With the London Olympics in full swing, I suppose the natural choice would be to feature Tennyson this week (“to seek, to find, and not to yield” and all that). But I’m not big on Victorian poetry. Besides, with Boris Johnson dangling from a zip line, phantom seats in the stands, and an opening ceremony that stopped just short of the marching hammers scene in The Wall, I’m giving more thought to absurdity than athleticism.

I joke that I don’t watch competitive sports because I can’t stand to see players lose, but it’s a joke with a good deal of truth in it. I suppose it’s one thing when players perform badly. Losing seems justified under those circumstances. And for the spectators, much less interesting to watch. The exciting contest is an evenly matched one, which means that when there is eventually, inevitably, a loss, it is heartbreaking. That heartbreak comes from the realization that failure comes to everyone sooner or later, earned or not.

Nicholas Lezard once wrote that Joseph Roth, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Stefan Zweig formed the corners of a square, and if that’s true, pity the architect endeavoring to build there. And pity the man who comes to live there. Things will not go well for him. Kafka might transform him into a cockroach, Musil might drain him of character, and Zweig might drive him mad. But Roth would almost certainly crush him completely.

The hero of Joseph Roth’s Rebellion is Andreas Pum, a soldier who comes home to Germany after the First World War less a leg. But he is happy and cheerful. He believes his wartime service has earned him the right to live out the rest of his years pleasantly. One disaster after another befalls him. By the end of his life he is working as a bathroom attendant in a third class cafe, a bitter, humiliated, angry man. He has done nothing to earn this.

Absurdity is the tension between the expected and the unexpected result, between what is deserved and what is actually received. Roth – and so many others, from Homer to Franzen – warns of the dangers of entitlement thinking. In reality, the just are often punished and the evil rewarded. What we rightfully expect is not what we always get.

Albert Camus considered this problem in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He took as his starting point the story of Sisyphus, who according to Greek mythology was doomed to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down every night. This is classic existential absurdity: struggle devoid of meaning. Camus’ solution to futile suffering was not suicide, though. He recommended “revolt.” Unlike Roth’s notion of angry rebellion, Camus’ revolt lay not in bitterness but in acceptance of fate. The acceptance and understanding of absurdity ultimately grants mastery over it:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world.

And as the essay’s famous closing line goes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m having my own small crisis at the moment. It is nothing of any consequence in the grand scheme of things, and it will pass in its own time. I’m going to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the other, and keep that boulder moving. And be happy.

This helps:

20120805-200954.jpg

Perhaps because I just read Dennis Lehane’s recent novel, Moonlight Mile, I’m in an existential frame of mind.  Or, at least, I am trying to remember what I learned about Existentialism in my college philosophy class.  Isolation and the Absurd.  Lehane’s books are peppered with both.  Lots of people struggling to exist – and if possible to transcend – in the face of inexplicable tragedy.  Tragedy usually gets the best of them.   (Moonlight Mile is an interesting change of pace for Lehane, though.  I don’t want to give anything away, but read it if you enjoyed Gone, Baby, Gone or Mystic River, and let me know what you think.)

So when I read that looters broke into the Egyptian Museum and damaged antiquities – and decapitated two mummies – it felt a bit like a scarab beetle had just flown into the room.  And bam, I made the Camus connection, particularly to his novel, The Plague.

 

Set in Algeria in the 1940’s, the novel tells the story of a city, Oran, beset by bubonic (and eventually pneumonic, if I remember correctly) plague.  At first, the residents of Oran deny that anything is wrong.  A colony of rats has died, there have been only one or two human deaths, and the politicians in charge refuse to believe that further action is necessary.  But soon many are dying and the entire city is quarantined.  Camus follows a number of characters trapped within the gates.  Some of them make heroic efforts to save the sickened and the dying.  One of them develops a vaccine.  Others descend into barbarism or find ways to profit. 

The fact that Mubarak’s government has been a friend of the United States does not mean that it was a good or a democratic government.  Mubarak has ruled for thirty years.  That makes him a dictator by most definitions, not that anyone in the West wants to admit that.  Egypt gets $ 1.3 billion in military aid from the U.S.  Reform or regime change would hopefully democratize Egypt (which has been in a state of permanent martial law for years), but democratization will almost certainly mean the passage of distinctly anti-Israel policies.  One people given its freedom calls for the destruction of another.  As good an example of the Absurd as any other.

Camus, of course, wrote The Plague with the French Occupation in mind.  Fascism took hold in Germany because the people considered themselves oppressed by economic and other sanctions under Versailles.  National identity politics sometimes begin with newly won freedoms.  But they rarely end with them.