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In the Depth of Winter

The reality of the absurd comes to life in Saskatoon.

 

1.

The word “absurd” has a number of standard connotations: outlandish, crazy, amazing, freakish. It comes from the Latin absurdum, meaning “out of tune,” extraordinary. This, however, is not the way that Albert Camus meant the term when he coined l’absurd as a philosophical concept in 1942. To Camus, the absurd was strangely normal, a state of affairs that describes the human condition — in a nutshell, the utter dissonance between the human quest for meaning in life and the silent indifference of the universe. I teach Camus every semester, but I didn’t understand him—not even close—until last winter, when I visited the absurdity of Saskatoon.

As a boy, my family would summer in Chaffey’s Locks in southern Ontario, on the Rideau Canal. The small hamlet was lush and green in August and my brother and I were given free reign of the place. We loved “going to Canada” and imagined the entire world above the United States as a temperate paradise of fishing, canoeing, and shuffle-board. On some subconscious level, my love for Canada must have primed me to fall in love with my partner, Carol. She came from Canada, but not exactly the world of shuffleboard and fishing.

If you go due north from Billings, Montana on highway 87, you will, after an hour or so hit route 191. Go another hundred miles and you will cross the Canadian border at the small village of Morgan. Go another hundred miles, toward the North Pole, to Swift Current, and you are almost there: just a last stretch beyond any semblance of civilization, another hundred and fifty miles to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I’d like to report that the city was named after a prosperous chieftain or that it meant “land of plenty” in native Cree, but it doesn’t. The town’s namesake is a tough little berry from the tundra, the saskatoon, which locals insist is absolutely delicious.

Existing in the face of impossible odds lies at the heart of the absurd. When Camus coined the term in the midst of World War II, he explained that the human condition was best exemplified by the myth of Sisyphus, the Homeric tale of man who is punished for his hubris by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill, and to repeat this pointless act for all eternity. Gravity, like the rest of the natural world, has no concern for Sisyphus and his rock. His task remains interminable and futile—like swatting mosquitoes in a plague or shoveling snow in an endless winter.

 

 

We arrived in Saskatoon on the eighth of January. This was the day that I got to experience the uncanny point where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet: 40 below. At 40 below, mercury, along with everything else, freezes. Carol and Camus had warned me, but I hadn’t grasped the severity of the situation: the universe isn’t fit for human life. Why did people come to this God-forsaken place? The question was out of my mouth before we even got off the plane.

In 1882, a small group of Toronto Methodists, led by John Lake, formed the Temperance Colonization society and decided to establish a “dry” colony on the prairies. On a map, the journey doesn’t look that bad—just a few inches—but in truth, it is absurdly far: 1782 miles. Back in the time of John Lake, a person would take the train to Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, but then have to hoof it the rest of the way to Saskatoon. The idea of not drinking on that trip still makes me shudder.

Many first generation Saskatonians arrived by the turn of the century and by 1906, the town was a booming metropolis of 4500. Some residents still describe the founding of Saskatoon as a grand hoax wherein the Canadian National Railway convinced early colonists that the prairies were suitable to support modern life. Advertisements for work on the Canadian prairies were posted in towns across Quebec, Ontario, and the eastern United States, the promises of a better future.

Half-truths really. One of these job notices was for a newspaperman in Vonda, Saskatchewan, a hundred miles from Saskatoon.

We arrived in Saskatoon on the eighth of January. This was the day that I got to experience the uncanny point where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet: 40 below.

Part of Carol’s family was originally from Boston and, in the 1880s, her great grandfather, George Cameron, owned a small commercial printing press—a chest of movable type called a California Job Case, named after the presses that were taken West during the Gold Rush. The thing weighs, literally, a ton. But when the notice from Vonda came to Boston, he packed up the California Job with the rest of his family and headed to the great unknown. Of course, when he arrived in Vonda, he discovered that the position had already been filled—surprisingly, there was not enough news to support two papers—and he and the competition flipped a coin to see who would hit the road. He lost, so Carol was raised sorting lead letters and proofreading advertisements for farm equipment in the Watson Witness. And yes, they were still using a hand press in Watson in the 1980s.

All of this is to say that most prairie folk, at one point or another, bought a one-way ticket to nowhere and didn’t have the money or the energy to return. This sounds somewhat tragic, and it should. Homesteading in the northern territories can be traced to an over-weaning confidence in the powers of survival, a confidence that has, over the course of brutal century, morphed into an almost saintly humility.

These people—including my father-in-law—are unbelievably generous. On my first frigid night in an alien world, he gave me a friendly tutorial about not dying: insulate your head, neck, armpits and crotch; cover any exposed skin with a layer of Vaseline; use an electric blanket whenever possible; don’t forget to plug in your car so that you can start it in the morning. But most importantly, avoid going outside. I settled back on the couch in his living room and considered his advice. He keeps the house at a balmy 83 degrees, as if to overcompensate for the existential horror lurking just out the door, so after an hour, I’d forgotten how wretched it was outside. Sometime that evening I decided I would get up and run the next morning. It couldn’t really be that cold.

Indeed, the next morning it was only 30 below and the air felt brisk but not unbearable. The air, thin and frictionless, felt almost inviting, and there was a certain lightness in my step as I jogged out of town. I ran for three miles, and then I turned around. The wind had been at my back and the thermometer hadn’t been measuring wind-chill. “There is but one serious philosophical question,” Camus reports, “and that is suicide.” When confronted with the absurdity of life, he suggests there are three responses and that suicide, while not the most admirable, is certainly not the worst of them. Cold doesn’t describe the sensation. It’s more searing and numb. I wanted to curl up on the side of the road and take a nap. But on some lizard-brain level I knew that I should just put one foot in front of the next, and I headed for home.

2.

On the east coast it is almost possible to forget or deny the indifference of nature, to think that life, at its core, really isn’t absurd. We have SUVs and Canada Goose jackets and consider going without them only when liberal environmental handwringers get on our case about smog or coyote pelts. My father-in-law drives a front-wheel-drive Civic—very, very cautiously—and the only person I met in Saskatchewan who could afford an $800 Canada Goose jacket was a tourist in the airport on their way back to Toronto. I imagine that she, for most of her life, could be under the mistaken impression that human existence was not always a matter of life and death.

Camus suggests that the warm and comfortable conveniences of modern life are, at best, mixed blessings. They allow us to mask the absurd and therefore mask what is most basic about our nature: that we are fragile, that life is the futile process of not dying. Ignoring these facts of life amounts to what Camus calls “philosophical suicide” a state in which individuals—in a giant act of self-deception—pretend that the universe is well-fitted to human purposes. We are, on the whole, very good at committing philosophical suicide. Modernity has no shortage of ways to distract us from our Sisyphian situation: friendship, politics, marriage, religion, entertainment, consumerism, the news, education. The clockwork efficiency of these institutions depends on our ability to believe that they possess some sort of magical transcendent meaning, the sort of meaning that allows us to escape the absurd.

Camus, however, asks his reader to dwell with the cold reality that our lives are directed to tragic ends—that when we die, nothing but the indifference of nature remains. The appropriate response to this situation is not necessarily total despair, but an existential urgency that has all but vanished in our modern-day. In contrast to philosophical suicide, he recommends we maintain a unique orientation to the absurd, which he calls “revolt.” This is not resignation and it’s certainly not denial. It’s the willingness to push the boulder with full knowledge that one will fail. Saskatoon, its small-town satellites, and any city located near the arctic, provide a reminder that revolt is still possible, or better yet, necessary.

Socialism, universal healthcare, and random acts of kindness may not make sense in the southern comfort of the United States, but they make sense here.

Saskatoon is called the “City of Bridges.” There are seven in total that cross a very short stretch of the South Saskatchewan River. They are incredibly beautiful. And redundant. The traffic in the city is next to non-existent. The most impressive of these unnecessary structures, Broadway Bridge, was built in 1932 in a Depression-era “make work project.” 1593 men worked around the clock to construct the bridge in just under 11 months. Every year, a handful of Saskatoon residents give in to their stark surroundings and jump off, but most of them don’t. Today they toil, much as the bridge-builders did, to make something meaningful in a painfully bleak world. “Make hay, while the sun still shines.” Saskatoon is one of the sunniest places in the world, so it is more like, “Make hay as quickly and earnestly as you can because there is only three months of the year when the ground is not frozen solid.”

There is a certain exuberance, so I hear, about summers in the arctic. When the earth finally thaws out on the prairies, the standing water invites swarms of gnats, but citizens still seize these warm days with a zest that makes little sense to those living in more hospitable cities. Every livable moment seems a bit more precious when total apocalypse is imminent. “There is no love of life,” Camus informs his reader, “without despair of life.” This is one way—a distinctly American way—of understanding Camus’ revolt against the absurd: that each individual has the ability to refuse, again and again, to go gently into that good night.

There is, however, Carol reminded me, another, pointedly Canadian, way to go about revolt. Camus argues that facing the absurd is to face cosmic abandonment, to fully understand how alone we are in an indifferent world. In this case, to revolt is to repeatedly reject existential isolation, to never go at it alone. The inhabitants of Saskatchewan are teased mercilessly by their more cosmopolitan neighbors. Prairie folk are provincial, narrow, backward, cliquish to a fault. They dress in the same oversized sweaters, wool socks, and old heavy boots. Vintage but certainly not hip. Each fall, as the temperature drops, residents prepare trays of cookies for their neighbors and hunker down together to eat stuffed cabbage and perogies. They don watermelon helmets, take pride in their RoughRiders, a handful of largely washed-up college football players from the States, who play with heart but almost always lose. Small town Saskatchewan is a large, peculiar extended family — in Arthur Schopenhauer’s words, “companions in misery” to the bitter end.

From the outside, from the comfortable climes of Vancouver, life on the prairie looks utterly ridiculous. But even brief exposure to a Saskatoon winter allows one to see something else, to recognize an intimacy born of necessity, a relationship forged in the face of the absurd. In 1944, Saskatonians helped elect the first democratic socialist government in North America, and, in 1962, put in effect the first single-payer, universal healthcare plan on the continent. At 40 below, skin freezes in ten minutes; ten minutes later, if you are not wearing appropriate clothing, muscles lose their coordination; ten more minutes, and you are dead. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or white or brown. You’re dead. Socialism, universal healthcare, and random acts of kindness may not make sense in the southern comfort of the United States, but they make sense here.

 

 

Camus flirted with socialism for much of his life because he thought that it’s political and ethical implications were well-fitted to the reality of the absurd, and believed that the certain tragedy of the human condition provided the impetus for genuine solidarity. In the 1930s, he briefly joined the Communist Party, temporarily entertaining the possibility that the Party might pursue basic human rights for a wide range of individuals. By 1946, however, he claimed that he was a socialist but definitely not a Marxist. The machinery of centralized government, according to Camus, came hand in hand with systematic violence. The problem with Marxism and Communism more generally, was that it became a supreme act of philosophical suicide—a way to escape the absurd through the idealization of “the human” and through the complex attempt to remake the world in some hyper-rational way. Camus was after a form of solidarity, but not solidarity as institution to be worshiped or obeyed. I know, this is almost inconceivable to most Americans who live in the lower 48, where life is not uniformly harsh enough.

The common experience of being cold is also a singular one. No one else can share in the existential expression, “I am cold.” There isn’t room. There comes a point when it is impossible to say that your arms and legs, or any discrete body part, is especially icy. Everything feels the same, bone-deep, and none of it feels good. Escape is perfectly impossible. It drives down on all sides, beating, indifferent, searing, like the sun.

Exposure to the absurd makes one tender. In 1942, Camus wrote the Stranger, the literary complement to his manifesto, the Myth of Sisyphus. At the end of the novel, his absurd hero, Meursault, lies on the floor of a jail cell awaiting the call from his executioner. Looking out the window, up at the sky “spangled with signs and stars,” Meursault reflects that, “for the first time I laid myself open to the benign indifference of the universe.” Benign is not the right word. La tendre indifference: the tender indifference. Tender, like a piece of meat, soft and supple. Tender, like an open brush burn, sensitive and raw. Tender, like a touch, careful and vulnerable.

3.

On my first and only run in Saskatchewan, I didn’t actually make it home. At least on my own two legs. I was standing still, on the side of the road, looking out at a hundred miles of whiteness, speckled with black thicket. Just waiting. An old woman in a maroon mini-van pulled up behind me a mile from town and told me to get in before, in her words, “I caught my death.” She was visibly upset, like she had just stayed a sentence or prevented someone from falling off a bridge. Tears—probably from the cold—streamed down my face. I could not thank her enough for stopping. I should be more careful next time, she scolded. “Wait until summer rolls around and the sun is out,” she said, “then go for your run when all you have to do is fight with the bugs.”

A week later, in the midst of another cold snap, Carol’s father dropped us off at the airport. He handed me the bags and, grinning ear to ear, told us to, “Have a sunny day!” The closing words of the Myth of Sisyphus had always confused me, but they make just a bit more sense now. “We must,” Camus instructs, “imagine Sisyphus as happy.” I watched him pull out in his beat-up Civic and drive back to his icy hell-hole. He was still grinning, silently repeating what are perhaps Camus’ most famous words: “In the depth of winter I learned that there lay within me an invincible summer.”