What is it to be absurd? Can we even wrap our heads around the concept when to do so threatens to unravel the fabric we each wear from day to day, risks unweaving the very rainbow we have come to worship?

But, just because something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t necessarily make it absurd, of course. Many things don’t make sense until we invest some time and effort into interrogating them further. And even if the effort comes up fruitless, we often throw a pattern over it to make it accessible -or should I say acceptable? Without a framework to compare it to, there is a tendency to reject it -or worse, to regard it as nonsense. Pointless. Unsettling.

Still, is there a universal threshold for absurdity -something everybody would agree makes no sense? Or is that a silly question, and one that is dependent on culture, expectations, or previous exposure to inexplicable incongruity?

In that regard, art springs to mind, I suppose -abstract art in particular, perhaps. Depending on the type and the artist -Kandinsky, for example- it is sometimes just a jumble of different colours with a title attached to it. Sometimes resolvable, yet equally often not, it is difficult to know how to process it. Eventually, however, it is usually possible to step back and appreciate it as, well, interesting, if not beautiful. But is it still absurd, in that case? Or is it just the expectation that was created by its title that was confusing?

Maybe the ultimate example of artistic absurdity would be Malevich’s Black Square -a black square of paint. I’m certainly not an art critic, and although I know a little bit of its history and subsequent versions, as well as his intention of having it symbolize a sort of beginning: “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins” a black square is difficult to process meaningfully; we have to judge it differently. Of course, perhaps that is the point… In which case, it is no longer absurd.

Clearly, I have to admit that I find the very concept of absurdity a little absurd, and this confusion no doubt contributed to my interest in an essay by the science writer, David Robson:

‘Many works of art deliberately challenge our understanding of the world in this way, including other films by Lynch [of Mulholland Drive fame], the writing of Franz Kafka and the humour of Monty Python, to name but a few. All feature illogical and incongruous elements and the uncanny juxtaposed with the familiar… According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. The findings also suggest new ways to improve education, and even help to explain our responses to some of the more absurd political events of recent years.’

‘Heine [psychologist Steven Heine] and his team proposed that our mental representation of the world is like a delicate web of interconnected beliefs, documenting the relations between ourselves and the people, places and objects around us. When we are confronted with an apparently inexplicable event that appears to break that framework, we feel profound uncertainty – the ‘feeling of the absurd’.’

Heine describes three ways in which we might process the absurd: building a new mental representation to incorporate the inexplicable event, reinterpreting the event so that it fits our existing mental model, or strengthening other beliefs and values -even those relating to a completely unconnected domain- and then retreating to a safe place where the world makes sense again: so-called ‘fluid compensation’.

I can see how using absurdity might have an interesting affect on education –‘teachers could deliberately create feelings of uncertainty to prompt students to look harder for meaning in the material they’re studying.’ On the other hand, I suspect this would only make sense in situations where the students are prepared for this beforehand; I don’t think it would work for everybody, either -me, for example.

I think back to when my daughter was small and, of course, bringing back artwork from her kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. One of them I remember well. It was a largish sheet of white art-paper with random sine-wave type squiggles on it in green crayon, and then a straight red line through it diagonally across the page.

I smiled when I saw it, and by now I was used to her drawings so I started to put it on the fridge door with her other creations.

“No, no Daddy,” she almost shouted at me, “That was just an extra that I didn’t hand in.” She was quite adamant about it and went into her usual arms-across-her-chest scowl. She did that whenever she thought I didn’t understand something.

I took the magnet off and put the drawing on the kitchen table. “Why didn’t you hand it in, sweetie?” I asked.

She climbed on a chair and looked at the paper. “ ‘Cause I made a mistake, daddy…” She studied my face for a reaction.

“Oh,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could and examined the drawing more closely. “It’s nice, though…” I stopped, because I hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d been drawing. “What were you drawing?”

She screwed her little face up and stared at me as if I really should have known. “It’s attack art, of course…” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not s’pposed to be anything…!”

I had to think about the word for a moment. Was she telling me it was meant to offend the viewer…? She sometimes got new words mixed up, though, so it could have been anything. I just nodded my head as if I suddenly understood why she hadn’t handed it in. I didn’t, of course.

“So, what did the drawing you handed in look like?” I thought maybe I could figure it out from that.

A little smile surfaced on her lips and her eyes twinkled at me. “Same thing, but I did the wavy lines in blue…” She thought about it some more, and then added “Except for the straight line, of course.” She fixed me with a knowing stare. “You only put the straight lines in when you’ve made a mistake and want everybody to know.”

I thought about her drawing that night after she went to bed. ‘Attack art’? And it’s not supposed to be about anything…? Then, suddenly it dawned on me: she meant Abstract Art. I went into the kitchen and revisited the drawing. I thought it was pretty good for abstract art, you know -although I agreed with her, the squiggles would  probably look better in blue.

The things they were starting to teach kids about in school impressed me. In my day, if I’d handed in something like that to the teacher, my mother would have got a phone call from the school counsellor that evening… or did they even have counsellors then?

In praise of an empty brain

How do I love thee, Age? Let me count the ways… Well, actually I’m not actually going to, because of late, I’ve fallen out with it. Perhaps it’s just my memory that’s falling, though: I was about to parody Shakespeare -it’s what I knew I knew, and yet I didn’t (it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I checked). A simple mistake, perhaps, and yet, once again, the hubris of my years led me along the wrong neurons. I feel embarrassed about it now, but suppose I had offered it to someone as a valid Shakespearean quotation and, out of respect for my age, I had not been contradicted? For that matter, what if I’d felt there was no need even to look it up?

Although I am now retired after a long career in medicine, people still ask for my opinion. I answer them, of course, but I do wonder if what I say is still up to date and correct. And often as not, I will look up the answer when I get home. Whether it be age or temperament, the assumption of knowledge I do not possess sits poorly with me. Nowadays, I am far more likely to shrug and admit that I do not know the answer to the question asked -or at least admit that I am uncertain.

However for an expert, I suppose it’s a matter of pride to speak with certainty, even if that confidence is apt to block, or even deride other viewpoints. It seems to me that knowledge is never a locked door -we can always learn by opening it from time to time.

Of course I have never been able to keep track of my keys, so I suppose I am particularly vulnerable. The other day while I was meandering through my apps, for example, I stumbled upon an intriguing essay in Psyche:

The author, Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, writes that ‘The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.’ He cites several historical examples of the inability to accept new findings, including one that promises my increasing years the hope of new clothes: ‘belief in the legendary Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s ‘harsh decree’ that adult humans are unable to grow new neurons persisted for decades in the face of mounting contradictory evidence.’

But, of course this is hardly confined to academia. Expertise in any field breeds hubris. ‘Merely having a university degree in a subject can lead people to grossly overestimate their knowledge… participants frequently overestimated their level of understanding, apparently mistaking the ‘peak knowledge’ they had at the time they studied at university for their considerably more modest current knowledge.’ In fact, ‘there is research evidence that even feeling like an expert also breeds closed-mindedness.’

Jarrett then suggests something obvious: ‘Approaching issues with a beginner’s mind or a healthy dose of intellectual humility can help to counter the disadvantages of intellectual hubris… being intellectually humble is associated with open-mindedness and a greater willingness to be receptive to other people’s perspectives.’

Good idea for sure, but how can a dyed-in-the-wool expert stoop to conquer their own hard-earned arrogance? One way that I thought was clever was ‘to make the effort to explain a relevant issue or topic to yourself or someone else in detail, either out loud or in writing. This exercise makes the gaps in our knowledge more apparent and bursts the illusion of expertise.’ It also makes me think of that famous quote from St. Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

But, I have to say there is another method that Jarrett suggests, almost as an addendum, that has to be my favourite: ‘deliberately invoking in oneself the emotion of awe. Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts epistemological openness’. In other words, ‘Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.’

The essay reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago while I was in the thrall of my freshly earned medical degree. Nancy, my date and I had been invited to her uncle Arvid’s house for dinner, and I suppose I felt a little intimidated sitting across the table from a recently retired professor of history. I don’t know why I was uncomfortable. He was an absolutely delightful man who was so energetic when he spoke that his arms seemed to explode upward as if they were spring-loaded. He wore his snow-white hair long and each time his hands unfurled to make a point, a curly lock would roll onto his forehead and his eyes would twinkle in response as if he found the whole thing hilarious. Sophie, his wife, was all smiles, as well, although she wore her hair short and could only resort to smoothing it out each time she laughed.

It was clear from the start that they wanted to put me at ease, and Arvid was careful that he didn’t seed his usually witty remarks with historical references; he didn’t even mention the university position he had held. But I wanted to let Arvid know that I, too, was interested in history and knew something about his area of specialization: the French Enlightenment. Well, actually I only started reading about it when Nancy told me about the dinner.

During a lull in the conversation when we were helping ourselves to dessert, I decided to make my move. “Is it true that the Little Ice Age may have played a part in the French Revolution, Arvid?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

Arvid smiled at me as he scooped some strawberries from a bowl onto his plate. “Climate was probably a factor, G,” he replied pleasantly. “But all of Europe was affected by that as well.”

“I suppose I was drawing a bit of a parallel with current climate change issues -although certainly not an Ice Age…”

“You mean the effects that major climate shifts may have on political stability?” He seemed genuinely interested.

I nodded and took my turn with the strawberries. “I suspect that our crop yields may suffer as they did in France with the climatic upheavals of the time…” I left the sentence open so he would know I was only offering it as a possible result.

Arvid seemed to think about it as he scooped some ice cream on top of his plate of strawberries. “That’s an interesting comparison, G.” He took a tentative sample of the dessert and studied the spoon for a moment. “I must say we historians sometimes content ourselves with the proximate causes of events: endemic corruption, increased taxes, and the unaffordable price of bread in the case of the French Revolution…”. He tasted the heaping spoonful and then attacked the dessert more seriously. “I think you have a point, G. I must look into that a bit more…” he added between bites, then glanced at his wife who had been largely silent so far.

Their eyes touched briefly and she smiled indulgently as she no doubt always did when hosting dinners for his many students over the years.