Saturday, July 25, 2020

"What's the Point?"

Here's a short essay I wrote awhile back, when I was first starting to think again about Camus and meaning in life. I have been keeping a notebook since my daughter made the comment below to me, and this was an attempt to sum up one of the main lines of thought in it.

“What’s the Point?” (revised 7/25/20)
“If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either.” – Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”
One evening my daughter blurted out, “What’s the point of doing anything if we’re all going to die and everyone we know is going to die?” She was twelve years old. We were all sitting around the living room after dinner, not doing much of anything. My wife and I sat on our brown sofa, and my son, four years younger than my daughter, was sitting across from us on a matching loveseat. My daughter had been sprawled in an armchair that marks the rough boundary between the living room and the dining area, and her question—or perhaps her declaration—came without any prompting or preface. I wondered to myself what middle school crisis might be behind her question, but as a philosopher, I was also prepared to treat this as a serious question about the value and meaning of life.

I remember at the time suggesting to my daughter that asking about THE point might be a mistake. Why assume that there is—or that there needs to be—some single, underlying answer that gives life and all the varied activities of our lives a meaning big enough to counteract the prospect of death? There are many different things we do that all have various points—some big and some little. No one asks what the point is of taking aspirin since we’re all going to die eventually. The point is to relieve the pain we feel right now. Similarly, we do all sorts of things because they are fun, engaging, challenging, inspiring, decent, kind, and so forth. The point of much of what we do is to be found in the doing of it, not in some future gain that unfortunately gets cancelled out by death.

Some would say that the prospect of death intensifies our reasons to do certain things now, while we can. Certainly, we each have limited time, of which we become increasingly aware as we get older. Hence the idea that we should cherish our loved ones today because we never know when the end will come to them or us.

But—my skeptical daughter might retort—what’s the point of cherishing all of these people and experiences if it’s all going to be wiped out?! There’s not much one can say in response except, “Because these people and experiences matter to me now.” As long as we’re not doing anything seriously objectionable, that seems like a good enough answer. The point is in the experience, the connection. The shared moments of love and joy that we create together don’t seem to need any larger justification. The point is inside the relationship.

For some of us there are moments—of fatigue or depression or anxiety or skepticism—when we take a reflective step back from our ordinary routines and commitments and it all seems to come to nothing. Albert Camus and Thomas Nagel both describe this as the feeling of the absurd. My daughter’s question reflects it. What do our hopes and dreams, our accomplishments and failures, our joys and our sufferings all amount to in the end? We’re all going to die. It’s all going to vanish. Our awareness of it will vanish. All that we have been will disappear into the void.

Camus wondered (in The Myth of Sisyphus) why we shouldn’t kill ourselves if the world we live in is so pointless. If we are trapped in a job or a relationship that is boring, brutal, or unfulfilling—and if the whole world is ultimately like that—then life hardly seems to be worth the trouble. However, Camus argues that the absurd is not some feature of the world but of our own attitude toward the world—what is absurd is believing that the universe is indifferent to our hopes and dreams and yet still being upset that that the universe doesn’t care!

Camus urges us to revolt against the feeling of the absurd—not to be taken in by the wild and inconsistent ideas it inspires: “If nothing matters, then I may as well blow everything up!” This kind of destructive nihilism simply does not follow from the supposition that nothing matters. If nothing matters, then nothing matters, and nothing can change that. There is nothing to be changed. Nothing follows from nothing. That is Thomas Nagel’s point, too: the thought that life is absurd leads nowhere. It is a dead end.

So then what?

For Camus, the answer to questions like my daughter’s is ultimately to stop theorizing and to get out into the world and to interact with other people and places and things. To seize upon moments of joy, beauty, delight, and solidarity with other people. To push back against those who would make our lives, our jobs, our institutions feel pointless and absurd. This forces us out of the realm of abstraction and back into the everyday world, where our talk of things mattering or not mattering is framed by specific projects, goals, responsibilities, and relationships.

If we happen not to believe in the existence of some ultimate, cosmic justification or purpose for our lives, then there is no point in bemoaning its absence. We have to learn, as Camus puts it in his later book The Rebel, some moderation. Instead of asking, “what is the point of doing anything?” we should ask what is the point of doing this or that particular thing, in the context of our actual life and circumstances. When we contextualize the question, it may help us to evaluate how we spend our time and and motivate us to search for ways to make life—for ourselves and others—more joyful, beautiful, and just.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Overcoming Our Adolescent Furies: Camus, Plague, and Meaning in Life

Albert Camus is hot right now--in the midst of our own pandemic, many people are reading or re-reading The Plague. This is good, because I think that Rieux, the doctor in and (spoiler alert!) narrator of this book, can teach us something about how to live during the uncertainty and other difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic.

What we see embodied in Rieux's brave and open-eyed commitment to treating his fellow citizens in Oran, in his doing "what had to be done" without any illusions (about the graveness of the situation) or delusions of grandeur (he does not see himself as a hero), is a fuller manifestation of living a meaningful life in a "meaningless" and absurd world than Camus offers in his earlier works.

In Camus' absurd trilogy of The Myth of Sisyphus (essay), The Stranger (novel), and Caligula (play), we are confronted with the hopeless feeling that life is absurd, and the temptation to think that if there is no God or purpose, it simply doesn't matter what we do. In The Stranger, Meursalt fails to mourn for his mother's death, murders a nameless Arab, and shows other signs of total indifference to the world and the people around him. None of it matters. None of it makes any difference. In Caligula, the eponymous anti-hero, tormented by the grief of his sister's death, embraces his "absurd freedom" by becoming a brutal and murderous tyrant. Even as conspirators seize him (presumably to kill him) in the final scene, he screams out that he is "still alive!" As if that proves anything if life is as meaningless as he believes it to be.

Meursault and Caligula both embody the problem: what can or should we do if we are suddenly struck by the feeling that life is absurd? In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus points out that this problem can beset us in various ways: perhaps a confrontation with death fills us with a feeling of dread and the worry that all will be lost when we die. Perhaps we step back from certain tiresome and repetitive patterns in our lives and we wonder, with a certain dizziness, what the point of it all is. Or perhaps we become a detached observer of life and watch other people move through their busy days; suddenly, all of this human activity seems to have as little consequence as the scuttling of ants in an anthill. Such moments can drive us to despair, and to a kind of "fuck it" attitude toward life. Meursault and Caligula--in their nihilistic apathy and terrorism--represent what Camus would later describe as "adolescent" ways of responding to the feeling of absurdity in his book The Rebel.

Rieux has absurd problems, too. The outbreak of bubonic plague in Oran has separated him from his wife, who had traveled abroad prior to the quarantine and total lockdown of the city. Officials at first are resistant to believe the data--that the plague is real. A local priest gives horrifying sermons characterizing the plague as a divine punishment. None of this helps fight the plague. But Rieux persists. He does what he can to get the officials to take the plague seriously, he risks his own health to treat patients who are likely to die nonetheless. He remains committed to his work of healing, and he does this, in large part, by keeping focused on the concrete problems at hand and on what he can control, and by refusing to think of the plague or the people in Oran in merely abstract and statistical terms. (Statistics are important in assessing the severity and eventual decline of plague, but people are not statistics.) He refuses to think of himself as a hero for the risks he takes; he is simply doing what had to be done, given his medical training and the situation at hand.

Even when the plague has subsided, Rieux knows that there will be other plagues and problems. There is no final victory over disease, death, or injustice. In this way, Rieux understands life in the Sisyphean terms Camus describes at in the final pages of The Myth of Sisyphus: there will always be another boulder to roll, another sickness, another challenge to the lives we have set up for ourselves.

But unlike Meursault, Rieux does not throw up his hands in the face of the repetitions of life and declare that nothing at all matters. Unlike Caligula, he does not use the absurdity of the world to try to justify becoming a monster. The absurdity of the world doesn't justify anything. So, yes, that means we are free to follow our passions as we please. We can, within the limits of nature, do whatever we want. But we have no "right" to any of this. An absurd world doesn't care, for example, about the freedom that some anti-maskers are claiming for themselves in the current coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus is completely indifferent to the rebellion of youth who throw "corona parties." Of course, the people who adopt these attitudes and actions perhaps think that in an absurd world, their freedom means that the whole game of being able to justify one's actions is over, futile. So, fuck it, let's have a corona party and get it all over with.

This kind of abstract free-for-all nihilism--this version of "absurd freedom"--was never the end game for Camus. These rebellious responses to the absurdity of life--or of lockdown, etc.--are only a first step, even a phase to be overcome. For Camus, what is absolutely necessary is to stop thinking about the meaning of life in abstract metaphysical terms. To "revolt" against the absurd, as he counsels us, is to revolt against prizing abstract thought over concrete realities. If you want to find things that are meaningful in life, you have to pay attention to specific things, specific people, and specific opportunities that exist in your very concrete and immediate world. If you are convinced (or afraid) that life is objectively meaningless (because there's no God, or because God doesn't really care, etc.), then you have to recognize that the objective meaningless of life also doesn't matter. As Thomas Nagel once put it, if life doesn't matter, then that fact doesn't matter either.

What does matter then? This is the very question which, in an absurd world, has no predetermined answer. Instead, you have to look and see. You have to consider the everyday effects of your actions on others. You have to consider what opportunities the world affords you that stir your own interests and passions, and which you can undertake with both joy and honesty. Honesty--because in an absurd world, you don't get to make any excuses. You don't get to claim any grand justification for what you do. You have to be able to live with others, or accept the price of being a jerk without whining about your "rights" or whatever. Sure, you're free to live like a Caligula or a Meursault, but if you do, then you should expect life to go about as well for you as it did for them.

Rieux shows us, in a much more realistic way than Sisyphus rolling his boulders in the underworld, what it can mean to live with courage, integrity, and compassion, even in an absurd and highly uncertain situation. His words and actions do make a difference. A few patients recover. A journalist named Raymond Rambert, who spends half of the novel attempting to escape Oran to return to his girlfriend, gives up his escape attempts when he learns--what Rieux has long hidden from him--that Rieux is separated from his own wife and so perhaps suffering in much the same way as he is. It is one of the most touching moments in the whole book because it shows what solidarity in spite of suffering looks like in the flesh. Friendship, love, and care for others do not require a cosmic justification. They just require us to look down from the heavens and into each other's eyes.

Thinking About a Restart

I've started a new book this summer about the myth of Sisyphus and the search for meaning. I've also been thinking a lot about how some of my reading and writing relates to this current mess of a pandemic we're in. Etc. So, I'm thinking about a re-start of the blog as a place to gather and work out some ideas that are in between the more academic project and my more casual and short posts on Facebook...stay tuned.