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
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.

One Response to “Absurdity”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    So… did you go and see ‘Waiting for Godot’? I did, and I still don’t know what all the fuss is about (I’ve decided I’m too young yet to get it), but thinking about “suppressing their experience of the absurd before it can take hold” – perhaps I’m still doing just that and this is why I didn’t laugh as loudly as much of the audience at the absurdity of this much revered play. I confess I got bored (my jumpy legs affliction) but on reflection, I certainly will never forget it.

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