Eros and the Absurd: Love Amongst the Ruins
I’ve been watching quite a few videos lately, which is somewhat unusual for me. But cinema is one arena in which the contemporary struggle of values, or with values, is being carried out in public and one can learn a great deal about the contemporary mood — or Zeitgeist, if you will — by being attentive.
I’ve noticed a recurrent theme in almost all the contemporary videos I’ve watched, and that theme is “back to Adam and Eve”. In virtually all the videos existence is portrayed as absurd, meaningless, pointless, the only real thing being the love of a man for a woman or, more generally, eros. Outside Eros is Nothingness. Amo, ergo sum.
Here are the titles of a few I’ve watched recently: Her, When Harry Met Sally, Solaris, The Invention of Lying, Altered States. In all cases, the characters live lives which are empty, unreal, meaningless, pointless, irrational — in short, absurd — eventually only finding meaning and purpose in each other’s arms, in Eros. Love is discovered as the only island of the real in the midst of the Absurd — the Great Nothingness. “I love, therefore I am”. It is, in a sense, back to Adam and Eve.
Curious about this recurrent meme I looked up “absurdism” as a philosophical doctrine and discovered this brief history of it from Wikipedia, which seems to me worth reading but is quite incomplete. The article dates absurdism from the Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, but omits to mention Nietzsche or Kafka. The Nietzschean “abyss” is, after all, the “absurd”, the words meaning pretty much the same thing and with “the death of God” Nietzsche intends to be understood that all “reason” for being pretty much evaporates.
The definition provided by the Wikipedia article is worth noting, however,
In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between (a) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (b) the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean “logically impossible”, but rather “humanly impossible”. The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously. Absurdism, therefore, is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make certainty impossible.
The Absurd is the meaningless or irreal — the Nihil or Void — and that sense of the meaninglessness drives the characters in the films mentioned to seek consolation in Eros as the only thing meaningful and real. In that sense, we can refer to the theme of these movies as “love amongst the ruins”. Adam and Eve have only each other after their expulsion from Eden. The “ruins” are a world now devoid of value, having no meaning, no purpose, no direction, no telos — the Nietzschean “death of God”. And as the Wikipedia article notes, this mood has become particularly prominent after the Second World War — actually, after the whole period from 1914 – 1945 which we can treat altogether as one great revolution in human affairs.
This theme is particularly prominent in Altered States (1980), which I watched last evening. The hyper-rationalist Dr. Edward Jessup, who apparently finds it difficult to love (or perhaps feel anything), regresses through a series of sensory deprivation experiments to increasingly more primitive states of consciousness until he is seized by the horror of the terrible “Nothingness” at the root of all existence. In the beginning was the Void, the Nihil, the Chaos, the Terror that Jessup regressively becomes. Rationalism, pursued to its ultimate conclusion, ends in emptying existence of all inherent value or meaning — the thanatic drive, as it were. Only then does Jessup discover the value of love, because love (eros) is the only thing that keeps the horror of the absurd — of the meaninglessness — from overwhelming and destroying him.
Jessup represents, in that sense, the fear of Pascal. “The eternal silence of the Infinite Void terrifies me” he once confessed, and he sought salvation from that abyss in a dogmatic Christianity. Modern man has become much too sceptical for that dodge after “the death of God”. In The Invention of Lying, in fact, that dodge (or what Albert Camus called “elusion“) is explicitly mocked and ridiculed. He and she now takes refuge in Eros as salvation or redemption from the Absurd, for this alone now seems an oasis of the real in the midst of the ruins of an absurd and abysmal world — eros against nihilism.
The theme is quite clear, it seems to me: only Eros gives meaning to life, and only through Eros can the modern consciousness carve a meaningful and purposeful life out of the Absurd, even as a defence against the Absurd and those things which belong to the Absurd — Angst, ennui, despair, hopelessness, horror.
Even more pronounced in Altered States than in the other films mentioned is the ego consciousness’s great fear and terror of the unconscious, of being swallowed up by the unconscious, which is perceived as the realm of all primeval horrors. “Here be monsters” might as well be inscribed over the doorway into the unconscious as it was inscribed on the terra incognita of the old medieval maps of the world.
(It should be noted, however, that what Altered States depicts as a “regression” to more primal states of consciousness in all the tones and colours of horror and terror and the abysmal is not the facts of the inner world, but the residual memory of birth, which is truly a traumatic and terrifying experience, and probably the source of all our imagination of Hells. Birth is not a pleasant process).
This tendency to discover in Eros the entirety and absolute meaning and purpose of life is the subordination of the intellect, in fact. Amo, ergo sum has much different consequences than cogito, ergo sum. Eros is strongly associated with the mythological consciousness, and that has both its positive and negative aspects just as the mental-rational consciousness has positive and negative aspects. “Make love, not war” was this assertion of Eros, but that comes with its own problems as an answer and response to nihilism. Even the gods of ancient Greece feared Eros.
And, if I recall correctly, even in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land sex is a sacrament, and indeed, the one way that God is made manifest in all his naked glory, as it were. But that “God” made manifest and present in the midst of the sexual act is Eros.