My grip on the concepts of philosophical existentialism is so tenuous, I couldn’t use it to keep myself from falling off a cliff ledge. But I understand (for a given value of “understanding”) and am greatly drawn to the existentialist’s idea of absurdity.
According to “Existentialism for Dummies” (look, I’m not even going to pretend to be someone anyone should listen to), existential absurdity is described as “…the human instinct to seek order and meaning (which) is frustrated by the refusal of the world to be orderly or meaningful.”
Which I read as the idea that we are all the straight man in the comedy that is our lives.
We strive for meaning and order in a world that refuses to run on either. Like Porky Pig in the land of the Dodo, we too are always striving to understand, cope with, and maybe even correct and re-order the nonsense built into the world around us.
And we will always fail, because it seems that the world’s refusal to be meaningful in a human way or similarly ordered, is an intrinsic state that cannot be altered. Hence, if our desires for meaning and order remain, we will live in a state of constant confounded desire.
So how great is that desire? How strong an influence does it have over our lives? Is it malleable? Changable? Is it the same for everyone? Do different people embody differing amounts of it? Or do different people define and describe the concepts of meaning and order to themselves in an intrinsically different way than anyone else?
I think – I hope – that it is at least somewhat subjective. Because that might denote the possibility that those desires can be changed, be altered for a person’s betterment (or conversely their detriment, but I’ve got enough detriment right now thanks, so let’s stick to the betterment side of this coin).
Right now I find myself trapped inside my own head, unable to find the strength or method to align my existence with the world in which it is currently happening, whether I like it or not. My life is currently in a constant state of being the straight man that doesn’t get the joke, and wants to stop participating in it and do something else.
So, if I can alter my definition of what provides me meaning and order, then perhaps I can find a version of that that better aligns with my situation.
But good god, how does a person even do that?
Understanding it helps… a bit. I always feel better when I’m able to functionally understand a problem. Be it practical, or purely theoretical. If I can see it and know it in my mind, then the problem becomes smaller, and often – solvable. So there’s that.
So, it seems very likely, like I said, that part of my problem is the war between my desires and the nature of the world in which they (and therefore I) exist. Okay. Cool. Swell. Got it. I’m a boring guy in a suit walking through Salvadore Dali’s melted landscape. I’m not SUPPOSED to feel at home. We – the world and I – are intrinsically at odds. The world is the realm of the Dodo, and I am Porky Pig.
I have a room – half a room, in fact – in my home that is 100% my personal territory. It’s defined by a few significant elements.
1) It is covered in nerd and geek film, comic, and TV paraphernalia. 1/4 scale R2D2, Han Solo’s blaster, Luke’s light saber, toy models of various forms of the USS Enterprise, Green Lantern’s ring, A Lego Batman, etc and so on. A cornucopia of needful power-fantasy nostalgia.
2) This room also contains a record player. This is a new thing for me. I am not a vinyl acolyte. I didn’t even listen to many records in my youth. The music media of choice of my upbringing was the audio cassette. But – and this is no small thing – the nostalgic effect of a vinyl record’s audio profile is akin to the power of one’s sense of smell to retrieve memories and feelings. And in this case, the dust-pop sound of an energized stylus hitting aging vinyl is a route to only the happiest of memories and sensations. I expect my exposure to the book-and-record read-along combos of my early youth are responsible for this phenomenon. So too are the works of the artists I now listen to most on my new record player: David Bowie, Gary Numan, New York Dolls, Blondie, etc etc.
As I age out of pop cultural relevance, the feeling of disconnection from the world only increases, so I have found myself drawn to artists whose work I not only respect and enjoy, but for the most part, predate those cultural elements that make me feel alienated from the mainstream.
Sorry to sound so trite by evoking these particular artists, but my inability to even vaguely enjoy a Justin Beiber song, a Taylor Swift album or any of the major works of their contemporaries, is a quick, sharp embodiment of my mainstream cultural irrelevance. So, I find myself on some intrinsic level looking for that holy grail of artistic definition – integrity. My own, personal definition of integrity.
“You know when you make popcorn there are those fluffy, white kernels that are fun and good to eat but there also those burnt, black kernels that don’t pop. You know why they don’t pop? Because they have integrity.”
To Maron, it seems that the unwillingness to change your current status – even (or particularly) in extreme circumstances – is enough to lay claim to having integrity in sufficient amounts. An idea with which I don’t wholly disagree, but wonder what comes after. After one has dug their heels in and said “No! THIS is me, and I will not alter!”. What then? Okay, great – you’re you, you iconoclast, you. So what? You still have to live with everyone else. How’s that going to work out for you when your key definition of integrity is changlessness?
Enter David Bowie. An artistic chameleon, he seems an odd example to use to bolster the idea of integrity-based changelessness, but to me an apt one. I’ve always seen Bowie as an artist whose line in the sand – whose personal changelessness – is the core concept of change itself. It is MY life to live, MY art to create, MY identity to alter as I see fit, based almost solely on my own inspirations and artistic desires. That is what is unchanging about the work and life of David Bowie to me. He would only do what he felt artistically valid to do. He did not ever really seem to bend to the whims of anything or anyone not coming from within his own mental and emotional artistic forge.
The popcorn kernel of David Bowie refused to pop and fit in with the rest. He quickly became what he was – a machine of almost infinite personality, character, and artistic perspective – and remained so until his death.
That’s a long way to go just to say that now – in my small half-a-room of personal integrity, my fortress of solitude and self-fulfillment – I listen to a shit-ton of David Bowie records.
In that small space, with those giant sounds, I can for a small time find relief from a world that refuses to allow me to easily integrate into it (as I refuse to allow it to integrate with me). In this small, frozen-in-time capsule of the world, I can be and exist separate from the absurd nature of existence. It is my personal bomb shelter of self, shielding me from the fight I find myself in, a fight without any hope of ceasefire.
But shielding ones self in a bomb shelter is not the same as learning to adapt. It is of course the utter, 100% opposite.
Sure, I can lay claim to some small carpet sample of integrity while there, but the world is still waiting for me once I emerge the next morning, as I must – every time.
Right now that is the best I have. A small space to hide. To dress myself in the armor of other people’s integrity, and try and wait out a storm that will never pass.
What I truly need to do is to learn to weather the storm. And not just weather it, but learn somehow to thrive within it.
I just wish I had any idea how.