Absurdism, Art, Books, Rhetoric

Why I am an aesthete

Human lives are shaped by chance
Humans cannot master their own destiny
Resignation is a virtue
Contemplation is superior to action
God is dead
Humans are only in control of their stance towards fate
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
The good life is not a search for meaning, but a release from it
The human world is absurd and downright comic

This is my creed. I grant you that it is not fashionable.

It is at odds with the prevailing humanist secular world view: that humanity as a whole is able to progress and is perfectible. This view goes something like this:

  • With the improvement in understanding, education and the banishment of superstition, human goodness will increase.
  • With good works the world will be transformed for the better.
  • With an increase in knowledge humans will take control of their destiny.
  • With the banishment of religion the world will be less unstable.
  • With good rational governance the world will enjoy enlightened rulers and rules.

These are beautiful illusions. The success of science and the advancement of technical knowledge has been the bedrock upon which this secular progressive world view has been built. There have been spectacular advances in scientific and technical knowledge. Science is a method of inquiry that, rightly, carries much authority. It is capable of explaining with provable clarity and rationality the physical laws that govern the universe that we are subject to. When a new scientific theory displaces a disproved one, an advance is made. This progress in knowledge is tangible and obvious. To the question: why is there not nothing? Science not religion provides the answer.

But what if only part of what it means to be human is governed by the rational? What if humans are also subject to emotion and gut impulses and divisions and unconscious drives and contradictory behaviour? What if humans are capable of experiencing sexual desire or jealousy or resentment or fear or envy? What if humans can be befuddled in love or brought low by grief or made ecstatic with joy or beset by sibling rivalry? What if humans display pride or ambition or are able to enjoy flattery? What if humans are capable of empathy and altruism and violence? What if, along with a rational explanation of the physical world, all this is also true? What are the consequences of irrationality being, in fact, as much an intrinsic part of what it means to be human as the rational? What if, as human knowledge increases, human irrationality remains the same?

If so, the disorder of the human mind may be more reflective of reality than the controllable and ordered physical laws of the universe. The glamour of science may come from the fact that its practitioners inhabit the small corner of the universe that is not chaotic. Physical laws, as scientists have discovered, are predictable, provable and controllable. The human world has been, by secular humanists, mistakenly shoe-horned into this category of the non-chaotic. This mistake is willingly embraced as a great comfort, a consolation, a refuge from insignificance, an illusion that the human world is not contingent. In order to survive the death of religion humans have invented science.

In the Book of Genesis men and women were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge; for the new secular humanists eating from the Tree of Knowledge is the way to progress towards utopia. The modern myth of human progress is very powerful; but it trades on some old religious favourites: belief, faith, salvation and redemption. The belief in the liberating power of knowledge; faith in the future as the promised land; salvation from the mistakes of an irrational past; redemption from the evils of superstition. The decline of religion has stiffened the hold of faith on the mind. This phase of secular humanism will be the last chapter when the history of religion is written. This modern myth gives meaning to people who congratulate themselves that they have left all myths behind. The new militant atheists have their zeal pumped up by their self-congratulatory broad-mindedness. There is an ongoing shrill debate between science and religion. It is as passionate as infighting always is. But are they fighting the battles of yesterday?

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival in June 2014 Richard Dawkins said that children should be weaned off fairy tales for their own sake. “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?” he said. He sees the world in a binary way: those in hock to superstition (bad) and those governed by reason (good). He is in my view profoundly mistaken.

Fairy tales, and stories in general, are where intrinsic human irrationality, within a rational universe, can be examined, evaluated and celebrated. As God gradually retired from ordering the universe, the European novel was born. In order to survive the death of religion humans have invented the novel. For me the best novels and plays and screenplays are those that revel in the comic, the absurd, the fantastical, the grotesque, the ridiculous, the weird, the unrealistic, the unusual. It is within these forms that the peculiarities of what it means to be human can best be understood.
These forms revel in their artifice, by foregrounding it. Their absurdly contrived endings (death, marriage, riches found, frogs transformed into princes, ships into harbour) are recognisably abrupt and artificial and unrealistic.

By contrast, most modern novelists influenced by the progressive, humanist, secular world view tend to favour narratives told in realistic form. The realist novel purports to show life as it really is. This is a disingenuous act. The narrative introduces carefully contrived arbitrariness to make the text feel real. It presents its characters with so much access to their emotional life they seem more intensely present than many of the individuals one encounters in life. The characters are presented with a realistic psychology (a science contrived to shoe-horn the irrationality of the human into the world of the non-chaotic). The endings of realistic novels bring us comfort by pandering to our illusions: messy reality is corrected, chaos is tamed and suitably satisfactory consolatory endings are supplied. By convincing us of the reality of the narrative, the novelist presses us to accept the inevitability of the satisfactory ending. This helps maintain our illusions. There is a sly contrivance here: realist fiction dissembles its rhetorical nature in order to persuade us that we are in the presence of the realistic. Realism is unfit for reality.

So, I grant you this is a odd roster of villains (villains in the lightest sense): scientists, psychologists, realist novelists, proselytising atheists. Their metaphysics cannot be faulted: no providential God, physical laws that are predictable and knowable, humans left to band together and fend for themselves. But let us say they are merely misguided, rushing frantically to patch holes in the punctured fabric of the secular, progressive humanist world view. Hammering down on the head of mystery wherever it rears its affronting head. Overawed by the lure of the rational they desperately try to cram the messiness of life into the small corner of the universe that is non-chaotic.

Let us, instead, praise the others: the comedians, the surrealists, the mental anarchists, the poets, the dadaists, the absurdists, the childish anti-logicians, the imaginative, the songsters. Our messy, chaotic, absurd, frantic human world is not safe in the hands of the rationalists, it must in the end be left to the artists. I propose that we celebrate the stories that conjure narratives that allows us to return to the fantastical chaotic magic of childhood. They, in the end, may be the most realistic stories of all.


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