Thursday, January 27, 2005

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Dear Internet,

I haven't been writing to you much recently, and I apologize. I've been sick with a cold, and distracted, and honestly I haven't been doing very many fun things in DC. Among other things (such as sneezing, whining, and blowing my nose), I've been thinking about the right way to live.
Camus opens his famous essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" by writing "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that." He goes on to compare the absurdity of the existence of humanity to the labours of Sisyphus, a Greek mythological figure who tricked Death and bound him in chains, preventing anyone in the world from dying, until Zeus rescued Death and punished Sisyphus by condemning him, through all eternity, to push a boulder to the top of a hill and watch it roll down again. Gosh, it seems silly to paraphrase Camus when I could just quote his beautiful words:

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment whose end he will never know. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering; that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same task, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moment when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. . . .The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

To me this sounds a lot like the Buddhist concept of finding meaning and happiness by mindfulness during everyday toil, although I don't know how much Camus studied Eastern philosophy.


I dated a guy who loved existentialist philosophy. We broke up because he moved away, and on the last day we spent together, we drank wine and yelled "NOTHING! ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!" out my apartment window. I remember him telling me, "I'm often really depressed, but I'm never suicidal. I don't understand people who are suicidal. If you're going to kill yourself, why not just abandon your whole life and move to Hawaii and be a bike courier or something?" It was a good point.

But in fact there are many replacements for suicide. You can drink a lot, or you can watch a lot of television and movies, or you can have lots of intense romantic relationships that fail spectacularly, or you can make a whole lot of money, or you can build a very noteworthy academic career, or you can cultivate many titillating friendships, or you can devote yourself to your family, or you can build a model of the Lusitania out of 2,000,000 toothpicks, or you can do a lot of charity work trying to help people who are even less sure about replacements for suicide than you are, or you can carve a monumental sculpture of Ozymandias in the desert. There are so many different options, and for every option you can think of, there's probably someone who has chosen it as their replacement for suicide.

This is all very confusing, and it's why human beings had to invent religion and philosophy. For heaven's sake, it wasn't because we saw the sun in the sky and, lacking science, wanted to come up with a cute reason why it was there. It was because we needed to figure out how to live.


I dated another guy who was a famous heart-breaker. He was very charming with women, and very efficient at making them fall in love with him and then giving them a shoulder of ice. In fact, I watched him at one house party meet a girl in the beginning of the evening, have an intense conversation with her, disappear into a bedroom with her for an hour, re-emerge, meet another girl, have an intense conversation with her, and somehow end up in group of people in a car getting a ride home, with the original girl in the back seat, fuming, and the new girl sitting on his lap in the front seat, slobbering all over his face. (I was also in the back seat, and also fuming.)

This same guy wants to devote his life to helping the world. He's now in the Congo doing conflict resolution work, and also sleeping with lots of ex-pat women. Before he moved to the Congo, I remember getting into a heated argument with him (supposedly theoretical). I denounced people who dedicate themselves to generalized altruistic work - especially of a policy-oriented nature - while maintaining execrable ethical standards in their private lives. "What's the point of helping some random stranger if you're making your family miserable?" I demanded. "In fact, if you're the kind of person who makes your family miserable, you're not qualified to go around trying to help strangers. It's just going to be counterproductive."

The argument never actually got too far - I think he was shocked by my vehemence - but if I'd been him I would have argued, "What about Einstein? He was terrible to his family. Gandhi had a wife but he used to sleep in bed with young naked girls. And Jesus made all his disciples eschew their family bonds in order to serve him whole-heartedly. In fact it's hard to find a genius or a world-changing leader who wasn't a bit of a bastard in his or her personal life. If the work is good, it can come first."

To which I would have replied, "Yeah, well, maybe, but are you Einstein, Gandhi, or Jesus? I don't care about the few exceptions, too many people try to run from the messy obligations of their intimate relationships by taking refuge in nice, vague, impersonal, supposedly altruistic duty. It's so much easier to do lots of small favors for people you've never met, than big favors to a person you've been connected to for ten years, whose faults you've seen and have had to forgive, and who (even worse) has had to see and forgive your own faults."

Yeah, I had that whole conversation in my head with him. Damn the guy. But still, I hope that he is safe and happy in the Congo, resolving other peoples' conflicts.


My wonderful friend Marcella once told me about a junkie she met while walking through Dupont Circle. She said that he was so sick, and so crazy. He had these round staring eyes that rolled back into his head like marbles, and he pointed at her, and he said, "Life is beautiful. Never forget it, that it's so good to be alive, be thankful for every breath you're lucky enough to take, count your blessings. You're alive! You're alive! You're alive!" Marcella stopped and listened to him, and she wrote down every word in her journal. And if you are thinking to yourself that she is silly and sentimental, she is one of the happiest, reallest, and bravest people I know, and perhaps she knows something that you don't.


So I sneeze, and I blow my nose, and I think about it.

There's a wonderful scene in Willa Cather's "My Antonina" where a few characters are talking about the grisly suicide of a homeless man who jumped into a threshing machine. They're obviously fascinated by the morbidity of it all. After some discussion:

"`Now, wasn`t that strange, Miss Frances?` Tony asked thoughtfully. `What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? In threshing time, too! It`s nice everywhere then.`
`So it is, Antonia,` said Mrs. Harling heartily. `Maybe I`ll go home and help you thresh next summer. Isn`t that taffy nearly ready to eat? I`ve been smelling it a long while.`

There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked, and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it. I could not imagine Antonia`s living for a week in any other house in Black Hawk than the Harlings`."

I am not Mrs. Harling or Antonia; I can't maintain my vital appetite for taffy in the face of wondering about why someone would want to kill themselves in the summer. But I comfort myself that Willa Cather - capable herself of thinking up the scene - probably knows how I feel.

Namaste to you, Internet.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

11:40 PM  

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