The Absurdity of Samuel Beckett

Ch. 1 - Introduction Ch. 3 - The Theory of Absurdity Ch. 5 - Beckett's Absurd Characters in Time Ch. 7 - Conclusion
Ch. 2 - A Brief Outline of the Life of Samuel Beckett Ch. 4 - Beckett's Absurd Characters Ch. 6 - The Theatre of the Absurd as the World of the Absurd Character Notes & Bibliography

III. The Theory of Absurdity

Absurdity is a key word in Beckett's dramatic writings as well as of the whole Theatre of the Absurd. This chapter is a brief introduction to the philosophical background of Absurdity, in which I deal with three main problems: what Absurdity is, in what fate life moments it appears, and what consequences for a human view of life it holds with itself.
One of the most basic philosophical questions asks whether there is any meaning in our existence at all. The human necessity of unifying explanation of world has always been satisfied by religion and creators of the philosophical systems who made the human life meaningful. The natural desire to get to know and understand the world in its most hidden spheres was fulfilled by religious dogmas about the existence of God, which guaranteed the meaningful contingency of human life. In 1883 Friedrich Nietzsche published his magnum opus Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where of the revolutionary thesis that "God is dead"10 appeared. From that time of Zarathustra the old everyday certainties of life started to loose their certainty. World War I and World War II caused deep destruction and loss of human ultimate certainties and definitely brought about a world missing any unifying principle, a world senseless and disconnected with human life. If one realises the absence of sense, and this is the expression of the spirit of epoch, in which the Theatre of the Absurd is rooted, the world becomes irrational and the conflict between the world and the human being who begins to be estranged from it arises here. Martin Esslin mentions Ionesco's parallel concept of the absurdity: "Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose. ...Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless".11
Albert Camus (1913-1960), a French novelist and essayist, who worked out the theory of absurdity and who also applied this thesis in his literary writings iv , deals with the absurd fate of man and literally demonstrates it with the legendary ancient myth of Sisyphus in his stimulating analysis The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus goes into the problem what the absurdity is and how it arises. He also gives the characteristics of human basic ontological categories as the feelings of "denseness"(11) and "the strangeness of the world" (11), which are the feelings of the Absurdity of man in a world where the decline of religious belief has deprived man of his certainties.
Camus sees absurdity in a bilateral relationship between the human being and the world he lives in.12 Absurdity does not reside in the world itself, or in a human being, but in a tension which is produced by their mutual indifference. Human existence is in its essence completely different from the existence of things outside the human subject. The world of things is impenetrable and because of its impenetrability it is also alien to man. "If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation." 13 The world becomes alien and the human being becomes estranged from it, he feels isolated and limited.
Thus absurdity arises from a natural unit composed of "I" and "the world", by comparison of these two elements, which leads to the resulting decomposition. This view of the world characterised by the subject-object dualism has its roots in the philosophy of R. Descartes.14 He was the first one who was engaged in the problem of the relationship between man and the outside world, and who was trying to solve the question of the connection of these two essentially different substances (res extensa and res cogitas). ( See chapter IV.) Consequently, absurdity has been born out of a comparison. A man stands opposite to the world of things, which permanently makes an attack on him. Absurdity is a divorce and it does not lie in any of the two elements.
Absurdity appears in the moments when man realises his situation, in the moments of awareness of his position in the world. Camus describes this situation of realisation and understanding in these words: "Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm-this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. ...Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness".15 "The workman of today works of everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious." 16 In another words, absurdity arises from moments when all the acts of life that flow mechanically stop, and when consciousness starts to wake up and move. This means that the non-sense of life has been opening in the only one incomprehensible feeling. "Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined." 17
Beckett illustrates this situation in his play Endgame through the character of Hamm:
Hamm: ...One day you'll be blind, like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, for ever, like me. (Pause.) One day you'll say to yourself, I'm tired, I'll sit down, and you'll go and sit down. Then you'll say, I'm hungry, I'll get up and get something to eat. But you won't get up. You'll say, I shouldn't have sat down, but since I have I'll sit on a little longer, then I'll get up and get something to eat. But you won't get up and you won't get anything to eat. (Pause.) You'll look at the wall a while, then you'll say, I'll close my eyes, perhaps have a little sleep, after that I'll feel better, and you'll close them. And when you'll open them again there will no wall anymore. (Pause.) Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn't fill it, and there you'll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe...
Clov: It's not certain...
Hamm: Well, you'll lie down then, what the hell! Or you'll come to a standstill, simply stop and stand still, the way you are now. One day you'll say, I'm tired, I'll stop. What does the attitude matter?
(End 109-110)
Absurdity consists in permanent conflict, it is a contradiction and a struggle. It can be faced only through struggling with it and disagreeing with it. That is why, as Camus says, to commit suicide means to agree with absurdity, it means to give in, because the sense of life is looked for in another world.18 (None of Beckett's characters commit a suicide or die in any way.) It seems that it is impossible to escape from the absurd fate, to stay here means to face it, to commit suicide means to consent to it, and therefore it must be accepted. That is the basis of human freedom. Absurdity does not have any sense, does not have any reasons, any aims, that is why it does not reflect yesterday, nor tomorrow. The absurd man misses any hopes, plans, and troubles about his future. He is offered only an instant moment and that is what his freedom consists of. (See chapter V.) The only way how to paralyse absurdity is to not ask for reasons.
Camus' Sisyphus is a typical absurd hero personifying the real quality of an absurd life, he is absurd through his passion and suffering, through his eternal fate, work that can never be finished: "The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour." 19 We see the great effort in him, recurring again and again; he tries to move the boulder and push it up the hill thousands of times. Finally, at the end of his long, exhausting effort, he reaches his aim. However, at the same moment, he sees the boulder rolling down back to the lower world from where it will have to be lifted again. And so he returns back to the bottom. "It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That the hour of consciousness."20 These moments of consciousness open up the world of the absurdity, the world of never-ending effort to go on, the world from which it is impossible to escape, the world of estrangement, loneliness, waiting, and continual endurance.

iv Major prosaic works by Albert Camus are The Stranger (1946), The Plague (1946), The Fall (1957), and among his dramatic works Caligula is the most famous.

Ch. 1 - Introduction TOP OF THE PAGE Ch. 5 - Beckett's Absurd Characters in Time Ch. 7 - Conclusion
Ch. 2 - A Brief Outline of the Life of Samuel Beckett Ch. 4 - Beckett's Absurd Characters Ch. 6 - The Theatre of the Absurd as the World of the Absurd Character Notes & Bibliography