I am rereading Camus’ brilliant series of essays bundled up in into – in my opinion – his best work, entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. And part of the way into his third essay he uses the word, irreducible. Saying “…perceiving the world as dense, sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us…”
I thought about this for the better part of my run this morning. The word positively gave me the shivers as Owen Meany would say. Here we have a word that suggests absolute finality. A word denoting the extreme limit past which what has been rendered irreducible is stuck in that same state for all eternity.
My interest in rereading this series of essays was driven by my neighbor, Max’s consistent posture that he is a nihilist. I find this argument to be a little tiring.
Nihilism – or existential nihilism if you will – philosophically speaking, is merely a starting point. Nihilism, much like many seemingly homosexual encounters, is something that might be briefly examined by naïve youth but is usually quickly discarded upon the first flush of maturity. (This is the first time I’ve ever used Jim Harrison’s observation on homosexuality as a relativistic analogy. Imagine – Smiley Face.)
So I dug out my latest copy of The Myth of Sisyphus to show one line Camus wrote in the introduction of his seminal (no pun intended) 1940 classic to my neighbor, where even Camus (after much discourse) does not believe in the legitimacy of suicide and in fact regards mortal problems posed by the philosophy as “…a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”
So while nihilism is a wonderful philosophic starting point, it is not an ending point. I say this because nihilism is a good place for an inquisitive and rebellious teenager to throw out every belief system that had ever been crammed down his throat and then start over. I am speaking from a very personal perspective as I confess to having stolen my first copy of this book at the age of sixteen.
To my adolescent mind, the acquisition of knowledge overruled theft much like a poor man stealing bread to feed his hungry children.
I even lived nihilism before I ever knew what it was called. My mother has told me several times that from the age of six onwards, I did what I wanted to do regardless of the consequences. So dear reader, it’s not unsurprising I was a much punished child.
It’s really true. I did everything. And I tried everything. I would venture to guess I was complicit to multiple felonies even long before my balls dropped. If someone said ‘don’t do that’, I did it, just to find out what the mystery was all about. Example, I smoked my first cigarette at the age of six.
My rebelliousness wasn’t about being bad, being an outlaw or wanting to get into trouble – heaven knows some of my punishments were very severe indeed – but was more about insatiable curiosity. And when I saw that book of Camus’ on the bookshelf – and having no money – I still had to have it.
But nihilism as I’ve tried to explain to Max is only a starting place.
It’s the place where you discard everything you thought you knew (or in the case of a child, been told) and start over by asking questions to yourself. By questioning everything in whatever detail is necessary allows you the opportunity to reassemble your belief system into something more honest to yourself.
So I was only briefly a nihilist from ages six to seventeen. Then I grew up (sort of) or at least moved on.
Max is also a big fan of Nietzsche. He’s read everything of his.
I touched on him too, but only briefly in my teens. What I find interesting about his ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ so many years on, is that in my conversations with Max I now consider this philosophic inquiry to be at the absolute other end of the spectrum of nihilism.
Nihilism is an opening game whereas Beyond Good and Evil could be thought of as an endgame.
The premise as I vaguely remember it is about morality and the argument posits what happens to observed nature if you remove good and evil from the equation.
I like that. I don’t believe in the end argument but I do believe that it is a serious conversation that one needs to have with one’s self; but again, preferably in childhood.
It’s been my opinion over the years that philosophers – like many other writers – writes stuff down because they, like so many of us, are trying to make sense of this world and our place in it.
It’s rather ironic that years ago if I would have troubled myself to read Camus’ introduction where he said the mortal problems posed by philosophy as “…a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert”, would maybe not just saved myself the five lost years (ages 17-21) but would have perhaps also jumpstarted my present personal philosophy of ‘you are what you create.’
PS – One Camus quotation that has been stuck in my head for years and years is, ‘Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” I’ve always marveled at what a remarkably original thought that was.
PPS – Marginally tangential to this post is the argument, ‘Every law is an infraction of liberty.’ I once posited this to my extremely liberal Dutch buddy, Hendrik whose reaction was to immediately retort that society needs laws. But that isn’t the point is it?
Such a statement about all laws being infractions of liberty employs the philosophic tool of reduction to parse personal liberties into an irreducible state. That’s my take anyway. (And curiously the negation of law is a rather nihilistic position which ironically suggests anarchy but in fact supports the very nature of liberty and freedom.)