A passage from Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We know – one of the most profound and captivating novels that I have read in recent years – is a good point of departure.
My point is that you could think of the people you meet in your life as questions, there to help you figure out who you are, what you are made of, and what you want. In life, […], you start off not knowing the answer. It’s only when the particles rub against each other that we figure out their properties. It’s the strangest thing, this idea in quantum physics, and yet somehow unsurprising when you consider it as a metaphor. It’s when the thing interacts that its properties are revealed, even resolved.
– Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know
My life is constant ‘hellos’, ‘nice-to-meet-yous’, and ‘goodbyes’. My life choices are such that I move to a new city, to a new country, once every few years. To a great extent, this is a privileged life. But it also comes with its own dilemma. When the initial excitement of a new place fades, I often experience a period of slight existential anxiety. Let me follow the metaphor of quantum physics: if I were a particle, then my properties can only be revealed by interactions with other particles. I understand my being – who I am, what I am made of, and what I want – only in relations to people in my life. And, moving to a new place represents the discontinuation of relationships I used to have. Then, in a new place, I meet new people. They come as questions – who am I? What am I made of? What do I want? Sometimes, these encounters reveal new properties within me. Some other times, they confuse me. Either way, moving to a new place reveals how fragile my understanding of my own existence is. Nothing exists, as it seems, that could ever be so concrete that my existence can be anchored back to the shore whenever I am lost in the sea of existential absurdity.
Even when the particles rub against each other – even when I interact and develop a friendship, a relationship, a whatever-ship with someone new – to figure out their properties – to figure out who I am in relation to that given person, sometimes, interactions and their outcomes remain mere questions, not answers. Furthermore, as disenchanting as it may be, the only answers we can get are to the questions we are capable of asking to ourselves and to each other. My existence becomes my confinement, and my confinement becomes my existence. That is, where I live, how I live, what I do, how I do it, whom I befriend with, whom I form a romantic relationship with – these things determine a kind of questions I can ask about my being, and at the same time, curb my imagination for the future possibilities.
There is something deeply absurd about the human quest to find meanings of our existence.
And, perhaps, I am going through a period in which this absurdity of human existence is rather magnified. In a month time, I will be moving back to Europe. While the move (and my decision thereof) signifies my conviction in what I think is the best at this stage of my life, it also represents a discontinuity of life that I have built in the past three years in Tokyo. While I am extremely excited and happy about the way how things have turned out and about the prospect of going back to Europe where I feel more comfortable, such excitement and happiness are slightly hindered by the dilemma of being an eternal outsider in Europe, in a place where I desire to make home but is not quite so yet, and by the thought of existential fragility, or at least a possibility thereof.
It is easy to dwell on this kind of anxiety, feeling slightly depressed even, especially when you are already familiar with what it is like to be in the situation where your being is questioned, where you question your own being. It is, thus, understandable that you invest much of your energy and time in finding continuities, the anchor, the home, in an otherwise discontinuous moment.
I am, by training, logical. At least, so I think. But I find it almost impossible to be logical to the absurd end. I become rather affectual – being consumed by affect, feelings, and emotions. It becomes difficult to see things and to interact with people with clarity. Max Weber once argued that actions determined by affect were on the borderline of what he considered ‘meaningfully oriented’. And since our society demands us, most if not all of the time, to be rational rather than affectual, I often find myself hating being affectual, even if I know it is a genuine mental reaction to a particular situation (you know, when people call you moody, emotional ,erratic, impulsive, you feel a bit offended and somehow get defensive).
Everyone has a different strategy to cope with vagaries of human emotions that derive from the absurdity of human existence. Going out with your friends to reaffirm you are needed and loved, purposefully forgetting the conundrum of life, perhaps with drugs and alcohol, seeking salvation in religion, you name it.
My strategy is – and this is what I’ve learnt from CBT sessions – to ‘make sense’ of the patterns of emotional regulation through highly abstract thinking. For me, sometimes, abstraction makes more sense than actuality.
Central to the absurdity of human existence is the fact that meaning does not exist out there to be discovered. We create meanings through interactions with the people we meet, who, as a character in Rahman’s novel describes, throw at us questions, metaphorically or otherwise, of our being.
To this end, life, and the meaning of it, can only be understood backward. But the problem is, it has to be lived forward.
How is that anything but absurd?
But we still live.
Then, how can we avoid the conclusion that any route we attempt to find meaning will be for naught, and that they are all dead ends?
Consider Nietzsche. He wrote in the Birth of Tragedy;
The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its destruction of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other. But as soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting. The fruit of that state is an ascetic condition, in which one denies the power of the will. In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion – that is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a-Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, because of an excess of possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No! – the true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect any more. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, the man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia: now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
When I re-read this passage a few days ago, it spoke so profoundly to my inward turning that, while I found myself falling into inertia at the weight of human existence and my consciousness of it, it also gave me some degrees of comfort that human beings have been facing pretty much the same dilemma of life for many centuries.
But Nietzsche’s solution to this dilemma is somewhat disappointing.
Here, when the will is in the highest danger, art approaches, as a saving, healing magician. Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs which permit living to continue.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Nietzsche thought that life was devoid of intrinsic meaning. But he also thought that we could give it a kind of meaning by embracing illusion, just like artists devising themselves with new ‘inventions and artifices’ that would give things the appearance of aesthetically pleasing, when they were actually not. He thought that wrapping up own lives with illusion, we could be “the poets of our lives” to continue living.
His solution is disenchanting, at lest for me. In a narrower sense, it effectively suggests art’s ultimate emptiness, even though such implication stands in rather ironic contrast to Nietzsche’s intention. And, crucially, by suggesting us to be the poets of our lives by embracing illusions, just like artists do, as a means to overcome the absurdity of human existence, Nietzsche’s solution illuminates, once again, perhaps, against his intention, the disillusioning and painful recognition of ultimate emptiness of life.
It is indeed ironic, because Nietzsche embedded within himself a zeal for life and the ecstasy of artistic intoxication.
How little it takes to make us happy! The sound of bagpipe. Without music life would be a mistake. The German even imagines God as singing songs.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
And he proclaimed:
We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
And yet, at the end, everything is illusion.
One of the reasons why I appreciate the writings of Albert Camus, whenever I feel lost in the abysmal thinking of being, is that he, as a French Algerian writer, experienced and understood the sorrow and dilemma of being an eternal outsider – in exile or even in her/his own land. And thus, the question of existence is always at the centre of his writings.
Of whom and of what can I say: “I know that!” This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance the gap will never be filled.
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
The gap will never be filled, indeed. And, we stand face to face with the seeming irrationality.
He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
[…] From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt – that is the whole question.
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
While Camus, like Nietzsche, understands that human existence is absurd, his solution is different.
What I know, what is certain, what I cannot deny, what I cannot reject – this is what counts. I can negate everything of that part of me that lives on vague nostalgia, except this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion. I can refute everything in this world surrounding me that offends or enraptures me, except this chaos, this sovereign chance and this divine equivalence which springs from anarchy. I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me – that is what I understand. And these two certainties – my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle – I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
The absurd hero here, Sisyphus, the king of Corinth, was punished for all eternity, condemned to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll to the bottom again and again.
But, he takes no refuge in the illusions of art. He fully recognises the pointlessness and futility of his punishment. Yet, as it seems to me, neither does he despair in the face of absurdity. Instead, he openly embraces the absurdity of his condition. He willingly pushes the boulder up the mountain every time it rolls down.
Here is what I think Camus had in mind, when re-telling this Greek mythology. That we need to have an honest confrontation, instead of seeking refuge to illusion, with the disenchanting truth, and simultaneously, be defiant in refusing to let that disenchantment overtake and destroy life. Then, “one should imagine Sisyphus happy,” said Camus, at the end.
There are those writings that you come back to again and again. There are those writings that you can sense, when an author has latched onto a thread of flaming inspiration, the heat of which glows even in someone like myself, whose intellectual capabilities are diminutive compared to the level of most literate people in Camus’ time.
My life choices are such that there is and will always be a possibility of falling into the pitfall of absurdity. But, as I encounter the new that comes as some existential questions, there is always, as I’ve found, more to be gleaned from the writings of Camus and others.
Sisyphus is punished with the task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down again, and having to start over for all eternity. Humans are in a similar situation. We strive for meaning of our existence, but there is no inherent meaning to life. With that realisation of the absurdity, no matter what we do, our lives end at some point – death. Sisyphus has to keep pushing the boulder up the mountain, and we continue searching for meaning in a meaningless world. But at least, we can imagine that Sisyphus can choose to be happy. And, at least, we can choose to be happy, while continuing our search.
I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up the dark sky spangled with its sings and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.
– Albert Camus, The Stranger
And I still am.
Goodbye Tokyo. Hello (again) Europe.