The Meaning of Life

[Just a taster of my #NaNoWriMo effort this year.]

How fortunate we are to live in times when, faced with difficult questions, we can turn to our digital friends and helpers.

Siri, what is the meaning of life?

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

OK Google, what is the meaning of life?

“The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The search for life’s meaning has produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question…”

(Oh, come off it, Google, you’re just reading from Wikipedia!)

Alexa, what is the meaning of life?

“42”

(Make what you will of these differences between different operating systems, MacOS, Google and Amazon.)

But is it true that contemplating a thing – a blade of grass, a cockroach, a lover’s face – for long enough, will convince you that life has meaning? Without having read his book, I’m attracted by the story of Victor Frankl. He was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, whose experience of some of the worst cruelty and brutality that has ever been inflicted by supposedly civilized human beings upon their fellows, led him to the conclusion that a person’s sanity and even survival in adversity, will depend on their ability to find meaning in their suffering. Man’s Quest for Meaning, he called his book, and with it he developed his concept of logotherapy. In contrast to Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure, Frankl bases his theory upon Kierkegaard’s will to meaning: that the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human life, is the need to find meaning. I’m guessing that whether it helps us survive or not, may depend on the value of the meaning we find. “Trying to live in harmony with other people” may work better than “42”. Just sayin’…

Odysseus’s member

One of the favourite books we used to read to our children when they were younger was called Why are there more questions than answers, Granddad? You can more or less guess the content from the title. It was wonderful.

And it was good to face the fact, long before I became a Grandpa, that I didn’t know all the answers, and there would always be more questions than I knew the answers to. Even now that we have the World Wide Web and can find some answers pretty much instantly, it doesn’t obviate the need to keep asking the questions and looking for the answers. They do say it’s good for our mental health to remain insatiably curious, don’t they?

Only now that I am a Grandpa, it’s not the children asking me questions and expecting me in my wisdom to provide the answers. I find myself constantly wondering about things and asking questions. Some of them are things I’ve never even thought about before – though many of our forebears did – like how an arrow flew through the air: did it part the air like a ship’s keel parting the water? Did the air close again when the arrow had passed?

Today’s questions have been a bit ruder. In case you haven’t noticed before, I’m a huge fan of Odysseus and his travels. So when I visit the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, I often like to stop by the Ancient Greece section and have a look at the skyphos which depicts two scenes from the Odyssey. On the one side, Odysseus afloat, alone, at the mercy of Boreas the god of the cold north wind. On the other, Odysseus in the cave of the enchantress Circe, who holds out to him a cup of her bewitching potion. In both scenes, the hero is naked except for some kind of cloth tossed over his arm, and with his genitals proudly on display. What’s this all about?

Well, the Greeks obviously went in for that sort of thing, more than we are accustomed to in polite society or our much colder clime. But this Odysseus, far from being the great hero, seems rather to be portrayed as a figure of fun. Fat, ageing, maybe drunk? I’m wondering whether this was a B.C. version of Carry On, or Up Pompeii? Odysseus as the philandering, leering, innuendo-spouting Sid James or Frankie Howerd of his day? Or maybe the sexual champion every man aspired to be? How to find out, even with the WWW?

I won’t divulge the exact question I typed into my search engine. But I will share one of the results I found: an article by Paul Chrystal entitled A brief history of sex and sexuality in Ancient Greece. It’s an interesting read, even if it doesn’t quite answer my question.

And so I’m left wondering, too, if the caption to the Odysseus – Circe encounter might just have been an early version of a joke we still hear from time to time: Circe asking “Is that a club, or are you just glad to see me?”