Literature of the Absurd #
It is hard to overstate the calamitous enduring effects of the Great War on many aspects of society. As well as undermining the certainties of the past, it had lasting repercussions on future psyches. The conventions of piety, pretence and posturing were laid bare and attempts to restore respect and order were increasingly hollow, papering over a prevailing sense of guilt, dread, despair and absurdity.
The premise basing most traditional or conventional literature is that life has meaning, a goal and order or structure. Originating from Aristotle’s Poetics where he laid down the guidelines for the order and structure of literature, traditional literature tends to reinforce this by being coherent, linear in structure and aiming for order and unity. Furthermore, traditional criteria aims for close correlation between character and plot. The conflict, rising action, the complications and especially the denouement or resolution of the conflict must follow rational ground rules of cause and effect to retain credibility and plausibility. This causality particularly must be reflected in the consistency of the actions of the characters. It is imperative that the characters act consistently throughout and never act “out of character”. The beginning, middle and end lead to closure.
Absurdist literature defies all these conventions, reflecting changes in mankind’s philosophical perception of our place in the universe.
Essentially, there are four historical worldviews;
- Ptolemaic – Geocentric – hierarchical, stable, superstitious - order is a high priority.
- Copernican – Heliocentric / man no longer the center of the universe.
- Newtonian – egalitarian – rational & empirical
- Einsteinian – Infinite universe – chaos theory, atoms now can be split. Nothing is certain.
The Literature of the Absurd had its origins in the Theatre of the Absurd, notably following the first and second world wars. This absurdity (that which has no purpose, meaning goal or objective) is the result of disillusionment with the rationalism, which attempted to justify the exploitation of the working class and poor, the affluence of the rich, the wanton yet condoned destructiveness of two world wars, and the unquestioned belief in evolution and progress. No longer can we accept a unanimous consensus of moral and social order.
The decline of religious faith, the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress, the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, the loss of a sense of control over human development in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded a sense of confidence in the future of the world.
In reflecting the world they live in, dramatists no longer enjoy universally accepted dramatic conventions in which the action proceeds within a framework of fixed and self-evident set of accepted values. Faced with this vacuum many artists turned to nihilism, the Da-Da movement, or existentialism or felt the need to fit their work into the frame of values and dogma expressed in contemporary ideologies: Marxism, psychoanalysis, aestheticism, or nature worship.
The Literature of the absurd attempts to depict a grotesque caricature of our world; a world without faith, meaning, direction or freedom of will. Human life is more and more removed from natural; we are alienated from the earth and each other. As human behaviour becomes more conditioned and psychologically manipulated and pre-determined by the conformity of the mass media, it is no longer governed by logic or the rational.
The meaningless and fecklessness (loss of a sense of direction and purpose) of life is depicted as rambling often chaotic structure of the works. Nothing is sequential and nothing follows from that which went before.
The arbitrariness of decision making is indicated in the capricious way the promotions system works in most bureaucracies, especially the army. There seems little rhyme or reason for many decisions that are made- they are whimsical and illogical.
The Literature of the Absurd shows the world as an incomprehensible place. Distortions occur both in time and place that perplex us. Language fails to communicate and explain symptoms.
The ghastly effects of the two wars led to generations embracing silliness or absurdism as a reaction to the absurdity of modern warfare. Alice in Wonderland, the Dadaist movement, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx brothers, Spike Milligan, , the Goons, Peter Dudley and Peter Moore, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Heller, John Cleese and Monty Python, … All were indications of a transcendent silliness. Giving up on rational comment and resorting to buffoonery and ridicule to highlight the infinite ignorance of a world that refuses to make sense. Spin doctors create a narrative that we are simply expected to accept as real – when it is so patently obvious it bears no resemblance to the real world.
Alice in Wonderland quotes
Lewis Carroll, born on January 27, 1832 in, England, as Charles Dodgson wrote books including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice follows a white rabbit down a hole and finds herself in the topsy turvy under world at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. At first sceptical, she is tempted to accept the illusions of life but eventually sees through the subterfuge. What is it about Tea Parties? In this one, hosted by the Mad Hatter, Humpty Dumpty patronisingly explains to Alice that the meaning of a word is simply determined by* “who is to be master -, that is all” , following no*t Descartes’ *“I think, therefore I am,” *but Darwin’s* “survival of the fittest. *Where* might is right”*
“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
“The question is," said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things."
“The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - - that’s all."
**(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6) **
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be," said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here."
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)
Later Alice also learns from the White Queen, that with more effort and practice in these post-ironical, post - modern and post cynical times, “we can all be expected to dutifully believe six impossible things before breakfast”. * As things become curiouser and* c*uriouser,* Alice yearns for “*something to make sense around here”* but finally concludes that “*This is just a house of cards”. *
Alice could identify with Orwell’s Winston Smith “He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self –deception. Only surrender and everything else followed. It was like swimming against a current that swept you backward however hard you struggled and then suddenly deciding to turn around and go with the current”.
“It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”
If the state tells you that 2 + 2 = 5, who are we to question it?
In Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, George Moore, the main character, a philosopher, finally realises that he is living in a changed world, outside the traditional modes of reason.
Political language is particularly abstruse: Actress Julia Louis Dreyfus of Veep describes how “We tried to come up with the most banal, vacuous, meaningless piece of drivel to make things more palatable – a slogan, “continuity with change”.* *
Literature of Absurd portrays life in the twentieth century. If characters change half way through the act, or have identity crises, it suggests they don’t know who they are. If people appear to be marionettes, helpless puppets without any will of their own it is because of the irresistible seductive powers of mass advertising and subtle persuasive techniques of mass media campaigns. Passive, impotent and powerless to possess genuine initiative to decide our own destiny we are at the mercy of blind fate and meaningless circumstance in an over-organised world
Narcissism rules: We are subtly encouraged by movies, marketing, advertising and pop culture, which also permeate government and political rhetoric not to regard each other as “selves” deserving respect and trust but as objects for consumption.
Greed is sexier than gratitude, competitiveness is better than cooperation. Power and money are what matter.
Mostly we live in a heightened state of insatiability, wanting what we can’t have, forgetting and discarding what we already have.
*Brittle fragile relationships are normal, with each person watching their backs rather than the faces of the person they most want to love and be loved by. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love * by Stephanie Dowrick.
Create a chart to illustrate the differences between Traditional and Absurdist literature.
- Define these words and add them to your vocabulary list:
Absurd affluence Ideology, Dogma Arbitrary
Whimsical Feckless Pragmatism aestheticism
Any other words you would like to use
What caused the disillusionment of modern mankind?
What factors have contributed to the loss of a common basis for universally accepted values?
How does the literature of the absurd reflect modern life?