Absurdism, Film

Woman in the Dunes

In the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes a man spends seven years trapped in a sand pit. That summary and the film’s running time of two hours and twenty minutes may put some viewers off, but that would be a mistake. This is a beautiful film with a mesmerising minimalist soundtrack, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, that became a Japanese New Wave classic. Andrei Tarkovsky included it in his list of the best ten films ever made. Like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel the premise may be balmy, but the consequences that flow from it takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.

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Absurdism, Books

On Samuel Beckett

Hamm: The whole thing is comical, I grant you that.

Beckett’s play Endgame (1957) has no story, no plot development, is set in an depleted world of four characters confined to a room with two small windows out of which, because they are too high, it is impossible to see. Hamm is blind, paralytic, cannot stand and in constant physical pain. Nagg and Nell have no legs and are confined to dustbins; they indicate a desire to kiss and touch each other (they are married) but their bins are too far apart for that. Clov can walk and so is keeping the others alive but he is unable to sit down. Even the toy dog lacks a leg. The only dramatic tension comes from Hamm’s insistence that Clov leave him alone while making his exit impossible, and Clov’s repeated failed attempts to leave Hamm. Hamm provides Clov’s food and shelter and Clov stands in for Hamm’s legs and eyesight, but each is antagonistic. They are locked together by an adversarial dependence. Continue reading

Absurdism, Books

On P. G. Wodehouse

In P. G. Wodehouse’s comic world language is king. He delights with a verbal abundance of fantastical specificity. Take some of his fluid, hyperbolic similes:

She looked like a tomato struggling for self expression.
He withered like an electric fan.
He wilted like a salted snail.
She looked like an aunt who had just bitten into a bad oyster.
He vanished abruptly, like an eel going into mud.
He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow.

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Absurdism, Art, Marcel Duchamp

What is art?

In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.

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Absurdism, Art, Rhetoric


Edwin McKenzie, of no fixed abode, was painted many times by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, between the late sixties and early eighties. Because he lived as a vagrant in a circular container overlooking a rubbish tip in Plymouth Lenkiewicz renamed him Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. Diogenes’s philosophy was “live while you can and live in clover, when you’m dead, you’m dead all over”. He was born in 1912 and claimed that he had smoked a pipe since he was twelve, was a former lightweight boxer, designed and built the Plymouth Civic Centre, had won the Derby twice and the Grand National once, had played for Arsenal, and built the Tamar Bridge. Diogenes stood sentinel at a desk at the door to the artist’s studio demanding 10p for entry claiming the title ‘secretary’. When Diogenes died in a Plymouth hospital in 1984 Lenkiewicz and several of his children surreptitiously gained entry to the hospital morgue, wrapped the corpse in a winding sheet and stole it away. He was embalmed the next day, encased in transparent resin and remained under the bed of Lenkiewicz’s son for some weeks while he was revising for his A’ levels at an adjacent desk.

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Absurdism, Books

On The Idiot


Dostoevsky wrote this letter to his niece Sophia Ivanova on 13th January 1868 while he was writing The Idiot:

The main idea of the novel is to present a beautiful man…There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitless beautiful person is an infinite miracle itself. The whole Gospel according to St. John is about that…I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in…literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful because he is ridiculous. Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of comedy lies in this excitation of compassion.”

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Absurdism, Books

On Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was a Ukrainian doctor who gave up medicine in 1921 at the aged of thirty and, living in Moscow, devoted himself to literature. He wrote absurdist, fantastical, grotesque comic plays, and novels such as  A Dog’s Heart and The Fatal Eggs. He mocked the Soviet belief that science would solve all human problems and that society could progress to utopia and showed a magnificent disdain for this ethos of certainty. He deployed a prose style of boisterous nonsense to confront the new dour utilitarianism.

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Absurdism, Books

On Edward Lear

Edward Lear did not invent the limerick, a form that has been traced back to England in the early eighteenth century, and limerick was not the word he used (the term not being documented until the 1890s). Lear called them nonsenses, but he did fashion them into a literary form that made them famous.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized the cat, and said ‘Granny burn that
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna’

There was a Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru. Continue reading

Absurdism, Books, Law

On Defenestration

On 12th December 1969 a bomb exploded at a bank in Milan killing seventeen people. There followed a roundup of left-activists that included the arrest of an anarchist railway worker called Guiseppe Pinelli. As it happened Pinelli had an alibi and was innocent of the crime, but the police interrogated him for three days and nights before he fell to his death from a window on the fourth floor of the Police Headquarters. Controversy has raged ever since as to the circumstances of how and why he tumbled to his death:

  • The Italian left accused the police of being responsible for Pinelli’s murder.
  • The police claimed Pinelli has committed suicide because he was deeply compromised in the bombing. At a news conference Milan’s Chief of Police asserted that Pinelli after confronted with the irrefutable evidence of his complicity leaped from the window crying ‘This is the end of anarchy’.
  • The first judge to carry out an enquiry ordered the case to be shelved in May 1970. He heard the original blast from his office a mile away: ‘No, I don’t think that was a boiler exploding. I think that was a bomb, and it sounded to me like an anarchist bomb’.
  • The original police explanation was abandoned and replaced with: Pinelli went over to the window to smoke a cigarette, fainted, and fell out.
  • Luigi Calabresi, the police officer who had interrogated Pinelli just prior to the defenestration, sued the editor of a newspaper, Pia Baldelli, for defamation after Baldelli had alleged murder. There was a libel trial in 1971.
  • In the light of contradictory police statements about the affair the Italian Ministry sent a second judge to open another criminal inquiry.
  • A new left wing version widely circulated after examination of the site of injuries on the body: Pinelli was killed by a police karate chop and was already dead when he was tossed out of Calebresi’s office window. Pinelli’s wife Licia sued Calabresi for her husband’s wrongful death.
  • Calabresi was shot and killed in front of his house in 1972. A huge crowd attended his funeral to honour him.
  • By1975 there was a judicial finding on the case: “The air in the room was heavy, oppressive. The window was open [Pinelli] went over to the balcony for a breath of fresh air, he felt dizzy, he put out his hands in the wrong direction, his body falling over the railings…all the evidence points in this direction”. In other words Pinelli had neither committed suicide nor been murdered but had suffered from what the judge called an ‘active affliction’. This ruling of accident satisfied nobody and was the subject of ridicule.
  • Three neo-fascists were convicted (not confirmed on appeal) of the Milan bank bombing, one of whom, called Giannettini, turned out to be a police agent-provocateur who had played his part in instigating the bombing. This theory was that neo-Nazis intended to destabilise Italy making it ripe for a right wing coup. On this view the state, trying to suppress left wing dissent with a spy embedded in the anarchist group, was able to organise the massacre, manufacture the public outrage, denounce the innocent, eulogise the dead and coin medals for the widows and orphans.
  • Three left wingers were arrested and later convicted on the flimsy evidence of pentiti of murdering (or ordering the murder) of Calabresi (not all confirmed on appeal).

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