Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Life Is Absurd

[ed. As 2015 comes to a close I'll be reposting a few favorites out of this year's archive.]  

In the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy became depressed about life’s futility. He had it all but so what? In “My Confession,” he wrote: “Sooner or later there will come diseases and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and to me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist. So why should I worry about these things?”

Life’s brevity bothered Tolstoy so much that he resolved to adopt religious faith to connect to the infinite afterlife, even though he considered religious belief “irrational” and “monstrous.” Was Tolstoy right? Is life so short as to make a mockery of people and their purposes and to render human life absurd?

In a famous 1971 paper, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel argues that life’s absurdity has nothing to do with its length. If a short life is absurd, he says, a longer life would be even more absurd: “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts 70 years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?”

This line of reasoning has a nice ring to it but whether lengthening an absurd thing will relieve it of its absurdity depends on why the thing is absurd and how much you lengthen it. A longer life might be less absurd even if an infinite life would not be. A short poem that is absurd because it is written in gibberish would be even more absurd if it prattled on for longer. But, say I decided to wear a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a belt. On my way to teach my class, a colleague intercepts me:

“Your skirt,” she says, “is absurd.”

“Absurd? Why?” I ask.

“Because it is so short!” she replies.

“If a short skirt is absurd, a longer skirt would be even more absurd,” I retort.

Now who’s being absurd? The skirt is absurd because it is so short. A longer skirt would be less absurd. Why? Because it does not suffer from the feature that makes the short skirt absurd, namely, a ridiculously short length. The same goes for a one-hour hunger strike. The point of a hunger strike is to show that one feels so strongly about something that one is willing to suffer a lack of nourishment for a long time in order to make a point. If you only “starve” for an hour, you have not made your point. Your one-hour hunger strike is absurd because it is too short. If you lengthened it to one month or one year, you might be taken more seriously. If life is absurd because it’s short, it might be less absurd if it were suitably longer.

Absurdity occurs when things are so ill-fitting or ill-suited to their purpose or situation as to be ridiculous, like wearing a clown costume to a (non-circus) job interview or demanding that your dog tell you what time it is. Is the lifespan of a relatively healthy and well-preserved human, say somewhere between 75 and 85, so short as to render it absurd, ill-suited to reasonable human purposes? (...)

What if we lived for, say, 500 or 1,000 years? Would our ambition tend to grow to scale, making life seem absurdly short for human purposes, whatever its length? Is it human nature to adopt outsized ambitions, condemning ourselves to absurdity by having conceptions of reasonable achievement that we don’t have the time to realize? Why haven’t we scaled down our ambitions to fit the time we have? Is the problem our nature or our lifespan?

There may be no way to be sure but consider the fact that, although we have ambitions unsuited to our lifespan, we don’t seem to consistently adopt ambitions unsuited to our species in respects other than time. It’s not absurd to us that we cannot fly or hibernate. We don’t think the fact that we can hold our breath for minutes rather than hours or memorize a few pages rather than a tome makes human life meaningless. We don’t find that our inability to read each other’s minds, speak to animals, glow in the dark, run 60 miles an hour, solve complex equations in our heads simultaneously or lift thousand-pound weights makes a sad mockery of human existence. This makes it more likely that, given a longer lifespan, life might seem less absurdly short for our purposes.

Just as a lifespan can be too short, it can be too long. For many, it is far too long already. Many people are bored with life, irritated by the human condition, exhausted from suffering, tired of living. For those for whom life is too long, a longer life would be worse and, quite possibly, more absurd. For some, however, life seems too long because it’s too short, meaning life is rendered so absurd by being short that even a short absurd life feels too long because it is pointless. A life made absurd because it is too short would be rendered less absurd if it were significantly longer.

A million-year or infinite life might be too long for human nature and purposes too, though such a life would be so radically different that we can only speculate. An infinite life might become tedious, and people world-weary. Lifetime love commitments, a source of meaning now, would likely cease to exist. A million-year or infinite lifespan might be too long and slip into absurdity. To everything its time. Both a too short lifespan and a too long lifespan present absurdist challenges to a meaningful life.

by Rivka Weinberg, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Leif Parsons
[ed. Repost]