or word from a friend. An inspiring poem or essay. Some newly discovered truth I had forgotten. A piece of news that proves the world is not coming to an end … not yet, at least.

And I remember that the purpose of my life does not come from external sources. There is no guidebook or grand plan, no voices telling me what to do. Rather it is a series of little daily steps I take to keep the darkness at bay. It’s realizing the value of simple things, like kindness, empathy, and understanding. Expanding my mind with new insights and knowledge. Exulting in the awe of this wondrous universe and the fact that, for a little while, I am here to experience it. Writing the best I can, relishing the little triumphs while accepting that I will never be as good as Shakespeare, Yeats, or Steinbeck. James Baldwin famously wrote: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s as good a credo to live by as any.

But there are times when I lose sight of these and all seems lost, and the only thing that can save me is silliness. Not some tired slapstick silliness, but the kind that’s absurd to the bone and makes you laugh so hard you start blowing things out your nose.

Humor is highly subjective, of course, but there’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail that gets me every time. The knights appear to be riding around on invisible horses as their squires clap coconuts together to produce the sound of hoof clopping (it was a low budget movie and the group didn’t have enough money to afford actual horses, or so they say). And you want to know what’s really absurd? Watching the movie, I begin seeing the horses. When and if nuclear war breaks out, I will watch it, laughing, as the world ends to the beat of horse’s clopping.

In the introduction to my book Dragon Daily News, a collection of silly stories for children, I paraphrased Thoreau and wrote: “In silliness is the preservation of the world.” The world presses down on us with relentless reality, often unfolding in ways that seem to make no sense. How could such things happen in a sane world? we ask ourselves. But the world is not sane. It can be as crazy beautiful as the arms of a spiral galaxy or human eye. And it can be as crazy ugly as anencephaly in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, or a flu virus that suddenly mutates and kills tens of thousands of people. Or all the not-so-nice and horrific things we do to each other daily. Sometimes, all that saves us is our ability to laugh.

Tears are overrated, if you ask me. Beware of anyone who cannot laugh. Run for the nearest exit.  Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who died recently at age 103, frequently wrote poems marked by absurdity. Explaining his relationship to the reader, he said: “Humor makes contact easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”

Whenever I get particularly depressed by the doings of my fellow human beings, I try to do something silly. It is a personal act of defiance against a world that seems to grow more absurd by the moment.

Maybe I’ll wear a silly T-shirt or write a silly poem. I’ll do like Shel Silverstein in his wonderful poem Put Something In: “Do a loony-goony dance/’Cross the kitchen floor/Put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.”

In Defense of Same-Species Marriage

While the issue of same-sex marriage plays out in the Supreme Court, we need to cool off a bit and find some common ground. For instance, we can all at least agree that marriage should be limited to members of the same species. Yet there are those among us, even now, cohabiting with partners outside their own genetic kin. It is only a matter of time before such unions become commonplace, threatening the traditional sanctity of marriage. That is why I propose a national Same-Species Marriage Act.

Polls show that most Americans are opposed by a wide margin to marriages between different species, even when it involves a beloved pet or favorite tree. Numerous research studies in the past 30 years have amply demonstrated that children growing up in households headed by two different species often display signs of emotional distress and confusion, especially with regard to their species identity. Furthermore, many religions consider procreation to be the main or even only purpose of marriage. However, in most cases, trans-species unions are far less likely to result in viable progeny. Thousands of years of recorded evidence have shown that nothing beats same-species coupling for overall reliability and safety in producing healthy offspring. And no successful interbreeding has ever been documented between humans and the plant kingdom, though it has not stopped some people from trying.

For the time being at least, I further propose that the law be applied only to marriages involving humans. While this might seem a no-brainer since, according to the best available evidence, marriage is an institution unique to our own species, we do not know this for certain. In all the extensive field studies undertaken to date, there have been no signs of outward behavior observed—rice-throwing or exchanging rings, for example—in the mating behavior of other species that could be definitively described as a marriage ritual, be it civil or religious. But just because gorillas, wombats, or skinks don’t talk about marriage doesn’t mean they don’t engage in such relationships. The deep emotional bonds observed between mated couples in various species such as whales, primates, and wolves points to the possibility at least of relationships as complex and meaningful as ours. Indeed, the cohabitation of ravens, who mate for life, might aptly be described as a form of common-law marriage, defined not by ceremony, but by the simple act of living together. The raven clan may have laws of their own recognizing such unions. Who knows, they might even have courts. That great animal behaviorist Rudyard Kipling first suggested the existence of such animal courts in his classic study The Jungle Book. The mere fact that we humans codify and publish our laws doesn’t preclude in other creatures the existence of hitherto unknown codes of conduct—the Law of the Jungle, for example—by which they live out their existence. As Carl Sagan and Bertrand Russell both have reminded us, in the absence of scientific evidence we should withhold judgment.

But what if two different, non-human species wish to live together as creature and creature? Take, for example, the Owl and the Pussy-Cat. Here we have two animals not only of different species, but of wholly different classes. They go off in a pea-green boat, cohabiting shamelessly for a year and a day before they are finally married by a Turkey “who lives on a hill” and who presumably holds some kind of religious or clerical office. But who among us is ready to cast the first stone at this pair of lovebirds? For two centuries have they danced by the light of the moon for us as a shining example of loving commitment. It is not for us to judge whether their union is morally right or wrong. 

The purpose of the Same-Species Marriage Act would be simply to define the institution of marriage as a legal union in which all parties are certifiably human—pure and simple. No controversy there. As to whether marriages between non-humans are valid, or whether they are entitled to the same rights as human marriages, perhaps we should leave these issues for future Supreme Courts to decide. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to resolve them.                                               ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, June 2013  http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-absurd-naturalist-in-defense-of-same-species-marriage/

The Woman Who Came for Lunch

Who is she? the old man muttered, peeking through the window.  And why is she making a sandwich in my kitchen?

The old man continued to stare as if he had never seen a person make a sandwich before.  He watched her delicate hands caressing and alternating the provolone, Swiss, salami, turkey, and deli loaf, and tingled at the thought of being one of the slices.  But who is she?

The old man forgot all about the newspaper he had gone to retrieve from behind the hedge.  Shivering, he pulled his bathrobe around him.  It was just not right.  Strange women don’t suddenly appear, at least not in his house.  Maybe he should call the police and ask them if a missing person had been reported.  He felt a headache coming on.  Why do these things always happen to me?

                                                                   ****

The old woman tried to concentrate on her sandwich, but she did not like being stared at.  Who is he?  Maybe he’s the gardener.  But why was he wearing only slippers and a bathrobe?

She picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.  Please help me.  There’s a man standing outside my window in his bathrobe watching me make a sandwich.  What does he look like?  Well, he looks kind of sad … and hungry, too.  And he’s got really nice gray hair.

Then the old woman gave the dispatcher an address, which was the only one she could remember.  It was the house in Brooklyn where she was born.

****

Now she’s using my phone.  The old man was furious.  Who knows, she’s probably calling some secret lover in Australia or Japan.  He peeked at her again and at the way the late morning sun illuminated the gray speckles in her curly hair.  Yes, she would be just the type to have many secret lovers.  The thought filled him with sadness.  Yet he was also happy for her.  A beautiful woman like that deserves to have many lovers.

Still, this did not change anything.  There was a strange woman in his kitchen and his feet were getting cold.  What should he do?

Maybe he should just go inside and find out.  It was not his first choice.  All his life the old man had tried to avoid direct confrontations.  There was usually a safe way around any problem.  No sense asking for trouble.  Still, it was his house and his food.  There was only one thing to do.

****

The old woman looked out the window but the gardener was gone.  She decided to call him that after remembering who he reminded her of.  It was the handsome, gray-haired gardener who tended the botanical garden that she had visited with her father when she was eight years old.  One day, the gardener tipped his hat and bowed, handing her a gardenia.  It was the most romantic thing she had ever experienced.  Often she would think about him, wishing she could hurry and grow up so she could meet him again.

She sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the sandwich on her plate.  She was not hungry now.  Eating alone was no fun.  Had it always been this way?  It didn’t seem so long ago that … what?  She struggled to regain some clue to her recent past, but it was no use.  Yet she felt there was something or someone important that she should remember.  She hated herself.  What kind of person would forget such a thing?  But why did something she couldn’t remember cause her such pain?

****

The old man decided to walk around the block first before confronting the woman.   There was nothing in the world, he believed, that couldn’t be walked out. He pulled his bathrobe tighter.  Maybe he should have changed first.  But it was a short block and he was already at the corner of Mayflower Street … The old man stopped and gaped at the street sign.  He knew every corner of this neighborhood and there was no Mayflower Street.  How could a new street just appear?

Maybe he had somehow gone past the street where he was supposed to turn.  The old man spun around and retraced his steps.   When in doubt, start from the beginning, he muttered.  But the street he had lived on for thirty-six years was nowhere in sight.  All the houses seemed out of place.  He ran back to the corner to read the sign again – Mayflower and … Hope.  That’s not my street, he thought.  But then, what exactly was it?   He tried every memory trick he could think of.  But the name had vanished.

He wandered up and down one street after another, searching for some clue that might lead him home.  But none of the street names sounded right.  With mounting panic, he swept the landscape for some familiar feature, but the harder he looked the more alien it appeared.  Nothing made any sense.

The old man started to run, anywhere that might take him away from this nightmare.  He was about to give up and ring the nearest doorbell for help when he noticed the house.  He was sure he had seen it before.  Was he was going in circles?  Not a good sign, old boy.  Yet there was something more.  Perhaps it was the way one of its windows was framed by the evergreen hedges.  Or maybe it was the silhouette of a woman eating a sandwich by the window.  He knew that woman, but from where?  He crept in for a closer look.

****

The old woman ate her sandwich in an unwelcome silence.  She strained to hear some comforting sound from the house, something that would tell her things were all right.  But all she could hear was her own nasal breathing.  She put down her teacup and it made an awful crash on its saucer.  It’s all wrong.

She began thinking of the gardener again.  And she imagined him sitting across from her at the table.  He was still wearing his khaki uniform, all worn and green-stained, though his hat was on the rack by the door.  She was all grown up now, but he was still the same age as he would always be.  He looked into her eyes and planted a gardenia in her hand.  The old woman lifted it to her nose and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. All these years, she had wanted to say so much to him, to tell him all her dreams and private thoughts.  But now, she couldn’t think of anything to say.  And when she opened her eyes, the gardener was gone.

****

The old man slipped quietly through the backdoor and into the hallway.  Everything suddenly seemed familiar.   Off the hallway to the right he knew was the kitchen.   Somehow he had found his way home.  He was about to drop to his knees and kiss the floor when he remembered the strange woman in the kitchen.  A bead of sweat trickled down his nose as he began to shake.  Who is she?   Steady, old boy.  He gripped the sides of his father’s old desk and stared into the hallway mirror.

Then he remembered.  It was something he had hidden.  Now which drawer was it?   Quietly, he pulled open one drawer after another.  Each was filled with hundreds of boxes and bottles.  He opened several of the containers, only to find smaller and smaller empty  containers, apparent decoys for whatever treasures lay concealed there.  Where did all these come from?  Could someone else be hiding things here?  None of the containers seemed familiar.  Frustrated, he sat down at the desk.  Where was it?  Instinctively, he felt behind the black plastic trays inside the desk.  Then he found it—a thin cigar box wedged tightly behind the trays.  He opened it and gazed upon the objects of his memories:  a fossil Trilobite, three packages of colored rubber bands, a golf score card, a headless British tin soldier, two cancelled movie tickets, and a ripped out page from a department store catalog.  He held the page reverently.  There she was, still as beautiful as ever.  Modeling a sleek gown, she was all that a teenage boy could wish for in a woman: beautiful, mature and understanding, someone who would not laugh and who would gladly share his life with him forever.  He had been especially taken with the model’s pearl necklace and gray-speckled hair and the way she primly crossed her legs in the ad.   Suddenly he knew who the strange woman in the kitchen was.   He closed the box and placed it back in its hiding place.  Then he headed for the kitchen, but not before plucking one gardenia from the garden.

****

Startled, the strange woman turned around as the old man entered.   When she saw him standing there framed by the kitchen archway, she smiled as she had not smiled in years.  Her gardener was back.  He bowed and handed her the gardenia.  Stroking her pearl necklace, the woman primly crossed her legs and pulled out a chair.

Would you like a sandwich?                                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012                                                                                                                                            Originally published in Avatar Review, Issue 13, 2011