A framed quote by Albert Camus hangs over my desk: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” To which I would add, but can it dance?
It is not a question Camus might have asked. In fact, it’s ridiculous. It just popped into my head, like so many other wacky thoughts. Cultivating such silliness is a strategy I’ve found most helpful during times of darkness and despair.
This intentional silliness is what many of us think of when we hear the word “absurd.” Unfortunately, many people also have a negative view of the absurd, since it involves a deliberate violation of what we consider reasonable, leading to illogical, nonsensical, often bizarre situations. Totally unpredictable, it follows no rules, turning on its head everything we hold logical and true. And some of us don’t like that.
Absurdist, or surreal, humor is the heart of all great comedy. Think of the preposterous scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice attempts to play croquet using a flamingo as mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Or Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussy-Cat” sailing off to get married and eating slices of quince with a runcible spoon? What exactly is a runcible spoon? Or Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis? You can’t get more ridiculous than waking up and suddenly finding yourself having turned into a giant bug. Then there’s Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a guy named Godot who never shows up and nothing really happens. But oh, what a glorious nothing it is! More recently, comics George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Monty Python, to name a few, have shared their private worlds of wackiness and helped to keep us sane.
But this silliness quite often masks a deep sadness, alienation, and inner struggle. Lewis Carroll used absurd humor as a way to deal with the chaotic changes taking place during the Victorian Period when, much like in Alice in Wonderland, the traditional British life he had known was being turned upside down. So he showed his character Alice struggling to make sense of this ever more curious world she must navigate.
Camus meant something entirely different by the absurd, which can also mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” According to him: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Silly was not his game. Talk about depressing. Can you imagine this guy at a dinner party? Instead of the usual banter, he would stare, with eyes ablaze, at the guests around the table and ask, “What is the meaning of existence?” And as each cited their various religious, philosophical, scientific, and personal answers, Camus would knock them down, one by one.
Ever the skeptic, he would insist that there is no adequate answer to this question. Despite all our efforts to find purpose to our existence, the universe remains silent on this issue. We cannot reason our way to meaning, he argued, for “this world in itself is not reasonable.” Considering the vast, ever-expanding amount of information available to us as well as all that may forever remain unknown makes total certainty beyond our grasp.
Camus rejected the false hope and comfort offered by religion. Like the philosopher Nietzsche, he saw the danger of devaluing this life at the expense of an afterlife which may never come. Why deprive ourselves of the rich opportunities offered by a life we know for one which we cannot know for certain? And therein lies the dilemma. While our human hearts seek to find purpose and meaning to it all (as in Dionne Warwick’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”), there is no definitive answer, no “familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” This is what Camus means by the absurd.
In his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus provides us with the memorable image of a man doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back each time it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the absurd human, doomed to struggle through life without hope or meaning.
According to Camus, you have two choices. Deal with this emptiness in your soul and embrace it, with no hope of escape or consolation, while boldly seeking your own meaning, or decide you can’t deal with it and just end it.
Camus saw death as “the most obvious absurdity,” so he chose life instead. Through his writing, and his personal and political life, he defiantly resisted the apparent meaninglessness of existence. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance to help liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and edited the underground newspaper Combat. In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his life was cut tragically short, he showed us a way to triumph over despair and live an authentic life with dignity.
Have to admit, I do sometimes feel like Sisyphus, pushing my personal rock up the hill only to see it come crashing down again, times when everything I do seems hopeless and my life seems to have as much purpose as the floppy disk I found wedged between a copy of The Hobbit and The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Unlike Camus, however, the question that comes to mind is not: should I kill myself?
I do agree with Camus that the world is not reasonable, and find it curious that I am here. I look in the mirror and see a creature no less bizarre than a giraffe or a star-nosed mole, with all those weird tentacles at the end of its nose. As a kid, I used to gaze at pictures of certain animals in books and shudder. How could they be? They seemed so unreal.
And here am I, as improbable as Ionesco’s rhinoceros running through the streets. My face stares back at me in disbelief. I feel a disconnect between the image in the mirror and the image I carry inside. Is it really the same me, with all those dreams, lusts, and ambitions, all those noble and idle thoughts, all those precious and hateful memories? Or is it a mirage of someone who once was? As I write this, countless cells in my body have died and been replaced, as neurons flash and chart new pathways and memories in my brain. The person I saw this morning is no more.,
Tomorrow I will look in the mirror again, and what will I see? Will I see “the master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul?” Or will I see the more usual face of befuddlement and despair?
It is the dance I perform each day—a dance for meaning—and I never know how it will turn out. Some days, it’s a little jig before breakfast. Other days, it’s more like a polka from hell, or a slow, sad waltz on my grave.
Most often, it begins with some little thing. A little ray of hope that sets my feet moving. Some encouraging thought or word from a friend. An inspiring poem or essay. Some newly discovered truth I had forgotten. A piece of news that proves the world is not coming to an end … not yet, at least.
And I remember that the purpose of my life does not come from external sources. There is no guidebook or grand plan, no voices telling me what to do. Rather it is a series of little daily steps I take to keep the darkness at bay. It’s realizing the value of simple things, like kindness, empathy, and understanding. Expanding my mind with new insights and knowledge. Exulting in the awe of this wondrous universe and the fact that, for a little while, I am here to experience it. Writing the best I can, relishing the little triumphs while accepting that I will never be as good as Shakespeare, Yeats, or Steinbeck. James Baldwin famously wrote: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s as good a credo to live by as any.
But there are times when I lose sight of these and all seems lost, and the only thing that can save me is silliness. Not some tired slapstick silliness, but the kind that’s absurd to the bone and makes you laugh so hard you start blowing things out your nose.
Humor is highly subjective, of course, but there’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail that gets me every time. The knights appear to be riding around on invisible horses as their squires clap coconuts together to produce the sound of hoof clopping (it was a low budget movie and the group didn’t have enough money to afford actual horses, or so they say). And you want to know what’s really absurd? Watching the movie, I begin seeing the horses. When and if nuclear war breaks out, I will watch it, laughing, as the world ends to the beat of horse’s clopping.
In the introduction to my book Dragon Daily News, a collection of silly stories for children, I paraphrased Thoreau and wrote: “In silliness is the preservation of the world.” The world presses down on us with relentless reality, often unfolding in ways that seem to make no sense. How could such things happen in a sane world? we ask ourselves. But the world is not sane. It can be as crazy beautiful as the arms of a spiral galaxy or human eye. And it can be as crazy ugly as anencephaly in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, or a flu virus that suddenly mutates and kills tens of thousands of people. Or all the not-so-nice and horrific things we do to each other daily. Sometimes, all that saves us is our ability to laugh.
Tears are overrated, if you ask me. Beware of anyone who cannot laugh. Run for the nearest exit. Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who died recently at age 103, frequently wrote poems marked by absurdity. Explaining his relationship to the reader, he said: “Humor makes contact easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”
Whenever I get particularly depressed by the doings of my fellow human beings, I try to do something silly. It is a personal act of defiance against a world that seems to grow more absurd by the moment.
Maybe I’ll wear a silly T-shirt or write a silly poem. I’ll do like Shel Silverstein in his wonderful poem Put Something In: “Do a loony-goony dance/’Cross the kitchen floor/Put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.”