L. Moreva "Reflections on Absurdity"

Ìåæäóíàðîäíûå ÷òåíèÿ ïî òåîðèè, èñòîðèè è ôèëîñîôèè êóëüòóðû. Âûïóñê 3: «Ðàçìûøëåíèÿ î õàîñå». –ÑÏá., 1997. –268 ñ.

Liubava MOREVA


The space in which the nowadays man finds himself with no surprise, is being described by him as desperately catastrophic. The paradox of the “final situation” in which the modern man presumably finds himself, requests from him certain “fatality strategies”. The peculiarity of situation about which we are speaking is that the man is essentially pushed out of the space of life into the zone of signs. In this zone overladeness with informational flows makes absolutely indistinguishable reality of event from quasi-reality, here is the virtual reality of mass-media makes equality significant/insignificant any of its messages.

The industry of death of the XX century, with its machines of extermina­tion of human material, made the imperturbable reflection exclaim some­times: “All the culture after Oswenzim is rubbish” (Adorno) and even “Phi­losophy as a Strict Science – is a past dream” (Husserl). Today the industry of death is hidden under a certain cultivation of “rubbish” production – ready made, casual cheap commercial standards of life, love and death. Intensity of replacements of the possibility of deep existential states with their sign peel, turn the man into a certain case/envelope, the carrier of artificially put in it bits of information which made it into an individual variable in the algorith-mical space of social existence. Occasional breaks down in this system are repealed as often as necessary by psychoanalytic, psychedelic or other means. Common result is a feeling of growing internal emptiness.

A recapitulation of the postmodern philosophy could be outlined as fol­lows:

The total simulacrisation of culture and life, impossibility to distinguish authentic from inauthentic, existential devastation, all this is more or less evident symptoms of the failure awaiting us. We carefully keep signs of cul­ture, intensify communication, and at that we are more and more losing the sense of our own existence. To revive the past values is to revive old illu­sions. Behind us there is no more anticipations which would not get realized. We prefer total actuality: the memory disappears, and so does anticipation.

All what was based on mystery and truth has also disappeared. Evolution which takes place is oriented towards exterminating everything that is tradi­tional. Man is left with the space of play, imitation and aesthesis (and this brings its own transcendence) – here is the place of destroying any tradition. No symptoms of renaissance is visible so far. But we are not at all in a diffi­cult but just rather in an unique situation. Probably, one should go to the end, no one knows how it will turn out and this is interesting.

Such is the law of system, the more it is perfect, the more catastrophes and incoincidences it produces. The system starts working according to oc­casional character of metastases. The theme of plot, identity and all related to them are impossible. We enter the sphere which is totally probabilistic, in a situation where there is no end for activity. The internal sate of system which contradicts itself is irony. Irony turns into events, into things them­selves. It is in the center of catastrophe. All strategies turn upside down: the world starts playing with them. Irony gets the only form of reconciliation for us in the catastrophic space of hyper-ir-reality.

Probably, the man of today faces serious shifts in the paradigm system of coordinates of value ontological orientations. Notwithstanding the flexibility of this system, one should watch out in order to keep its vital force which consists in essential difference of ways of descending and ascending. Any aloofness to of this difference, unsensitiveness to it , any forms of ethical and ontological indifference lead the man to orientation crisis, to a total losing sense of his own existence, to existential devastation, eventually attracting him to the Abyss of Absurdity and Chaos (since indifference is its own onto-logical principle). An extremely attentive and sensitive relation to Tradition is needed in order to avert the danger of the happened paradigm shift in the topos of Being.

It is evident that the problematisation of Sense and Absurdity is essentially different in philosophical, literary, and religious discourses. The objective of the paper is to trace the above differences in light of semantic analysis of communicative strategies of the following works of art: on the one hand, Dostoevsky’s Dream of the Ridiculous Man; Kafka’s Caslte, and on the other hand, Ionesko’s The Bald Singer. All these literary works are considered different points of meeting the Absurdity of life.

The fact that the human being does not only live through his life, as if running some distance between the date of birth and that of death, but also searches for some meaning of his own stay in this world, is almost a com­monplace in terms of his differentia – in the definition of his species. In this search a human being undertakes a task similar to that of a fairytale character: “go I don’t know where, bring I don’t know what”, – he goes, without know­ing where, making his way for his life in the semantic field of unpredictable possibilities. The questions forming the pattern of rhythm of going this way are not anymore from a fairy-tale: “Who are we? – Where have we come from in this world? – Where are we going to?” Those are variations on the classi­cal questions of gnosis: “where do we strive? where “to escape from? what is birth? what is rebirth?” (Valentine, II, Clem. Exc. Theod. 68.2). This is echo­ing in the Christian Gnostic calling to know “what you are born for; to whose image? what is your essence? who governs you? what is your relation to God?” (Clement of Alexandria, II Strom. v.23,1).

However, what is actually sought by human being, when he seeks what he calls “sense”? Maybe, to live is to enliven the absurd, as Camus put it? And then, affirmation of the absurdity of the world is the summit of metaphysical happiness? (Albert Camus, L’Essai sur l’absurd) However, non-metaphysical experience witnesses to the contrary: absurdity frightens, oppresses, kills, alienates the human being from himself and the world; drives him into the impasse of despair, weakness, endless grief. Those are the surface of the exis­tential experience of the absurd. But absurdity is also a semantic limit, border, verge, in excess of which all possible senses, acquired, understood, suffered for, kept by human being and keeping him suddenly lose their strength, dissi­pate, fall apart into dust. So, the experience of the absurd challenges the hu­man being with an impossible world. The latter initiates the human being, measures his strength and weakness, his humanity and his anti-humanity, shows whether he qualifies for patience or rebellion; for love or hatred, for spite or compassion. The absurd, properly speaking, questions the sense-creating potential of the human being in the world. In search his for the mean­ing of life, does not human being search for what cannot be found and, thus, is he not doomed to the impossible? He must know “for what” he lives, his, so to speak, ontological “niche”. It is known that "meaning " can never be thor­oughly described or defined. The discovery of meaning is by no means the same as its possession since meaning is impossible "to possess" in principle although it shows man the way to "being". The only form of the existence of "meaning" is its generation, its emergence in the space of intersubjec-tive relations. "Meaning" is an atom of comprehension, embracing the universe of human communication. According to M.Bakhtin "meaning" is personal in principle: it always contains a question, address and the antici­pation of a reply. "Meaning" presupposes the presence of two persons as in adialogue. The mode of human being's existence in the word proper consists in searching, finding and giving meaning to everything, including his own life. It is quite another matter that man, who always represents just the possi­bility of meaning generation, not infrequently finds himself on the verge of oblivion, of renouncing his own abilities. It often happens that a hard road of strivings full of agonising spiritual doubts is replaced by a peaceful valley of self-assurance, the destructive self-sufficiency of a man overpowered by the inertia of impersonal and universally significant forces. The fading of personally tense meaning spaces is by expansion superseded by the smoulder­ing of indifferent significations: "meaning" as an atom of communication and comprehension freedom presupposed by the personality is annihilated in the indifference to the necessity of submission to what is imposed from the outside and equally well known to everybody. This spontaneous narrowing of the sphere of communication, in effect, turns man into some "individual variable": the unique courses of life (usually very thorny in history) are replaced by "beaten" tracks. Man is replaced by "the human factor" (with total control and relative independence) with common indivisible destiny vigilantly safeguarding anyone against all kinds of probable mistakes and deviations, against the danger of any "falling out". In the end man begins to feel "confident, rich and at ease" whereas he, actually, has ceased to exist because everything is motivated by "immanent necessity”.

Human being, as well as culture, is always on the verge of word and si­lence, action and inaction, wakefulness and sleep. The threshold, borderlike frames of mind in which human being acquires the deep experience of silence and inaction, lead him to some words of revelation and hope, most difficult to follow. In the experience of the absurd, the human being stands a chance to break through to new aspects of the Sense of Being, or to die in a cold indif­ference toward everything.

How should one understand “the absurd. The absurd is what is incompre­hensible. However, the stem meaning of the word: ab-surdus (“stemming from deafness”) shows a richer stock of connotations, compared to the reduc­tion of “absurd” to nonsense, stupidity, and lack of meaning. The absurd is full with some hidden sense which annihilates the senses upon which the human being has depended. The absurd shakes the ground under foot. It is clear to the everyday consciousness that when this happens, one should either fall or fly, tertium non datur. However, some can dance in this situation– as did Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Shestov, etc.

Let us consider Lev Shestov’s (1866-1938) experience. He was surely one of the most penetrating Russian thinkers of the beginning of the century, who undertook the task of taming the Absurd. The tradition of working with the Absurd is quite rich and varied. Philosophical and literary works in this field are rooted in proper logical and theological studies and meditations. Tertullian’s formula “believe, since absurd”, developed in his treatise “On Christ’s Body”, is concerned with the meaning of the mystical secret: ”He has been buried and has resurrected: it is certain, since impossible”. Here a law such as logic’s reductio ad absurdum is inapplicable. The experience of faith – that is to say, the experience of Abraham’s, Isaak’s, or Job’s lives– is beyond the laws of logic. Such thinkers as Pascal, Kiekegaard, Nietzsche, together with Lev Shestov, clearly understood this and built their critique of Reason by taking it to the verge of the Absurd of faith.

In his basic work – “Apotheosis of Groundlessness” (1905) – having touched in his inner experience the “frontier areas of Being”, where neither logic nor compassion assist, Lev Shestov discovered for himself that in this world, one stands no chance to represent “clearly and distinctly” what is go­ing on. One should willy-nilly “acknowledge unintelligibility as the main predicate of Being”. There is nothing more disgusting and repulsive than somebody who fancies that he has understood everything and can answer any question. For Shestov, everything related to “logical”, “provable”, everything that is directed toward putting the world in order, describing it in the language of cause-effect relations, is a synonym of inertia, chaining human fantasy, closing it in the frame of everyday experience. Any confidence in the immu­tability of the existing order can suddenly create a feeling of nonsense and the absurdity of life. For a thinker, the experience of the absurd is first of all a sign of dogmatic thinking.

On the one hand, the human ability to get accustomed to everything and on the other hand, the seemingly continuous and gradual changes in the world are the premises of “the natural” or habit. And , the philosopher notes that even if “everything suddenly changed, and oranges, pineapples, calves, and even rhinoceroses appeared from beet seeds, we would be very much sur­prised, out of lack of habit; but we could not raise any objection to it, and we could only register the new order of things.” (Lev Shestov, Self-evident Truths, in: Though and Word, Philosophical Yearly. Ed. by G. Shpet, Mos­cow, 1917, p.124).

The well-known formula: to know in order to be able; to be able in order to act; to act in order to live more fully was turned by Shestov into quite a different one: to know means to restrict; to restrict means to take away oppor­tunities; to take away opportunities means to kill freedom...”We lament that we do not know where we came from, where we are heading to, what was and what will be, what to do and what to avoid, etc., being confident in advance that if we knew, it would be better. However, maybe, it would be worse rather than better: knowledge would chain and restrict us. And since we do not know, nothing restricts us.” (Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem, Paris, YMKA-Press, 1951, p. 253). Shestov is confident that any epistemology, confined within the borders of the “natural” only, leaves unattended the supra-rational spheres of other strata of Being. A metaphysics of knowledge striving to overcome such kinds of epistemological limitedness, should first of all ac­knowledge that the “natural” is the human superficiality in essence. The ex­perience of absurdity, understood by the philosopher first of all as that of tragedy, overcomes the rigid borders of logical obligations. One can have a true cognition only after being freed from utilitarian goals, from intentions toward accommodation (typical for the everyday consciousness), from thought oriented toward action.

The absurd leads to the limits of human thought. Either madness or revela­tion lies further. In the world – where everything is set and nothing is ex­plained, where the “man of absurdity” with his deep disbelief in the rational meaning of things indifferently walks, where life appears as an alphabet of death – the concept of value itself lacks meaning. The sense of hierarchy is lost, and the coldness of indifference penetrates the human soul.

The metamorphoses of the human inner world, touched by the “feel­ing of the absurd”, were well known to the literary classics. One can, as an example, remember “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Dostoevsky In this story the main character consistently goes the way of the “logic of absurd”, starting with the conviction that “everything is all the same in the world” through the feeling that “it is equal to me whether the world would exist or whether there would not be anything anywhere”, and, then to the confidence that it is all the same to the world “whether I exist or not”. This logic almost inevitably leads to suicide. A dream bursting into this inevitability , shows to the character the truth: human beings can be beautiful and happy without losing the ability to live on Earth: “the main thing is to love others as one­self.”. Constant unity with the whole cosmos – feeling the fullness of life– is the experience of the dream which is far from idyllic. The happy earthlings ”have learned to lie; when they became capable of crimes, they invented justice and prescribed for themselves whole codes...and for enforcement of the latter they established the guillotine.” (Dostoevsky, F.M., Short Stories, Moscow: 1985, p.376). The reflective and confessional intonation of the narration permits the character in the story to include an emotional-ethical criterion in his experience of opposition to the absurd: “if I am a human be­ing, and not yet a zero, and have not yet turned into zero, then I live, there­fore, I can suffer get angry, and feel shame for my deeds.” (Ibid., p. 367) The conclusion Dostoevsky arrives at is a revision of the traditional European conviction that “knowledge is above feeling; consciousness of life is above life”. The author’s character concludes instead: “knowledge about the laws of happiness is above happiness; this is what one has to struggle with!”.

The specific absurdity of the world itself, which is built and structured ac­cording to the rigid logic of hierarchical knowledge (and which turns the human being into a one-dimensional appendix to the system functioning ac­cording to its own laws), perhaps best depicted by Franz Kafka. His Castle is a developed metaphor for man’s searching for his place, his role, his calling, for himself, in the space where one is always alien and superfluous. Camus calls this Kafka’s novel “theology in action”: “This is a description of a hu­man soul wandering in search of salvation, which tries to extract from the things in the world their highest truth...” (A. Camus, Hope and Absurd in Creative Work of Franz Kafka, Moscow, 1989, p. 398).

The literary classics vary in terms of their representation of man’s meeting with the absurd, usually supporting the hope for escape from the absurd in the characters. The absurd had its own limits, its own territory; as if it ac­knowledges human being’s right to a dignified exit.

Twentieth century literature has sharply perceived the connection of the absurd with the excesses of logic and the surplus of ideologically pre­formatted senses of ideal social order, all simplified and empty. Parody and buffoonery, such as that found in works like “Bald Singer” and “Rhinocer­oses” by Eugene Ionesco, or “Elisabeth Bam” by Daniel Harms, added the experience of the total absurdity of quasi-meaningful communication to litera­ture. A syllogism is quite appropriate here: “All cats are mortal. Socrates is mortal. Therefore, he is a cat”. Nothing can be more natural here than a kind of “rhinocerosation”, since “all is logical; to understand is to justify”, but “realities also vary”, choose for yourself the best one for you. (Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros. Moscow 1991, p.17, 69). To escape into the imaginary, not to feel guilty, try to be reasonable, since the world is always right, are the “lessons” of the social absurdity which Ionesco deals with. However, “the author does not teach. He is not judge, nor defender, nor prosecutor, nor ac­cuser: he is a witness.” (.Eugene Ionesco, Bald Singer. Moscow 1990, p.11). Words sound like empty shells lacking sense. The enemies in Ionesco’s crea­tive experience are the language which cannot express thoughts and the “iron logic” of delirious proofs.

Daniel Harms’ literary experience, together with that of the whole OBERIUT “division of the leftist art” as they called themselves (Unions of Real Art: Literature – Figurative Art – Cinema – Theatre) did unique work with the absurd. This work was unique for its gaiety, ardour and, at the same time, its ruthlessness and aggressive, severe and almost cruel character. The group included Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Boris Levin, and Daniel Harms. Having claimed to be not only creators of a new poetic lan­guage, but a new perception of life and its contents in a Declaration in 1928, almost all of them died in prisons and concentration camps by the 40s. How­ever, the intensive character of their creative work witnessed the truth of their declaration: “Our will to creative work is universal: it exceeds all kinds of art and bursts into life, encompassing it from all sides.”

The artistic experience, created by members of OBERIUT, and called the method of “tcisfinit” {phonetic transcription} by Harms, is the “logic of the infinite non-being”, and undertook the task of “deincantation of the uncon­scious”. “This ‘logic’ cut all chains and threads of the perceived order, like scissors. The objective world goes asunder. Its parts, and all causes and ef­fects of ordinary logic fly away into the Cosmos, like supremist constructions by Malevich “ (“Bath of Archimedes”, Leningrad, 1991, p.13). The artistic intentions of OBERIUT were quite distinct: from the everyday to Being, from physics to philosophy, from analysis to synthesis. It is paradoxical that this intention was to be found not in some treatises heavy with serious generalisa­tions but rather in strange and sophisticated (but meaningless) “cases” and “talks”. In fact, a new literary genre was created, epics of the absurd.

Alexander Vvedensky’s (1904-1941) “Some Quantity of Talks (or “Top­ics Thoroughly Redone”) is a numbered list of talks and retorts, where char­acters are numbers as well: the First, the Second, the Third, etc. “Three were in a chariot. They exchanged ideas.” (Bath of Archimedes, p.317)

The topics of talks is random:

1.  Talk about a madhouse

2.  Talk about the absence of poetry

3.  Talk about remembering events

4.  Talk about cards

5.  Talks about fleeing from a room

6.  Talk about immediate succession

7.  Talk about various acts 8 Talk of merchants with a bath-servant


9.     The next to last talk with the title “one man and the war”

10.  The last talk

“Respect the circumstances of place. Respect what happens. But nothing happens. Respect the poverty of  language. Respect poorest thought.” (ibid., 372) – this is the author’s remark which works like a tuning fork for the ear and makes it overcome the deafness of absurdity. This is a world of almost peaceful nonsense, which is at the same time solemn since it is mighty. I will cite “Some Quantity” of these wonderful talks;

“3. Talk about remembering events

The First. And then I said: “But you were sitting at the A’s place, while I was standing here, at B’s place”. Then you said:” No, not at all, you did not sit here at A’s place, while I was not standing at B’s place”. To improve on the strength of my proof, to make it very mighty, I simultaneously felt melan­choly, and gaiety, and wept, and I said: ”There were two of us here yesterday, at the same time, on these close points, on the point A and on the B,– can’t you see?”

The Second: “You said it very, very convincingly – I answered, – but I forgot for a while that you exist, and all my witnesses keep silent. Maybe, that is why I represent nothing. I doubt even the existence of these witnesses.” Then you said that you feel the death of your senses, and nevertheless, never­theless (and this was already quite feeble), it still seems to you that you were at my place. And I went silent too and said that nevertheless, it seems to me that it seems that you still were not at my place. But it was not the case.”

The numbered characters of the Talks think of “their conditionally stable existence”, “of the representations of death and of its extravagances”, “of the feeling of life”. They go, run, understand nothing, only to “finish as soon as possible”. The poetic rhythm, the lyrical intonation make the world of “infi­nite non-being” verge on the human being, who accepts the kinship of absurd with his being with no surprise.

It has been noted that Vvedensky created the essence without appearance, while Harms the appearance without essence. One can add that each one worked out the unique theme of the absurd in his own way, enriching it with shades of meaning.

Harms’ Cases are like absurd units of a gloomy and unintelligible whole. They turn absurdity into almost a joke, though dreary rather than joyful.

There are plenty of examples. I will give some “Cases”.

(Daniel Harms, Flight in Heaven, Leningrad, 1991)


There was one fair man lacking eyes and ears. He lacked hair too, so he was called fair only conditionally.

Nor could he speak, for he lacked a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.

He did not have even arms and legs. Nor belly, nor back, nor any entrails. Nothing! So, one does not know whom we are talking about.

We would do better not to speak about him any more.(p.353)


(3) Falling Old Women

One old woman fell from a window out of excessive curiosity, fell and smashed herself to death.

Another one looked out from a window and looked down at the dead one, and out of her excessive curiosity she also fell out of the window and also died.

Then a third one fell out, then a fourth and a fifth.

When a sixth one fell out, I got bored looking at them and went to the Maltsev market, where, they said, a blind one was presented with a woven shawl.

(19) A Meeting

Once somebody was going to work, but met another on his way, who, hav­ing bought a Polish bread, headed home.

That is that, in fact.

Here is lacking the “time of understanding”, the “moment of conclusion” (to put it in Lacan’s terms). One cannot restore the continuity of a subject’s motivations, while the discourse itself does not ascribe any meaning to the individual actions. Nevertheless, the concreteness of this discourse shows the “trans-individual reality of the subject”, his actuality, which is the actuality of the history. Truth appears here in the real, in the reality of the absurd. Here the artist tries to answer the world from his position as “being in the world”, rejecting the world to give sense to experience and just occasionally maintain­ing a hypothetical possibility so this sense can show itself.


“However empty a discourse might seems, it is such only on the surface: let us remember those words of Mallarme, comparing everyday use of lan­guage with use of a coin, whose coinage is worn out on both sides, and which goes through hands in silence”. This metaphor is enough to remind us that the word, even one completely worn out, retains value as a tesser . Even with nothing to communicate, the discourse demonstrates the existence of commu­nication; even denying the obvious, it affirms that words construct the truth. Even with a lie in mind, it plays on the faith in the witness.”

Jacques Lacan

“Nonsense is only the other side of spiritualism, affirming the independ­ence of the writer from intellectual standards and trite definitions.”


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