From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- This article is about the philosophy. For an extremely unreasonable, silly, or foolish thing, see Absurdity. For the word, see absurd. For absurdist humour, see surreal humour. For the literary genre, see Absurdist fiction.
In philosophy, "the Absurd" refers to the conflict between (a) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (b) the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean "logically impossible", but rather "humanly impossible". The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously. Absurdism, therefore, is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make certainty impossible. And yet, some absurdists state that one should embrace the absurd condition of humankind while conversely continuing to explore and search for meaning. As a philosophy, absurdism thus also explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it.
Absurdism is very closely related to existentialism and nihilism and has its origins in the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis humans faced with the Absurd by developing existentialist philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when the French Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus rejected certain aspects from that philosophical line of thought and published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.
- What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.--Journals, 1849
Here is another example of the Absurd from his writings:
- "What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up. etc., has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being, in as much as all immediate recognizability is pre-Socratic paganism and from the Jewish point of view is idolatry."—Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1846, Hong 1992, p. 210
How can this absurdity be held or believed? Kierkegaard says:
- "I gladly undertake, by way of brief repetition, to emphasize what other pseudonyms have emphasized. The absurd is not the absurd or absurdities without any distinction (wherefore Johannes de Silentio: "How many of our age understand what the absurd is?"). The absurd is a category, and the most developed thought is required to define the Christian absurd accurately and with conceptual correctness. The absurd is a category, the negative criterion, of the divine or of the relationship to the divine. When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd — faith transforms it, but in every weak moment it is again more or less absurd to him. The passion of faith is the only thing which masters the absurd — if not, then faith is not faith in the strictest sense, but a kind of knowledge. The absurd terminates negatively before the sphere of faith, which is a sphere by itself. To a third person the believer relates himself by virtue of the absurd; so must a third person judge, for a third person does not have the passion of faith. Johannes de Silentio has never claimed to be a believer; just the opposite, he has explained that he is not a believer — in order to illuminate faith negatively."—Journals of Søren Kierkegaard X6B 79
Kierkegaard provides an example in Fear and Trembling (1843), which was published under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. In the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham is told by God to kill his son Isaac. Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, an angel stops Abraham from doing so. Kierkegaard believes that through virtue of the absurd, Abraham, defying all reason and ethical duties ("you cannot act"), got back his son and reaffirmed his faith ("where I have to act").
Another instance of absurdist themes in Kierkegaard's work appears in The Sickness Unto Death, which Kierkegaard signed with pseudonym Anti-Climacus. Exploring the forms of despair, Kierkegaard examines the type of despair known as defiance. In the opening quotation reproduced at the beginning of the article, Kierkegaard describes how such a man would endure such a defiance and identifies the three major traits of the Absurd Man, later discussed by Albert Camus: a rejection of escaping existence (suicide), a rejection of help from a higher power and acceptance of his absurd (and despairing) condition.
According to Kierkegaard in his autobiography The Point of View of My Work as an Author, most of his pseudonymous writings are not necessarily reflective of his own opinions. Nevertheless, his work anticipated many absurdist themes and provided its theoretical background.
Although the notion of the 'absurd' is pervasive in all of his literature, Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus is his chief work regarding the subject. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict, or a "divorce" between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd, as the confrontation between man's desire for significance/meaning/clarity and the silent, cold universe (or for theists: God). He continues that there are specific human experiences that evoke notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or acceptance.
For Camus, suicide is a 'confession' that life is simply not worth living. It is a choice that implicitly declares that life is 'too much'. Suicide offers the most basic 'way out' of absurdity, the immediate termination of the self and self's place in the universe. The absurd encounter can also arouse an illogical "leap of faith," a term also used by Kierkegaard, where one understands that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a "leap a faith", one must act with the "strength of the absurd" (as Kierkegaard put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This is not the dogmatic "faith" that we have come to know, Kierkegaard would call that an "infinite resignation" and a false, cheap "faith". This faith has no expectations but is a flexible power propelled by the absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as intellectual laziness, a refuge in chosen falsehoods. It is the epitome of deceiving the self. It is a retreat from truth and the freedom of man. Lastly, man can choose to embrace his own absurd condition. According to Camus, man's freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acknowledgment and acceptance of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move that begins to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of man is, thus, established in man's natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose, to decide himself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of the existence, as he represents a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe by itself.
The meaning of life
According to Absurdism, humans historically attempt to find meaning in their lives. For some, traditionally, this search follows one of two paths: either concluding that life is meaningless and that what we have is the here-and-now; or filling the void with a purpose set forth by a higher power, often a belief in God or adherence to a religion. However, even with a spiritual power as the answer to meaning, another question is posed: What is the purpose of God? Kierkegaard believed that there is no human-comprehensible purpose of God, making faith in God absurd.
For some, suicide is a solution when confronted with the futility of living a life devoid of all purpose, because ending, suicide is only a means to quicken the resolution of one's ultimate fate. For Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is not a worthwhile solution because if life is veritably absurd, then it is even more absurd to counteract it; instead, we should engage in living and reconcile the fact that we live in a world without purpose.
For Camus, the beauty that people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life but still provides something for which to strive. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.
Camus introduced the idea of "acceptance without resignation" and asked if man can "live without appeal", defining a "conscious revolt" against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning, or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free. It is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic (through appeal to some supernatural force) or an absurd hero (through a revolt against such hope). Henceforth, the absurd hero's refusal to hope becomes his singular ability to live in the present with passion.
- Edward Albee's The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), and The American Dream (1961).
- Tom Stoppard's comedy play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1966).
Logotherapy, often called the "third Viennese school of psychotherapy," could be classified as an objection to absurdism. Logotherapy retains many existential conclusions, such as humanity's inherent responsibility for meaning. However, adherents to this school of thought would argue that there is, in fact, a purpose in man's ability to find meaning in an uncertain world. This is a rejection of Camus' belief that man-made meanings should never replace an acceptance of absurdity.
- OBERIU, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky. Northwestern 2005 ISBN 0-8101-2293-6
- Thomas Nagel: Mortal Questions, 1991. ISBN 0-521-40676-5
- Absurdist fiction
- Existential nihilism
- Lottery of birth
- Non sequitur (literary device)
- Peter Wessel Zapffe
- The Stranger (novel)
- Theatre of the Absurd