I’ve had readers accuse me of being an absurdist. “Putting God on trial is an absurd premise,” they say. “Having your characters debate whether the afterlife grants us virgins or whores is absurd,” they say. “It’s absurd to make your central character a Jewish Muslim,” they say. Oh, well. These illustrative fragments of absurd experience are part of a larger existence teeming with the absurd. After all, how can we find meaning in a world where national leaders adopt a policy of pre-emptive strike while publicly professing eternal allegiance to the teachings of a philosopher who implored us to turn the other cheek?
And so I accept the designation. Picture my face filling the entire screen of your living room TV. Now hear me tell you: “My name’s Mohamed Mughal and I am an absurdist.” The fact is that I don’t feel the slightest compulsion to deny the charge. After all, absurdism is a badge of literary courage worn by Kafka, Camus, Vonnegut and, more recently, Douglas Adams.
But absurdism isn’t an invocation of the absurd for the sole sake of absurdity. Absurdism’s absurdity is a reflection of truth. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has many elements of the absurd. One of my favorites is the fate of poor old Edgar Derby. In the bloody transgressions of a world war that killed 50 to 70 million people and in the immediate aftermath of the Allied bombing of Dresden, a bombing that killed tens of thousands of civilians in a strategically unimportant city of museums and churches, an American soldier named Edgar Derby is caught taking a teapot that isn’t his. Poor old Edgar Derby is arrested, tried and shot for this transgression. Absurd? Vonnegut maintains that someone he knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that didn’t belong to him. And therein lies the truth that informs absurdism. In his Amazon review of Resolution 786, Charles Ashbacher cites a point of absurdity in the story where a senior military officer warns soldiers in his command about the unauthorized use of personal money to buy toilet paper that supports a Federal government mission. Folks…this really happened.
Absurdism is not a slapstick skit.
Absurdism is truth offered on a tray of humor, truth that is pushed to almost nihilist limits when the most brutish and narrow-minded character in Resolution 786 falls into an inexplicable trance and issues the robotic monologue: “The things we say, the things we do, night and day – they’re all contradictions. Life is an unending stream of contradictions held together by some improbable matrix of beautiful, savage accidents. We struggle and contrive to assign some meaning, any meaning, to our accidents. Then we realize that our assigned meaning is merely our own interpretation and projection, surely bearing no semblance to the meaning. We begrudgingly concede that that which is observed is solely contingent to the observer. In laughable and final defeat, we confess that to be alive itself seems an ill-intentioned anomaly in a largely inert and dead cosmos.”
“Meaning” in a relativistic universe void of absolutes?
Poor old Edgar Derby.