The absurd in literature
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The absurd in literature

Neil Cornwell

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The absurd in literature

Neil Cornwell

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Neil Cornwell's study, while endeavouring to present an historical survey of absurdist literature and its forbears, does not aspire to being an exhaustive history of absurdism. Rather, it pauses on certain historical moments, artistic movements, literary figures and selected works, before moving on to discuss four key writers: Daniil Kharms, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien.The absurd in literature will be of compelling interest to a considerable range of students of comparative, European (including Russian and Central European) and English literatures (British Isles and American) – as well as those more concerned with theatre studies, the avant-garde and the history of ideas (including humour theory). It should also have a wide appeal to the enthusiastic general reader.

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World War II

The theoretical absurd: an introduction

Now I knew that Jean-Paul Sartre and Mr Camus were right when they claimed it is the Absurd that matters. The Absurd with a most capital A … (Jeanette Winterson, ‘Holy Matrimony’, in The World and Other Places, 1998)

The philosophical absurd

The ‘Absurd’ (which henceforth will normally be spelt without the capital letter and mostly without quotation marks) appears not to be, as such, a fully accredited philosophical category. That is to say, at least, that it is not accorded its own entry in the major philosophical encyclopedias (for instance the multi-volumed works edited by Paul Edwards [En. Phil.] in 1967, and by Edward Craig in 1998). It does receive a brief entry in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, as the ‘term used by existentialists to describe that which one might have thought to be amenable to reason but which turns out to be beyond the limits of rationality’, the thought of Sartre being cited as the prime (if ‘mistaken’) example (TRB, in Honderich, 1995, 3). It enjoys, though, far more currency in literature, or comprises ‘an important aspect of the broader cultural context of existentialism’ (ibid.), where it has become the subject (in either a general or a particular sense) of a number of monographs and has given the name to the now widely familiar ‘theatre of the absurd’ – this phrase itself having been coined by Martin Esslin in his book of that title, the first edition of which was published in 1961.
Chris Baldick, in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990), explains the absurd as ‘a term derived from the existentialism of Albert Camus, and often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value’; he goes on to single out the works of Kafka, ‘in which the characters face alarmingly incomprehensible predicaments’, and to stress the ‘theatre of the absurd’ phenomenon, highlighting Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (originally written in French as En attendant Godot, 1952). Already we gather that existentialism and purposelessness feature strongly as key concepts, while Sartre, Camus and Beckett are seen as leading exponents in thought and literature.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary confirms the noun ‘absurd’ as ‘the state or condition in which man exists in an irrational and meaningless universe and in which man’s life has no meaning outside his own existence’, while ‘absurdism’ is defined as a philosophy based on this, and on the belief that ‘[man’s] search for order brings him into conflict with his universe’ (adding ‘compare EXISTENTIALISM’). The Oxford English Dictionary gives the original meaning of absurd as ‘out of harmony’ – initially in a musical sense, but subsequently and more generally out of harmony ‘with reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical’, or in modern everyday parlance ‘ridiculous, silly’. Peter L. Berger (175) chooses to stress the Latin derivation: absurdum ‘literally means out of deafness’.1 All of these qualities may well contribute to a literary understanding of the absurd.
Ionesco’s conception of the absurd is ‘that which is devoid of purpose … Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless’ (quoted from Esslin, Th. Abs., 23). For Sartre, absurdity is not ‘silly’, but ‘contingent’ (Danto, 24), while, with the thought of Hume in mind, Terry Eagleton (in his study of tragedy, Sweet Violence, 223) comments that ‘The price we pay for our liberty is contingency, which is never very far from absurdity’. William Lane Craig refers to ‘the hopeless absurdities of the Megaric school’; these pre-Socratics (who were dismissed as of ‘no particulars’ by Erasmus in his Praise of Folly (23) ‘had denied all becoming and change in the world’ (W.L. Craig, 27; 20). The seeds of irrationality, therefore, are lurking throughout the history of western thought; a sense of paradox and ambiguity, and the decline of religious faith are all of the essence. And Existenz, ‘the existence of a human being’, Kierkegaard argued, ‘is prior to “essence”’ (Passmore, 468); Sartre, in consequence, holds too that existence ‘precedes’ essence (Danto, 24). For Camus, in his key treatise for an understanding of the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus (ostensibly written as an enquiry into suicide), ‘the absurd is sin without God’ (Camus, Myth, 42); it is also ‘the revolt of the flesh’ (ibid., 20) – what John Macquarrie (Existentialism, 77) terms ‘heroic absurdity in Camus’. There have always been constraints imposed on the posing of the most difficult questions, from Aristotle’s injunction, ‘one must stop’, to Kant’s caution over those ‘absurd’ questions that ‘not only [bring] shame on the propounder of the question, but may betray an incautious listener into absurd answers’ (Critique of Pure Reason: cited Fotiade, 197). The shame of absurdity can therefore call forth moderation!
Ontology, Nihilism, Existentialism
Logic is doubtless unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. (Franz Kafka, The Trial, 1914–15)
As good a starting point as any, perhaps, is the ontological conundrum. Heidegger’s question, ‘why is there anything at all and not rather nothing?’ (Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin also wishes to wonder ‘how it was that a world should exist rather than nothing’: Nausea, 192),2 was earlier put in the same or similar form by Leibniz and by Schelling, Unamuno (in his The Tragic Sense of Life, 105), and probably many others: Donald A. Crosby (131) calls it ‘that favorite question of Western philosophers’.3 The question was later to pass from Heidegger to Ionesco. A negative answer, or even uncertainty, would appear to be but a short step from ‘nihilism’ and, for most commentators, absurdity is to be equated with nihilism. The objection to, for instance, the cosmological argument of Leibniz, that ‘there is no sufficient reason for the universe, that it is simply unintelligible … raises serious existential questions’, writes W.L. Craig (287), ‘since it implies that man and the universe are ultimately meaningless’: again nihilism. ‘The wonder of Greek metaphysics’, Michael Weston (96) stresses, ‘is directed toward this: that reality is intelligible’. Referring to ‘negative doctrines in religion or morals’, or ‘an extreme form of scepticism’ (OED), nihilism is a term commonly held to have been popularised by Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (or Fathers and Children: Ottsy i deti, 1862), through his protagonist Bazarov – although the OED cites a number of earlier usages of the word.
Possibly the first nihilist thinker was Gorgias of Leontini (a contemporary of Socrates), whose treatise On Nature propounded the tripartite reasoning, according to which: firstly, ‘that nothing is’; secondly, ‘that even if it is, it cannot be comprehended’; and thirdly ‘that even if it can be comprehended, it cannot be communicated’ (G.B. Keferd, En. Phil., 3:374–5). Gorgias maintains that ‘we cannot say of a thing either that it is or is not, without absurd results’. Appropriately enough too, for a precursor of the absurdists, this treatise has sometimes been taken as a parody or philosophical joke, or purely as a rhetorical exercise. As we shall see, it may have had a formative impact on Beckett, among others. Metaphysics, from the Greeks onwards, assumes or determines (or presumes to determine) ‘a ground for our ways of thinking and relating to what is’; this ground, which ‘must lie beyond language’, is undercut, denied or deconstructed by more recent thinkers (from Nietzsche to Derrida) in ‘the death of God’ or the lack of a ‘transcendental signified’ (see Weston, 116–17). Nietzsche’s criticism of knowledge, or ‘secret history of philosophers’, according to Roberto Calasso (The Forty-Nine Steps, 17–18), amounted to a ‘history of nihilism’.
The absurd, then, is born of nihilism, out of existentialism, fuelled by the certainty of death (anxiety, dread and death being the scourge of the existentialist). Eagleton (9) reminds us that ‘for a certain strain of existentialist philosophy death is tragic as such, regardless of its cause, mode, subject or effect’. So too is life; Crosby (30–1), in the spirit of Schopenhauer, puts it thus:
The existential nihilist judges human existence to be pointless and absurd….
… The only feasible goal for anyone who understands the human condition is the abandonment of all goals and the cultivation of a spirit of detached resignation while awaiting life’s last and greatest absurdity, an annihilating death that wipes us so cleanly from the slate of existence as to make it appear that we had never lived.
‘If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said,’ writes the Spanish ‘philosopher of life’ Miguel de Unamuno, in his treatise on The Tragic Sense of Life (13), ‘nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence’. ‘[T]he real discovery of death’, made independently by the Jews and the Greeks, he affirms (62), had constituted ‘the entrance into spiritual puberty’. Death for Sartre ‘is just the final absurdity, neither more nor less absurd than life itself’ (Macquarrie, 198). Macquarrie conjectures (195): ‘Is it not absurd even to imagine that one could arrive at an existential understanding of death?’ As for notions of immortality through living on in one’s descendants, in one’s created works, or ‘in the universal consciousness’ – all of this ‘is but vague verbiage which satisfies only those who suffer from affective stupidity’ (Unamuno, 16). Even the notion of posthumous survival (were it believable) would not necessarily help very much; for absurdist existential nihilists, Crosby avers (172), indeed ‘the very prospect of a perfect afterlife can make our existence on this earth seem scandalous and absurd’ (for similar thoughts, see, for instance, the theoretical physicist Paul Davies, 111; 154). For Nietzsche, indeed, ‘the compensatory belief in heaven (“the Land of Back and Beyond”)’ merely ‘reduces the value and dignity of physical existence’ (Stern, 93).4 Without it, and in the teeth of the suffering of this world, ‘to live is to teeter for a few brief moments over an abyss, and then to be hurled indifferently into its depths’ (Crosby, 57). Nevertheless, Leszek Kołakowski suggests (in his Metaphysical Horror, 58): ‘It is perhaps better for us to totter insecurely on the edge of an unknown abyss than simply to close our eyes and deny its existence’. And time, of course, is the ‘worst enemy’ (Camus, Myth, 20).
Existentialism concerns itself first and foremost with the subject, rather than the object. The personal pronoun – ‘I’ – represents ‘an existent who stands out (the basic meaning of ‘existing’: my emphasis.) as this existent and no other’ (Macquarrie, 73). ‘Existentialism has its roots in German Romanticism’, affirms John Passmore (467), although Pascal, St Augustine and Socrates are often credited as precursors. Arthur C. Danto (20) confirms that Sartre, for instance, ‘has worked always … within the dry array of distinctions of a largely scholastic metaphysics’. Kierkegaard, though, is commonly held to be the father of existentialism in its modern form,5 with strong elements of pessimism coming from Schopenhauer6 and of negation from Nietzsche; Lesley Chamberlain (90), indeed, affirms that Nietzsche might be called ‘the First Existentialist’. For Nietzsche, human orders in any guise were ‘vain attempts to draw a veil over the “ghastly absurdity of existence”’ and his thinking, Catherine Bates affirms, had an immense effect thereafter on theory and philosophy: ‘Dismantling the presupposition that order and meaning might inhere within the world, Nietzsche pulled the rug from under every theorist’s feet, orbiting himself and those who follow him into deconstructive free fall’ (Bates, v). Put in a not dissimilar way by Chamberlain (7–8): ‘He questioned whether Western philosophy since Plato had any meaning in the face of the absurd and irrational forces underlying human life, symbolized by Dionysus’.
Although a number of thinkers have contributed to existentialism as we now think of it (Berdyaev, Shestov, Unamuno and Karl Jaspers,7 for instance; and – more recently and more significantly – Heidegger, Camus and Sartre), there is, in Macquarrie’s view, ‘no common body of doctrine to which all existentialists subscribe’; it is therefore to be regarded not so much as a ‘philosophy’ but rather as a ‘style of philosophizing’ (Macquarrie, 14). Ramona Fotiade distinguishes between ‘the “existential” line of thought’ (as developed in particular by Lev Shestov and Benjamin Fondane) and ‘the emerging “Existentialism” of the 1930s’ (Fotiade, 7). Alasdair Macintyre declares that ‘any formula sufficiently broad to embrace all the major existentialist tendencies would necessarily be so general and so vague as to be vacuous’; for that matter, he avers, ‘as in theology so in politics existentialism appears to be compatible with almost every possible standpoint’ (in En. Phil., 3:147; 151).
Part of the paradoxical nature of existentialist thought involves ‘a kind of love-hate relationship in which elements of belief and disbelief are intertwined’ (Macquarrie, 19). Dostoevsky has provided perhaps the finest novelistic illustrations of this contradiction, while in a famous epistolary comment he proclaimed that, were Christ ever proved to lie outside the truth, he would himself prefer to remain with Christ.8 Within the tradition of mysticism, Meister Eckhart, ‘in a surprising fit of heresy’ (according to Camus: Rebel, 25), declared that ‘he prefers Hell with Jesus to Heaven without Him’. Camus, however, states that, for ‘the absurd man’, ‘seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable’ (Myth, 43); we shall look in Chapter 4 at Dostoevsky’s impact on Camus. ‘Signification’, Gilles Deleuze extrapolates from Descartes, ‘does not establish the truth without also establishing the possibility of error. For this reason’, he continues, ‘the condition of truth is not opposed to the false, but to the absurd’ – defined as ‘that which is without signification or that which may be neither true nor false’ (Deleuze, 14–15). Kierkegaard places his notion of ‘repetition’ (belonging to a different dimension of thought and analogous in part to Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’) within the sphere of the absurd, or ‘the level at which religious faith defies logical reasoning, … at which individual, exceptional, unique occurrences disrupt the “chrono-logical” discourse, the homogeneous flux of historical continuity’ (Fotiade, 160).
Kierkegaard, having – even before Nietzsche – deconstructed the tenets of Christianity, nevertheless chooses (like Dostoevsky) a blind leap into Christian faith – which may be compared to Pascal’s famous wager.9 Bates, however, raises the question as to whether God would necessarily have kept his side of the Pascalian bargain and sees the logic of this as having been, in any case, philosophically ‘first and most rigorously blown apart’ by Nietzsche’s insistence that ‘the assumption of a logical world was … no more than a presupposition’ (Bates, 40; 55; 69). Nietzsche...

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Citation styles for The absurd in literature
APA 6 Citation
Cornwell, N. (2013). The absurd in literature (1st ed.). Manchester University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Cornwell, Neil. (2013) 2013. The Absurd in Literature. 1st ed. Manchester University Press.
Harvard Citation
Cornwell, N. (2013) The absurd in literature. 1st edn. Manchester University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. 1st ed. Manchester University Press, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.