Wrestling the Absurd

We all have our heroes. For some of us it’s our fathers – someone needs to show you how to be both strong and a gentleman. And if you’re of a certain age and grew up in Pittsburgh, then Roberto Clemente was also your hero. It wasn’t just his amazing talent and his grace under pressure – he was one of baseball’s greats – it was his easy and quiet dignity that was never mixed with even the slightest hint of swagger. He didn’t talk trash – he went out and hit a ton and played flawless defense. He didn’t have to say a word about it – and since his English wasn’t very good, and even sympathetic sportswriters portrayed him as a Puerto Rican dimwit, there wasn’t much point in saying anything anyway. He just went out and played even better the next day. Pittsburgh back in the late fifties and early sixties – back when there was still an American steel industry – was a blue-collar city filled with second-generation Poles and Czechs and whatnot, and they all loved the guy. They got it. He was, oddly, one of them.

And back in the day, if you were an aspiring musician, you had your other heroes – maybe that old guy, Duke Ellington, who had been around since the late twenties and was still, at the time, the essence of grace and cool. The hard bop guys, and Coltrane and Miles, were hard to warm up to. And rock at the time was crude and silly – slamming through a cover of Tequila or Teen Angel in some dim bar was no fun, but it was better than the polkas you had to play when you and your buddies had been hired to cover a local wedding reception. Of course if you had dreams of becoming an architect there was Frank Lloyd Wright – Fallingwater was nearby. Wright was cool, in spite of Ayn Rand loving the guy. Or maybe you wanted to grow up to be just like Pittsburgh’s most cynical and quite mad native son, Oscar Levant – but probably not. It varies.

But we all grow up and leave home. And we make our reassessments. And the sixties came along – you could make Bob Dylan your hero if you wished, or Martin Luther King, or Mick Jagger, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Dick Gregory or Paul Anka or Michelangelo Antonioni or Milton Friedman or Muhammad Ali. There was a lot to figure out. And college didn’t help. They had you reading all sorts of odd stuff, like those French existentialists, like Albert Camus – although the guy said he wasn’t one of them. Camus said he was more of an absurdist – devoted to opposing the philosophy of nihilism but still concerned with individual freedom. Life was absurd, and of course his most famous comment was that the only philosophical question worth asking is the question of suicide. We were really free – the accepted rules were nonsense – but why bother? The bulk of his work is about why one should or should not bother. College kids just eat up that sort of thing. He’d do as a hero.

And he sticks with you. Years later it was a trip to Paris each December – to walk around alone in the rain, smoking the pipe, and getting into Camus mode, savoring the absurd if you will. Life back in Los Angeles, not to mention Pittsburgh, seemed such a life of quiet desperation. What did it all mean? You could think about that sitting in the Flore sipping cognac (they have one named Camus) and staring out through the steamed-up windows as the Christmas shoppers streamed by in the gloom. And the cool thing was each year staying at the hotel across the street, the Madison, where Camus wrote a good part of his most famous novel, L’Étranger – get a room on the Boulevard and you can stare at the old church across the street, where Descartes is buried. I think, therefore I am. Cool.

And this shot is a side street in a village in Provence, Lourmarin, where Camus retired – he took his Nobel Prize money and bought a place here, saying it was the most beautiful village in France. He was buried here, in the cemetery a bit to the southwest of the village. This particular village is a bit north of Aix and a bit east of Avignon. That was June ten years ago. And see the picture at the bottom of this page – the same day. Of course on a sunny hot day in Provence in June one drinks Pastis – not cognac. But you’re still in Camus mode.

And it is surprising how many people are in that mode. There’s that new novel about American life from Jonathan Franzen – Freedom – and in September Oprah Winfrey announced that this would be an Oprah Book Club selection, so it’s a big deal. But it’s all about freedom and nihilism and what’s worth anything these days.

At the time, David Brooks had a few things to say about it – honing in what he saw as Franzen’s two main arguments:

First, he argues that American culture is over-obsessed with personal freedom. Second, he portrays an America where people are unhappy and spiritually stunted.

Here’s the Brooks summary:

Many of his characters live truncated lives. There’s a woman who “had formerly been active with the SDS in Madison and was now very active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau.” There are people who devote their moral energies to the cause of sensitive gentrification. One of the “heroes” experiences great fits of righteous outrage when drivers ahead of him change lanes without the proper turn signals.

The central male character, Walter, is good but pushover-nice and pathetically naïve. His bad-boy rival, Richard, is a middle-aged guy who makes wryly titled rock albums and builds luxury decks to make ends meet. He is supposed to represent the cool, dangerous side of life, but he’s strictly Dionysus-lite.

One of the first things we learn about Patty – the woman who can’t decide between them – is that she is unable to make a moral judgment. She invests her vestigial longings into the cause of trying to build a perfect home and family, and when domesticity can’t bear the load she imposes, she falls into a chaos of indistinct impulses.

This seems to be a novel of the absurd, although Camus had written the classic of the genre. But out here we’re always doing remakes of French movies. Why not?

But Brooks notes that B. R. Myers in this review in The Atlantic is quite put off by Franzen’s willingness to “create a world in which nothing important can happen.” And then there’s the casual and adolescent language Franzen uses to create his world – “There is no import in things that ‘suck,’ no drama in someone’s being ‘into’ someone else.” Myers calls the whole thing “a 576-page monument to insignificance.”

Somewhere Camus is smiling, and Brooks says that insignificance may be Franzen’s point:

At a few major moments, he compares his characters to the ones in “War and Peace.” Franzen is obviously trying to make us see the tremendous difference in scope between the two sets of characters.

Tolstoy’s characters are spiritually ambitious – ferociously seeking some universal truth that can withstand the tough scrutiny of their own intelligence. Franzen’s modern characters are distracted and semi-helpless. It’s easy to admire Pierre and Prince Andrei. It’s impossible to look upon Walter and Richard with admiration, though it is possible to feel empathy for them.

So this is not exactly Great Souls Seeking Important Truth:

It’s a portrait of an America where the important, honest, fundamental things are being destroyed or built over – and people are left to fumble about, not even aware of what they have lost.

But David Brooks wonders if America really is the way Franzen portrays it:

My own answer, for what it’s worth, is that “Freedom” tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since.

Yep, in American literature now “there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.” And Brooks argues that writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy:

So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.

And this really gets his goat:

The political world is caricatured worst of all. The environmentalists talk like the snobbish cartoons of Glenn Beck’s imagination. The Republicans talk like the warmonger cartoons of Michael Moore’s.

The serious parts of life get lopped off and readers have to stoop to inhabit a low-ceilinged world. Everyone gets to feel superior to the characters they are reading about (always pleasant in a society famously anxious about status), but there’s something missing.

Social critics from Thoreau to Allan Bloom to the SDS authors of The Port Huron Statement also made critiques about the flatness of bourgeois life, but at least they tried to induce their readers to long for serious things.

It seems that there’s “no alternative vision of higher ground” here – not fair.

But Nietzsche did say that God is dead, and we killed him. There may not be any higher ground available now. Brooks – the author of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense – may not buy into that. But there’s Sean D. Kelly, the chair of the department of philosophy at Harvard University, who has just published a column in Brooks’ own New York Times, examining the whole nihilism business:

There is much debate about the meaning of Nietzsche’s famous claim, and I will not attempt to settle that scholarly dispute here. But at least one of the things that Nietzsche could have meant is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West. For it used to be the case  in the European Middle Ages for example – that the mainstream of society was grounded so firmly in its Christian beliefs that someone who did not share those beliefs could therefore not be taken seriously as living an even potentially admirable life. Indeed, a life outside the Church was not only execrable but condemnable, and in certain periods of European history it invited a close encounter with a burning pyre.

God is dead in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.

Whatever role religion plays in our society today, it is not this one.

Things have changed:

…today’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration. That is not to say that every religious believer accepts this constraint. But to the extent that they do not, then society now rightly condemns them as dangerous religious fanatics rather than sanctioning them as scions of the Church or mosque. God is dead, therefore, in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live. Nihilism is one state a culture may reach when it no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground.

Ah, we’re all in Camus mode now. And that may be good, or bad:

On the positive end, when it is no longer clear in a culture what its most basic commitments are, when the structure of a worthwhile and well-lived life is no longer agreed upon and taken for granted, then a new sense of freedom may open up. Ways of living life that had earlier been marginalized or demonized may now achieve recognition or even be held up and celebrated. Social mobility – for African Americans, gays, women, workers, people with disabilities or others who had been held down by the traditional culture – may finally become a possibility. The exploration and articulation of these new possibilities for living a life was found in such great 20th-century figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, and many others.

But there’s the downside:

Without any clear and agreed upon sense for what to be aiming at in a life, people may experience the paralyzing type of indecision depicted by T. S. Eliot in his famously vacillating character Prufrock; or they may feel, like the characters in a Samuel Beckett play, as though they are continuously waiting for something to become clear in their lives before they can get on with living them; or they may feel the kind of “stomach level sadness” that David Foster Wallace described, a sadness that drives them to distract themselves by any number of entertainments, addictions, competitions, or arbitrary goals, each of which leaves them feeling emptier than the last. The threat of nihilism is the threat that freedom from the constraint of agreed upon norms opens up new possibilities in the culture only through its fundamentally destabilizing force.

Of course Samuel Beckett wrote that play “Waiting for Godot” in Paris, in French, and it premiered there. But Kelly’s gripe is with Brooks:

Has Brooks’ happy, suburban life revealed a new kind of contentment, a happiness that is possible even after the death of God? Or is the happy suburban world Brooks describes simply self-deceived in its happiness, failing to face up to the effects of the destabilizing force that Franzen and his literary compatriots feel?

Kelly examines that:

To begin with, perhaps the writers and poets whom Brooks questions have actually noticed something that the rest of us are ignoring or covering up. This is what Nietzsche himself thought. “I have come too early,” he wrote. “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” On this account there really is no agreement in the culture about what constitutes a well-lived life; God is dead in this particular sense. But many people carry on in God’s shadow nevertheless; they take the life at which they are aiming to be one that is justifiable universally. In this case the happiness that Brooks identifies in the suburbs is not genuine happiness but self-deceit.

And one should consider what such a self-deceiving life looks like:

It would be a matter not only of finding meaning in one’s everyday engagements, but of clinging to the meanings those engagements offer as if they were universal and absolute. Take the case of religion, for example. One can imagine a happy suburban member of a religious congregation who, in addition to finding fulfillment for herself in her lofty and ennobling religious pursuits, experiences the aspiration to this kind of fulfillment as one demanded of all other human beings as well. Indeed, one can imagine that the kind of fulfillment she experiences through her own religious commitments depends upon her experiencing those commitments as universal, and therefore depends upon her experiencing those people not living in the fold of her church as somehow living depleted or unfulfilled lives.

Yes, one thinks of Sarah Palin and so many others, and Kelly adds this:

But if this is the kind of fulfillment one achieves through one’s happy suburban religious pursuit, then in our culture today it is self-deception at best and fanaticism at worst. For it stands in constant tension with the demand in the culture to recognize that those who don’t share your religious commitments might nevertheless be living admirable lives. There is therefore a kind of happiness in a suburban life like this. But its continuation depends upon deceiving oneself about the role that any kind of religious commitment can now play in grounding the meanings for a life.

There’s an obvious tensions here – in America you can be free to be who you want to be, and believe what you wish, and you had damn well better find Jesus. Brooks glosses over the absurdity of that. But the odd thing is that Kelly then pivots and says it might be wise to consider Herman Melville, not Nietzsche. What?

Actually he’s serious:

Writing thirty years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity” – to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life – to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community – become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Somehow one thinks of Roberto Clemente – a life well-lived, with easy and quiet dignity that is never mixed with even the slightest hint of swagger. And Kelly says that’s sort of what Melville was getting at:

The new possibility that Melville hoped for, therefore, is a life that steers happily between two dangers: the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism, which leads to a culture of purposelessness and angst.

We should all be so lucky, or so sensible. And that is moving beyond Camus, or to the place Camus thought we should be. But you may have others heroes. If so, enjoy your fanaticism and self-deceit, or, conversely, your descent into nihilism and your sense of purposelessness and your angst. Knock yourself out. The rest of us will be in Paris, sipping cognac and happily watching the rain.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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