Mr. Bai sat with his legs crossed on the sofa, smoking a cigarette. Dad motioned for me to come close.
“Come say hi to Mr. Bai,” he said.
Mr. Bai was tall and lean and thirty six years old. He was wearing black, in defiance of his name, and his hair cascaded raven-dark to the small of his back. He was a businessman and my father’s great and cultured friend. I sat down next to him and he bombarded me with questions. How old was I? Where did I go to school? Where did I want to go to school in the future? What did I want to study in the future? Why literature?
“Um,” I said. “I like reading and writing.” “I used to care a great deal for literature.” “Not anymore?”
Mr. Bai took out his phone. “See this?”
It was the picture of a coin. It was silver and elaborate and featured the profile of an aristocrat. Mr. Bai had bought it at an auction in New York.
“This is a rare one,” he said. “See the sheep at the bottom? It means that the coin was issued by the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Philip the Good. I can talk to you for days about its history. There is so much behind the engravings of one coin. You learn about details inaccessible to most—indeed all—around you, no matter how many history books and historical novels they’ve devoured. I can show you the coin next time if you want.”
“Thank you. I’d like to see it.”
“It belonged to an English aristocrat,” he said. “I visited his mansion last month. At your age you probably don’t understand, but this world is divided into levels of greatness, and the visit made me realize that greatness has no limits. It’s appalling, knowing there are always levels beyond the one you aspire to, knowing you progress faster in desire than in pursuit, knowing this way you’ll never be happy with what you have.”
Setting the table that evening I thought of Sisyphus and how like him we all were in our struggles to reach a rising vertex. I thought of the night before a major examination. I had arrived at Hong Kong earlier that day, and after dinner decided to take a walk around the hotel. It was one of those shady corners of Hong Kong, industrial, recessive, untouched by tourists or prosperity. I walked for half an hour without seeing a youthful face. Street lights glowed with the limpness of expiring elders. I could not help thinking that this was the world of Meursault, Jean-Baptiste Clamence and all of Camus’ absurd heroes—geometric, monochromatic, the world of lengthy winters and abandonment. For the first time in a long while I felt under attack of absurdity. The fact that life went on under those rectangular buildings and expressionless faces suddenly did not make sense.
I remember my first absurdist attack. I was thirteen, taking a stroll with Dad in a park near home. Dad was educating me.
“Scientists have discovered that there are limits to the universe,” he was saying. “What do you mean, limits?” I said. “Isn’t the universe all there is?”
“Of course not. There are limits to everything.”
“What’s outside the universe?”
“Nothing,” said Dad. “Emptiness.”
I had a hard time imagining nothing. Emptiness evoked no more than the color white. What was emptiness, anyhow? The absence of matter? The opposite of being? How could emptiness, abstract and surreal and unintentional as it is, coexist with our skyscrapers and flesh and human purposes? The existence of me, mankind and the universe never seemed so absurd as in juxtaposition with nonexistence.
I had trouble falling asleep that night, alone in my hotel room in the deserted corner of Hong Kong. Camus and Meursault and Jean-Baptiste Clamence and Jean-Paul Sartre became one in my head, anonymous, monochromatic, exuding absurdity. The verses of Walt Whitman replayed themselves time and again: “In vain the speeding or shyness, in vain the the plutonic rocks...” I evaluated the status quo. I could not see the point of taking the exam when, as the Book of Ecclesiastes states and most religions agree on, “all is vanity”. It was bad faith, self- deception, double mindedness to believe I had to take it, being a student and the child of my parents, when all I needed to do was not go the following morning. I went to sleep half delirious. When I awoke to bright daylight the next day the feeling of absurdity had gone. Walking along the streets of Hong Kong was again as meaningful as everything else. Again the examination mattered.
At the dining table Mr. Bai told me why he stopped caring a great deal for literature.
“There is only so much you can get from literature,” he said. “It is intangible. You can read about the bonnets and balls of 18th century aristocratic ladies, but they aren’t real and you can’t touch them and they aren’t yours. Coins are different. They are relics of the past, incarnations of realities that exist for their owners only. They are exclusive. You see them and you possess them and you rise. You are taken beyond your material being and your restricted greatness. You—”
“You transcend,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Bai. “I transcend.”
Ignorant as I was about coin-collecting, I thought I understood Mr. Bai. It is his way of reconciling the spiritual and the material. Mr. Bai would likely disagree, but his coins are in essence not so different from my literature. They are our meaning—our purposes in a world inherently purposeless. Perhaps it is false to believe that hard work and passion will bring me closer to my purpose. Perhaps the very idea that literature is meaningful is bad faith. But like any absurd hero we persist, become Sisyphus reborn chasing the green light that is the greatness we aspire to.