Modern life is not, as Blur once suggested, rubbish. But it’s certainly absurd.
People are buying less oranges because they can’t be bothered to peel them. People feel entitled to have whatever they want, because they endlessly want things and therefore think they ‘deserve’ them. And people increasingly believe that they can ‘positive think’ their way into better lives and endlessly profitable jobs and companies. All absurd.
My view? Well yes, but I’m writing about it here because I’ve just read these things in a splendid book that I therefore wish I’d written. It’s ‘The Age of Absurdity’ by Michael Foley. And earlier today I got talking about some of the stuff in it with someone I’d never met before. And it turned out she’d just read the book too! So, convinced by this rigorous scientific research that there’s a mass movement building up here, I thought I’d better let you in on it.
When I first picked the book up in my local library I was nearly put off by the publisher’s description of it, on the back cover, as ‘Philosophy’. Half expecting to become immediately becalmed in a sea of words with no reason to belong together, I set off into the first chapter. And was soon entranced by the author’s forlorn searching for anything decent to read, listen to, eat or pick for a holiday destination. Together with his description of his own face as ‘a raging gargoyle corroded by acid rain’.
‘This is one for me!’ I said, (hopefully not out loud, but you never know) as I ‘self-checked’ the book out (yes they do have librarians there, but we’re encouraged to do much of the work ourselves these days, probably in the name of ’empowerment’).
And so, one Sunday I settled down to read it in an absurd situation, as seen below, and almost completed the whole thing in one sitting, pausing occasionally to laugh out loud. Not my usual reaction to philosophy books.
But it really is philosophy. Great thinkers from Buddha through the Stoics, Rumi, Spinoza up to Freud and beyond, are quoted and analysed by Michael Foley’s in his musings on ‘Why modern life makes it hard to be happy’.
And along the way you’ll find yourself longing for things like a good meditate, a quiet read and a long walk. And not in a new-agey, positive affirmations sort of way. But because for as long as humans can remember, these have been good ways of getting to the place in our brains where we can think clearly and without distraction.
And you’ll remember the joy of getting lost in doing something complicated and absorbing, and looking back on it and thinking ‘I was happy just then’.
Because the book is about that elusive thing that people search for. ‘The pursuit of happiness’. And that we don’t seem to be finding in the things we think will make us happy. Our endless consumption, that we fund with our ludicrous work, in our absurd global economy.
He’s particularly good on our ludicrous work. Calling work ‘a relatively late addition to the great world religions’, he truly goes to town on ‘the away day’.
Here we see the team travelling to get away from their familiar and boring board room or training room. To a country hotel somewhere, where they ensconce themselves in a more or less the same board room or training room. We see them ‘ice breaking’ with people they see every day of the week. Throwing a ball of string to each other, while shouting out ‘performance-based’ compliments and gradually becoming entwined in a web that shows they need each other and, hey, ‘aren’t we a great team?’
After low level squabbling over who’s eaten the strawberries in the corporate buffet lunch, we see them ‘breaking out’ into smaller teams and doing the inevitable SWOT exercise. Which they then ‘report back on’ at the Plenary Session (this being the only situation in their lives where any of them will use the word ‘plenary’).
And here we see the keen new starter lean over and quietly ask of the grizzled old hand next to him, clearly the author, ‘What will they do with all this information?’ ‘Fuck all!’ is his immediate reply.
Yes, we do ludicrous things and call it work and, indeed, life.
So does the book have a happy ending? Not particularly, even though its final chapter is called ‘A happy ending’. It’s not a self-help book after all, so you’ll have to work at what you take from it.
And what I took from it is:
Absurdity exists, live with it,
And where you can, enjoy it.
But for the sake of your sanity you’ll need to find ways of detaching yourself from all the absurdity sometimes.
Even if people think you’re strange for wanting to be quiet or do things on your own.
And do new things,
Especially things you need to concentrate on or, perish the thought, work hard at.
These will probably be good for your brain and your general health,
And a side product could be that some of these things will make you happy.
But don’t go looking deliberately for happiness, like you’re entitled to it.
Because that way, you will never find it.
I recommend this book. It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and the cover’s crap. What more do you want?
‘The Age of Absurdity’ costs £10.99 and is published by Simon and Schuster (yes, one of them was Carly Simon’s Dad, you know?) Or you can borrow it for free from Allerton Road Library in Liverpool, or any public library while we still have them.