Contemplation: Creating Our Own Light

Evan had the following image in his gchat status this morning.  It is an excerpt from the Playboy interview with Stanley Kubrick, in which Mr. Kubrick explains the point of livings in a meaningless universe.

Playboy: "If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it's worth living?" Kubrick: "Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality.  The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.  Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism -- and their assumption of immortality.  As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man.  But if he's reasonably strong -- and lucky -- he can emerge from the twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life's elan.  Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation.  he may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring ans sustaining.  the most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death -- however mutable man may be able to make them -- our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment.  However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light."

Playboy: "If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it's worth living?" Kubrick: "Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism -- and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he's reasonably strong -- and lucky -- he can emerge from the twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life's elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. he may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring ans sustaining. the most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death -- however mutable man may be able to make them -- our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light."

I have not read this whole interview so I can not claim to know all of what Mr. Kubrick was talking about prior to the above Playboy question (though I can guess a lot of it, knowing my fair share about Stanley Kubrick).  What I can say, is that from this response, I can guess that Mr. Kubrick was likely a fan of. or at least familiar with, the philosophies of Albert Camus, in particular Mr. Camus’ views of absurdism, a philosophical outlook I often endorse.

According to Camus, the Absurd, was that condition that arises in humanity when the contradicting sense of reality collide.  Specifically these contradictions lie in that humans live lives desiring significance and meaning, while on the other hand, the universe presents itself as a cold, silent and altogether indifferent environment (very much in tune with Mr. Kubrick’s statement that “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent”).  These two create this absolute sense of unresolved absurdity. Camus thought that there were three possible solutions that humans could choose to pursue in the face of this absurdity.  He rejected two of them in favor for the third.  Here they are (as best as I can explain):

  1. Suicide:  Basically this is the idea that an individual affirms that the absurd is “too much” to handle and as such that life is not worth living.  It is an escapist approach.  Camus thought that this was an incredibly cowardly approach to handling the innate absurdity we all must cope with.  I will deduct that Kubrick felt similarly in his stating that life is worth living.
  2. The next solution is what Camus called “The Leap of Faith,” an homage to Søren Kierkegaard (whose works were definitely a precursor to Camus’ own).  Basically the leap of faith in which Camus proposes is where in one recognizes the Absurd, but chooses to ignore it and affirm that there really is some purpose of higher meaning to everything.  This can be seen as the religious tendency (though it need not be tied directly to an organized religious or even theist belief system).  Camus rejected this too, as a kind of “philosophical suicide.”  Basically his rejection was in that making the leap of faith the individual has to actively sacrifice his/her ability to think intelligently about competing viewpoints or inherent contradictions in the systems.  
  3. The last option Camus proposed was an embracement of our own absurd situations.  Basically it lies in, that if we truly accept the absurdity of our existence, and that the universe is without any absolutes; a purely indifferent environment, then we are left to our own accords to creating and maintaining our own meanings as we will.  Essentially, we are truly free.  This is exactly what Kubrick is promoting in the Playboy interview response.  In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus states “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide”. (Where “suicide” would refer to both the physical act, and the “philosophical suicide” through the “leap of faith”).

At first glance an absurdist perspective of existence may not appear very appealing to many people, because a big part of it is accepting that the universe is not just challenging and dangerous, but that at the very core it is indifferent and without any real purpose.  This can come across as quite depressing.  But it is that flip that both Camus and Kubrick express that can actually make things seem so much better.  We are not accountable to anything beyond our own being.  Sure we might choose to (or not to) adhere to laws and rules set by society, but as a whole, we are our own instruments of purpose and meaning.  There is not absolute objective meaning to life and existence to which we must strive to affirm and confirm to, instead we define our own purposes in the finite mortal lives we live.  To me, and other people like Camus and Kubrick, this is the height of meaningful aspiration, it is freedom and our own light.

I believe that an absurdist perspective to the purpose and meaning in the universe is really the natural inclination of the non-theist minded among us.  In fact I think that the scientific pursuits of knowledge are themselves an affirmation of this view.  There may be many proposed purposes involved in scientific discourse and study, but I’d say, at its core, it is a kind of self-serving purpose, to know what can be known according to the constraints present within the system.  it doesn’t need be a faith in anything specific or defined, in fact it is very mutable and finite, but it is a meaning in itself.

Transcendence of ones absurd condition need not be the goal (that is essentially the “leap of faith” route).  In fact for Camus the affirmation of the Absurd was key to coming to the conclusion of personal subjective meaning and purpose (he saw no need to transcend this awareness).  That then is freedom.  I suppose that one could ask whether the sciences are trying to transcend an inherent absurdity on existence, but I would say they are not.  Good scientific practice does not actually affirm absolutes, but instead only states what has been regularly observed adhering to the same standards.  This created scientific “laws” but these need not be absolute.  There is always the black swan potential, that something will throw a proverbial stick in the spokes of the current train of thought.  In this way scientific discourse simply becomes a means of framing ourselves in the indifference that is the universe (and just think how much scientific study has demonstrated this indifference.  Lead might be a useful metal that we’d love to use, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is deadly to our physiology).

For me, and others like me, the Absurd is not a horrifying outlook that inevitably ends in our purposeless demise, but instead an open invitation to fill our lives with our own beauty, happiness, and light.  I need not a higher calling or God-head to guide my way, but pursue instead my own music and purpose till my time comes and is gone.

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~ by Nathaniel on September 20, 2010.

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