Monday, December 13, 2010

Philosophy and Fiction

"You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."- Albert Camus

I’ve been enjoying the most remarkable sense of well-being lately, due in large part, I think to reading philosophy.
That’s been my go-to place for several years now whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by existence and the world. It really works for me. I started becoming interested in philosophy by a fairly pedestrian avenue—like many other people, I found myself plagued by the big questions: what does this even mean? Why am I here? What the fuck is the fucking point?
It began with a rejection of religion and faith in general. Some people, I suppose, are pre-disposed to be believers in the supernatural, and some people are not. I couldn’t accept the easy answer that wasn’t an answer. I don’t mean that as a judgment against the faithful, but it just felt like a cop-out to me.
But you know, figuring out what WASN’T the answer also was not the answer.
My reading of popular books on atheism (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc) was all very intellectually stimulating but wasn’t bringing me any closer to what I felt I needed to know. I read Bertrand Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian, and started getting the sense that I was closing in on it. That led to his The Problems of Philosophy (which is a great introduction to 20th century thought, if you want to know). After that, I found myself drawn to the great existential thinkers, which sort of coincided with my re-reading of Crime & Punishment, The Trial, and The Stranger (sometimes fiction is far more effective in conveying philosophical ideas than essays are).
By this time, my mind was buzzing and I found that reading this sort of stuff was really exciting; the stimulation was invigorating and I couldn’t get enough. The existentialist idea—that existence is completely without meaning and that life was an exercise in absurdity—felt liberating and life-affirming. The end result was that I finally and at long last realized that the ANSWER didn’t exist and it didn’t NEED to. The questions themselves, and the ideas generated by them, were what really sent endorphins racing through my skull and made me wild-eyed with the panorama of new possibilities opening up. Possibilities that had nothing to do with conventional wisdom or societal norms.
Answers weren’t required, I realized. Only questions. Since there is no inherent meaning to it all, I create my OWN. My own is, of course, story-telling.
I just read The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus, and in the book there’s a remarkable section on how existential philosophy applies to the art/craft of fiction writing. He refers mostly to our man Dostoevsky in this section, which is only right. Camus’ main point, without getting too bogged down in the details, is that even the act of creation is in itself absurd, and so can’t be a rebellion against the absurd. It can only be a confirmation of it, acquiescence. This doesn’t mean that we just roll over and surrender ourselves to a meaningless universe—it means that we KNOW. And it is good to know. Knowing is a sort of victory. Like Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the hill over and over and over again, we realize that the labor is our own, and our unwillingness to break in the face of it is our triumph.
This is why writing and art matter. We work in the face of the absurd, and… “All is well”.
My work, while paltry and (let’s face it) insignificant compared to Camus or Dostoevsky or Kafka, is my own little acquiescence. It’s my own little acknowledgement of meaninglessness. And because of that, it’s the only thing that matters.


  1. Oh, I think The Bastard Hand is a fitting bastard offspring to the exy lads. The Fall is my fave Camus, these days.

  2. Thanks, Paul. The Fall is pretty bloody brilliant. I have yet to read The Plague, though; have you?

  3. Yeah, it's a bit much. Not as much fun as The Outsider & The Fall!

  4. I agree with Paul. The Outsider and The Fall are in a league of their own. The Outsider, most particularly. Camus thought through his works of fiction with the grace of a ballet dancer. Sadly enough, I run often into those academic thinkers who use philosophy as plot devices: *Insert Freudian character here* or *insert Schopenhauer fueled diatribe there*. Camus didn't give a damn about pleasing anybody and that's what made him so great.

  5. Ben, yeah. I think if you're a writer who is at all philosophically inclined, you always run that risk. I always tell myself: "Story first."

  6. By the way, in the States, The Outsider is called The Stranger. I had no idea what you guys were talking about for a second.. haha

  7. Great minds think alike. Story first, everything else will flow and take life from there. The Outsider/Stranger is named "L'√Čtranger" in French (read it in French). The Stranger would be the correct translation. Outsider isn't necessarily bad, just less precise. I didn't know there were two title translations.

  8. I liked "The Plague"; it had a great sense of morality, and its exploration thereof, in a setting where morality didn't really matter -- since the town was closed off from the rest of the world and could have easily gone to hell in a handbasket -- was very interesting and fun.

    "The existentialist idea—that existence is completely without meaning and that life was an exercise in absurdity—felt liberating and life-affirming." Right behind you on this. :D