Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Thinking about absurdity and individualism

I was thinking this morning about the role of the absurdity of human life in the existentialism of Sartre and the absurdism of Camus and those around and influenced by and influencing them. At least for Sartre and Camus, the non-existence of God plays a large part in the account of absurdity. Because there is no God, there can be no objective meaning to our lives. Because there is no objective purpose—and because all our plans and accomplishments come to an end with our deaths and disappearance into nothingness—our lives are absurd. They serve no purpose. And, we are, at best, like dear old Sisyphus.

But, can we hold onto this kind of absurdity for more than a moment, if we avoid the modern trap of seeing ourselves as atomistic individuals? (I’ll merely mention here that there’s also something precious and luxurious in this flavor of concern with absurdity.) What I mean is just this: My life undoubtedly appears or is absurd if it begins ex nihilo—in effect, though not in fact—with my conception or birth or first choice and ends wholly and finally at my death. Leaving aside questions of religion and survival, this is an extremely impoverished idea of a human being or life. Regardless of whether there is a God or whether I go on in some personal way after death, I am part of something larger than myself. I come from a family and a community and I contribute to at least one of those in ways that will continue after I am dead and long-forgotten. I’m unlikely to be remembered for long, but even if that’s correct, some almost-almost-indiscernible effect of my having been here with remain in what does remain. If that’s right, the idea that my life is absurd or a cosmic joke is harder to maintain.

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