The Tightrope of the Absurd: A rational Spirituality for the 21st Century and On being Human

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Sisyphus, by Titian, 1548-1549. Copyright Expired

By Sybe Starkenburg

The Tightrope of the Absurd is not light reading. I actually began to write about the book before I had finished reading because I wanted to lodge a disagreement with the author. That’s a good thing. A great book is not one that I agree with. It’s one that makes me think, that expands my universe of observation and consideration. The Tightrope of the Absurd does that.

An example of my philosophical falling out with the author follows: Mr. Starkenburg states that “Good is everything that benefits mankind…” and that “the main value of life is life itself”. I took exception to this proposition because I found the two parts of this statement to be in conflict. It struck me, as I read, that the human race is essentially parasitic on earth, that humans are inimical to earth’s existence. It can be argued that, as humans evolve, we consume and destroy the planet that sustains us. Our predatory relationship with the host planet is so extreme that many scientists believe space travel is an imperative. We look forward to leaving this dying orb and colonizing others, so we can feed off them, and move on again. Just a thought I had. Mr. Starkenburg’s book does that to me–makes me think.

Mr. Starkenburg is a well-read man. He brings together ideas from some of the most profound thinkers through the ages. A few to whom Mr. Starkenburg gives deference, I consider to be lightweights, or even disreputable. One of these is Ayn Rand. Mr. Starkenburg and I can disagree about that. What matters is that I care to disagree, that I’m moved enough by his suggestions to take exception to them.

The essence of Mr. Starkenburg’s argument, as I understand it, is this: The only path to humanness, to being truly human, is through rational, conscious and deliberate thought. Religion, in his view, is not rational but is based on belief and custom. Religion, he suggests, is an obstacle to achieving humanness.

Mr. Starkenburg evaluates the need that religion seems to fill in people’s lives. One need, or hunger, that it satisfies is the search for meaning. Can life have meaning without religion? In response to this question, Mr. Starkenburg cites the philosophies of, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre and Viktor Frankl. Sartre asserts that life has no essential meaning, but is merely improvised. According to him, none of us has a script. We merely respond to circumstances as they arise. Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, suggests that meaning can be found in life but only if it is lived in a way that is true to each person’s intrinsic nature: Be True to Thyself

Weighing the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Viktor Frankl is an interesting exercise, no matter the outcome. That’s the value I found in The Tightrope of the Absurd. It wasn’t in the strength of Mr. Starkenburg’s arguments, although he solidly supports every position he holds. The value was in the way he built those arguments, the wide array of material he brought into the discussion, and the place he left for me to agree or disagree.

It would be impossible in the space of a short review to do justice to Mr. Starkenburg’s book. To sum up, anemically: Sybe Starkenburg offers a moral and philosophical thesis about how to have a full, thoughtful and positive life. He suggests that empathy is a critical component to this life, empathy not only toward people, but toward other species.

Not everyone will enjoy this book, but readers who are open to new perspectives probably will. And if they are, like most of us, beset at times by a vague uneasiness about existence and religion, this book may suit them. It will not answer every question, but it will address the urge to find answers. It will offer ideas about how to think and where to search for answers to questions that are pushed to the back of the mind. Mr. Starkenburg would surely recommend that these questions be welcomed, because they won’t go away. They’ll lurk in the background and influence every other area of life until they are confronted rationally, consciously, and deliberately.

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Prologue to Arrows Axes and Scythes

 

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Witness: an illustration from Arrow Axes and Scythes

Below is the Prologue to my upcoming illustrated memoir, Arrow Axes and Scythes.  While the book recalls a time long passed, the influence of those years lasted a lifetime.  The Prologue explains the author’s attempt to convey the emotional content of memory without distorting the essential truth of events.

We are all invisible witnesses. If not for this, how many crimes would be reported?

I think we imagine that children do not see and if they see they do not understand. We reassure ourselves, as we carry on in our imperfect ways, that even if they understand they surely will forget. But the mind is not so dependably careless with its impressions. Many remain for a lifetime.

The events recorded in this book occurred more than fifty years ago, when I was a child. Some memories are lost to me, yet many come back. Are these accurate? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Ideas are not preserved in amber. They are subject to the whims of experience and bias.

My childhood was a time of secrets. Much that is revealed here was never meant to be public. But what I could not say then, will now be told.

At the end of the book one of the personalities, my father, offers testimony for himself. A letter exists in which he describes motivation for his actions. Readers may weigh this evidence and decide for themselves whether or not the document supports my value as a witness.

 

 

 

An excerpt is offered in another blog on this site: A Burial

Ann Bronte

Anne Bronte

Ann Bronte was the less-well-known Bronte sister. Most people recognize Charlotte as the author of Wuthering Heights. Both sisters wrote under the surname ‘Bell’. Ann wrote as Acton Bell and Charlotte as Currer Bell.

I first became acquainted with Anne’s writing this week, when I picked up her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Anne’s literary output was limited to poetry and two acclaimed novels, the one already mentioned and Agnes Grey.  Both novels are considered by critics to be feminist works.  My observation is that this is certainly true of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While the book has all the earmarks of a Gothic, it is essentially a story of one  woman who asserts her independence despite physical and social obstacles.

I love this book. Admittedly, I am addicted to 19th-century fiction.

Anne Bronte died at the age of 29. I wish, for her sake and ours, that  she had lived longer. We surely would have seen great work come from this astute intellect.