Recently, I was playing a game with my son and some other little kids at a baby shower, and the premise of the game was simple: 1) I shout, “He’s coming!”; 2) they hide in the closet; 3) I bang on the closet; 4) they scream; 5) I stop banging; 6) they exit the closet; 7) the cycle begins again. The danger of this unseen menace was fundamentally absurd. I had no rational explanation for who this “he” was and why he was after little children, but the kids took delight in this nameless fear. Out of context, being mortally threatened by an unnamed “he” may seem like a nightmare scenario, to be menaced by an unseen force that has no reason to attack other than impulse to menace all mankind, and some philosopher might say anyone acting out this scenario is reacting to the malaise of our time, but these children wisely recognized the pure delight of irrational fear. This seems to be the most essential element of absurdity philosophers like Camus seem to neglect when discussing the subject. Absurdity is framed as a source of angst, a later stage reaction to rationality’s failure and not what I would argue is the more accurate take, one that all kids know instinctively: irrational absurdity is the root of narrative delight.
I wrestle with the word absurdity mostly because of Martin Esslin’s book Theater of the Absurd, the book that originally tied together some of my favorite writers, Beckett, Ionesco, Albee, Pinter, etc. It’s a book I constantly go back to despite how much I hate it. It’s like going to the zoo because you love to see lions and elephants but recognizing they’re in the most horrible cages. Part of the problem is the way Esslin ties the term absurd to Camus and the limiting marriage between absurdity, angst, and representation. My purpose in discussing this is not to prove Esslin and Camus wrong necessarily (though that might be a fun and difficult exercise for a much, much longer post) but to highlight an aspect of absurdity missing from their definition which I believe leads to a common misunderstanding of the role of absurdity in narrative.
Camus frames absurdity as a later development in philosophy that occurs with recognition that all philosophies fail to explain an unexplainable universe, making man alien, alone, exile, and all kinds of terrible things (certainly not facilitating play with others). While I love any apprehension of meaninglessness and appreciate any antiphilosophical philosophy as being more accurate and humane, it’s the limited ways Camus frames the necessary reactions of all humans that make little children wiser than Camus: the first reaction to the absurdity of existence is suicide since absurdity is, by necessity, a bundle of angst. If you have no rational explanation for the way the universe works, you must want to exit it, right? The next possible reaction is philosophical suicide, to believe in limited philosophies despite their inevitable failure. Again, equating philosophy with delusion will always win me over, but this comes from the notion that absurdity can only cause angst and is therefore still limited. The third reaction is acceptance, appreciating one’s own freedom despite the inevitable angst of absurdity. Camus doesn’t say you first have fun with absurdity because how could absurdity possibly be fun? Freedom simply comes at the cost of the evils of irrationality. Esslin furthers this limited conception by claiming the work of Beckett, Ionesco, etc, represents this angst in form and content. The notion that a text must represent something is the most significant flaw throughout Esslin’s book — as it is a common flaw in most interpretations of texts, and all these misconceptions are intricately tied to the misconception that a text must represent, but let’s focus for simplicity’s sake on the delight missing from this definition of absurdity. Imagine Camus coming back to life and telling these kids I was chasing, “The angst you are experiencing is a result of the meaninglessness of your mortal existence.” How should the kids respond? If they answer, “We’re just having fun,” they would be accurate — arguably, more accurate than Camus and Esslin.
The irrational may provide angst for some, but the irrational ecstasy of direct experience is the primary irreducible element of narrative — whether that causes angst or delight or both simultaneously. It’s not that all narrative must be irrational; it’s just that the rational is unnecessary, superfluous, a later stage add on that can be just as easily excised. The rational may aid the delight, but the irrational is the beginning of delight. This is the opposite direction of how it’s commonly framed, with the great works flowing from the perfectly squared off Platonic heaven to counteract our natural wildness. Instead, I’m saying our natural wildness is the key, and that Platonic business only functions to enhance the savagery.
If you doubt this, the easiest way to see the place of the irrational in a narrative is to look at the beginning. How many narratives begin with absurdity and how many begin with the rational? Rationality and stability may occupy brief moments of exposition, but this can’t sustain interest long. The disruption of stability/rationality is where interest begins, fueled precisely by that essential human need to reconcile irrationality (and this is the locus of the confusion, mixing up fuel with purpose) — the children must run from the menace to save their own lives, driven by an instinctive need to flee the irrational, but it is the fear and irrationality itself that creates the delight. It is the need for resolution of irrationality, not the resolution itself which gives the narrative power. Consider the most rational and unemotional genre: the murder mystery. In contrast, any romantic story is driven by irrational attraction despite better judgment and any imaginative piece is irrationally unreal, and so-called “literary” pieces have a whole variety of irrational factors, but a murder mystery is driven in a more distilled way by the need to reestablish emotionless rationality, to find the specific answer to a specific question, and a lot of great murder mysteries establish precisely that at the end, but this marks the end of the narrative, when the stability that fails to sustain interest returns, and that uninteresting rational and stable denouement, if merciful, leaves us quickly. The initial situation, however, is as absurd as the situation Camus identifies: an unnamed menace is threatening mortality. The main difference is a reassurance that the murder will soon be solved while the absurdity identified by Camus is unresolvable. However, try to create a murder mystery devoid of absurdity. It’s impossible.
Likewise, a Camus purest might say the children being menaced are reassured by the awareness that this is only play. Here is another area where children are wiser than philosophers: the most essential absurdity — in life in general but more particularly in narrative — is nonduality. In a rational universe, two contradictory states can’t coexist; in the irrationality of narrative, two contradictory states must coexist by definition. To experience the delight of a narrative, one must erase the barrier between self and other, the opposite of this reassuring distancing presumed of the supposedly unreal — the whole system wouldn’t work with a complete distancing necessary to counteract irrationality and arguably works better the more irrational it is, the more the barrier is erased. For example, in order for monster play to be exciting, the child must irrationally disregard the difference between real and imagined, between fear and delight, and children are much better than adults at this. You have to legitimately be frightened by the menace and strive to secure your mortal existence, and the more you’re able to give yourself over to this irrationality, the better. Likewise, recognition that murder mysteries will inevitably be solved or that the hero beats the villain every time or that the couple will get together in the end is the surest way to deprive the narrative of power, but a reader is able to access the childlike delight in not knowing. This is not the hierarchical distancing of representation Esslin argues for, where the unreal things we see function rationally reflect the mood of our age; it is the childlike direct experience of being. (Ionesco, more aware of the inner-workings of his own narrative, constantly argues for this understanding of absurdity though his superior understanding of absurdity is less frequently taken as definitional. Esslin does quote Ionesco’s definition of absurdity, but it is only the half of the definition that affirms his own, tying absurdity with angst; he conveniently skips the aspect of absurdity Ionesco discusses more frequently throughout Notes and Counter Notes and his interviews tying absurdity and childlike ecstasy.)
Another place this misapprehension is very evident is in the naming of the mid 20th century embrace of absurdity (including Beckett and the others Esslin named) as “postmodern.” This term is highly problematic for multiple reasons, but the prefix “post” alone gives it an inaccurate sense of linearity and end point valuation. That awful name seems very much like a philosopher in need of rational things like linearity and end point valuation assessing this absurdity without a true understanding. The rationale, it seems based on several definitions, is that modernism seeks after meaning and order after dissolution of the old order, but postmodernism is a descent into the sort of playful irrationality of madness that occurs only when the madman has fallen from the mountain of greatness and lost hope of re-ascending, a sort of cultural suicide. This is all the sort of misunderstanding that comes from accepting that absurdity must be met with anxiety. The inaccuracy of this is easy to see by simply looking at the history of the novel. If the postmodern novel develops in a straight line from the modern novel as the novel is in its death throes, Don Quixote, the first novel, contains some of the same essential features, including the delighted nondualistic appreciation of absurdity, that define the postmodern novel, so early modern and postmodern are the same thing — apparently birth and death reflect one another, as happens in the stages of man according to that great early/post-modernist Shakespeare, a writer praised for his rationality and enjoyed for his pure absurdities, “like flies to wanton boys” and all that.
For a writer, on the practical level, it’s deadly to over-rationalize, especially at the beginning stages. Some rationality can be effective in fine tuning the delight of a piece, but the root of delight is that absurdity we all access easily in childhood but which in adulthood too often disguises itself as anxiety. If something frightens and pleases you all at the same time beyond all explanation, that is the precisely the material you need to weave a great story.