“Dou venons nous? (where have we come from?)
Que sommes nous? (what are we?)
Ou allons nous? (where are we going?”)
…These were the words scrawled in the corner of Gauguin’s Dou venons nous?
It was it to be his last work: upon finishing it he swallowed a bottle of arsenic.
But he survived…and painted many more.
The questions asked by Gauguin form part of the greater “what is the meaning of life?”. To which, the echoing reply of some philosophers, and many a teenagers, has been “There is none” .
Life is meaningless, at least in an objective sense.
There is no great truth: We are born, we live and we die, we become dust, we are forgotten. Each day we drown in the banal, are resurrected in sleep only to drown all over again. Like Sisyphus, we carry out in repetition monotonous tasks of our existence without progressing towards any higher purpose.
Life is absurd.
What is meant by absurd? According to Camus “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” (Camus, The myth of Sisyphus and Other essays), while for Nagel “The absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world but a collision within ourselves” (1979 24).
When I was a teenager, I was a bit of a Camus fan-girl. He was my Elvis (Or, to perhaps align more with my own generation, my Britney Spears… Now there’s a comparison I never thought I’d make). But as I’ve grown, and failed, and hit my head against existential crisis, and become well acquainted with the absurd, I believe my view of life’s meaning (or lack thereof) aligns best with that of Nagal.
Nagal examines those reasons frequently offered as to why life is absurd, and then points out that they are inadequate as arguments, and are rather expressions of the truth of absurdity.
First, he considers the argument that our present actions will be rendered meaningless by time: “If that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now”. Our meaninglessness in the distant future is of no significance to our daily lives and as such does not provide an adequate reason for our contemporary sentiments of meaninglessness.
Similarly, the argument that we are ephemeral ‘tiny specs’ dwarfed by the enormity of the cosmos cannot be valid, as there is no sense in supposing that immortality or increased size could generate any more meaning.
Finally, Nagal responds to the argument that, as we will all die, “life is an elaborate journey leading nowhere”, without any purpose. This is not reason enough, because life, rather than viewed as a mission towards some goal, is constitutive of a “chain of justification”, smaller projects, the goals of which are met; they are thus meaningful and justified within themselves and require no legitimisation in the broader context.
This delivers Nagar at the point where he contends that while there are those instances of absurdity cited by Camus, true absurdity is a universal sense of “collision” between the seriousness with which we must live our lives and our ability to take a step back and recognise the absurdity of our actions. We can view our lives as sub specie aeternitatis and see the totality of our contingence and meaninglessness. Yet, the only mechanisms and methodology through which we might contemplate our absurdity are those very same processes which we are examining as absurd. It is not, as Camus would suppose, the realisation of the meanglessness of our actions- of the chinks in the chain of our justification that makes life absurd- but the realisation that it is not just our lives that are meaningless, but everything, and with that the absurdity our inevitable return (if we can even suppose a true departure) to this chain of justification.
The only comprehensible way of living is in this justification; that is why Gauguin continued to paint. The collision between the seriousness and the arbitrary is what frames our being. Individuals may attempt to evade absurdity through the pursuit of some perceived greater cause such as science, ascetism, or devotion to a god (as we kneel before the priest he reminds us ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ , to the effect that we feel compelled towards transcendence via God). But the meaninglessness observed from sub specie aeternitatis is pervasive, rendering even these projects just as meaningless as individual goals.
Where Camus calls for us to, like the ‘absurd hero’ of Sisyphus, match absurdity with defiance and scorn, Nagal suggests we meet it with Irony.
He asks us why meaninglessness should be viewed as inherently distressing: “If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation… then what reason can we have to resent or escape it?”.
In this sense, I agree with Nagal: While I consider it fruitless to perceive anything as amounting to some great end (sorry, but I just can’t), I ask whether this should be relevant to those minute actions we receive gratification from in our ‘chain of justification’?
If nothing matters, and nothing mattering doesn’t matter, then our despair at nothing mattering is not only unfounded and proves nothing (but despair) but it too doesn’t matter- so why not choose joy? (Which, of course, is meaningless in the long run, but a much brighter vantage point from which to view the nothingness, don’t you think?).
Camus’ view seems repulsively self indulgent, does nothing to remedy meaninglessness and, within the ultimate meaninglessness, proves nothing .
Life is meaningless? Then so be it! Ultimately, by the very meaning of meaninglessness, that it is so is of no great significance to us. If life is meaningless, then choosing to live it in joy or agony makes no difference.
Camus, A. (1955). The Myth of Sisyphus. In Perry,J., Bratman, M. Fischer, J. (2007). Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and contemporary readings. Fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 43-45.
Nagel, T. (1979). The Absurd. In Perry,J., Bratman, M. Fischer, J. (2007). Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and contemporary readings. Fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 21-27.
Taylor, R. (1970). Good and Evil. Collier-Macmillan: London.
Gordon, J. (1984). Nagel or Camus on the Absurd? Philosophy and phenemological research. Vol XLV (1).