Beyond the Looking-Glass: The Absurd in 20th Century West and East European Theatre, Literature and Visual Arts, Research Paper Example
Words: 3650Research Paper
The absurd in 20th-century art and philosophy builds upon the concept of alienation: the absurd is experienced in terms of a profound isolation from the social order and the cosmos. Novelist and playwright Jean Genet celebrated the rejection of bourgeois values, extolling a picaresque philosophy of crime and ‘deviancy’; Kazimir Malevich overturned artistic conventions with an emphasis on the abstract and non-representational, in order to liberate his mind by eliciting calmness and unbridled creativity, and Karel ?apek conjured a vision of a utopian future gone amok, as robots rendered human beings obsolete and then extinct. All three of these artists engaged with the absurd in terms of profound isolation and loss of meaning, and proposed a number of solutions for making sense of modern life.
The philosophy of the absurd, as pioneered by Albert Camus, is chiefly concerned with the experience of alienation (Sagi, 2002, p. 5). In fact, the relation between the two is more complex than this; suffice it to say that the concept of the absurd draws from and expands upon the concept of alienation (p. 5). Alienation has quite a storied place in the history of thought, but it was the upheavals of the 20th century that gave rise to the modern experience of alienation, in terms of a sense of “’not being at home’ or ‘being outside’” (pp. 5, 8). And it is this modern experience of alienation that proved seminal for the rise of the absurd in 20th century art, theater, and literature: alienation from a sense of certainty and meaning in nature, society, and traditional expressions of religion (pp. 13-18). And yet the absurd is more than this, for, as Sagi (2002) explained, it draws on the creative tension between two quite disparate and contradictory elements: the experience of alienation itself, a negative perception of isolation, and the counterpoised desire for unity (p. 23). Strangeness and longing permeate the absurd, as exemplified by the works of Jean Genet, Karel ?apek, and Kazimir Malevich (p. 23).
Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal is a colorful and picaresque autobiographical account of the author’s own career as beggar, homosexual prostitute, and drug smuggler in Spain during the 1930s (Esslin, 2009, “Jean Genet”; Plunka, 1992, p. 22). During his long criminal career, Genet picked pockets, stole liquor, purloined first editions of famous books, may have deserted from the French Foreign Legion, deserted from the French Army, “distributed counterfeit money in Poland… helped create the black market in Nazi Germany… and trafficked in drugs in Antwerp” (Plunka, 1992, p. 22). Genet’s career as an outlaw, as well as his many arrests and prison stints, is integral to any understanding of The Thief’s Journal: as Plunka (1992) explained, Genet and his protagonists were marginal figures, searching for identity and expression beyond the bounds of polite society (pp. 23, 40).
This absurdist aesthetic was expressed in terms of an isolation or alienation from a society dominated by role-playing, which was anathema to Genet (Plunka, 1992, p. 40). In essence, The Thief’s Journal, like Genet’s other works, celebrates individuality and self-validation (p. 40). In The Thief’s Journal, Genet engaged in a profound philosophical enterprise, one that promoted a vision of the world based on the rejection of moral standards and “’reversing traditional hierarchies of value and meaning’” (Jobs, 2007, p. 168). Genet went so far as to offer a reinterpretation of a key Christian doctrine concerning Christ’s atonement for humanity: “’Taking upon Himself the sins of the world’ means quite exactly: experiencing potentially and in their effects all sins; it means having subscribed to evil’” (Genet, 2004, p. 163).
Genet’s thievery is case in point: after all, what is a thief but an individual who has chosen to disregard and spurn conventional mores concerning private property? (Bazzano, 2011, p. 152). In Bazzano’s words, “As a thief, Genet played at possession and toyed wit hour most cherished values” (p. 152). Bazzano argued that Genet was a man doubly exiled, enduring both “exile from being and exile from having” (p. 150). Genet’s rejection of conventional religious mores and beliefs, as seen above, was the making of his exile from conventional notions of being: it enabled him to analyze life from a new perspective, “as if he were already dead” (pp. 150-151). And his social isolation, reinforced by and concomitant with his thieving, exiled him from “having”: his absurdist rejection of conventional mores about private property kept him beyond the pale of bourgeois respectability (p. 151).
Genet’s sexuality, so central to The Thief’s Journal, was also a seminal influence on his absurdist philosophy. As a homosexual man in early 20th-century Europe, Genet occupied a marginalized position, the more since he also engaged in prostitution: in The Thief’s Journal, Genet presented homosexuality as a kind of gloriously-criminal revolt against hetero-normative, bourgeoisie values (Farmer, 2005, pp. 2-3). This equivocation has contributed to Genet’s deeply controversial status for contemporary LGBT and LGBT-friendly readers, but it is best understood in light of Genet’s own experiences as a deeply marginalized man rebelling against all conventions of the civil society that had rejected him (p. 3). As White (2003) explained, for Genet there were only three metaphors available for characterizing homosexuality in literature: “as sickness, crime or sin” (p. 47). The standard convention for other gay writers of the period was to liken homosexuality to sickness, in order to elicit compassion from a heterosexual audience (p. 47).
The fact that Genet used sin and crime to characterize homosexuality, and did so proudly, says a great deal about his character and his absurdist philosophy (White, 2003, p. 48). Genet’s expressions of his sexuality reflected not only alienation from conventional mores, but an aggressive and intimidating repudiation of them, no less than his thievery and drug trafficking (p. 48). But it was an alienation that he positively reveled in, precisely because it liberated him to validate himself and make his own meaning. In his own words: “To betray thieves would be not only to find myself again in the moral world… but also to find myself once more in homosexuality. As I grow strong, I am my own god. I dictate” (Genet, 2004, p. 14). With Genet, one is confronted with a true devil’s advocate, a man who embraced and spoke for evil, as it was defined by the bourgeois society of his own time and, in some ways, as it is defined by contemporary society today: individual freedom is seen to be the highest good, and thievery and betrayal are virtues (Bazzano, 2011, p. 153). The Thief’s Journal is, indubitably, a manifesto of the absurd, a glorification of passion, ‘sin’ and ‘deviancy’, vice, betrayal, and individual freedom (White, 2003, p. 47).
Kazimir Malevich was an artist concerned with the absurdity of the human condition (Harries, 1979, p. 67). In something of a parallel with Genet, for Malevich the absurd was experienced in “the vain demand that there be a higher meaning, a goal” (p. 67). For Malevich, as for Genet, Camus, and other absurdists, the great self-inflicted delusion of the human species is the notion that the world is here for our benefit and we have tasks to perform (p. 67). This concept is, of course, enshrined in Genesis, wherein God creates the entire cosmos, the earth, and all life, culminating in the crown of creation: man and woman. By contrast, the central absurdist idea that inspired Malevich to pioneer the Suprematist style of art is that of an indifferent cosmos, an existence without some overarching, preordained higher goal or purpose (p. 67).
Such a prospect may seem bleak, but as with Genet, Malevich reveled in it: for him, a life without purpose-driven tasks was an invitation to freedom (Harries, 1979, p. 67). But Malevich’s conception of ‘freedom’ was rather different from Genet’s: he believed that true deliverance came in the form of no longer having to ask what one is supposed to do with one’s freedom (p. 67). By so doing, Malevich held, the individual could liberate themselves from subjection to a question which can have no satisfactory answer: in short, the individual could become free of the threat of the absurd (p. 67). Aesthetically, Malevich believed that such a freedom could only be expressed with art that elicits calm (p. 68). And yet, in this world the individual is everywhere surrounded by things, which make it difficult to dissociate and attain calm; therefore, Suprematist art, art concerned with the elicitation of the calm necessary for freedom, had to be non-representational (p. 68).
Malevich’s The Black Square embodies the very essence of his Suprematist artistic philosophy: it is indeed a black square, over a white background (Milner, 1996, p. 128). It is completely colorless, and lacks any suggestion of atmospheric perspective (p. 128). The position of the black square upon its white background is symmetrical, creating the impression that the black square is hovering “weightlessly parallel to the picture plane and to the edges of the canvas” (p. 128). The proportions reveal interesting mathematical relationships: as Milner explained, the black square has a diagonal that is but a little shorter than the canvas edge, yielding a ratio that is near to one to the square root of two (p. 128). In fact, an understanding of these internal relationships reveals that the work actually has a great deal of potential as a generator of forms: the aforementioned ratio is of interest to a hypothetical square drawn within a circle, drawn within the black square itself (p. 128). There is more to The Black Square than meets the unaided eye.
The Black Square is firmly rooted in Malevich’s own autochthonous representational system: in his quest for abstraction free of the “representational ballast” of the world around, Malevich embraced the square as the epitome of abstraction in geometrical form, and the color white as the epitome of abstraction in color (Harries, 1979, p. 68). For Malevich himself the work was iconic, even mystical in character: indeed, it can be understood as a kind of counter-icon, a depiction of abstract representation that points to a spirituality that is beyond representation (Pickstone, 2009, p. 7). And Malevich himself saw his work in profoundly messianic, even prophetic, terms: his Suprematism pointed the way towards a freedom of spontaneous creativity, a freedom from the absurd (Harries, 1979, p. 68). In this state of freedom, the subconscious and ‘pure feeling’ are exalted, and inspiration is truly boundless (Crowther, 1997, pp. 83-84).
Malevich evinced a certain gleeful scorn in his rejection of more conventional styles of art, as when he responded to the art critic Alexandre Benois: “’You who are in the habit of warming yourself before sweet little faces, find it hard to get any warmth out of the face of a square… The secret of incantation is the very art of creation. It is an art within time, and time is greater and wiser than pigs!’” (Néret, 2003, p. 49). For Malevich, then, Suprematism was freedom in the purest sense: the power of creation, the power to become one’s own arbiter of beauty and meaning… a concept not so dissimilar to Genet’s own picaresque worldview. In fact, Malevich didn’t believe in the aesthetic pursuit of beauty in art: for him, art was the product of his philosophy, filtered through his own novel representational systems (p. 49).
Thus, Malevich’s work offers a profound engagement with the absurd, and an equally profound rejection of it. For Malevich, the absurd was found in the very idea that the earth exists for our benefit, and that humanity is entitled to a purpose from on high. These ideas were absurd for Malevich, inasmuch as he found the earth and all the cosmos indifferent to human existence, and the human condition as fundamentally purposeless. Getting away from the absurd, with all of its tasks and rules and erroneous conceptions, meant embracing freedom: freedom from all the expectations and conventions and things that define human existence on this terrestrial sphere. True freedom lay in spontaneity, the subconscious, and pure feeling: an existence of unbridled creativity and contingency, an existence free even of the question ‘What shall I do now?’. For Malevich it was a thrilling prospect, one that he celebrated in The Black Square: indeed, he referred to it as “’the first step of pure creation in art. Before it, there were naïve deformities and copies of nature’” (qtd. in Harrison, Frascina, & Perry, 1993, p. 228). The Black Square appears simple, but for Malevich it was the icon of the new freedom, a freedom that knew no borders in the country of the mind.
Karel ?apek’s R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots presents a story that has since become a staple trope of the science fiction genre: humans create robots to serve them; the humans then become dependent upon their robot slaves, and finally the robots rebel (Klima, 2002, p. 73). However, ?apek’s play, besides being highly original, is also profoundly thought-provoking. In the prologue of the play, the corporation Rossum’s Universal Robots is manufacturing robots that look exactly like humans, differing largely in that they have no emotions and no desires, and hence no souls (p. 73). This has been going on for some time, with the company exporting many thousands of robots worldwide from their island factory (Schelde, 1994, p. 153). As a result, a young woman, Helen Glory, has come to the island to advocate for the robots’ rights: she believes that they are entitled to be “treated the same as people” (?apek, 2010, “Intro”; Schelde, 1994, p. 153).
However, Helen soon learns that she has misjudged her target population. As Dr. Hallemeier, director of the institute for robot behavior and psychology, explains, the robots can’t feel pleasure, have no will, and “[t]here’s nothing they’re interested in… It’s not as if anyone’s ever seen a robot laugh” (?apek, 2010, “Intro”). The robots, then, represent one level of the absurd in R.U.R.: they are soulless facsimiles of human beings, created as cheap labor. Their existence is ‘absurd’ in that it is predicated solely upon serving humans and making human labor obsolete: they are tools, not people. As Technical Director Fabry puts it: “One robot can take the place of two and a half workers. The human body is very imperfect; one day it had to be replaced with a machine that would work better” (?apek, 2010, “Intro”).
Helen is hardly the first to make the mistake: indeed, Domin, the director general, tells her that “there’ve already been hundreds of saviours and prophets here”, all of them seeking to reach the robots (?apek, 2010, “Intro”). R.U.R. has allowed every one to speak with the robots, and the robots remember every word, but they have no inclination to act on any of it (?apek, 2010, “Intro”). They are the perfect workers in that they are very, very cheap—and this creates a second level of absurdity. As Helen observes, cheap robot labor is displacing human workers at a prodigious and alarming rate, even as it drives down the costs of goods. However, Domin’s answer to this is that before too much longer, the robots will be producing “so much of everything that nothing will cost anything” (?apek, 2010, “Intro”). In other words, there will be no poor people, because there will be plenty for all, free of charge, and nothing but leisure time in which to enjoy it (?apek, 2010, “Intro”).
In Act I of the play, the trouble has begun. In the prologue, Dr. Hallemeier mentioned that the robots occasionally malfunction, grinding their teeth and simply shutting down (?apek, 2010, “Intro”). Now, ten years later, it appears that these tendencies have become more pronounced, with defective robots starting to destroy equipment (?apek, 2010, Act I). Nana, Helena’s nanny, rails against the robots for being ‘unnatural’: because they were not made by God, and they cannot have children, Nana believes them to be an affront to the Creator (?apek, 2010, Act I). The robots have indeed displaced many workers, leading to an anti-robot revolt; this in turn led to the first attempts to arm the robots, who promptly massacred their attackers (?apek, 2010, Act I). Moreover, many governments have exploited the robots’ potential as soldiers, sparking numerous wars (?apek, 2010, Act I). This is another demonstration of the dual alienation, the two tracks of absurdism, that run through this play: on the one hand, the robots’ existence is meaningless and fundamentally absurd, inasmuch as they are facsimiles of human beings, incapable of enjoying life or living it for themselves. On the other hand, the humans employing the robots are also engaging in their own absurdity: they are warping their own social order, engaging in wars, and alienating themselves from purposefulness in life, all in the pursuit of profit.
As humans go about making themselves obsolete, a curious trend obtains: births stop (?apek, 2010, Act I). For Nana, the answer is clearly that God is punishing human beings for going against his will, a persistent theme in the play (?apek, 2010, Act I). Unlike Genet and Malevich, ?apek was a deeply religious man: in essence, R.U.R. embodies the Genesis account of the Fall (A. Milner, 2005, p. 249). Though a divine curse is one interpretation of why women have stopped bearing children, R.U.R.’s head of construction, Alquist, offers an even more earth-shaking—and absurd—explanation: because humans are unnecessary, a condition he links to a state of ‘paradise’ (Klima, 2002, p. 75). In his chilling words: “Because there’s no need for anyone to work, no need for pain. No-one needs to do anything, anything at all except enjoy himself. This paradise, it’s just a curse!” (?apek, 2010, Act I).
The ‘paradise’ created by R.U.R. is absurd, for the very reasons Alquist mentions: people are completely unnecessary, and no longer have to do anything. All that is left is for people to use their robots to turn on each other, hence the wars and massacres. It is a faux-paradise, an anti-paradise, the result of a utopian capitalist vision gone amok (A. Milner, 2005, p. 248). Helena does manage to convince Dr. Gall to start producing new robots with more human-like qualities, a development that will have terrible consequences (Klima, 2002, p. 76). One of these robots, Radius, finally states the obvious: robots do not need people; people have become useless (p. 76). However, if capitalism is the humans’ undoing, communism is the robots’ undoing: in Act II, the robot proletarians have taken over the world and are now busy hunting down and slaughtering their creators (A. Milner, 2005, p. 249). The capitalist regimes exploited them, but they also made the mistake of arming them, producing a revolt of the proletariat that sweeps the world (pp. 249-250). Much to the robots’ chagrin, the formula for their manufacture was lost, and Alquist, the last man alive, cannot replicate it. In the end, hope blooms with the love between two robots, Primus and Helena (from her human namesake), and Alquist pronounces them the new Adam and Eve (p. 251).
Karel ?apek, Jean Genet, and Kazimir Malevich all engaged with the absurd in their own ways. All three responded to the alienation and longing for unity characteristic of the absurd, but they did so in very idiosyncratic ways. Jean Genet extolled individual self-interest and a life of vice, crime, and ‘deviancy’ in opposition to the society that had spurned him: The Thief’s Journal is as much a philosophy manifesto as it is an autobiographical account. For Genet, the politics of crime and sexuality were the same, and both were personal: what mattered was rejecting socially-prescribed roles and rules. For Kazimir Malevich, the notion that the cosmos and human life has preordained purpose and a higher meaning was absurd: rejecting this illusion meant embracing a life lived in freedom, a life without rules and roles to curtail individual creativity and spontaneity. Karel ?apek, on the other hand, embraced the conventional Christian doctrine concerning the cosmos and human life: for him, the absurd was the product of human systems, such as unbridled capitalism and communism. Thus, for ?apek, the solution to the absurd condition of the modern age was decidedly traditional: human systems might be prone to destruction, but in religion one could find solace and meaning.
Bazzano, M. (2011). Empathy for the devil: The daimonic in therapy. A tribute to Jean Genet on the centenary of his birth. Existential Analysis, 22(1), pp. 150-159. Retrieved from http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
?apek, K. (2010). R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/rur/index.html#contents (Original work published 1921).
Crowther, P. (1997). Language of 20th-century art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Esslin, M. (2009). The theatre of the absurd (3rd ed.). New York: Random House.
Farmer, A. (2005). Genet, Jean. GLBTQ Literature, pp. 1-7. Retrieved from http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
Genet, J. (2004). The thief’s journal. Paris, France: Olympia Press (Original work published in 1949).
Harries, K. (1979). The meaning of modern art. Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Harrison, C., Frascina, F., & Perry, G. (1993). Primitivism, cubism, abstraction: The early twentieth century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Klima, I. (2002). Karel ?apek: Life and work. Trans. N. Comrada. North Haven, CT: Catbird Press.
Milner, A. (2005). Literature, culture and society (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Milner, J. (1996). Kazimir Malevich and the art of geometry. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Néret, G. (2003). Kazimir Malevich 1878-1935 and Suprematism. New York: Taschen.
Pickstone, C. (2009). Art’s last icon: Malevich’s Black Square revisited. In R. M. Jensen & K. J. Vrudny (Eds.), Visual theology: Forming and transforming the community through the arts (pp. 3-12). Collegeville, MN.
Plunka, G. A. (1992). The rites of passage of Jean Genet: The art and aesthetics of risk taking. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses.
Sagi, A. (2002). Albert Camus and the philosophy of the absurd. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Rodopi B. V.
Schelde, P. (1994). Androids, humanoids, and other folklore monsters: Science and soul in science fiction films. New York: New York University Press.
White, E. (2003). The personal is political: Queer fiction and criticism. In City University of New York (Eds.), Queer ideas: The David R. Kessler lectures in lesbian and gay studies (pp. 43-50). New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Time is precious
don’t waste it!