Normalizing the Absurd

“What does life mean in such a universe?”
Albert Camus

Something absurd is going on.

If you are feeling spent (of course you are), it is because you are being pummelled by the absurd. The absurd, French philosopher Albert Camus instructs us, is what is flung back when we throw plans at an indifferent universe.

COVID is absurd. Brexit is absurd. Polarized America is absurd. The destruction of our environment is absurd. Anything that disrupts our notion of what is is absurd.

We change our notion of what is to minimize – normalize – the absurd. And then we make more plans.1

Photo of Monty Python Team, 1969, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org.
Two decades after Camus argued that any situation could be scorned to the point of derisive humor, a group of comedians proved him right. Absurdity is the essence of Monty Python comedy. The six Pythons in 1969. Left to right: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Franz Kafka’s most famous novel, Metamorphosis, the hero, Gregor, wakes up as a beetle. Rather than dispensing with the why or how, Kafka simply moves on with the plot.

Similarly, one of my favorite proses/poems, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, is the tale of a crow that moves in with a family after the mother dies. Says the crow: “He didn’t see me against the blackness of his trauma.”

In grief, the senses fold, don’t they? Even a giant crow in the entryway could seem normal.

Our mental, physical, and even spiritual health demands we normalize the absurd. Demands that we keep living.

In one of her first writings, essayist and social critic Joan Didion observes the absurdity when society shifts so fundamentally on one aspect of life.

In this case, marriage à la Las Vegas.

To be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, a bride must swear that she is eighteen or has parental permission and a bridegroom that he is twenty-one or has parental permission. Someone must put up five dollars for the license. (Sundays and holidays, fifteen dollars.) […] Nothing else is required.

This was in 1967. Didion highlights the absurdity that the rest of one’s life is decided on impulse. And yet, the reason it works is that Vegas markets the feeling of eternity.

Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification […] Almost everyone notes there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future; neither is there any logical sense of where one is.

Vegas upset notions of marriage by promising eternity, helping us avoid our death anxiety. Marriage is a physical thing; it needs to be shaken up.

But what about a more destructive absurd? Do we normalize that too?

John Cleese filming "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", photo featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org. Photo credit: Daily Record/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Python John Cleese recalls the direction of Python was set by Terry Gilliam’s absurd animations, what Cleese refers to as a “stream of consciousness approach.” John Cleese filming “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in Scotland, 8th May 1974. Photo by Daily Record/Mirrorpix/ via Getty Images

Consider the horrifyingly true story of Elie Wiesel’s imprisonment in Auschwitz. When Wiesel witnesses his father being brutalized, Wiesel does not act. “Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?”

Later, when his father dies, Wiesel feels even less:

I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father’s cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him away before daybreak and taken him to the crematorium. Perhaps he was still breathing…

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside of me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!

The abject dehumanization of the Auschwitz experience acted as an instant normalizer against additional stress. Wiesel normalized his father’s (absurd) suffering to keep himself alive.

Wiesel’s experience lends insight into how an entire society might normalize the virulent absurd.

During the First World War, a modern poet of tremendous urgency, Wilfred Owen, wrote verse of tremendous human consciousness: collective conscious—do we as a society know what it means to wage war? And individual conscious—do we know what it means to march towards death?

Owen’s poem “Conscious” is ostensibly about a soldier dying, but really it is about society’s consciousness to the fact that war is absurd.

But sudden evening blurs and fogs the air.
There seems no time to want a drink of water.
Nurse looks so far away. And here and there
Music and roses burst through crimson slaughter.
He can’t remember where he saw blue sky…
The trench is narrower. Cold, he’s cold; yet hot –
And there’s no light to see the voices by…
There is no time to ask… he knows not what.

from “Conscious”

“A man who has become conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it” warned (promised?) Camus.

Michael Palin in Four Yorkshireman sketch, 2014, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
“I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.'” Michael Palin in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch that satirizes our romance with memory. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

I am not as shocked of photos of overflowing, helpless COVID wards as I was in March.

Are you?

It is not because I’ve become desensitized. It is not because COVID is weaker. It is because I kept making plans. Kept order. Kept my kids alive. Did not let death claim us.

Ah, death. Our unknowable real mortality.

“Perhaps the best proof of the Almighty’s existence,” reasons poet Joseph Brodsky, “is that we never know when we are to die.”

Camus would agree the greatest absurdity of all is that we strive for control and meaning when we cannot control when our own existence ends (or begins).

Monty_Python_Live_02, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
A body-less foot, a Ministry of Silly Walks, unexpected visits by the Spanish Inquisition (an absurd entity if there ever was one) and African migratory swallows are a few of the completely absurd punchlines in the Python sketch comedy. Above, a reprisal of “The Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, 2014. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

Camus argues that it is our death anxiety that makes us find meaning and control and normalize the absurd in the first place. That quest turns into a mechanization of life.

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time.

But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement […] Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.

Camus tells us the mechanization of life must be fought. Normalization must be fought. (He suggested with humor). Or to say it differently: Never stop being affected. Even if that means we allow pain and death into our hearts. It also allows in power. Humor. And love.

But once you are conscious of the absurd you are conscious of the absurd.2 Are you willing to take that chance?

Something absurd is going on.

The Truth of Marriage

“Most of all it must be built on truth, not dream, the knowledge of what we are rather than what we think it is the fashion to be.”
Laurie Lee

We have asked much of marriage lately. We spread into its vastness and pulled its intimacy around our shoulders. Asked it to carry pain and hope. We asked it to immobilize demons without and quiet the noise within.

Fortunately, marriage is a voracious thing. A physical thing. Like all relationships, marriage demands space. Marriage has attics and cellars, heights and pits, smooth planes and holes. Cushions and manacles, soft landings and things that hold fast.

By the physicality of marriage, I mean just that: Marriage is a being. Marriage has space. Marriage is a thing.

Wedding flowers featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding flowers. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

If marriage is a thing, of what is it made? Not flowers nor cake nor tulle. Love. But love in what fashion?1

“Love is, and makes all the rules itself…,” writes Laurie Lee, a passionate writer of fields, youth, and time long gone. Lee guides us to give in, give over.

Love should be an act of will. Of passionate patience, flexible, cunning, constant; proof against roasting and freezing, drought and flood, and the shifting climates of mood and age. In order to make it succeed one must lose all preconceptions, including a reliance on milk and honey, and fashion something that can blanket the whole range of experience from ecstasy to decay.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is built on love. Lee cautions, “Most of all it must be built on truth, not dream, the knowledge of what we are rather than what we think it is the fashion to be.”

Wedding rings featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding rings. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

Love grows as we grow. Before long, we have a thing. A thing that blankets the range of experience. This oozes and flows, explodes. Love is catalyses—cauterized?—through ceremony and vows, one symbol after another parade down an aisle.

Concocter of worlds C.S. Lewis enjoyed only four years of marriage in his long life. He took note of its thing-ness: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant—in a word, real.”

Lewis lost marriage; he lost his love and the vacancy, the void of what had been, and was no longer threatened to be swallowed whole.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is. Poet Denise Levertov speaks to marriage directly. She holds it fast in her gaze and wags her finger:

“The Marriage”

You have my
attention: which is
a tenderness, beyond
what I might say. And I have
your constancy to
something beyond myself.
The force
of your commitment charges us—we live
in the sweep of it, taking courage
one from the other.

The language Levertov uses to talk to marriage is the same I use to talk about marriage. Although, where I hesitate to give it form (is it a world, a blanket, a house?), Levertov calls it a leviathan. We sit in its belly looking for joy.

Wedding dress featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding dress. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

A truth of marriage is that marriage is a thing we appease. Levertov speaks again to marriage, raising her voice:

“The Marriage (II)”

I want to speak to you.
To whom else should I speak?
It is you who make
a world to speak of.
In your warmth the
fruits ripen—all the
apples and pears that grow
on the south wall of my
head. If you listen
it rains for them, then
they drink. If you
speak in response
the seeds
jump into the ground.
Speak or be silent:
your silence
will speak to me.

A truth of marriage is that marriage becomes a world. A world with which we grapple, within which we must live, and to which we give succor.

Marriage asks for everything, absorbs everything, uses everything, reflects everything. Holds everything. Perhaps it is a leviathan.

Modern poet Marianne Moore, a spiritedly intellectual and individual gal, calls marriage “an enterprise.” “This institution, perhaps one should say enterprise out of respect for which one says one need not change one’s mind about a thing one has believed in…”

Moore nods towards the fact that we can never turn against marriage because there is no outside marriage. Moore questions what Adam and Eve would think of marriage. Is it the garden they left? Or their individual selves? Moore ends the poem: “Liberty and union/now and forever.”

Liberty and union?

A truth of marriage is that it is held fast by tension. It holds it together. Holds it up? Holds us down. We tinker and fix. We work on the marriage, work on the love. Sometimes, we work alone, taking shifts. Passing each other to and from a constantly cooling bed.

Marriage can be lonely because love can be lonely. Poet and protector of the creative spirit Rainer Maria Rilke offers an antidote of experience and cautions those unprepared for love’s loneliness:

Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing that is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, do not yet know how to love: they must learn. With their whole being, with all their strength, concerted on their solitary, fearful, upward beating hearts, they have to learn to love.

We learn alone how to be together. We learn and relearn. Rilke suggests love and marriage are learned. But, they are never learned. Love and marriage are in the learning. In the striving.

It is always healing, never whole.

It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

from Marriage

This is the truth of marriage. From Wendell Berry, a poet, environmentalist, and Midwest farmer. It is healing; it is never whole. Berry has been married for decades.

It is my ten-year anniversary today. For ten years, I have been in marriage alone together. In this post, I included scenes from a wedding. Symbols. They suggest false precision. As if inauguration has to do with a presidency.

And why do we always give things that will break?

Wedding cake featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding cake. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

The next time I attend a wedding, I’m gifting rivets. Tape and glue. Pillows to punch and lights to fight darkness. (My favorite wedding present was a lamp. From an illuminated soul that once gave me a book of Rilke.) I’d bring magnets and climbing gear. Epoxy. Elastics.

Day after day, for ten years now, I am in marriage. He is in marriage. Alone together in marriage.

The truth of marriage is that it is never whole. But it is.

When all else fails, marriage keeps us married.

Wedding dance featured in "The Truth of Marriage."
Wedding dance. Photograph by Chris Cooke.

A Close Relationship Between Emotions

“I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m struck by emotions’ refusal to sit tight within a neat parcel capable of being understood and processed. Instead, they spread, grow, and connect like floral arrangements, fusing together and dismissing both boundaries and nomenclature.

Both Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis recognized—and were confused by—the deep relationship between fear and extreme sadness. A double-helix of mounting needs that press upon our brains and hearts and render us helpless.1

Anyone who has swum the muck of grief knows fear and sadness only begin to name the range of emotions encountered.

Photograph of "Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of empathy: a refined, contained, and yet flowing selection of roses, mums, and hydrangea in undulating calm and passionate hues. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

How beautifully complex that fear and sadness would entwine so ferociously.2

Or that love—the height of generosity—would summon feelings of jealousy, selfishness. In 1819, poet John Keats wrote to his love, Fanny Brawne, about how, from his love to her, he had slipped into its darker vestibules.

My dearest girl,

This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content, I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else—The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life—My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again.

Meanwhile, we also see a brilliant study of anger coupled with humor in the comedy, creativity and general being of John Cleese (owing to a childhood fearing he’d upset his high-strung and foul-tempered mother).

“I find anger…hilarious,” Cleese admits in his autobiography.3

I have at times suspected that what I seem to laugh at most are the things that frighten me. I find anger, like Basil Fawlty’s, hilarious—provided it is ineffectual, as real anger might be too disturbing. I’m terrified of violence, yet I shout with laughter at great slapstick comedy that threatens people’s physical safety (think of Harold Lloyd or Chaplin or Eddie Murphy crossing the freeway in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger).

My sense of humour has been described as cruel… yet I am almost obsessively appalled by torture. And I howl at absurdity and nonsense when my deepest physical fear is a sense of meaninglessness. Am I trying to diminish a fear by laughing at it, and thereby belittling it, reducing its threat?

Photograph of "Pride" from Empathy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of pride: a vivid, clashing arrangement with a bold outer shell and a soft, warm foundation. Flowers include orchids, roses, allium and celosia. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This idea that we can harness our more destructive emotions into something energizing, enabling, is echoed in Marianne Moore’s early modern poetry. “A day of wrath shall be as one,” writes Moore in her poem “Fear Is Hope.”

‘No man may him hyde
From Deth holow eyed.’
For us two spirits this shall not suffice,
To whom you are a symbolic of a plan
Concealed within the heart of man.
Splendid with splendor hid you come, from your Arab abode,
An incandescence smothered in the hand of an astrologer who rode.

From Marianne Moore’s ‘Fear Is Hope’

On the other hand, too much of these enabling (one might say “positive” emotions) can turn against us and overwhelm. Emerson writes of a joy so vast, so deep, that it reduces him to a child who can barely contain joy’s potency.

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child.

This feeling of wonderfully pure joy burned by sadness like a piece of paper held to a warm match—it is so familiar, don’t you think?

Photograph of "Joy" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of joy: a dynamic, exploding gathering of celosia, craspedia, gloriosa in bright purple and orange hues. It conveys both fundamentals of joy: energy and delight. Part of Interflora’s award-winning “Stories of Emotions” display at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Is this what van Gogh meant when he so frequently mentioned St. Paul’s words “being sorrowful yet always joyful”? In the Letters van Gogh wrote to his beloved brother and in the sermons he delivered in England, he references St. Paul’s concept “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” as a comfort, laid over his shoulders when he is in need of warmth.

Probably because he felt similarly, and it gave voice to his feelings. And yet, it is against this disparity, this division, that van Gogh rails throughout his life.

Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire. […] One does not become simple and true overnight. But let us persevere, and above all have patience. He who believes, does not hasten.

He longs to be one or the other, not both. Joy and sorrow overwhelm.

When we are aware of our emotional conflict and complexity, we quickly become aware that we are powerless against it. Something that will not be tamed nor hold still—even when it comes from our own minds—is overwhelming and debilitating.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Fears in Solitude,” creeping fear overcomes someone happy in nature like a lead mantle. With the relentless death in the French Revolution, many wondered violence befaced England?

Coleridge wrote the feelings into words:

A green and silent spot, amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O’er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself.
The hills are healthy, save that swelling slope,

[…]

My God! It is a melancholy thing
For such a man, who would full fain preserve
His soul in calmness, yet perforce must feel
For all his human brethren—Oh my God!
It weighs upon the heart, that he must think
What uproar and what strife may now be stirring
This way or that way o’er these silent hills—
Invasion, and the thunder and the shout.

A soul in calmness but a weight upon the heart. Our body, figuratively, torn into different emotional pieces.

Whether emotions are constructed, intuited, or formed naturally or through our experience is hot science, and I’m sure soon we’ll know more; the gap between neurology, biology, and psychology narrows.

But really, the close relationship between emotions and our inability to wrestle our emotions into one—which means unless we are great poets it can be extremely difficult to express—seems to be less a psychological issue than one of language.

Which is why I’m grappling with it here in joy and fear.

Photograph of "Friendship" from "Stories of Emotions" featured in "A Close Relationship Between Emotions."
A floral art interpretation of friendship: hydrangeas, mums, and roses positioned to convey the building blocks of friendship. It is a neat, deliberate and uplifting arrangement of blue flowers to convey tranquility and yellow for happiness. What I love about these arrangements is they are fashioned of the same floral material, sometimes the same textures and colors. Much like the emotions they represent. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Welsh has a word, hiraeth, which means “intense happiness at a love that was, and sadness that it is gone.” Is that what Emerson felt? Certainly, Keats, who, by the time he penned that letter to Fanny, knew he was likely to die from the family illness.

The Portuguese has saudade, which means a sense of wistful melancholy experienced when reflecting on lost love. Is that what we feel when looking at nature, knowing it exists but is being ruined?

English needs more words for these combinations of emotions. Emotions that bind and refuse to separate. Emotions that wrap us in mantels until we lose our way. Sadness with fear and fear to hope. Love and selfishness. Anger and mirth. Joy and fear.

And, one of the most peculiar, from Shakespeare, humor and sadness:

[It] is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many samples extracted from many objects; and indeed, the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.

From As You Like It

Expression, to ourselves and others, is the beginning of understanding. Without better words, how can we express our emotional fragments and combinations? How can we express or understand ourselves?