Grappling With The Absurd

by Will on October 10, 2010

In the song embedded above, the narrator — who is being executed by electric chair — is suffering from the burden of some past event that defies rational explanation. Indeed, he says, in the moment of his death, “in a way I’m yearning to be done with all this weighing of the truth.” There exists in his memory some crime that he cannot reason away: the song is an ambiguous one, so we cannot know for sure whether this crime was the injustice of the narrator’s conviction without proof, or whether this crime was one that the narrator indeed committed himself, out of passion or out of short-sighted self-interest. Perhaps it’s both. But either way, the contemplation of this horrific event, and constant attempts to justify or rationalize it, leave the man unable to be at peace, unable to be happy except in dying. Only death can extinguish his troubled mind.

Our world is one of much needless suffering, much injustice, and of much foolish and regrettable behavior. Often we act without having much knowledge of what the consequences will be, and then curse ourselves when the unforeseen results come to pass. We have all known strange cruelties and injustices that simply could not be explained. And our minds are such that we often find ourselves searching in vain to explain why we’ve acted as we have, why we’ve wound up with the peculiar preferences that shape our decisions. We have moments of weakness when we do things we cannot justify, and moments when we lash out in ways that make us later ashamed. And we also have a tendency to relive the most traumatic moments of the past, to replay the most vicious dilemmas, and to try in our minds to reach some resolution that will allow us to be at peace with them. And in doing so, we make ourselves unhappy, and so the evils of the past poison our present and future doings and experiences.

In the 19th century, it was a common view that reason would one day do away with all human unhappiness and create a perfectly happy world. This was a defensible view at the time, as people at the time saw human productivity and happiness increase by bounds in just a few generations, accompanied and abetted by a vast increase in humans’ knowledge of nature and its laws. Herbert Spencer was perhaps the first to make this argument in its strong form: that reason would one day literally solve every problem and unlock every secret of nature. Darwin’s discovery of the law of natural selection encouraged this sort of thinking even further, as it showed that species were adapting (often misread as “getting better”) over time. More nuanced versions of this idea of reason’s power to make perfect came in the thought of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, both of whom recognized that much human action was characterized by unreason, but who each set up a story in which reason could ultimately win the day (Marx thought that reason was sort of cooked into the design of history, and the shortsighted actions of individuals would at last balance in a reasonable stasis of perfect equality; Freud thought that by paying a lot of money to one of his adherents to listen to you talk, and talk, and talk, you could make sense of your irrational doings and “cure” them).

History has given lie to such hopeful thoughts. Reason will have no absolute victory: we are not built that way. And so no theory will ever suffice to explain everything, neither in the world nor in our histories. And so to dwell upon painful occurrences of the past and to try to make them right in one’s mind is a waste of time. Ultimately there is nothing we can do to change the past, and nor will we ever be able to explain or rationalize it. The best we can do is to accept it fully as what it is, to try as best we can to learn from it, and to endeavor to limit our sufferings to those that we will encounter going forward. We must know that there is ugliness in the past and be at peace with it, striving to avoid ugliness in the future but acknowledging that we will not be wholly successful. It is better to make peace with the absurd well before the moment of death. The narrator of Mercy Seat would have avoided much suffering if he’d understood this.

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