Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe ultimately fail (and, hence, are absurd) because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to humanity. The word "absurd" in this context does not mean "logically impossible" but rather "humanly impossible". [Silentio, Johannes de. "Fear and Trembling". Penguin Classics, p. 17]

Absurdism is related to existentialism and nihilism and has its roots in the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the Existentialist movement when the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus broke from that philosophical line of thought and published his manuscript "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.

Relationship with Existentialism and Nihilism

øren Kierkegaard

A century before Camus, the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the absurdity of the world. In his journals, Kierkegaard writes about the Absurd:

An example that Kierkegaard uses is found in one of his famous works, "Fear and Trembling". In the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham was told by God to kill his son Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to kill him, an angel stopped 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"). [Silentio, Johannes de. "Fear and Trembling", Denmark, 1843] However, it should be noted that in this particular case, the work was signed with the pseudonym "Johannes de Silentio".

Another instance of absurdist themes in Kierkegaard's work is found in "The Sickness Unto Death", which is signed by the pseudonym "Anti-Climacus". In his examination of the forms of despair, Kierkegaard examines the type of despair known as defiance. ["Sickness Unto Death", Ch.3, part B, sec. 2] In the opening quote 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.

Note well, that 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.

Albert Camus

Although the notion of the 'absurd' is pervasive in all of the literature of Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus" is his chief work on the subject. In it, 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. 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. He concludes that acceptance is the only defensible option.cite book|last=Camus|first=Albert|authorlink=Albert Camus|title=Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays|publisher=Vintage Books|isbn=0679733736|date=1991]

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 a "leap of faith", a term derived from one of Kierkegaard's early pseudonyms, "Johannes de Silentio" (but the term was not used by Kierkegaard himself"The Kierkegaardian Leap" in "The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard".] ), where one understands that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a "leap of faith", one must act with the "virtue of the absurd" (as "Johannes de Silentio" put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This faith has no expectations but is a flexible power propelled by the absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as "philosophical suicide". Camus, like Kierkegaard, rejects both this and physical suicide. [Ibid. p.41]

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," [Ibid. p.55] 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 existence, as he represents a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe by itself.

Camus states in "The Myth of Sisyphus": "Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide." [Ibid. p.64]

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, as it 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.


Further reading

* "OBERIU", edited by Eugene Ostashevsky. Northwestern 2005 ISBN 0-8101-2293-6
*Thomas Nagel: "Mortal Questions", 1991. ISBN 0-521-40676-5

ee also

*Theatre of the Absurd
*Non sequitur (humor)
*Absurdist fiction

External links

* [http://www.absurdist.cc/ The New Absurdist]
* [http://amr.obook.org/index.php Absurdist Monthly Review Magazine]
* [http://alangullette.com/lit/absurd/ Fiction of the Absurd]
* [http://www.gonelawn.com The Gone Lawn Excavation Project: contemporary absurdist authors, journals & presses]

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