Saturday, August 08, 2009

L'automne des automates (ballet mécanique)

"Aucune morale, ni aucun effort ne sont a priori justifiables devant les sanglantes mathématiques qui ordonnent notre condition." (Albert Camus - Le mythe de Sisyphe)

The Dada artistic movement fully understood the deep connection between automation and the absurd. The mechanism becomes a leading theme in Dadaism, the absurd mechanism and the repetition of mechanical movement. Fernand Leger's famous movie piece Ballet Mécanique exemplifies this combination of the aesthetic of the mechanical modernity with its inevitable marriage to the disquieting poetic of the absurd. The act of repetition is the first step by which one moves into the territory of the absurd. As Camus points out so eloquently in the Myth of Sisyphus, when one goes through the motions of everyday life as a mechanical repetition of acts and engagements that appear more and more devoid of meaning, it is the time when the absurd takes over, when one can no longer avoid perceiving the world as senseless.

"L'absurde nait de la confrontation de l'appel humain avec le silence déraisonnable du monde." (Albert Camus - Le mythe de Sisyphe)

Whoever becomes trapped into this feeling of absurdity send out distress calls at the universe, in search of an answer, a sign, that can restore a sense of meaning, break the vicious circle of the mechanical repetition. The universe, which in such cases really means the other human beings, rarely responds to such calls, trapped as the other people are in their own dance of senseless repetitions. Thus, the ballet mécanique becomes a modern vision of the medieval Totentanz, or Danse Macabre, by which one flirts with the ultimate escape from the realm of absurdity and repetition.

One can see how quickly the act of repetition generates a sense of absurdity by looking at those people who are trapped into repeating the same words and concepts over and over again, always the same, with the same choice of words, on every available occasions. While they may think that they are making their point, whatever that happens to be, more strongly or convincingly argued, in reality they only generate in others a profound and uncanny sense of absurdity, which, if anything, can only harm whatever cause they may be trying to promote. Why the absurd is something so difficult to come to terms with for the human mind is again discussed very cleverly by Camus, though I rephrase it here in slightly different terms. The human mind is naturally trying to make sense of things, to look for order in the natural phenomena, to proceed from a messy chaotic set of data that the senses provide towards few basic principles that organize and explain what we perceive. The absurd is the incomprehensible breaking down of the reliability of life. It is interesting to notice that a sense of the absurd is not necessarily triggered by confrontation with apparently chaotic phenomena. Those, if anything, are more likely to trigger a healthier natural response in a human being, which is the desire to understand, to make sense of the seeming lack of defining principles. It is on the contrary the extreme order of the mechanical repetition that triggers the sense of the absurd, where our skills at making sense of things are useless, because there isn't enough complexity to make sense of and yet what is there is still completely incomprehensible in its devastating simplicity. This is why repetition is the best and quickest way to generate absurdity. This is well known to people who want to use the sense of absurdity for comic effects: jokes are based often on generating a comic sense through the absurdity of repetition. If the absurd can be used easily to provoke laughter, it has a much more tragic side, which Camus correctly identifies as the main reason why one begins to question one's reasons for living, when the absurd engulfs one's entire existence.

We have witnessed in recent months a series of suicides on our campus. One can ascribe them to cases of manic depression that spiraled tragically out of control, but whatever the underlying mental state the acts are usually triggered by the kind of events of life that people find difficult to cope with in all cases, that as in Camus' analysis of suicide as a philosophical problem expose people suddenly to the impossible sense of the absurdity of life in its crudest form. So it is inevitable to reflect on what effective strategies of self-defense people can put in place that would allow them, when faced with such circumstances, to escape from the absurd without at the same time escaping from life altogether. It is not an easy problem, and I don't pretend to be better than Camus at analyzing it or proposing answers, but here are some practical suggestions from my own experience at battling with incomprehensible absurdities, of which I've had quite a share.

- Step 1: Do not try to reason with the absurd. There are events of life, especially hurtful events, that simply do not make any sense. Continuing to torment oneself asking over and over the same questions, why did this happen, why did they do this to me, why did it have to go this way, is just another repetition trap: one goes over the same motions endlessly, the same painful thoughts and unanswered questions. It is the typical situation that makes one feel trapped into an absurd universe with no way to break the vicious circle. The absurd is difficult to accept, especially if one is a scientifically minded person, a scientist or a science student: it flies in the face of everything one practices and believes about the predictability of nature and the fact that we ultimately strive to understand the universe that surrounds us and are not content with letting go of phenomena that appear to be without explanation. This is a remarkable quality of the human spirit but it also puts people at a higher risk of getting trapped in failed attempts at reducing the absurd aspects of life to reason. Accept the existence of the absurd. The culture of the 20th century, a time when people faced much more directly the reality of the absurd than perhaps at any other time in human history, has given us the language and the means to describe and come to terms with the absurd. That's what artists like Duchamp, Ernst, Picabia have been doing all along, allowing us to confront the absurd and comprehend its existence. The first step in order to be able to break the vicious circle of repetition and absurdity that undermines our capacity to cope with the demands of life is then to approach the absurd on its own terms, not on the ground of our desperate need for understanding, as that wounded need only provokes unending pain when confronted directly with the absurd. Approach the absurd like a Dada artist and face the entirety of its frightening grip on human life. The creations of literature and art are there for that purpose, to help people to find the right words and images to describe and ultimately accept the absurd.

- Step 2: Battle the absurd on favorable ground. In order not to feel trapped in an absurd universe without escape, one needs to find ways to reassure oneself that, despite whatever devastation a sudden irruption of the absurd into one's own personal life might have caused, the universe still makes sense. There is still a world out there which is not entirely controlled and dominated by the repetition of absurd and meaningless gestures. One needs to choose carefully where to seek this type of reassurance. It is tempting to look for it in human relations, but often this is not a wise choice, because human relations indeed can be dominated by the absurd. When one has been recently wounded precisely by the absurdity of human relations, seeking comfort in the very same place may in fact backfire: one can easily run into more absurdity and get a reinforcement of one's despair instead of reassurance. The most favorable ground where to engage in a battle with the absurd is science. There is a universe out there which is not dominated by the absurd, and that is the world of science, where indeed the human mind can make sense of things, where phenomena behave in predictable patterns, where theorems can be proved. Science is the only effective medicine against the feeling that the world no longer makes sense. It is not an easy path to follow, because doing science is demanding on mental energies, especially at a time when one is in despair and has very little mental reserve available to draw upon. It requires long hours of concentration, at a time when one's mind is bombarded by endless waves of painful and self-destructive thoughts and recollections. Yet the effort pays: concentrating on science at such times creates a space of safety, a space where things continue to make sense, a corner of reality which is not threatened by the incursions of the absurd. It can be a life saving resort for all those who have access to it in some way.

Leger: Ballet Mécanique