Saturday, February 16, 2008

Big Questions and a little Camus



I seem to be in a far too serious mood, and possibly if not probably, could do with a good stiff drink of whiskey.  Perhaps also I should not stop until I got drunk.  That brings another piece of hackneyed graffiti to my mind from my early college years: "Drink is the only reality to cope with the illusion of life!"  So much for old memories.  However, I feel that Camus has been my spiritual companion for these last few days.  Hence, if there are any readers of these lines out there, you may wish to surf away to a more uplifting and more light-hearted site.  However, here's a lovely quotation from the good man himself.  I like it a lot.

Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

I don't know where this quote comes from but I found it, unattributed to a specific work, on the marvellously thought-provoking site of the English Camus Society at this link Camus Quote.  Today as I was walking the above quotation summed up very well how I was feeling.

Years ago, 1980 to be precise, I remember sitting early one morning in the staff room of O'Connell Schools beside the late Gerard Smith, RIP.  That particular morning I remember his asking me the pointed question, "What's it all about, Tim?"  At the time none of us on the staff knew that Gerard had a congenital heart complaint and that his years were numbered.  He was to die in America some five or six years later.  As a young man I think I laughed off his all too serious question.  I was more concerned as a rookie teacher at getting a handle on one or another somewhat ill-disciplined class.  Anyway, I'm no good early in the morning.  I'm a night owl and I only really wake up after 11.00 A.M.  However, Gerard's question has always haunted me.  I can still picture him sitting there in the corner of the staff-room somewhere around 8.30 A.M.  (I have gone on to quote his question and his name by recounting this story many times when lecturing on the Introduction to the Book of Job, through Gaeilge, many years ago at Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology here in Dublin.)

Roll on many years and I can remember sitting in the Augustinian House of Studies in Ballyboden with a very good friend Kevin O'Rourke, known to all of us as KC.  This lad, like myself, was to leave the Augustinians for other pastures.  This would have been in the academic year 1985-86.  Both of us sat up all night once that year and polished off a large bottle of Irish Whiskey between us.  I was in my mid-twenties, Kevin some five years younger than I.  Wow, all the questions we asked about life and what we saw as our role or goal in making sense of our own lives.  I remember Kevin as a brilliant philosopher who always asked good hard questions.  In those days, as I'm sure they do today, we young monks were asking questions about how relevant religious life was to society etc.  Kevin used always ask like a true philosopher:  Does it have to be relevant?  Good question, Kevin.  Your question still remains with me.  I quite fancy Kevin asking me about my attempts to create meaning in my life, "Now, Tim, really, does your life have to be meaningful?"  Big question, Kevin, thanks!  I remember an old priest saying sagely, "forget all those questions, just live it!" This guy was always realistic and just a little cynical.  Maybe he had to be to live a life of religious commitment.  He's still working away as a still older priest these days.

Here's a little Camus by way of a balanced answer (at least to Camus' mind):

He who despairs over an event is a coward but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool.

 

For Camus life was absurd and that's it in a nutshell.  One could only observe as dispassionately as possible what goes on around one, do one's best to alleviate one's own and others' suffering.  After that, Camus says if life gets you down, gets you depressed and makes you despair, well then you are a coward.  On the other hand, if the human condition makes you hopeful, well you are equally mistaken, in fact you're a fool.  So Camus' absurdist walked a middle path, even a tight-rope I might argue, between despair and hope.  In the end, there is the grave and the end of consciousness.  Full stop.  I find the following quotation somewhat dishonest - as I don't think Camus ever seriously contemplated suicide.  Being a sufferer from endogenous depression, I have met many who have contemplated ending their own lives not as an intellectual choice but rather as an existential necessity of ending the pain.  I don't feel Camus suffered such pain.  I could be wrong in this contention, of course.  Be that as it may, here is his quotation on suicide, which existentially I cannot buy.  However, as all philosophers have the penchant for pushing their arguments to their logical conclusions, perhaps it is intellectually consistent.  (Then, what about those intellectually consistent absurdists, then, who live out their lives to the bitter end, are they intellectually consistent?  Indeed have they the courage of their convictions? Why didn't they commit suicide? However, Albert Camus died at 49 years of age in a motor traffic accident on the outskirts of Paris.)

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy

This quotation along with the others is available at the above link.

Now for a personal note.  Sometimes philosophy and indeed literature can serve to bring us down.  I have had experience of this myself.  Once I was reading Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a wonderful book which recounts the alcoholic life of its "heroine" or main character and I literally found myself going deeper and deeper into a depression.  This was a little after I was diagnosed with endogenous depression and my consultant psychiatrist changed the pills I was taking.  After that I had no problem.  As one who is involved with mental health both as a sufferer, as one who has attended various forms of psychotherapy and who has studied counselling skills, I am well aware that the type of food we eat, the type of clothes we wear, the type of music we listen to and the very reading material we might be drawn to can and do have a psychological impact. Perhaps, though I certainly don't know for sure, this is what Alexander Pope meant when he said that "a little learning is a dangerous thing"?  Maybe, it's more correct to say that "too much learning is a dangerous thing"? Then we have the knotted problems of meta-thinking, that is, thinking about thinking.  Can we think too much?  Maybe we can?  I will remind any readers that when you suffer a bout of depression you find that your thoughts begin to think you rather than experiencing you as thinking them.  Thoughts have at this stage hijacked the "ego" or any sense of "I" who might be in control.  In this sense, certainly, thinking must be stopped by psychiatric drugs and/or psychotherapeutic methods.


Above, a picture I took with my phone at Howth where I thought most of these thoughts with Camus a sort of strange spiritual guide.

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