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Hope springs eternal – how absurd is that?

10 Dec

exit the king

      Since I find Camus’ absurdist approach to the subject of happiness very compelling   (this blog, 17 and 29 May 2014), it’s not at all surprising that I  should  have really enjoyed a play by one of   the great exponents of the Theatre of the Absurd, Eugene Ionesco. The weekend before last we saw his Exit the King, first produced in 1962, at the Theatre Royal Bath.

Broadly, the play deals with the themes of mortality and impending death, both for the individual and for human civilisation. Berenger, the king of a nameless country, is now 400 years old. At an early stage in the action his two wives, Marguerite, the elder of the two, and the younger, more fun-loving Marie, learn that the King has got to die by the end of the play.

 MARGUERITE:         It’s the normal course of events, isn’t it?  You were expecting it. Or had you stopped expecting it?

MARIE:                        You’ve been waiting for it.

MARGUERITE:         That way everything’s in order.

MARIE:                        I was still hoping …

MARGUERITE:         You’re wasting your time … Nothing but hope on their lips and tears in their eyes. What a way  to behave…. It’s your fault if he’s not prepared. It’s your fault if it takes him by surprise. … Life was very sweet, with your fun and games, your dances, your processions … ‘We’ve got to live,’ you used to say. But one must never forget …

MARIE:                        He’s so fond of parties …

MARGUERITE:         People know, and carry on as if they didn’t. They know, and they forget …

 When Marguerite volunteers to tell the King that his death is imminent, Marie warns her, ‘Tell him gently… take your time,’ but Marguerite responds, ‘We haven’t the time to take our time… This is the end of your happy days, your high jinks, your bean-feasts … We’ve got a few moments left to do all the things we ought to have done years ago.’

Berenger soon learns the truth, and is distraught. Marie wants him to be allowed more time, but the king’s doctor tells her that an hour will give him all the time he needs. In what I see as a kind of preview of Daniel Kahneman’s views on the value of an ending (this blog, 11 December 2013), he continues:

DOCTOR:               A well-spent hour is better than whole centuries of neglect and failure. Five minutes are enough … ten fully conscious seconds. We’re giving him an hour, three thousand and six hundred seconds. He’s in luck.

 ‘So live for the moment,’ Marie advises her unhappy husband:

MARIE:                   My darling King, there is no past, there is no future.  Remember, there’s only a present that goes   right on to the end, everything is present ..

KING:                    Alas, I’m only present in the past.

Mindfulness is not much help to Berenger, it seems, when he is on the verge of death. He is so attached to the idea of life that when for the first time he begins to question Juliette, the palace’s downtrodden factotum, about the kind of  existence she leads, envy of her ability to carry on living prompts him to play the cock-eyed optimist and  find every dreary aspect of it enchanting. When she tells him about the toothache and the shopping and the endless washing-up, he says, ‘All this is magical, like some celebration …’.  

This kind of senseless mindfulness is the equivalent of telling the poor and oppressed to count their blessings, they’re lucky to be alive. The opium of the masses, in other words. 

Berenger, I think, resembles Admetus, the king in Euripides’  tragedy Alcestis who is told that he can be saved from death if he finds someone to take his place on the journey to Hades. (His young wife Alcestis volunteers, and Admetus allows this to happen). Leaning from the window of his room, Berenger shouts to anyone who can hear him, ‘Who will give me his life? Who will give his life for the King’s? His life for the good old King’s?’

All the other characters gradually leave the stage, and it is Marguerite who finally steers the King towards his end, persuading him to give up all the things that tie him to his existence and make his load a heavy one. ‘It was a lot of fuss about nothing, wasn’t it?’ she says to him when he finally relaxes his grip on life.

In Ionesco’s play, as in Camus’ Sisyphus, the dismissal of the idea of hope represents a refusal to cling on to a sense of purpose and meaning in our absurd lives. Neither author sees this rejection of hope as a counsel of despair. We can still live our lives to the full – in fact the notion that emerges very strongly from Exit the King  is that  we are much more likely to lead fulfilling and useful lives if we accept the inevitability of death at an early stage. Hope is seen by both Camus and Ionesco as a ridiculous and fruitless ploy to evade the all-encompassing Absurd.


Footnote to Sisyphus: even bigger rocks

29 May

As far as I’m concerned the Sisyphean rolling of stones up hills involves not just mundane tasks like washing up – ‘in three hours the pots gleaming on the draining board will be dirty again’ – but more serious pursuits. Every time I finish a play or an article I feel as though this particular piece of work can have no validity unless I start another one almost immediately. When I mentioned this to my partner, he understood exactly what I meant. ‘It’s not just the same rock, either,’ he said. ‘Every time you set off you think you have to roll an even bigger rock.’

In his Sisyphus essay Camus has interesting things to say about rocks and about hope, a state of mind that has intrigued me ever since I learnt that it was the only thing left in Pandora’s jar of evils after she’d lifted the lid on them. Sisyphus had a passion for life and so tried to overcome death. But in the underworld – according to Camus’ interpretation – he achieved the understanding that defeating death is impossible. Every time he saw his rock roll down the hill, he knew for sure that he was going to have to roll it up again, and that once again it would hurtle back to the bottom. There’s no meaning that transcends death, no final end towards which we strive, no big idea. To hope otherwise – to hope that life involves a meaning that we will discover either before or after death – is a by-product of the condition of the absurd. If we’re going to come to terms with absurdity, then we have to do away with hope. When we start rolling the rock, we mustn’t imagine for one moment that this time it’s going to stay at the top of the hill.

“If Faust and Don Quixote are eminent creations of art, this is because of the immeasurable nobilities they point out to us with their earthly hands. Yet a moment always comes when the mind negates the truths that those hands can touch. A moment comes when the creation ceases to be taken tragically; it is merely taken seriously. Then a man is concerned with hope. But that is not his business. His business is to turn away from subterfuge.”  (The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, Penguin Great Ideas, p.134).

The story of Sisyphus is one of many Greek myths which warn us that it is a mistake to yearn for immortality. Instead, we need to get to grips with the here and now. This is an idea which has been expressed many times in many different ways. Last week I was reminded of one of the most effective when Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ was discussing Edward FitzGerald’s wonderful version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:
 The Bird of Time has but a little way
 To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing. …. 

Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after some Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,
“Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There.”

There are no rewards. Don’t hope for them.

Sisyphus, a model for happiness

17 May

Reluctantly, I’ve come to realise recently that the view of happiness presented by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus comes quite close to my own. Basically for Camus happiness is a product of the condition of the absurd. This is encapsulated in humanity’s search for meaning in a world where God does not exist, and where there are no absolute truths or values. Our ‘appetite for the absolute and for unity’ constantly runs up against ‘the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle’. The world is simply not reasonable. So the human project is doomed to failure – we will never succeed in our attempts to apply reason to a state of being that is fundamentally unreasonable. This, in a nutshell, is the absurd.

Does our recognition of the absurd demand suicide as a response, Camus asks.No, we just have to live with the contradiction. Reason and its limits must be acknowledged, without any false hopes. But the absurd must never be accepted: it requires constant confrontation, constant revolt. For Camus, this revolt leads to freedom: when we are no longer bound by hope for a better future or for eternity, we have no need to pursue life’s purpose or to create meaning; instead we enjoy ‘freedom with regard to common rules’.

In the last chapter of this short work Camus relates the condition of the absurd to the Sisyphus myth. The latter was a character in Greek mythology who tried to outwit Zeus, the ruler of the gods, and in the process committed some pretty bloody crimes. Finally Zeus ordered Death, or Thanatos, to chain Sisyphus up in the Underworld. Cunning as ever, Sisyphus asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked; while Thanatos was obliging him with a demonstration Sisyphus seized the initiative and imprisoned Death in his own shackles.

In other words, Sisyphus tried to outwit Zeus by abolishing death. This caused such an uproar among the gods that Sisyphus was bullied into releasing Thanatos. He was then condemned to a punishment which most of us can easily recognise from our own day-to-day lives: he had to spend the rest of eternity in the Underworld, rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill; whenever he got near the top the boulder tumbled back down again, forcing Sisyphus to begin the task all over again. (Think, for example, of spending hours cleaning the house, knowing that next week we’ll have to do it all over again. Are our more serious tasks any different – do we ever really complete them?).

Camus sees Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd hero who lives life to the full, hates death and is condemned to an utterly meaningless task. His never-ending and pointless toil can be interpreted as a metaphor for human life, full of unremitting drudgery which we are compelled to take seriously, since existence would be unsustainable without it.

According to Camus the truly tragic moment comes when Sisyphus is beginning his task all over again, and becomes conscious of his own miserable condition. He does not have hope, but ‘there is no fate that cannot be overcome by scorn’. When Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty that he will never succeed in it, he is freed to realise the absurdity of his situation and to reach a contented acceptance. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’.


A brief postscript: Camus’ account of our flailing attempts to apply reason to problems which will never admit of reasonable solutions reminded me of Steven Knight’s brilliant film Locke. Ivan Locke thinks that if he just stays calm and remains rational he will work out how to do the right thing in a nightmare situation where there is no right thing that can be done. It’s agonising to watch.