Facebook’s “On This Day” feature can be bittersweet. Scrolling through either evokes an “Awww, I remember that” or an “Oh my, how vapid I used to be.” It can remind you of that one time you found your 60-pound dog inside the dryer …
Or it can evoke a heart-wrench as you see images of your best friends who’ve since crossed the rainbow bridge …
After I finish wiping the tears and snot off my face, allow me to make a prediction for early 2021, provided there’s still a world then: we’re going to see a lot of people re-sharing this meme that was making the rounds:
To go back to those days of wide-eyed optimism. To think that today we could all be unironically swilling Corona beer and enjoying tacos while we pretend we aren’t shamelessly appropriating Mexican culture. I would … well, I would still probably sneer at you and make snarky remarks to my friends about your sombrero and fake mustache, but what I wouldn’t give for that to be the most pressing issue on my mind.
Instead, meme culture is repurposing The Twilight Zone, though I’m pretty convinced most of the Gen-Z’ers out there sharing this have no idea the cultural context behind it.
Cinco de Mayo is decidedly not “the Mexican 4th of July.” Instead, it marks a victory of the underdog Zapotec army defeating Napoleon III’s forces at the Battle of Puebla. So, naturally, this year, when I am robbed of my cultural-appropriation-free excuse to drink tequila and gnosh on some tacos, my thoughts immediately go to a Frenchman.
I’m not an existentialist, but of course I was for a brief stint in college. I’m not sure why so many undergraduates fall in love with existentialism, but it’s almost as common as all-night cram sessions, binge drinking, and a trip to the campus infirmary for antibiotics to clear up that infection in your no-nos. I even mention this philosophy in a previous entry here, way back in 2016, or as I like to call it “The Age of Innocence.” (Also, I recycled that previous joke about undergrads from said essay. Self-citation is crass, but self-plagiarism is verboten.)
Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus has stayed with me well after my divorce from existentialism, however. To be fair, the man himself, though consistently accused of being an existentialist, swore he wasn’t one. Instead, he preferred to call himself an “absurdist.” Existentialism and Absurdism, granted, are about like “stay at home” and “quarantine”: very similar concepts, but with distinct differences, even though they’re often colloquially used interchangeably.
That’s neither here nor there. What matters is that Camus gives us the most vivid descriptions of absurdism in his writings. “Man stands face to face with the irrational,” he tells us. “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” In other words, we as humans have a desire, a need, to both find happiness and to make sense of the world around us. The world, according to Camus, has no obligation to provide this. The Germans have a specific word for this (because they have a specific word for everything), weltschmertz. Literally translated as “world hurt,” it’s roughly defined as the realization that everything one expects from the world is an illusion and will never come to fruition.
Camus captures this beautifully in his description of our workaday existence: “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, 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 … The ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.” At some point, we all will realize the absurdity of the situation, and depression ensues. We feel exiled. The cure?
“Exile is without remedy since man is deprived of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is the proper feeling of absurdity.” Yeah, Camus doesn’t give us a rosy outlook, unfortunately.
Granted, these are only the first few chapters of Sisyphus. As dark as it sounds here, it’s actually an uplifting book. Camus gives us what is a semi-lucid step-by-step to make meaning in a meaningless world. We can circle back around to that. For now, I’m solely preoccupied with his concept of absurdity.
I wish Camus was still around to comment on the current situation. He died in 1960, tragically at the age of 42, leaving a void in both French and global letters. Throughout his life, he always remarked that the most absurd way to die would be in a car crash. Three guesses what took his life. I wonder if he would change his tune if he heard of COVID-19. “Timmy died because he scratched his nose after touching a doorknob.” He was born in 1913, so he likely had vague recollections of the Spanish Flu from his early childhood, but, despite the media and some historians dogmatic insistence of analogizing the two sicknesses, there are distinct differences.
Camus’s grave outlook is understandable. He was a pied noir, a French person born in Algeria when it was still a colony. He saw the conflict between the natives and the Europeans firsthand. He moved to Paris just months before Hitler’s troops marched through. He fought underground against both Nazis and the Vichy Regime. He lived through the liberation of the concentration camps, saw the Nuremberg Trials, understood the evil humans are capable of imparting on other humans. Seeing Communism as a great philosophical equalizer, he quickly turned on this ideology when he saw the death toll of Stalin and Lenin. No happiness, no meaning, only senseless death.
Would he be any more or less at home in our world?
As I was preparing lunch earlier, I was engaging in that fruitless but thoroughly seductive thought game of imagining present-day me visiting a version of me from the past. If I could speak to the me from just a decade ago, would he believe me when I said Donald Trump was President? Maybe, as said shyster was already making political ripples whining about Obama’s mystery birth certificate that totally existed. Still, I suspect past-me would be shocked.
What if I could go back to, say 8th-Grade Me, sitting in a homeroom class at Avalon Middle School, forced to watch Channel One, a “news” broadcast aimed a children with the ostensible goal of keeping us apprised of current events, all while force-feeding us three commercial breaks in a fifteen-minute span, so, you know, mostly capitalist manipulation masquerading as philanthropy? (Seriously, a later study found the children who watched the show remembered the ads far better than they did the content.) Every day we were regaled with news from the front in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
I imagine whispering in that youngster’s ear, “That Bush, he’s going to lose his re-election bid. But eight years later, his son’s going to be president. There’ll be a major terrorist attack on the U.S., and he’ll go back into Iraq. Oh, and that Hussein guy, well, next America is going to elect a man whose middle name is Hussein, and he’s going to be Black! And after that, you know that loudmouthed bully with the bad combover whose always trying to get media attention? That one you can’t stand? The one who had the cameo in Home Alone 2? Yeah, him. No, seriously, Yeah, I don’t understand it either. It’s–dare I say–absurd, but you’re going to do a whole lot of studying on that concept in a few years.”
8th-Grade Me just shoos Future Me away like a fly and goes back to half-listening to what Lisa Ling is saying. (Yes, she got her start on Channel One.) He waits for the next commercial, wondering what antics Pepsi Cola is going to put on display this week.
“Also, for Chrissakes, grow a spine and ask out Ingrid. You’ll find out twenty-five years later, when you’re old and fat, that she had a major crush on you.” Then Future Me slides back through my worm hole. 8th-Grade Me just whispers, “Absurd.”
Even in my fantasy, Future Me didn’t tell my earlier iteration everything. I wouldn’t tell 8th-Grade Me, who has since done a political 180, that I would later denounce that Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as well as his son’s. Or that when I got old enough to vote, I would check the box against Bush Jr. twice. And that I would vote for that “liburl” with the middle name of Hussein twice. I probably could have added that I voted against the blowhard with the puffed chest and bad pompadour. I’ve never liked that guy.
I wouldn’t tell him that I just came from Publix, or even that our cow-town grew large enough to get a Publix, or that I still live in said town, not a posh Manhattan penthouse where he thinks I’ll be living, a well-respected novelist who has had many tales adapted to the big screen, presumably starring Bruce Willis and Cindy Crawford because they would always be the world’s biggest stars.
Or that I visited Publix while wearing a mask and gloves, that I sanitized my gloves, the steering wheel, and my debit card when I got in my car. (I suppose I would also have to explain a debit card.) Or that I washed my groceries before I brought them inside. All of this because there was a pandemic going on.
Or that I’d bought tortilla chips, guacamole, and Modelo beer because, even though every bar in town was closed, for good reason, I would still be having a small Cinco de Mayo celebration at home. Or that despite the fact that the numbers of infected and dying were still on the rise, people were reopening, going back into the wild, spreading their cooties with wild abandon.
Or that last week the Pentagon actually confirmed the existence of UFOs, and no one seemed to notice. Or that the killer bee scare he heard about in first grade wouldn’t amount to anything, but this week the “murder hornet” was discovered on U.S. shores. Or that the CIA confirmed the other gunman alongside Lee Harvey Oswald. Or that the newest, catchiest song is an 8-year old girl pondering whether our buttholes contain astronauts or aliens.
The real kicker isn’t even that litany of WTFs, and that is some pure, high-grade WTFiness. In fact, one of the items I listed in the previous paragraph isn’t actually true, but did anyone even notice? Could you tell me which one? Even if you can, doesn’t it seem the least farfetched of the bunch?
No, the really baffling part of the absurdity is the isolation, the shutting oneself away from the world, the social distancing, the lack of human contact. Camus knew that, terrible as humans can be, we also need to be around them, to interact.
His description of our daily routine, “rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm,” seems like a panacea as the hours bleed into days which bleed into weeks which bleed into months. Waking up clueless as to whether it’s day or night, staring at a computer and searching for the calendar because who know what day it is, losing all sense of purpose and direction.
Or as Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude, “And once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle.”
But, oh yeah, Sisyphus is an uplifting book of hope, right?
The titular character was a figure from myth. Sisyphus crossed the gods somehow or another (accounts vary, as they often do in myth), and in return was punished in Hades by being forced to roll an enormous boulder up a steep hill. This is back-breaking labor, wearing one out physically and mentally. When he reaches the summit, the boulder rolls back to the base, and he has to repeat ad infinitum.
I used to think in Sisyphean terms. Each semester ended, and I strolled back to the foot of the mountain, ready to take next semester’s boulders up. In smaller increments, one round of essays came in, were graded, and the next were submitted. One week was complete, a weekend of slightly less work, and back to it on Monday. Make no mistake, I love my job, but it can be a slog. That’s what Camus told us, find meaning in the meaningless. Even if your task amounts to nothing, it’s still a task.
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Those words, so beautifully crafted still give me chillbumps. They’ve kept me going for years, decades.
Now I don’t even have the boulder, and no one has a clue when we can safely get back to schlepping it to the zenith. And even when we can, will we still have to wear a mask? Sanitize our hands after each go-round?
More than murder hornets, the true absurdity comes from this. If we saw our lives as meaningless before, we could follow Camus’s instructions to rebel against the cruel sneer of the nihilism. But even the most mundane occupation has some thin veneer of meaning. Sheltering in place until … June … August … 2021? The stretch of imagination that puts a smile on Sisyphus’s face upon his descent requires the task awaiting him. What happens when that task is gone?
“Man is always prey to his truths,” Camus writes. “Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them.” I’ve come to accept the bitter, absurd truth of the Time of COVID. I’m still searching for an answer, for something uplifting to offer us all, the way Camus gave us hope amid the bleakness of postmodernism. That in and of itself is a dangerous task, as Camus also notes, “seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.”
Nonetheless, I’m going to continue to search. It’ll be a thought that I’ll ponder in the coming days because what else have I got to do?
Maybe that’s the new boulder, seeking to cobble together some tenuous order to the current climate of chaos. I mean, it’s not like there’s a more serious question to pursue at the moment.
Well, maybe one …