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.


4 responses to “Eros and the Absurd: Love Amongst the Ruins”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    If we regard the sexual act as a creative act, all creation is a sexual act,a point emphasised by Ibn Arabi through out his writings, It is he who is revealed in every face, sought in every sign, gazed upon by every eye, worshipped in every object, and pursued in every unseen and seen. Not a single one of his creation can fail to find Him in its primordial and original nature. In that context there is nothing absurd. Absurdity is a way of looking not a state of being. Life is commitment and in commitment we appreciate life. Faith dissolves absurdity. It is strange how the spiritual experience starts with the call to read reflectively and not with the call to worship haphazardly. It is love but not confined to the man women context.We must not call absurdity by the name absurdity and stop there but continue to grasp the circle of the life opposite

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Last night I was reading an article by Richard Schiffmanon on Yes Magazine under the title , India 5 words for love, and the following quotation from Rumi
    in the garden of mystic love
    These are not true distinctions
    And thought I put it on this post.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    The real meaning of every life is only revealed when it’s looked at in its entire span, not as short and abrupt episodes.

    Every single life is brilliant and there’s nothing absurd about it. For a naturally aging person, things begin to fall into place as one advances in years. In that sense, aging is a process of revelation. It’s like the best movie ever with a plot as unpredictable as the winds. We don’t quite know how this movie of life ends, and we will only get the message of the movie when it is about to end.

    Sensual love is a primitive type of making connection with another human being. It’s highly unstable and even mostly irresponsible type of love. It is really not love at all.

    To me:

    [Love = understanding + a selfless and intelligent response to that understanding.]

    In that context, I can honestly say that I know beyond the shadow of the doubt that the universe is alive and has consciousness and capable of love. I can also say that I have been loved by the universe more than I have loved “It.” The life-protecting and sometimes life-saving taps on the shoulder I have received from the universe, and the now-and-then opportunities to do good are an indication of this love of the universe for me. But only as of beginning in the recent years ( and Seth’s works are greatly responsible for this) I have begun to see the numerous gifts that the love of the universe has brought me.

    In other words, the most perfect form of love I have experienced is the love of the “It” the universe.

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