Monday, March 13, 2006

Frankenstein and Sisyphus

There is another sci-fi movie mentioned in Mark Rowlands' book. It is an old movie on Frankenstein, which was re-made many times. The author draws reference to Frankenstein's monster to the philosophy of the meaning of life.

There are many different lines of argument in the book on the topic, evolving around the absurdity of the views of ourselves from the inside and the outside; views that are incompatible with each other. Frankenstein's monster, from the outside, had a second-hand body, pieced together from body parts found elsewhere, and from those, he had some innate abilities such as playing the flute. He was placed in a hostile and uncaring environment because of his look on the outside, while on the inside he was by no means a violent creature.

While the monster was assembled from larger body parts, the atoms and molecules from which we are constructed have also been around much longer than we are, and are put together according to some physical design principles. The monster had a disturbed designer Dr Frankenstein, but we are also put together according to a design template provided by the genes of our parents. We could find ourselves, just like the monster, being created by forces and people over which we have no control, and of which we have little real understanding. And then, when we have been produced, we find ourselves just like the monster, cast adrift in an alternately forgiving and hostile world, an environment which we have little control. Our parents, our teachers, our co-workers, our friends, our partners, slap us around. We are a product of these people, or metaphorically, stitched together by them.

As for our life. the author refers to the Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (卡繆 1913-1960). It has nothing to do with Frankenstein's monster. Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology. The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a stone to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight and Sisyphus would roll it uphill again. It was thought that there should be no more dreadful punishment than such never-ending labour.

Camus discussed the real horror of this punishment. The way the myth was usually perceived emphasized the hardship of the labour. The stone was typically described as massive like this sketch. But what if the gods did not create the stone as large as that; or what if Sisyphus was a very strong man capable of moving large stone with ease? Did that make the punishment easy to bear. Not quite, the punishment was actually the performance of repetitive and boring task day after day. But again, what if Sisyphus had a taste and desire of rolling stones; that he loved the sense of achievement when the stone reached the top of the mountain, and that he would happily do it again the next day to enjoy the success, and everyday thereafter. Would that make the punishment lose its punitive power? The gods were clever. The punishment for Sisyphus was actually the futility of the work, not its difficulty nor boredom. The true horror of the punishment was that the task aimed at nothing, and that it was empty.

When we go to work everyday, or school, or care about family, or anything that pleases us, we have a purpose. These things may or may not be difficult, and we may enjoy doing them; but we need to do them anyway. In a few decades, our descendants will continue with all we do, and their descendants as well. From the inside, we find the significance and purpose of what we do. But the outside view is that there is no significance in our actions because we are only producing others who can perform the same action. In a way, it is Sisyphus' task.

In a sense, we are all like Frankenstein's monster. We cannot make sense of ourselves and we cannot reconcile the significance, meaning and purpose that we find on the inside with the gaze of eternity on the outside. The problem of the meaning of life is still recognised by the philosophers.

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