Normalizing the Absurd

“What does life mean in such a universe?”
Albert Camus

Something absurd is going on.

If you are feeling spent (of course you are), it is because you are being pummelled by the absurd. The absurd, French philosopher Albert Camus instructs us, is what is flung back when we throw plans at an indifferent universe.

COVID is absurd. Brexit is absurd. Polarized America is absurd. The destruction of our environment is absurd. Anything that disrupts our notion of what is is absurd.

We change our notion of what is to minimize – normalize – the absurd. And then we make more plans.1

Photo of Monty Python Team, 1969, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org.
Two decades after Camus argued that any situation could be scorned to the point of derisive humor, a group of comedians proved him right. Absurdity is the essence of Monty Python comedy. The six Pythons in 1969. Left to right: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Franz Kafka’s most famous novel, Metamorphosis, the hero, Gregor, wakes up as a beetle. Rather than dispensing with the why or how, Kafka simply moves on with the plot.

Similarly, one of my favorite proses/poems, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, is the tale of a crow that moves in with a family after the mother dies. Says the crow: “He didn’t see me against the blackness of his trauma.”

In grief, the senses fold, don’t they? Even a giant crow in the entryway could seem normal.

Our mental, physical, and even spiritual health demands we normalize the absurd. Demands that we keep living.

In one of her first writings, essayist and social critic Joan Didion observes the absurdity when society shifts so fundamentally on one aspect of life.

In this case, marriage à la Las Vegas.

To be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, a bride must swear that she is eighteen or has parental permission and a bridegroom that he is twenty-one or has parental permission. Someone must put up five dollars for the license. (Sundays and holidays, fifteen dollars.) […] Nothing else is required.

This was in 1967. Didion highlights the absurdity that the rest of one’s life is decided on impulse. And yet, the reason it works is that Vegas markets the feeling of eternity.

Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification […] Almost everyone notes there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future; neither is there any logical sense of where one is.

Vegas upset notions of marriage by promising eternity, helping us avoid our death anxiety. Marriage is a physical thing; it needs to be shaken up.

But what about a more destructive absurd? Do we normalize that too?

John Cleese filming "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", photo featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org. Photo credit: Daily Record/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Python John Cleese recalls the direction of Python was set by Terry Gilliam’s absurd animations, what Cleese refers to as a “stream of consciousness approach.” John Cleese filming “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in Scotland, 8th May 1974. Photo by Daily Record/Mirrorpix/ via Getty Images

Consider the horrifyingly true story of Elie Wiesel’s imprisonment in Auschwitz. When Wiesel witnesses his father being brutalized, Wiesel does not act. “Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?”

Later, when his father dies, Wiesel feels even less:

I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father’s cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him away before daybreak and taken him to the crematorium. Perhaps he was still breathing…

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside of me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!

The abject dehumanization of the Auschwitz experience acted as an instant normalizer against additional stress. Wiesel normalized his father’s (absurd) suffering to keep himself alive.

Wiesel’s experience lends insight into how an entire society might normalize the virulent absurd.

During the First World War, a modern poet of tremendous urgency, Wilfred Owen, wrote verse of tremendous human consciousness: collective conscious—do we as a society know what it means to wage war? And individual conscious—do we know what it means to march towards death?

Owen’s poem “Conscious” is ostensibly about a soldier dying, but really it is about society’s consciousness to the fact that war is absurd.

But sudden evening blurs and fogs the air.
There seems no time to want a drink of water.
Nurse looks so far away. And here and there
Music and roses burst through crimson slaughter.
He can’t remember where he saw blue sky…
The trench is narrower. Cold, he’s cold; yet hot –
And there’s no light to see the voices by…
There is no time to ask… he knows not what.

from “Conscious”

“A man who has become conscious of the absurd is for ever bound to it” warned (promised?) Camus.

Michael Palin in Four Yorkshireman sketch, 2014, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
“I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.'” Michael Palin in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch that satirizes our romance with memory. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

I am not as shocked of photos of overflowing, helpless COVID wards as I was in March.

Are you?

It is not because I’ve become desensitized. It is not because COVID is weaker. It is because I kept making plans. Kept order. Kept my kids alive. Did not let death claim us.

Ah, death. Our unknowable real mortality.

“Perhaps the best proof of the Almighty’s existence,” reasons poet Joseph Brodsky, “is that we never know when we are to die.”

Camus would agree the greatest absurdity of all is that we strive for control and meaning when we cannot control when our own existence ends (or begins).

Monty_Python_Live_02, featured in "Normalizing the Absurd" on TheExaminedLife.org
A body-less foot, a Ministry of Silly Walks, unexpected visits by the Spanish Inquisition (an absurd entity if there ever was one) and African migratory swallows are a few of the completely absurd punchlines in the Python sketch comedy. Above, a reprisal of “The Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, 2014. Photo by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana. © CC BY 2.0

Camus argues that it is our death anxiety that makes us find meaning and control and normalize the absurd in the first place. That quest turns into a mechanization of life.

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, 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. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.

Camus tells us the mechanization of life must be fought. Normalization must be fought. (He suggested with humor). Or to say it differently: Never stop being affected. Even if that means we allow pain and death into our hearts. It also allows in power. Humor. And love.

But once you are conscious of the absurd you are conscious of the absurd. Are you willing to take that chance?

Something absurd is going on.