This is a long post that is, in fact, despite all beginning appearances to the contrary, about America in the world of 2005. It comes out of a number of things I've been thinking about lately, including some of the stuff I've been writing about in the pseudo-series I'm calling "The New New World". Accordingly, I'm subtitling this post "The New New World, Part 5", next in the series, because I consider it a part of that same train of thought even though it goes in a number of different directions as well.
First, one small piece of stage-business: The theater I worked in for something over a decade was of the physical form sometimes referred to in the biz as a "3/4 thrust stage". That is, the stage area was not tucked safely behind a proscenium arch; rather, it jutted out into the seating area and was surrounded on three of its four sides by audience. At one downstage corner of the stage there was a sort of tunnel-entrance, coming in at an aggressive angle, which was referred to by its classical name "The Vomitorium" (from Merriam Webster: "an entrance piercing the banks of seats of a theater, amphitheater, or stadium".)
Those of us who worked in this theater affectionately referred to this "entrance piercing the banks of seats" as "The Vom".
Let us begin with a concrete example of what I mean by "The Absurd."
In the upper right-hand corner of this page there is a picture of my friend Shannon who died in December of 2004. One late night, he fell off his seven-story building in Brooklyn. This guy I'd known for twenty years, brilliant, funny, cruel, kind, outrageous, sweet, full of promise and full of despair -- in short, this human being -- fell off a very tall place and, from the details I later learned, died horribly, alone and cold on a dark and deserted sidewalk. Why? Why? There isn't any answer that makes sense. It's nonsense. It's absurd.
Would it be less absurd if, say, he had not fallen but had been pushed? Would a murder be less absurd than an accident? Somehow, strangely, it feels that things would make more sense then. If I asked myself, as I have, "How could this happen?", I could answer "Well, he was murdered." And with that I would somehow be able to explain away something that seems unexplainable. I could make logical something that seems absurd.
In the same way, if he had died of a degenerative disease, if he had spent the last six months of his life slowly fading away then finally passing on, I could explain the thing to myself by saying, "Well, he died of his disease." Somehow this would feel like his death made more sense.
But it doesn't in fact make more sense. In fact, I haven't explained away any of the ultimate absurdity of his death by surrounding it with "facts". All I have done is bury that absurdity under those facts. What I have also done is bury my own fears about the ultimate absurdity of my own life. I was brought into this world without my permission, and I will be dragged out of it, just as my friend Shannon was, against my will.
To what purpose?
I might, with some effort, be able to generate some reason for staying alive while I'm living my life -- taking care of my family, creating expressions of my experience of life to share with others, cooking great meals for my friends -- but that only justifies my remaining alive. It does not have anything to do with generating a purpose for the underlying fact of my existence. I was born and I will have to die. There's no purpose in that. It's just a simple, purposeless fact of the purposeless universe I was born into.
And if you think you've got it any better than I do, you've got another think coming.
ab-surd adj [MF absurde, fr. L absurdus, fr. ab- + surdus deaf, stupid] (1557) 1 : ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous 2 : having no rational or orderly relationship to human life : MEANINGLESS; also : lacking order or value 3 : dealing with the absurd or with absurdism... (Merriam Webster's Collegiate)
The Theater of the Absurd
If you Google on the phrase "theater of the absurd" you will see evidence of what you probably already know: the phrase has become a cliche among political commentators, used primarily to ridicule inexplicable (to the commentator) behaviors performed usually on the part of political opponents. In that context, its meaning is generally limited to: "You people are silly." But of course when the phrase was first coined, it didn't mean that at all.
In the years following World War II, a new kind of theater came into being, and that new kind of theater came to be called the Theater of the Absurd. The phrase didn't refer to any sort of "school" or "movement"; it was originally used to refer to a kind of theater that seemed to share some new and very strange themes, forms, techniques, styles, etc. It was more a way of describing a sensibility that had apparently arisen out of the ashes of the war (and all that came before it). It was weird and, at first, incomprehensible to many, but within a few years of its first appearance in Paris, it had spread far and wide. Clearly, whatever the hell this thing was, it spoke to a great many people in a very powerful way.
As it spread, critics who didn't "get it" poured scorn on those who claimed they did. Its proponents were mocked and accused of only pretending to get this pretentious crap. In some cases, I'm sure the accusation was true. In other cases... well, there is a famous story that Martin Esslin relates at the beginning of his book The Theater of the Absurd.
On 19 November 1957, a group of worried actors were preparing to face their audience. The actors were members of the company of the San Francisco Actors' Workshop. The audience consisted of fourteen hundred convicts at the San Quentin penitentiary. No live play had been performed at San Quentin since Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in 1913. Now, forty-four years later, the play that had been chosen, largely because no woman appeared in it, was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
No wonder the actors and Herbert Blau, the director, were apprehensive. How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe? Herbert Blau decided to prepare the San Quentin audience for what was to come. He stepped on to the stage and addressed the packed darkened North Dining Hall .... Blau compared the play to a piece of jazz music "to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it". In the same way, he hoped, there would be some meaning, some personal significance for each member of the audience in Waiting for Godot.
The curtain parted. The play began. And what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts. As the writer of "Memos of a first-nighter" put it in the columns of the prison paper, the San Quentin News:
The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing ... parked all 642 lbs on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn't appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long -- and stayed. Left at the end. All shook...
... A reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who was present noted that the convicts did not find it difficult to understand the play. One prisoner told him, "Godot is society." Said another: "He's the outside." A teacher at the prison was quoted as saying, "They know what is meant by waiting ... and they knew if Godot finally came, he would only be a disappointment."
You don't have to be a brainiac to get this stuff; you only have to be a human being unburdened by the delusions of ordinary, daily life. For most people, those delusions -- work, play, drugs, sex, money, success, everything freely available to those of us on The Outside -- keep us from seeing what the convicts in San Quentin grasped immediately, viscerally, without pretense, or theory, or Background in the Theatuh. There is no purpose, only distractions from the purposelessness.
This is how Esslin accounts for the how and the when of the birth of the Theater of the Absurd:
...[E]ach of the writers in question is an individual who regards himself as a lone outsider, cut off and isolated in his private world. Each has his own personal approach to both subject-matter and form; his own roots, sources, and background. If they also, very clearly and in spite of themselves, have a good deal in common, it is because their work most sensitively mirrors and reflects the preoccupations and anxieties, the emotions and thinking of many of their contemporaries in the Western world.
This is not to say that their works are representative of mass attitudes. It is an oversimplification to assume that any age presents a homogeneous pattern. Ours being, more than most others, an age of transition, it displays a bewilderingly stratified picture: medieval beliefs still held and overlaid by eighteenth-century rationalism and mid-nineteenth-century Marxism, rocked by sudden volcanic eruptions of prehistoric fanaticisms and primitive tribal cults. Each of these components of the cultural pattern of the age finds its own artistic expression. The Theater of the Absurd, however, can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time.
The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions.
That was written forty-four years ago, describing the world as Esslin saw it in 1961. Has the world changed since then? In particular, does any of the above have anything to say about America in the year 2005? Well, let's just have a look-see.
Although I love both the absurdist plays and novels of primo-absurdist Samuel Beckett, I find the works of Rumanian-born Eugene Ionesco more sympatico. If you recognize the name, it's probably because you studied one or more of his plays in school so do me a favor and keep this in mind as we proceed: if you have studied his work, but have not seen it performed, do remember you haven't really experienced him. Most theater literature courses, by accidental necessity, encourage the delusion that plays are literary works. Of course they are not. They are works meant to be performed. Drawing conclusions about them based simply on reading them and discussing them in class is like drawing conclusions about a piece of music based simply on studying the written score. You can say some things of value, but you cannot say you have experienced the piece in the manner its creator intended you to experience it.
But lacking the ability to produce a play for you in here, I suppose we will have to soldier on as best we can in spite of the inadequacy of the "literary" approach. In any case, our stop here at the Rumanian frontier will be a brief one: we need to pick up only a few small packages.
Ionesco above all the other absurdist playwrights consistently portrays the experience of the fundamental absurdity of human existence. He conveys that experience not through cerebral argumentation, but through the workings of a powerful poetic imagination. Here's Esslin on the "how" and "why" of this:
We do not expect to receive new information in a poem; a moving poem on time or the inevitability of death is not rejected by critics merely because it is not telling us any new truths. Ionesco's theater is a poetic theatre, a theatre concerned with the communication of the experience of states of being, which are the most difficult matters to communicate; for language, consisting largely of prefabricated, congealed symbols, tends to obscure rather than to reveal personal experience. When A says, "I am in love," B will understand by it merely what he has experienced, or expects to experience, which may be something entirely different in kind and intensity, and so A, instead of having communicated his sense of being, has merely triggered off B's own mode of feeling. No real communication has taken place. Both remain imprisoned, as before, in their own experience. That is why Ionesco has spoken of his own work as an attempt to communicate the incommunicable.
If, however, language, because it is conceptual, and therefore schematic and general, and because it has hardened into impersonal and fossilized cliches, is a hindrance rather than a means toward such a genuine communication, the breakthrough into the other human being's consciousness of the poet's mode of feeling and experience has to be attempted on a more basic level, the pre- or sub-verbal level of elementary human experience. This is what the use of imagery and symbolism achieves in lyrical poetry, combined with such elements as rhythm, tonal quality, and association of words. In Ionesco's theatre the same approach is attempted through the use of basic human situations that will evoke a direct and almost physical response, such as Punch hitting the policeman in the puppet show, circus clowns falling off chairs, or the characters in a silent film throwing custard pies into each other's faces. All these evoke a direct, visceral response in audiences. And by combining such basically evocative emotional images into more and more complex structures, Ionesco gradually forges his theatre into an instrument for the transmission of more complex human situations and experiences.
And here is Esslin on the "what":
...[I]f Ionesco savagely assails a mode of life that has banished mystery from existence, this does not mean that he regards a full awareness of the implications of human existence as a state of euphoria. On the contrary, the intuition of being that he tries to communicate is one of despair. The main themes that recur in his plays are those of the loneliness and isolation of the individual, his difficulty in communicating with others, his subjection to degrading outside pressures, to the mechanical conformity of society as well as to the equally degrading internal pressures of his own personality -- sexuality and the ensuing feelings of guilt, the anxieties arising from the uncertainty of one's own identity and the certainty of death.
Sounds like a laugh-riot, eh? Well, in fact, it pretty much is in Ionesco's case. Let me boil it down for you. Think of it this way: You are born into a meaningless, absurd existence -- you live for a while, and then you die. You spend most of your life studiously trying to avoid thinking about the absurdity of your situation. You go to school, you carefully learn everything they want you to learn. You get a good job. You buy a nice house, you furnish it with a pleasant family, a nice bedroom set, and all sorts of delightful gadgets.
And then you die. Rarely, if ever, during your existence do you allow yourself to think about the fundamental uselessness of it all. But never mind, you do manage to acquire lots of toys, both of the physical and of the emotional and psychological varieties. You'll buy anything, anything at all, just as long as shopping for it, buying it, taking it home and playing with it keeps you from seeing the underlying absurdity of your life.
What Ionesco and the other absurdists are doing is trying to struggle through all the distractions to arrive at some sort of genuine awareness of the truth underlying their lives. Ionesco in particular wants to convey the feeling of this awareness, and so he confronts you with a series of poetic images that, in fact, do convey this feeling.
But to what, in god's name, purpose? Just to make you depressed? No, actually, it's at least partially to make you laugh. But what's the point of that, for heaven's sake? Well, I don't have to tell you what relief genuine laughter brings you. There's a lot more you can say about laughter, but let's just leave it there for now since there is actually a greater purpose behind what Ionesco and the other absurdists are trying to do. What they seek is the aforementioned awareness. But why? Wouldn't it be better just to go off and play with all our toys?
My man Esslin again:
Concerned as it is with the ultimate realities of the human condition, the relatively few fundamental problems of life and death, isolation and communication, the Theatre of the Absurd, however grotesque, frivolous, and irreverent it may appear, represents a return to the original, religious function of the theatre -- the confrontation of man with the spheres of myth and religious reality. Like ancient Greek tragedy and the medieval mystery plays and baroque allegories, the Theatre of the Absurd is intent on making its audience aware of man's precarious and mysterious position in the universe.
Yeah, okay, but still... wouldn't it be better to just shut up about all of that and just play with all our toys?
In Greek tragedy, the spectators were made aware of man's forlorn but heroic stand against the inexorable forces of fate and the will of the gods -- and this had a cathartic effect upon them and made them better able to face their time. In the Theatre of the Absurd, the spectator is confronted with the madness of the human condition, is enabled to see his situation in all its grimness and despair. Stripped of illusions and vaguely felt fears and anxieties, he can face this situation consciously, rather than feeling it vaguely below the surface of euphemisms and optimistic illusions. By seeing his anxieties formulated he can liberate himself from them. This is the nature of all the gallows humour and humour noir of world literature, of which the Theatre of the Absurd is the latest example. It is the unease caused by the presence of illusions that are obviously out of tune with reality that is dissolved and discharged through liberating laughter at the recognition of the fundamental absurdity of the universe. The greater the anxieties and the temptation to indulge in illusions, the more beneficial is this therapeutic effect -- hence the success of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin. It was a relief for the convicts to be made to recognize in the tragicomic situation of the tramps the hopelessness of their own waiting for a miracle.
Okay, you say, but you would still rather play with your toys. Let me try, then, one last time in the form of a more concrete example. You remember my friend Shannon. The one who died. I mentioned him back at the beginning of this post so that would probably be three or four weeks ago by now... You will recall I talked about the sense of absurdity I felt at his death.
Well, in the days immediately following his death, as I struggled to make sense of something that could never be made sensical, I could feel something strange starting to grow inside me. It frightened me a bit.
In dreams I have imagined myself feeling an urge to do something terrible, and wanting above all else to not give in to this terrible urge, but feeling that the urge would eventually overwhelm me.
Standing in grocery store lines I have on rare occasions had what The Experts call, I think, a panic attack. It was this feeling of a kind of suffocating terror creeping up on me, but terror of what I can't say. Fresh vegetables? Laundry products? Actually, it was more like a terror of terror itself -- the feeling, a terror, that I would not be able to control the fear of whatever it was I was afraid of. On one or two occasions I had to quietly abandon my shopping cart and slip out of the store before I collapsed into a some sort of fit. (My apologies to all those store employees who had to re-shelve items in my abandoned cart.)
But that was what this was like... this feeling that something was growing inside me, a thought, an idea, a piece that I might have to write even though I didn't want to write it. One night I couldn't stand it anymore so I sat down and started writing. What came out made me laugh. And cry. But to be honest, mostly it amused me. My god, what sort of monster am I? Well, I can't post this. What sort of a creep writes this sort of absurdity right after his friend of twenty years falls off his building in Brooklyn? People would think I was trying to be funny.
Well, I wasn't trying to be funny. I was struggling to face this new reality I found myself in. This reality where my friend of twenty years can fall off a building. This reality was not new, of course, it was only that my awareness of it had been, shall we say, recently and rather vigorously renewed. And so I wrote this thing that described as best I could this new place I found myself in. I called it "How to Live with Dead People", and despite my fears of what people would think of me, I posted it.
In the end, it was, at least for me, tremendously cathartic. Therapeutic. Through it, I found a way to live with the fact that my friend was now dead. The response to it suggested that others had found some catharsis in it as well. It was a sort of "advice column" piece on how to befriend the newly dead. It was, in short, an absurdity, and that is how and why it did what it had to do for me.
Still not convinced? Still rather stick with your toys? Well, then, I congratulate you! You are a genuine, red-blooded American of the New Century!
Finally! Some American Politics...
This whole, long, rambling (alas!) mess that you are reading now grew out of my visceral response to the news that Paul Wolfowitz had been nominated by Bush to head the World Bank. I'm not particularly convinced the World Bank is such a force for good (though it could be) that Wolfowitz will do it much harm, but that's not the point. What I find absurd is that time after time these Bush Administration incompetents are so generously rewarded for their incompetence, and the country doesn't bat an eye.
Condoleezza Rice, through her indifference and incompetence, could not comprehend the warnings of the summer of Tenet's Burning Hair. She goes before the 9/11 Commission and successful mocks all the good it was trying to accomplish. She is rewarded with the post of Secretary of State. Wolfowitz mocks the advice of the generals at the Pentagon on the amount of troops necessary to control a post-invasion Iraq, which leads to a disastrous and deadly two year reign of chaos over there, and he is rewarded with a nomination to a post at the World Bank.
And that's just the beginning of it. It isn't just a matter of all sense being mocked through incomprehensible appointments to plum posts. There is a sense of absurdity that runs all through the make-up and history of the Bush Administration. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. A Social Security plan that purports to "save" Social Security but which in fact does nothing of the sort, by their own admission. A pre-emptive war, killing thousands, that didn't pre-empt anything because there was nothing to pre-empt in the first place. But that's just incompetence, really. What makes for the genuine sense of the absurd is that most of the country doesn't, as I said, even bat an eye.
And now I'm beginning to think I know why. I mean really know why.
They used to call this continent the New World. Oh, things were great back then. Assuming you could make your way across the ocean, you entered a land that had all the resources you might need to run away from your most primal fears. The fear of limitations. The fear of not being able to go someplace new. The fear of not being able to keep going on, forever. The fear of a toyless existence. In short, the fear of your own personal death.
Sounds like an unlikely theory, doesn't it? Here we have this Nation of He-Men, striking out into the wilderness, ready, willing and able to face down all the terrors of an uncivilized continent, happy to do battle with Savages, prepared to face the nearly Siberian winters of the American Midwest, ready to take on the great desert wastelands. But you see, those dangers, those perils represent a sort of mythical death. That death exists Out There. It does not truly threaten a He-Man. A He-Man can conquer all. Evidence of our resourcefulness, of our physical courage, of our determination runs all through the history we tell ourselves about ourselves.
But here at the beginning of the 21st Century, the continent has been conquered and we are beginning to run out of toy-options for distracting ourselves. The price of gasoline is going higher and higher and so even that pale proxy for the act of Going Places -- the Big American Car -- is receding further and further from our grasp. Our politicians tell us that if we are opposed to drilling for new oil in our precious wildernesses, we are somehow un-American... as if the amount of oil we have left to us inside our own borders somehow promises us another 200 year run at fearlessness. As if it was un-American to be opposed to toys.
The terror of limitations closes in on us, and we produce a generation of leaders, and followers too, I'm afraid, who are forced to resort to increasingly desperate measures to hide from themselves the fact that America is swiftly approaching the point where it can no longer flee into its box of remarkable toys. In short, the time is swiftly approaching when America has to finally grow up.
One of Ionesco's most famous plays is called Rhinoceros. In it, the inhabitants of a small provincial town slowly, one by one, begin to transform themselves into rhinoceroses. Finally, there is only one man, one human, left. The play ends as he stands defiantly, swearing to remain human, no matter what, though he does entertain the notion that, after all, perhaps being a rhinoceros might not be so bad...
If you haven't seen it, there is a film adaptation of it by the American Film Theater on DVD. Gene Wilder, Zero Mostel and Karen Black are in it. It was filmed in the early 70s and, assuming you can get past the gawd-awful 70s wardrobe and the shlocky soundtrack, you could do worse than to rent this thing and watch it. In particular, there is a remarkable scene during which Mostel's character, without benefit of make-up or costuming tricks, transforms himself into a rhinoceros. It's a pretty amazing piece of work, actually.
And should you rent the DVD and watch this scene, I defy you to not reflect on the recent (2004) American presidential election. There is another scene at the end of the film wherein Karen Black's character finally submits to the charms of being a rhinoceros. I defy you, after watching that scene, to resist the temptation to exclaim: "Ah! The birth of Ann Coulter!"
It Came From Beyond the Vom
A monster has entered our world. It might be a kind of rhinoceros, but I'm not sure. It's too big to see all at once.
One thing I haven't mentioned yet about the Theater of the Absurd is that there is a great deal of violence in it -- violence to language, certainly, violence to audience notions of what theater should be, but also genuine (well, genuine stage) physical violence. Murders abound. In Rhinoceros, most of the violence is contained in the imagery of big, dumb, grunting, thoughtless, ignorant, self-deluded brutes (in short, a herd of Rush Limbaughs) occupying the town. As I said earlier, a lot of this theater is an attempt to express, through poetic imagery, the writer's actual experience of meaninglessness in his life. The writer is trying to work things out, just as I tried to work things out in the piece I wrote after Shannon died. The Theater of the Absurd is a struggle to confront the reality of human existence.
But something terrible has happened. As America comes up against her own mortality in the form of globalization, the 9/11 attacks, the diminution of her resources, and so forth, this struggle of the individual artist on the stages of the absurd has escaped the theaters, slipped out the Vom, so to speak, and has taken root in the outside world. In the same way the religions of old, after the inhuman disasters of the 20th Century, lost their power to protect us from the absurd meaninglessness of human life, the religion of a limitless America is losing its power to protect us from facing the realities of the world we live in. And so now, apparently, like the absurdists of the 1950s, we have begun to work it out on stage. Unfortunately, our stage happens to be the flesh and blood world. We are living in our own ongoing theater of the absurd, and the violence performed on this platform is actually killing people now, and threatens to kill even more of us.
This country is cut in half. The country is not split merely by our political differences. The split is between those who are willing, like Ionesco and his compatriots, to face the reality of existence, those who are willing to see America finally "grow up", and those who can't bear the prospect of facing what seems to them an unbearable awareness: America was born, and it will, eventually, like all living things in this world, die.
Listen to the paroxysms out there. How dare I say such a thing? Panic and threats abound. Accusations of treason, in spite of the fact that I love my country deeply. Nevertheless, what I say is true: the United States of America will someday die. This is the fact that America herself cannot bear to face. The first hints of this truth terrify us and send us careering off across a political landscape laced with absurdities beyond the imaginative capabilities of Ionesco himself.
Yeah, as it happens, we are pretty good at this Theater of the Absurd stuff. If the point is to create poetic imagery that conveys the feeling of what it means to live an absurd existence, well, then, I'd say the Bush Administration and those who support it are geniuses at it. They lie, and they believe their lies. It's a gift really. A genius for the absurd.
And as I said, many plays of the absurd end in incomprehensible violence. I shutter to think what these geniuses will come up with next.
Do Not Despair. Instead: Despair!
Is there hope? Maybe. Let us look to the inventors of the Theater of the Absurd. They were the previous masters, before the Bush Administration and its supporters came on the scene.
Esslin again, on Ionesco:
It would be wrong to regard his attitude as wholly pessimistic. He wants to make existence authentic, fully lived, by putting man face to face with the harsh realities of the human condition. But this is also the way to liberation. "To attack the absurdity (of the human condition) is", Ionesco once said, "a way of stating the possibility of non-absurdity ... For where else would there be a point of reference? ... In Zen Buddhism there was no direct teaching, only the constant search for an opening, a revelation. Nothing makes me more pessimistic than the obligation not to be pessimistic. I feel that every message of despair is the statement of a situation from which everybody must freely try to find a way out."
In short, the truth actually does matter. If the rest of America hasn't realized that yet, then there's nothing else for it but to continue trying to make them see it. Maybe we are awaiting the birth of a new American Theater of the Absurd... a kind of theater, or art, or film that can usefully engage all those Americans who cannot yet face the truth about the mortality of our country. Or maybe the circumstances of our own Reality of the Absurd will eventually convince them. One can only hope it doesn't take too long, nor take too violent a course in getting to where it has to go.
But in any case, whatever the future holds, our obligations now are clear. We are to face the reality of our existences. We are to face the reality of our country's existence in this world. As Ionesco says, "every message of despair is the statement of a situation from which everybody must freely try to find a way out." Keep telling the truth about America to herself. It will certainly help you and it may even, eventually, help her. Yes, eventually America will die, but with luck and a lot of hard-work, and a lot of facing of the absolute truth -- demand it from yourself, from those around you, and most especially from your politicians -- we may be able to put the endgame time way, way off into the very, very deep future.
Truth on, dudes. Brutally and relentlessly. It's the only hope.