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Absurdity

ABSURDITY

Absurdity is a basic notion for a number of modern thinkers such as A. Malraux (1901), J. P. Sartre (190580), A. Camus (191360), F. Kafka (18831924), E. Albee (1928), F. Arrabal (1932), S. Beckett (190689), J. Genet (191086), E. Ionesco (191294), and H. Pinter (1930). Whereas dictionaries define the absurd as that which is contrary to reason, as used by these writers it designates that which is without a reason. The absurd is a situation, a thing, or an event that really is, but for which no explanation is possible. Because the affair is inexplicable, it offends reason; it is senseless; it is absurd.

Søren Kierkegaard (181355) is the source for this type of thought. Kierkegaard's writings are a constant protest against the excessive rationalism of G. W. hegel, who taught that all the mysteries of the Christian faith could be comprehended by reason. To indicate that the Incarnation was beyond the understanding of human reason, Kierkegaard called it the absurd, meaning by that something unintelligible and incomprehensible to reason. He insisted that Christian absurdity was neither nonsense, nor irrationality, nor something meaningless; for notions such as these follow on the judgment of reason examining its legitimate data, whereas the Christian accepts the Incarnation by faith. In the light of faith he sees that the Incarnation is in no way absurd.

The notion was then taken up by modern thinkers, especially by existentialists, but in an atheistic context. Thus, absurdity for Sartre arises from the absolute contingency and complete gratuity of the world. Because there is no God, Sartre argues, there are no reasons for things. Things just are; and because they are without any reason for being, they are absurd. Ultimately all things come from nowhere and are going nowhere. Camus gives a different meaning. Admitting that there are scientific explanations for the various parts of the universe, Camus denies that there is any ultimate reason for the whole. Absurdity is a feeling that arises from the confrontation between man, who is looking for a unified explanation of all things, and a world that has no basic meaning.

Because of their preoccupation with the absurd, playwrights like Genet, Ionesco, Beckett and the like have been called collectively the Theater of the Absurd. To indicate the role of absurdity in the human situation these dramatists create sections of dialogue that are incoherent; they depict scenes in which the actions of the actors directly contradict the words they are speaking; they construct plays around the weird fantasies of deranged minds. In this they resemble Kafka, whose exuberant and enigmatic symbolism describes man as caught in a nightmare of existence; truth and illusion are so intertwined in his works that life is there seen as wearisome, uncertain, and senseless.

The Christian can well appreciate the loneliness, frustration, and the emptiness engendered by atheism in these men. He can also be grateful for his faith, which enables him to see atheism as the most absurd of all absurdities; for the visible things of this world do declare the hidden attributes of God (Rom 1.20).

See Also: existentialism.

Bibliography: p. prini, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:416417.

[v. m. martin]

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