So we’ve been tripping on Camus and absurdism and Buddhism and a lot of pot here for about a week – not that any of that is new in the grand scheme of my life, just moved to the front burner and fully boiling at the moment. We have reached a thrilling new stage of masturbatory meta-analysis with regard to this philosophy though, and masturbating just isn’t fun unless you do it with friends, so here we are. If the kind of “whoa, lemme blow your miiiiind, maaaaan” conversation you have to be pretty stoned yourself to enjoy is irksome to you, might want to check back in tomorrow!
I’ve mentioned that I have a phobia of deep water – it’s not anything IN the water; I don’t fear drowning or sea creatures, I simply fear the black vastness of the sea, the void, the specific and yet unknowable emptiness. Or at least… I did up until recently.
Part of this re-connection with my absurdist roots for me has been learning to lean in to negative experiences rather than detach from them. I dissociate a lot, and my OCD often comes in the form of circular existential ruminating that occasionally makes me totally disconnect from reality. What I’m coming to understand through the lens of Camus’ Sisyphus is that these horrible, enervating moments where I stare at everything I want and would like to become in the world, when the voices start up with contempt and shame and fear and pain… those are the moments when Sisyphus is walking back to his stone, not when he’s pushing it.
Sisyphus suffers in the moments when he contemplates his torment, when his hopes and aspirations conflict with reality. When he’s pushing the stone, Sisyphus is happy. He has chosen to move, to behave as if this is not a useless act, and so he’s not thinking about whether or not it is, whether there is a mountaintop to reach, whether the stone will roll down again. He’s simply pushing the stone. His fate belongs to him because he’s chosen it, in spite of the gods who would prefer he marinate in his misery. You can’t punish a man who loves his punishment. Or, as Camus put it:
There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
That’s why we fear the void: because when we can’t muster scorn and revolt, we use our senses to distract us from the fundamental question of meaning. A person suspended in nullity, with no sensory input, has no choice but to directly confront what it means to exist, what properties existence has without any outside interaction whatsoever. A lot of storytellers have argued that a person in such a void would lose their mind, and I was sure that was true – I felt sure that I, if suspended in darkness and unable to get out, or adrift in the blackest depth of the sea, alone and hanging in the emptiness… I would definitely go mad with fear. What other response could one have? When you separate the mind from the walls of mortality that give it perspective, mustn’t it simply…spill?
But in considering that question, a logical construction occurred to me, and the people I’ve presented it to appear to feel that it has some merit, so I offer it to you: if you are a) alone in a void, AND b) feel fear of some other entity in that void, fear that is in fact confrontation with cosmic meaninglessness, because as we covered, you’re alone… What can be concluded except that you are afraid of yourself? You are the void. You are not the person drowning… you are the sea.
When I imagined this, when I tried to flip my perspective from that of an infinitely small, ephemeral being in a boundless emptiness, to identifying with that emptiness and looking back at the infinitely small person suspended somewhere inside me… suddenly, all the fear fell away. I looked into the dark ocean, and instead of seeing a swallowing gullet, an intolerable incomprehensibility that would claw my sanity away without even noticing me… I simply saw myself. My own enormous solitude, my own curiosity. My own need to project upon the universe just to avoid being alone. Nietzsche said that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you, and he seemed to find this intolerable. It tracks, to me, that Nietzsche would find it so painful to face himself this way – nihilists are simply absurdists who haven’t the perspective to laugh at and thereby take ownership of their fate.
Flood your head with music, drown out the void.
(But won’t salt corrode all the pipes in there?)
You lay back, feel sound waves play with your hair.
You sink a little deeper in the noise.
In darkness, with no senses to employ,
you speak and see your voice hang in the air.
The silence becomes more than you can bear,
emptiness louder than you can avoid.
But if you’re alone in that empty place,
why is it being there fills you with fear?
If you’re the only thing in all that space,
and yet you still can reason in the void –
it’s just your germinating thoughts out there.
Doesn’t that mean that the void must have your face?