The meaning of life

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, June 4, 2008

There is a common theme running through many of my favorite forms of mass media that illustrate my beliefs. Whether they are books, movies, or television shows, I find they exemplify a form of humor that searches for meaning in the absurd. This may seem a contradiction, but by questioning the meaning and rationality of ones existence one may find a sense of liberation and empowerment. For instance, one of my favorite books is The Stranger by Albert Camus. The main character, Meursault, murders a man for no apparent reason. He is convicted of killing an Arab man, yet Meursaults sentence of death is based not on the killing but for not showing remorse at his mothers funeral.
Attempts to make sense of Meursaults crime by the criminal justice system are based on lies and distortions of reality. Of course, the criminal justice system is also unmasked for its irrationality as well, in that it does not consider the murder of an Arab man to be all that serious an offense. Throughout the book, one senses that the world has no rational order or meaning other than what humans desperately try to fashion.
Ironically, it is only when Meursault realizes that the only thing certain in life is the inevitability of death, and that his life is insignificant and meaningless, that he finds a sense of peace.
While I appreciate Camus and his view that life is absurd, I do not quite hold that life is meaningless. My favorite filmmaker, Woody Allen, also raises questions about the absurdity of life in my favorite movie Love and Death, but suggests that we make meanings. Known for side-splitting anachronisms, Allen creates satirical settings in which his characters search for the meaning of love and life in a film packed with visual and verbal humor.
The two main characters (Boris and Sonja) find themselves in Russia during the war with Napoleon and become involved in a failed attempt to assassinate Napoleon, who seems more concerned about developing a pastry to counter the fame that his rival Wellingtons beef is earning.
Peasants hold discussions using Dostoevsky titles for monologue and make comments filled with philosophical jargon, ending one debate by noting: But judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept, such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.
Near the conclusion of the movie, an angel visits Boris in his prison cell the night before a scheduled execution and promises that God will save him at the last moment. God does not. The film concludes with Boris in the company of Death, visiting Sonja one last time.
Boris concludes: If it turns out that there is a God, I dont think that hes evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically hes an underachiever.
Woody Allen is also questioning the rationality and meaningfulness of life. But I think that his use of humor suggests that life, while not always rational, certainly can be meaningful. Even the creation of seemingly absurd logical scandals through humor conveys meaning. It becomes a way of reminding me that I have some ability to reorder the social world and hopefully make it better, or at least more meaningful.
Woody Allen ended another of my favorite movies, Annie Hall, with the following comment:
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, Doc, uh, my brothers crazyhe thinks he is a chicken. And, uh, the doctor says, Well, why dont you turn him in? And the guy says I would, but I need the eggs.
Well, I guess thats pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know, theyre totally irrational and crazy and absurd and but, uh, I guess we keep goin through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.
Life does not always make sense. But just as writers can manipulate words to create puns, create visual logical scandals, or fashion story lines that invert widely held formulas, so can I attempt to shape in a positive way the social world, invest my life with meaning and make the time I have here fulfilling. I need the eggs.

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