Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Parable of the Desert

Sigh. Okay, I promise this is the last pseudo-philosophical post I'm putting this week. It's just that I've been having a couple of discussions on this stuff, and I just couldn't resist.

Anyway, here's a piece I wrote a long while back to a friend - it still expresses better than anything else how I feel about life.

In the Myth of Sisyphus (you really MUST read it) Camus makes this whole point about the absurd life being a life without appeal. I think one of the simplest ways of looking at it is as a life emptied of consequence (in all senses of the term). The cornerstone of all absurdist reasoning is precisely this - that no matter what we do, it has no effect on the human condition or the ultimate outcome of our own life which is death and oblivion. Understand that this is not fatalism. We are not saying that no matter what you do, your destiny will not change - we are saying that you can change your destiny, but that your destiny itself is trivial: strong gusts of wind can bear the falling leaves farther from the tree, but this does not make a strong gust of wind meaningful or 'good'. The gust of wind, like existence itself, merely is; and while its presence has consequences, no significance can be attached to them.

This then is the accusation - a meaningless farce of survival with the persistent bad habit of death at the end. And if we are to deny consequence to everything we do; if the courtroom is empty and the judge and jury that we imagined are only planks of wood and the glassy sunmica of the backs of chairs, then there can be no hope of appeal.

But this is not the absurdist argument proper, this is only the preface, the statement of the problem. The challenge for the absurd man is really to accept this causal vacuum, and to maintain, even in the featureless face of its cold impartiality the haughty visage of man's dignity - not because man is deemed important, but because knowing only ourselves, and therefore certain only of our own consciousness, we have nothing to hold on to but existence.

To illustrate this a little better, allow me to introduce the parable of the desert. Imagine that a man wakes up one morning and finds himself in a desert, without water. He could then convince himself that water lay in such and such a direction, and go on travelling in that direction certain of finding it, ceding only at the point of death, still convinced that water lies in that direction and hopeful of finding it someday (not realising that such a day can never come). Or he could choose not to search for water at all, choosing instead to accept that there is no water but that this doesn't matter - something else does, say building sand castles (either because he believes in sand castles, or simply because he enjoys building them). Or he could sit down and die. The absurd man's challenge is to do none of these - neither to delude himself with hope of any kind nor to surrender. The absurd man must accept that there is only the desert, that nothing he can do in the desert is of any merit - he can neither find water that would allow him to survive in the desert, nor can he build monuments in sand that will survive to tell his Ozymandiacal tale to those who follow. In short, he must accept that there is no difference between doing something and doing nothing. And having accepted that (and this is the real test) he must then choose action over surrender. His task is a difficult one, because it is to choose to hang in limbo between belief (which he cannot aspire to) and suicide (which is beneath his dignity), it is to accept defeat and all its bitterness and not be defeated.

But if there is hardship here there is also a great triumph - the only one possible to man in an absurd universe. Knowing that reprieve is impossible, the absurd man has chosen to attend every sitting of his trial, to listen to every imprecation that is heaped on him and to go through all the necessary paperwork (have you read Camus' Outsider? This is more or less what happens there) without ever trying to defend himself or making a plea for justice. And this 'conscious scorn' is the only means by which man can assert his dignity.

Reading about the absurd challenge, it would seem that the whole philosophy is rather similar to the Geeta's concept of karma. This is untrue. Because what the Geeta is advocating is action without the hope of reward; what the absurd argument talks of is action with the certainty of no reward. The difference is significant. Karma is a surrender into the hands of a higher power, the hope of reward is replaced by a belief in a just eternity that renders the hope redundant. Absurdism, on the other hand, is the outright rejection of hope and an espousal of action in deliberate and futile spite of an impersonal and ephemeral existence. Caught in quicksand, the ordinary man would thrash about because he hoped to escape. The Karmic philosopher would thrash about knowing that he could not escape on his own, but believing that the effort itself would become a virtue. The absurd man would thrash about knowing that he could never escape, because he still had the strength in his muscles to do it and it was an insult to his dignity not to.

This may seem like a petty victory - it is. But it is the only victory possible to man, the only victory that man can achieve. And it is a victory not because it proves something to someone else (there is no pomp in the quiet scorn of the absurd man) but more because there is a sense of achievement in having done something so hard, in having pushed yourself to accept the dichotomy between action and consequence. The absurd man is not trying to prove anything to the quicksand, he is trying to prove to himself that he is capable of simultaneously knowing that he is to die and of continuing to put in his best effort to escape and that though he recognises that this knowledge and this satisfaction is trivial and will die with him, he also recognises that there is nothing else that existence offers him and is content.

In a sense this is the Promethean way, and the way of Satan in Paradise Lost. Remember Milton:

"Hail horrors! Hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor -- one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
...Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure, and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell;"

Suggested Reading:

1. Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus (obviously)
2. Albert Camus The Outsider
3. Franz Kafka The Trial
4. Franz Kafka The Hunger Artist (short story)
5. Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness
6. Arthur Schopenhauer On Pessimism

P.S. This argument does leave open the question, of course, of what man is to do once he's decided to continue existing - but the point is precisely that that is a trivial question once you've seen the truth and decided to go on living.


Anonymous said...

Well well,

I had always thought abt a few things in that head of mine! N always there were a few Questions....that merited an answer, but never got it!

Today they do!

It was awesome writing! Perfect to the core. Justified my stance of living in the road I have always lived.

Summed up in my current gtalk catchline
"I could'nt wait for success, so I went ahead without it"

I am proud to call myself an Absurd man today! The life's history traces that out perfectly.

But what determines if an absurd man has put in his efforts? Is it he....who decides this? Or is the yardstick Universal?

It wud be great if some light be shed upon this!

Desert n Quicksand analogy were awesome again!

Great read!! Kudos!

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