Absurdism

Why I am an Absurdist

Far and few, far and few,
Are the land where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Absurdists accept the fact that humans exist in a purposeless, chaotic universe. When God gradually retired from ordering the world he took inherent meaning with him. In his absence humans search in vain for inherent meaning in life. The absurd thrives in the gap between the tendency to search for inherent meaning in the world and the impossibility of locating it. This lack is replenished when humans impose their own meaning on the world and then deceive themselves into believing the meaning they’ve created was inherently there all along. The manufacture of meaning and purpose is one of the drivers of human experience and often a beautiful and creative and joyful thing. The absurd is the condition brought about by living in a world that has nothing to reveal whilst manufacturing the world’s meaning on its behalf. The absurd is the recognition of this contradictory impulse: the desire to assert meaning and the simultaneous disbelief in it. We function under a false consciousness: there may be no inherent meaning in the world, but we act as if there is. What an absurd situation.

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea.

There are similar contradictory impulses in the concept of hope. ‘Hope springs eternal’* because dissatisfaction is one of the enduring features of being human. We either fail to achieve that which we hope for, or alternatively as soon as we get what we want we want something else. Either way hope is the wished for path out of our discontent. Tomorrow is another day. The daily re-emergence of hope is one of the delusions that powers the dynamics of human existence. In endless acts of amnesia we repeatedly ignore our thwarted past hopes in order to chase one will-o-the-wisp after another. For a football supporter, at the start of yet another new season, hope is the sustaining fiction that persuades him to go again. Adrian Chiles says of his life as a football fan: “despair and failure are fine compared with the agony of hope. It’s the hope that kills you”. For the Greeks hope was viewed more as a bane than a boon – Euripides called it a curse upon humanity. Are we never going to learn the lessons of disappointment? The phrase: more in hope than expectation comes to mind here. Hope can be read as an obtuse indifference to the lessons of experience or the plucky refusal to be defeated. For the absurdist it is both at the same time: we cannot function without hope yet we simultaneously recognise its hollowness. One day in many people’s lives they suddenly recognise, in a moment of lucidity, the comedy of repetition, the folly of going again, the absurdity of restarting another meaningless pantomime. This endless manufacture of self-deceit is called: human existence. The absurdist accepts that the frustration of hope is better than its extinction. We function under a false consciousness: there may be no hope, but we must act as if there is. What an absurd situation.

They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband, by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And everyone said, who saw them go.
“O won’t they soon be upset, you know!

Humans create a world of excess meaning. The universe is bristling with signs, and humans are superb at over-interpreting them: conspiracy theorists, fundamentalist Christians, jihadis, astrologers, people who claim they can read your tea leaves or communicate with your dead aunt Mabel, white witches, behavioural biologists, metaphysical philosophers, exorcists, members of the Tea Party, neuroscientists, creationists. I sometimes think there is too much truth in the world. Most people cannot cope with the sheer effrontery that is the emptiness of reality, and so they eagerly hunger for illusion ready to believe almost anything to get on with living. We get into the habit of living long before acquiring the habit of thinking. “All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency” wrote Jacques Manod. This over interpretation of signs is an heroic search for agency in the entropy of history. Some people are even willing to murder on behalf of their version, so keenly do they contest it. Is this not just humans imposing meaning on the world and then deceiving themselves into believing the meaning they’ve created was inherently there all along?

Absurdism is not a philosophy as such: it has no tract, no dignity of proof (it merits no entry in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). Absurdism is the price to be paid for an examined life that accepts, in resignation, that humans exist in a purposeless and chaotic universe. It is more an anti-philosophy. To proclaim oneself an absurdist is a disorder, not an objective. Absurdists must endure the conditions of the absurd, whilst never actively signing up to its provisions. It should be regarded as a warning not an example. Camus wondered whether the absurd condition of human life meant that we should commit suicide*. But one cannot kill absurdity by killing one of its terms (the human being). He pointed out that whilst this, in a rather drastic manner, evades the problem it fails to extinguish it. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but at least you don’t know its not. Dostoevsky acknowledged the absurdity of existence only to embrace God more strongly. But that strategy does not extinguish absurdity, merely suppresses it. And there is much to be admired in the human strategy of life-yielding delusion. Ridiculousness and folly and absurdity and irony and the grotesque and satire and the general comedy of life is a sport to be observed and enjoyed, if one can find a suitable vantage point.

The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, “How wise we are!”

Another human activity where there is too much meaning (by definition) is fiction. Humans tell stories, an activity that forms a key part of what it is to be human. Thereby meaning is manufactured using the written or oral word. Here the untidiness of reality can be corrected, chaos tamed, suitable endings supplied, immorality justly punished, purposelessness given purpose. But this is all a fiction, none of it is true. Here again are the contradictory impulses where the absurd can thrive. Humans (when listening to or reading or writing a story) assert meaning whilst simultaneously disbelieving it. For Freud the point of fiction was to correct the blunders of an unsatisfactory reality. There is a pact between author and reader: the author-god exhibits the signs (words) and the reader interprets them creating both meaning and value. Unexpected events are the staple of fiction, just as long as they are satisfactorily explained in the end. Meaning is thus manufactured out of nothing and the contingency of life disguised and the agency of history restored. What are laughingly called ‘realistic’ novels are in fact the more disingenuous. We think they are realistic (in the endings they manufacture) because they are in tune with our illusions and so our hopes. In the words of Nietzsche: “we have art in order not to die of the truth.”

Absurdist writers, by contrast, highlight these illusions rather than pander to them. They emphasise the blunders of life by re-embedding them inside a seemingly orthodox narrative. They tantalisingly play with words within the conventions of realism. The hero wakes and finds he has been turned into an insect, Alice is thwarted and confused in Wonderland, Godot never arrives, Don Quixote tilts at windmills, rhinoceroses mingle outside Parisian cafés, a policeman is entirely obsessed with bicycles and speaks in non-sequiturs, the Jumblies go to sea in a Sieve. The grammar, syntax and narrative flow are standard, but meaning is subverted and made palpably and obviously elusive. This is where to meet the citizens of the republic of the absurd: Kafka, Bulgakov, Cervantes, Swift, Gogol, Sterne, Rabelais, Flan O’Brien, Pinter, Beckett, Ionesco, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Buñuel, the dadaists, the comedians. It is absurd to seek sense in nonsense, but it is human to strive to do so. (Have you been trying to interpret the Lear verses sprinkled into this text? If so, why have you been seeking sense out of non-sense?) Humans hanker after meaning in fiction whilst knowing deep down none is there to be found. But what a pleasure it is to frolic in the joyous illusion of it all. We function under a false consciousness: there may be no sense in fiction but we act as if there is. What an absurd situation.

They sailed to the Western sea, they did,
To the land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery bees.

The borders to the republic of the absurd are porous, and those in danger of travelling there are understandably hesitant. It is not easy to live without illusion. And nervous travellers are made reluctant by the thought of the grim cold unyielding reality they suspect to be there. Those of you fearing that you are slowly drifting upstream towards this republic, at least I can promise you this: you have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Come on in – the water’s freezing.

Far and few, far and few,
Are the land where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Edward Bindloss, December 2015.

*Essay on Man, in heroic couplets, vindicating the ways of God to man, Alexander Pope, 1734. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, man never is, but always to be blest”. (Terry Eagleton’s Hope Without Optimism, 2015 Yale Books, covers much of the ground in this section.)

* The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus 1942.

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One thought on “Why I am an Absurdist

  1. Pingback: A second year in blogging, a retrospective | Edward Bindloss

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