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Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

Then she stood up, put her jacket back on with the same robotlike movements, and left.  

—Albert Camus (The Stranger)

 I was in line at Safeway in Ellensburg, and a woman ahead of me had four boxes in her arms that she didn’t put on the conveyer belt, so I placed a plastic divider down with enough space for her boxes.  She picked a small package of pretzels off the impulse rack and put them on the belt and lay a dollar on top, still holding the boxes in her arms.  She moved a step ahead, but she seemed distracted.  When her turn at the cashier came, she set down four boxes of organic quinoa.  I wanted to ask her if she had seen the YouTube video of David Lynch cooking quinoa—very creepy—but I decided if I asked her, that might seem creepy.  She moved robotlike, as a Lynch character might in one of his dream sequences.  She was going through the motions of a person buying quinoa; perhaps, she was on medication. Each of the four credit cards she proffered was rejected, and she left the store with her pretzels after a cash sale, as though the boxes of quinoa were merely a prop in the theater of the absurd.  I wonder if she might have anticipated that her cards would be rejected and felt that the small cash purchase would “exonerate” her from judgement. 

I was reminded of a scene in Camus’s The Stranger, where a woman sits and eats with Meursault in a cafe.  The odd, little robotlike woman is convergent to his character, both live in their own worlds outside the judgement of others.  The reader starts to wonder if Meursault is himself a robot going through the motions, while asking little else but to continue in these habitual patterns. Yet Meursault’s apathy is of his own choosing, as he moves toward finding meaning in a meaningless universe.

At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. 

—Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus) 

A sense of absurdity arises out of the conflict between our wanting a world of order and the world of random events that resist our understanding.  We duck out of confronting the absurd because of our difficulty in resolving incompatible aspects of reality.  Still, the absurdity of some events is undeniable.  Recently, I saw The March of the Ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.  

How did the tradition of the ducks in The Peabody fountain begin? According to the official legend: 

Back in the 1930s Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. The men had a little too much Tennessee sippin’ whiskey and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as “guinea pigs,” and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Thus began a Peabody tradition.  In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March (www.peabodymemphis.com/ducks-en.html).

I relaxed in a deep-seated chair, sipped tea from a cup with a saucer, listened to the cacophony of voices that has always proceeded this event—and, before tedium set in, I watched a man in uniform shepherd a team of ducks from the elevator, along a red carpet, to the marble fountain in the center of the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.  The Peabody is a well-maintained bastion from the Gilded Age, and it resides comfortably in the decadence of the present.  Because this hotel is a staid institution, I was not sure how to interpret the spectacle transpiring before me.  

The ducks walked the red carpet, in their waddling manner, as the majordomo raised his cane and drove them along with dramatic gestures.  Order of sorts—and continuity.  Nearly a century after the inaugural march, ducks still visit the lobby fountain from their room in the hotel at the appointed hour each day.   What is this ritual?  Does it celebrate a prank?  Is it advertising?  Vanity?  Or is it just another distraction in the tsunami of mundane events?  There’s little one can do but embrace the absurd while also doing one’s best in the search for meaning.  This, according to Camus, is our absurd freedom. 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

(from “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens)

A snow man doesn’t have feelings, but a poet can use words (perhaps employing Keats’ negative capability) to transcend logical meaning and explore what it might be like to be a snow man.  “The Snow Man,” a poem by Wallace Stevens, has a lot in it about nothing.  Here, nothing is not nothing. To someone with an existential orientation, “nothing” is a something to be considered.  

Kierkegaard, who believes a human being is spirit, experiences a gulf between himself and God, a nothingness that terrifies him and that drives him to despair.  Dostoevsky’s underground man, in his spiteful and contrary way, professes to believe that, after all, there’s nothing to be done.  Focused solely on the being of Being, Heidegger asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  Sartre conceives of nothing as the backdrop to what is.  Nothingness is an open space that allows us, without God, to make choices. When Nietzsche’s madman claims that “God is dead!”, a foundational element for society begins to crumble.  The madman believes his prognosis is premature, but by the time Camus writes The Stranger, where a priest entreats the atheist Meursault to contemplate the Divine Face in a sweating rock (his own Sisyphean hellhole), the dissolution of the meaning of “God” is well underway.  How, then, are we to act in a meaningless universe?

Behold the snow man beholding itself and not thinking of any misery!  A happy thought. Another reading reverses this and reveals us as empty spirits dwelling in an inhospitable place.