The Meaning of Life

Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s The Demons insists that people don’t commit suicide because of the fear of pain. I suspect the fear of the unknown plays a part as well. Dante, in strict accordance with Catholic dogma at the time, places the suicides in the seventh circle of his Hell where they take the form of thorny bushes tormented by Harpies who eat away at them, causing them untold pain. They have denied their bodily form in life and are therefore denied human form in Hell. Sartre somewhere says that the meaning of life consists in asking ourselves from time to time why we don’t commit suicide. Perhaps it is the fear — of pain, the unknown, or the possibility of becoming a thorny bush tormented by Harpies.

For my own part I am convinced that, given the unfettered greed and sheer stupidity of a significant portion of the human race, there is a large probability that one way or the other the planet on which we depend will not survive — a likelihood that increases daily with the crowding human population, the manufacture of every new nuclear bomb, the next outrageous comment from the mouth of a politician, the determination of so many of us to settle our differences through violence. I find myself, like Sisyphus, living in an absurd world in which we all move huge boulders up the hill only to have them roll to the bottom each time, demanding that we start again. Despite all this, (as Camus admonishes me to do ), I imagine Sisyphus  to be happy.

I am also happy in spite of the above absurdities and bleak prognostications, because I have determined in my old age that happiness does not consist in how much money one has, the power or status he or she may have achieved, but in the small things that surround us and invite our delight. I speak of the Monarch butterfly that miraculously finds its way to Central America each year, the white-tail deer that disappears in the distance, leaping effortlessly over the log, the returning smile of the little girl in the store as I smile and wave at her, the quiet moments with my wife of more than fifty years as we sit together in the evenings and watch British mysteries and play the “I know her” game — “wasn’t she the one….?”

Moreover, despite the fact that there are so many people that are, let us face it, wicked and self-serving — and stupid enough to think that a man bloated and blinded by his own self-love can save the world — there are good people who want to do the right thing. Each in his or her small way seeks to make a difference and face life’s uncertainties with optimism, hope, and inner strength. Some of these people write blogs and I read them and find myself also filled with hope. Others gather together and wave their fists at injustice and wickedness. Others quietly and out of view, take care of the sick and wounded, animals as well as humans. Yet others paint and sing to reveal to us the world around his that we have tried to shut out.

In a word, the meaning of life — to use that ponderous and even pompous phrase — consists in the small things that surround us, the things we ignore as we go about our daily business of increasing our security and our pleasure. It consists in hanging onto the thread of hope woven by the beauty and goodness that exists all around us — if only we take the time and trouble to pause, perceive, and reflect.

What Went Wrong?

According to a Yahoo News story, pundits around the country lost no time in seeking answers to the question of what went wrong with Mitt Romney’s attempt to buy himself a presidency. As the story tells us:

Seeking answers to why their presidential candidate lost the election, the first round of consensus on the right has focused on the Republican need to recalibrate its message to connect with the nation’s shifting voting demographics—or, at the very least, acknowledge that the country is changing.

The search for answers about What Went Wrong began almost immediately on election night, a signal that some had already been mulling the possibility of a loss for some time.

One of the people who was attempting to figure out what went “wrong” was Karl Rove who spent $300 million of his own hard-earned cash on a losing cause before losing it himself on Fox News on election night when he refused to allow that the Republicans had lost Ohio — while in the process of losing every “swing state” except North Carolina. And no one knows for sure how much the Koch brothers lost, but it’s a safe bet that it’s quite a bit more than Rove lost. What a shame.

But even more interesting is our insistence on knowing what is going to happen before it happens. Think of the millions of dollars ESPN collects from sponsors each year to pay its talking heads to tell viewers before sporting events who will win and who will lose. Indeed, ESPN has a segment called “Cold, Hard Facts” in which experts give their opinions about what will happen next weekend in the main sporting events of interest to viewers — showing that (a) we have no idea what a “fact” is and (b) confirming our penchant for knowing what will happen before it happens. In any event these experts are almost always wrong, but we listen to them anyway — and we join in over beer at the local watering-place knowing even less than they do and having even weaker grounds for our predictions. But why do we do it? Why don’t we simply enjoy the moment we are in and let the future work itself out?

In the fourth bolgia, or ditch, of the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante see a group of men whose heads are turned backwards on their bodies and who walk through eternity with their tears streaming from their eyes and down their backs and between their butt cheeks not knowing where they are going. They are the fortune-tellers. They are in the eighth of nine circles of Hell, in the circle of malice and fraud — deeper down in Hell than murderers and suicides. Dante was strictly orthodox and he was simply giving us (graphic) images of the punishment that his church taught was waiting for sinners. It is wrong for humans to try to tell the future because only God can know what is in store for us.

Of course, people like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers didn’t simply try to foresee the future, they attempted to force it to their will by contributing millions of dollars to the political candidates of their choice. Dante doesn’t place such people in his Inferno, but we can imagine these people in the fourth bolgia where they push a huge (gold) boulder up the side of the ditch only to have it roll back again as it nears the top — like Sisyphus. That seems appropriate.

Most of us reject this sort of thing in this enlightened age. We are way too sophisticated for that sort of superstitious nonsense: bodies walking through Hell with their heads on backwards or pushing boulders up the side of a ditch. How absurd! But the question remains: why do we not treasure the moment and let the future take care of itself? Why do we insist on knowing what will happen before it happens?  And what makes the obscenely wealthy among us think they can determine the future by simply writing a check? I do wonder.

Tragedy and Conservatism

I wrote in yesterday’s blog that my adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, developed a notion of “unmitigated tragedy” that is based on his conviction that evil is simply a part of the world we live in. It is in each of us and it is in the natural world as well, in our hearts and in the natural catastrophes that destroy lives and property on a grand scale.

This conviction formed the basis of Vivas’ conservatism, and he was welcomed into the bosom of conservative groups as one of the true believers. He argued in print that his conservatism was grounded on his conviction that there is evil in the world and there is nothing we can do about it other than accepting the fact and trying to move on, not to attempt to justify the evil or explain it away, but to reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil if we can. He faulted liberals for their futile attempts (as he saw it) to eradicate evil from the world root and branch. It is a profound notion but one that I doubt is shared by a great many other conservatives whose ideology is based pretty simply on the desire to protect their wealth — and expand it if possible. Vivas called these people “dollar conservatives,” and refused to be grouped with them.

But in any case, as much as I admired and respected Vivas, I think he was wrong. I agree with Camus that we can recognize evil in the world and in ourselves as a necessary part of who we are and where we live. Much, if not most, cannot be justified or explained away. But we don’t have to simply accept it, as Camus himself showed in his brief life by fighting against the death penalty. Indeed, I would argue that we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering wherever possible and try to alleviate wrong wherever we find it — knowing that the problems will never go away completely. Vivas’ thinking smacks of bifurcation: evil is a fact. Either reconcile yourself to it it or despair. There is a middle ground. We can struggle against it wherever possible, even though we cannot hope to eradicate it “root and branch.”

This was Camus’ insight into human existence that he formulated philosophically in his brilliant if somewhat opaque essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In that myth, Sisyphus pushes a huge rock up a hill only to have it roll down again when it nears the top. But, paradoxically, Sisyphus returns to the bottom of the hill and starts again, knowing the same things will recur. “And we must imagine Sisyphus happy,” concludes Camus. Existence is absurd, but we must push on. Stegner shows the same sort of resignation in the novel I mentioned yesterday, All The Little Live Things. After the trauma of his dear friend’s awful death, and the death of her unborn child, the narrator reflects:

“I do not accept, I am not reconciled. But one thing she did. She taught me the stupidity of the attempt to withdraw and be free of  trouble and harm. . . . There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill.”

Life goes on and we must continue to weed the garden. And do what we can to lessen the suffering of those around us. It defines us as human beings who belong on the earth in ways that no amount of wealth and possessions can.