The Age of Absurdity

I usually don’t read satire, but recently finished reading “The Age of Absurdity” by Michael Foley, and it is one of the best books I read in 2017. It critiques the eccentricities of modern life, revealing some rather uncomfortable truths. I have tried to summarize the book to the best of my understanding, but it is much deeper than my naive first impressions. It will probably take at least a couple more readings, and a lot more life experience to internalize the concepts.

The book covers a broad range of topics from philosophy, spirituality, literature, psychology, and neuroscience for common ideas on fulfilment and happiness. It then investigates how easy or difficult it might be to apply such strategies in contemporary life, amplified by a culture of high expectations, conspicuous consumption, shallow partnerships and perpetual youth.

Entitlement and Potential

In this chapter, the author takes his stabs on an entitled, selfie-possessed, narcissistic and attention-seeking culture. There are some uncomfortable, but true passages in here. The demand for attention is increasingly strong, a consequence of inner emptiness requiring identity conferred by the approval of others. The need to be acknowledged as an individual is common in humans. In its extreme form this becomes a craving for celebrity, the desire to be noticed not just now and then by a few, but to be bathed always in recognition, admiration, envy and desire. This is also related to narcissistic self-promotion on social media and internet, and the desire to be famous.

The book explores the topic of endless potential, which can turn into a form of greed that believes there is always something better just ahead. Whatever is actually happening today is already so yesterday, and the only true excitement is the Next Big Thing - the next lover, job, project, holiday, destination or meal. As a consequence, the most attractive solution to problems is flight, to move on, or abandonment.

There is a related passage from another chapter, which I think is relevant here. In the age of entitlement, everyone wants to appear superior to everyone else, resulting in intellectual or other types of snobbery and a false sense of superiority. Much consumption or social media behaviour is driven by a futile attempt to get ahead of the pack - or a defensive need to avoid falling too far behind.

Modern Self-Help

This is my favourite chapter. It beautifully critiques the modern self-help industry, which incessantly promotes that you can have anything you desire, become anyone you wish to be and there are no limits to potential, achievement, and reward. The universe is an endless conveyor belt of prizes and all you have to do is send your wishful thoughts into the universe, and it will promptly deliver them to you. (Remember the secret, anyone?) It’s a refreshing chapter, and reveals the many fallacies of naive wishful thinking, resulting from self-deception, self-justification and faulty self-righteousness.

A good chunk of the chapter is devoted to how we fool others, and in turn ourselves. The human capacity for self-deception and the talent for self-justification is extraordinary. The author humorously says ‘when it comes to justifying actions, every human being acquires the intelligence of an Einstein, the imagination of a Shakespeare, and the subtlety of a saint.’ There are good examples provided in the book to prove that not only does irrefutable evidence fail to destroy a delusion, it can actually reinforce and intensify the false belief. This is ‘cognitive dissonance’ in action. Unable to tolerate two dissonant beliefs, the mind simple eliminates the more inconvenient of the two.

The author explores the topic of depression and anxiety. I believe he relates it to modern self-help and self-esteem movement. ‘I must succeed’; ‘Everyone must treat me well’; ‘The world must be easy’; ‘The Universe owes me everything’. The first must is the curse of perfectionism, the second must is the curse of neediness, and the third must is the curse of plain stupidity.

The Assault on Detachment

The thesis of this chapter is what you need is detachment, concentration, autonomy and privacy, but what the world insists upon is immersion, distraction, collaboration and company. It mostly explores the topic of divided attention and being in a constant distracted state, and its long-term effects on the brain. My favourite part is his critique of open-plan offices.

A significant chunk is devoted to the ill-effects of self-esteem. The author concisely and very humorously attacks the modern self-esteem movement. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. There is a lot of sarcasm and mockery of the sub-genre of self-help devoted to boosting self-esteem. There is a quote from Albert Ellis, the author of “The Myth of Self-Esteem”, which basically says that the self-esteem doesn’t offer society any compensatory benefits beyond the seductive pleasure it brings to those engaged in the exercise.

The author points out a few critical problems with self-esteem. The main problem is that it has no intrinsic value or principles, and does not even require effort. It is often narcissistic. He gives an example of the total confidence that many parents try to instill in their children. Usually, such high self-esteem is accompanied by low self-awareness, and many of them grow up with no understanding of their own faults or without any humility. Some may even go so far as to believe that their own faults are endearing. The chapter concludes with the promotion of detachment, and the holy trinity of Ss - Solitude, Stillness and Silence.

The Rejection of Difficulty and Understanding

This chapter explores the topic of irrationality and how emotions such as grief, panic, hysteria, hatred, rage sweep aside rational argument and reasoned thought. He argues that most of these dangerous emotions are based on fear, and a hedonistic culture, concerned as much with the avoidance of pain and difficulty as the pursuit of pleasure, is always fearful. There is a line that I especially like, “The people have never been more healthy and safe - and have never felt more unhealthy and unsafe.”

The only alternative to difficult thought and a lack of understanding is surrendering autonomy to a higher authority. This is the attraction of fundamentalism, which eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning, and all anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God or a prominent entity.

However, the main point of this chapter is not to provide an argument against emotion, as without emotion there is no compassion, love, happiness, or even rational decision-making. But emotion must be balanced by thinking, especially with negative emotions as they are much more powerful than the positive. It would be beneficial to develop a more sceptic and rational mind.

The chapter finishes with a detailed description of the workings of the brain and latest advancements in neuroscience. It distinguishes between our primitive emotional brain and more recently evolved rational pre-frontal cortex, drawing parallels from ancient philosophy and modern neuroscience.

The Loss of Transcendence

The author begins the chapter with introduction to what is usually meant by transcendence. A brief description of the topic is provided from different viewpoints, the primary theme being it’s the escape from the self, or the loss of the self. This is contrasted with modern age’s attempts to achieve the fast and easy route to transcendence - drugs. The main reason people do drugs is to get away from thoughts and one’s own head. The problem with drugs, according to neuroscience, is they do not replicate exactly a natural high, but produce similar effects by suppressing other effects and these suppressions permanently damage the neural network.

There you go. It’s a difficult read, but a good one.