Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Absurd and the Impossible

"[Absurdity] is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. Why should we be interested in a clearly impossible story? Because, as Gogol says, in fact the impossible is what happens all the time.”
- William Kentridge

An old friend (now caring for her aged mother in Nevada, if I’m not mistaken) sent me this quote not long ago via Facebook. Well, I couldn’t tell you if she sent it to me personally. Maria has 606 friends, and perhaps she sometimes forgets who all is out there. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the remark piqued my interest.

I’ve been thinking about the absurd on and off for quite some time now. Ever since my college years, in fact, when The Trial, Troubled Sleep, Nausea, Notes from Underground, and other works in the same vein were my daily reading habit. I got a charge out of reading such dismal stuff, though I was a mostly a happy-go-lucky sort myself. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it was the combination of metaphysical speculation and novelistic detail as related by an assortment of hapless misanthropes living on the frenzied edge of nothingness—the typical adolescent syndrome of those who are still afraid of girls. It struck me at the time as funny, important, and largely true-to-life.

But there came a time—I think it was in 1972, I was wandering in the dark amid the grain elevators north of University Avenue and west of the KSTP tower, with the smell of malt in my nostrils—when it suddenly occurred to me that the universe could not be absurd. Why not? Because the word “absurd” can only have meaning in contrast to something that makes sense. If nothing makes sense, then neither “absurdity” nor “sense” hold their meaning.

The word “absurd” does have meaning. But its point of reference is invariably narrow. Let me give you an example. Suppose I were to say: “Georgeanne went to absurd lengths to make sure that the flowers on the table were fresh.” What this means is, “Georgeanne cares a lot more about fresh flowers than you or I do.” Or how about this one: “To argue, in this day and age, that the earth is merely 4,000 years old is absurd.” What this means is, anyone who can disregard the mountains of geological and astrophysical evidence available regarding the extraordinary age of the universe has really lost his or her senses—or is clinging to some quaint and out moded belief for emotional reasons.

In each case, an attitude appears absurd in contrast to another, more well-developed one. We describe an attitude as absurd when we’ve grown tired of trying to explain how mistaken it is on empirical grounds.

Yet between these two examples, the first is far less absurd than the second. Just because we aren’t that interested in flowers doesn’t mean that it’s absurd to pay close special attention to them. In fact, in this instance it may be our focus that’s narrow, not Georgeanne’s. She sees the more brilliant, colorful world that erupts before us when we take care to introduce really fresh flowers to the scene. While we’re burdened with false equivalencies (plastic flowers) and cost-benefit analysis, she opens our vision to an entirely new world—and really, how much is that worth?

The quote I received from Maria may be taken to refer to the fact that we don’t really know what’s possible and what’s not, and it can be a mistake to set false limits to the things we might see or do, the things that might happen.

The positive side of this “truth” has been dramatized time and again in films like Hoosiers and The October Sky, anot the mention horror films and holocaust films beyond number underscoring what dangers lurk beneath even the most benign situations. And weren’t we all, during our childhood years, traumatized in one way or another by that capitalist tract The Little Engine That Could and The Cat in the Hat?

The line separating what can and cannot happen gets especially murky in the outer reaches of time and space—beyond telescopes and on the other side of the Styx. Hence, religious thought is often sparked by tales and adages riddled with absurdity. The Zen koan may be taken as a case in point. And didn’t Tertillian once remark,

"The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible."

This last line, which originally read “et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile” entered the lexicon of Western maxims in a bowdlerized form, Credo quia absurdum, “I believe, because it is absurd”—a remark that will throw a wet blanket on any discussion of religion, though it might help to explain the behavior of suicide bombers.

Poets and novelists have no qualms about combining images and events in ways that don’t really make sense, and such concoctions can sometimes be illuminating or refreshing: A Hundred Years of Solitude, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities come immediately to mind. It seems to me that impossibilities along these lines never take us as deep as do the absurdities in a book like Don Quixote, which springs from the mind of the protagonist rather than that of the author. But we’ll leave that argument for another time.

Nowadays poetry is all but required to indulge in a little nonsense. Did it all start with Rimbaud?

Yet none of this strikes to the heart of Kentridge’s (or Gogol’s) remark, I think, which issues from a point of exasperation, if not despair. There are times when the world seems to be so far out of whack with our values and expectations that all we can do is throw up our hands with the cry, “How absurd!”

Flaubert remains the high priest of this attitude, though it seems to me his views are usually misinterpreted. We find it easy to sympathize with the disgust he feels in the face of bourgeois culture, but have developed a tin ear with regard to the deep affection underlying it. I picked up my copy of Bouvard and Pechuchet just now and was reconfirmed in that judgment. It’s a very funny book, I really ought to read it again.

In the end, “the impossible” doesn’t happen all the time. On the contrary, by definition, it never happens. And it may be worth pointing out that when words such as “crazy” and “absurd” and “impossible” enter a discuss, it means that thought is at an end. In the political sphere that’s not a good terminal to arrive at. It certainly isn’t a "productive" way of looking at the world, no matter what William Kentridge (or Gogol) says.

Yet don’t we sometimes use those words ourselves?

Sarah Palin as president? Crazy. Absurd. Impossible.

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