Ever since this past winter when I read Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, I’ve been thinking a lot about absurdism. In his book, Camus argues that life is meaningless, there is no god, etc. Once a person leaves religion and is left with this hopelessness, the question Camus poses is: should a person kill herself in response? The Myth of Sisyphus argues that no, a person should not kill herself, but rather laugh in the face of this meaninglessness. Absurdism is to recognize that the universe is chaotic and make your own meaning in the face of this absurdity. This is the closest I’ve come as an adult to finding something in line with my ex-Christian values.
I believe that the universe is meaningless, but I believe that humans have a strong desire to apply meaning to it (note that I say believe and not think; this is my own belief system). That’s where religion comes in, and also cults. I’ve seen friends leave the church and shift all their energy into astrology or tarot–all activities imbued with a sense of seeking, of looking for answers beyond science.
I apply meaning to a meaningless universe by telling stories. I write in order to process experiences, thoughts, and observations in a way that makes sense to me. In a way, I write to make myself a god because I no longer have one. Tom Robbins said in his novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, “I am an author and therefore in the same business God is in: if I say this page is a bottle of champagne, it is a bottle of champagne. Reader, will you share a cup of bubbly with me?”
This idea was brought to the forefront of my thinking once again when I read an excerpt of Lorrie Moore’s new essay collection See What Can be Done. The essay from 1994, “It’s Better to Write Than be a Writer,” speaks of both the gritty work of writing balanced against its wonderment, feet planted in the muck while hands grasp at the stars: “What writers do is workmanlike: tenacious, skilled labor. That we know. But it is also mysterious. And the mystery involved in the act of creating a narrative is attached to the mysteries of life itself, and the creation of life itself: that we are; that there is something rather than nothing. Though I wonder whether it sounds preposterous in this day and age to say such a thing. No one who has ever looked back upon a book she or he has written, only to find the thing foreign and alienating, unrecallable, would ever deny its mysteriousness.”
I told a recent date about my beliefs in people needing to believe, and he responded that whenever he thinks he’s figured it out, that’s usually when he’s wrong. Me saying I know there is no god is as prideful as someone saying they know there is. And yet, the believing is often what gives us a sense of purpose.
Moore continues: “One can’t help but think that in some way this surprise reflects the appalled senility of God herself, or himself, though maybe it’s the weirdly paired egotism and humility of artists that leads them over and over again to this creational cliché: that we are God’s dream, God’s characters; that literary fiction is God’s compulsion handed down to us, an echo, a diminishment, but something we are made to do in imitation, perhaps even in honor, of that original creation, and made to do in understanding of what flimsy vapors we all are—though also how heartbreaking and amusing. In more scientific terms, the compulsion to read and write—and it seems to me it should be, even must be, a compulsion—is a bit of mental wiring the species has selected, over time, in order, as the life span increases, to keep us interested in ourselves.”
Here Moore speaks of our compulsive need to tell stories as an act of obedience to a god and relation to this god’s creation. I agree that writing is a compulsion, but for me it does not serve a god, but rather helps provide structure in a structureless world. As Moore says, I see writing as a way “to keep us interested in ourselves”–and hopefully, amused.