Posts for July, 2010

March of the Darwinists

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’are here because
We’re here.
We’re here because
We’re here because
Wea’re here because
We’re here.

Sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne

Murray

I have been thinking about my friend Murray recently – not the Murray I knew in my early days in Yorkshire but the one I met when I was at secondary school. He was a good-looking guy, just under six foot tall,  with broad shoulders and black, curly hair,  a deep rich voice which made him seem older than he really was – twenty-two or three say instead of eighteen.

He lived down the road from us in Mt Wellington and I met him not through school but through the youth group at the local church. This offered table tennis and darts and desultory conversation to anyone who turned up on a Tuesday night. Its main attraction was the girls that went along,  although I have to admit, in my case at least, the reality of their company never matched the anticipation. I was too tongue-tied in their presence to engage in the kind of conversation that might have got their attention. They were good kiwi kids, out for a fun time but also sensible and pragmatic with their lives laid down on well-worn tracks. Several of them knew me from bible class where I was prone to ask awkward questions that sometimes involved reference to eighteenth century philosophers. I somehow knew that this habit was not endearing but the realisation was never enough to stop me.

Murray turned out to be a kindred spirit. We got into the habit of walking home together deep in conversations that would go on as we stood on the footpath opposite his house. It must have been summer for my memory of the talk comes with an image of the gloaming slipping gently into darkness. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about only the intensity of a shared interest in ideas and philosophical problems.

There was a dark side to Murray and a self-detachment that I found disturbing. He told me that several members of his family had committed suicide and, on another occasion, he described how he had ‘pashed’ a girl in the back seat of a car after a bible class dance, an account that seemed as little appreciative of his own feelings, whatever they were, as of the girl’s. It seemed that he had embarked on the adventure almost as an intellectual exercise or a scientific experiment to see what it was like and he talked about it with a curious combination of excitement and an analytical detachment that was shot through with cynicism. Somehow he succeeded in objectifying himself.

We lost touch after that summer. We both went on to university but we began in different subjects – he in arts and I in science. We hooked up again briefly in our second year and talked philosophy, which he was then studying. He lent me his copy of The Moral Law, H J Paton’s translation of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. He also confessed, with a touch  of pride, that he had just passed his second year English exams without opening a single text. All he had read was the critics. He did this, I’m sure, to prove it could be done. I liked the irony but I felt it was a futile, nihilistic exercise.

After this we lost touch again. Later someone told me he had killed himself. I was very upset by the news but, when I thought abut it, not entirely surprised.

I still have the book, scrupulously annotated in his small, neat handwriting and I wonder sometimes what he thought of Kant’s argument against suicide.

People are ends in themselves, Kant said. They should never be used as means to an end. To kill your self is to use yourself for some end or purpose even if that purpose is merely to take away the pain of your despair.  I am not sure Murray would have been convinced by that. He is more likely to have done the deed out of intellectual curiosity, to see what it was like.

Absurdity

For my twenty-first birthday I received five gifts from my parents: a signet ring, a wristwatch, a red tartan travel rug and two books.  One book was the then most recent collection of Allan Curnow’s poetry A Small Room with Large Windows and the other Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  Both contain identical inscriptions in my mother’s hand-writing. 

Congratulations and Best Wishes for your
21st Birthday Christopher
from
Harry and Mum
 x x x

An oddly formal message, it seems now.  My mother never called me Christopher in real life and the ‘Best Wishes’ seems unduly restrained.  I think, too, that this is the first and only time she used ‘Harry and Mum’ rather than ‘Mum and Harry’.  I suppose the tone marked the solemnity of the occasion or, perhaps, there was some tension in the family that I don’t now remember (was the travel rug a subtle hint that I’d lived at home long enough?).

I can only think that I chose the books myself.  I doubt that anyone else involved had heard of either author and if Harry, my stepfather, had known what the Camus was about he might well have burnt it rather than risk anyone reading it.  He was a kind and generous man but his years as a psychiatric nurse had left him with a deep distrust of airy-fairy theory. 

I first heard of Camus a year or so before my 21st when I was going out with Vanya Lowry.  I have a strong image of a group of us sitting round the table in the Lowrys’ kichen with the sun streaming through the windows.  I am not sure if we were eating but we very likely drinking – something out of a flagon, maybe.  Vanya and I were on one side and Vanya’s sister Judy and her boyfriend David Mitchell on the other.  Bob and Irene Lowry were at either end.  It was David who started talking about Camus.  I don’t remember what he said, only his enthusiasm and the fact that his words struck a chord with me.  I knew immediately that this was a writer who was saying things I needed to hear.  I bought a copy of The Outsider soon after and, over the next couple of years, I read everything by Camus that I could lay my hands on, even the plays, which I don’t think are much good. 

The Myth of Sisyphus is an essay of about a hundred pages written in occupied France in 1940, when Fascism and Nazism had conquered most of Europe.  It asks if life has any meaning and if it doesn’t, whether or not a rational person should therefore commit suicide.  Camus answers this question not by appealing to God or to some set of abstract values but by an existential argument, which is in one sense a piece of intellectual trickery but in another, perhaps, a beguiling insight into what it is to be a human being.  Life, he says, is absurd and, because of this, its absurdity is the only truth we know.  The only way to preserve the truth is to preserve the consciousness that apprehends it.  Suicide is not a logical outcome of this situation.  On the contrary, it is an irrational act.

I think Camus sits at a midpoint in twentieth-century literature between the gloom and the nostalgia of the modernists and the exuberant irony of postmodernism, between a temper that takes ultimate questions seriously and one that finds them slightly ridiculous.  This balance appeals to me and I still think Camus’s conclusion is right although these days I’d want to argue it differently.

I’ve always felt that the experience of absurdity has two faces, the comic and the tragic, and that one way to understand it is as a sometimes sudden and often inexplicable change in point of view accompanied by a dislocation of value.  You are playing golf or making love or painting the ceiling and you suddenly realise how ridiculous you look.  You feel a surge of surprise.  You want to laugh.  Perhaps you are overcome by a fit of giggles that disconcerts the people you are with.  You have to stop and readjust, try to absorb yourself again in the seriousness of the activity.  This is the comic face and it results in delight and a sense of irony.  The tragic face can have a more negative and profound effect.  You suffer some trauma or maybe you just wake up one morning and you realise that the career or the relationship or the political cause you have devoted your life to means nothing to you anymore.  It is as if you have been walking on solid ground and it suddenly gives way beneath your feet and you are sucked into a void.  Such a moment can be deeply disruptive – a sudden loss of meaning or significance that seems to threaten your identity.  Thoughts of suicide might not be far away.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the philosopher Thomas Nagel suggests that to be conscious, to be fully alive in the human sense, is no more and no less than having a point of view.  The essence of a point of view, however, is that it can change.  To be a human being then is to be capable of seeing things in different ways from one moment to the next.  It is to be capable of enjoying or suffering the absurd.  This, I think, is Camus’s point. 

People like my stepfather – sane, sensible people – suppress their experience of the absurd before it can take a hold.  They rely for their direction on religion or common sense or sound reasoning, all of which help to maintain a sense of stability and purpose.  I’m not like that.  Stability and purpose have always seemed hopelessly beyond my reach, despite all my best attempts to achieve them.  I seem to have always lived on the frontiers of meaning where there is a constant risk of falling into the void.  I am not sure why this is so although I think that while some are born with a sense of the absurd and others achieve it, some just have it thrust upon them.