“The privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only” – Thomas Hobbes
Many an incautious person (in particular, my wife, who in all fairness has displayed an abject lack of judgment in marrying me in the first place) has asked me, “Why are you so obsessively interested in strange phenomena and anomalistics?” My usual inclination is to answer such questions with a level of obscurantive passive-aggression and ask, “Why aren’t you?” Unfortunately, maintaining a relative state of matrimonial bliss requires a slightly less flippant response, although one sometimes feels injudiciously inclined to point out that as Ambrose Bierce said what is love, but a “temporary insanity curable by marriage”. If one prefers to sleep on the couch, that is. Momma didn’t raise no fool, or rather she did indeed raise a fool without expecting that foolishness to be embraced as a philosophy akin to Oscar Wilde’s existential despondency, more true than ever in a world of social media where articulate opinion is equated with insight, bemoaning the fact that “I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left”. But enough about Oscar Wilde’s and my shared neuroses, which while annoying are not likely to send me into a state of catatonia. Except for spiders. Oh, and snakes (probably vestigial species memory). And marmalade (potential choking hazard). And most particularly, the possibility that I live in an absurd universe. Not your universe. Your universe is lovely. A great place for a vacation home. My intellectual universe, as distinctly compartmentalized from my dubious ability to hold a day job and pay my bills, is populated by ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, not to mention unexplained fish falls, the sexual deviance and clear hatred of livestock exhibited by extraterrestrials, disappearing islands, teleporting 18th Century Italian boys, smug skeptics, and the high likelihood that the universe is screwing with us because it can. It is bigger than us after all.
Scientists, rationalist and skeptics, oh my! They live in a world where causality and probability reign supreme. One need only click their heels in the face of the bizarre, the uncanny, and the unexplained and repeat the mantra, “There’s no place like home” to be summarily returned to the sunlit existence represented by a sane order of things where cause precedes effect, we reveal the diminutive man behind the curtain, monsters don’t exist, the strange is ultimately explicable, and microwave ovens work reasonably well if you follow the cooking instructions precisely (who the hell knows what the wattage is on their microwave?). Yet, ever since we recognized that human memory, perception, and cognition is fallible and started scratching notes to ourselves, we have been busy inventing ill-mannered anthropomorphic forces, capricious gods, theories of everything, and populating the world with chimeric monstrosities that illustrate the gap between what our reality says should be allowed to exist and the things that put the lie to the proposition. This is why we invented the philosophical division between ontology and epistemology. Or maybe it was just a dodge for Classical trust fund kids. One can never be sure. At any rate, it seemed decidedly important to some toga-wearing ancient Greek (or Taoist sage, if you want to get all up in being cross-cultural) to point out that there is a disturbing disconnect between dealing with what exists and how we go about knowing what exists. Although, don’t get me wrong, scientific epistemology is aces.
At its most basic epistemological foundation, science suggests that a reasonably efficient way of understanding why things happen is to come up with a hypothesis and test said hypothesis to see if you can reproduce the same effect. The same principle has a great deal of utility on dating websites (word on the streets is anyway, my wife might be reading this). Yet, unless you steadfastly embrace a positivist ontology to neatly gift wrap your epistemological good sense, all conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality are to be generous, speculative, and to be an obnoxious twit, founded on an unjustifiable confidence that one sees things more clearly, with greater rationality, and with a self-assuredness that borders on the pathological. Stuff that doesn’t talk back has a reasonably good history of maintaining itself in reality. Problems start when you insist on talking to human beings. Now, I’ve arranged my life so as to limit my exposure to other sentient creatures (not terribly threatened by rambling conversations with my seven year old – I think of children as “proto-humans”), but as soon as one starts to explore what humans experience, think, believe, and say, the walls separating reality and fantasy quickly break down. That’s right, surprisingly I’ve been keeping up with the U.S. presidential debates. Sadly, we are humans, which of course paraphrasing the old trope, is the worst form of existence, except for all the others. Humans don’t make reality. Humans find meaning. Reality is that girl who won’t date you. There are a thousand possible reasons from your poor personal hygiene to your obsession with Skylanders (or maybe your fondness for leather and Brahms), but you need to make meaning of the situation and get on with your life. When faced with repetitive weirdness, one can elect to dismiss it as reflective of a poor understanding of the meaning of existence, or choose to embrace the essential ambiguity of that existence and celebrate the difference. You are not crazy, or deluded, or looking to pin the blame on the oppression of the man. You are quite reasonably approaching the universe as an exercise in absurdity, not dismissing the relevancy of a search for meaning, but understanding that meaning is a creation, an organizing principle that tips its hat to that which doesn’t fit within a rigid and presumptuous conception of what others insist is known to be true.
Thus the anomalist is most productively an applied absurdist. Albert Camus suggested that “Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. It leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open up a new field of investigation, and in the process of reasoning then pursues the same course. I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest”. The absurdist rejects the despair of nihilism as well as the transcendence of the existentialist, and ceases to look for elusive “truth”, far preferring both the practicality and instrumentality of the search for meaning. Instead of looking for objects of knowledge, the absurdist seeks continuity in relation to existence and other humans, with a cynical shrug at the necessity of categorization. William P. Frost noted, “Insofar as meaning is of importance to the absurdists, but they cannot find it, they have an openness to meaning. Thus their absurdism is not total. It is only reality oriented, which makes their absurdism relative. Consequently, it may be suggested that meaning can be created. One can choose to declare something to be valuable and precious. Thus absurdity has been superseded and meaning has been found in one’s projection of what one chooses to be meaningful.” We are creatures of categorization. To communicate information, we feel we must categorize, otherwise we find ourselves awash in an amorphous sea of data where narrow subject expertise and serendipity drive the search for knowledge, but as we pierce holes in our categorizations, we quickly realize the prison we have built for ourselves. Michel Foucault, quoting Borges, concisely described this when he noted that there is “a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written that animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own”.
Father of anomalistics, Charles Hoy Fort described the absurdist vertigo with respect to categorization when he related a story from his early work life at a grocery. “I had used all except peach labels. I pasted the peach labels on peach cans, and then came to apricots. Well, aren’t apricots peaches? And there are plums that are virtually apricots. I went on, either mischievously, or scientifically, pasting the peach labels on cans of plums, cherries, string beans, and succotash. I can’t quite define my motive, because to this day it has not been decided whether I am a humorist or a scientist. I think that it was mischief, but, as we go along, there will come a more respectful recognition that also it was scientific procedure”. Thus, scientific epistemology, the supreme effort at categorization and atomism, ultimately leads us back to absurdity. And damn it, I wanted peaches, not plums, but point well taken. When faced with the absurd, humans have consistently been known to behave absurdly, which makes a lot of methodological sense, for as Julio Cortazar said, “Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity”.