An unlikely duo, Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus, independently touch upon the human tendency towards comparisons, and how this approach ultimately undermines the search for reality 1.
In Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, while Ray Smith (fictionalized Kerouac) muses to Japhy Ryder (fictionalized Gary Snyder) about how fresh & pure the crisp mountain air along their hike feels in comparison to his smoggy, drunk place in the San Francisco city life, Ryder retorts:
‘Comparisons are odious, Smith,’ he sent sailing back to me, quoting Cervantes and making a Zen Buddhist observation to boot. ‘It don’t make a damn frigging difference whether you’re in The Place or hiking up Matterhorn, it’s all the same old void, boy.'”
The book largely documents Kerouac’s introduction to Zen Buddhism via Gary Snyder, and the idea of the void refers to Śūnyatā, one of Buddhism’s closest stabs at labeling reality 2
The idea that “comparisons are odious” resonates across a number of disciplines implicated with metaphysics and reality. Albert Camus, notorious proponent of absurdism, writes along similar lines:
…the feeling of absurdity does not spring from the mere scrutiny of a fact or an impression but that it bursts from the comparison between a bare fact and a certain reality, between an action and the world that transcends it. The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation…There can be no absurd outside the human mind.”
– Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
The Absurd is defined by the magnificent Wikipedia as: “the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.” This absurdity, Camus notes, arises only from comparisons. It is a manifestation of the difference between the way things are, and the way we are. This difference, of course, exists nowhere other than our own minds, therefore pushing Camus to conclude that absurdity is an emergent property of the human mind.
When he speaks of the world that transcends an action, the bare fact that a human mind is comparing something against, this can be seen as a representation of Śūnyatā. Comparisons are absurd, because it’s all the same old void.
Nevertheless, we draw comparisons because it’s a useful thing to do sometimes. Once we accept the absurdity of our situation, embrace that comparisons are odious, we’re liberated to use them anyhow. This is precisely what Camus wanted. Again, from Wikipedia:
Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.”
It’s a good thing he concluded that we should continue to “defiantly explore and search for meaning”, it excuses the irony of a post like this that draws comparisons to point out the futility of drawing comparisons. I find comparisons ultimately useful in my defiant process because they can be used to point out shared undercurrents. Hopefully, these undercurrents flow towards the realization that it is all, indeed, the same old, absurdity-free, void.