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The Crazy Man Fishing in the Bathtub

A particular passage from Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus had been bogging and fascinating my mind lately. It appears to have originated from Kafka and proceeds as follows:

You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.”1

On one hand, this anecdote brilliantly expounds Camus’s notion of the “absurd”, as he himself puts it, “in it can be grasped quite clearly to what degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic”.2 It brilliantly illustrates the futility of logic and reason to confront and explain absurdity—that which for Camus, is what manifests our life and permeates our goals and experiences that are ultimately meaningless.

What this anecdote demonstrates, is perhaps the underlying set of pre-assumptions that the psychiatrist has towards the patient, which in turn, are proved to be unfounded. In this specific instance, it was the psychiatrist who presupposed that the patient was mentally impaired to a point where he thought the patient was not aware of the fact that it is impossible to catch a fish in a bathtub. This however, turned out not be the case; the patient was fully aware of the manifested absurdity of his own acts; the fool therefore turned out to be the psychiatrist, not the patient. In this situation, while observing the patient, the psychiatrist quite confidently sees the possible diagnosis for his patient; he already sees how he can understand and pathologize the subjectivity of his patient. Thus, the subjectivity of the patient is reduced to these very narrow psychiatric conceptions and pre-assumptions. Just like a physicist, the psychiatrist already has a decent bag of knowledge and methodologies that serve as a foundation on which he lays out a diagnose that classifies the mental abnormalities of his patient. The patient for the psychiatrist is an object of knowledge, just like an experiment is to a physicist; they both work within certain frameworks consisting of presuppositions and classifications about their subject-matter, whose frameworks of knowledge fundamentally disregard whether the object of inquiry is the psychology of a living human brain or a particle accelerator.

With this setup, the psychiatrist proceeds with his inquiry and poses a question that largely presupposes a judgment about the grave mental condition of the patient, he asks the patient “if they (the fishes) were biting”. The response that the psychiatrist receives is one that dissolves all the pretexts and assumptions that he had about the patient to their core, if not tackling the psychiatrist’s presuppositions through these very presuppositions themselves, in other words, turning the psychiatrist’s power knowledge methods against the authority that employs them by a simple comical phrase: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.”

What therefore occurs in this turn is twofold; first, is that the psychiatrist’s intricate method of inquiry about the patient’s subjectivity is proven futile when encountered by the logic of the absurd, namely, it did not occur to psychiatrist’s mind that perhaps the absurd reason behind the patient’s abnormal activity consisting of fishing in the bathtub, is not a product of the patient’s mental abnormalities, but a cause of absurd logic that the psychiatrist’s methods of knowledge are simply incapable of grasping; second, the patients response to the psychiatrist’s questions explicates an affirmative revolt that is manifested through the logic of the absurd, which brings instrumental knowledge, reason and logic—to its knees.

The “excess of logic” is an ungraspable residue that remains when a person commits an absurd act; not only does it escape the methods of judging and establishing knowledge about an act, it affirms meaning in the meaningless that proliferates our life projects. This therefore demonstrates something more profound about the methods of positive knowledge that human employ in sciences: not only do they fail to grasp the meaning behind, say, a man fishing in a bathtub, but they also frequently fail to understand the underlying meaning behind phenomena in the natural world—because there is no meaning behind it. This meaning can only be accessed by a supreme, all-encompassing infinite being like God; if such as being exists, and whether that would make a difference, is a separate question. But the point is, reality itself is inherently meaningless to us, and while we can employ certain frameworks of knowledge that give us helpful insights and predictions about the world, they are ultimately futile when it comes to establishing truth and meaning. Indeed, this is the problem of science; although it provides great insights and effective methods for manipulating and gaining knowledge about the material world, it desperately fails to serve as a source for meaning, consolation, values, and morals.

But where does our present-day society find its meaning then? When scientific methods and technocratic policies have penetrated into the underlying fabric of our present-day global, postmodern hypercapitalist society; many individuals still find meaning in faith and superstition. But most predominately, our present day individuals find meaning in meaningless practices such as collecting Nike sneakers, creating crafts, shopping, curating social media profiles, collecting dank internet memes, getting hammered at a bar every weekend, reading Stephen King or postmodernist theory, discussing Netflix shows, consuming box office entertainment, hanging posters of Che Guevara, Bob Marely, or Gandhi, spending hours scrolling an online website for clothes, etc.—demands all for which the consumer market more than happily satisfies. In other words, as capitalism and consumer culture becomes global and homogeneous, we all fish in our own individualized bathtubs where the absurd meaning lies in the fantasies that each of us adhere to; if we are not happy with such a state of affairs, we risk rebounding into nihilism, or even becoming alienated and depressed. But then the big Pharma, the big Morpheus, will be more than happy to provide you with blue pills that you can pop and be a functioning worker and consumer the next morning.

Indeed, what we have today is a vacuum of meaning as our society became secularized and modernized in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although this vacuum of meaning is substituted with various superstitions and beliefs in what in what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’. Newer generations become less faithful to religion during their upbringing, adolescent existential crisis instigated by the lack of any inherent meaning in the modern world become a typical occurrence, so the only outcome is either embracing the absurd, finding meaning in superstitious meaninglessness activities, or turn to nihilist defeatism. As the imminent threats, reoccurring turmoils, and global catastrophes slowly loom over the questionable future of humanity; laissez-fair nihilism becomes a conclusion for many. The film Melancholia (2011) expresses very well the problem of finding meaning as imminent catastrophes loom, which I analyze in one of my previous posts.

  1. Albert Camus, trans. Justin O’Brien; The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 129 

  2. Ibid. (emphasis my own)