Image courtesy the Wellcome Collection
Last semester, halfway through a meeting of my ‘Meaning of Life’ seminar, I found myself lying on a window seat along the eastern wall of the classroom. I was scheduled for spinal surgery in a few months, and sitting and standing were tough. I needed a break.
‘It was the Romantics,’ I intoned, adjusting the pillow under my head, ‘who first argued that living “authentically” is an end in itself. For some, authenticity overtook morality as the ultimate ideal. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it [here I began to gesticulate energetically]: The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it!’ I whacked my elbow involuntarily against the wall. ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind!’
I glanced up at my students and faltered. It had occurred to me, and perhaps to them, that I was being absurd.
I had this thought, and then, because overthinking is my profession, I analysed it. Why absurd, exactly? On one account, absurdity springs from a noticeable gap between expectation and reality, aim and outcome, or means and end. Sometimes the discrepancy is amusing. Imagine an artist-in-residence’s end-of-year exhibition involving only a tiny makeshift diorama depicting the artist sleeping. Other times, the discrepancy is terrifying, as when a darling of the fossil-fuel industry is appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. In my case, the mismatch was between the command and authority that a professor is expected to display and the fact that I was lying below eye level on a puffy log-shaped pillow.
My horizontal lecture wouldn’t have been quite as absurd, though, if I were, say, an economist or historian. There’s something especially absurd about philosophers, supine or not. The explanation for this might lie in the best-known philosophical account of absurdity, offered by Thomas Nagel in 1971. Nagel argued that when we sense that something – or everything – in life is absurd, we’re experiencing the clash of two perspectives from which to view the world. One is that of the engaged agent, seeing her life from the inside, with her heart vibrating in her chest. The other is that of the detached spectator, watching human activity coolly, as if from the distance of another planet. Nagel notes that it’s our nature to flip between these points of view. One moment we’re fully caught up in our mushroom-cultivation class, our infatuation with our sister’s husband or our intractable power struggle with Terri in accounting. The next moment, our mental tectonics shift and we see ourselves from an emotional remove, like a spirit hovering over its own body. It becomes evident to us that, ‘from the point of view of the Universe’, to use the 19th-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick’s phrase, none of these things matter.
Our sense of absurdity kicks in when we snap between these two perspectives rapidly, in a kind of duck-rabbit movement of the soul. The sense of absurdity depends on this instability. If we could retain the internal perspective forever, we’d never experience the shock of doubt about whether what we were doing was ultimately worthwhile or made any kind of sense. If, alternatively, we could permanently view all human affairs, our own included, from the perspective of the Universe, we’d never find ourselves eagerly attempting to adhere fungi to a damp log. We’d be full-time ascetics, to whom nothing human mattered at all, people who couldn’t be caught red-handed caring about something small.
Though Nagel says that we all adopt both the internal and external perspectives on our lives, some people clearly identify more with one than the other. And some of these people cluster in professions where one perspective is disproportionately valued. Academic philosophy is one such profession. When people say: ‘Let’s be philosophical about this,’ they mean: ‘Let’s calm down, step back, detach.’ The philosopher, in the public imagination, is set apart from the mundane concerns and fiery attachments that govern the rest of humanity. He or she takes the external perspective on pretty much everything. When Søren Kierkegaard collapsed at a party and people tried to help him up, he allegedly said: ‘Oh, leave it. Let the maid sweep it up in the morning.’
If this image is accurate, and if Nagel’s account is right, philosophers, parked forever in only one of Nagel’s perspectives, will escape the absurdity of the human condition. We philosophers, however, are among the most absurd people I’ve ever met. The reason for this has a whiff of paradox. Abstraction and detachment might be a philosopher’s stock-in-trade, but philosophers are often fiercely attached to those very things: passionate about impassion, abstract in the most concrete of ways. They spend years working obsessively on papers with titles such as ‘Nonreducible Supervenient Causation’ and then have public brawls about them at conferences. This is part of philosophy’s charm for me. There’s something especially absurd, yes, but also endearing, about people who are so serious about their core life endeavour that they regularly forget its ridiculous aspects, even though the endeavour itself is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder.
So I was both abstract and fervent down there on my log pillow. But what does this really have to do with the absurd? Many of us associate the concept not with simple discrepancy, nor with Nagel’s more complex perspectival clash, but with futility. A nice illustration of this is the video of a Japanese game show named ‘Slippery Stairs’ that went viral last year. The show requires its contestants – barefoot, in skin-tight onesies – to scramble to the top of a staircase coated with what looks like tepid ice. The video portrays six people painstakingly, desperately, attempting to do this, and repeatedly sliding dramatically back down the stairs, often taking the other five with them. ‘Life,’ someone wrote in the comments.
What attitude should we take to our situation or ourselves, once we recognise that they’re absurd, in any of these ways? One option is to shake our noble fists at the cosmos, cursing its silent coldness and slippery stairs. This stance appeals to a certain kind of guy in college. But some of us – women, the disabled, ethnic and gender minorities, etc – got the memo pretty early on that we weren’t plausibly the centre of the Universe. So when our adolescent attention was directed to life’s disappointments and farcicality, we were more inclined to shrug and get back to what we were doing than get theatrical about it.
Nagel recommends something like this approach. He writes: ‘If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.’ But irony might be less attractive in 2018 than it was in 1971. There’s something about seeing everything you value under constant attack that increases your sense that some things do matter.
My preferred take is this. The absurdity of our situation is only troubling if it implies that nothing really matters and that all human pursuits are inherently meaningless. But none of the accounts of absurdity canvassed above have that implication. If you love what you’re doing, and if what you love has genuine human-sized value (roughly, the moral philosopher Susan Wolf’s definition of meaningfulness), your life can have depth and purpose even if it involves incongruity and failure, and even if the Universe cares naught for it, or for you. Talking seriously about philosophy with teenagers, while your back collapses, their hearts break, their parents struggle, and the country falls apart – you could call it absurd. But you could also look up from your window seat, catch yourself in the thick of it, and, after a twinge of embarrassment, call it beautiful. Then get back to work.