Sunday, May 27, 2007

To Be Or Not To Be

One of my problems is, I feel my angst. It can grip me, like a terror, and sometimes drive me to tears. And nobody can help. You can't petition god for a reprieve, nor expect special consideration from fate. All of our ancestors are dead, and we're all headed in the same direction...

Yesterday I sat in the bath and read two plays by Camus. The first, Caligula, is the true story of a nihilistic man, made king of the world, and the absurd acts he inflicts on those around him:

CALIGULA: ... But I'm not insane. In fact I've never been so lucid. It’s just that I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. [Pauses.] Things as they are don’t strike me as satisfactory.

HELICON: That’s a widespread opinion.

CALIGULA: I suppose it is. But I didn't know it before. Now I know. [Still in the same matter-of-fact tone.] The world as it is is unbearable. That's why I need the moon, or happiness, or immortality, or something that may sound insane, but would help correct this world.

HELICON: That sounds fine. But no one could ever act on it.

CALIGULA: [rising to his feet, but still with perfect calmness] You know nothing about it. It's because no one dares to be logical and carry it through to its conclusion that nothing is ever achieved. [He studies Helicon's face.] I can see what you're thinking. What a fuss over the death of a woman! No, that's not it. I do recall that a few days ago a woman I loved died. But love is a side issue. Her death is no more than the symbol of a truth that makes the moon necessary to me. A childishly simple and obvious truth, a little stupid even, but hard to discover and harder to bear.

HELICON: And what is this truth you've discovered, Caius?

CALIGULA: [his eyes averted, in a toneless voice] People die. And they are not happy.

HELICON: [after a short pause] That’s a truth we manage to live with Caligula. It doesn't prevent most Romans from enjoying their lunch.

CALIGULA: [suddenly throws Helicon down violently] That’s because everyone around me is living a lie, and I want people to live with the truth. Remember, Helicon, I have the means of forcing them to live with the truth. They are deprived of knowledge and need a teacher who knows what he's talking about.
And from a little further on:
CHEREA: Since this world is the only one we have, why not plead its cause?

CALIGULA: No plea is necessary. The verdict's given: humanity has no special place in this world and whoever realizes that wins his freedom. [rising] You are not free. I alone am free. Rejoice, for you finally have an emperor to teach you freedom. Go away, Cherea, and you, too, Scipio. Go and spread the good news to all Romans.

[They go out. Caligula has turned away, hiding his eyes.]

CAESONIA: You’re crying. But what's really changed in your life? You may have loved Drusilla, but you loved others, myself included, at the same time. Surely that wasn't enough to set you roaming the countryside for three days and nights and bring you back with this . . . this cruel look on your face?

CALIGULA: [turning round to her] Why drag Drusilla into this? Can’t you imagine a person shedding for anything other than love?

CAESONIA: I'm sorry, Caius. I was only trying to understand.

CALIGULA: Men cry because the world's all wrong. [She starts to embrace him.] No, Caesonia. [She draws back.] But stay beside me.

CAESONIA: Whatever you want. [Sits down.] I’m no baby. I know that life's sometimes a sad business. But why deliberately set out to make it worse?

CALIGULA: You can't understand. But that doesn’t matter. Perhaps I'll find a way out. Only I feel the stirrings of nameless creatures within me, forcing their way up into the light - and I'm helpless against them. [He moves closer to her, but doesn’t see her] I knew people felt anguish, but I didn't know what the word meant. Like everyone else I imagined it was the soul that suffered. But it's my body that's in pain. Everywhere. In my chest, in my legs and arms. Even my skin is raw, my head is buzzing, I feel like vomiting. But worst of all is this grotesque taste in my mouth. Not blood, nor death, nor fever, but a mixture of all three. All I have to do is to stir my tongue for everything to become black and for human beings to revolt me.
Camus understood (and perhaps maybe, Caligula too). And the moral of Caligula is? You, live and you die, and hopefully a mad man doesn't fuck your wife in front of you and then have you killed...

The second play, called Cross Purpose, is the telling of the story, which is told briefly in 'The Outsider':
A man had left some Czech village to go and make his fortune. Twenty-five years later he'd come back rich, with wife and child. His mother and his sister were running a hotel in his native village. In order to surprise them, he'd left his wife and child at another hotel and gone to see his mother who hadn't recognized him when he'd walked in. Just for fun, he'd decided to book a room. He'd shown them his money. During the night his mother and sister had clubbed him to death with a hammer to steal his money, and then thrown his body into the river. The next morning. the wife had come along and without realizing revealed the traveller's identity. The mother had hanged herself. The sister had thrown herself down a well.
Ha. What a cheerful tale, but what a fun play it makes. Together, they are considered Camus' most pessimistic and nihilistic work.

And so I've been coming to the conclusion that there exists a great body of human thought, which argues that existence is pointless, absurd and arbitrary. That we live and die, with no reason or rhyme, and yet everyday we tell ourselves the opposite. There's only so many times it's worth saying or thinking that everything is pointless. Maybe if the world was a different place, and humans were a different type of species...

In 'The Outsider', Colin Wilson writes:
The atmosphere of the existentialist outsider is unpleasant to breathe. There is something nauseating, anti-life, about it: these men, without motive who stay in their rooms because there seems to be no reason for doing anything else.
And I realised after reading Wilson's book, that I am an outsider. There is no 'reason' for doing anything. And if there's something unpleasant about the outsider's atmosphere, rest assured he feels the same way, outside his room, breathing in the 'normal' air!

Finally, thinking about Camus' plays reminded me of 'Hamlet' (which I read over 10 years ago in college) and yet, only now, do I get it:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. - Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
To be or not to be eh? Urghhh, I don't know...