Thursday, 19 August 2010

Absurdist, Surrealist and the Guest House

Edinburgh evening rooftops

I came across this blogsite - Who is the Absurd Man - and although I've only looked at two posts, the most recent and one with a quote from Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy, I know I'll go back to it. It quotes Camus

“Living an experience… is accepting it fully,”

and explores the concept of the absurd, what Camus meant or might have meant, how they understand it and its practical application. Their latest post with the description of applied absurdity leading to less stress and more equanimity reminds me very much of Buddhism which is not to compare either favourably or unfavourably or to reduce or limit either in any way, just an observation.

Miller's lovely quote immediately gives me the feeling of Paris. We are 70 years on from the time when he wrote that but in parts of Paris - and I'm actually not thinking of Clichy but of the 14th [I think] arrondissement, near la rue de la Tombe Issoire, and walking up the rue St. Jaques towards the city centre – there is such a tangible feeling, atmosphere, the light, smells, the texture of the air and it all comes flooding back and makes me want to go there right now.

But the way he talks about accepting life as it is, embracing the totality of it, its paradoxical nature, its absurdity, is also uplifting. Writers – some writers anyway – seem to have or to develop this ability, it almost seems to be part of the nature of writing itself whether it's fiction or not seems immaterial, it's that recollection, whether in tranquillity or not, that Wordsworth talked about, a kind of reliving I would call it. In the writing you explore aspects and impressions of experience that perhaps could not be fully lived at the time, perhaps because there is simply too much going on for us to take in. But if you are the kind of person who is fascinated by e.g. the associations that come up around what someone says, what it fires off in you, if you are interested in people and the messages you receive from them, beyond the words they are saying, if it sets you to wondering what is in the background for them, in terms of feelings, problems maybe, mindset and assumptions, then there will be a huge amount of information that's subliminal and which you may later want to explore in thinking or in writing. You may well turn it into a story, into fiction, because that seems the best way of writing about truth....

The absurdist view, that conflict Camus summed up so well in his quotation, 'the mind that desires and the world that disappoints' is experienced sometimes, no doubt about it but the embracing of all of life's aspects and experiences as both Miller and Camus say, is a way of not being demoralised by the difficult and painful parts of life's experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this stroll, gallop or journey at whatever pace, through life, is the barriers we come across when presented with great difficulty, conflict, pain – these seem precisely the places – whether literal or metaphorical – that lure us into exploration for, like the underworld guarded by three-headed Cerberus, they can reveal hidden treasure. For me 'the present' is a breathing place, it can expand and contract and in its most expansive it seems to require the kind of engagement that I find in writing.

Meaning, that the absurd shows clearly is not present, is not necessarily part of our perception, at least not our usual everyday one, if one can talk about such a thing, as our perceptions drift and dart around in many places throughout one day - or rather the perceptions that we are aware of. In dreams for example we often forget where we've been, what we were doing and feeling, but when we were there we were living as fully and sometimes more fully, than in waking consciousness. We know this from the dreams that we do remember.

But meaning can be experienced sometimes, and even at the same time as we are also experiencing the sense of the absurd; our perceptions of life's meaning can co-exist with our perception of its absurdity – in such glorious moments, for me at least, lies the treasure.

Camus said in The Enigma, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, talking about being back in Algeria:
'Where is the absurdity of the world? In this shining glory, or in the memory of its absence? How, with so much sun in my memory, could I have wagered on nonsense? was in fact the sun which helped me..'

I'd have to agree there – the sun helps me too!

This philosophy of acceptance is very much present I feel in Rumi's The Guest House

'This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!.... '

If such a welcome can be applied this can override the resistance of not wanting [for fear of disappointment, conflict pain etc] and lead into that garden of experience which is not corralled by rules and fears, but which could scarcely exist without the sun.

Last week I went to see a Surrealist exhibition on at Edinburgh's Dean Gallery. The day marked the 50th birthday of the Gallery of Modern Art and so entrance was free for that one day. I've liked Delvaux's paintings for some time, with their sense of stillness and mystery, an empty train station, with his large-eyed ladies, sometimes nude, sometimes cloaked in greenery, trailing ivy hair. One I had not seen before but lingered in my memory was a version of the Annunciation, with a very gentle atmosphere, the angel and Mary adorned with green-leaved coverings.

Behind this sculpture – I suppose that's what you'd call it – you can just see another one, and below you can see it in close up - The Virgin of Alsace – 1919-21, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle.

Surrealism and the absurd have plenty in common of course but as Camus said, also in The Enigma
'the absurd can be considered only as a point of departure.....'

I guess Antony Gormley's half-submerged man is also setting off somewhere..

1 comment:

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