Now here’s a thought to ponder: Man-made climate change and the impending ecological disaster is largely the result of our failure to acknowledge the absurdity of human life. Instead of laughing at the farce and relative insignificance of human endeavour and aspiration on the universal stage, we take our lives and position on the planet far too seriously. We ascribe meaning and purpose to our lives far in excess of any that actually exists. We invent ideals that are impossible to live up to and, consequently, a multitude of solutions and therapies to the resulting frustrations and feelings of inadequacy. But worse than that, far worse than that, in trying to live up to them we destroy the biosphere that supports human life. We, and the rest of life on Earth, would be much better off if we could learn to laugh at the ridiculousness of our situation, and stop taking it all so seriously.
That, at least, is the thought that has come to me from a reading of Joseph W. Meeker’s 1972 book The Comedy of Survival. It’s a study of what he terms ‘literary ecology’, a study of the relationship between ecology and comparative literature. In it he argues for the adoption of a more comic attitude to life, rather that the tragic one that Western culture has adopted form its Hebrew and Greek heritage. He argues that the philosophical ideas that lie behind our “tragic view of life” are the same as the ones that have caused our ecological crisis. Essentially, there are three such ideas.
- That humanity is somehow separate or outside nature and that nature exists for the benefit of mankind. This is the notion given in the Christian bible that man was created in the image of a supernatural being and was given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Creepy. And, particularly since the enlightenment and the dawn of the age of ‘reason’ it is the policy adopted by our economic systems, the policy Naomi Klein has termed ‘extractivism’, the policy or practice of seeing the Earth purely in terms of a resource to be plundered.
- That our morality transcends natural limits; that it has its both its source and justification outside nature. This is the view that whichever moral code we have grown up with, it is a code that we assume to have been either presented to us by the supernatural being that created us and which we must follow to prevent its displeasure, or has been ‘deduced’ from first principles – principles which, because they are outside or prior to our experiences, are similarly outside nature.
- That our individual personalities are of supreme importance; that once we have been taught what our ethical code is it is incumbent upon us to do our duty no matter how much such action may fly in the face of either particular circumstances, rational thought or our intuition. Individual endeavour and success through competition are far more important than cooperation or compromise. Individual strength and suffering for the cause are far more important than truly caring what the other thinks or feels.
Such a tragic view of life results in the creation of, and belief in, ideals which, because they transcend nature and experience, are impossible to be met or lived up to. According to this tragic view we are flawed from the start: destined to piss-off the gods; born with original sin; powerless against the mighty forces pitted against us. Oedipus was only human; it was not through any conscious fault of his that he brought plague to Thebes or brought about the suicide of his mother-wife. The brooding and tormented Hamlet was powerless against the corrupted society that surrounded him, but felt compelled to do his duty and restore the natural balance, no matter how much he suffered. It is from such a tragic view that our admiration of the ‘tragic hero’ as “an isolated man bearing on his private shoulders the moral burden of all humanity” arises. But why was such a view of human life created by poets? Why was such a view considered so significant? Why do we still generally regard tragedy to be a higher art form than comedy?
Few playwrights outside of ancient Greece and Elizabethan England have been able to portray such a view of life in way that so captures our imagination. Tragedy, therefore, has been largely confined to Western culture, or at least culture that has Hebrew and Greek roots. However, as Meeker points out, comedy is just about universal; whilst tragedy only appears in Western culture, “comic literature appears wherever culture exists.” This comic view of life portrays mankind as part of nature rather than outside it. In portraying humanity as often irrational, as performing actions that reveal our essential ignorance of ‘higher’ matters, and as being members of less than logical social and ethical systems, it has a far greater acceptance of humanity’s ‘flaws’; it assumes that all decisions will be less than perfect and may well result in ridiculous situations, situations that require us to muddle through. It accepts, even celebrates, the absurdity of life!
According to Meeker, comedy “illustrates that survival depends upon man’s ability to change himself rather than the environment, and upon his ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting him”; it reveals the absurdity in trying to live to the ideals of the tragic view of life. Perhaps if we stopped regarding ourselves as so important and destined to live in some version of paradise, whether of our own making or as reward for doing the will of a none-existent deity, and instead started to laugh at the absurdity of our situation, we would all become a little happier and the rest of life on Earth could take a big sigh of relief!