Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since and that the experience had ‘undermined’ him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
When tragedy befalls us, it is easy to find ourselves thinking that we do not deserve it. This tendency is reinforced by the way that we think when something good happens to us: we say, ‘I did something good and as a result, something good happened in return’. We may think this way even if we do not believe in a supernatural being that watches over us, meting out good and bad outcomes depending on our actions; we may believe it like atheists who still believe in some vague notion akin to karma.
This is what Camus is driving at with regards to the nature of thought: if we cling to the idea that the world has a sense of justice, we will drive ourselves mad attempting to make sense of all the things that happen. As humans, justice is something that we care deeply about. We want experience to make sense in these terms, but it is hard to make sense of something like the death of a child.
In order to do so, we are all constantly telling ourselves stories. When tragedy strikes, we attempt to transform it into an opportunity for ‘growth’ or ‘self-actualisation’. Finding a ‘lesson to be learnt’ in tragic circumstances is an ingenious flight of the imagination. We want to live, so we manage to find the narrative drive we require in order to do so.
We cannot, however, entirely think our way out of suffering, especially when it is incredibly intense. We project our humanity out into the world, but the world is not human and it will constantly disappoint us with its deep, unyielding silence.
In Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia, the principle character Justine states at one point that ‘the earth is evil’ and I get the feeling that her thesis is similar to mine. It is a theme borne out in the premise of the film: the collision of the earth with another planet, an event that occurs on an inhuman scale, one on which humanity becomes totally insignificant.
I don’t think that the world is evil, for evil is just another human projection. The world is beyond such concepts. It doesn’t care about justice and injustice, good and evil. It doesn’t care about what happens to us.
The silence of the world does not mean that justice and morality do not exist, but rather, that these are human concepts. Existentialism is not a license to behave however we like, but rather the opposite: if justice belongs to us and not the gods, then we uphold it through our actions alone. Many religions, on the other hand, teach us to be good for fear of punishment, not because virtue is an end in itself.
Furthermore, the silence of the world is somewhat of a blessing. It is better that tragedy strikes randomly than as the result of the judgement of the gods. If all pain and suffering is the result of their actions, then they are truly evil, and what would we prefer? An evil god or no god at all?