A Consideration of Time, Space, Relativity, Meaning and Absurdity (Yep, All of It)
DZIGAN: Professor Einstein said, “In the world, there is time. And just as there is time, there is another thing: space. Space and time, time and space. And these two things,” he said, “are relative.”
Do you know what “relative” means?
SHUMACHER: Sigh. Nu? The point? Continue.
DZIGAN: There is no person these days who doesn’t know what “relative” means. I will explain it to you with an analogy and soon you will also know. Relativity is like this: If you have seven hairs on your head, it’s very few but if you have seven hairs in your milk, it’s very many.
In the 1870s, Leo Tolstoy became depressed about life’s futility. He had it all but so what? In “My Confession,” he wrote: “Sooner or later there will come diseases and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and to me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist. So why should I worry about these things?”
Life’s brevity bothered Tolstoy so much that he resolved to adopt religious faith to connect to the infinite afterlife, even though he considered religious belief “irrational” and “monstrous.” Was Tolstoy right? Is life so short as to make a mockery of people and their purposes and to render human life absurd?
In a famous 1971 paper, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel argues that life’s absurdity has nothing to do with its length. If a short life is absurd, he says, a longer life would be even more absurd: “Our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts 70 years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?”
This line of reasoning has a nice ring to it but whether lengthening an absurd thing will relieve it of its absurdity depends on why the thing is absurd and how much you lengthen it. A longer life might be less absurd even if an infinite life would not be. A short poem that is absurd because it is written in gibberish would be even more absurd if it prattled on for longer. But, say I decided to wear a skirt so short it could be mistaken for a belt. On my way to teach my class, a colleague intercepts me:
“Your skirt,” she says, “is absurd.”
“Absurd? Why?” I ask.
“Because it is so short!” she replies.
“If a short skirt is absurd, a longer skirt would be even more absurd,” I retort.
Now who’s being absurd? The skirt is absurd because it is so short. A longer skirt would be less absurd. Why? Because it does not suffer from the feature that makes the short skirt absurd, namely, a ridiculously short length. The same goes for a one-hour hunger strike. The point of a hunger strike is to show that one feels so strongly about something that one is willing to suffer a lack of nourishment for a long time in order to make a point. If you only “starve” for an hour, you have not made your point. Your one-hour hunger strike is absurd because it is too short. If you lengthened it to one month or one year, you might be taken more seriously. If life is absurd because it’s short, it might be less absurd if it were suitably longer.
Absurdity occurs when things are so ill-fitting or ill-suited to their purpose or situation as to be ridiculous, like wearing a clown costume to a (non-circus) job interview or demanding that your dog tell you what time it is. Is the lifespan of a relatively healthy and well-preserved human, say somewhere between 75 and 85, so short as to render it absurd, ill-suited to reasonable human purposes?
Time, as we all knew before Einstein elaborated, is relative. It flies when we are having fun; it “creeps in this petty pace from day to day” when we are wracked with guilt. Five minutes is too short a time to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity but it’s just the right length of time for the Dzigan and Shumacher routine about it. Our perception of time is relative to space, yes, but also to purpose, to other spans of time, to task and probably to other things I have not thought of.
To assess whether human life is usually too short, consider human aims and purposes. People are commonly thought to have two central concerns: love and work. So much has been written about how little time there is to do both that we need not elaborate. Suffice it to say that when people ask me how I manage to be a philosopher, mother, teacher, wife, writer, etc., the answer is obvious: by doing everything badly. We could abandon love or abandon work, but giving up one fundamental human pursuit in order to have time for a better shot at the other leaves us with, at best, half a life. And even half a life is not really accessible to most of us — life is too short for work alone.
By the time we have an inkling about what sort of work we might enjoy and do well, most of us have little time to do it. By the time we figure anything out, we are already losing our minds. Age-related cognitive decline begins in our 20s, just as our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judgment, is finally completing its lengthy maturation process. The rate of cognitive decline increases as we age, with a steep increase after age 60.
We don’t fare much better with time to love. It takes time and experience to develop the wisdom and maturity to choose an appropriate partner and love him or her in a way that doesn’t make everyone miserable. Relationships need attention, and attention takes time. Children take lots of time too, and some reflection and experience, yet we are biologically made to bear children when we are young and unwise.
Maybe the problem is not that we don’t have enough time but that we waste the time we have. Seneca famously thought this. (“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”) Most of us seem unable to refrain from “wasting” time. It is the rare person indeed who can be maximally efficient and productive. For the rest of us — that is, for almost all of us — Seneca’s advice about not wasting time seems true but useless.
If we devoted our entire lives to one great painting or one beautiful melody, even if that work was a masterpiece, we might feel absurd to have spent our entire lives on it. A life so spent is bound to have been narrow, confining and oddly obsessive. That doesn’t seem to be a reasonable way to spend one’s entire life. It seems out of scale. But if life were much longer, we might have enough time to write many books, paint many paintings, compose many melodies and, over a couple of hundred years or so, get really good at it. We might even feel fulfilled, accomplished and decidedly non-absurd. Maybe not, but we would have more of a chance than we do now, in our fleeting, ludicrous, minute lifespan.
What if we lived for, say, 500 or 1,000 years? Would our ambition tend to grow to scale, making life seem absurdly short for human purposes, whatever its length? Is it human nature to adopt outsized ambitions, condemning ourselves to absurdity by having conceptions of reasonable achievement that we don’t have the time to realize? Why haven’t we scaled down our ambitions to fit the time we have? Is the problem our nature or our lifespan?
There may be no way to be sure but consider the fact that, although we have ambitions unsuited to our lifespan, we don’t seem to consistently adopt ambitions unsuited to our species in respects other than time. It’s not absurd to us that we cannot fly or hibernate. We don’t think the fact that we can hold our breath for minutes rather than hours or memorize a few pages rather than a tome makes human life meaningless. We don’t find that our inability to read each other’s minds, speak to animals, glow in the dark, run 60 miles an hour, solve complex equations in our heads simultaneously or lift thousand-pound weights makes a sad mockery of human existence. This makes it more likely that, given a longer lifespan, life might seem less absurdly short for our purposes.
Just as a lifespan can be too short, it can be too long. For many, it is far too long already. Many people are bored with life, irritated by the human condition, exhausted from suffering, tired of living. For those for whom life is too long, a longer life would be worse and, quite possibly, more absurd. For some, however, life seems too long because it’s too short, meaning life is rendered so absurd by being short that even a short absurd life feels too long because it is pointless. A life made absurd because it is too short would be rendered less absurd if it were significantly longer.
A million-year or infinite life might be too long for human nature and purposes too, though such a life would be so radically different that we can only speculate. An infinite life might become tedious, and people world-weary. Lifetime love commitments, a source of meaning now, would likely cease to exist. A million-year or infinite lifespan might be too long and slip into absurdity. To everything its time. Both a too short lifespan and a too long lifespan present absurdist challenges to a meaningful life.
For a 500- or 1,000-year lifespan to work to reduce life’s absurdity, we would have to be able to sustain a sense of self over that time. So long as our memories function well and our psychological continuity can be maintained, our sense of identity might hold up (at least to a degree not all that different from our current condition). There is also the matter of perception. As we age, time seems to pass more quickly, probably because we become accustomed to life and pay less attention. If life were much longer, we would have to find a way to notice so that it didn’t seem to still pass in a flash of our inattention. And then there is our health. Clearly, it will not be less absurd to lengthen our period of decrepitude. The longer lifespan would have to be mostly spent in decent health. An appropriately lengthened lifespan might make life much less absurd.
In the scheme of things, humans take up very little space. The Earth is a miniscule part of the universe. And each individual takes up so little space on this miniscule part of the universe as to occupy almost no space at all, relative to the entire universe or even to the planet Earth. Our physical smallness relative to the Earth and the universe is taken by some to imply insignificance and, in turn, our absurdity.
But absurdity occurs when things are ill-suited to their purposes, and neither human size nor the space allotted to humans is ill-suited to human purposes. Unlike the time of a human lifespan, which is ill-suited to our purposes, the space allotted to humans isn’t. We’re neither too small nor too large to do what we want to do. We are not forced to live cramped in tiny caves; we are not so light as to be blown around by the wind. If we had to stand on each other’s backs to reach the leaves that we needed for sustenance, that might make us feel absurdly small. But we’d probably adapt to accommodate this feature of our physiology or build ladders for easier foraging. If the atmosphere thinned out at four feet, we might feel absurdly large, crawling awkwardly on our bellies in order to breathe. Yet, if we were belly crawlers that would seem normal to us and our bodies would adapt to crawling. We have evolved and adapted to our space, both to the space we take up and to the space available to us.
Space is more manipulable than time. We build chairs and tables to human size; we blast through mountains to clear space for roads. We build living space horizontally and vertically so that we can live in densely populated cities. To some extent, we’ve conquered space by increasing the speed of human travel and developing technologies to enable us to communicate easily across great distances. This has made life more convenient but not less absurd because the absurdity of human life is not a space problem. Given enough time, we could cover more space, but more space will not solve our time-related difficulties.
People have spatial needs, but, given that we can manipulate or adapt to our spatial parameters, our size and the space we have to live in do not seem crucial to our sense of ourselves. Very short lives seem incomplete, even tragic, but we don’t have comparable views about people who are very large or very small. So who cares if we are small? That is an idiosyncrasy, if you care to note it. It does not entail our insignificance. The fact that we’re miniscule relative to the vast universe is not a way of showing that our relationship to space makes our lives absurd. It’s just a long way of saying we are small (small is a relative term, and this long way of saying we are small specifies what we are small in relation to). Our size does not matter.
The English poet Andrew Marvell, in his famous poem “To His Coy Mistress,” begins his request for seizing the day for love by saying that if he could, he would wait and woo far longer before going at it: “Had we but world enough, and time / This coyness lady, were no crime.” Marvell was right about time but wrong about the world. We have too little time, but there’s world aplenty.
The absurdity of human life poses a challenge to its meaning. Absurdity and meaningfulness don’t go together. This, however, does not mean that if life were not absurd then it would have meaning. Removing the obstacle of absurdity does not entail that meaning rushes in. But if we cannot remove the obstacle of absurdity then it will be hard to conclude that life has meaning or determine what that meaning might be. The clown suit is standing in our way.
Excerpt from the comedy routine “Einstein/Weinstein,” by the Yiddish comedy duo Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, audio recording, Savethemusic.com, the Jewish Music Archive, Jewish songs performed by Shimon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher. Translated from the Yiddish audio by Rivka Weinberg.
Rivka Weinberg is an associate professor of philosophy at Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif. She is the author of a book on procreative ethics, “The Risk of a Lifetime,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
There are many sayings, proverbs, and scientific studies claiming and proving that having a sense of humor is a phenomenal aid in various life situations. However, what one finds funny may be dull and boring for another. Some people value only black humor, while others may find comedic features literally in everything. In other words, there seems to be no universal criteria to define what exactly is humorous.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, humor is a quality that appeals to one’s sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous. In other words, this definition implies that humor is a personal quality that causes us to feel amused as we witness events or phenomena that fall into the category of absurd. The ridiculousness of absurdity, by the way, to some extent corresponds with Freud’s views on the sense of humor, but at the same time, does not seem to give us a clear picture.
The online Free Dictionary defines humor as situations, speeches, or writings that are thought to be humorous. This definition reminds us about jokes and comedy—genres that are most often associated with the sense of humor. However, a word or an event on their own cannot be funny, as it is the context that provokes our amusement about something. This assumes the same joke spoken to different people, who are either familiar or not familiar with its context, will respectively be perceived by them as ridiculous or dull and meaningless.
Dictionary.com offers a definition, according to which humor is a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality that causes amusement. If we restate this definition, we can see it assumes that for a situation or phenomenon to be seen as funny, it is enough for them to be absurd or incongruous. We believe it is the participant who evaluates each particular situation, so we cannot ignore the role of an individual. In fact, this definition is to some extent similar to the one above in terms of appealing only to an object without taking the participant into consideration.
Based on the aforementioned qualities, but seemingly incomplete definitions, we would like to come up with another one. Humor is the individual’s ability to perceive situations or phenomena as amusing due to their absurd, incongruous, or ludicrous nature, and/or in relation to the context in which they took place.
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