Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Two and a Half Existentialists

Charlie Harper may barely add up to a half in the company of Kafka and Camus, but what stimulus he would bring. Just the other day he was noticing that Alan, his younger brother, was losing the will to live because he was no longer driven by the fear of not being able to send his son to college. Having been told that mum was setting up a trust fund for the boy, Alan stopped going to work, but rapidly came to feel that his life had no meaning. So Charlie stepped in and told Alan that he must start paying a hefty rent for staying at his big brother’s house (Alan had previously been kicked out of his home by his ex-wife). And if he should fail to pay on time, Charlie would hit him hard.

Kafka, having smoked a cigar or two with Charlie, would probably sit down and spin out the tale of a man lost on a California beach, desperately trying to work out how he could find his home before the tides would come in and drown him. Staring at meaningless messages in the sand, he would get more and more anxious about the hopelessness of his situation. He would turn to run, but every house on the sea front would look the same. When he finally opened a door, his brother would punch him hard and he would turn into a fresh water fish just before he dropped into the ocean. “That is life”, Kafka would observe.

Shaking his head, Camus would protest. Alan’s life could have no meaning beyond what he would invest in it. If all he could do to get himself up each morning is to fix his mind on something he must do to protect himself, then he was half way dead already. But life could be more. Alan could commit himself to bigger things, caring for other people. Life is not so much like a damn box of chocolates as a potential plague sweeping across the face of the planet. We can give up and perish, or join in solidarity with others and fight valiantly for every moment of cherished existence. “That,” said Camus, “is life”.

To complete the existential demonstration, Charlie Harper would deliver an immaculate proof. Yes, there are people like Jed Bartlet, who would embody the defiant spirit of Camus and dedicate themselves to making the sum of human existence greater than its tiny parts. But for others who cannot be bothered with all this lofty stuff, there is Kafka’s path to total futility – and Charlie led the way by drinking himself into oblivion.