Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Despair or Laughter

“A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger,” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 6).

“Humility falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance,” (Nagel, The View From Nowhere, 222).

The existentialists describe the human activity of self-creating, self-overcoming, and positing values as an exercise of human freedom and thus our most valuable function and the only method of intuiting anything resembling “truth” or “value” from the world. As a human is, in Heidegger’s terms, a being for whom its Being is a question (and perhaps the only being of this sort), the question of objective value, a priori principles, and the like are necessarily to be butted against subjective valuations of the world, distinctly for Camus as the recognition of only subjective meaning for life in a void of objective meaning. Thus, Camus presents man’s relation to the world as one necessarily shot through with absurdity, this recognition of the relative meaninglessness of human life in the non-rational darkness of the universe. From these assertions, Camus draws three possible conclusions, the religious devotion to the irrational as God (a la Kierkegaard), suicide, or revolt. Camus presents MOS as explicating the relationship of suicide to the absurd, and he portrays Kierkegaard and Chestov as representing the religious response to the absurd, hypostatizing the irrational and impossible as God, as committing "philosophical suicide." But can these three responses possibly exhaust all relationships to the absurd? Camus’ revolt consists of scorning the fate of humans to whom this bleak situation has been forced by a non-rational universe, but this fate is not a punishment as there is no punisher. The dramatic quality of Camus’ writing, that of the “traumatized atheist” as Robert C. Solomon characterizes him (Solomon, The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life), has been assessed harshly by several contemporary philosophers. Solomon, for example, concludes that Camus’ “literary genius enables him to paint this ghastly scenario in heroic colours; but we must see it for what it is. It is a degrading, spiteful, and hopeless version of the Christian denigration of man – as petty and helpless, virtually crushed by the weight of his guilt and his punishment, virtuously salvaging his last crumb of self-respect through resentment, scorn [and] silent defiance,” (Solomon, 45).

Bob Plant explores the possibility of a hearty Nietzschean laughter as a response to objective meaninglessness of life through his discussion of Nagel’s dispassionate recognition of absurdity, in the essay “Absurdity, Incongruity, and Laughter.” Camus’ resentment of the absurdity of life is possible, according to Nagel, if one presupposes that “the harmonization of subjective and objective viewpoints is, at least in principle, possible,” (Plant, 130). This seems like a mischaracterization of Camus’ worries, as his despair arises from an acknowledgement of the inevitable lack of possible unity between the perspectives, the thought that humanity will always suffer this tension between subjective meaning and the lack of objective meaning. But notice how I describe the absurd here, in Camus’ dramatic terms of suffering and fate. For some, surely, existence primarily resembles suffering, coping with rather than overcoming certain facticities, such as a life-long depression. For those who do not find the lack of external corroboration of the meaningfulness of human life at least troubling perhaps simply do not share a certain roughly defined disposition. The way in which Plant takes laughter for granted in response to absurdity is the way in which Camus takes despair as a normal response to the sudden realization of the absurd. These may simply represent different characterizations of revolt against the absurd, but whether one is better or more convincing than the other is another issue. Plant’s example of an exchange student reading The Stranger and falling immediately into a protracted despair, only to be immediately remedied by recognizing that one’s thoughts are of importance to the thinker, may show a shallow sort of anguish about the absurdity of life, but this is one example of someone who obviously did not seriously ponder the absurd prior to reading such lines as “Nothing matters.” Someone who grapples critically with the problems of faith will recognize a certain despair that, if only momentarily, resembles the feeling of the absurd as Camus illustrates it. While Plant posits that laughter is “the right response to absurdity,” he never spends much effort describing how convincing someone out of despair and toward laughter would occur. Early on in MOS, Camus acknowledges, “It is legitimate to wonder, clearly and without false pathos, whether a conclusion of this importance requires forsaking as rapidly as possible an incomprehensible condition. I am speaking, of course, of men inclined to be in harmony with themselves,” (Camus, 6). Could being continuously conscious of the absurd, the great incongruity between human aspirations and an unfeeling universe, an inevitable tension between striving toward objective meaning but really only creating subjective meaning, resemble more a pathological sort of misery than a Heideggerian authentic existence? Through constant consciousness of the absurd, or for someone like Rorty, the contingency of language, selfhood, and community, one can avoid placing too much emphasis on either an objective lack of meaning, falling into nihilism, or the subjective meaning of life, becoming too self-important. Thus, Nagel presents a manageable tension between inner and outer perspectives (subjective and objective) as humility. However, it can be said that Nagel is merely another voice on this subject, not inherently more correct than Camus’, but rather the description of another response to the absurd.

Offering a fruitful counterpoint to Camus’ revolt in the face of the absurd, Nagel implores us not to lose sight of either the objective or subjective points of view, that there should always be a tension between them. “The pursuit of objectivity with respect to value runs the risk of leaving value behind altogether…if we continue along the path that leads from personal inclination to objective values and ethics, we may fall into nihilism. The problem is to know where and how to stop, and it shows itself in some of the more personally disturbing questions of philosophy,” (Nagel, 209).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.