A Sublime Farce?

To quote physicist Steven Weinberg, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The idea that the universe is pointless was already old news, however, by the time of Weinberg’s quote. Following Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead,” the theme of the world’s senselessness and life’s absurdity became, for a time, a major theme in art and literature. Works based on this theme were generally categorized under the term existentialism. Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are among the most prominent names associated with this movement.  

In the 1970s, when I attended college, existentialism was still influential, but angst over human meaninglessness had already become something of a joke, one that comedian Woody Allen, in particular, capitalized on. There were many aspects of existentialism that resonated with me, but as a whole it didn’t jibe with how I experienced the world. I didn’t feel alienated, and though there was much about life that I found absurd, I didn’t feel my life was meaningless. By then, I was already something of a Pantheist; I saw Nature as my creator and felt deeply a part of it. If God was dead, Nature was still very much alive, capable all on its own of bringing forth this intricate world and beings like you and me.  

It was not, let me add, that I felt then or feel now that our life has any particular purpose. I felt, however, that just to be was enough. One could certainly want more from the universe than mere existence, but I couldn’t see how in any way we deserved more; the “more” was our responsibility. Further, if “God was dead,” it meant that the universe asked no more us than that we be alive for our brief period; in comparison to the Christian notion of judgement, I found this liberating rather than something to bemoan. 

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It is presumptuous to interpret and evaluate something as complex, mysterious and extensive as the universe. Asserting its pointlessness or absurdity, whether in the manner of the existentialists or of scientists like Weinberg, is to indulge in an absurdity. Even if we had a complete understanding of the universe, as some scientists dream, going from facts and theories about it to statements about its ultimate value and meaning would be an unscientific leap. 

Being a bit absurd myself, however, I will lightheartedly (perhaps light headedly) venture such a leap. My interpretation and evaluation of life and the world, based on my brief 67 year tenure here, is that: “life is a sublime farce.” 

My justification for the “absurd” part of this sentence is somewhat similar to the existentialists’ justification of absurdity, though I would throw in such writers as Cervantes and Laurence Sterne, whose rambling novel Tristram Shandy, conveys just the right shade of humor and humaneness to what I mean by the word “farce.” Going back a bit further, I’d throw in Shakespeare, whose Macbeth declares: 

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

And even further back there is Ecclesiastes 14:

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

One could go on about all the things we might find absurd or farcical in life, but I suspect most readers need little convincing.

The “sublime” part is a little harder to justify and articulate. It is not based on ideas but on certain experiences, experiences both contributing to and arising from my sense of spirituality and ultimate value. Characteristic of all these experiences is a sense of being in contact with, even merging with, something greater than my little self.

The most precious of these experiences have come from the love of another person, particularly my wife and my children. Most often it has been an experience of the unfathomable mystery and beauty of the natural world. As I’ve grown older, it has come more frequently in the contemplation of art, literature and great ideas, ideas from philosophy, science or spirituality. Or sometimes it is just from engaging in little acts of kindness towards others, or witnessing such acts. 

There is another experience, that I have had on occasion, that more than any of the others I think of when I use the word “sublime.” I won’t say much about this, but it is an experience that sounds similar to the kind of experience that in the various spiritual traditions, is called the Beatific Vision, Oneness with God, Nirvana, and Samadhi. 

Such an experience is not common but also not rare. Many people have tried to convey in words this experience and the way it can transform our sense of the value and meaning of life. “The kingdom of heaven is within you” is the best articulation of it that I’ve encountered. Needless to say, I do not conceive of this experience as a gift from some supernatural source, but rather a mysterious “gift” from a subconscious part of the mind to consciousness.

We don’t need a Buddha to tell us that ordinary life is filled with unpleasantness. The failings of our governments and institutions, the irrationality of so much we are asked to believe, the foolishness of other people, and most significantly our own foolishness, all contribute to that unpleasantness. The Buddha offers nirvana to counter the unpleasantness implicit in samsara. For me, all I would want of nirvana are these simple experiences of the sublime. Such moments redeem, for me, the unpleasantness, the meaninglessness, the farce that characterizes so much else of this existence.

 

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