Book review: “The Age of Absurdity” by Michael Foley

It’s an unusual comment to make about a book that is as much about philosophy and cultural conditioning as anything else, but I’d argue that Michael Foley sells himself short by sub-titling his latest book “Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy’. Over the course of 230-odd pages of the paperback edition, I nodded in agreement numerous times, dog-eared many pages and inserted post-it notes to flag insightful gems and pithy commentary. I also laughed out loud to the extent my eternally patient partner wondered equally ‘out loud’ quite how an apparently august tome could be having such an effect. The answer is that Foley’s writing is as funny (and, in places, rudely so – the sensitive should perhaps skip the chapter on ‘The Absurdity of Love’) as it is sharp. I hope other reviews will by now have put the author’s mind to rest: writing at his publisher’s website about the project, he commented that:

Worst of all, if the book ever got published it might be classified as Self-Help. A happy clappy smiley face? God forbid.”

I was happy at many points in reading it, but the urge to draw smiley faces evaded me. The book may have illuminated, informed and provoked, but it did so without any suggestion of ‘seven easy steps’ or ‘all you have to do is believe’. (As you may recall from our review of ‘Flip It’, that kind of book doesn’t win favours here.) On the contrary, it pointed a verbal shotgun at these suggestions and pulled the trigger with gusto. If a reality check is one of the best forms of self-help, this book could replace an entire section of your nearest bookseller franchise outlet (probably while firmly suggesting they turn down the piped music).

It’s a book that works hard (and, by the way, believes in the value of working hard) to avoid easy nutshells, recognising that they are part of ‘the problem’. Nutshells have the merits of lightness, portability and provision of a protective covering, but they don’t have a lot of room inside. And they are neither accommodating nor accepting. In an early chapter, Foley comments on the self-help book genre and the dark side of its cultural impact:

Distaste for the fatuous breeziness of self-help has also possibly encouraged a rejection of all psychology as lightweight and worthless. But the message of serious psychology is the opposite of that of self-help – fulfillment is not easy, but exhaustingly difficult. Theorists of the self insist on understanding and transformation but psychology has shown how difficult these can be. Attempts at self-understanding will be strenuously opposed by the id’s cunning use of self-deception, self-justification and self-righteousness. There seems to be no delusion too absurd, no justification too irrational and no righteousness too extreme for the human mind to accept.”

If that seems a little on the heavy side – and this is a book that doesn’t flinch from knowledgably citing Buddha, Schopenhauer, Proust, Marx, Seneca, Shinoza and Herzberg – Foley’s sharp-writing hits bulls eyes with sentences that bring the reader sharply back to the mundanity of reality. Writing about how contemporary insistence on entitlement has changed what signals our individual superiority, he first shows how money now is status rather than a means of acquiring it, proceeds to explore the new means we have adopted (cultural snobbery, being cool) and the absurdity of the attempt that most of us then conveniently ignore (‘conformity is the result of everyone striving for distinction in the same way’), and finally deflates our attempt with not so much a pin as a needle:

It was cool to get a tattoo when tattoos where the insignia of the dangerous outlaw – but soon even suburban housewives had tattoos on their bums.”

One central problem of human life is ‘happiness’, or rather that our sense that it is something we should not so much be striving for as receiving on a plate more frequently than is often the case. We are all, in our own ways, a little like Oliver Twist, except we expect more rather than asking for it. With strings of disastrous relationships behind us, we manage to argue that ‘we deserve happiness this time’; our inability to sing, for example, must somehow by trumped by our fervent desire to be famous. Although we mostly deserve a good talking to – if not a firm slapping – we mostly see ourselves as deserving endless pampering and instant satisfaction.

As The Media Book Club put it in its own online review:

Great thinkers of Philosophy, Religion, Art and more recently Psychology and Neuroscience all have their ideas on happiness and how best to achieve it, but most of these ideas are positively discouraged by the trappings of modern life.”

One mark of the book’s success – and the enjoyment of reading it – is that it balances the profound and the profane so well and so often. Drawing on philosophy, religion, history, psychology and neuroscience, he explores the things that modern culture is either rejecting or driving us away from:

  • Responsibility – we are entitled to succeed and be happy, so someone/thing else must be to blame when we are not
  • Difficulty – we believe we deserve an easy life, and worship the effortless and anything that avoids struggle (as Foley points out, this extends even to eating oranges: sales are falling as peeling them is now seen as too demanding and just so, you know, yesterday …)
  • Understanding – a related point, as understanding requires effort, but where we once expected decision-making to involve rationality, we have moved through emotion to intuition (usually reliable) and – more worryingly – impulse (usually unreliable), a tendency that Foley sees as explaining the appeal of fundamentalism (“which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God.”)
  • Detachment – we benefit from concentration, autonomy and privacy, but life demands immersion, distraction, collaboration and company; by confusing self-esteem (essentially external and concerned with our image to others) with self-respect (essentially internal and concerned with our self-image), we further fuel our sense of entitlement – and our depression, frustration and rage when we don’t get what we ‘deserve’
  • Experience – captivated by the heightened colour, speed, and drama of an edited on-screen life, our attention span is falling and ‘attention’ (at least in the West) is something we pay passively rather than actively and mindfully. To quote Foley :

When Americans and Japanese were asked to study an underwater environment for twenty seconds and then describe what they had seen, the Americans said things like ‘big blue fish’, and the Japanese ‘flowing water, rocks, plants and fish’. The Eastern reality was wider, fuller and richer.”

My impression is that book will disappoint the reader looking for dazzling insights into how to transform their working life on two fronts. Firstly, the chapter on ‘The Absurdity of Work’ is perhaps the weakest, although Foley’s theory of Professional Cheeriness – “A cheerful expression, drained of subtlety and nuance and infused with exaggerated brightness” is, as the author points out, “the demeanour an adult presents to a child.” What Foley finds most inexplicable about work is the lack of cynicism:

… there is little overt despair at the prospect of spending so much of life in a partition-board cubicle trying to keep the number of unanswered email to fewer than five hundred. There is of course always whingeing – about overwork, poor support services, misguided management, and so on, but this frequently has a ritualized, cosy feel, as though there is no real sense of grievance behind it. Even the whingeing is a form of happy bonhomie.”

Secondly, it will disappoint those in search of a ready answer, a list of actions or a route map. Many things that are good for us are mentioned in passing – reading good literature, seeking moments of privacy and solitude, trying not to expect things that are frankly unreasonable or to develop a sense of ‘entitlement’ – but the struggle and striving is ultimately its own answer. The trying is a greater source of satisfaction than the achievement itself. Once we’re ‘there’, after all, we only expect more.

Foley – appropriately – ends the book with Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, making the point that Camus insisted he could be happy (entirely reasonably, given he has escaped the cubicle, needn’t worry about promotion or Professional Cheeriness). An effective summary comes a few pages earlier:

… mordant laughter seems the only possible response. There is no way back to certainty, simplicity and innocence, only the way forward into confusion, uncertainty and knowingness. The gasp of wonder becomes the sardonic bark of disbelief. Absurdity is the new sublime.”

Nowadays we all are the man (or woman) who ‘knew too much’, and little good has it done us – and little wonder we are doing our best to flee it. Laughing at life’s sillier moments, accepting absurdity and difficulty and the variability of the quality of the experience while we persist with it isn’t such bad advice.

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Comments (3)
  • Liz

    June 23, 2010

    This is a great review — so very thorough and comprehensive. It sure makes me want to take a look at the book. Don’t totally dismiss the step-by-step approach to improving your life though. Sometimes it’s very helpful! I like “Streetwise Spirituality” which gives you a way to spend 28 days to enlightenment and a better life. The stories in it are real and unvarnished and sometimes painful and look at shame and blame, and spin, and the many ways we disconnect from life. The concepts are simple enough for anyone (and everyone!) to understand and use and shows you how to use hard times not just to rise above them but to get to better times. What’s holding you back? You’ll find out (that one is key for me). And in the end you see how past decisions, attitudes and behaviors — and the consequences of them — create the present and the future. It may not be conscious, but all that stuff matters and has an effect. The true stories are great, too.

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