Theater of the Absurd

  • Posted: December 13, 2021
  • Category: Blog
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It was the French, bless their hearts, as with so much else offensive to the America of Norman Rockwell with their matchless talent for seductive nonsense. They coined the term Theater of the Absurd – or in the original, theatre de l’absurde – as a convenient shorthand for the body of work created by a group of European intellectuals, mostly French, all Francophile. Their plays, movies and novels portrayed the human situation as absurd, devoid of purpose or meaning. In their work, logic and reason are replaced by the irrational and illogical.

The Theater of the Absurd features “characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of cliches, wordplay and nonsense”. This sense that humanity is ultimately without purpose, goal or direction, engaged in meaningless empty actions, i.e. a theater of the absurd, comes from the ideas of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre et al.

Their idea that life is circular, without beginning or end or meaning beyond itself, became known as Existentialism. The fact that this idea of a circular repeating universe is the basis of every culture and philosophy outside of Christianity apparently escaped those French thinkers and their intellectual groupies, who thought it avant garde, tres chic.

It was my fate to run aground on these ideas as a hormone soaked teenager. Back in the ill-remembered Sixties, French existentialism was all the rage among young intellectuals. In that time, young intellectuals were fascinated by nihilism, the Theater of the Absurd, rather than the woke warriors of today. One would imagine a wide gulf between now and then, between nihilism and wokeness, yet the difference consists of splitting hairs. In my own high school, there was a group of girls, good Methodist churchgoers all, who simply dominated the Honor Roll. In so far as 1966 Western Nebraska had intellectuals, these young women were it.

It was my fate to have one of these young ladies as a girlfriend. Sitting in the front row, taking exhaustive notes during class, memorizing them and faultlessly regurgitating verbatim on tests, these girls raised the bar on GPA ranking at the same time as they stripped it of meaning. Eschewing the pleasures of Get Smart, Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies, they relaxed by immersing themselves in the works and ideas of French existentialists, along with the feminist tracts de rigueur for young women out to change the world.

On our movie dates, my preference for the Man with No Name and James Bond competed with her desire for the oddly timed showings of obscure French cinema. To be honest, I was not averse to seeing obscure French films, as they frequently showed some skin. One movie, Blow Up, comes to mind as an example of the genre. But my obvious interest in the risqué was little appreciated while I was consistently caught short on the film’s “meaning”.

As a consequence, the cold winds of autumn began to whisper through the trees of my high school romance. In desperation, I sought to regain the sunshine of summer by digging into the works of Camus and Sartre in the hopes of becoming simpatico with her circle.

Perhaps I could shed my juvenile fondness for Sergeant Schultz and Marshall Dillon, replacing it with a mature appreciation for the sophisticated ennui of Jean Paul Sartre. Luckily this young lady was more discerning than myself, saw the futility of my efforts and put me out of my misery, administering a quick coup de grace as the end of our senior year drew near.

But this past Saturday morning, I was once more caught up in the Theater of the Absurd. Two of my grandchildren play basketball in a Y-League – sort of anyway. As one is three and the other five, so you understand this is not the NBA, nor even the NCAA.

Anyway, here I was walking into the gymnasium and it hit me, “characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions.” I hasten to note that I am not talking about the players. These three year olds have a reasonable expectation their level of play and understanding will grow, becoming that artistry of speed, dexterity and athleticism that is basketball.

My sudden recognition of theatrical absurdity was triggered by something else. The teams of 3 year olds, moving up and down the floor like confused swarms of bees, were all masked. Their coaches were masked. Their parents were masked, as were their wandering siblings and doting grandparents. As to the level of basketball play, I was hopeful. As to the masked citizens of Jefferson County, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry. Either response seemed appropriate.

Our county, Jefferson County in the State of Colorado, is once more caught up in “mask frenzy” and so the dominoes have fallen in ways as predictable as they are depressing. It is indeed a “theater of the absurd”, as people are “caught in hopeless situations, forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions”. And it is a circle without end.

In a “theater of the absurd”, logic and reason are suspended, replaced by the irrational and illogical. In Jefferson County today, the preposterous, the specious, the sophistic hold sway over people caught in a hopeless situation. What better describes the times than a “theater of the absurd”?

Everyone who so chooses has been vaccinated. Virtually everyone who so chooses has received a booster to that vaccination. No one really knows, but probably half of the people in that YMCA gymnasium had already had Covid, with its superior conferred natural immunity. Irrespective of that bubbly cesspool of lies told in service of “a noble truth”, Covid mortality and chronic effect in adults has proven to be on a par with influenza.

What about all those little kids running around? It’s “all about the kids” after all. Assuming the womb bound fetus passes the bar of his/her mother’s “choice”, thereby surviving the abattoirs of Planned Parenthood, America will “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to cosset and protect their children. But parents know these little tykes are mobile petri dishes of pathogen incubation. They share germs, viruses and bad habits with promiscuous abandon.

In fact, the immune systems of all those little basketball players will be compromised life long unless they are exposed to a childhood long stewing in germs and viruses. And there is that other inconvenient truth. Covid is of so very little concern to children, ranking far behind influenza, otherwise known as the common flu, as a threat to children’s wellbeing.

And so in last Saturday morning’s YMCA gymnasium, the “theater of the absurd” held sway. The irrational and illogical reigned supreme. Given the demographic of South Jefferson County, it is natural to assume that many if not most of the adults in the gym were supremely logical, rational, people, college graduates in meaningful curriculums. As of yet Colorado’s gender studies crowd continues to cluster in the cloisters of urban walkable Denver.

Both Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were supremely logical, rational people themselves, but they would have understood the masks perfectly. Their life’s work proved logic to be no more than a foil for the empty despair of life without God.

At this point, I am tempted to say that Camus and Sartre came by their atheism honestly; they were French Catholics after all. A feeble attempt at humor to be sure, but as the French say – Il n’y a pas de fumee sans feu (Where there’s smoke there’s fire). The French intellectuals such as Camus and Sartre, heirs of an enervated Catholicism that has reduced their magnificent cathedrals to empty mausoleums, simply recognized the obvious. They came to the same place of belief every other non-Christian culture before them arrived in their own time and place.

In fact even the Christian Bible has its own expression of Existentialism, “the theater of the absurd”. The Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, has always held on by its fingertips to its inclusion in the canon. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon catalogs life as he saw it in his own time and place. He, just like Camus and Sartre nearly 3,000 years later, saw life as without meaning, arbitrary with blind chance leading to irrational and illogical results.

But while Solomon, Camus and Sartre saw the same world, they came to very different conclusions. Camus and Sartre threw up their hands in despair. You are born, you live and then you die. If the Universe is meaningless, then my life is all that matters, at least to me. Even though my life is simply a pinball bouncing randomly in the cosmos, it is all I have.

Solomon saw the same world but came to a different conclusion. “Yes”, Solomon says, “life seems to be meaningless, but there is a God and He created the world for a purpose, even though I cannot understand it.”

Solomon does not understand God’s purposes, but he does understand something else. He mercilessly details the meaninglessness of life, memorably calling it – vanity of vanity, all is vanity. Yet after all this, he understands that there is something beyond his own understanding and ends his book with this conclusion:

“Now all has been heard;

Here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments;

For this is the duty of all mankind.”

Solomon uses a quaint word in his conclusion – duty. Duty is a word in danger of becoming an archaic usage. Who speaks of duty in the 21st Century? In the meaningless world of the existentialists, duty is worse than meaningless. Of what possible value is a sense of duty? Perhaps nothing better than our abandonment of even the word illustrates how existentialism has conquered us. My high school girlfriend saw the future much more clearly than I. I lost my girlfriend to existentialism, but I did not expect to lose my country.

While the Bible never tells us everything about anything, it does show us different viewpoints. Companion books to Ecclesiastes are Proverbs and the Book of Job. Proverbs, also largely attributed to that same King Solomon, gives us a prescription for a life of meaning in a world with meaning. But then in Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes a world seemingly without meaning, seemingly a repudiation of Proverbs.

And then in the Book of Job, we are given another viewpoint, a debate between the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Job, a man from the land of Uz, blameless and upright is struck by undeserved tragedy. A great part of the book consists of Job’s four friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu, comforting (?) him in his misery. These four friends reason from a world of meaning, the world of Proverbs. In such a world, Job’s misfortune must rest on his own shoulders. Job has done something to deserve his terrible misfortune.

But Job responds from the pages of Ecclesiastes. “No, I am blameless, this is wrong.” he says. “If the world has meaning, there must be justice. If there is meaning, there is justice and I demand it as I have done nothing to deserve my fate.” Job demands that his world be put right, its meaning restored.

But then, unexpectedly out of the darkness, Job and his four friends are brought up short, confronted:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:

“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

I will question you, and you shall answer Me.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?””

God speaks to Job and his friends in an extended soliloquy, letting them know that they simply are in no position to question His actions, or the way the Universe works. His creation is simply too large and too complex for them, or any man, to understand. While one can certainly question God, the questioner must understand the question to be an act of hubris. “God’s ways are higher than our ways” and man’s best response is to “be still and know that I am God”.

The French Existentialists see the world around them clearly and they conclude there is no meaning. Indeed they are not wrong, if left simply to human understanding only, the world is a Theater of the Absurd. Without God speaking out of the whirlwind, what else can be said? To conclude otherwise is to believe in the tooth fairy. But then one wonders, in the dark watches of the night, if the words of Eliphaz in the Book of Job might not have haunted the French Existentialists, making them question their intellectual certitude.

“He (God) catches the wise in their own craftiness”

Once God is abandoned, life is meaningless. Perhaps a philosopher can live with that conclusion, but very few people are philosophers. The electorate demands something else. A life without meaning is to peer into the abyss and find it looking back. Even Friedrich Nietzsche quailed at such a prospect. While French philosophers cloak their thoughts in seductive nonsense, their German counterparts revel in Gotterdammerung.

In the absence of God, the void in the world’s meaning must be filled for people. It was Aristotle who first remarked that “nature abhors a vacuum”. In our time, we have found no shortage of candidates to fill that void. On the left bank we have the creatures of the Progressive zoo; Black Lives Matter, Climate Change, Critical Race Theory, etc. On the ramparts of the right stand such sentimental favorites as those old standbys, patriotism, freedom and independence.

The appearance of Covid brought the focus of a crisis to our need for meaning in our lives. It was the thoughts of an American poet, Frank O’Hara best expressing the effect of Covid on us:

“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.”

Yes indeed, Covid is a time of crisis and like iron filings in the presence of a magnet, we the people demonstrate unconsciously and clearly what we love, that which provides meaning in our life. Our life is what provides the meaning in our life. We will “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to avoid any and all possible risks to our life, no matter how remote.

And that brings us back to all those 3 year old basketball players. If there is any meaning in a meaningless world outside of our own lives, it is the lives of our children. We have given them meaning, else we would have sacrificed them in the sanctioned butchery of “Choice”.

While we might throw darts at Dr. Fauci and the various bureaucrats/politicians who order our lives during the Time of Covid, they are first and foremost political animals. Political animals, at least successful ones, are acutely sensitive to what is most meaningful to those they lead.

And in closing, I return once again to the opening of this piece and the seductive nonsense of French philosophers.  The sophistication of their thoughts and the artistry with which they present those ideas proves a worldly wisdom, seductive in its appeal and difficult to refute.

But when engaging with the worldly wise, such as the French Existentialists, it is well to remember the reply of a Jewish lawyer to the sophisticated intellectuals of Corinth some 2,000 years past:

“For the wisdom of this world is folly with God”

 

2 Responses to “Theater of the Absurd”

  1. Stephen Westfall says:

    Hot news this morning – “Governor Polis Declares COVID-19 Emergency Over.” Polis further states, “At this point, if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s really your own darn fault. … [if you] get sick,…” Finally, a glimpse of what non-absurdity might look like. Maybe Jefferson County can now back off restrictions, especially for the little ones.

  2. Russell G Kyncl says:

    Perhaps because in high school I had a one line part in Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Job, the play JB, “He heard, He heard, He sent a bird,” I have always thought the book of Job is a play, that Job is a fictional character, and sooner or later in life every on of us gets to play the lead. Having had one season in life where I played that part, I can attest that one gets to meet each and every one of Job’s friends at the coffee hour at church, on script. On a marginally more positive note, I practice the spiritual discipline of reading Ecclesiastes in the Upper East Side accent of an old Jewish codger commenting on life as it passes by his front steps. Yet another great post, Bill.

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