Doom, Camus, and Breakfast

Considering the end of human civilization and what one might do while waiting.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

A longer version of these diary entries is available here.

{4/1/22}

If the end of civilization is coming soon, what is a sensible thing to do?  Because this morning, I am finding it difficult to think of any act which is not absurd.  In the novel I’ve been working on, one character says that she wants to learn how to survive, to live off the land through foraging and farming.  But reading Greta Thunberg:  The House is On Fire, last night, I began to think that even such sensible-seeming activities as learning to survive or protesting fossil fuels are just as absurd as, say, buying a new car or setting fire to your own hair.  The only thing I can find this morning that is less absurd than other things is, to sit here typing.  Let’s consider:

Is civilization doomed?  My answer depends on the accuracy of my understanding of two things:  the science, and the politics.  I think the science is beyond dispute—the whole world, through the voice of the IPCC, has pronounced our doom.  The politics in the United States is equally depressing:  the Constitution guarantees that we cannot act in time to save ourselves, even if we had the will.  We do not have the will, and the media—and thus, the people—aren’t even talking about our doom.  I see no reason to consider the question any further, except:  the answer is not to my liking.

But I’m saying nothing new here.  On 3/28/22 I came up with my answer to the coming doom:  relieve the suffering of others.  I suppose I should add, “or your own suffering.”  These actions are not senseless.

In a certain kind of story, starting with Shakespeare if not the Bible, to say “Her sufferings are over” is equivalent to saying “She’s dead.”  This answer is not to my liking.

When she was eleven, Greta Thunberg had stopped eating and had stopped talking to anyone but her immediate family, i.e., parents and sister.  It seems that she almost died, but her parents refused to allow that.  I think the problem was despair (I haven’t gotten that far in the book).  This amazing girl recovered and went on to change the world.  The shocking story is told in the book named above.  What makes it infinitely pitiful is that she cannot save us or even herself.  We need a world full of Gretas, and we don’t have them and we don’t even want them.  Giving up is so much easier.  Not thinking about it is so much less painful.

Given that these are my thoughts this morning, is it any wonder that my fiction writing looks silly—because everything looks silly except eating breakfast.

{4/2/22}

My thoughts recorded here yesterday I think are both correct and “just a product of my mood,” i.e., my depression.  I did not get past those thoughts by thinking, by refuting my conclusions, but rather by eating breakfast and thinking about other things, and in particular, by rereading Thomas Nagel’s essay “The Absurd” in his book Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1979-1995.  Here are what I see as the most important and relevant quotes:

“[Life] is absurd because we ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.” p. 14.

“…we return to our familiar convictions with a certain irony and resignation.” p. 20.

Quoting David Hume, in a footnote:  “Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther[.]” Attributed to “the Treatise.” p. 20.

“Why is the life of a mouse not absurd?” p. 21.

“The final escape is suicide; but before adopting any hasty solutions, it would be wise to consider carefully whether the absurdity of our existence truly presents us with a problem, to which some solution must be found–a way of dealing with prima facie disaster. That is certainly the attitude with which Camus approaches the issue, and it gains support from the fact that we are all eager to escape from absurd situations on a smaller scale.” p. 22.

The quotes from Nagel don’t really apply to my sense of doom; I was not suffering from “the absurd” as described by Camus.  My concern is not that “in a million years nothing I do today will matter”; my concern is that “nothing that is conceivable today will save the culture, and possibly the species, from being snuffed out.”  In other words, I am like a child who has just realized that she will die, and that nothing she can do can change that.  What can be done with such a child except 1) to tell her that “Heaven awaits you”; or 2) to say, “There, there” as you pat her on the shoulder?  Or perhaps most effectively, “Look at what Puppy is doing!”

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved