by Hannah Gunson-McComb, dramaturg
“I don’t get it,” my mom says as she hands my phone back to me. I had shared a meme with her that I and my brother found extremely funny, but all the comedy was lost to her.
“What do you mean, you don’t get it?” I asked, trying to find out why.
“I mean I don’t understand it. It’s absurd.”
“Just… take it at face value.”
My mom stares at the phone again, her eyes squinting in confusion.
“… Yeah, I still don’t get it.”
When we usually use the word “absurd,” we’re describing irrational and illogical behavior or images, much like my mom, confronted by warped text and psychedelic images that mean nothing to her. Memes are, absolutely, absurd— but are they Absurd? Absurdism (with a capital ‘A’) is a deeply layered philosophy and genre of fiction that attempts to parse out the reactions humans have when they come to feel that life has no inherent meaning. The difference between absurd and Absurd is more than just letter capitalization. And there’s no better place to see that difference than in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead… and maybe in a couple of memes.
Absurdism started out as a philosophy, the lovechild of Existentialism and Nihilism. Existentialism would have you derive meaning from just being; Nihilism would have you know everything you do is futile. If Existentialism is Dead Poet’s Society, then Nihilism is the entire Halloween franchise— no matter how many times you stab him with knitting needles, Mike Myers will never die (sorry, Jamie Lee Curtis). Absurdism, then, is the conflict between humankind’s seeking a meaning for life and the inability to find it. Recognizing that life may have no inherent purpose, Absurdist philosophers try to answer the question, “What do we do with this life?”
If you’re French philosopher Albert Camus, you say “consider Sisyphus.”
Albert Camus fought adamantly against Nihilism and refuted being labeled as an Existentialist (though his theories on Absurdism are very close to it). He surmises that there are three routes one could take when confronted with the Absurd: suicide, faith in a deity, and acceptance. To Camus, acceptance is the only defensible option because it’s the only option wherein Man and the Absurd can coexist. Suicide proves that life is meaningless, and religion— which Camus considers imprisonment via devotion and subjection to another’s moral codes— takes away agency. In either case, the first two options erase the notion of the Absurd and give no way for the individual to have joy and freedom in their existence. He writes:
“Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness, I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.”
Actual freedom— the opportunity to give life meaning— relies on the ability to think and do for oneself. Camus’ Absurdism considers the individual as the most precious unit of existence, being their own miniature universe. After acknowledging that life is absurd, the only way to make it out in one piece is to embrace the chasm between the finite and infinite and carry on in your own self-determined way. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he says, drawing upon the Greek legend of a man cursed by Zeus to push a boulder up a large mountain… only for that boulder to roll back down to the bottom, repeating this torturous task for all eternity. The picture of futility, and yet Camus asks us to believe him to be a happy man! The appropriate reaction to the Absurd life is to revolt against everything that says a futile life is a bleak life. Acknowledging the truth is enough to conquer the Absurd.
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn… indeed, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
“Mom, you’re looking way beyond the mark,” I said, twenty minutes after showing one absurd meme.
“It’s just— it’s just meaningless. How is meaningless-ness funny?” My mom gives me that look of bewilderment she saves for me and my siblings when we’ve done something truly “special.”
“I dunno, it just is,” I shrugged.
“Well, I need context.”
“That’s the point of it all,” I explain. “There is no context.”
“And that’s funny to you?”
Of course, once Absurdism became A Thing ™, it was introduced into the artistic world. From it (combined with some nasty post World War II disillusionment), we got the Dada art movement and Theatre of the Absurd. While Marcel Duchamp was signing a urinal and calling it art, Camus was joined by several authors and playwrights in writing stories that focused on man’s entrapment in an incomprehensible world. Well, “story” isn’t quite the right term for it. They wrote circumstances and situations for characters to explore, and often these situations were illogical and just generally made everyone go “huh?” A character’s actions had no meaning on whatever shreds of plot were had, and thus questioned truth and value.
Absurdist fiction has several characteristics. First off, they seldom follow a traditional plot structure. Characters tend to be archetypal and speak in repetitive phrases or cliches. Themes are usually agnostic or nihilistic. But what’s most familiar to us is the special brand of comedy found in the satire and dark humor of the genre. Absurdist fiction will play with incongruities, reject reason, use non-sequiturs and feature unpredictable juxtapositions. When we think of Theatre of the Absurd, this is what’s usually brought to mind.
However, these are only characteristics. The true hallmark of an Absurdist novel or play is whether or not the work focuses on what happens when humans discover there is no purpose to their existence. The work will set up a scenario wherein all known forms of communication break down and see what the characters do. In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two characters wait seemingly forever for one man to appear, only to have someone tell them at the end that Godot will be there tomorrow. In Eugene Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros, an entire town inexplicably begins turning into rhinoceroses, leaving the last lone human to scream “I’m not capitulating!” And in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, two side characters from Hamlet realize that the play has already been written, their fates have already been determined. These plays seem ridiculous and nonsensical because of their characteristics, but they have something deeper and more layered to express. And it can (should) be sought after and understood.
“I used to think Rocky’s sense of humor was just his quirkiness. But then I saw him and his friends hang out together and— nope, it’s not just Rocky— they all speak the same language.”
My mom sighs, never having any hope of understanding the Gen Z meme culture in the first place.
I realize that, in my image-saturated upbringing, I’m used to seeing the comedic set-up and punchline all at once. My mom, on the other hand, is hearing the punchline coming from out of nowhere. Every time I show her a meme, she spends more time looking for some kind of reason in a thing that, by nature, is meant to be unreasonable. You can’t “get” something that exists to be… well… “un-gotten.”
It’s these characteristics that crop up in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it’s what gives it its flavourful wittiness, which then supports the Absurdist themes.
The play starts with Rosencrantz, flipping a coin, which comes up ‘heads’ every time. He’s been flipping this coin for as long as he can remember, and it’s always landed on ‘heads.’ This sets up the Absurdist framework for the play— clearly, Ros. and Guil. live in a world that, while not entirely impossible, is incredibly improbable. As absurd as it is that a coin should act like that, Ros. and Guil. become so confident in the coin’s behavior that they start betting on it with the Player. But at the last possible second, right at the end of the scene, the coin lands on tails. Just as you think you’ve found logic, it alludes you.
Throughout the play, Ros. and Guil. go back and forth, speaking to each other only in questions. On the surface, it’s witty, lighthearted, and fun to watch. Knowing about Absurdism can take you deeper into the layers. Is it a representation of Man, forever doomed to only ever ask questions and never receive an answer? Is it Camus’ imagined and happy Sisyphus, making a game out of a curse? Is it just a conversation that defies traditional structure?
Because only one thing is certain: in this conversation, only questions are allowed. Everything else is up to the individual to find.
The play ends with [SPOILERS] Guil. stabbing the Player. She falls to her death and a solemn hush falls over the other tragedians… until the tragedians begin applauding the Player, who jumps up— entirely unharmed. An unpredictable juxtaposition indeed! Her resurrection rejects reason, absolutely confounding Guil. Just a moment before, he screams “if we had a destiny, so did she! And this is it!” Apparently, she was meant to die. But… the Player had other plans for herself. Not only is this a characteristic of Absurdist fiction, but it’s the hallmark as well. When confronted with the absurdity of life, Guil. murders the source of his frustration. But… as Camus would have it… the Player gets up in defiance, having the freedom to choose for herself because she has recognized her purpose as an actor in a cosmic void.
Yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a remarkably witty show. The dissonance of illogic incites laughter most of the time. But within each characteristic is a crafted Absurdist moment that takes the play from just absurd and makes it Absurd.
I still send my mom memes because, in an absurd way, I relate to these strange images. I guess I’m just used to an Absurd life. And I don’t care if she doesn’t get it. She will be bombarded with my inanity until the day she dies; for I am the boulder she continually pushes up the mountain for all eternity. But don’t worry— she’s happy about it.