The first poem I posted on Coming Soon: A Vast Desert was John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” You can read the poem and my initial commentary here (this was March 2013).
Then, I thought the poem was about being human in both an indifferent universe in general and specifically in a society set up inhumanely: “Or, as a friend once wrote in a letter to me about not following our natural inclinations to be outside, seek sunlight, eat real food, and so on—in short, to put ourselves into cubicles: Why are we constantly at odds with ourselves?”
I still think the question of existence is central to our understanding of alienation, in that we seek so many things and will “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest” to get them, but among those things we don’t usually include simple happiness, or quiet contentment, or the freedom of boredom. We seek to use our talents in order to impress others, to be validated externally (and constantly)—and all the while we find ourselves less happy, less connected (see: previous post about the downsides of the internet (there are few upsides)). Why wake up every day and do it all over again, is the key question: to be or not to be, as Shakespeare (and then Nietzsche, and then Camus) asked. Can’t life’s purpose just be happiness?
Reading Infinite Jest (I’m about 1/3 of the way through, thankyouverymuch) has brought this question off the back burner, which itself strikes me as silly because what’s more important than asking why we should get up every day and do X over and over when A.) we can at any time choose to “eliminate our own map” as D.F.W. puts it, and B.) even the longest life, chosen, is but a half-wink in geological time, i.e. meaningless at a certain not-even-infinite scale? Some say it’s a gift; others say it’s a test. But both of those scenarios require explanatory magic tricks. Nietzsche (and then Camus) thought it was a blank canvas, our life, and that human-assigned meaning was not only adequate but actually superior to naïve or desperate overtures to the capricious but binding blueprints laid down by some sky-parent; all the better to create an existence, knowing full-well one can end it at any time, if nothing else than as a middle finger to cosmic serfdom, but also perhaps as the only avenue to worldly, real joy. Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”