The term absurd is used when an individual faces an occurrence that is beyond his or her comprehension, when he or she is anxious, or cannot deal with a certain issue (Fen 23). It would be rather fair to say that, in many cases, people avoid making the effort to understand a concept that is inexplicable, instead labeling the phenomenon as “absurd.” However, the term “absurd” can have a much deeper meaning than usually considered. It is actually a philosophical category that was widely used by the famous philosophers of the twentieth century—especially by the believers in the school of existentialism. Grasping its various aspects would be useful for the general reader, as well as for students who study philosophy.
Before proceeding to the definition of the term itself, it would be instructive to remember the ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus. According to its most widespread version, Sisyphus was a king and an erector of Corinth. He managed to deceive and seize Thanatos, the god of death. Due to the absence of Thanatos, people stopped dying and finally, the gods became worried about this fact. They sent the god of war, Ares, to free Thanatos, who wrested Sisyphus’ soul. As a punishment, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a heavy stone to the top of a high mountain. As soon as the stone reached the apex, it rolled to the foothill so that Sisyphus had to start from the beginning.
The punishment given to Sisyphus is often seen as the quintessence of absurd. Thus, it can be inferred that absurd means sudden, or that it does not fit in concrete logic. Merriam-Webster online gives several meanings for the word absurd: “1) ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous; 2) having no rational, or orderly relationship to human life, lacking order, or value.” According to Dictionary.com, this term means utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason, or common sense; laughably foolish, or false.
This is how absurd can be understood on the common level. However, its philosophical meaning is more interesting and versatile. Thus, existentialism had generated the whole doctrine of absurdism, which characterizes the relationships between human beings, life and reality. This doctrine had developed after the world wars of the twentieth century, where millions of people had died and suffered, and various social disturbances occurred (fen 34).
Absurdism was studied by many famous philosophers like Albert Camus, who dedicated almost all his works to this topic. In the beginning, the myth about Sizif was mentioned. Camus’ most famous essay on the topic of the absurd was written exactly about Sizif. The philosopher sees absurd as a conflict—a confrontation between the human yearning for meaningfulness and clarity, and an indifferent universe free from guarantees. Therefore, one has three ways to deal with the absurd: committing suicide, performing a leap of faith, or accepting it. According to Camus, the latter is the only true way, which assumes a person understands that the universe is free from absolutes (Liam 221). Thus, a person as an individual is also truly free and possesses abilities and possibilities to create their own sense and purpose of existence.
Soren Kierkegaard, another famous existentialist, comprehends absurd as a synonym to paradox. He defines it as a matter of faith and the only phenomena that allows a person to believe in self. According to his philosophy, a human being is a synthesis of opposites: eternal and temporary, finite and infinite, freedom and obligation. Due to the synthesis of these opposites in an individual’s consciousness, one constantly resides in fear and despair (Liam 194). And the more self-consciousness one possesses, the deeper these feelings are. The only way for salvation is faith in God and this is where absurd comes in. Kierkegaard refers to the biblical myth about Abraham and his son Isaac. According to this legend, God required Abraham to sacrifice his son to Him. In this case, Abraham’s faith led him to commit a crime; it transformed a murder into an act of charity and simultaneously, where faith had returned Isaac to his father alive. Faith cannot be logically argued, but it works and this is absurd. Individuals are free and this freedom lets them find their own way to God.
We can see the understanding of absurd is rather multi-faceted. Absurd does not necessarily mean hostile, useless, and deprived in any sense. In most cases, this term is still used to label certain phenomena and events as weird, incognizable, and unwanted—but at the same time, absurd can allow a person to find a meaning, an essence for which one is looking. Absurd contains a resolution, sometimes of a problem that was generated by itself. One might say that absurd possesses some sense, which is totally absurd.
Fen, Zhuzing. Absurd is the New Opportunity. Chicago: Realtor Press, 2008. Print.
Liam, Richard. Cut the Crap and What’s Left. Seattle: Rainy Day Press, 2011. Print.
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