There’s a wonderful sequence in the film Stranger Than Fiction where Will Farrell’s character, Walter Crick, visits a literature professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) to try and figure out why he hears a mysterious female voice narrating his life, predicting his every move—including his death. They set about the task of trying to figure out whether Farrell’s life is a tragedy or a comedy, which he tracks by making little tally marks in a book as he goes through his day. Ultimately, he discovers that his life is a tragedy; which, the professor concludes, sadly, does not bode well for any sort of ending that isn’t grisly death.
I will return to Walter, but we should hold on to the idea that a life can be a tragedy, and not in the sense that it is elicits sad feelings (though that is certainly the case as well), but that a life can be (unlike Walter’s, fortunately for the enjoyment of the audience) completely without anagnorisis, the moment in the play where the character has a critical revelation about themselves or events unfolding around them.
When I was 19, I got Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill tattooed on my left shoulder. I put together a little drawing in Photoshop, brought it to a tattoo artist, and he quickly inked it onto my pale skin.
Why Sisyphus? I chose him because of a particular chapter in Albert Camus’s essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” (Chapter 4) which you can read here if you like. Just a taste:
One does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness. “What! by such narrow ways–?” There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.
All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.
With this essay, and a number of other existentialist/absurdist bits of philosophy, I thought I had a pretty solid belief system. The universe is fundamentally devoid of meaning; therefore, the only meaning that is even within the realm of rational possibilities is meaning that I create. This seemed powerful enough at the time that I should get a tattoo of it.
In “Why Write?,” John Updike places Camus as one of the last examples of the writer as hero, that this type has been replaced by the educationalist (pp. 7-8). It seems natural that I would choose the last hero of literature as my hero, being perhaps an educationalist myself.
I have always been thrilled by a neat line between what I perceive as bravery and intellect. Being alive is hard, and there are many guidebooks out there to doing it well. Existentialist philosophy is a guidebook that says that there is no guidebook, which turns out to be kind of a shitty idea, even though I was (and to an extent, still am) captured within its thrall. I have a friend who is fond of saying that he dislikes the sort of liberating notions that are at work within existentialism/absurdism because they imply that by making the right moves within the philosophy, you can somehow elevate yourself above brute experience. I tend to agree with him.
This philosophy appeals to particular kinds of people, and not to others. It appeals to me because I have always wanted to believe that we are not enslaved to our circumstances, that we have choices, even if those choices are only what to believe. However, I find that sort of thinking to be a bit too simple now, for this reason: I am actually a slave to my circumstances and desires, both of which I have middling to no control over. And, as it turns out, so is everyone else.
Moving away from the implicit bias stuff into more abstract territory–It was not my choice to be born, it was not my choice to be raised in the manner that I was, and I didn’t make a conscious decision to find pleasure in certain things and displeasure in others. I will still likely pursue sex, love, and food regardless of my position towards them. I think that desires can be retrained, but they often require a complete change of one’s situation into one where they are reconditioned with new desires (which doesn’t seem like that much fun, to be honest).
Given the immutability of certain desires, I think we are left a difficult task to undertake—how do we unlock what our desires are, and how do we determine if they’re ones that should be suppressed/given free reign? Taking myself as an example, I have a tendency towards self-immolation, a tendency to call myself stupid for wanting things. When I want consensual sex, there are huge amounts of baggage in my trunk that say that this desire is unworthy and unfulfilling, when in fact, the act of sex fulfills the desire for it. Usually, for me, after fulfilling my desire, all these other things external to that desire announce themselves, causing a lot of guilt and sometimes deep depression.
This is where reason comes in, and can be helpful for dealing with my subconscious emotional reactions to fulfillment of desire. Making the point to myself over and over again that sex and love are two different things, two things that can operate in harmony and often build on one another, but are different things. In order to keep myself sane and satisfy many of my desires, it’s OK that all of them aren’t being met at the same time.
Sure, this isn’t quite liberation, but it helps. And it definitely doesn’t work all the time, but it helps.
I chose sex as my example for two reasons; one, because it is personally relevant to me (as described above), and two, I feel that white men (myself included) need to be participating in talking about sex in a way that isn’t perpetuating a culture of misogyny and the objectification and dehumanization of anything that is not white men (women, LGBT folks, minorities).
I’ve been reading recently about the shootings in Santa Barbara. Elliot Rodger, the murderer of six people, left a manifesto, from which I have clipped a portion of:
The Second Phase will represent my War on Women. I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away. I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts. (from USA Today)
While it is very easy to dismiss this man as a crazy person, and much of the news media has already done so, I think there is something very telling going on here about the way that violent masculinity handles desire. Presumably, from this statement, this person wanted sex at some point, and was not getting it. I don’t think this is the desire being expressed however. I think that this man wanted power, and he called it sex. He wanted to dominate, and “wicked” women sensed that and oh-so-cruelly denied him this. I imagine that he must have felt that he had no other recourse, no other way to feel powerful than by exercising it over other people in the form of killing.
This is where the real crime occurs. There are ideologies that are easily dismissed as fringe or crazy talk, that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Men’s Rights Activism claims that men have been dealt a horrible injustice by feminism and equality movements, and as activists, men must fight to regain equality. This ideology is just plain wrong, but this kind of sickness is a perfect home for a person like Elliot Rodger.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with desiring to feel powerful. It feels good to know that your decisions have effects that matter, that you can do things and other people can respond to them. Cause and effect can be satisfying. But, conflating sex and power, which this man did, and which I think needs to be articulated, has devastating results, and masks the real analysis that needs to be happening—critiques of masculinity and violent power structures.
The best way we can give voice to those who were silenced by Elliot Rodger is to attempt to undo the ideologies and modes of thought that supported his violent acts. He sowed violence and death into the world, and news medias can humanize him as much as they like, but this humanization hides a much deeper problem. We need to stop being surprised that fucked up people are doing fucked up things–that is an insult to the people who are left damaged in the wake.
It seems trivial to return to Stranger than Fiction. Walter Crick decides, eventually, that he wants to face his death in the way his narrator has arranged it, because it would make a very wonderful story. A man who lives his life according to clockwork is killed by a mistake that one of his clocks makes (there’s some deus ex machina at the end, but I won’t spoil it).
All of us, in a sense, are living according to some sort of clockwork that has been preset for us. But that is no reason to give up, or collectively throw our hands in the air when we know it’s happening.
Stuff that was kicking around in my head as I wrote this: