Aspiration and absurdity

JigsawExistentialist angst: life is absurd. We fill our days doing things we consider necessary or important, but when we stop and think about it, nothing matters. According to Sartre, we choose our own values but our choice is itself groundless, unjustified. According to Camus there is only one serious philosophical problem, namely suicide: whether life is worth living. We long for life to have a meaning, but there is none. Once we accept that we are just accidental products of godless atoms obeying laws of nature then nothing has any importance at all. Our aspirations are our own inventions, absurdly imposed on ourselves without any justifying reasons.

While attending to some such Existentialist writings, I couldn’t help noticing that the British Labour Party, reflecting on its disappointment in the General Election, is wondering whether it didn’t appeal enough to aspirational people. Potential leaders have been saying the party talked too much about compassion, not enough about aspiration.

You don’t have to be an Existentialist to suspect that this word ‘aspiration’ is hiding a secret. It lumps together aspirational people, without telling us what they are aspiring to do.

So here’s a bit of Existentialist writing, from George Perec’s novel Life: a User’s Manual, as summarised by David Connor. Bartlebooth

‘resolved one day that his whole life would be organized around a single project… with no purpose outside of its own completion… No trace would remain of an operation which would have been… [for] fifty years, the sole… activity of its author.’ The project was to travel abroad and to do, every fortnight, a water-colour of a sea-port, which would then be posted to Paris, there to be cut into an ingenious jigsaw puzzle. The decades of painting over, Bartlebooth returned to Paris to solve the puzzles. As each one was solved, the painting would then be completely restored, sent to the port which was its subject and there destroyed. Bartlebooth dies at his desk with the last piece of the last puzzle in his hand. Unfortunately it is shaped W, while the remaining hole is shaped X.

That’s aspiration for you. But most of us would not aspire to it. It seems too obviously pointless. Absurd.

The existentialist challenge is: if you would find that life pointless, what is the point of the life you are living now? Is the life you are living now equally absurd? If not, why not?

My answer is an old one. I believe the process which has brought us into existence is more than just atoms and laws of nature. Behind them lies a mind, with values and intentions. This mind, God, has given us a certain amount of freedom. We can drift through life aimlessly, or we can have aspirations. We can aspire to benefit ourselves at the expense of other people, or we can aspire to treat others with compassion. We can meditate on whether our aspirations are the best ones, or we can unreflectively carry on doing what we have always done.

Far from being absurd, life matters. It has meaning and purpose greater than we can imagine, but known by God. The choices I should make are different from the choices you should make because we are in different situations with different bodies and personalities; but compassion, far from being the opposite of aspiration, is a good summary of the quality of life we all aspire to when we get it right. God invites us to rise above our natural selfishness and care for each other. There is no better aspiration.

If you don’t believe in God, there is no moral authority above you to tell you what you should aspire to. But in that case, there is nothing you should aspire to. Your life is absurd.

There is an alternative. A richer, more meaningful, more aspirational, more compassionate alternative. It makes life better for all of us.

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3 Responses to Aspiration and absurdity

  1. Angharad says:

    An old counsellor and Zen Buddhist monk I used to know in London viewed existentialism very differently: given that the only certainty in life is death, he said, everything else is up to us – and this can be tremendously liberating and creative, as much as absurd (though I imagine it is not necessarily an interpretation that Sartre would recognise!).

    My own view is somewhere in between yours and his. I welcome a little absurdity from time to time; it reminds us that all of this (government, capitalism, paperclips, blog posts) has been made by us and can be un-made and re-made differently, and maybe even better. This might be because my pagan religious perspective, as a pagan druid, is markedly different from yours – which is not to say that either is necessarily better or more correct than the other, but that each provides us with our own version of a “richer, more meaningful, more aspirational, more compassionate” way of living. I suppose the key is that we are both seeking to live well in recognition that our way of living serves something greater than ourselves, or contributes to a greater whole.

    • Jonathan Clatworthy says:

      Thanks for this Angharad.
      I have two immediate comments. First, while your examples are all things ‘made by us’, we could also list things that are not made by us – like our bodies and their limitations, the way nature operates, etc. If I could remake my body there are quite a few changes I’d like. So our creations are always dependent on what is given. And that, to me, means that our ambitions should always be founded on a sense of gratitude for what we have.
      The other is your point about ‘our way of living serves something greater than ourselves’. I agree with you and I think it’s really important. Some commentators seem to take the view that the heart of existentialism is all about denying this, because of the death of God. But then some leading existentialists believed in God. From the little I know, the impression I have is that the materialist idea that there is no divine reality so therefore life has no meaning (& is therefore absurd) is expressed by Nietzsche and taken seriously up to the 1960s; but more recent writers like Thomas Nagel are happy to accept the death of God but try to reject absurdity by redescribing the meaning of life. Personally I find it unconvincing. Which is why I agree with you about something greater than ourselves. (Which we can’t define).

      • Angharad says:

        I absolutely agree with you about the limits set by nature and our physical existence. Much of the ‘absurdity’ of modern culture seems to me to stem from a desire to deny it or suppress it, whatever we understand it to be.

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