To people who don’t suffer reality there is only absurdity.
Or so I casually proclaimed in subtle arrogance to a former student as we dined, for lunch, in a local NYC haunt recently. He voiced concerns of becoming the epitome of privilege by pursuing modest artistic ambitions; modest in that he’s primarily interested in pure play, a state of being possible, perhaps, only for those who enjoy the strange “dignity” of affluence, i.e. a life free from imminent physical danger. Where survival is secure, it seems I must manufacture threats. And so comes existential crisis, a creation not of an idle mind but an idle biology; a bored body. When what I’m designed to do loses its purpose, I transfer this atrophy of instinct into hypertrophy of thought. I displace my body’s perplexed complacency with my mind’s fervent activity. The body is built to focus on self-destruction, to do anything it can to avoid it; the mind focuses on self-destruction, doing everything it can to hasten it. What a strange existence: to obsess over certain death by pretending to feel closer to it. My body doesn’t get closer to it, so I choose to think that I’m getting closer to it in my mind. And there’s where my “confrontation” remains, in and of the mind. I don’t have real brushes with death. I don’t experience its ever-present danger, its fundamental promise. Is this privilege?
At the very least, it’s absurd.
Existentialism was long criticized for being a bourgeoise philosophy, and reasonably so. Declaring that life is ambiguous and absurd and everything else that bougie white people (mostly men) declared it to be is the hallmark of comfort. There is nothing so comical as White Despair, that heightened agitation that famous philosophers confused with profound existential presence. They felt forsaken by the unbearable lightness of being; perhaps they preferred the heaviness of being that their brethren, anyone outside their hyper-intellectual bubble, suffered? What would they have written had they been forced to live in reality and not in their heads? I wonder the same thing about myself. I often think that I get to live in my head, a privilege bestowed upon me by whimsical fated forces; too bad I choose to live in my head, dwelling in complete safety yet believing I’m truly living. For there, in my mind, things happen. That’s where meaning is made, and so that’s where authentic life is lived.
Yet there, in my mind, nothing happens. Why do I make nothing everything? Perhaps because I’d give everything for anything to happen to me. The irony, of course, is that should anything actually happen to me, I’ll give everything to be the nothing that I was. (The nothing, perhaps, that I always am and will be. But that’s a thought born of the very idleness I loathe, an idleness born of my instincts’ betrayal. The body, left alone, tortures the mind. The mind, tortured, returns the favor. Things fall apart.)
Do I seek your empathy in this confession? Is that what it is? Am I seeking forgiveness, or celebrating my power? I revel in the absurd, my privilege. It attracts infinite curiosity, placidity to the point of paralysis. Or false crisis to the same point.
When I see the absurd, I laugh, and so my life becomes the ultimate punchline, with other lives joined in this grand procession of infinite jest.