A friend of mine asked the other day how he could make jokes when reality has become the joke. He referenced the recent turn in American politics in which absurdity and nonsense has gained traction—to the point where millions of people actually believe the outlandish statements of the political candidates, who are, of course, making such remarks to attract voters. The two—the pols and their publics—are locked in a closed dynamic, where one influences and reinforces the other. Nothing will penetrate this system until it breaks of its own accord.
I told my pal that most of life is absurd and that I accept the absurdity, absorb it, so that I don’t raise my expectations. What is reality anyway but a series of jokes? Nations go to war for allegedly higher values and higher beings. You are born only, at some point in your life, to die. What one generation learns the next generation must relearn, as generations have the tendency not to learn from one another. My life is an endless sequence of made-up activities designed to keep me busy. My work as a minor literary figure will doom me to anonymity, my books gathering dust in library stacks that are even now being eliminated in the shift to electronica. Society expresses values that keep people locked into jobs and careers that lead nowhere, serve no purpose, and end the same miserable way. Old age makes us children again—not nearly as cute or cuddly but just as helpless and smelly.
And so on.
This series of observations sounds rather gloomy but I find it wonderful. Human life is absurd, filled with dirt and grime, contradiction, and conviction. The only meaning in it all comes from helping others through their absurd and meaningless lives. We are in this together. We can exacerbate the misery or we can make each other just a little more comfortable on the walk from birth to death.
Frankly, I believe all of life, no matter how seriously I take it sometimes, is Dada. The logic of societies leads directly to armed conflict. While the ideologies give meaning and purpose to those societies, those same ideologies contain the elements of their destruction. For instance, power over others lays at the heart of capitalism. The standard of living in the United States depends on an underclass. Capitalism relies on the underclass, even manufactures it, for its own benefit and propagation. The growing underclass, which is a product of capitalist thinking, will one day lead to the destruction of capitalism in its present form—either by revolution or evolution. We go to war over capitalism, as the capitalist ethos contains, at its core, imperialism and defensiveness. Terrorism is a product of capitalist imperialism. Capitalism causes famine, not the natural environment, because at any given time, there’s enough food in the world, it’s just locked up in systems of value and exchange that cannot serve the hungry.
Capitalism begets industrialism. Industrialism begets environmental destruction. Combining good will with capitalism may work for a while and in isolated cases, but, in the end, capitalist systems of value and exchange exploit the environment to the point where the environment will no longer sustain capital endeavor. It may take a year or a century or a couple of centuries, but in the end, capitalism dooms us all.
This is not to say that other systems of value and exchange do much better. Dictatorships, by their very natures, manufacture underclasses. Totalitarian systems of control contain the seeds of their destruction. Barter, mercantilism, cooperation all depend on the production of exploitative action.
Does this mean that I believe in nothing or in the futile nature of everything, of all human endeavor? Not at all. I just mentioned that making other people comfortable or contributing to others’ comfort give life meaning. I believe that. In the midst of misery and futileness, the purpose of this life comes from simple acts of kindness. If I cannot be kind, if I cannot find it in myself to help other human beings, then my life has no meaning or purpose. I refuse to believe that my life has no meaning, therefore I have to do something about it, and that something is contributing to another’s comfort or ease in dealing with the absurd nature of life in the modern age.
The logical outcome of absurdity is that life is about mere survival. But there is more than survival. The humanities, aptly named, elevate life from instinct to consciousness, from blind and brutal existence to enlightenment. Other animals may be able to create art and literature—who can say definitively that elephants, apes and monkeys, dolphins, whales, and porpoises don’t participate in oral traditions and performance art?—but so can humans, and only humans can produce uniquely human art and literature. Not only this, but the literatures of societies differ from one another so greatly that we, as a species, have produced endless varieties of mechanisms that make our passage through this existence easier, less mundane, and more rewarding than if we didn’t have these things.
So, yes, I told my friend, life itself is a joke. It can be cruel unless we understand or at least try to grasp its absurdity.
None of this makes war more bearable, starvation less unkind, or sexual assault less livable. Ask anyone maimed physically or psychically or who is starving if war or privation or rape are funny. Those who’ve lost a loved one to cancer, car crash, or murder feel hurt, devastated. But the absurdity of life gives terrible scourges a kind of logic and understandability that can make us more sympathetic and empathetic to the conditions and positions of others. It’s hard for me, for instance, to empathize with people who complain of first-world problems. But I can understand that problems cause pain and suffering, regardless of whether you are rich and worried about interior decoration or homeless and troubled about the cold.
How does art and literature, as well as the other humanities, help that homeless person? Well, I argue the humanities force sentient and caring human beings to understand the plights of others. Therein, we use our experience for the benefit of others. How many human beings would starve under America’s bridges today if it weren’t for the feelings and actions of other humans toward alleviating the hunger that surrounds us everywhere?
And what of those people who think only of themselves and of what benefit their actions might bring to them? I argue that even in these selfish endeavors—the Christian who only delivers food with God, the calculating careerist who thinks of others only in terms of personal benefit, the scrapping worker who sees others’ weaknesses and exploits them for personal gain, the terrorist who wipes out an entire school—wind up helping others. Sometimes the lessons are negative or how not to be, in which case, we learn from them what will not make us happy or what is not moral. This leads us then to think about our happiness and morals. Those who think little of others teach us how to be conscious and to live consciously.
In the end, I believe that all of human suffering and joy exist in the same big ball. You don’t necessarily have to have one to have the other. But you get one when you get the other, regardless of the fairness or justice of having to have one with the other. Does justice even exist? It does and it doesn’t at the same time.
So, what’s the use if all of this is absurd and just a joke? It doesn’t really matter. If it did, then it wouldn’t be absurd.
(This essay was first published on 12/16/2015.)