As the mild autumn approaches the soggy Sacramento winter, and the oldies radio stations, one-by-one, become clogged with the holiday spirit, I start feeling a bit uncomfortable. Around about Thanksgiving that feeling becomes more precise. I can tell you what gives me that feeling: Taking a large bite out of sweet potato casserole only to realize that it’s made out of stinking yams; seeing people lined up outside of every store like a bunch of cold turkeys and lined up in-stores to buy 45 million cold turkeys; and, television. I can tell you what that feeling is like, and I can get you to feel that feeling. All I have to do is sigh, or make you watch a Charlie Brown special. Ostension is a powerful tool for directing understanding (shout outs to Dr. DiSilvestro). But, how can I describe this feeling and the cause behind it in analytically precise terms?
- What makes things absurd?
- How can we solve our absurd situation?
According to Nagel, most people, on occasion, feel absurd but get the source of the feeling wrong. That’s because we appeal to our intuitions to figure out the cause. You might think that what makes things absurd is the realization that we are tiny in space-time. During the holidays we have a lot of time to think. We might find ourselves taking a walk through an empty city or a cold countryside. We look around (mostly up), and, oftentimes, these thoughts emerge: “How brief is my existence” and “How small I am." I once heard Bill Nye speak at the University of Nevada, Reno. At one point he flashed a slide where the earth was pictured as a tiny jellybean among other jellybeans. He said, “We are a spec within a spec, within a spec…and that sucks.”
But according to Nagel, brevity in existence and smallness in size do not explain the feeling that life is absurd. Some thought experiments may help. Imagine yourself as immortal. You watch societies and solar systems cycle through creation and destruction. Does this take away the feeling of absurdity? Immortality seems to magnify absurdity. What about size? Imagine humans as large as galaxies (imagine a bunch of gigantic, floating baby humans). This just magnifies the feeling of absurdity as well. According to Nagel, the reason why absurdity doesn’t go away when we add more time and space is because the absurd is not due to some external condition that can be modified. It is a property of something deeper within the human psyche. We’re like balls of cookie dough with salmonella inside of them. Adding more cookie dough isn’t going to get rid of the salmonella—in fact, the condition worsens and spreads.
According to Nagel, what makes things absurd is a discrepancy between aspiration and reality. For example, you confess your love to an answering machine (or worse, you accidentally get Liam Neeson's line, and he’s having a very bad day). This seems to parallel Camus’s answer about what makes things absurd. Like, Sisyphus, the working human is pressed up against his/her rock—the cold reality of it, grinds against our warm faces. But Nagel says that the discrepancy isn’t between us and reality. This is because we don’t have much access to what reality really is. Rather, the discrepancy is between us and us. I think this is where Nagel’s description of the absurd becomes fascinating and surprising.
This condition is supplied...by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt. [178, my emphasis]What makes things absurd is a discrepancy between perspectives. On the one hand, taking life seriously is unavoidable. On the other hand, when we step out and take a look at our situations, we’re these organisms that wear other organisms on our feet, and sit on dead trees, and tap plastic keys for extended hours and laugh at a lit box, and put mush into holes that exist on our faces. Why do we do these things? When we take a look at our habits, inclinations, norms, and justifications there is only doubt. Even if we have a divine purpose—the universe becomes a part of us, and we become part of the universe—we still can’t get rid of the annoying nephew within us, constantly asking, “Yeah, but why?”
According to Nagel, we can never get rid of the absurd because it’s within us. My bone to pick with Thanksgiving is really something that’s within my bones. So how do we solve our absurd situation? Nagel’s solution is that we accept our self-transcendence and have some fun with it—we use irony to be light about our being. I like this solution just fine. I think this is why Woody Allen’s films are so enjoyable. But I’ve always respected Albert Camus’s solution a bit more. You see, I think Nagel gets Camus all wrong. He says that Camus' Sisyphus is self-pitying and that that his only solution to absurdity is to shake his fist at the world. I beg to differ.
I think Camus is talking about shaking a fist at yourself. For Camus, the rock isn’t the external world; rather, it’s our response to the external world. The rock is an amalgamation of all of those anxiety-producing reactions we have to the world. The doubt that Nagel speaks of can be clumped right in there along with hope, fear, and regret. Sisyphus has a chance at happiness only because he makes a conscious choice to rebel against those aspects of himself. He is stronger than his fate because he can rebel against fear, hope, doubt, and regret. I like this solution because it’s more hands-on. Camus doesn't just passively accept our fragmented nature.
What’s wrong with the holidays? Whether you like Nagel’s account or Camus’s account, one thing seems clear: The answer is: us. But fret not. This makes the problem easy to solve.