The Absurdity of Grief

-a dispatch from the grief process

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act… The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith … I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, 1849 (quoted here)

fishboyI am very fond of the absurd. The absurd encompasses things that are so extreme that there is no other response to have but to laugh. It’s not necessarily a humorous laugh. Sometimes it’s a little cynical or even bordering on bitterness.

In the definition of absurd there are words like:

  • wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate
  • ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous
  • contrary to all reason or common sense

“It derives from the Latin absurdum meaning "out of tune"” according to Wikipedia. (an often absurd source of information)

So I’ve hit the absurd portion of the grief program it seems. That is apparently what’s on the other side of the existential wall encountered yesterday. So there’s absurdism to be dealt with. 

The absurd is not all that unfamiliar to me. It’s pretty close to my everyday viewpoint on a lot of matters. Having an appreciation of absurdist literature also helps.

So I’ll pretend Kafka is writing my life story for the next while and see how that goes. Some of the choices offered:

“I am in chains. Don’t touch my chains.”
Franz Kafka

“You can choose to be free , but it’s last decision you’ll ever make”
Franz Kafka

“I am free and that is why I am lost.”
Franz Kafka

Come and Do Drawings With Me

-a dispatch from the grief process

One of the things I am doing on my own is drawing. It’s not something I’ve done often and I certainly don’t do it well. I was writing a little bit about it on Facebook, so I’ll write more here also.

Went to the bookstore the other evening after going to buy some more tea. I bought one book, The errors of young tjaz, by Florjan Lipus an Austrian writer. (Dalkey Archive Press–my current favorite publisher).

I also bought a sketchbook of sorts. I have kept saying I want to draw more because I can’t draw at all. Give me an empty screen or paper and I can fill it with words, in the tiniest of fonts, as well as squeeze some more in between the lines and in all the margins, but a blank paper with the intention to draw remains blank. I can’t think of what to do with it. So I bought this helpful sketchbook. It contains pages with labels on them telling you what to draw on the page. Some pages allow you to draw several things. I really need this kind of direction at present to get the drawing going.

This is the picture from Amazon.

So I’ve done some of the drawings inside. With some of them I have to put words just because words seem to fit there. On some of them I didn’t like the topics so I made up my own. For example I didn’t care to do “presidential pets” not only because I have no idea about such things but it bugs me that it’s a topic at all. So I replaced “presidential pets” with “giant babies”. So that one’s going to be fun whenever I get to it.

Yesterday I ran into an article about Franz Kafka’s drawings. They are quite interesting. He was very reluctant to let anyone see them. The article describes his viewpoint.

In his book Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch describes what happened when he came upon Kafka in mid-doodle: the writer immediately ripped the drawing into little pieces rather than have it be seen by anyone. After this happened a couple times, Kafka relented and let him see his work. Janouch was astonished. “You really didn’t need to hide them from me,” he complained. “They’re perfectly harmless sketches.”

Kafka slowly wagged his head to and fro – ‘Oh no! They are not as harmless as they look. These drawing are the remains of an old, deep-rooted passion. That’s why I tried to hide them from you…. It’s not on the paper. The passion is in me. I always wanted to be able to draw. I wanted to see, and to hold fast to what was seen. That was my passion.”

~excerpt from Open Culture, The Art of Franz Kafka: Drawings from 1907-1917

That statement resonates with me as I’ve also always had some wish to be able use more than words to express some things. But I draw about as well as I sing. Let’s just say you do not ever want me in a karaoke event.

There was a video also in that article which featured some of the Kafka drawings. It’s very short and quite interesting.


Certainly any drawings I’m making are not as sublime as those of Kafka.

They might be more along the lines of the work of Simon and his friends.

8 minutes of Zen with Nam June Paik


I am fond of Avant garde art of all sorts. From the Russian Oberiu group which includes people like Daniil Kharms, who I wrote about before at some length in the post Dystopia, to stuff Yoko Ono has done to situationist détournement to modern dance performances and street art. Here’s a great big juicy list on Wikipedia List of avant-garde artists.

I don’t analyze art much in any sort of “art history” or “aesthetic philosophy” way, even though I took such courses once upon a time. It’s just something I like to enjoy and think about. One of my favorite websites is UbuWeb which is chock full of the stuff.

Today in UbuWeb’s Twitter stream they pointed out a short film by Nam June Paik.

Nam June Paik (1932-2006) was a Korean-American artist who has produced many interesting pieces of work, a lot of them referencing Buddhist concepts. Many other artists have been influenced by his work, as the write up for Skip Blumberg – Nam June Paik: Lessons from the video master (2006) indicates:

Nam June Paik was the first video artist and did almost everything in video art first. His work broke the rules of art, television, graphics, and, because TV can use all possible art and information, practically everything else, too.

His first video sculptures, such as a Buddha watching his own image on TV and a magnet on the side of a TV set that pulls the TV image into abstractions, were shown at the Galeria Bonino, the Howard Wise Gallery, the Rose Art Museum and many others, beginning in 1965.

Nam June Paik was interested in the intersection between humanity and technology. He said:

Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life.

Image from the installation of 1974 on Nam June Paik’s official website.

Probably his most famous work depicts a Buddha statue watching itself on closed circuit TV. The questions such a piece of art brings up are numerous.

Is this a metaphor for meditation?

Is it a metaphor for narcissism?

How is our self image mediated by technology?

What is the subject and what is the object in this configuration?

As these are all manufactured objects where is the human in them?

Is the human becoming something of a ghost in the machine?

What of this Buddha figure with it’s apparent unchanging posture and stare?

Is the statue any different than “a rice bag”? –referring to the Zen story collected in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

A Zen master named Gettan lived in the latter part of the Tokugawa era. He used to say: "There are three kinds of disciples: those who impart Zen to others, those who maintain the temples and shrines, and then there are the rice bags and the clothes-hangers."

Like I said lots of questions.

The film pointed out by UbuWeb, "Zen For Film" [(1962-64), 8 min, b&w, silent] is an eight-minute strip of clear 16mm film leader. Nothing really happens in it in terms of a narrative, as it’s just a white square. Yet it is quite a strange experience to watch. There is a film, or a piece of film being projected, it’s just that there’s nothing deliberately placed on that piece of film.

It’s interesting to watch the whole 8 minutes, especially if you watch it with some self-awareness (I was going to say mindfulness but blah). When I watched it I noted:

  • my eyes didn’t stop moving, searching the screen for something, some kind of input
  • I got a sensation of anxiety and anticipation as if I were waiting for something to happen
  • the occasional passing dust mote caused me to snap to attention
  • all kinds of thoughts passed “Why am I wasting my time with this?”, “What’s the point of this?”, “Is this information?”, “If not then what is it?”, and so forth.

Give it a try and see what you come up with if you’re just killing time on the Internet.

Here are screen captures of some of the highlights if 8 minutes is too arduous to endure. You can project all your own notions upon it.

Screenshot - 5_17_2013 , 2_57_09 PM

Screenshot - 5_17_2013 , 2_57_45 PM

Screenshot - 5_17_2013 , 2_58_09 PM